Our arched backs heft three hundred pounds of cast iron onto the bluestone hearth. The woodstove came across Canadian lakes to rest lion claws beneath peeling maroon wallpaper. The homeowner hovers at the edge of a drop cloth, stammering questions as the curved stem of a tobacco pipe hangs from his lips. Jarod hates when customers pester him, preferring to install pipes in silence. He looks at me as he twists an elbow joint into place, nodding his head back, towards the man inquiring how long it takes for chimney pipes to rust.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I say. “Lifetime warranty on these things.”
“That’s good, but what about the…” the man begins, retracting the pipe from his mouth.
“It will last as long as you need it. Honestly,” I don’t want to tell him the stove will cough heat long after he’s dead. It’s bad for business. Too cryptic. I try to change subjects, “This is a great house. Can’t say I’ve seen one like it.”
It’s clear the house was once a single room cottage expanded into three wings, ceilings running high, intricate paint lapped over boards. Pale blues border mauve and magenta panels. Cream trim fences in conflicting colors, forcing them to blend, to agree in a disjointed fashion. Authentic mastheads perch above our heads. Maidens gaze down as Jarod tightens a two-foot section of pipe leading to the flue. Portraits of schooners adorn the walls, names of architects etched into gold placards beneath. The tones are rich, deep blues and purples. The maroon wallpaper is latticed with grapevines and fern fronds like an old Victorian. None of the wood matches, as if the building had suffered continual splintering and bisecting, new joists nailed into place, spines of oak forced along a vertebrae ever elongated.
“Well, yes. I built it with my wife. When she was still here,” the man replies.
He’s past the age where divorce can be considered.
“Sorry to hear that. She had great taste,” I reply with a smile, fingers outlining the painted seams traversing the ceiling.
“She did. Everything you see’s recycled wood. Janice used to pick it out at the scrap yard. Even a few of our old sailboats are nailed into the walls,” he says, running a hand over a rough windowsill. “It’s an old tradition. Her idea.”
Jarod grunts as he forces the black finished trim piece along the length of pipe, covering a gaping mouth of bricks four feet up the chimney.
“I did the carpentry. She did the painting. I used to have her sit on my shoulders as she rolled the ceilings. Never liked ladders. She’d dip the foam roller into the tray and have me move back and forth while she reached all she could.”
The man stands upright, his arms wrapped around the knees of a ghost, holding her so she can get at the last bare space beneath the eaves. His loafers shuffle over Turkish rugs, knees nearly bumping tables laden with magazines and bottled boats. He waltzes for a moment, reliving the birth of his home, the weight of his love, before he realizes he’s moving, following steps taken years ago. He shakes off her spirit with a cough, steadying his hips and slouching shoulders. He retrieves a lighter from his pocket and brings it to the bowl of extinguished tobacco. The smoke rises in a thin stream before it curls and drifts out the open doorway into the garden.
“So are you paid up?” Jarod asks rifling through a sheaf of bills and balances clipped to a metal board.
The man nods.
“Good. We’re all finished then. We recommend three small fires before you put her to full use. Kindling and paper to start. No real logs until all the paints and chemicals burn off,” Jarod says. “And remember, no pine. You don’t want a chimney fire.”
“No, I’ve always avoided the stuff,” the man says. His eyes wander over the walls and furniture, as if imagining flames lapping at their frames, engulfing the fuel in a sprawling orange tongue.
I have to ask the man to move off our drop cloth so I can roll it up. He steps aside without a word. I fold the black cotton in on itself until it is a tight square tucked under my arm, before wishing the man a good morning. Stepping out into the garden, a flock of sparrows rise from the seed strewn lawn and flee to a nearby holly bush. I catch a last whiff of tobacco smoke before moving to the van. I want to remind the man how most house fires are really started, but habits are habits, and being so late in life, I don’t want to take anything else from him.
Corey Farrenkopf received his B.A. and M.Ed from Umass Amherst. He works as a stove technician. In the evenings, he writes novels and short stories in an attic space with a single skylight. His work has been published in Gravel, The Avalon Literary Review, and is forthcoming from Literary Orphans Journal. He lives on Cape Cod with his girlfriend, Gabrielle. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Corey-Farrenkopf-878165935599304/