A Case of Shingles


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As I’d been saying, it’s always something else. Take roofs, for instance. You can go months, even years without thinking much about them. They’re in jokes like, “Just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace,” which considering my recent experience with a broken furnace, would be a low blow.

Actually, if there’s snow on the roof, it’s a good thing. That means the insulation is working and heat isn’t escaping. Or it could mean that the snow on the roof will leak, stain, peel paint — or worse.

When that starts, the first hope is that it’s just the flashing. I used to listen to a lot of home-repair programs on the radio — amazing, the trivia I store away in the file cabinet of the mind, stuffing it so that I can’t find the file concerning the whereabouts of my glasses or keys or that elusive receipt for taxes.

I was in possession of a great deal of roof trivia. It went way past metal, tar, tile, slate, asphalt, the advantages and disadvantages of each. You could — and people have — filled books with information about just slate roofs.

And I was going to need everything I knew.

When my next-door neighbors got a new roof a year or so ago, I could hear my biological house clock starting to tick. Our houses are about the same age. If they needed a roof, I probably did, too. I figured I’d wait a year, and if they were happy with the roof work, I could get a reference.

The best way to replace a roof is to do it before you absolutely have to. But replacing — or even fixing — a roof is one of those home repairs that the homeowner given to habits of procrastination might well put off. I might and I did. For one thing, the roof’s up high and I’m down low, my eyes not much more than five feet off the ground.

From time to time I’d step back from the house in the front yard, where the garden gnome would be if I had a garden gnome and where the neighbors could watch me being a responsible homeowner. I’d stare up at the roof, sometimes squinting into the sun, sometimes with the sun at my back, which made the granules on the roof gleam. On days when the weather was mild, I’d repeat the process from the back yard.

The roof looked pretty good for its age. What exact age? Darned if I knew.

I couldn’t really tell that much from the ground. Even if I had climbed a ladder to look at the roof, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.

I provided myself with many happy years of procrastination in just that manner. I call them happy, but they weren’t carefree. I wouldn’t have partaken in all those sessions of roof-staring if I’d been confident that the roof was sound, that it would outlast my need of it.

Roofers, used car salesmen, and members of congress have about the same level of trust in the public eye these days. However, I get to vote every couple of years, and I can do research on the car and get it inspected. A lot can go wrong with roofing.

I know enough not to pay any mind to those printed circulars offering me a senior discount on a roof, or inviting me to use my house as a demo model for the neighborhood, with finders’ fees for any referred neighbors. So I’d toss those all away, step back and take another look — wishful, hopeful, and semi-conscious that I was fibbing to myself when I said the roof was fine.

But when the wind blew a couple of shingles down into the yard, my years of procrastination were over. Truth be told, I did allow myself to wonder if those couple of shingles were actually important. I didn’t know how long they’d been there without any problem. Maybe I could ignore them?

It was analogous to finding a bolt on the floor. How did that get there? Where did it come from? Was it going to matter? If not, why had it been wherever it was in the first place? And having no answers, I’d put the bolt in a drawer just in case I needed it. They add up, those loose bolts.

Analogies, however, break down. I wasn’t going to put these shingles in a drawer, or even in the garage. I stepped back in the yard to see where the tiles came from. Did that part of the roof even matter?

On closer inspection of a shingle, I discovered that mine had been a white roof. But it was white no longer: too many granules were gone. As I tested it for strength and flexibility, the shingle snapped in my hands like a sheet of matzo.

I toured the inside of house, looking at the ceiling to hunt for a sign of damage. I don’t usually stare at the ceiling like this. Was that something up there around the vent? Yes? Even if it turned out to be the flashing, I’d still need to call the roofer who had such a good reputation.

One major decision down.

The roofer arrived, ready to climb onto the roof and tell me the news. No sense replacing a whole roof if you don’t have to, he said. When I pointed at the problem area, he said the magic word — “flashing.” He couldn’t have said anything more welcome to me. I felt a wave of good will wash over me. Golly, I was glad this company came highly recommended because this was a darned good sales method.

I hoped what he’d find was going to be better than the state of the economy; if not, I was about to “invest” (i.e., spend) what used to be called a “fair piece of change.”

He returned with his digital camera, the next best thing to being there myself. Just as well that I hadn’t made the trip on my own. He explained to me what I was seeing; it was a little like looking at my dental X-rays.

The upshot was that after staring at a brochure with names of shingle colors as poetic as those of lipsticks, I phoned the roofing company to give them the names of a few colors I liked. The salesman returned with a full complement of shingles, which he held up against the brick, partially in sun, partially in shade.

The process repeated itself: Which is better, this or that? The roofer was remarkably patient and well organized; the number of tiles in the running decreased. But the man had seen my roof — he knew that I knew, and so on.

A neighbor came over from across the street to weigh in on the color selection. After all, the neighbors would be looking at my roof more than I would. This was almost fun.

Besides, I’d learned enough to know that this roofing company wasn’t going to vanish in the middle of the job, that the workmanship of the company was excellent, that they were entirely reliable. I’m sure the ridge vent they use is exactly like the finest ridge vent that I heard about on the radio.

Even so, the best part of getting this roof was that with the lifetime shingle and the extra warrantee, I’ll never have to do this again.

I hope. • 8 February 2011


Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.