Clean sweep on a dog day

August 15, 1996|By Kirk S. Nevin

JULY CAN BE brutal. July tests the very fiber of a working man. Which is what makes my memories of Dennis so indelible.

Dennis worked with me for 10 years. Our relationship ended when he got a brain tumor and died.

He was the perfect working companion. A moose of a man, thick-chested, Polish-brown hair and the unpronounceable name to go with it (crammed with Gs and Zs and Ks), educated, energetic, honest, creative. His degree was in philosophy with a minor in ancient Greek or something.

What I remember most was his creativity.

Which is what brings that July day a decade ago when he and I spent a whole broiling afternoon doing a one-hour job.

We started early that morning, well aware that by mid-afternoon we'd be weak with exhaustion. The forecasters were calling for low 100s with nasty storms.

So we cleaned a few chimneys and patched up an old gutter system. We sweated and cussed and got totally filthy from the ashy soot and the composted junk in the rotted downspouts. Metal too hot to touch without gloves.

Noon came with the blazing, relentless fiery ball straight up. Cloudless. So we did what working men need to do: Lunch at the Maryland Line Inn.

Walking into the dark smoky beery air-conditioned bar was like walking past St. Peter through the Pearly Gates. All eyes were on the two blackened, sweat-soaked, stinking chimney sweeps. We bellied up to the bar and ordered the first of too many cold draft beers. In iced mugs.

Heaven. Perfect cool heavens. We drank lunch slowly, deliberately. No use hurrying today.

Weird science

Dennis got weird. "Did you remember that the ancient Chaldeans were our first true astronomers?"

"Huh?" I glanced around. Was it legal to talk like that in the Maryland Line Bar?

He ignored me. "They named the Dog Star. Thought the constellation resembled a sitting dog. And the Egyptians built temples to absorb Dog Star light on the inner altars. And the Romans named the constellation Sirius Canis Major, The Big Dog."

Had we overdone lunch? I wondered. At least he was still speaking English.

He continued. "They thought the combination of energy from our brightest star and the high sun produced those horrible July heat waves, thus the term Dog Days. This is for sure a Dog Day."

I paid, quickly, and we left. Into the white-hot searing oven of the parking lot. Into the broiling van. Instant eye-searing sweat.

So I tell Dennis, "This last job won't take long, but we gotta be very careful. This guy Anderson is a little nuts, completely paranoid about his place. A compulsive cleaner. Very, very nervous. His wife's even worse. Nervous like a caged cat."

Dr. Anderson looked like a first-hole golf pro. Slim, neat, clean, cool. Sober. Ironed Izod shirt. Shaved. He cautioned us for the ninth time. "Clean drop-cloths on the white carpet. Don't touch the slate mantle. Gentle with those shingles." Ad nauseam. Dennis grunted, more bull than man.

So, with Dr. Anderson hovering about like the Good Fairy, we somehow manged to clean the fireplace chimney without disaster. Then we had to install the new stove. This was a stainless-steel wood stove designed to be immersed in the poolside hot tub. Lined with thick pinkish firebrick for added mass and fed from the hinged top, the shiny and expensive heater would quickly warm the outdoor tub on cold winter nights to spa-like temperatures.

Easy. Put the bricks in the stove, put the stove on the rented dolly, carefully oh-so-carefully down the dozen steps to the pool, 90 degrees left and a hundred feet around to the tub. Piece of cake.

Shiny hot stove

So the stove, very hot and shiny, gets strapped to the dolly. Dennis says to me, "Put your wallet in the van." So I did. Too hot to argue today.

True creativity takes many forms. Dennis knew that.

So we started down the steps, carefully, Dr. Anderson behind us clucking orders like an old Rhode Island Red hen. Easy, easy, step 11 and Oops! Dennis' sweaty hands somehow slipped. The dolly shot forward and the entire package of dolly and stove and firebricks and two filthy chimney sweeps went kerplunk into eight feet of delightful cool pool water.

The dolly-stove-brick load went down gently. When we surfaced, Dr. Anderson was sitting on the bottom step, defeated, face in hands, sobbing quietly.

So Dennis and I spent a busy three hours in the pool, ferrying bricks to the edge, inching stove and dolly to the far end and into the tub. Coolest work of that Dog Day.

Mrs. Anderson paid us. No tip. Dr. Anderson was still busy skimming the pool's surface with one of those long-handled nets. He'd finally stopped crying, thank goodness.

All eyes were on us as we sloshed in to the Maryland Line and again took our stools at the bar.

And Dennis continued where he'd left off at lunch. "The ancient Egyptian calendar attributed the Nile's annual July floods to the heliacal rising of the Dog Star."

I can't drink a cold beer on a hot summer day without remembering my friend Dennis.

Kirk S. Nevin writes from White Hall.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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