How did you get your start?
When did you know you’d done something big?
What’s it like working with your spouse?
Do you ever argue?
What can we expect next?
They perform in front of cameras every day. As long as they stick to the script it’ll be fine … right?
The bus rocks gently as we move down the highway, the hum of the tires a welcome distraction from the speed of James’s gunfire typing. Every time I start to like him, he has to turn up the intensity somehow. Is he transcribing over there?
Melly has been on a call for about forty-five minutes. During that time I’ve managed to polish off my entire bag of Funyuns—a tragedy—and I try to focus on the design program in front of me. The project is an 1,100-square-foot home we’ll hopefully incorporate into a future season. It’s for a family of five—soon to be seven with a set of adopted twins on the way. Back in the old days, Melly’s designs favored a river rock aesthetic—with lots of plants, stones, and water features—but eventually she built her brand on the idea that even small spaces can be adapted to work for everyone.
At first it was “transitionable” furniture. That all started with a window display I’d put together mostly because I was bored in the long afternoons just after the holidays, when no one was redecorating their houses. In the display, along with a beautiful hand-crafted daybed, I put a small table Rusty had built and to which I’d added wheels so I could move it around throughout the day. The space could be a small dining area, a cozy sitting room, and, later, a small bedroom.
Melly got about ten new customers that day. Rusty loved it, too. I showed him some of my sketches, and he got to building. We’ve all seen a table that can be extended with a wooden leaf, but what about a circular table that holds two hidden crescent shaped leaves? When the main circle is rotated, the leaves fan into place, turning a four-person table into one that can accommodate eight in only seconds. Rusty sold about forty of those tables in just a couple months.
Together, we designed consoles that expanded using the aesthetic and structural aspects of my dad’s favorite Leather-man tools, kitchen islands that functioned like Swiss army knives and packed many purposes into the smallest footprint possible. The concept grew to include the buildings themselves: stairs that retracted when not in use, rooms built on platforms that offered hidden beds or storage underneath, walls that opened to reveal entire closets tucked into the space behind an ordinary flat-screen TV.
High-end style and design while utilizing limited space. It was popular even in the larger, more expensive homes in Jackson but when customers in some of the bigger cities heard about it, it became Comb+Honey’s, and Melly’s, signature.
My hands are bothering me more than usual, and I’m hoping I can nail down the logistics of turning an attic into an office with a half bath and lofted sleeping area before it becomes obvious I’m struggling with the Apple Pencil. I normally do this sort of thing alone, or with Melly, who already knows that my hands cramp when I overuse them, and it’s hard to hide with everyone—particularly James—right here.
It’s then that I notice the typing has stopped, and I glance up to find him watching me.
“You think we’re almost there?” he asks, and if he happened to notice anything out of the ordinary in my movements, he doesn’t let on. His blue-light-blocking glasses have slipped down his nose. The lens color makes the entire area around his eyes look like he’s suffering from jaundice. I snicker as I reach for my backpack.
“It’s a fourteen-hour drive,” I remind him. “It’s been five.”
Closing his laptop, he stands to stretch and the groan he lets out is both sexy and terrible.
I grin up at him. “I thought engineers were really good with numbers …”
His dirty look is cut short by a shout from the back of the bus: “Jimbo! C’mere!”
“Sweet Jesus.” James drops back into his chair.
Not to be ignored, Rusty calls him again. “Jimbalaya!”
I slide my messy stack of notes into my bag. “He’s not going to stop until you acknowledge him.”
“Jim Boy!” Rusty shouts, even more insistent. “Come back here!”
Melly covers her free ear and takes her phone into the bathroom, closing the door with a very pointed click. James gives me a pleading look, as if anything I can do will save him from keeping Rusty entertained for the next nine hours.
“Can’t you help him?” he asks, offering his closed laptop as evidence. “I’m trying to finish something.”
“He probably has a super-important engineering question, and I’m busy here doing assistant-y things. Besides, you’re the one he’s calling for, Jimbo.”
“More likely he wants me to cut a hole in the bottom of the bus like he saw in Speed and ride the panel back to the gas station for a bag of Doritos.” His grumpy expression deepens when he glances at my iPad, still on the table. “That doesn’t look very assistant-y.” He bends to get a closer look. “Are you … playing Minecraft?”
Instinct makes me click the side button so he can’t see my design program. “Yep.”
“Go on, Engineer Boy,” I tell him. “I’m sure whatever he needs you for is way above my training.”
Resigned, James stands with a groan and passes Melissa as she emerges from the bathroom.
“Is James having some sort of issue I should be aware of?” she asks once he’s gone, slipping into the booth across from me at the small table. Her body is so tiny, honed from years with a trainer and a steady diet of cotton balls and water. I’m just kidding—she also stores my tears in a jar. It keeps her hair blond and her crow’s-feet at bay.
Rusty’s cheer carries above the baseball game when James finally steps into the little back room.
“Just your husband,” I say.
“Well then, we have the same issue.” Melly wakes up her computer, and I’m sure she’s immediately on all the retail sites, reading reviews of the book, checking its ranking. I’m torn between keeping this quiet moment of peace and wanting to say something about this trip and how it will be so much easier for all of us if they can just set aside what’s going on until they get back to the privacy of their own home.
I think of what Debbie would tell me: Make the decision to assert yourself and follow through. Decide what you want and be honest in your communication. Don’t sugarcoat, don’t apologize, and listen to the response. Stay calm. Use I whenever possible. Practice in your head if you have to.
I think of what I want to say, but when I look at her face—tight, controlled, no-nonsense—the words dry up in my throat.
“Show me what you’ve got,” she says, and points to my iPad.
I slide it across the table and she inspects my work.
“This is really good,” she says, scrolling through the different computer-generated images. “I’m not sure about that desk.”
I glance at the screen. The space allotted is minimal. “How would you change it?”
She purses her lips as she considers. “It’s just not working as is. I want it to be more, more …”
Silence stretches between us, and I come to her rescue.
“I could make it vertical?” I suggest, clicking through and zooming in on the area. “Two-tiered instead of a single flat surface? Nobody would expect a two-storied workspace like that.”
“Yes,” she says with a firm nod. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
Inside, I’m beaming. Melissa isn’t exactly sparing with her compliments, but you have to earn them. She’s never apologetic about that, and it’s something I’ve always admired. But outwardly, I just nod once, keeping my smile in check. Melly doesn’t like gloating at compliments, either.
“Finish that up and send it to me,” she says, sliding it back. “Ted asked for a couple of early schematics they can use in promo shots. I’d like to send them to him before we get back.” She stops and looks down at my hands. “Unless you need a break.”
I have to be honest when it matters. “Maybe a small one.”
With her eyes back on her computer, she asks, “When’s your next appointment?”
“A few weeks.”
She nods. “It’s on my calendar?”
I’m about to answer when a voice rises up from the back of the bus—the unmistakable drawl of Russell Tripp after a couple of beers. “There something going on there with you and Carey-girl?”
I keep my head down, noisily shuffling through my bag like I haven’t heard a thing.
“Uh, absolutely not,” James says with zero hesitation.
Heeeey. I mean, I’m not interested in James, either, but he didn’t have to sound so horrified. I frown down at my Dolly shirt and brush away a few lingering Funyun crumbs.
When I look back up at my iPad, I feel Melissa watching me shrewdly and make the mistake of meeting her gaze. With a roll of her eyes she goes back to her screen. “As if you and I have time for a personal life, anyway.”
Something about the flippant way she dismisses the possibility rubs me the wrong way.
You and I?
It’s true; I don’t have time for a personal life. But that’s because I’m sacrificing everything for the brand. I handle her schedules, her kids’ occasional promotional appearances. I answer her emails and deal with Robyn, Ted, and the Tripps’ editor. On top of all that, I do most of the designs. I spend more time on Melly’s life than on my own.
I glance down to my bag and all the work I just put together for her. I don’t have time for a personal life, but because of everything I do for her, Melissa Tripp certainly should.
LA WEEKLY BOOK PICK:
THE TRIPPS’ NEW LIFE, OLD LOVE IS
A MUST-READ FOR SUMMER
LA Weekly’s Book Picks is your look at the hottest new releases this week—from biographies, how-tos, and reissued classics to romantic summer blockbusters and new voices garnering buzz. Check here every week before you make your next weekend-read plans.