The Anaheim housewife, a mother of five, was sneaking around behind her husband's back--with two men, no less.
Her covert visitors arrived wearing top hats and tails. They greeted her with handshakes.
"That's supposed to bring good luck, isn't it?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am. Play the lottery this week," one of her guests answered.
Considering the secrecy of their mission, the men did not show great surreptitiousness. One of them immediately went about hoisting a ladder alongside the house and, in broad daylight, climbed to the roof. He attracted so much attention that curious neighbors requested his business card.
"My husband is out of town," the wily wife confessed. "He doesn't know I'm doing this."
Without her husband's knowledge, consent or blessing, Karen Soper had gone and hired a couple of chimney sweeps.
"He insists that we don't need to have our fireplace cleaned," she said. "He thinks it's a waste of money. We've had this house since 1978, and we've never once had the chimney cleaned. Every time we make a fire I hold my breath. I read about all these house fires that got started in the chimney. Can you imagine trying to evacuate five kids?"
Soper squirreled away cash she earned as an Avon representative and waited for her mate to go fishing. She cryptically initialed their calendar \o7 c.s. \f7 to conceal from him her date.
But won't he find out eventually?
"Nope, he'll never even notice," Soper replied, then nonchalantly spelled out her name for print.
"You'd be surprised how many wives have this done without telling their husbands," chimney sweep Tim Doran said. "A common attitude in Southern California is: 'Oh, we don't use our fireplace that often. It doesn't need to be cleaned.' But you burn five or six fires over the holidays, and it will add up in a few years."
"It" is creosote--the coarse, black deposits that accumulate inside a chimney flue like stalactites inside a cave. A mixture of the tar and soot that go up in smoke, the substance is highly combustible. A mere one-eighth-inch layer of villainous creosote could ignite into a fire more roaring than intended.
Right now, during the busy season, Doran runs through this spiel at least 50 times a week: "Sit down here, ma'am, and look up the chimney. Do you see that stuff that looks like coffee grounds? That's creosote. Creosote can become very dangerous."
"Yuck. Get me out of here," said Ida Wesseln, a grandmotherly woman with more dignified things to do than to stick her head inside a grimy fireplace.
Actually, not that grimy. The creosote buildup is still in its early stages, Doran said. They'll check back next year.
"Are you sure?" persisted Wesseln, a resident of Orange. "You don't think you need to knock off that yucky black stuff?"
It doesn't pose a risk yet, Doran reassured. No charge for consultation.
"Powerful, powerful," Doran's sidekick, Jeff Cullen, remarked once out of Wesseln's earshot. "Now she'll tell all her friends about us. What we lose in consultation fees we make up for in referrals."
Doran, who owns Anaheim-based Master Sweep, is the straight man of the pair. Cullen, his pal/employee, is the comedian.
And Cullen likes to talk, to whomever his captive audience may be at the moment. Often it's a housewife. Often she offers him coffee and, perhaps, a sweet roll. "By the end of the day, I've had eight cups of coffee, and I'm buzzed," he said.
On a recent sunny November day, too hot for thoughts of a crackling fire, the men had nine stops scheduled on their chock-full schedule. But they have the task down pat--they are in and out in 45 minutes.
Doran took to the roof. Cullen remained earthbound in the living room. The bottom half is the toughest assignment.
"What do you think?" Cullen said. "Of course I'd rather be on the roof. I've got the dirty job. But Tim's the boss--he calls the shots."
Step No. 1: Cullen taped a plastic sheet over the fireplace opening, to contain the soon-to-be loosened creosote. Meanwhile, Doran toted a long, spindly broom across the roof.
"OK, buddy!" Cullen shouted up the flue after securing the temporary shield.
On that cue, Doran poised himself atop the chimney and inserted the steel-bristled broom, an extended version of a bottle brush. A few vigorous strokes against the chimney walls, and his part of the task was complete.
His partner's work, though, had just begun. Cullen donned a surgical mask. "Scalpel, please," he cracked. An unattractive pile of ashes and creosote awaited him behind the plastic curtain.
"Creosote contains 26 known carcinogens," Doran said in explanation of the mask. "We inhale toxins all day. Chimney sweeps probably cut five or 10 years off their lives."
"That's it--I quit," Cullen said.
But first he finished the job at hand. Using newspaper, he lit a small fire in the fireplace. "Heat creates a natural updraft that carries the dust particles out the chimney so that they don't fly around the house," Doran said. "One speck of creosote can leave a two-inch black mark on furniture upholstery."