Painting a Chimney by Matt Dennison

Painting a Chimney

He leaned the old wooden ladder against the house,
climbed twice to extend its heavy sections,
retreated to pick up scraper, brush, paint
and mount the lowest step to rise. Remembering
the horses he had read about or dreamed
who late in the race would bite their necks
for oxygen, he cursed his slowness
and general delay toward the chimney,
last painted some ten years prior—for the life
of him he could not remember, or grasp
the need for such an act at all. Pausing
at each rung to lift a foot and boost,
he reached the grey-stubbled tiles,
placed one hand on the gutter and gazed
at the impossible slate. Luckily he had thought
to pour off some paint, for there would be
no setting down the can up here. He climbed
the final steps, swung behind the ladder ends
and sat, accoutrements in lap.

Gauging the sunset barometer served
only to speed his tics, so he pushed against
the ladder, somewhat, which lifted in the air,
causing him to scuttle up the roof a bit
in instant crab recoil. Pleased to be embarked,
he looked about until he spied his neighbor’s son,
raking leaves and weeping proudly to himself.
He whistled his plain-tooth note to signal
the boy’s exposure, and when he looked up
waved, though the youngster only scowled
and turned to attack the growing pile—
reminding him a house requires some trinity
of occupants to thrive, that one plus ghosts
will not do. Feeling the wind lift his hair,
he moved backwards up the tiles, not as slick
as he had feared, hands and feet propelling
him slowly to the peak. What masters of lead
and rope they must have been, he marveled,
to have built a roof so slant.

Arrived, he straddled the crest and stood,
bow-legged his way toward the bricks
with arms outstretched, eyes lowered to guide
his angling feet. The chimney, of course,
loomed at the farthest end, as if, in running
to expel its breath, had teetered at the edge
and stopped. I have you now, he thought,
and slipped face-forward, mind, gravity
and paint unspooling a fount of arching red.
Tasting slate and blood, he raised his head
to see the hawk land on the chimney,
shoot him with bald eyes and pull dark
strings from the neighbors’ half-eaten
dachshund. Spinning the best he could
to find the boy hidden by roof-line, he flung
the paint can hawkward, and when it swooped,
the brush, which dropped the gutted fur-sack
in the crimson at his feet. Below, voices
bent over in shadows as he rose against
the sky, howling, red carcass aloft.

by Matt Dennison

Editor’s Note: There is not one unnecessary word placed awry in this brilliant narrative poem. The ending is unexpected and oh, so exceptional.


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