The Hole in the Fence
A child’s unlikely friendship with an unseen neighbour transforms in isolation
One day, my son befriends the nun. It starts with voices in the yard. Through the glass kitchen doors where I stand chopping onions, I hear Sebastian’s voice and then a woman’s. Sebastian, woman—back and forth. Sebastian is five, and when I come out to check on him, his face is pressed into the slats of the fence in the backyard.
This part of New Orleans is called Hollygrove—what Lil Wayne, who grew up here, refers to as “the Holy Mecca.” I’ve also heard it called Pigeon Town, Leonidas, or, in faintly ominous tones, “the fruit streets”—a modest subset of what locals call Uptown, with its grand columned houses and clothing boutiques. It’s working-class, mostly, with middle-class fringes: White, Black and Latinx.
We’ve lived here since the summer of 2014, a month before our son was born, when two friends and I unloaded a U-Haul while my wife, hugely pregnant, supervised in the heat. Hard to say what Sebastian and the woman are discussing. Immersive to him, something else to the woman: Bemusing? Disarming? I really can’t say. But I hear traces of it, whatever it is, in the gentle upspeak of the fence-talker’s voice, the emphatic, reiterative questions she poses.
Beyond that fence reside the nuns—a whole nun condo, two stories tall and eggshell blue. The nuns were there before we came. I had imagined uncanny habits with shadows inside them, but these are chill, back-to-the-land nuns. Sometimes I see their lights at night, the mellow, anonymous squares of their windows.
The woman says, “You wait right here; I’ll be right back.”
I wait for Sebastian to turn, but he lingers, enraptured. I can see the tense shape of his young, restive body, the chicken wings flexing beneath his slight shoulders.
“Stand back,” says the sister when she returns. There’s a whirring. A circle in the wooden fence, roughly the size of a baseball, drops out of sight. The saw blade retreats from the circle.
The hole reveals little of the woman who made it. I see her stoop to pick up the missing piece.
“Dad!” Sebastian spins around. “Sandy just drilled out a hole in the fence so Sandy and me can talk!” he says.
“I see that,” I say. I hadn’t known her name was Sandy.
I hear the saw start up again. Sandy tosses half the fence circle through the hole and Sebastian picks it up. “I’ll keep half and you keep half,” she says. For the nun and my son, this is just the beginning.My wife, Darcy Roake, takes the little half-moon that Sandy sawed out of the fence and puts it on Sebastian’s mantel between the picture of whales and the Bluebird of Happiness.
Over the next few weeks, then months, Sebastian’s and Sandy’s murmuring voices continue. Most days Sandy is out doing whatever she does in her garden, and whenever Sebastian is outside I see him circling near the fence that isn’t a fence anymore, but a portal. Some days my son just goes to stand at the hole, yelling, “Sandy! Saaaaaandyyyyy!” with a mournful exuberance. It’s never summoned her outside, but she must hear him out there.
Sandy’s days are busy. She has that vibe of an alpha nun, keeping the other nuns humble and spiffy. I hear their voices in the garden, shooting the breeze on their way to do errands, mumbling about the heat. Youth groups arrive and embark cheerily upon team-building efforts, their college voices floating up, but none of these kids holds a candle to Sandy. Sebastian is a child transfixed.
Partly due to the fact that these hangouts with Sandy provide me with a short respite from imaginative play and fetching snacks, and partly because of an ear surgery that rendered me partially deaf on one side, all I really get are snatches.
“We did watercolours today at my school.”
“Oh yeah?” Sandy asks him. “And what did you make?”
“I painted a monster,” says my son.
Or: “Wheeler and Jackson were playing football, and they told me I couldn’t play.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” says Sandy. “Did that hurt your feelings?”
“Yes?” says my son, in that way he has sometimes of answering a question and asking another one in the same breath.
“Did you let them know that?” says Sandy.
I can’t hear how he responds. A crackle of jealousy runs through me. When I get him from school at the end of the day, I’m always full of questions for him: “What did you do?” “Make any new friends?” Most of the time he’s taciturn; sometimes he’ll try to change the subject. For the moment, I stand in the kitchen, eavesdropping.
When Sebastian wasn’t passing messages to Sandy, he enjoyed a river of playmates who deluged our house every day around 5 p.m. He was overjoyed that our house had become the neighbourhood hangout, but sometimes the constant company left me feeling like Sebastian’s hamster, which had never bargained on 15 child owners. It was passed from hand to hand, and when it was finally put back in its cage it was wild-eyed, its fur matted and sticky with ice cream and juice.
It’s late winter of 2020, and the raucous visits of the neighbour children have stopped. Five p.m. is more than quiet. There’s a tension or longing that hangs in the air, reminding us of what we’re missing. Sebastian and Sandy are friends. They not only keep chatting through the hole, they also exchange gifts. A kaleidoscope materializes, then a Hot Wheels car. It’s unclear what Sebastian gives Sandy in return.
We are in the early, anxious weeks of coronavirus, but we reluctantly let Sebastian keep trading a shared art project with Sandy under the fence. More than the fact of their friendship alone, which my wife and I find wholly novel and charming, the nun who lives behind the fence is the first friend Sebastian has made on his own, and we’d never deprive him of something like that.
They push shells and leaves that they’ve found through the hole. They ask and answer endless questions. Sometimes there is silence, Sebastian sitting with knees drawn up and his back to the fence while Sandy paces.
Sebastian runs inside one day and announces that Sandy has left something “too big for the hole” for him on the porch. It’s a large cardboard box filled with knickknacks: sponge brushes and tubes of paint, wearable butterfly wings made of paper, a partial Hot Wheels racing track.
We’ve been in isolation for a month when I see Sandy in person. The day is any other day, as we’ve come to perceive time since COVID-19 began: Sebastian is hunting around near the fence while I attempt some yard work.
I hear Sandy’s voice floating over the top of the fence with the hole. “I thought maybe Sebastian could come for a playdate. I’ve got some bricks here and they need painting yellow.”
I’m not sure what to do at first, but my wife wants to go and so does Sebastian. We ring the bell on Sandy’s porch. Sandy’s yard is sweet with the smell of flowers; tulips and rosebushes bloom at the edges.
The first thing Sandy does when she answers the door is point to a row of concrete blocks in front of the curb to her house. She’s a middle-aged woman with brown hair cut in a pageboy. Her eyes are squinty, foxed with mirth, a spray of freckles on her nose. She wears sandals with cuffed jeans, her T-shirt tucked into the waist. She’s shorter than I thought she’d be. She explains that she’s tired of the whole neighbourhood blocking the path to her door with cars. It delights me that Sandy, a woman of God, is irritated with her neighbours for parking their cars legally on the street.
“How you doing, Mom?” says Sandy, gesturing at Darcy’s stomach.
Darcy is seven months pregnant. We’re checking COVID-19 numbers hourly. Our state of mind isn’t what you’d call relaxed. Still, there’s something momentous about a midday sojourn with our son’s adult friend, who is as chatty and warm as she is enigmatic.
We’ve suddenly passed through the hole in the fence; we have to learn to breathe the air. Darcy lightly rubs her belly. “Getting there, all right,” she says.
A month later, Sandy leaves for good. We never expected this to happen. In regretful, low tones, we say these very words, “I never expected her to leave!” as though if we say it enough, she won’t leave and our son won’t be heartbroken, robbed of her magic.
From the nun whom Sandy sends to the hole in the fence to break the news to us, we learn that Sandy has left suddenly to care for her mother in Kansas. The other nun says that Sandy looked for Sebastian to say goodbye but couldn’t find him in time.
Sandy left behind another box of presents: a colouring book, sidewalk chalk, the missing orange segment in the Hot Wheels track. When I look at Sebastian, he’s looking down at his shoes.
Our second son is born in the spring. The baby is healthy, and in two days, he and Darcy are home. Sebastian adores his brother, but inevitably wanders down to the fence. Instead of calling “Sandy!” he cries, “Hello! Helloooooo!”
Sometimes the nun who broke the news about Sandy comes for desutory chats. Once, she slides a piece of paper under the fence with Sandy’s address on it. Surprising my wife and me, they write. They are proper pen pals: They write frequently, warmly.
Sebastian writes of a summer indoors. He writes to “tell her that he loves her.”
Sandy writes of her new life in Kansas. “God loves you, Sebastian,” she signs every postcard.
--From Guernica Magazine