A novel by Barbara Delinsky
Copyright 2015 by Barbara Delinsky
The rain let up just in time. The final day of taping for the spring season of Gut It! was about to begin, and though the sun hadn’t yet appeared, Caroline MacAfee’s hopes were high. Well behind the stream of work vehicles pulling up on the road, the western sky was giving way to scattered patches of blue, as the June breeze pushed gunmetal clouds east, toward Boston and the sea.
How to describe what she felt as she stood at the head of an all-new cobblestone drive looking at the rebuilt facade of what once been a weary old Cape? There was relief that the hard work was done, and surprise – always surprise – that everything had come together so well. There was also a sense of ownership. Caroline hadn’t asked to be the mouthpiece of the show, but after nearly ten years as host, it was her baby as much as anyone’s.
Gut It! was a local public television production, a home renovation series headlined by women – specifically, the women of MacAfee Homes. It touted neither high drama nor celebrity antics, just real work by real people with whom an audience of real women identified. The taping was done by a single cameraman, who was male but good, and directed by an executive producer, who was female and smart. If said producer was also prickly at times, the success of the show forgave it. Over the course of twenty projects, Gut It! had built a cult following that Caroline believed would only grow with this one.
Glancing skyward, she rubbed her hands together and grinned at the camera. “I wore yellow today to inspire the weather gods,” she hitched her head at the approaching blue, “but how perfect is this? Welcome back to Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where we’re putting the finishing touches on the latest Gut It! redo. As you can see –” she stepped aside for a worker shouldering a large roll of sod, “things are pret-ty busy right now.” She skipped back again, this time with an excited, “Hey,” for a pair of furniture movers carrying a sofa toward the house. “Great fabric,” she called after them and told the camera, “Our homeowners are planning to sleep here for the first time tonight, so we’re hustling today. Lots to do.”
Inviting viewers along with her chin, she started to walk. Talk came easily. She hadn’t expected that, when she stumbled into this role, but she and the camera had become friends. “It’s been six months since we began work on the small Cape that Rob and Diana LaValle put in our care. They needed more space, but since the house was originally built by Diana’s grandparents and held the emotions of four generations, a tear-down was out of the question. Our challenge was to preserve the heart of the house while we doubled its size, updated its features, and made its systems state-of-the-art efficient and green. Today is the day of reckoning. Let’s see how we did.”
Feeling a visceral delight, she guided the camera to her daughter, who was consulting with the general contractor as they watched the last of the exterior shutters being hung. That contractor, Dean Brannick, was the only male who appeared in every episode, but he had become such a fan favorite that no one minded. As he loped off, Caroline called, “Catch you in a bit, Dean,” and slipped an arm around Jamie’s waist. It was the kind of spontaneous gesture she had hesitated to show at first. Turned out, viewers loved it. Second to the female angle in appeal came the mother-daughter connection.
The resemblance between them was strong – same wide mouth, fern-green eyes, and auburn hair – but their differences were nearly as marked. Caroline let her hair wave while Jamie blew hers straight, Caroline was five-seven to Jamie’s five-three, and while Jamie wore the sophisticated neutrals of a young architect, Caroline was the master carpenter who, when not behind goggles and a chop saw, was known for color. Her yellow jeans were paired today with a matching tank under a slim-fitting turquoise sweater, all in contrast to Jamie’s gray slacks and jacket.
“Talk to us, Jamie,” Caroline invited. “As the architect of record for this project, you’ve been involved since Day One.” She gestured toward the house. “Whaddya think?”
“I’m pleased,” Jamie replied as they walked on. “The best part of an architect’s job is seeing a house go from modest to amazing, and this one did.” Her pride showed; the camera hung on that. Cutaways of detail work would be inserted later, as would second or third takes, but for now it was all about feeling and flow. “The original structure had one-and-a-half stories and a steeply-pitched roof. By raising that roof, we were able to create three generous bedrooms and a loft on the second floor, with an expanded kitchen and a whole new Great Room underneath.”
“Totally, from insulated floor-joists to double-thick insulation and dual pane windows.”
“And that’s just the inside.” Caroline raised admiring eyes. “This exterior is something.”
“I agree. The homeowners wanted to dress things up without losing the flavor of the original Cape,” Jamie reminded viewers, “so we bumped out the front foyer and added fieldstone to the façade. And new gables over the second-floor windows? Wow.” Her eyes touched the brackets under each gable. “Gotta love those corbels.”
“Amen,” smiled Caroline, who had carved them herself.
“Not amen,” broke in the producer with a hand on the cameraman’s shoulder to signal a cut. “This isn’t about religion. Jamie, sweetheart, repeat that last line.”
Jamie did. This time, Caroline managed a whole other smile and said, “Absolutely,” before moving on to the colors Dean had picked. The man was multi-faceted. In addition to ordering supplies and hiring subs, he could handle any aspect of construction, including the egos of men who did grunt work in a world of women, and homeowners who had no clue about exterior paint. Here, cedar shingles picked up a deep gray from the stonework, while the trim was a startlingly pure white.
“Crisp and fresh,” Jamie breathed. “And it all blends with the architectural shingles he chose for the roof.”
“What we don’t see from here, of course …”
“… are the triple-junction solar cell panels. They’re another aspect of the energy-efficient reconstruction of this house.”
“All of which we’ll get to later. For now, I’m just stunned at how elegant a Cape can look.”
Jamie laughed her agreement. “This house used to be old. Now it has a reinvigorated sense of tradition. Take these cobblestones. Dean found them in a mill warehouse in New Hampshire. They date back to the turn of the twentieth century.” She glanced at Caroline. “Remember the detached one-car garage that was here?”
“It was an eyesore.”
“And inadequate. The LaValles have four kids who’ll be driving soon, hence a new three-car attached garage at the back of the house. By leveling the old one, we not only removed a visual distraction but gained valuable land abutting the kitchen.” A cutaway would show the new patio, replete with trelliswork and a raised fire pit.
After a discussion of the challenges posed by the topography of the lot, Caroline drew the camera’s eye back to front porch. “The stone columns add an arts-and-crafts element, which enhances the curb appeal ten-fold. And just look at the front door. It’s taller and wider than it was, and the sidelights make it grand. Jamie, you always envisioned an imposing entrance – ”
“Wait,” the producer cut in. “Caroline, you’re talking too much. Let Jamie speak.”
Caroline felt an inkling of annoyance. She wasn’t doing any more than she ever did. But the point was too petty to argue. Thinking that she was ready to be free of Claire Howe for a few months, she said, “Okay. That’s fine.” She glanced at Jamie, who nodded.
“Let’s start fresh with the front porch,” Claire instructed, at which point Jamie recreated her mother’s narration. Since there was no formal script, the words were slightly different, and Jamie’s manner of speech reflected her age. She tripped once, but started again and went smoothly on.
They were heading inside, when Caroline was distracted by the women in the shrubbery beds. Stopping Jamie with a hand on her arm, she called, “Annie.” Annie Ahl was the show’s landscape designer. A pixie in size and the cut of her pure silver hair, she wore mud-crusted boots, gloves, and a satisfied expression as she stepped out from between a pair of newly planted junipers.
But Caroline was looking beyond the junipers. “Do I recognize those?”
“Good eye,” Annie said in the high voice that had nearly nixed her place in the show. Like the cameraman and his feel for light, though, her instinct for design was too good to pass up. She was the senior landscape architect at MacAfee Homes, and Caroline’s close friend. “We removed those azaleas last fall to protect them from the mess of construction. They wintered over in my nursery, and now here they are, back home. They actually bloomed two weeks ago. See the last of the flowers?” There would be a cutaway of those. For now, the camera stayed on the talent. “Naturally, we’ll have to wait to see how they do here next spring, but I’m confident they’ll make it. They’re hardy.”
“And they have company now.” Caroline took in the new plantings.
“Uh-huh. One row –”
“Not uh-huh,” Claire cut in. “I’ve asked you not to say that, Anne.”
Annie said a particularly high, “I’m sorry. It’s just natural.”
“I like natural, but not uh-huh. And watch the voice. It’s too high.”
Caroline had never once read a complaint about that on their Facebook page, which she personally monitored. But Claire was the boss. In a voice that wouldn’t reach the woman, she told Annie both of those things. Once Annie gathered herself, they resumed.
“When I first saw this house,” she said perfectly, “the shrub beds were long and narrow, which was typical of beds at the time the house was built. I wanted greater depth to compliment Jamie’s new designs, so we widened and reshaped them. The taller shrubs in back are Andromeda, holly, and yew. I’ve planted juniper in and around the azaleas, and we’re just now putting in perennials.”
“Good job, guys,” Caroline called to the two still planting, and let Annie go.
As she and Jamie climbed the stairs to enter the house, Caroline pointed out the solid walnut front door with its raised panels and bronze hardware, but once they were in the foyer, Dean was coming down the hall from the kitchen. “We’re just tweaking the security system,” he said. “Want to see the control room?”
The cameraman signaled a break. After cold drinks all around, they picked up in the basement with the security specialist, who was giving a run-down on the advanced features of a system that went far beyond security to include remote control of heating, cooling, and irrigation. Dean took the lead; he was easy on the eye and ear, and he understood electronics. When the plumbing and heating expert joined them to explain the environmental soundness of the new systems, Caroline backed off completely.
The sky continued to brighten, offering the dispersed natural light the cameraman loved. Dodging hustling crews, Caroline talked with the stone specialist, who was polishing marble in the first floor lav, and the tile expert, who was finishing the kitchen backsplash. These scenes, largely included for DIY addicts who wanted to watch the process, would be saved or cut after the producer and her editors had a chance to log the videotape and decide how much time to spend on what.
When taping resumed in the afternoon, Caroline was in the kitchen with the homeowners, highlighting what was old, new, and repurposed, but the excitement quickly turned to the Great Room, where the show’s interior designer, Taylor Huff, was supervising the placement of furniture. Sectional sofas complemented cushiony chairs, whose upholstery coordinated with window valences and chair cushions in the kitchen. Then came the media specialist, who was programming the remote for a huge flat-screen tv. Gut It! had worked with her before; she was at the forefront of technology and reliable to a fault when it came to installation. Unfortunately, she flustered easily. Even before Claire could intervene, Caroline stopped the taping to calm the woman, then reshaped questions to help her along.
One by one, the crews finished up, and neighbors and guests began to arrive. By early evening, as the lowering sun spilled through the dining room into the foyer, production assistants were arranging nearly forty family, friends, craftsmen, and crew for the group shot that had become a Gut It! tradition.
Caroline was front and center. Facing the camera a final time, she said with satisfaction, “There you have it, a recap of this season’s Gut It! We took a sixty-year-old Cape that was too small for a growing family, too dated for a modern couple, and too wasteful in an energy-conscious town, and we turned it into a larger, younger, greener home. Now, we’re here with homeowners Rob and Diana, at the foot of the stunning winding staircase that they always dreamed of having. I’m Caroline MacAfee, the host of Gut It! Thanks so much for being with us this season. We hope you’ll join us next season for a whole new project.” She looked around. “Everyone set?” Facing front, she slid one arm around her daughter and the other around Diana LaValle. “O-kay,” she said, then, “Squish in, you guys,” when the cameraman gestured as much. Seconds of compression passed. “All eyes on the camera.” There was one click, then a second and third, then a communally-held breath while the cameraman checked his playback. When he smiled, Caroline turned to her friends and raised a triumphant fist in the air. “Yesss!”
Jamie MacAfee would always be her parents’ child. It didn’t matter that she was twenty-nine and financially independent. When it came to her mother and father, she was still the little girl whose life had been shaped by their divorce and her need to please them both – which was why she was increasingly anxious as she drove across town for a quick breakfast with her dad.
The streets were early-morning quiet. School bases hadn’t yet started to roll, lawn mowers remained stowed, and what other noises there might have been at seven were muted by a thick and ominous heat. June wasn’t supposed to be this hot in New England. Humidity that had been oppressive the evening before remained trapped under the dense maples and oaks that lined her route, and the silk blouse she wore stuck to her skin. Her convertible top was down. Two streets into the drive, she jacked up the air and aimed the blowers at her neck, but her anxiety remained.
It ticked up a notch when she passed the corner of South Main and Grove, where the teardown being rebuilt by her major competitor as a Dutch Colonial was starting to look a little too good.
It ticked up further when she passed an Audi A5 that looked exactly like Brad’s but, of course, was not. Brad had left her condo at six that morning after what should have been a sweet cup of coffee in bed turned into a set-to about picking a wedding date. They had been engaged for six months, and she hadn’t done it yet. Her fault. Totally. Between taping Gut It! and working on a dozen projects in various stages of design, she hadn’t had time to breathe. But Brad was vulnerable when it came to love, and it tore at her when he got all down in the mouth, as he had earlier.
He hadn’t called, hadn’t texted. She would have driven to his place if there’d been time.
But there wasn’t, which brought her to her father. He was the real source of her angst. He knew she had special reason today to be with her mother, and, for Jamie, there should have been no contest. Caroline wasn’t just her mother; she was her best friend – and Jamie was all the family Caroline had. Roy, conversely, had moved on. Twice. Jamie hadn’t cared for his second wife and wasn’t sorry when the brief marriage ended, but his third and current wife, who was close to Jamie’s own age, had become a friend. Moreover, Roy was absorbed enough with Jessica and their young son to leave Jamie to her own life.
Unless he needed her for something.
Which he apparently did now.
And still, she should have put him off.
But he had been dogged last night on the phone, evading every attempt she made to discuss whatever it was there and then on the phone. This is about work, he had finally said with unusual gravity. Work meant MacAfee Homes, where Jamie and every other local MacAfee was employed. She offered to be at the office by nine, but Roy had been adamant about seeing her before she saw her mother.
Those were his words. Before you see your mother.
That was what frightened her. The implication was that he wanted to talk about Caroline, but what could he say? Caroline had been a master carpenter for MacAfee Homes since before marrying Roy, and their parting hadn’t slowed her rising star. Roy’s father, Theodore MacAfee, who headed the business, blamed his son for the divorce far more than Caroline. Theo adored Caroline. Whenever Roy tried to exclude her from plum assignments, Theo overruled him. Likewise, when Caroline wanted birch burl or some such exotic wood, and Roy claimed she was over budget.
Then again, Jamie realized, Roy’s current emergency could be as simple as his wanting her to babysit two-year-old Tad while he and Jessica vacationed in Europe, which would certainly impact Jamie’s work. Being a full-time mom was hard; she had watched Jess struggle, and Jess did not have a career outside the home. But Jamie did love her father, and she was totally smitten by her half-brother, which meant she could never say no.
Jamie didn’t think that warranted drop-everything-and-come insistence. But he wouldn’t be denied. The best she’d been able to do was get him to meet at seven, so that she could still see Caroline before work.
And there he was, crossing the lot at Fiona’s as she pulled in off the street. She waved through her open top and parked. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she ran quick fingers through her hair, but what she saw, to her dismay, were the freckles on her nose. So much for her expensive new concealer. The heat apparently melted makeup just as it swallowed up breathable air.
Resigned, she groped around for her shoes in the floor well and slipped them on, then slid out of the car as deftly as her short black skirt and those high heels allowed. The skirt showed off slim hips; the heels added inches she desperately needed. Paired with white silk, she was dressed to impress, though not solely for her dad. This was her typical take-me-seriously look for days that were filled with meetings. Most architects doing her level of work were older than she was, and while the family business gave her a leg up, it also gave her a name to uphold.
Freckles didn’t help. But there was no erasing them now. The best she could do was to put her shoulders back and set off with a pretense of confidence – only to ricochet right back when the long strap of her shoulder bag caught in the door. That wasn’t impressive, she mused, though it was nothing she hadn’t done before. As physically coordinated as she was when focused, when distracted, she was pathetic.
Freeing the bag, she strode forward.
Fiona’s was an upscale diner that offered the best breakfast in town, which meant that even this early in the day, it was humming. The parking lot was comfortably full; the air held the lure of hot corn muffins, chunky hash-browns, and local maple syrup.
By the time she caught up to Roy, he was talking with two of Williston’s finest, on their way home after a night on patrol. They had admiring smiles for Jamie as she hurried to keep up with Roy, who was entering the diner. He immediately began working booths filled with realtors, lawyers, plumbers, shopkeepers, husbands and wives – all local, all friends. Williston lay twenty miles west of Boston. Home to 15,000 residents, it was ruled by a Board of Selectmen, but if there had been a mayor, Roy would have been it. He was always smiling, always up for a meet-and-greet, always remembering names. Theo had done this for years until age crippled his mornings, at which point Roy smoothly stepped in. As the single largest employer in town, not to mention the raison d’être for many town shops, MacAfee Homes treasured local good will.
Roy made it happen. That he was strikingly handsome didn’t hurt. With his keen brown eyes and perpetual tan, he looked younger than fifty-three. The gray that had spattered his hair a decade before had miraculously turned sandy, and, though Jamie didn’t know for fact, she would bet that his forehead was medicinally smoothed. Not that she criticized him for it. He put in the effort to stay in shape – had likely gone running at dawn that morning, even in the heat. Now, dressed in a crisp blue shirt and fine gray slacks, he had a fresh-from-the-shower sheen.
For Roy, it was all about looking young – young body, young face, young wife. The irony, of course, was that with Jamie always trying to look older than twenty-nine, they were occasionally taken for brother and sister. Roy loved that, and while Jamie was proud of her father for his efforts and, yes, for his looks, she found the brother-sister comparisons awkward.
This day, she didn’t get a formal greeting from him – no hug or kiss, no hey, honey, thanks for coming – just a possessive arm around her shoulder, drawing her into the small talk.
But small talk wasn’t her strength. She could speak at length about architectural design, energy efficiency, or repurposed barnboard, but she wasn’t good at keeping track of whose mother was sick, whose son had gotten into college, or which tree service would take down the rotting pine in the center of town. Roy knew all that and more, in part because Jess picked up gossip at the local hair salon and shared it with him. Jamie would have forgotten it in two seconds flat. Not Roy. He remembered every last detail, pulling out whatever was appropriate in a way that endeared him to his audience.
Today, the talk was of the weather. Beastly hot … not right … fierce storms coming. Jamie smiled and nodded, but, after a minute, began to shift from one high heel to the other.
Her mother was waiting. Today was her birthday. And she’d had surgery on her wrist less than twenty-four hours before. Jamie had texted her earlier but wanted to be there.
Finally, Roy guided her to a free booth. Fiona’s wasn’t so much a single railroad car as a square of four cars framing an open kitchen. The décor was a virtual history of the town, Fighting-Falcon-blue wall after wall of framed high school senior class photos dating back to the mid-1900s, and laminated front pages of the Williston News, née the Williston Crier, memorializing the town during major events like the fire of ’56, which wiped out half the town center, the Blizzard of ’78, which paralyzed town life for weeks, and the ’04 Red Sox capture of their first World Series title in eighty-six years, which had been out-of-the-park awesome for a town in which two team members had lived. More old newspaper clippings covered the table tops and were covered in turn by a thick sheet of glass, but the clutter ended there. Benches were upholstered in a soothing gray, placemats woven to match. Cloth napkins, knotted around silverware, filled a slim tin by the wall. Jamie automatically reached for two as they slid into the booth, passing one to Roy, who placed his cell beside it.
They were barely seated when the waitress brought the mud-strong coffee he liked and a pitcher of cream. Once both mugs were filled, Roy ordered his usual three-cheese omelet, Jamie her usual egg-white frittata.
What she really wanted was a side of the thick, sizzling bacon that smelled so good, but ordering it was out of the question, (a) because it was unhealthy and (b) because Roy would have felt the need to discuss that, and the last thing she wanted was to distract him.
Cupping her mug, she leaned in, anxious to hear what was on his mind. Before she could ask, he confided in a hushed voice, “See that guy behind me at the end of the row, the one with the red hair? He’s a Barth.”
Not urgent news, Dad, and nothing to do with Mom. But Jamie glanced at the redhead in question. “Barths are blond,” she said for lack of anything wiser.
“Not this one. He’s buying the house on Appleton and plans to live in it. He just moved back from California with his wife and kids and is rejoining the business. The Barth Brothers teardown at the corner of South Main and Grove? It has location, magnitude, and visibility. They’re making a statement with it. They want to make inroads here.”
“Why here? Williston’s our base. They have the North Shore. MetroWest is ours.” MacAfee Homes had dominated the suburbs west of Boston since before she was born.
“They want the Weymouth acreage,” he said, referring to the single, largest privately-owned parcel in town.
“It’s not even on the market,” Jamie argued, though she knew that preemptive buys, negotiated directly with the seller, were common. “Is it?” she asked on an uneasy note.
“Not yet. But Mildred Weymouth has been dead nearly a year, and her kids can’t agree on what to do with the place, much less afford the upkeep. The grounds have gone to shit, and property taxes are in default. Mildred’s trustee says they have no choice but to sell.” With a soft whistle and both hands on his mug, Roy sat back. “Thirty acres of prime wooded land? Pretty tempting.”
Seriously, Jamie thought. Speculation had run wild since Mildred Weymouth’s passing, and Jamie was deep in the mix. She envisioned a hybrid community of single family homes and condos, all developed by MacAfee Homes. “We can outbid the Barths.”
Roy checked his phone, put it down. “They’ll drive up the price.”
That was a problem, Jamie knew, but nothing MacAfee Homes couldn’t handle. A single Barth moving to town didn’t supplant the power of three generations of MacAfees who had lived here forever.
Roy proceeded to say as much in different combinations of words, and all the while, the little voice in Jamie’s head was saying, Come on, Dad. We could have discussed this at the office. Why here? Why now?
Their breakfast arrived, but she barely looked. Teasing – not scolding, never scolding – she said, “This wasn’t why you wanted to see me before I saw Mom.”
Roy smacked the ketchup bottle over his omelet. “Hell, no. I only thought of it because that Barth was right there.” Setting the ketchup aside, he softened. “I hear you saw Taddy the other night. Sorry I missed you. I was at the Selectman’s meeting. How was he?”
Jamie gave a helpless smile. “Adorable. He calls me ‘Mamie.’ I love that he’s talking.”
“Mostly he says no. Jessica’s struggling with that.”
“She seemed okay to me.”
Roy frowned. “I’m talking tantrums. She has no idea what to do when he throws himself on the floor and kicks and screams.”
“But all kids do that. Sometimes it’s the only way they can express themselves. I saw one of his tantrums. It was actually pretty cute – I know, easy for me to say, since I leave when the going gets tough.” But that couldn’t be why her father had wanted to see her, either. “So, Dad. You got me here good and early.”
“The early was your doing.”
“And you know why.” Caroline.
Ignoring the bait, Roy checked his phone, this time swiping once, then again. It wasn’t for work, Jamie knew. He was checking Twitter and sports news. “There’s a good point guard on the summer league team,” he murmured, “but if the Celts don’t trim their roster to get under the max …” With a grunt, he returned the phone to the table, and brightened. “How’s Brad?”
Jamie sighed. There was nothing urgent about Brad – well, there was, but her father didn’t need to know that. “Brad’s awesome,” she said, as was expected.
“You know that I think of him like a son.”
How could she not? He said it often enough.
“He’s good for you, good for the business. Some day …”
He didn’t have to finish. Some day, Brad would head MacAfee Homes. He had come to the company straight from law school, hired as an assistant to the in-house lawyer, who had become pregnant soon after and opted to be a stay-at-home mom. Though barely thirty, Brad had taken over. That was three years ago, and he had more than proven himself since. In his quiet, competent way, he had shown an understanding of the business that went beyond law. Since Jamie had no interest in these things, once they were married, Brad would be right behind Roy in the line of succession.
Theo liked that idea.
So did Roy, who, while he certainly wasn’t ceding any real power to his future son-in-law yet, had already begun to share some of the more onerous tasks that he didn’t care to do himself.
Grinning in a self-satisfied way, he tapped the plate with his fork. “I have to tell you, the stars are aligned. I thought Brad was the icing on the cake, but now there’s more on top of that, and it is sweet indeed.” Fork in mid-air, he came forward, brown eyes alive. “I met with Levitt and Howe yesterday to discuss the future of Gut It!” Brian Levitt was the General Manager of the station that hosted the show, Claire Howe the show’s Executive Producer.
But Jamie was confused. As far as she knew, the future was decided. The fall project was in its final stages of production prior to taping, and the spring project had been picked, preliminary designs drawn, permits filed.
Roy’s mouth curved into a smug smile. “You’re the new host.”
She drew back in alarm. “Mom’s the host.”
“They say we need a change. Things have been the same for a while. It’s time for a facelift.”
Scrambling for an explanation, she said, “A facelift would mean changing the format or the graphics or maybe taking on different projects. But I’ve been giving them cutting edge designs. Don’t they like them? Do they not want me to be the architect anymore?”
“They love your work, honey. They love you. That’s the point.” His fork urged her to eat her frittata.
Wishing it were bacon, she managed a small piece, but there was no comfort in it. She was thinking how much more satisfying the bacon would have been, when he said, “They want you to continue doing what you’re doing and be the show’s host. It’s really a no-brainer. You’re beautiful and smart and talented. This would make your career, honey. You couldn’t ask for better exposure.”
“As an architect,” Jamie said, setting her fork down with care. There was a whole other problem to changing the host. “What I do is intellectual. I’m more of a paper person than a people person.”
“Who says? Not me. Not Claire. She gave you a leading role in several segments this season. Why do you think she did that?”
“Because the segments dealt with architectural design?”
“Because she was trying you out. You passed. You were great.” Chiding, he added, “You told her you loved it.”
Jamie might have, but specifics were a blur. “What else would I say? Claire’s our EP, and she’s tough. But talking about my own field is one thing. Talking about every other field in home construction is something else. And anyway, Mom’s the host,” she repeated, more loudly now, because this was the other half of the equation, and it was huge. “Our audience loves her. Ratings are good.”
Roy ran a napkin over his mouth. “They could be better.”
“Says who?” Jamie asked, frightened now, because, despite dozens of meetings with Levitt and Howe to prepare for the fall, no one had mentioned a ratings concern.
“Brian,” Roy said. “He speaks for the network, and when he speaks, we listen. He got the show off the ground ten years ago, and he’s been fighting for us ever since. If it weren’t for him, Gut It! wouldn’t be in half the markets it is. He’s our guardian angel.” His voice tightened. “He’s the GM, and when the GM has his mind made up, crossing him is not wise. We need Gut It! Gut It! is good for MacAfee Homes.”
The issue wasn’t money, Jamie knew. The station funded the show through grants and syndication fees. It paid MacAfee Homes on a contract basis, and MacAfee Homes paid cast members from that sum. What remained in company coffers was less than the profit from a major construction project – less than the condo complex they had built in Foxboro last year and certainly less than the potential for development of the Weymouth land.
No. Gut It! was about exposure.
“Do you understand what a marketing boon the show is for us?” Roy asked, clearly irritated that he had to explain. “Easily half the work we get is from people who either watch it or know someone who does. And then there are endorsements. Tools, ‘as seen on.’ Gloves, ‘as seen on.’ And the books documenting each season? The Barths have brochures; we have stunning coffee table books. They’re a powerful marketing tool, but they’re worth zip if the show is cancelled.”
“I know,” she conceded. “We need the show. But Mom should stay on as host.”
“It’s done, Jamie.” He lifted his phone, checked the face, put it down. “The station is not renewing her contract as host. She’s out.”
“Just like that?” Jamie asked, appalled by both suddenness and finality. She knew the station could do it. But out of the blue? With no warning? That was no way to operate. Forget that Caroline was Jamie’s mother; she was a human being who had basically shaped Gut It! with her bare hands. “Aren’t our terms with the station meant to be negotiated? Can’t we call our agent?” When Roy gave her an arch look, she winced. “Our agent thought this was a good idea?”
“He understands how things work.”
“And how is that?” she asked quietly, but Roy got the point.
Blunt now, he held her gaze. “We’re targeting a younger demographic.”
Jamie wanted to weep. She had known this was his bottom line – of course it was – but hearing the words was something else.
“We want to win the couple buying a first home,” he went on, “or the gold-mine techno-kids, or the Gen-Xers with a growing family.”
“They think Mom is too old.”
“I didn’t say that.”
But it’s what you mean, said her little voice. It’s what you always mean. Jamie loved her father, but she had no delusions. When his marriage to Caroline floundered, Roy had blamed his infidelities on her age and appearance, claiming that she had “let herself go,” that he needed a more sexy wife. His second one was ten years his junior. His third was ten years younger than that.
“This isn’t me, honey,” he insisted. “It’s Brian and Claire.”
“But you can convince them they’re wrong,” Jamie pleaded. Her father was a consummate salesman. He could convince anyone of anything. “Mom is a master carpenter with incredible people skills. She’s authoritative. She’s experienced. She’s reassuring.”
“That’s not old.”
“For television it is. Age makes a difference.”
“She looks fabulous.”
“She looks fifty-six.”
“And not only does she look great,” Jamie rushed on, panicked on her mother’s behalf, “but her work gets better and better. She’s just hitting her stride.”
Roy bounced an irritated glance at the window, then whined, “No one’s asking her to retire. Brian and Claire want her to stay on the show. She just won’t be its public face. TV needs young.”
“Roy needs young,” Jamie blurted out, because her little voice simply couldn’t control the frustration, to which her father shot her a watch it, honey look. She might have taken it back, purely for the sake of keeping peace between them, if she hadn’t had a sudden, awful thought. “Oh hell, Dad. Are you breaking this to me while someone else breaks it to Mom? Is someone at the house right now telling her – like, giving her the birthday present from hell – because today is her birthday, you know that?”
“Yes, I know it. And no, no one’s there. I wanted to talk to you about how to break it to her.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Jamie cried, feeling helpless. “How do you tell a woman she’s too old for her dream job – because that’s what this is, Dad. Mom stayed with carpentry even when other opportunities opened up for women, because carpentry is what she loves. Then she got roped into hosting Gut It! She didn’t want to do it at first, remember?” There had been an outside host the first season, but the chemistry was off, and Caroline had spontaneously filled in the gaps. “It was like she discovered strengths she didn’t know she had.”
“So will you.”
“But Mom knows construction – I mean, knows it. She can as easily help frame a house as carve a crown molding. I can’t be on a roof the way she is. I hate heights.”
“She or Dean will narrate those parts.”
“But those parts – ” Jamie said with air quotes, “are ninety-percent of the series. Framing, plumbing, heating, wiring – you name it, she can explain the entire process in lay terms. I can’t do that. And handling the cast? Calming them when they’re rattled? Mom has stature. We respect her precisely because of how long she’s been doing this.” When he said nothing, she whispered, “How can you ask me to kick her out?”
“This is about the survival of the show.” He returned to his breakfast.
“What about Mom?” Jamie asked softly. When he simply continued to eat, she begged, “Fix this, Dad. Make them change their minds.”
Mid-way through a triangle of toast, he said, “Honestly, Jamie. I want this for you.”
“I don’t want it.” The words simmered over a backdrop of utensils, kitchen activity, and conversation. Jamie had never actively challenged Roy before. Even when she saw his face harden – even when she recognized the look as one he usually gave Caroline – she didn’t soften her words. No, no, no, she didn’t want to take sides, but if ever there was cause, it was now.
Eyes drilling hers, he sat back in the booth. “That wasn’t the impression you gave Claire two weeks ago when she asked how you would handle the objections of the historical society to the new project.” Jamie blinked, feeling used, but he wasn’t done. “Or when she asked your opinion on those reluctant neighbors, and you assured her you could bring them into the fold. You knew where this was headed.”
“Some day, maybe, but not now.”
“Yes, now. It’s about leadership. Tennis, architecture – hell,” he glanced at her blouse, “the way you dress – you’re a natural competitor. It’s what you do.”
“Not against Mom.” She didn’t want to fight with Roy. Did not want him displeased. She had never, not once, criticized him for criticizing Caroline. She had certainly never said a word about the divorce. But punishing Caroline solely because of the date on her driver’s license was unfair, and using Jamie as the tool to do it only made it worse. Lifting her mug, she took refuge behind it, sipping, as she struggled.
She heard Roy’s fork scrabbling into the last of his omelet. She imagined he was regrouping and steeled herself.
Finally, sounding puzzled, he asked, “Don’t you want to be a star, even a little?”
“Of course I want to be a star,” she cried. She had done it in tennis – USTA junior champ for two years, ITF second seed in Paris – and had the trophies to prove it. When it came to architecture, she had won local awards. To be recognized for her work on a larger scale would be special.
The problem was Caroline. Jamie would rather die than hurt her mother, and this would hurt.
She gave it a final shot. “And even aside from the Mom issue, I don’t have time. The host of the show does a ton of behind-the-scenes work, but I’m already in over my head.” There were currently three licensed architects in MacAfee’s design department, but their head architect, Jamie’s mentor was finally retiring after threatening it for years, and had bequeathed his major projects to Jamie. “We’re talking ten private homes, a library, two office buildings, two banks, the spring Gut It! project, for goodness sake, and that’s not counting anything the Weymouth property may produce – and then there’s planning what I’m supposed to be saying on air this fall about the design plans alone.”
“You always do great on tape days.”
“Because Mom leads. She sets the tone and asks the questions. Mom is perfect for this job. I am not.”
Draining his coffee, Roy set down the mug and sat back. “If it’s not you, it’ll be someone else. Like I said, it’s a done deal.”
“For fall? Can’t they wait another season or two?”
“Ratings don’t wait. Consider that red-headed Barth over there. If he ratchets up the competition, we may need all the help we can get. Do you want MacAfee Homes to fall behind?” When she didn’t answer, he said, “Claire’s calling Caroline later to arrange a meeting.”
Jamie sat back. “Please, not today.”
“It has to be soon. Brian and Claire want this sewn up so that they can start putting together promo material. You know your mother best. What approach should Claire take?”
Jamie also knew her father. When his sentences came short and as fast as they did now, he was immoveable. Oh yes, the decision had been made, and it infuriated her.
She wasn’t impulsive. She was a thinker, a studier, a strategizer. But her parents were her weakness, and what he proposed was untenable.
That was why, without thinking beyond the moment, she said something she would come to regret.