The following is from Kevin McEnroe’s debut novel, Our Town. McEnroe was born in Los Angeles to actress Tatum O’Neal and athlete John McEnroe. He was raised in New York and graduated from Columbia University with an MFA.
Later on, between takes, in the corner of a television pilot’s shooting set, behind a key grip with muttonchops who balanced a boom mic between his brown, wooden clogs, stood a perfectly handsome young actor attempting to remove his tan, collarless, Barracuda jacket. His zipper was stuck, and he was pulling so hard that his thumb and pointer finger were growing more and more purple-red with each attempt. He kept trying, but he just couldn’t get it unstuck. The set was a modest living room, made to represent the sort of living room you might see in a small, Midwestern town in the mid-to-late 1940s. Its furniture was dressed almost entirely in pastel. A Navajo rug lay flat beneath an avocado-green-painted drop-leaf oak-wood table and behind that sat a plush, salmon-colored, L-shaped, partially pulled-out sofa bed. The walls were lined with light red stripes, and from those stripes grew yellow roses, painted very well—very accurately—almost as though you could smell them. Leaning against one of these walls, just beside a full-stocked, off-white, rolling wet bar, with matching white stemware and three ivory decanters, stood Dorothy White, smoking a Bravo lettuce cigarette—tobacco was prohibited on set, and the director, an asthmatic, had directed, even off camera, that such be the case—with her legs crossed one in front of the other and a quite curious expression on her face. It seemed as if she smelled something, but not something pretty, like the flowers. Something gone rotten. Something overripe. She was as perfectly beautiful as the young actor fighting himself on the other side of the room—both tens, grading on a scale from one to ten—and she stared at him. She watched him struggle. She noticed his pain. She saw a man she thought she could help. He had a structurally sound face—symmetrical—with kind eyes, a very masculine jawline, and a clean crew cut, barbered longer on top than at the sides, high and tight. Dorothy took a step, pulled once more from her Bravo, and, now, decided she could help. She was sure of it. So she pressed her cigarette into a decorative ashtray and made her way across the set—swaying past the key grip and the TV pilot’s director, a few gathered producers, and a food cart with corn chips and salsa and carrots with a sour cream dip. And a few extras, and spotlights, and the director’s and the producer’s cloth-backed chairs—until, finally, she arrived at the actor’s feet. She stood before him in a black shoulderless dress and an updo and placed her hands thoughtfully on her hips. A teacup. Short, not stout. Not yet stout. She had thin but muscular arms, a long, angular neck, and a waist that had yet to provide her any worry, but he didn’t notice. He still looked down, consumed entirely by his full-stuck zipper. After about thirty seconds, she tapped him on the shoulder, and he jumped backward, frightened, but without letting go of his coat. He thought he’d got it loosened. He wasn’t going to let all that hard work go to waste.
“You mind if I try?” Dorothy asked as she stepped forward one long step, quietly but convincingly, as though she already knew him. Like she’d seen his type before. Like she knew what it would take to train him, like the dog she had when she was little. She’d put him in his place, if necessary, but still let him feel tough, like a man. She reached down with her long fingers—only one ring, an opal set in silver on her pinky—and pushed his hands gently to the side. She angled the gold latch down and twisted, and then pulled apart the jacket halves like an avocado, cut in half—the zipper half the pit half. And then young Dale was free.
“Thank you,” he looked up and said. He was nervous. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he put them in his tan jacket pockets and felt the tartan, flannel fabric on his palms. Then they started sweating, so he rubbed them against the soft lining before he pulled them back out.
“It’s no problem, darlin’,” Dorothy replied. “I saw you strugglin’ over here and I felt like I could maybe do some good.”
Dale breathed audibly. Loudly, with relief. “Well you certainly did that,” Dale said and then smiled, and Dorothy saw how perfect his teeth were. And then she noticed his eyes—orange blue, a sunrise ocean—and fell straight into his dimples. And then she saw how shy he was. And how surprised he was that someone noticed he needed help. Dorothy saw all that and she smiled, too. She stepped one baby step closer and then put up her little right hand, palm down, parallel to the floor, so that he had to kiss it.
“I’m Dorothy,” she said, and then she smiled bigger. Her teeth were perfect, too. “Dorothy White.”
Dale put out his right hand and grabbed hers and reached to pull it toward his mouth, but he paused halfway near his chin as he wasn’t sure what to do with his left, so he pushed it into his back pocket as if he were going to remove his wallet, but he didn’t like that fit, so instead he came back empty handed, then pushed it flat against his leg.
“Dale,” he said quietly. “Dale Kelly,” and he finally pulled her hand the rest of the way to his lips and kissed its smooth back. A little too close to her knuckles, she thought. A mistake, but a cute one. She figured she’d let it slide.
“It’s nice to meet you, Dale Kelly. I guess we’re playing opposite each other. At least that’s what I can gather from our pages,” she replied, pointing toward her pink leather purse with her pink-painted fingernail. Her pink purse housed her cigarettes—Lucky Strikes, she didn’t switch to menthols until later—and her compact and a roadmap and her script, which pointed out from the top. “See, I’m new to all this, you know, and—”
“You have a really beautiful voice,” Dale interrupted, much braver than before. Forgetting he was nervous. He’d stopped thinking about his hands. He’d stopped thinking, altogether. Instincts took over. Speaking only as he felt. “Really amazing. Your speaking voice. I’ve never heard anything like it, really.”
Dorothy stopped, too, suddenly short on breath. Now she was nervous. Struck by his newfound courage, she had no idea what to say. So she just smiled and hid behind her teeth. And she was usually quite the talker.
“Thank you, I guess,” she replied, bashful. Newly bashful.
“No, no, I mean it,” he said and put his right hand on her forearm and then pulled his left from his pants pocket and grabbed her pinky finger, the one with the ring. “It’s like velvet, or something. Like the way velvet would sound. Or, I don’t know. I guess that doesn’t do it justice,” he said and he waited. “I’ll think of something better.” But he never did.
“Well thank ya, again,” she replied. “You know, where I’m from,” suddenly aware of what he’d noticed in her cadence, and so willing to exploit it, “everybody just talks like this.” She held the k in “like” and the s in “this”—impersonating her more deeply southern kin, entirely aware of herself—and she knew it was over. She had him straight lassoed. The cat’s in the bag.
And then she was the most beautiful girl Dale had ever seen. And him her. And she was right. It was over. Again, straight lassoed. Hooked. Both of them had each other hog-tied, but to each other, so it was sweet. He pulled his arm from her shoulder but continued to hold her pinky. Didn’t want to give that up.
“Where was it you’re from, anyway?” he asked.
“Georgia. Americus, Georgia. You prolly never even heard of it.”
“No. No, I prolly never even heard of it,” he parroted.
“You should go. It’s real pretty. If you ever wanna get away from all this, I mean,” pointing toward the hollow furniture.
“I’d love that.” He paused. “You wanna take me?” impersonating her twang.
She cocked her head and smirked. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.” She looked down at her tootsies but then back up. “I’ll certainly try my best.”
No one spoke for a time. Neither was much for cordiality. Dale eventually let go of Dorothy’s hand, but they still looked in each other’s eyes. Then, big and loudly, they heard their names—both their names—being called from a megaphone, and they looked up to where they heard the noise.
“Dale Kelly. Dale Kelly. And Dorothy White. We’re gonna need you on set for the high school dance scene. The high school dance scene, everybody. So let’s be ready. Let’s make this first one count!”
This was Dorothy’s first acting job. And it was Dale’s, in fact, as well. He’d done some theater in high school—but certainly nothing that ever paid. And she got hired for her looks and charisma and, most importantly, her accent. The role required a specific regional dialect, and her meter fit just right. And so the first time they acted they did so together. And they were both nervous. But more excited, still, because they were both new to acting and had gotten into it because they were pretty, essentially just leashed up and led around and told what to do. Which can be disconcerting, not knowing what the future holds. But now they each knew somebody else—somebody else like them—so now things might be easier. So they ran to their marks, and they hit their cues, and they acted, for the first time, together. Teamwork, you know? And they were believable—the swooning cheerleader and the varsity wrestler had real spark. They were young, not yet overdoing it. Not yet overapplying the method. Not yet overcompensating for their developing jowls. They didn’t know how to act, yet. They were only being themselves. They just liked to be around each other, and their viewership, watching at home, believed that truth. And the confidence they built from that scene allowed them to be successful in their other scenes, with other actors. And they saw, in each other, a future. Just themselves. Themselves together. Just together. And then they were happy. Happy as baked clams.
* * * *
Dorothy and Dale only had four more scenes opposite each other during the filming of the pilot for Crossing Robertson—neither of their characters were primary—but they all went quite well. On their last day of shooting, Dale finally asked Dorothy to drinks. After work, they went to a local bar that never checked for ID. Dale had three Budweisers and Dorothy drank Sazeracs. She knew her alcohol. Daddy’d taught her how. After that they went back to Dorothy’s rented studio apartment. Dale still lived with roommates, and Dorothy preferred they be alone. They talked all night—and it was perfect—and didn’t kiss until six in the morning, and an hour later they had sex in the sunlight from the window. And they were tired when they woke up at noon, but when they walked to breakfast they thought it was okay. When they got to breakfast they knew it was worth it.
After they ate, then went back to Dorothy’s studio apartment, Dale had to return to work. It was past three, and they needed him in makeup.
“I don’t think they need to make you up at all,” Dorothy said and grinned as she rolled over—rolled up in her bed sheets like a sloppily rolled cigarette—as she watched Dale pull on his chinos. Dale winked and then, before he continued dressing, walked back to the bed and kissed her as best as he could, his ring finger hooked under her chin, to slightly lift her. But he was late, so he pushed off and pulled his shoes on and didn’t tie them, and Dorothy watched as her door slammed shut behind him with his shirttail still untucked and his pants not even buttoned.
Dorothy wasn’t needed on set that day, so she bought a Daily Variety and went and sat at a diner and read it—back to front—with a cup of coffee. Although her sensibility was quite continental, and catching up on her reading was usually something she quite enjoyed, she found the magazine, today, rather hard to take in. Her mind was elsewhere. She knew she’d fallen. Might not be able to get up. So she went home and sat and waited and Dale called after he was done shooting that night and came over, and then Dorothy had to leave early the next morning, and she left him there. They didn’t have any more scenes to shoot with each other, but for the next month they saw each other every day. Dorothy temporarily suspended her audition schedule to ensure she’d have free time for him. And soon Dale vowed to find them a place where they could be together—just them!—and once he got his first real paycheck, that’s what he did. He kept that promise.
* * * *
Before Dale and Dorothy had found their first apartment, Dale had bought a ring. It was a modest ring—he hadn’t made his money, yet—but a ring nonetheless. And it was pretty, for what it was. It was accommodating.
He’d ask for her hand, he’d decided, the day they found the place of their dreams. They’d seen a few apartments, but for Dorothy they weren’t enough. And although Dale could’ve been fine anywhere—all he wanted was her—he supported how picky she was. It was endearing, in the beginning. So he held onto the ring, at every showing they saw, and he waited for the right time to ask her. He was under the impression that the only way an engagement could be seen as official, in the eyes of the law, would be if he asked Dorothy for her hand with a witness present. Even though this was, in fact, only true for the wedding ceremony, Dale was young, still, and had, until this point, traded on his looks to get by, forsaking the benefits of things like school. Or reading—that’s for chumps and squares—relying instead on his looks and physicality to remove himself from trouble. But he was ready now, no matter what anybody told him. He’d found himself a woman, and he thought that made him a man.
From OUR TOWN. Reprinted with permission by Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2015 by Kevin McEnroe.