Up on the Roof

Tamra+Williams

Courtesy of Tamra Williams

Tamra Williams

This is our seventh and last job of the day. I’d be lying if I said I am not excited. With my cotton t-shirt clinging to my back, the little short-sleeves rolled up for a more suitable tan line, I peer at the house in front of me, shielding my vision from the sun with one sooty, sticky, orange-scented hand. The rough citrus-scented wipes have become my natural scent this summer.

In front of me stands a farm house, two stories, with the sun reflecting unmercifully off of a steep pitched metal roof.

Ridge ladder needed: Check.

Chimney placed towards the center of the roof, but reachable by foot, for my father at least: Check.

Now a walk around the perimeter of the house to plan our ascent, followed by a knock on the door.

My father and I are led through the roomy kitchen with outdated appliances and light-brown wood cabinets into the living room where a black cast iron stove awaits inspection.

A few spiders keep warm in cobwebs built behind the stove, expanding into the darkness of an empty fireplace. Slate covers the living room floor, scuffed with age, and speckled with various grime. Wood and bark slivers scatter the floor around the stove. There is no worry about the dirt we may have tracked in with our boots.

Following my father back through the kitchen and into the sunlight, I exhale a sigh of relief. I love how the inside of a farmer’s home perfectly exemplifies how little they care about appearing to be anything but who they are.

I have worked on jobs with my father in the past, when I was around the age of 14 or so, as an extra pair of hands. It just so happened that at the age of 22, circumstances have led to my working on jobs again with my father, but this time as his main partner, his most essential pair of hands and source of strength.

Spring is here, and the most punctual customers are looking to schedule their annual sweep.

I stand on my tip-toes and unlatch the roof rack handle. Unloading the aluminum 40-foot extension ladder is done one end at a time. Grabbing the ladder from the side, in the middle, I hoist it to knee level and carry it to our point of access onto the roof. A slight curve in my back allows me to use my thigh for support. At this point in the day grunting is necessary. After setting the ladder down, my father takes over. “Go get the ridge ladder,” he instructs.

This ladder is much lighter except for the steel hook on the front designed to hook over the peak and hang, giving any roof scrambler a sturdy method of climbing to the chimney and staying put.

My father grabs the front, near the hook, and walks the ladder up to the roof being careful to hang onto the side of the extension ladder with his other hand. I walk the end of the ridge ladder up on the ground at the same pace, supporting its weight, until I can’t reach high enough anymore. The rest of the distance is muscled out by my father, perched near the top of the ladder roughly 20-feet up, as I foot the base just in case. Once my father is on the roof and situated, I dash back to the van.

Finding the energy on a hot day to run rarely escapes me. “I need a spot light and an 8-inch rectangular head with rods,” my father yells to me. Fortunately, I have no liner or nut drivers to deal with this time. I swing a long, slender black bag of carbon fiber rods with a metal brush head sticking over one shoulder.

A spotlight in one hand, I carefully make my way up to the roof.

Keeping one hand on the side rail as my stabilizer, I slowly rise, making sure to keep pushing the awkwardly hanging sack of rods behind my back and out of the way. As sure as I’ve become on ladders in one summer, my mind never wanders far from the prospect of slipping. I envision myself 15 feet off the ground, foot sliding in between two rungs, leg getting caught as my body quickly rotates upside down. In a flash my weight would pull the ladder crashing to the ground with my struggling body beneath it. Death is surely certain.

Once making the transition from extension to ridge ladder, all fear is gone. I love being up on a roof.

I always seize opportunities to hang out on the roof with my father, checking the condition of the chimney flu tiles for cracks or just taking in the view of our beautiful Vermont countryside and cracking jokes. The radiating heat doesn’t seem such a nuisance. The fine creosote that covers my arms from my elbows down my fingertips isn’t a bother. Scrubbing the black out of my nail beds will take days, but who cares. Only the energy of being alive and getting things accomplished is in focus.

Thighs burning with the effort of trips to the van and back up to the roof with supplies for my father, I welcome the chance to clean out the inside of the stove. I snag a five-gallon pail half-full with ashes and fill up the rest of it with the cordless drill, a small shovel, and a free-standing flash light. The other hand lugs a nearly 50-pound industrial vacuum up the entrance stairs and into the living room. I set everything down in a heap and begin to take apart and clean the stove. (Mental note: must clean out that vacuum. She’s such an annoying bitch when heavy.)

It’s important not to touch anything but the stove in a customer’s home. I learned to tip-toe across carpets as a courtesy. Carting the vacuum around with its attachment is a painstaking chore when I must be very careful not to paint the wall with streaks of creosote. To remove it would be only to smudge it first. I marvel at the homes that are equipped with pearl-white plush carpet, like a polar bear’s fur, in their living room leading to a fireplace. In these rare cases drop cloths are placed from entrance to destination and boots are removed.

My father has the sweep done by now and takes care of the invoice, securing payment from the customer. Most customers are repeat and I often hear the conversations my father has with them about their children, life, and work experiences. There’s nothing he loves more than telling others about the achievements of his children.

I usually chime in, especially with female customers who seem impressed that I’m a female choosing to spend the summer doing a filthy, hard, laborious job with my father. While I understand and love their receptive support, I don’t think too much of it. Since birth I’ve always been called a “tomboy” and prefer the harder hands-on work to any other kind. I suppose it just comes naturally. At end of the day I can see what my hard work has accomplished in front of me.

After a “see you next year, thank you, and have a good day,” my father grabs the vacuum and I the pail.

We begin breaking down the ladders together and prepare to head home, where food awaits and a cold shower is much appreciated. More challenges will come tomorrow, up on the roof.