Sunday, December 21, 2008

A New Builder In Town

Never walk behind our house and look up. You’ll laugh, or simply find reason to insult Harry the homeowner’s craftsmanship. Things are permanently, and noticeably, askew.

A couple of years ago, the woodstove which had served my parents quite dutifully for over thirty years finally gave up the ghost. The interior framework, already permanently warped from thousands of fires over years of winters, snapped and collapsed. Wood no longer fit in as it should, didn’t burn properly, and the next thing to warp and give out was the actual housing of the stove itself. Then the house burns down.

So with modest searching on Craigslist, we located another one for sale locally, bought it, and somehow managed to install it. I was not here when that happened, so how the heavy thing made it inside is a mystery to me. It looks good, and I think it’s fairly new.

Trouble is, however, it doesn’t work right. Or at least the combination of the stove, the piping into the chimney, and the chimney itself do not work properly. It will fire up as it should, but for some reason suddenly begin to literally “puff,” sending rather smoky wafts into the house, setting off smoke detectors, making everything hazy and reek, and generally annoying everybody. Something isn’t right.

After extensive research online, my dad reached the conclusion that the chimney isn’t drawing at its full potential because it’s too short. It needs to be raised. There is now greater necessity for a project that was begun fifteen years ago.

During one particularly harsh winter, a dump of freezing rain coated the tress, and a stiff wind toppled several, one directly onto the house. Considering that it was miserably cold, rainy, freezy and wet, we were lucky that the tree landed squarely on the chimney. It cracked a few of the top blocks, but that was the extent of the damage. With only modest cursing, my dad and I were able to remove the worst of it in a few minutes, clutching icy limbs as we hacked away at the tree, on the roof, slipping on the ice, after dark. When the weather was nicer, we cut down the tree, only succeeding to break one window as it broke loose. A rousing success. That was fifteen years ago. Soon after it happened, my dad, already planning to raise the chimney, purchased some new blocks to replace the old, cracked ones, some new chimney sleeves, and we figured we’d get around to it sometime soon. (He wouldn’t have needed to buy new clay sleeves had I, over the past ten years, broken in boredom the several laying around the tool shed. Oops).

Moons came and went, nations rose and fell, several presidential administrations have left their marks, and the blocks became a fixture to the back yard; serving as work benches, tables for potted plants in nicer weather, getting painted in preparation for someday being installed, but never actually being put up. The house has also since been repainted another color, so they even need a repaint. This project would still be incomplete another fifteen years from now were it not for the fact that the new wood stove puffs, doesn’t work, and drives up the winter power bill due to increased use of the heat pump.

It turns out it was only a two-hour project. I heaved up the square chimney blocks while my dad mixed the mortar, and we made quick work of laying them, adding the sleeves, and taking the chimney up another several feet. Excellent…until you look at it from the ground.

I have long known brickmasons were not the most exacting of artisans, but they beat our craftsmanship. They use those little things called levels. We did not. Eyeballing things for a block or two is probably okay, but not for six or seven. By the time the last ones were laid, the chimney had a pronounced arc – only visible from the ground when you looked up. Yet the mortar was setting, time was running out, and we made a decision – a truly groundbreaking one when it comes to projects here at the house. We determined that it was GOOD ENOUGH. It’s not going to fall over, supports no weight other than its own, and is unlikely to be problematic, save for some garish aesthetic limitations.

We made a pact. First, our neighbor can visit, but he’s not allowed into the backyard. He might see the chimney. He’s a mason, by the way. Furthermore, we have agreed who carries the blame for this blunder. When I am not here, my dad will blame me and insist that I have no masonry skills. The latter is true. When my did is not here, I will blame him, stating that it was the last project that he did before he died, and were all actually hoping that the doddering old guy would fall off and we’d get out inheritance. But he did not and now we have a crooked chimney to remind us of his final home project. If the both of us are here, we will blame “some asshole” who we fired upon viewing his shoddy work. We pinky-swore to this pact and lit a fire in the stove to see if we made any difference.

Thankfully, we did. Once again, it’s good enough. The smoke goes out the chimney instead of into the house, the stove no longer “puffs,” and the only downfall is that we have a ridiculously tall, wobbly chimney built by Doctor Seuss. He builds houses now.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. I can relate to this project. In fact, I can point to several in past houses and current ones.

  2. You're exaggerating. It wasn't that long ago. I'd say it was maybe twelve years ago. And the blocks didn't need repainting, because yall never painted them the original color to begin with.

    Is that what those pipe things were next to the garden shed?

  3. Incorrect. The project began at the very LATEST in 1996. So perhaps I may have MISREMEMBERED the date. However, you may observe the wrong paint color when you next visit. It matches previous colors of the house. And yes, those clay things by the garden shed became fodder for me and a hammer. So there.

  4. Elizabeth,creative writing can often be confused with exaggeration or embellishment.

    Beating the tiles to death with a hammer sounds a bit like passive aggression to me.

  5. Heck, most of what I write is made up. The parts that aren't I say they aren't so the people I'm writing about won't get mad. I just had to make an effort to defend the family name in that it only takes us twelve years to complete a project, not fifteen.

  6. I the words of Maharaji Mahesh Yogi, "What does it matter?"