A Conversation About Fences

“What exactly is an ‘invisible fence’?” Herb asked, moving the string to the side of the mug so he could sip his green tea.

“I don’t know how you drink that stuff,” his companion replied, his own cup releasing the gentle steam of his drink of choice, a recently-topped off black coffee. “Smells like a funeral home, even from here.”

Herb shrugged, and continued to sip. They’d had this same conversation every day this week, and the answer was still the same. Ever since the minor stroke, an event which frightened him more than actually damaged him in any substantial way, his doctor warning him that next time, particularly at this “relatively advanced age,” he might not be so lucky, he’d looked for ways to substitute his normal vices for healthier options. Egg whites for eggs. A half-glass of Diet Sprite for his customary evening finger or two of spirits. Tea for coffee. He doubted it would help much in the long run, assuming there WAS much of a long run left in him, and he strongly suspected he’d be giving it all up soon – what good was a couple more years of life if they didn’t include the singular burn of at least a mid-shelf scotch? Still, he did enjoy how much this whole thing was irking his friend. Thoroughly.

Taking Herb’s shrug as the only answer forthcoming, his companion continued. “Like I said, it’s a wire that runs under the ground. The dog wears a collar, and it shocks him when he reaches the place where the wire is. It’s a fence, but it’s invisible.”

“Ok. I see. So it’s not really a fence,” replied Herb, grinning serenely and making a minor spectacle of dunking his tea bag into the mug.

“No, it’s a fence. It acts just like a fence. Keeps things in or out. The dog doesn’t go past the underground wire. It’s called a fence. They named it ‘Invisible Fence’, for heaven’s sake.” His reply carried the heavy aroma of irritation and finality, as if this had settled the matter, and could get back to other, more pressing subjects, like Herb’s annoying new lifestyle experiment. It had been over a week since he’d enjoyed a glass of Glenfiddich, and he’d be damned if HE was going to buy any. Especially when Johnny Walker was a fourth of the price. Not that he was going to fork over the cash for a bottle of that either.

“Sure,” replied Herb, “But, let’s be honest Jakey – its not really a fence. A fence is solid. It has matter. It sits above the ground. You can see it. It has substance. Ergo, it can’t be invisible. Right?”

Ergo? And with the “Jakey“ now trotted out, there was no doubt his longtime friend and oft-times general pain in his arthritic rump was messing with him. “Jakey” was a not-all-that-clever nickname his new “girlfriend” at Whispering Oaks – an occupational nurse with boundary issues – had given him, one which he hated, even in private, and he knew Herb knew this. Yet, even in the midst of the realization that his friend was baiting him into one of his trademark diatribes, he knew himself enough to know that he’d at least try to get the last word in. He was self-aware enough to understand where this would go, but not self-possessed enough to stop it. He would take the bait and he would run. For a little while at least.

“It has matter, you dope!” Jake/Jakey exclaimed, tapping the table with a closed fist and causing a drop of coffee to clear the lip of his mug and land between them on the table. They both stared at the glistening drop for a moment, and then at each other. “There is a wire that runs through the ground,” Jake continued. “It has matter. The collar the dog wears, it has matter. These two things work together, with an electronic signal, to make the fence. The fence is partly the MATERIAL underground, but it is completed with the MATERIAL of the dog’s collar, if you like to think of it THAT way. It creates . . . You know what, I’m not doing this with you. And I hate that nickname, so you can wipe off that smirk. That’s . . . you . . .that’s just low, and you know full well.”

Herb sipped tea and squinted thoughtfully at a spot just above his friend’s head, like he was really contemplating what his friend had just shared with him. Finally, nodding slowly as if he’d just had a revelation most revelatory, he said, “I never thought of it that way. I see what you mean. The two parts are matter, just like a normal fence, and they go together and create a force that completes the fence. Builds a virtual barrier that keeps the dog in. Yeah, I see it. You’ve sold me!”

Jake eyed his friend warily, waiting for the shoe to drop. When no rubber sole was immediately forthcoming, he replied, “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to get at. More or less.”

“Good,” Herb replied, “Makes sense now.” Spotting their server, he signaled for the check.

Walking to the cash register, Jake made a feeble attempt to pat his pockets, before saying with more gusto than a breakfast special and couple of senior-priced drinks called for, “I don’t have my wallet, Herb, but next one’s on me, I swear. These are new pants and I gotta remember to grab my wallet out of my others. Next one’s definitely on me.”

“It’s fine,” Herb replied, taking a bill from his own well-worn wallet as he approached the register. “I’m happy to do it.”

Reaching the register stand, the server who had given them the hand-written check was waiting behind the register, with the total already punched in. “Everything good, fellas?” she asked, as Herb handed her a twenty.

“As always, Janice. The conversation was okay, the hot brews were good, and the service was the best around.”

“You’re too kind, sweetie,” she said, pocketing the change he refused to take back from her. Cocking here head and looking at the two of them appraisingly she said, “You know, I shouldn’t say this, but you too have been coming in here together for, what, a couple of years now? And I don’t think I’ve ONCE seen you pick up the check, Jake. You lose a bet, Herb? Or do you just enjoy hanging around with cheapskates?” She winked at Jake and, although he chuckled and gave her an “Awe, to the moon with you!” wave, his cheeks flushed and he placed all of his concentration into unwrapping one of the handful of complimentary peppermints he had grabbed.

Placing the receipt Janice handed him into his own wallet, Herb said, “Now, leave my friend alone. He’s one of the most generous people I know.”

Jake, who was half-way out the door, looked over his shoulder, expecting this to be another comment at his expense. When he saw that Herb seemed earnest in this compliment, Jake gave his friend an appreciative nod, as if to say, NOW you’re being sensible.

Gathering his hat from the rack near the register stand, Herb turned toward Janice once more, and, in a conspiratorial voice loud enough for his companion, who was still standing in the doorway, to hear, said, “It’s just that some generosity is . . .invisible.”

Adjusting his hat, Herb slid out the door past his friend, who by this point had lost all sense of how he had come out in this exchange.

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