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A High-End Finish

A High End Finish


"You could've warned me that installing drywall would be hell on my manicure."

I looked down from my perch at the top of the ladder and saw my best friend, Jane Hennessey, scowling at her hands. They were smeared with sticky joint compound. She had flakes of drywall stuck to her shirt and there were flecks of blue paint highlighting her blond hair.

"I did warn you, remember? I told you to wear gloves." And a hat, I thought to myself, but didn't bother to mention it aloud. I wondered, though, where in the world that blue paint in her hair had come from.

"The gloves you gave me are so big and awkward, it's hard to work in them."

"I'm sorry, princess," I said, hiding a smile. "Why don't you go rest and I'll finish up here?"

She laughed. "And have you rubbing my nose in the fact that I'm hopeless at manual labor? No way."

"I would never do that." But I laughed, too, because of course I would do that, and I'd expect her to do the same for me. We had known each other since kindergarten and had become best friends when we realized that the two of us were taller than all of the boys in our class. These days, I was still pretty tall at five foot eight, but Jane was two inches taller than me and as svelte as a supermodel.

Despite her delicate hands and my teasing, she had never been a stranger to hard work. This might have been her first experience with hanging drywall, but there was no way she would give up before the job was finished. This place was her home as well as her business, so I knew she wanted to be involved in every aspect of the renovation.

Jane had inherited the old mansion—formerly a brothel—three years ago, after her grandmother died. The imposing structure was a glorious example of the Victorian Queen Anne style, with an elaborate round tower rising three stories at the front corner; steeply gabled rooftops; four balconies; bay windows; six fluted chimneys; and a wide-planked, spindled porch that spanned the front and wrapped around one long side of the house.

But except for the common rooms on the ground floor and Jane's grandmother's suite on the second floor, the rest of the house had been dangerously moldy, musty, and drafty when we first started to work on it. During our first inspection, we'd found rodents living inside one wall, a nest of bees swarming in the attic, and termites infesting the wood on the western side of the house. The plaster in some rooms was cracked or simply gone. To put it mildly, the place was falling apart. Through much of the initial demolition work, we'd had to wear full-face respirators to protect ourselves from the mold, asbestos, and toxic dust, among other substances.

The rooms that hadn't been devastated by the ravages of time had been ruined by something almost worse: bad taste.

Jane's grandfather had had a peculiar fondness for 1970s-era wood paneling and had used it to hide much of the richly detailed Victorian-era wallpaper throughout the house. The gorgeous mahogany bay windows in the dining room had been covered over with a high-gloss pale pink paint. And in the bedroom where we were currently working, the decorative red brick chimney had been disguised with fake yellow plastic flagstone paneling. Plastic!

No wonder Jane's grandmother had divorced the man.

Luckily for Jane, though, she had a best friend in the construction biz. Namely, me. I'm Shannon Hammer and I own Hammer Construction, a company that specializes in Victorian-home restoration and renovation right here in my hometown of Lighthouse Cove. I took over the company five years ago when my father, Jack, suffered a mild heart attack and decided to retire.

I had agreed to help Jane refurbish the mansion with the aim of turning it into Hennessey House, an elegant, small hotel. It was the perfect solution for Jane, who had studied hotel management and had been running the Inn on Main Street for the past five years. I enlisted some of my guys to help us out, too, whenever their presence wasn't demanded at one of my other job sites. After three long years, we were getting close to finishing all fourteen guest suites. The extensive repair and intricate repainting of the exterior of the house had been completed last week. The day after that, Jane had met with a landscaper to start taming the wildly overgrown gardens that circled the large house. When she wasn't busy working on the property itself, she was tweaking Hennessey House's new Web site.

In two months, she would officially open for business and the place was already sold out. Everyone in Lighthouse Cove was excited for her.

"Okay," Jane said, rubbing her hands clean with a wet towel. "What's next?"

"Once the mud you're applying is dried and sanded," I said, "we'll be ready to paint this room." I climbed down from the ladder and picked up the pole sander to smooth out a section of dried mud on the opposite wall. "And before you know it, we'll be done."

"Hallelujah." There was true relief in Jane's voice and I couldn't blame her for it. When she'd insisted on helping me get this last room completed, I'd warned her that while installing and finishing drywall wasn't terribly hard, it was frankly a big pain in the butt and seriously time-consuming. I admit I'd skimmed over the details about the damage it could do to one's nails, but I figured that was a given.

Many homeowners I'd worked with thought that hanging drywall was a simple matter of screwing some four-by-eight sheets of the hard wallboard to some studs and voila! You had a wall. If only that were true, but no. You had to measure and cut the drywall to fit the walls and ceiling. This wasn't easy, for at least three reasons.

First, because you had to cut the boards evenly, so that involved clamps and rulers and math.

Second, because drywall boards were heavy and awkward for a person to maneuver around a room.

And third, because drywall had to be cut twice. I could explain why, but it still might not make sense.

And then you needed to figure out exactly how far apart the wood studs were and make marks on the drywall sheets accordingly. This way, you'd be sure you were screwing the sheets into the wood and not into semi-empty air. This involved more math and measuring. With newer homes, the wall studs were typically sixteen inches apart, but with old Victorians like this one, you just never knew.

I could go on and on about the joys of hanging drywall. No wonder I lived alone.

But here was the really fun part: once the drywall sheets were screwed to the studs, you had to cover up the seams, or joints, with joint compound. Joint compound was a muddy concoction known more simply as . . . wait for it . . . mud. You spread the mud along the seams and over the screw holes and then sanded it down to make the wall smooth and flat enough to paint.

Once you had a layer of still-wet mud over the seam, you ran a strip of special tape over it. Then you covered that tape with another thin layer of mud and left it to dry, sometimes overnight. The next day you would apply another, wider layer of mud, smooth it out, and let it dry. After one more layer of mud was applied and dried, the sanding began.

For someone unfamiliar with the process, it probably seemed like a great, big waste of time. But, trust me, if you missed a step or cut corners, you could screw up the wall and be forced to start over.

It was enough to make a grown contractor cry.

I preferred to do things right the first time. And, luckily, during those long, waiting-for-the-mud-to-dry periods, there was plenty of other work to do.

"This is going to look great," Jane said, stepping back and taking in the room.

I almost laughed as I glanced around. We were staring at four walls covered in plain old drywall with wide white swaths of dried mud running every which way. A paint-spattered tarp lay over the old hardwood floor. Our tattered work shirts were equally spattered. My heavy tool chest, miscellaneous pieces of equipment and power tools, several buckets, and a stepladder were gathered together in one corner. It looked like a typical unfinished construction site to me, but I knew what she meant. I said, "It'll be beautiful once the walls are painted and the ceiling is spackled and the moldings are added and the floor is finished."

An hour and a half later, Jane and I were covered in fine white dust from all the sanding we'd done, but we were finished for the day. After removing our masks and goggles and shaking the worst of the dust off outside, we washed up in Jane's laundry-room sink.

"Oh, shoot, it's getting late," Jane said, drying her hands on an old dishtowel. "I almost forgot you had a date tonight." She glanced at me. "I hope you plan on showering when you get home. You look like a raccoon."

"Thanks. And please don't call it a date."

"Oh, come on. You'll have a good time."

I gave her a look. "Really?"

She chuckled. "No, probably not. But at least you'll be able to enjoy a good meal. And Lizzie will be off your back for another few months."


"Well, no."

I frowned. "I don't know why she's picking on me when you're the one who dreams of having a great romance."

"Because I've already been her guinea pig once this year," Jane said dryly. "I threatened to put spiders in her shoes if she ever tried to set me up again."

Our friend Lizzie was blissfully married, with a darling husband and two great kids. Lately it had become an obsession of hers to arrange blind dates in the hopes of getting her friends married off and happy, whether they wanted to be happy or not. Of course I wanted to be happy, meet a nice guy, and settle down, but the very idea of going on a blind date to accomplish that goal made me shudder with dread.

Lizzie's persistence had worn me down, though, and I had finally relented. Tonight I would meet Jerry Saxton for dinner at one of my favorite seafood restaurants on Lighthouse Pier. Dinner—that's all it was. I refused to call it a blind date (even though that's exactly what it was). I'd never met Jerry, but Lizzie had insisted he was a great guy, nice-looking, and successful, with a good sense of humor.

As I dried my hands, I mentally shrugged off most of my concerns because, as Jane said, at least I would enjoy a good dinner and maybe even have a few laughs.

But on the four-block drive home, I thought back to another one of Jane's comments earlier that day. She had wondered aloud why a man with all those so-called wonderful qualities needed to be set up on a blind date. It was a good question. Maybe he was wondering the same thing about me. I sighed as I pulled into my driveway, knowing it wouldn't do any good to dwell on those questions right now. In less than two hours, I would discover exactly why Jerry Saxton had agreed to go out with me.

© Kate Carlisle

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