Excerpt from Newport Dreams
The place was a disaster. It had to be the ugliest, most neglected house in Newport. But this was her last chance. Get a job that you can keep or lose your allowance. It was a stupid spot to be in. She was twenty four, had studied at three colleges, traveled the world, hung out with the rich and famous; she really shouldn’t need an allowance. Unfortunately she hadn’t learned to live without it.
Now this neglected eyesore would decide whether she would continue to live in the style to which she’d always been accustomed or admit failure and give in to the pressures of her corporate-minded family.
Geordie Holt sneaked a peek at her new colleagues. They were oohing and aahing over the dilapidated house as if they were witnessing the unveiling of The Breakers, the Vanderbilt mansion on Bellevue Avenue that set the standard for the Gilded Age architecture.
There was no way this would ever look like anything but what it was. An abandoned boarding house. Shingles were missing, the porch sagged, the front steps were crumbling, half the windows were boarded over and there wasn’t enough glass in the others to keep the rain out of one.
And paint? Missing in Action except for a few flakes of baby poop beige that had fallen to the ground, revealing even uglier baby poop brown. Her camera equipment suddenly felt very heavy.
“So what do you think?” Doug Paxton, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, frowned up at the façade. He was project manager, a little older than the rest of the group maybe late thirties, and had to be wondering why he ever pitched this project to this board of directors.
“Fantastic,” said the woman next to him. She was dark haired and beautiful in a neo Raphaelite way. She’d introduced herself earlier as Mary. Geordie knew from the contact sheet that it was spelled Meri. She wondered what the story behind that was. Her fingers were itching to photograph Meri just like she was right now, totally fascinated with something that only she could see.
Though Doug was a close second. He let out a breath and began talking to the architect on the project, Bruce Stafford. Geordie had googled them all as soon as she was hired. But Bruce was the one who had caught her eye. He was tallish, darkish, and hottish. The kind of guy who looked like he’d be safe to pick up in a bar. Not that she was doing that these days. But she did look twice.
“Can we get inside?” Meri asked.
“Sure,” Bruce said. “It’s been inspected and it’s structurally sound but needs some repairs before its totally safe. Just watch out for loose handrails. And rotten floor boards. I had the inspector mark any places that he thought might be dangerous. Just stick with the group until we’ve done a full recce.”
Doug moved to the side. He walked with a noticeable limp. “Let’s give Geordie a minute to take some establishing shots.”
“Good idea.” Bruce Stafford smiled at her almost as if he could see what a fake she was.
“Of course.” Geordie knew what she was supposed to do. She’d spent three sleep-deprived evenings at the RISD library reading everything she could find about architectural photography, cramming for her interview at the historical society.
And she’d actually pulled it off.
Now she understood why. Who in their right mind would want this job?
“Do you have a wide angle lens? Or do you want to set up across the street.”
She gave the smug architect a smile to match his own. “Both.”
She lugged her cameras and tripod out to the pavement. Looked up at the house, checked the sun and moved farther out into the street, just as a car turned the corner and swerved out of her way.
Ugh. She was making a great impression. She chose a spot between two parked cars and began setting up her tripod. She’d always taken photos. She’d even taken three semesters of photography in college, but couldn’t convince her family that it could be a real profession.
She interned with a fashion photographer. A few days among those highly stressed, anorexic, insecure models, makeup people, designers, and hair stylists . . .even the photographer . . . Well that was enough for her.
She normally was good at photographing people. But there she never could get past the “editorial” look.
This job sounded perfect. Calm, artistic and civilized. Creative.
So much for truth in advertising.
There was no way this eyesore would ever come close to the real Newport mansions. It had Restoration Impossible written all over it.
But she needed this job. She only hoped it would last.
She set up her camera and waited for another car to pass. Took a couple of candid shots of the group then motioned them to move out of frame. Took several color and black and whites of the front facade. Zoomed in for a few close-ups. And just for the hell of it she shifted the camera and caught the glint of stained glass between two branches of the old sprawling tree, oak or something. Took a quick look at the shot she’d captured. Nice.
“Hey are you finished yet?”
She nodded and capped the lens, put the cameras over her shoulder, folded up the tripod.
She really needed to remember that she was here for documentation. Not to be creative. Stay focused and not be distracted by shiny things, like the fragments of color framed by a tracery of branches. The place where the patch on Doug’s jacket was coming unstitched. The look on Meri’s face as she gazed up at something that Geordie couldn’t see—or how the light lifted the Titian highlights of her hair. The fun things.
You’re not here to have fun.
Bruce motioned impatiently to her. “I need you to get a close up of the front steps.” He turned to Doug and Meri. “I’m thinking under that paint is some glass tile inlay. Hard to tell in this light but last night with a flashlight, there’s a definite pattern of something under that . . .” Bruce waved his hand dismissing what Geordie would call Medium Mildew Green paint that covered the steps and the sides in thick layers and was probably the only thing keeping the concrete from disintegrating.
She got as close as she safely could. Looked for any signs of inlay. The architect had better eyes than she did. Then she saw it, the slightest indentation in the paint. Not even full lines but a sort of dit and dot occurrence that formed a vague pattern.
Wow. Geordie was impressed that he’d found it. She could appreciate a good eye even if it belonged to a grouch.
She took a few shots of the steps. Moved closer to get more detail.
A large hand gripped her arm and pulled her back. “I said not too close.” He was staring at her and he didn’t let go. She tried to ease her arm out of his fingers to no avail.
“I know what I’m doing,” she said, returning his stare.
A long moment passed, some kind of standoff that Geordie didn’t quite understand. Finally he said, “Do you?” and dropped her arm. She moved out of range and joined the others who were talking animatedly about something on the side of the house and hadn’t seen his odd behavior.
She spent the next few minutes taking closer views of the house’s facade. She tried not to look for unusual shots; just get what she was being paid to get. And tried to forget the intensity of Bruce Stafford’s hold. More anger, she thought, than a desire to keep her from injury.
“Okay that’s enough.” Bruce again. They called Doug “Boss,” but Bruce was throwing around the orders. Maybe because Doug and Meri were busy talking and gesticulating at each other. Some words Geordie recognized. She’d taken two semesters of Architecture and visited the Newport mansions more times than she could count, mainly to study the pictures of the people who had lived in them. Wondered what they were really like.
“We have to go in the back,” Bruce said to the others. “The front steps are ready to fall.”
Meri and Doug started toward the back of the house and the parking lot without missing a beat of their conversation.
Geordie waited for the angry architect to follow them, before falling into step with the one other person in the group, Carlyn, a red head who had her nose buried in her iPad and incongruously had a mechanical pencil stuck behind her ear. She hadn’t said a word since her first hello, just kept typing and saving.
The back steps were wood and looked worse than the front concrete ones.
“Stay close to the stringers. The wood is weakened.” Bruce turned to Geordie. “Don’t bother with these. They are a later addition and have to be replaced.”
She nodded and followed the others single file along the left side of the stairs.
As they reached the back door, Geordie could feel the shift in the group’s energy. Until now, they had been thrumming with anticipation. Doug unlocked the door and that energy burst into space.
Geordie had felt that energy in her own work.
They all crowded inside, leaving her behind to juggle two cameras, a bag of lenses and a tripod through the door.
She was immediately swallowed by darkness. She could hear the others up ahead, and she stumbled after them, camera equipment banging against her side. Gradually a rectangle of lighter darkness appeared. Geordie groped her way into what appeared to be a kitchen.
A camp lantern had been set in the middle of a wobbly rectangular table. There were no chairs. The roll linoleum that covered the floor was cracked and missing altogether in places.
Meri turned around. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to leave you behind. We’re all so used to working together, we just tend to migrate to a home base.” She reached for the tripod and Geordie handed it over. She had a sudden urge to shove the cameras at her and make a run for it, but the architect stood in the door way blocking her escape.
She forced a smile. “Thanks.”
“Just say when you need something. You’ll adjust. It always takes a few days on a new project. Especially when you haven’t worked with the crew before. Don’t be shy.”
Shy? Geordie prided herself on never appearing shy. She wasn’t. Exactly. More like . . . insecure. Okay there it was. She was insecure. All the time. It was because she had no purpose in life. It had to be that. Because she was smart . . . enough. Pretty . . . more than enough if she did say so herself. Had money so she never had to sponge off her friends and she was good for a loan. People generally liked her—at least until they found out she had no plan for her life.
“Electricity should be on by tomorrow,” Doug said. “I thought this would be good enough for a base camp until we decide how we want to work. Carlyn, there are several small rooms, probably once a bedroom that’s been partitioned into storage areas. Two have windows. They might do for offices and there’s another room, a later addition, I thought would do for supplies and equipment.”
Carlyn merely nodded and kept typing.
Doug slipped out of a backpack that he’d had on since they arrived and pulled out a metal tube. He wiped the table off with the arm of his jacket, popped off one end of the tube and slid a rolled paper onto the table.
Everyone crowded around. Geordie hesitated, not knowing if she was supposed to look or to mind her own business. They all seemed to mesh like a well oiled machine.
Meri glanced back at her and moved over to make room. Geordie put her equipment on the counter and squeezed in between Carlyn and Meri.
It was a blueprint of the house. It looked much bigger than Geordie had expected. Bruce began to explain things, drawing arrows, circles and x's in pencil. Doug added his marks to Bruce’s and before long the print was completely decorated. He and Doug had evidently been in before, had enough ideas for everybody and hopefully had more than one copy of the blue print.
As they passed ideas and opinions around, Carlyn continued to take notes, and Geordie’s mind began to wander.
The kitchen wasn’t so bad. Old and beat up. But the cabinets were real wood as far as she could tell. They were painted over with some seventies avocado kitchen green, but . . . She wandered over and opened one of the doors. Something skittered away and she bit back a yelp and slammed the door.
Bruce looked up over from where they were still bent over the plans and shook his head. “Exterminator will be in next week sometime. It won’t get rid of all the creepy crawlies, they’ve been here long enough to call it home, so if you’re squeamish—”
“Huh.” He went back to listening to Doug.
She wandered back to see what held them enthralled.
A few minutes later Doug was leading them on a tour of the house. A long hallway with wallpaper peeling on each side led to the projected offices and store room. No one said anything to Geordie, not even to give her instructions, so she snapped photos as she went, just to make herself feel like she had a reason to be there.
She assumed she would come back for more detailed work once they got lights and cleared out some of the garbage, of which there was plenty. Old newspapers were stacked up in corners, a mildewed rug was rolled up across a doorway. There was dust everywhere and so thick that they left footprints wherever they went.
And the smell. Geordie had to fight not to cover her nose. The others seemed oblivious, until Carlyn stopped.
“Doug, you know there’s only one thing I won’t do for you.”
Doug laughed. “I know. It is pretty ripe. I’ll bring in a crew to clean up before you have to set up.”
Carlyn grinned. “Thank you. Uh oh, she’s found something.”
They’d reached the end of the hall. To their left was a staircase to the second floor and a hallway that led to the back of the house. To their right was a two storied foyer, and in the middle Meri stood, feet planted, head thrown back looking at the ceiling.
Geordie got off a quick succession of shots of Meri’s back before they all looked up.
There was a big reproduction Early American style chandelier dead center. A style Geordie knew had never been popular in Newport, Rhode Island even the first time around. Cracks radiated from the medallion, also a repro, that held it to the ceiling. The ceiling was painted dark blue, or green, it was hard to tell. In places where the painter had totally missed with the paint brush, a dirty shade of goldenrod showed through the blue—or green.
Just looking at it made her head spin.
She snapped her head down and concentrated on studying the walls. The whole house looked as if it had been painted during the Early Psychedelic period, neon oranges, yellows, blues.
The room at least was interesting, octagon-shaped with wainscoting that reached halfway up the wall. The door that had been boarded over from the outside was dark oak with a transept window still intact and made up of hundreds of pieces of stained glass.
“Oh yeah,” Meri said. She sounded like she had just struck the mother lode. “How soon can we get scaffolding set up?”
Scaffolding? Geordie’s breath caught. No one had said anything about scaffolding.
Doug laughed. “Next week, hopefully. There’s a lot more to do before we start work.”
“I know but . . .”
You’d think it was Christmas they way they were talking. Geordie forced herself to take a quick lookup the ceiling. “Should I take a photo?”
“Yes, and a few of the transom for now,” Bruce said. “And any other place that is fragile enough that it might be damaged in the clean up.”
She could do that. She moved away from the others and soon became lost in taking pictures of all sorts of things. Woodwork that had been chewed by some rodent or hungry hippie, water damage on a patterned wallpaper, that had curled at the edges and revealed the promise of a more intriguing paper underneath.
She pulled back one of the edges.
“Please, do not touch anything. We have experts for that.”
Geordie spun around, not that she hadn’t already learned to recognize that voice. Bruce Stafford looked annoyed.
“Sorry. I just wanted to see what was underneath.”
“You and the rest of the world. You can’t rush into these things. It must be done slowly, carefully and methodically. By experts.”
And he clearly thought she wasn’t one of them.
He gave her a long penetrating look and she took a photo of him just to be annoying.
He raised one eyebrow. “Don't get separated from the others.”
Geordie was tempted to take another shot, but he turned and walked away. And all she could do was watch and fume and try to control the blush that had traveled up her neck and spread across her face.