My first break as a prop master involved a rolling ladder and Audrey Hepburn kicking me in the shin while I sorted nails. Her delicate foot made me wince.
“Oswald, how dare you ask a girl out with wood shavings on your trousers and paint on your palms!” exclaimed Audrey.
I cast a solemn glance at Pearl who was filling the set’s bookcases with facsimiles of Flaubert. Her ebony updo and polka dot skirt stood out amongst Kay Thompson’s blonde curls and the extras in pink dresses.
“Not all of us can be charming blokes who bring spaghetti to our wives every lunch hour,” I said, fetching a screwdriver.
“Don’t you think I had to encourage Mel’s excursions to the restaurant?” Audrey winked. She nodded toward Astaire as the Think Pink ladies pretended to brush lint off his jacket just to touch him. “If you can’t charm her with your wardrobe, perhaps your actions could.”
“Please don’t compare me to Fred again.”
“After you fell headfirst into the developing tray, how could I?” teased Audrey.
“That was graceful Fred’s fault!” I gripped the screwdriver. “Your coordinated co-star broke the table when you guys danced around the darkroom, and it collapsed.”
Audrey shrugged. “Even if that were true, nobody would believe you.”
While her character Jo was wrong about Professor Flostre, Audrey was usually right. She told me not to call the ribbons on Jo’s bookstore hat vomit-green and sure enough Pearl walked off after my sickening comment. Audrey insisted I open the door for Pearl when she ferried in the book carts but I collided with her when I checked to see if the cart wheels were faulty. I was a clumsy mess not fit to shine Astaire’s polished shoes.
“Not to be cutesy, but how long has this been going on?” sighed Audrey.
“Since the first day on set,” I admitted. “When I watched her blow sawdust off those fake copies of Shakespeare.”
“Aren’t you the same person who was confident your crew could paint the entire palace of Siam in a few weeks?” said Audrey. “You look respectable today. Go over there.”
The King and I was a really arduous job, and I still saw shades of gold when I lay down to sleep. If I hadn’t gotten to shake Yul Brynner’s hand during the process, I would’ve hit myself with a two-by-four sometime during production.
I shook my head. “I can’t talk to her, and if this top step’s not sturdy, you could fall.”
“You cowardly bachelor.” Audrey strode off.
Part of me wanted to call her a know-it-all newlywed, but I had every word of Roman Holiday memorized and thought she was near perfect.
Pearl, with her devotion to fashioning believable Tennyson tomes, was the only woman who surpassed her. No poetry ever spilled from my chapped lips, and I couldn’t be a dandy like Fred if I tried. When I asked Pearl if she wanted to go get coffee, I mentioned fixing the unreliable machine, and she claimed that she didn’t want to disrupt me. S’ wonderfully impressive how awful I am with words.
At least my tools never failed me. I climbed the ladder’s steps to reach the top one.
“Have you ever gone to Greenwich Village?” asked a soft voice.
I peered past the side rail to stare at Pearl’s tanned cheeks. She liked to read prop lists on a nearby bench in the sunlight. I cherished the seconds I viewed those instances before ducking into the erected bookshop.
“Because I’m not sure if Austen’s too comedic for Jo Stockton … to stock in her scholarly establishment,” said Pearl.
“Maybe put it at the bottom?” I suggested, blushing while checking the step.
“Yes, as filler. I don’t know why I’m having trouble filling in these gaps. I should’ve asked you sooner. You’re good with details.”
The step didn’t clatter when I gripped it tighter. Did that mean she’d notice me too, positioning shelves and sanding chairs for Audrey to perform around? I checked my hands. No hint of primer.
“Do you need someone to test that on?” Pearl held the Austen to her chest, the gold book clasps as bright as her grey eyes. Her demure gesture made me relax my shoulders.
“I need someone just your size.” I stepped down and helped her ascend the rolling staircase.
The top step she stood on failed to rattle as I pushed the ladder delicately to the left. Pearl’s cheeks flushed as she released a small squeal of pleasure. Her updo became unbound as the ladder sailed, and to quote Jo, I felt like Columbus discovering another world.
“If I was a bookseller, this is why I’d come to work,” said Pearl. “What’s next for you, Oswald?”
“I’m hoping to work on another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. They’ve got plenty of projects lined up. Maybe I could fill you in during dinner?”
Pearl patted my head. “I think if Fred Astaire’s nowhere near the dinner table, we’ll have a good time.”
We locked gazes until an object flew to my chest. It was the hat with the horrendous ribbons.
“Take her out for pasta!” shouted Audrey. “And pick up some dress pants for heaven’s sake!”
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