Travis Maudlin is a man of many quirks and peculiarities, quite a few of which cannot be contained. His coworkers have noted his habit of muttering to himself under his breath; his almost pathological refusal to use anyone’s name in conversation; his notable discomfort whenever anyone gets closer than three or four feet from him, and his tendency to wear the same or very similar clothes over and over throughout the month. His colleagues in the technical support unit of the Enterprise Software division of Bickering Plummet, in Atlanta, regard him as the quintessential loner, a “quiet man” most likely to one day arrive at work in fatigues and face paint with multiple rounds of ammo. It’s to their amazement that he is married to a lovely, vivacious woman named Heidi, who is the total antithesis of her husband.
Those who refuse to scratch the surface of Travis’s demeanor have no idea of the dark and troubled man underneath. He, too, is surprised at his good fortune at gaining the affection of a woman like Heidi, though he often regards their marriage as a double-edged sword. Though she has never displayed anything but the utmost grace and charm, almost every aspect of her character seems designed to play upon his natural insecurities and paranoia. He’s mostly able to keep the more undesirable of his tendencies to himself, but he cannot help but be totally unnerved by her superficial cheerfulness, her unflagging optimism, and her obsessive extroversion. There are no strangers to Heidi.
His greatest fear is that he’ll return home one weekend and find that Heidi has invited one of those home improvement shows in to redesign a room for him. Nothing could be more galling to him than the thought of having a camera crew tramping around in his private life, cajoling Heidi to recount some lovable quirk or colorful tendency of his to win lovely prizes, while they systematically destroy some favorite refuge inside his castle, transforming it with a lousy paint job and cheap furnishings. He’ll hate the results but have to pretend he loves it because the cameras are rolling thus denying him expression of his true feelings about the indignity. This is not an irrational fear on his part, because Heidi is obsessed with the home improvement shows she sees on her favorite cable network, and spends far too much of her time watching them when she’s not at her job.
Lately, Heidi has been bugging Travis to go on Exchanging Places, the show where one set of neighbors trades homes with another and redecorates an area inside. Travis cannot bear the horror such an experience would bring for him. Heidi is persistent.
“We could be on the show with Burton and Jen, honey,” Heidi says. “It would be lots of fun.”
“No it wouldn’t. Either they’ll get a great room and we won’t or vice versa or worse, both rooms will suck and we’ll end up as mortal enemies.”
“It’s Burton and Jen. They’ll understand.”
“You seem to forget, I don’t even like Burton and Jen. Burton’s always clapping me on the back and calling me ‘old boy.’ Who even says that anymore? If we had a bonding experience like that it would elevate the relationship to a place it just doesn’t need to go. We wouldn’t just be neighbors anymore, we’d be best buddies, friends to the end. They’d name their children after us and we’d have to have cookouts together and one day our kids would get married making us in laws. In laws! I just couldn’t stand that.”
“Travis, you’re being ridiculous.”
“No, I’m not. We hate our neighbors. We can’t even have them over for game night without them trying to kill one another — and you want to actually alter the appearance of one of their homes?”
Travis’s assessment of Game Night is all too true. The first time Heidi convinced Travis to have their neighbors over, Sam and Betty, their neighbors from across the way, had a massive falling out when Sam discovered that Betty was involved with Tom, the neighbor from two houses down, and a vicious brawl ensued which ended with all three in the emergency room. At their second outing, Greg, their neighbor to the right, made one too many taunting remarks to Alex, one half of a gay couple who live to the left of Travis and Heidi, and Clark, Alex’s partner, had broken Greg’s nose, which led to a nasty lawsuit in which Travis and Heidi were named as co-claimants.
Travis put an end to game night after that, much to the relief of everyone and Travis concluded that he appreciated his neighbors much more from a distance. He was certain the feeling was mutual and since then has limited his interactions with them to a quick “Morning” or “Afternoon” whenever he sees one of them out in the yard while leaving for or returning from work. This arrangement seemed to suit all concerned and once again harmony returned to their lives.
Despite Travis being adamant about it, Heidi’s desire to appear on one of her favorite shows continues unabated. The only solace Travis has is in knowing that he’d have to sign an agreement to be on most of the shows and he’d never do such a thing.
Still, he frequently finds himself being forced to watch reruns of each weekly show and listen to Heidi babble on and on about what such an experience could do for their place. To hear her talk, one might imagine the couple lived in a shanty town built from plywood and cardboard boxes, other than the three-bedroom, two and a half bath Georgian revival townhouse where they have lived for most of their eight-year marriage.
Heidi’s current obsession is When You Were Gone, where a team, consisting of a designer, a carpenter, one general handy person, and an overzealous spouse renovate a room for an unsuspecting loved one. The conceit is to lure the spouse away, usually for a sporting weekend or fake business retreat while the team works its magic on an underutilized basement or crawl space, transforming it into some sort of rumpus room or opium den. Often the recipient has a tragic backstory, like losing a parent or suffering from sciatica, so that when the big reveal comes, a flood of emotions are guaranteed leading to a major catharsis for the couple. Heidi frequently tapes the shows and watches the particularly emotional parts over and over again.
Travis has no desire for any of that and frankly doesn’t get Heidi’s fascination with the design shows. When he was coming of age, there was just one show and that was This Old House on public broadcasting. Bob Vila and Norm Abrams would roll up on a homeowner, call out the crew and get the job done quickly and efficiently, all the while imparting wisdom on those watching at home. Back then, people believed you had to have competent professionals working on your house, none of this do-it-yourself crap. Norm wasn’t just some failed glamor boy who renovated and flipped homes on the side, he was a Master Carpenter and that carried a lot of weight with Travis.
Then 9/11 happened and everyone became too scared to leave the house, or at least Travis did, and suddenly, there were entire networks catering to homeowners. From there the whole situation went straight to hell. Travis estimated that the home improvement craze was spawning a new show every seven to ten days and before long, half the programming would be devoted to fixing up one’s place. Travis isn’t sure that’s a world he wants to live in. He doesn’t really mind the shows themselves, so much as the belief they engender in people like his wife who come to believe they, too, can redecorate on a minimal budget and a limited amount of time and it will come out looking like the Taj Mahal.
In the most harrowing episode of When You Were Gone, a wife brought in the crew to redesign the back deck of their house for her husband. Throughout, there were ominous portents, such as the designer and host being tossed out of a neighbor’s house on air and one of the carpenters getting clunked on the head with a two by four then wandering around babbling until the producer carted him off to the emergency room. The design called for portions of the deck to be removed, which the wife confidently predicted her husband would like, and she had aced all the quizzes, demonstrating her intricate knowledge of her spouse, suggesting she really knew him well.
The reveal was a disaster. The husband hated the design, hated the designers, host and crew, and threatened to sue everyone so much as remotely involved with the production, including audience members who commented on the episode on the message boards. His reaction was so over the top, that commentators dubbed the segment The Infamous Deck Episode (TIDE) and posted a great deal of inflammatory discussion on the husband’s sanity, and the state of the couple’s marriage, with some going so far as to call for an investigation by the appropriate authorities.
Heidi and Travis had been on opposite sides in discussions of TIDE, Heidi considering the homeowner a monster, with Travis totally sympathizing with him.
“They chopped up the guy’s deck, Heidi. How did they expect him to react?”
Travis has his sanctuary, a medium sized room on the ground floor with a folding card table, some mismatched chairs and shelving which he refers to as his study. He often notices Heidi eying the room while remarking on how much could be done to it with the right crew; suggestions Travis is quick to shoot down.