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The Chimney
Victoria Sprow | Spring 2008

     In the middle of the Ithaca hills the towns are cut deep and the buildings roost in the sutures. People can get lost here. They stop for gas on the way to the city and forget to leave and then one day they have been their whole lives nestled in a valley at the base of the Adirondacks.
     On Sundays I run under the bridge where the river leads to the cemetery. Next to the jogging path the hill slopes into the river and the water is smooth and grey and concave like a metal spoon. The path takes me inside the graveyard and around its perimeter.
     Every time I run Evie tells me, “Dom, you’re not going through the cemetery are you? You shouldn’t do that, it’s not decent.” This morning I said I’ve been out running this way every week and I’ve never passed anything at all, so would she just leave it?
      But now for the first time there is some kind of service going on and I’m not sure what is the proper thing to do, slow down or keep running. I think if Evie were here she would know.
     From a distance I can’t tell who is inside the casket, if it is a male or a female or even a child. Except for the priest there is only one man, the others are women.
I don’t know what this means about the person being buried. At the front gate another woman, a vendor,
is selling rosaries. Dusty-haired and beak-nosed, she wears her sleeves over her hands and offers me a prayer card for sixty cents.
      They make eight in the funeral party, seven women and then the man. He has a straight back and thick shoulders. He wears a white carnation through his buttonhole. Above him the sky coddles its packet of clouds, so later it might rain; but now he is bent over his hands and the orange morning sprays the crown of his head like paint. The people keep their faces down toward the dead.
      Earlier I looked at wedding cakes with Evie. We don’t have the ring yet but she likes to look. The cakes were inside glass cabinets, but still. I feel guilty about it now. The whole ordeal.
     One by one the mourners step forward to throw roses into the grave. The man watches from the back of the group, holding his wife’s hand. I can’t tell if it’s him holding onto her or the other way around. Her skin is lined and baked from age and sun like the crust of a cake but she is beautiful, maybe because she is sad. He is an older man himself. At least sixty. I wonder if he is thinking about his own time.
      He steps up after his wife—their turns are third and fourth. His pants are tucked inside his boots, and the way his hair is combed over from the side reminds me of Evie’s father. He makes a few short steps forward with his rose. Someone is singing ‘Ships of Heaven’.
      But then where the earth rises he loses his balance and suddenly he is toppling forward toward the grave. He lands on his knees at the edge; his glasses fall along with the rose into the hole where the casket has been lowered.
     His wife moves toward him to help him stand. At first he can’t get up, he slips again in the damp soil. She takes him gently by the elbow, which is covered with dirt along with the knees of his pants.
      I wonder if she married him because he was a good man and loved her or if there was romance when they were young or was she pregnant. Was he a war hero, did he fight at the Bulge. When he is steady she brushes soil off her palms and slides her wrist through the loop of her purse.

     When I come home Evie is sitting cross-legged on the sofa with her back to me, her long hair wrapped around her arm like a sling. She has a square of oil paper on her lap. She is tracing lines on the paper with the tips of her fingers, the way she might touch my face at night before we go to sleep.
      “What’s going on?” I say, opening the refrigerator. That’s when I notice the picture. “What’s that? Is that the painting from the bedroom?”
     “Yes,” she says.
     I slam the refrigerator door. “What the hell Evie? Did you pull it off the matting?”
     “Yes,” she says.
     In Ithaca at the Rag Shop it costs fifty dollars to mat and frame a picture that size. I bought the painting for Evie two years ago when she first moved to Ithaca to be with me. At the time we had been together for only four months, but I got accepted to do my Ph.D. in Art History at Ithaca College, studying Russian Catholic icons. I felt called to do it because I had once seen an icon of Mary in an abbey in Pennsylvania that one of the brothers said had curative powers. He had the look of an apostle. Of someone who had been around a long time and seen his share of things. He said his mother had seen it in a dream and the next day it was given to the abbey by an actuary. Well I used to have heart palpitations from the time I was young but I touched the cheek of that painting with my forefinger and I swear from then on I never had a palpitation again. That’s what got me started on the icons.
     So Evie didn’t say much when I left for Ithaca. But she showed up at my door three weeks later with all her things. She said she’d taken the Greyhound bus from Reno. That night we went to a campus auction for Darfur and someone held up this painting and Evie fell in love with it, she said it reminded her of home. So I put up my hand for seventy-five dollars. Someone else said eighty then, and I had to bid four more times but I won it finally for a hundred and ninety-five. Plus the matting and the framing, which made it two hundred forty-five.
     It is a picture done in acrylics of a tree in the country with a hammock tied from the lowest branch and a blue scarf slung above it. Behind the tree there is a house with a wrap-around porch. A woman sits on the porch swing with her sewing needles. She is making a pillowcase or something like a pillowcase. The fabric is spread over her knees.
     Later we hung the picture in our bedroom and I think looking at it got Evie through the worst months. It snows all the time in Ithaca, and she had a difficult time with that for a while. But then she applied for the Master of Management in Hospitality at Cornell, and she was accepted. So things turned out okay after all.
     But I can see something in the painting has upset her now although I can’t think what, she’s been looking at it every day for two years and hasn’t said a word. I go over to the sofa and stand behind her, rubbing her shoulders. But she only turns around and takes my hand off her back.
      “Dom,” she says, “there was someone here while you were gone.”
      I lift her hair into a ponytail so I can see her face. Under the skin her veins bloom. They make Queen Anne’s lace. “What do you mean, someone here? Who was here?” The electric light breaks over her forehead. “Are you all right? Did something happen?”
      She looks at her lap and puts her fingers together in the chapel shape. “A man came to the door while you were out.”
      “Did you let him in?”
     “Well, yes.”
     “Christ.” I put my hand to my forehead and sit down at the kitchen table. “Are you fucking crazy, Evie?”
     Two weeks ago a woman was taken from the building next to ours. He told her he was selling phone cards and she let him inside. But the whole time he didn’t know that this woman’s daughter, who was supposed to be asleep, was watching from behind the bedroom door. Later the girl told the police the man stayed twenty minutes talking about the cards, showing her mother the catalogues and being very polite, and at the end of it all he said good night and at the door he took hold of her hair and pulled her outside into a van. No one knows anything more than this yet.
     Evie sighs. “I’m sorry, Dom. It was stupid, I know. But he asked if he could see the painting. He said he made it and it meant a lot to him and he didn’t want to be a bother but could he just look at it for a minute.”
     I walk to the other side of the room and back again. “I can’t believe you are not fucking dead. I can’t believe it. Did he try anything with you? Did he touch you?”
     She scowls at me. “He was crying, Dom.”
     “Crying?” It sounds bizarre. “Why would he be crying?”
     “I don’t know. But he didn’t try anything. I took him into the bedroom and he just stood there in the corner looking at the painting. Then he sat down on the floor for a minute, you know like on the balls of his feet, and he had his eyes closed. Then he stood up again and that was all.”
     “Was he young?”
     “About thirty.”
     “Thirty?”
     “Or so. I don’t know. He had old eyes.”
     “So you just let him out then.”
     “Yes.”
     “And he didn’t say anything else? He didn’t say who he was or why he wanted to see it? Did you even ask him what it meant?”
     “I wanted to, Dom—I know you’ve always wondered— but I just couldn’t. It was like—explaining it would cheapen it, or something.”
     “So this guy was in our place and you were talking about the painting all that time and you didn’t even find out what it’s of? Where did the scarf come from, what is the woman sewing? You could at least have done that.”
     “Dom, please. We didn’t talk. He just—looked at it. Like it was everything to him. I tried to give it back to him but he wouldn’t take it. He said it wouldn’t be right.”
     “You tried to give it back to him? That’s our painting, Evie. Yours and mine. It cost two hundred dollars. It was the first thing we bought here. How could you give that away?”
     She takes me face in her hands and says, “But don’t you think it’s beautiful, for something you create to have that kind of power over you? You and me have each other, Dom. But I got the feeling he didn’t have anyone, except maybe once the old woman in the painting, whoever she was, and she’s probably dead now anyway. And now he loves that painting like it’s all he has and I’ve never seen anyone love something so much.” She bends down to tie her shoe but won’t look at me when she sits up again. Then she lies down on the sofa and puts her hand over her eyes like a hot cloth. “I want that, Dom,” she says. “I want to care that much.”
     “I should call the police. He could have hurt you.” I pick up the phone and put it down and then pick it up again.
     “Dom,” Evie says from the couch. “You can’t report a man who knocks at your door and is invited to come in and does.” She gets up and comes to where I’m standing. She takes the phone out of my hand and hangs it up.
     When she touches my skin something happens to me. I take hold of her waist and lean into her until her back is against the refrigerator. My heart is racing and it is breaking. “You tell me, Evie. Did anything happen? Did you do anything with him?”
     “You’re crazy,” she says. “Get off me. This is so fucking ridiculous, this whole thing.”
     “You tell me.”
     Then she looks straight at me, hard into my eyes, and says, “I touched his lips with my fingers, Dom. That’s what I did.”
     I’m not sure what to do. I let her go. She runs into the bathroom and turns the sink on, and I hear the toilet flush twice. “Evie, let me in,” I plead with her, jiggling the handle. Then I try to kick it open. “Damnit Evie, open up right now!” Finally I wait for her in the hallway, on the tiles with my back against the wall. The dirt from my running shoes—from the cemetery—is all over the bathroom door.

     When she comes out later she finds her painting scattered like birdseed over the floor. She gets on her knees. “No, please,” she says. Like a child, trying to fit the pieces back together.
     She is curled low, shivering, and she’s trying to make it better but she can’t, not really. And when I see her like this, small on the floor, her fingers thin as dandelion stems, I lie down in front of her and put my cheek on the laces of her slippers. “Evangeline. I am sorry,” I tell her. “I am sorry.”

     That night we shower together and I am the one this time to kneel down. Normally I would kiss her thighs and then between them but instead I lay my head against her belly. She takes my forehead in her hands and massages the shampoo into my hair.
     She speaks of her father sometimes in the past tense like he is gone. But he isn’t. They talk on the phone every Friday. Both her parents are old but they are happy with the way things are and how things have gone for them. They cook on the grill. They watch Letterman and play Yahtzee in the evenings.
     Last June we went back to Nevada for the summer. The season was moving along nicely. Then one Saturday his mower broke down in the middle of the lawn when he was only halfway through. I think of him a lot like that, pressed against the handle like a farmer pushing a plow, trying to get it to move. But it wouldn’t budge. I can’t shake that image. Him standing there in a lunge, his legs straddling the divide. On one side the grass is flat under his shoe and on the other it is halfway up his ankle.
     Evie was sitting by the fireplace in the living room, watching him through the window. I came out from the bedroom and sat down next to her but she didn’t hear me and she didn’t see me for a good five minutes. Outside the sweat was pouring down his face; I wasn’t sure why he’d gone out there midday to begin with. Finally I put my hand on her knee and said, “I’ll just go out there and take a look at it for him.” And she turned to me as if she knew I’d been there all along, and nodded.

     Nights are always hard to get through. She’s tried blackout shades and pills and hypnosis and nothing works. In bed, after our shower, she whispers to me as I’m drifting off to sleep. “Dom, don’t go yet,” she says. “Please.” Her voice is small, desperate and sheepish. It frightens her, being left behind. She wants to get to where I am but she can’t.
     Where am I exactly? I’m in a place somewhere between waking and sleeping, that blue twilit chimney where day moves like syrup and is forgotten, voices are far-heard… And it’s like I can cross over anytime I want, or I can go back to her and take her with me. I just have to say the word.


Victoria Sprow ‘06 is an English and American Literature and Language graduate from Pforzheimer House. As a Mitchell Scholar, she is currently studying for her Masters degree in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin.