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Lighting Up Their Days

The workmen came to install skylights in the living room, but they become part of one family's life.


Do you know what "Oh, no" sounds like, uttered by a contractor as he punches a hole through your living-room ceiling at 8 at night?

"Oh, no," when spoken by your contractor as he makes way for the skylights he's promised will take only a few days to install--and when all the materials are bought and the contract is signed--can sound somewhat disturbing.

We hired our contractor (whom I'll call "Ray") after one initial meeting. He seemed knowledgeable and forthright and had an easy, eager manner. Ray also gave us a very reasonable estimate of the highest and lowest possible cost . . . exactly within the range of what we could afford.

"That's it?" my husband had asked warily. "Won't be any surprise extras or additional costs later? You sure?"

"Absolutely," Ray assured him.

"He's very busy," my husband told me. "But if I buy the skylights and all the materials, he can squeeze us in pretty soon. He said it'll only take a few days."

A few weeks later, Ray came by for a closer look. He brought his ladder this time, climbed on the roof, knocked on our ceiling, examined the skylights that my husband had bought, then went home to "firm up the price," saying he'd call in the morning.

Next morning, after doing a more accurate numbers crunch and consulting with his "old man," a 30-year veteran contractor, Ray informed my husband that he had been a little "off." It seemed the job required an extra man and it would take four, five days, tops. And the cost would be about 30% over the highest end of the estimate.

Despite my husband's very vocal surprise, he still deemed the price fair. And besides, he'd already bought the skylights and supplies.

The following Monday afternoon, Ray arrived with "Andy," his one-man crew, to drop off his equipment, tape the walls and seal in the living room. Then Ray was called away to another work site. Andy waited for two hours, then disappeared. Ray returned, then went to find Andy. Andy came back, then left to find Ray. By 6 they were both gone for the day.

Tuesday at noon, I called Ray to see where he was. He'd had an overnight emergency at one of the restaurants that he serviced and had been out until 7 a.m. making repairs.

He said that he didn't want to show up first thing in the morning and be no dang good. I thanked him for his consideration. He said he and Andy would be by around 4. That evening at 8, Ray was ready to punch through the ceiling and "see what we've got."

What we've got is a cathedral ceiling, funky in its uneven 75-year-old texture and bowed angles. Looking at the roof, it would appear that it slopes at the same angle as the ceiling. It appears that roof and ceiling would be nearly flush against each other. Ray would simply cut through both, set in the skylights and call it a day . . . or four.

"Oh, no."


A minute later Ray appeared in the doorway of my son's room as I was putting him to bed.

"Uh . . . when you have a minute. . . . "

I met Ray in the living room. He and Andy stood, flanking a stepladder that reached to a basketball-sized hole in the ceiling.

"Take a look," he said.

I did.

"Oh, no," I echoed.

At its peak, the ceiling was, literally, 4 feet from the roof. At the lowest point (and the bottom of the future skylights), the space was nearly 2 feet. A box. The skylights now needed to be boxed. A bigger deal, considering the depth and angles.

At that point, my husband came home. Ray told him to climb the ladder and have a look.

My husband didn't move, just looked up at the gaping hole in our ceiling.

"What are you telling me, Ray? You gave me the final quote already," he said.

"I know. I know. It's just that this is a big job now, s'all I'm saying. A lot more work involved," Ray replied.

"You gave me the quote," my husband maintained.

"I know, man. I know," Ray said. "I'm just saying."

It was a big job. Each side of each box was constructed with three or four angles, pieced together with half a dozen or so precisely fashioned pieces of plywood, fitted together, literally, like a puzzle.

Ray wanted to match the bowed, rough quality of our 1926 ceiling, complementing the angle of the pitch.

He and Andy usually arrived about noon or 1 or 2 and left at 7 or 8 or 9 at night, always certain to sweep the front steps and driveway of slivers and sawdust and nails. They took care in their work and high-fived each other when a particularly menacing piece of the puzzle was completed.


At first I figured we'd let them be. You know, they wouldn't want any distractions or interruptions. But it soon became clear that they both loved to talk. Ray, in particular. He'd even talk to my 2-year-old, Drake. He'd tell me about his own boys, a 10- and a 1-year-old, and his terrific wife.

My husband or I would make coffee for us all. Milk and sugar? "Yes, please."

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