My wife and I will soon open part of our home as Churm House, an inn for wayward academics.
When the chimney gave way two nights ago with a rumble and crash, I woke thinking it was an earthquake or that the life-flight chopper that passes over the house had finally fallen through our roof. I jumped up to check on Starbuck and Wolfie, who were safe and still asleep in their rooms, then ran downstairs to find out where the tons of brick had landed. There was only a little mortar and brick dust leaking from behind the cast-iron cover on the downstairs fireplace, and nothing at all visible in the basement.
“I don’t see any damage,” the mason said when I got him out the next morning. He’d insisted I go up on the roof with him. The lowest edge is 28 feet off the ground, and my ladder reached it with two inches to spare. Now we stood clinging to the chimney as we looked down into it with his flashlight.
“Oh, I’m not doubting you heard something,” he said, doubting me. “But you’ve got three courses of brick in this thing, and even if some of it fell away, it’s still structurally sound. I can’t see past this shoulder, though,” he said, pointing to where the inside narrowed. “Let’s check further down.”
The ceilings on the second floor are too high to reach by stepladder, so I had to pull out a special collapsible ladder I keep for the purpose in an upstairs closet. Some previous owner built a heavy, insulated trapdoor to the attic, but it’s not on hinges, and you have to military-press the thing over your head, catch it on a joist and hope it rests there, then squeeze past. We reconvened where the chimney rose from the attic floor and grew into the roof.
“Your problem is that rain falls into the chimney and hits the soot and furnace emissions. That turns into acid that eats away the mortar and brick. You should have had it capped years ago. You know, brick this old is hard as can be on the outside, but when you scratch it or chip it”—he did both with a screwdriver to pristine bricks—“why it’s just as soft as talcum inside.” Sure enough, the newly damaged brick began to leak powder, and I wished he hadn’t done that.
“After the Great Fire in Chicago, they saved tons of brick from the rubble and shipped it all over the Midwest to build things. Some of it was probably damaged by the heat. Luck of the draw, you know?” He put the tip of his screwdriver against another brick and slammed the handle with the heel of his hand. The brick exploded inward and pieces clattered down the hole. I cried out. He laughed.
When we opened the little door at the base of the chimney in the basement, fallen bricks blocked the hole, and he said that I must have been wakened by one of the flues in the chimney collapsing. It wasn’t dangerous, but if we wanted the fireplaces to work, we’d need to drop a liner down the inside of the chimney and surround it with special concrete poured from the top. The resulting system would be fireproof.
“In the meantime, though, you’re going to have to open up a wall and get all this old brick out of there. I can do it, but it’ll cost you, because my outdoor work is starting. You could do it yourself. Know anybody who’ll work for cheap?”
“Tell me again why I’m hauling brick and you’re sitting down to blog?” Mrs. Churm said.
It had been easy to rap the ancient plaster off the face of the chimney in the sitting area off our living room, though it was reinforced with horse hair, and when I rapped and pulled against the fibers, spider webs of cracks began their delicate tracery in every direction. I’ll need to fix that, I noted, then spent several hours knocking a hole through the side of the chimney with a cold chisel and a claw hammer.
There’s an art to the application of force. It’s the same with writing prose as with removing brick or waging war. One needs to plan for the steps and make contingencies for the unexpected. But eventually the work must get done, and those who know how get it done in the least time, with the least effort. Those who don’t know what they’re doing fritter time away with frippery, and often have to re-do that work because it should have come later in the process. It’s why there are framing carpenters and finish carpenters, and why I break into a cold sweat when a cautious hair stylist takes a pair of scissors to my nearly bald head and begins to snippy-snip. I know I’ll be there too long, and the haircut won’t be nearly as good as when some brute runs electric shears over my head roughly, painfully even, and has me out in 60 seconds.
My dentist knows how to apply force; it’s why I like him. He replaced a filling last year, and I could feel his whole weight in the drilling, which he made sure was in line with my skeletal structure and the chair, so I couldn’t slump. He was relaxed. “Some snow we had, huh?” he said. “Irrigation. I’ve got a plow for my truck but I just drive up and over all the snow in my driveway. Burr tip.” I pictured him in a monster truck with “The Extractor” painted on the sides, riding up and over his buried mailbox, the kids’ toys, his wife’s car.
In my caution, I made the hole in the chimney too small, and I had to spend several more hours enlarging it. From that point, it didn’t take more than half an hour and three mangled fingers to pull out enough bricks to make a stack taller than Starbuck next to our dining table. I was a little worried about the weight on the floor joists.
“I can’t go any further until you get that pile of bricks out of the way,” I told my wife.
“Why don’t you move them?” she said.
“You’re always saying we should do more as a family,” I said weakly. I knew by the look on her face I should stop, but one doesn’t stop being a humorist; it’s one’s vital being. “Darling, look. You have great wide Celtic shoulders. They’re one of the things I love about you. Back when my people were poets and presidents of universities, yours were haulers of nets, mongers of cod, cutters of sod, carriers of hod. You were bred for this sort of thing.”
“Give me a break. Your grandfather was a coal miner.”
“He was the voice of his constituents’ political will.”
“He helped lay siege to a non-union mine, and when the scab workers surrendered, your town tortured and murdered 22 of them. It’s all in your novel.”
“That was a long time ago. Besides, Grandpa didn’t take part in the death march; he and John Lewis just gave the orders. Come on, baby. Remember how my cousin said the test of any relationship was moving a couch to a new house? You don’t want to be one of those couples that can’t labor together. And think how nice it’ll be for our paying guests to have a cup of tea by the fire. It’s integral to our vision.”
She started to pick up an armload of the filthy bricks.
“Careful you don’t scratch the floor,” I said. She shot me a look with her green Scots eyes that my English forefathers, huddling behind Hadrian’s Wall, must have known when the savages swept down on them from the north.
I helped as I could, but there was mind work to be done. By dinnertime, Mrs. Churm estimated that half the fallen brick had been removed and stacked neatly in the side yard. We’re half-done with several other projects that also must be completed before we open, but I can feel the energy and momentum.
“Don’t you feel like you accomplished something today?” I said. She didn’t hear me.
After feeding and bathing the kids and getting them to bed, Mrs. Churm and I watched a show on PBS. (I suggested to Mrs. Churm that she sit on a towel so as not to dirty the couch.) Some international couple was living in a shack on a windswept pampas, surrounded by high inaccessible mountains and the iron sea. The woman said that all they had to do down there was read, fish, and be with each other. “It sounds heavenly,” the documentarian behind the lens said.
“Sounds like hell,” Mrs. Churm snarled.
To be continued….