It was once the Coke-a-cola bottling plant in Valdosta, but it shut down years ago. I pulled over in the driveway to answer the phone, and after the call sat there waiting for traffic to clear. Ashley Street is one of the main roads in Valdosta, so I’ve been by this building, literally, hundreds of times. The City Of Valdosta bought the building, but it still looks abandoned and… hmmm, there’s a chimney. Odd, after all these years and after going by this building so many times, I have never noticed the chimney before.
I grew up watching chimneys die. When I was a kid electric heat was just coming into its own, and there were a lot of homes, businesses, and other places where humans needed to be that were heated by wood or coal. Down here in South Georgia it was mostly wood, and if you were a male child you were going to grow up swinging an axe to split firewood. There were also chimneys for oil fueled furnaces in plants where they used steam, and generally speaking, the higher the chimney the hotter the fire was that burned below. This one isn’t that big around but it is high enough for me to think it’s not a wood burner. Still, because I can’t really fix a sense of scale to it there’s no way to know.
I wonder if the chimney leads down to a building where the furnace was at one point in time, and there was always some guy that ran what they called the boiler room. He would be the man who fixed things. Broken windows, broken doors, lights that were out, the floors that needed to be swept and mopped, and, of course, keeping the furnace running during the winter and the fans going in the Summer. He’d be the guy who replaced blown fuses and who would catch spiders and release them outside, when someone inside got freaked out over a spider being in the building. With a sigh, he would set traps for mice when one scampered out into the open in the middle of the day. He would be like the chimney to the people who worked there; they would see him hundreds of times and never realize who was there.
No matter what sort of business there was, there was always that guy, just as there was always some woman answering the phone and typing upfront. The workers worked and the bosses bossed, but there was always that guy, and there was always that woman, and anywhere you went, if you wanted to know what the hell was going on you looked for that woman and if you wanted something fixed you’d go to that guy. But that was in the days of chimneys, and the days before air conditioning and electric heat. As soon as the heat went electric that guy became a little less useful and a lot less needed, and then air conditioning became a must, and suddenly the boiler room because a storage room, and the chimney a stack of bricks with a hole in the middle. Computers moved in and then cell phones and suddenly that woman and that man both became other people, and the chimney was a silent red brick memorial to niches that didn’t exist anymore.
But, of course, there is a story here, because there is no way I can stand and look at something like a red brick chimney from the past without wondering about who was there the day the last brick was laid on top of it, and who that person was, and if that person, when that last brick was put in place, moved on to another job, or was this the last brick of their last day of work? And there, on the other end of the bookshelf, the other matching end, was the person who was the last person to see it used, as the furnace was shut down for the last time, and that person who was always that person who kept the furnace running, did they see the future, and realize that one day there would be no chimneys?
They never realized it, of course, the woman in the front who always kept up with everything, and the man in the building after hours, who kept things running, they never realized they would lose their jobs. The man to an advance in technology that made hiring a part timer, younger and more willing to be paid less, and the woman, who took night classes so she could move out of her job and get a better one. They both wanted to sit down, and have that talk that two people have, that they both want to have, that eases a friendship into something else, something that has been simmering like a meal in a slow cooker that needs some time before it becomes what it ought to be.
He’s written a poem for her, and he’s been trying to conjure the fortitude to just walk up to the woman and hand her a piece of paper. They tell him that he’s being replace by part time help, a college kid working his way up to the top, they’re sorry, really, but there is no reason to keep him on the payroll and he understands, he’s felt it coming as he knew as long as the chimney was needed he was too, but the stack of bricks with a hole in it has grown cold, and so has the world. She’s got her degree, and when she asked for a raise they laughed and told her that they couldn’t afford that, but she already found someone who could. She’s stayed, because she feels something for this man, this man who has fixed her heel when it broke, this man who jumped off her car when the battery was dead, this man who walked her out to the parking lot when she worked late, and even if he is a little older than she is, he’s the type of man she wouldn’t mind having around a house, one day, maybe, and she had to be careful around him because she blushes sometimes, thinking he might think so too.
His last day is her last day, and he very carefully rewrites the poem, because the copy he’s carried for so long is worn and battered by fear and hesitancy. But her co-workers have surprised her with a going away party at a local restaurant, and of course no one thought to ask him, the chimney, and now she is gone, and he will be too. He goes into the boiler room and gathers his tools, and his lunch pail, and he burns the poem, watches the smoke rise one last time, and he leaves.
I stand and look at the chimney, and I see him leaving for the last time, his overalls as overworked as his heart, his boots stained with the work of years, and he’s walking away from the place he’s known for a very long time. He knows he can find work, this type of man is never unnecessary, yet he knows the world is different now. He turns, and sees the chimney, and wonders what will become of it.
At the restaurant, she realizes that he’s not going to show up. Did he not know? Or did he not want to be there? Maybe he didn’t feel anything, but she thinks about the heel he repaired and the umbrella he found for her, how he got into her car with a flat piece of metal when she locked the keys up, and now, she realizes, that the carved wooden heart that she found on her desk one day was from him, and she tells people she has to leave, that she has to go, and she returns to the plant only to find him gone, and everyone else, too. He works late, she knows that, so she takes the key hidden in the back and lets herself in. Here, in this place, with the clean floors and clean windows, with the nice smell of pine and of hard work, she realizes she’s never told him how good it felt to know he was always there, and now, he is gone. She looks for him in those places she’s seen him before, working to make things work, always happy and smiling, a man who accepts in life the small things that have to be done, and she opens the door to the boiler room and turns the light on. It’s an old fashioned bulb, a single small sun in the small room, and there is his workspace, clear of all things, but a single scrap of paper, worn by hesitancy and carried with love, the original poem, written for her.