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  • Chasing the Train
  • Randolph Thomas (bio)

When the chimney cleaner arrives, Dad is scrounging in the drawer of a dresser, telling me he's sure he has a flashlight somewhere nearby. When I step to the door, the short boxy van is parked in the driveway. On the side of the van is printed Chimneys cleaned, wood stoves installed. The side door is open, and the chimney [End Page 81] cleaner is already unloading his equipment, his long brushes wrapped in a tarp. He leans them against the van.

The chimney cleaner is tall and lanky, with a shock of thick reddish hair and a beard. When he comes in, he glances up at the high ceiling, the bare bulbs up there. He asks if there's more light, and I say that's all there is. The house was built in 1910, and my grandmother bought it in 1948. The electricity is original, the lights controlled by little round push-buttons on the walls. Someplace in all this mess are ornate glass covers for the light bulbs, if they are not broken.

The chimney cleaner nods. He's seen worse, I'm sure.

"Which one of you," he says out of politeness, because he knows. My dad opens his eyes wide, comically, and points a finger back at himself. The chimney cleaner is working for him. They shake hands and Dad introduces me. His son, the college professor, he says like there's a joke about it they've already shared.

We shake hands, and the chimney cleaner tells me his name, Roy. I try to read his face. I get the feeling he's trying to read mine too. He glances around again, at the moldy ceiling and the walls where torn wallpaper is hanging in dirty strips, and I see this as a good sign. I ask him if he's got enough room to spread out, and he says he thinks so. I've spent the last couple of hours clearing a path to the fireplace and an area for him to work, while my dad fumbled around, interrupted me, and insisted on looking at everything I touched like he was afraid I was going to throw something away. I've moved back the tables, unstacked boxes of books and magazines. The exposed floor, once lovely dark wood, is scuffed up and eaten away by termites. When I showed the damage to my dad, he said he hadn't known it was there. That's why he was looking for the flashlight, to get a better look at it. [End Page 82]

Roy lays his brushes on the floor and unwraps them. He spreads out the tarp they're wrapped in to protect what's left of the floor, gets down on his hands and knees by the fireplace, and moves the filthy forgotten fireplace tools and the rack they sit in. He reaches in a bag and pulls out a surplus gas mask. I used to have one of those when I was a kid, that my dad bought me at the Army/Navy store. When he puts it on, I smell the old rubber and see through the dusty eye panes. The mask is tight on his face, the bands holding his hair to the back of his head. He looks like a giant insect with it on.

Roy uses one of his tools to jiggle the handle on the flue. When it opens, a billowing cloud of ash and what at first look like pine cones pour out. He sits back, raises an arm, and waves for us to get out, like we shouldn't be breathing this in, but we are both fascinated. The gray cloud rises all around us, filling the room to the dim ceiling, and I get a better look at what's poured out onto the spread, dozens of blackened, hardened carcasses of dead birds.


When I was little, the house belonged to my grandmother. She was a widow then, and I never knew my grandfather. When my parents and I drove into the city every other weekend, my mother and I stayed with her parents, in...


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pp. 81-89
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