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Baritone, breathless: without warning, the voice over his right shoulder brushed his ear in a sigh of panic, as if the speaker had been chased by dogs. He hadn’t heard footsteps, or the usual whoosh from the door separating the auditorium’s main stairwell from this tiny chamber that housed the theater department’s bulletin board and green room. Ennis looked up. It was the grad student—the one with a thing for Pinter, and the object of his yearlong crush-at-first-sight.
“I’m Dan Seymour, god you’re hard to pin down.” He extended his hand and Ennis felt the warmth of its soft boniness. He was a good five inches taller than the young black man, less skinny in person than from a distance.
“Ennis—‘Dennis’ without the D, if that helps.”
“Oops, I’m sorry.” A pained look blushed across his broad face, and Ennis immediately regretted the correction, for while he was self-conscious about many things, he possessed not a whit of vanity about his name. The “penis” rhyme was the most common mangling, the one adults readily embraced. It was benign compared to what he’d endured in grade school: Anacin was popular then, but so was Anus. His tact had been to pretend he hadn’t heard them, rather than feed their heckling flames. One day his father overheard, but it was Ennis who bore the brunt of his scolding: “That was my Daddy’s name, don’t you let them kids mess it up.”
Charged with defending the name of a man he’d never met, he hit on the Dennis mnemonic soon after since that’s what most people assumed they’d heard whenever he was introduced. What the grad student didn’t know was how much pleasure Ennis took in the mispronunciations. It happened so frequently that now he took it in stride, along with the speaker’s physical manifestations of discomfort: just before the unsuspecting victim stumbled over his tongue, perhaps their brows would knit, or the eyes might widen. He’d learn to spot such tells—they helped him gauge to what degree how much of the speaker’s embarrassment he’d have to assuage.
Quickly he bailed the tall, lanky man out with one of his common rejoinders. “Blame my father—it’s all his fault.”
Dan’s smile curled with the quick impatience of someone who loathed public humiliation—though for the moment, the only witness was the lone nineteen year-old undergrad. “Jean-Louis said I should talk to you. I’m doing The Dumbwaiter for my directing workshop. It’s a two-character piece, they’re Cockneys, kinda petty criminals, but they’re also yes-men…”
Ennis let him ramble, though he’d heard it before. Jean-Louis Baldet was Ennis’ acting teacher, and the advisor to the theater department’s MA directing candidates. A month ago the dynamic Frenchman hosted an afternoon session to introduce graduate directors to the department’s acting majors. Maybe Dan hadn’t noticed him in the back row; Ennis, on the other hand, couldn’t take his eyes off the mysterious man he’d first noticed the previous fall, stalking rehearsals for Jean-Louis’ production of The Devils; from the stage some nights, Ennis watched him sit cross-legged in a corner on the Wilson Auditorium stage, or looking up from the dark cavern of the theater’s orchestra seats.
He’d floated around of the corners of the younger man’s consciousness like a ghost, but right now he was close enough to touch. Ennis took in the huge gray eyes—imploring, cat-like—and the large triangular nose. Like Ennis’s, the features were almost too big for his face. How did Jean-Louis put it? Yeah: out of scale for real life, but perfect for the stage. A big chestnut brush of a moustache tickled his nostrils; flecked with glints of rust, it obscured the tiny bump of upper lip like a veil. Long licks of chestnut framed his heart-shaped face, caressing the neck and chin, a James Taylor album cover sprung to life.
He had to turn him down. What he couldn’t tell Dan, or anyone, was that he was exhausted. Right after The Devils, his professors had granted a leave of absence so he might make his regional theater debut—though with the proviso that he’d make up the missed work. The scramble was on to get it done by the end of the year; aside from that, there was also his job to consider. Those hours were a given; he needed the money.
But Jean-Louis wouldn’t accept the fatigue excuse. Like all gurus, the professor inspired Ennis’s misguided sense of obligation; he’d championed the actor’s potential all year and in return, Ennis didn’t want to appear ungrateful, or worse, lazy. He’d have to come up with an excuse that would insure a reprieve.
He let his gaze drop, as if the answer lay on the hallway floor. For the first time he noticed Dan’s bare feet. Oddly bright against the green cement, his blunt toes looked as if he’d spent a lifetime kicking walls. They curled and flexed provocatively; sprigs of tawny hair sprinkled their tops, trailed up the instep before disappearing beneath the frayed cuffs of his coveralls.
He might as well been naked. Somewhere from the depths, a “yes” came out of the actor’s mouth, followed by a fear he’d not felt since two years before, when he’d first stepped on stage.