The Storm

In Fiction by Ben Raterman

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Photo by Ricardo Martins on Unsplash

The storm swept up a week’s worth of clouds and binned them far to the east into the sea. Tanya stood in the doorway, surveying her yard. Cool mountain air entered her lungs—though she lived far from any mountain—and the sky was clear and blue.

“I think we weathered it,” she said. “Just little stuff, twigs and things.” She turned to her husband.

“Good,” he said, not looking up from the tiny screen that lay just north of his plate.

But good didn’t last long when the phone sounded. Tanya stared at the device on the wall, attached to a landline that rarely rang. She said hello and stood listening, her eyes narrowing.

“It’s for you. Margie Finch.”

“Margie?”

She dropped the phone. It bumped along the wall as it bobbed on its coiled cord. He walked over and grabbed it and spoke to Margie, the woman who lived two blocks up the street with her husband, Cantor.

“Will,” Margie said, “I don’t know who else to call. Cantor needs your help. He’s too proud to call himself. Maybe that’s not the right word but... but, anyway, the storm blew over one of our chimneys. Well, not blew it over but broke it and it needs to be fixed but before that it needs to come down and could you come and see… to help Cantor. He’s going up on the roof and I’m afraid for him.”

Will looked at Tanya and nodded to the woman on the phone. “Yeah. I’ll be up in a couple minutes.”

“Up for what?” Tanya said when he hung up.

“To look at a busted chimney. Apparently, the storm did something to it.”

“And Margie is asking for your help. Why you?”

He walked over to her, looking into her eyes. “Why such anger? It’s been years since you two went at it. And for what? A damn kitchen cabinet.”

Tanya’s brows tightened. “You don’t even remember. It was the tile beneath the cabinets.”

He shrugged. “Come on, let’s both go. See what the storm did.”

“Cantor and I were putting up the tile when Margie walked in,” she said, closing the door.

He heard “Cantor and I...” and lost the rest of her sentence to the noise.

Chainsaws growled at each other across the wide streets of the neighborhood, a place where old and new homes stood, and the sun shone bright without regard.

They walked up the slight hill to where it leveled, and an old Federal style home stood with its two chimneys claiming their opposing sides of the roof. Tanya took Will’s hand as they and several onlookers stared up at Cantor, who stood on the ridge of the slate roof holding an eight-foot two-by-four.

“What’s he trying to do?” Tanya said.

The house sat a hundred feet from the street on the top of a gently sloping acre of land. A tall oak stood on the driveway side of the house. A heavy limb had snapped and hit the chimney like a bat. The top six feet of the chimney leaned against the rake of the roof while the large limb, like a severed hand, lay in the driveway, its many branches reaching for light in a useless gesture.

Margie ran out the side yard to the road.

Tanya squeezed Will’s hand, then let it go and shoved her hands in her pockets.

“Will,” Margie said. “Thank God you’re here. See what he’s doing?” She turned toward the man on the roof. “He won’t call for a crane. He has to do it himself. Will, he’s not a young man anymore.”

Margie’s eyes were clouded with tears. Tanya stared at the woman, sifting through old images. Fragile images, Tanya thought.

“You going to get up there with him, Will?” a neighbor said.

“No, he isn’t,” Tanya said, pulling her hands out of her pockets, leaning toward the man.

Margie wiped her eyes and stared at Tanya.

Will strolled up the driveway. “I’m going to help him.”

“What?” Tanya said, walking after him. “No, you’re not.”

Margie followed, eyeing Tanya’s ass. Her husband, Cantor, held the two-by-four like a balancing pole as he took a step toward the chimney. He stopped when he caught sight of the trio advancing.

“Hey,” Cantor shouted, losing his balance, regaining it. “Why’s he here?”

“I asked Will to come,” Margie said. “You need help.”

“No, I don’t.”

Cantor took a step forward, aiming the two-by-four at the crown of the chimney. He pushed, and the board slid off the chimney to the roof. He squatted, steadying himself, his feet on either side of the ridge.

Will said, “Cantor, you’ve got no business up there. You won’t move that thing with a stick. It probably weighs a thousand pounds. Come off the roof and we’ll work out a way to get it down.”

Cantor took a breath and seemed to mull over this proposition. “I’m doing just fine,” he mumbled.

Will took in the roof of slate facing the street and the man standing at its ridge trying to balance himself with a long two-by-four. “The hell you are.”

Cantor squatted on the ridge, holding the piece of lumber like a jousting lance. “Yeah. OK.” He made his way to the center of the roof and disappeared down a ladder on the opposite side.

Will, Tanya and Margie walked around the house, past the large limb that had hammered the chimney. Cantor stood on a low deck that stretched across the back of the house. He was looking out on the yard where a gazebo stood. He turned.

The two men nodded to each other. Will glanced at the gazebo, remembering the time when the four of them built the teak structure. He turned and raised his eyes to the ladder leaning against the house and a second ladder that lay on the roof, hooked at the top over the ridge. He recognized both ladders with their paint smears and dents.

“We can pull it down,” Cantor said.

They discussed strategies for bringing the top of the chimney to the ground. Margie stood near, chewing her thumbnail.

Tanya walked to a picnic table on the deck and sat. Her eyes wandered over the rear yard where red-winged blackbirds clutched at cattails growing near the edge of a small pond. She knew it was useless to reason with her husband. “At least talk Cantor into a less dangerous way of doing things... of getting it down,” she had whispered to him.

The men decided to tie one end of a rope to the injured chimney and the other end to Cantor’s Chevy pickup. And pull it down.

“That old thing?” Margie said. “I hate that blue color. I don’t know why you keep the thing. It’s just sentimental junk.”

“Would you rather he drive the Mercedes?” Tanya said, leaning back in her chair, crossing her leg.

Margie scowled.

Cantor said, “It’s old, but it works.”

Will raised his hand. “Let’s get on with this. You’ll need to drive it across the side yard. I’ll go up and attach the rope to the chimney—”

“Oh no, you won’t.” Tanya jumped up from the chair and joined the three next to the ladder.

Will pointed at her. “OK. Then you go up and attach the rope.”

Tanya’s eyes reached for the ladder, then steadied on Will.

Cantor said, “I’ll do it.”

“Why do either of you have to do it?” Margie said. “Why not just hire a crane—”

“Because,” Cantor said. “I’m not paying a thousand dollars to bring down the top of a chimney when I can do it for nothing.”

Tanya heard the blackbirds calling from the pond and turned to look. A cat prowled the edges, searching for a way to get closer as the storm had raised the level of the pond and the surrounding marshy area.

“It’s the Weatherby’s cat,” Cantor said, looking at Tanya for the first time. He smiled. She smiled.

The four of them stood in silence. The birds called, diving on the cat.

Will said, “Where’s your rope?”

Cantor motioned with his head, walking to the garage. Inside, he looked at Will and said, “You’ve never said a word to me in over five years. Why now?”

Will glanced at his old friend, then looked away. “Didn’t feel a need before.” He turned back. “With this leaning chimney, it seems there’s a need. And besides, I haven’t heard word one from you.”

The open door threw a patch of sunlight across the floor that crawled up Cantor’s pant leg. Will followed the light, seeing what his mind conjured as specks of tile adhesive clinging to the man’s knees.

“You’re still angry,” Cantor said.

Will continued staring at Cantor’s knees. “You know,” he said, looking up, “it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s over.” He thought it had something to do with a cabinet, not tile. He looked again at Cantor’s knees.

Cantor nodded. “Mm,” he said, pondering what matters and doesn’t matter.

Tanya put her hand on the ladder and looked up. She walked back along the deck to get a better view.

“You’re not thinking of climbing up there, are you?” Margie said.

“I’ve climbed my share of ladders. I used to climb trees when I was a kid.” She sat at the table with Margie.

The two women eyed each other, then looked away. Tanya turning to the pond, Margie to her husband as he exited the garage with a heavy coil of rope.

The men stopped at the corner of the house and studied the chimney. They discussed moving the limb. Cantor said he wanted to leave it where it was. It would provide a cushion when the chimney fell. Will told him it would just get in the way when he had to clean up the mess after the fall. Cantor shrugged. He didn’t want to deal with it right now. Bringing down the chimney was priority one. He turned to Margie and asked her to get the keys to the truck.

“I’ll go up and tie this rope to the chimney,” Cantor said to Will. “You drive the truck.”

Will looked to the street. The spectators were gone.

Tanya and Margie stood on the driveway close to the road, well away from the landing spot for the chimney. They looked up at Cantor sitting on the ridge of the roof. He was tying a loop in the rope. The chimney stood with a heavy lean to the rear. A six-inch gap at the fracture left bricks loose and dangling.

“Is this going to work?” Tanya said.

Margie watched as Cantor stood up, balancing himself with one hand reaching for the air. He took a step forward and flung the rope at the chimney. “I sure hope so,” she said, raising her hand to her cheek.

Tanya was glad Will was on the ground. She heard the loud rumble of the truck as it emerged from the garage. “I think it’ll work out.”

“Really?” Margie said, tense with worry. “Like it turned out with us a decade ago?”

Tanya glared, thinking she would like to punch the bitch. “What are you talking about? It was you who...”

Will drove the truck into the side yard, idling it.

Tanya turned full on Margie, stepping close. “Everything that happened between the four of us is because of you.”

“The hell it is—”

“Alright.” Cantor threw the loose end of the rope down to the driveway. “Tie it on and I’ll give you the signal to take up the slack.”

Will pulled the dangling rope across the driveway and into the side yard, where he secured it to the trailer hitch on the truck.

Several neighbors joined Margie and Tanya, aiming their phones at the man on the roof. Cantor picked up the two-by-four that lay balanced along the ridge and the top rung of the ladder. He walked to the chimney and signaled Will. The old pickup crawled across the grass, pulling in the loose rope.

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” a woman said, watching the action on her phone.

Margie and Tanya looked at each other, then at the woman.

“You don’t think so, Margie?” the woman said.

“That’s my husband up there, Pam. I don’t want him to have fun.”

The noose around the chimney tightened. Cantor held up his fist and shouted, “Stop.” Will idled the truck and set the brake. He leaned out the door, eyeing the angled rope from the rear of the truck to the chimney.

“I’m going to apply pressure,” Cantor said, setting the two-by-four against the crown of the chimney. His reasoning, he had explained to Will, was to prevent the maimed structure from falling with the lean. His force on the stick would encourage the chimney to fall away from the side of the house. Will agreed with this logic but suggested that if he drove the truck quickly enough, the chimney would fall in the truck's direction and away from the house without his help on the roof. Cantor shook his head. If the truck was stationary, then made to move fast across the wet grass, it could slip and halt the momentum of the chimney.

“OK,” Will said. “It’s your chimney. I’ll keep the rope taut and advance the truck at a slow, constant rate.”

Will got the signal to advance. Margie held both hands against her cheeks—not unlike the hold the two chimneys had on her house—and watched Cantor lean into the two-by-four. The rope was a gray line against the blue sky, giving off faint pipping sounds as the knots at both ends tightened. The watching crowd was silent, anticipating the chimney’s grand fall.

Tanya’s eyes darted between the chimney and the truck, watching as the chimney straightened its stance. She didn’t see Cantor’s right foot lose its grip on the slate or lose his balance altogether until Margie screamed. When her eyes focused on the man, he was halfway down the roof, following close behind the two-by-four as it slid past the gutter and vaulted into the yard. Will braked the truck and jumped from the cab. Margie ran toward her sliding husband, then stopped, holding her hands high against that image in a hopeful attempt to halt his progress. Cantor’s slide took him past a staggered row of bronze snow guards that stood proud of the roof. Shaped as four-inch-tall eagles with spread wings, they guarded against a heavy buildup of snow, but on this late spring day, they guarded against a sliding man, tearing into Cantor’s legs and back, ripping through his skin to muscle as he fell past, grabbing at the slate, the guards and finally the gutter.

Tanya reached the house first, followed by Will. Cantor held to the bent gutter with one hand, screaming, blood running down his arms and legs painting the boxwoods below. Will pushed through two of the bushes and stood below his friend, looking up, shouting at Cantor, holding his arms out, ready to catch the two-hundred-pound man. Tanya shouted at Will. Margie turned to the spectators and shouted for them to call an ambulance. The gutter came away from the fascia. Cantor fell onto Will, who crumpled under his weight. Tanya heard Will’s arm break. Everyone heard the screams of both men.

Cantor rolled off Will and lay in the bushes, breathing hard. His hands, arms and back raked by the snow guards. Margie tried to help him, but his screams sent her away with even more concern. His back and legs, bare from the rent fabric that once covered him, looked as if an animal not of the natural world had clawed them. His left leg wouldn’t move. Blood seeped from his back as if from a deep spring. He tried to move, pulling his arms close, pressing down with his bleeding palms. He crumpled and lay still, his head on the ground. Margie kneeled next to her husband and cried, wanting to touch his back, his arms, to comfort him, but her hands only feathered above his body.

Will lay pierced by the spines of the boxwood with an arm that angled in the wrong direction. Tanya was on the ground looking at his hurting face, unable to work out what to do for him. She clenched her teeth in a sympathetic search for relief as he looked up at her with tears of pain.

No one spoke. The neighborhood spectators formed a semicircle around the fallen, murmuring sounds of concern.

In a low voice, Tanya said, “Why did you think you could catch him?”

Will looked sideways at her, his mouth open, waiting for words to come out. “... reacted.”

Cantor moaned.

The front of the house had attracted more spectators when the EMTs arrived. A hanging gutter, a fractured and tethered chimney, marred its symmetrical façade. The presence of a swarm of neighbors and emergency personnel added to its odd appearance. Both men were lifted into the ambulance. Their wives stood amongst the boxwoods, worried but knowing their husbands would live.

When the ambulance drove off and the neighbors had gone, Margie looked at Tanya with tears on her face.

“I knew something like this would happen,” she said.

“How?”

“I don’t know. I just did.”

Tanya shook her head. “No, you didn’t. You imagined something would go wrong. It did, and now you’ve declared yourself a clairvoyant.”

Margie rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. She wanted to reach out and slap the woman but hadn’t the strength. Instead, she stood with a silent glare, trying to think of some vicious rejoinder. After several seconds, she sighed.

“What to do?” she said. “The EMTs said we shouldn’t show up at the hospital for another hour or more. It would just jam up the works. Apparently, this storm has a lot of people visiting the emergency room.”

Tanya looked down at the broken boxwood, then out at the old blue Chevy that appeared to have survived many altercations. From her vantage, she saw only the truck with a rope reaching into the sky, as if flying a heavy kite. She was, at once, angry and woeful. Why had she told Will that Margie wanted to talk to him? If only she had hung up on her. She turned to Margie and saw her wet cheeks, her brown eyes searching Tanya for an answer. The two women stood in the front yard, now empty of rubberneckers, and stared at each other.

“Come inside,” Margie said. “I’ll make some coffee.”

They sat in Margie’s kitchen and talked about their troubles. Troubles that began ten years before with the dissolution of a long business partnership and the beginning of a rancorous competition that, on one occasion, had the couples sparring in court. Then the silent antipathy that followed, when the rival businesses closed six years ago, just two months apart.

“All over a disagreement about the type of tile to use in that kitchen,” Tanya said.

Margie shook her head in a slow movement. “We agreed on the type of tile. It was you and Cantor...” She looked away, through the floor-to-ceiling glass, to the deck. She saw Tanya kneeling on the kitchen floor, in cutoff shorts, stirring grout, laughing at something Cantor had said.

Tanya said, “You didn’t want the subway tile. That’s what you yelled when you kicked over the bucket.”

Margie shook her head again, still staring out the window. She saw the ripped skin on her husband’s back. “It’s not important anymore. Nothing’s important except right now.”

Tanya studied the side of Margie’s face. Forever fragile, Tanya thought. She said, “You think they’ve seen a doctor yet?”

Margie held the image of Cantor hanging from the dripping gutter by one hand, then falling, falling.

“Probably not even through admitting,” Tanya said.

“Should we go anyway?” Margie came out of her trance.

Tanya stood. Margie followed. They walked through the living room. Tanya took in the fireplace. She knew the mason who built it. “You called Crick to rebuild the chimney?”

“Yeah.” Margie said. “He can’t get to it till next week. Of course, the broken part’s still...” She pointed in the air. Tanya stared at the fireplace. Margie looked at her watch. “We should—”

Tanya said, “Finish the job.” She walked to the front door and opened it. “Come on.”

Margie looked confused. “You don’t mean—”

“You drive,” Tanya said, pointing to the truck. She picked up the two-by-four. “I’ll be on the roof steadying the chimney.”

Margie’s eyes widened, staring at Tanya, watching her turn the corner of the house, watching her hips roll with an easy grace.

“Damn,” Margie muttered and walked to the blue truck, still idling.

When the chimney fell just where it was supposed to, Tanya gave out a whoop. Margie killed the engine and jumped from the cab. The broken chimney lay within the hand of the tree limb as if God had destined it.

“We did it,” Margie yelled.

Tanya bent low and let the two-by-four slide down the roof. It hit snow guards, twisted, and rolled over the hanging gutter. “Are we good now?” she called.

Margie smiled, looking up at her friend. “We’re good. Get off that roof.”

Author's Note: This story was inspired by my friend, Steve Spratt, who accomplished the same chimney rescue without incident.
About the Author

Ben Raterman

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Ben Raterman writes from Virginia surrounded by trees, next to a stream that falls into a lazy river—when it’s wet.

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