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3. Stephen Ornofsky

“Celia will be here any minute,” says Maya Johansen, small and slender and seventy-seven, confined to a wheelchair for the last fifteen years. “Go on now, Stephen. You’ll be late.”

“You know my pub show never starts promptly at eight,” says Stephen Ornofsky, Maya’s live-in caretaker for nine years now, a handsome fellow of thirty-four with short brown hair and wire-framed glasses. “You also know I’m incapable of leaving you alone at night. So just relax and enjoy my company until Celia gets here.”

The month is June, the time ten minutes after eight in the evening of a sunny day. Maya and Stephen are seated at a large rectangular wooden table on the deck of Maya’s rambling one-story redwood house in the northern California coastal town of Melody. With a few minutes of daylight left to them, they survey the remains of the delicious fish supper Stephen prepared for them and drink the last of their fine white wine.

Stephen’s two dogs, Hortensio, a big black mutt, and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are sprawled on the edge of the deck gazing out over Stephen’s big vegetable garden and down the hill into town, while Stephen’s enormous orange cat Harpo sits in the chair next to Stephen’s and gazes expectantly at his favorite human and hopes for one more piece of delicious cod.

Maya, who was born in Sweden and came to the United States when she was seven, a renowned dancer and choreographer before her terrible car accident, is wearing a black sweater over a blue T-shirt and baggy gray cotton trousers, her long white hair in a braid. She is belted into her old wicker wheelchair so she won’t fall out should she make any abrupt movements with the upper half of her body, movements she often makes. Being paralyzed from the waist down, she must be secured with a seatbelt or these sudden movements might topple her out of her chair.

Stephen, who was born just ten miles north of Melody in the big town of Mill City, is wearing black corduroy trousers and a matching sports jacket over a pale pink dress shirt, his usual attire for his Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s, a gig he’s had for seven years.

“Will you premiere your new song tonight?” asks Maya, who loves it when Stephen sings to her. “I hope so and I hope there’s a marvelous woman in the audience who falls madly in love with you, and you with her.”

“I may sing that song tonight,” says Stephen, smiling at Maya’s fantasy. “I was going to last week, but ran out of time.”

“Maybe start with the new song tonight,” says Maya, who every few months insists on attending Stephen’s show despite the hassle, but of late she’s been too tired in the evening to go anywhere.

“I am now habituated to opening with the raven song,” says Stephen, rising at the sound of tires crunching the gravel driveway—Celia Flores being dropped off by her husband Miguel. “After which Mabel habitually drops a ten-dollar bill in the tip jar to show the others how it’s done, dear woman. And then I’ll sing the new song.” He goes to Maya and kisses her cheek. “See you in the morning.”

“Sleep in if you want,” says Maya, who always cries a little when Stephen leaves her. “Celia can make breakfast, though lately she’s been overcooking the eggs.”

Stephen meets Celia at the front door and says, “Here you are, beautiful as ever.”

“Lo siento Esteban,” says Celia, a Mexican woman in her fifties dressed in white sweater and black slacks, her long black hair in a bun. “The car wouldn’t start and we had to get a jump from our neighbor. Forgive me.”

“Nothing to forgive,” he says, finding Celia adorable. “Maya would love a bath tonight. She’ll say don’t bother, but I know she’d love one and would especially love for you to wash her hair. Every time you do, she waxes euphoric.”

“Of course,” says Celia, nodding anxiously. “You better go now. I’m so sorry we make you late for your show.”

“Not to worry,” says Stephen, picking up his guitar case. “I’ll see you in the morning if you aren’t up when I get home.”

*

The coastal fog, having withdrawn a mile offshore for the day, returns to blanket the town for the night as Stephen walks the long three blocks from Maya’s house to downtown Melody where the crowd at McCarthy’s awaits him, many in that crowd having known Stephen since he was a teenager and played his guitar and sang his songs on the corner in front of the post office.

Stephen loves this three-block walk, loves the fog filling in the spaces between the houses, loves being alive.

A quiet child and exceedingly bright, Stephen needed glasses at five, started playing guitar when he was six, and did well in school until his second year of high school when his home life became untenable and he took to staying with friends whose parents would allow him to sleep on their sofas.

When he was sixteen, he bought an old Volkswagen van, dropped out of school, and for eighteen months lived in his van on his friend Lisa’s driveway a mile inland from Melody. A few months after he moved to Lisa’s driveway, Stephen fell into a deep depression and Lisa’s father Joseph paid for Stephen to go to a therapist. After a year of therapy, no longer depressed, Stephen moved into the town of Melody, and after another year of living in his van was able to rent a house with two friends and start giving guitar lessons to go with his gardening work. 

“And here I am,” says Stephen, arriving at McCarthy’s, Melody’s largest performance venue not counting the Presbyterian church.

A little pod of his fans who smoke are standing in front of the pub having a few last puffs before the show.

Malcolm Hawkins, a big hulking fellow in a long black coat says, “You’re late, Stevie. I’m going into withdrawals. Quick. Sing something.”

“You are the sunshine of my life,” sings Stephen, crooning a little Stevie Wonder. “See you inside.”

“Saved,” says Tommy, dropping his cigarette and snuffing it out with his shoe as he follows Stephen into the pub.

*

The place is full, standing room only, and people applaud when they see Stephen come in, which is McCarthy’s cue to go up on the little stage and give a brief introduction.

McCarthy, sixty-nine, short and muscular, his bald pate reflecting the stage lights, taps the microphone to hear the amplified pop and says, “And now embarking on his eighth year of performing here we give you the one and only Stephen Ornofsky.”

Having shed his jacket and strapped on his small teak guitar, Stephen takes the stage to loud applause, starts to strum, and when he’s happy with his sound, moves close to the microphone and sings Obadiah, Obadiah, Obadiah my love, I watched you write love poems in the blue sky above. I watched you write words with your ink black wings, and put them to music for something to sing.

Now he nods to the audience and dozens of people sing along as he repeats the verse, some people singing harmonies they’ve figured out over the years of singing along with Stephen, some singing the melody, the pub transformed into a church of beer-drinking revelers.

At song’s end, Stephen steps back from the microphone and Mabel Lundquist, who always sits up front with her partner Suse Malone, makes a pretty show of dropping a ten-dollar bill into the white shoebox with TIPS writ large on the side.

“Merci Mabel,” says Stephen, bowing to her. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I want to follow Obadiah with a brand new song that…” Stephen freezes at the sight of someone in the audience. “Oh my God. Joseph. Haven’t seen you in forever. And this new song… the one I’m about to sing… I wrote for you.” He shakes his head in wonder. “What are the odds?”

A hush falls over the room.

“Not to put you on the spot, Joseph,” says Stephen, playing an eloquent chord, “but how are you?”

“I’m good,” says Joseph, who is seventy-five and sharing a table with a beautiful young woman. “Only now I’m nervous about this song you’re gonna sing.”

The audience laughs appreciatively.

“I believe in everything now,” says Stephen, playing the eloquent chord again and launching into a swingin’ tune, the verses of which comprise a fantastical version of Stephen’s autobiography, the chorus:

Joe Joe Joseph Joe, he may not know it,

but he saved my soul, yes he saved my soul

and he saved my life, Joseph fantastico Joe.

*

 Stephen goes to Joseph’s table between sets and he and Joseph embrace.

“I finally write a song for you after all these years,” says Stephen, stepping back from Joseph to look at him, “and you show up the first time I sing it. And they say there’s no such thing as cosmic synchronicity. Ha!”

“Stephen this is Carmen,” says Joseph, gesturing to the lovely woman at his table. “Carmen, Stephen.”

“A pleasure,” says Stephen, gazing at the beautiful brunette. “I’ve never seen you before, so I’m guessing you either just moved here or you’re visiting from elsewhere, Hollywood perhaps.”

“Santa Rosa,” says Carmen, giving Stephen an adoring look. “I love your music and you’re very funny.”

“What brings you to Melody?” asks Stephen, enthralled by her. “Permanent residency we hope.”

“Joe and I are making a movie together,” she says, acknowledging Stephen’s hope with an arching of her eyebrow, “and we’re planning to shoot it here on the coast, so I’ve been coming over now and then to work with him. I’d love to live here, but… all in good time.”

“A movie. How wonderful,” says Stephen, nodding his thanks to the waitress for bringing him a beer. “If you need any music, keep me in mind. I play piano, too. Kind of metaphysical ambient jazz.”

“We will keep you in mind,” says Joseph, winking at Carmen. “You grew up, Stephen. I had you frozen in time. I’m so glad you’re doing well.”

“Thank you, Joseph,” says Stephen, nodding gratefully. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Listen,” says Joseph, clearing his throat. “I want to apologize for…”

“No need,” says Stephen, gently interrupting. “You were going through a very rough time and I was ready to go. I have nothing but gratitude for what you did for me.” He looks at Carmen. “He allowed me to live at his place and paid for me to get some therapy when I really needed it.”

“He told me,” says Carmen, looking from Stephen to Joseph and back to Stephen.

“And now I must take the stage again,” says Stephen, bowing to Joseph. “Wonderful seeing you again.”

*

The next morning, Stephen wakes early and takes his dogs for a walk through the foggy town to the post office where he finds in his box two letters from faraway friends and the latest issue of Galapagos, a literary quarterly that published two of Stephen’s poems a few years ago, the only two poems he’s ever had published.

When he gets back to the house, he finds Celia making coffee in the kitchen, still in her nightgown, her hair down, no makeup on yet, which is how Stephen prefers her.

“She wants you to make the eggs today,” says Celia, giving Stephen a sleepy smile. “You want me to get her out of bed and you make the eggs?”

“You never overcook the eggs,” says Stephen, feeling marvelous. “How’s your back this morning?”

“A little sore,” she says, shrugging. “I put her in the bath last night, wash her hair, get her out of the bath, dress her, into her chair, then out of her chair into bed. But I can do this morning.”

“Why not straight to bed from the bath?” he asks, which is what Maya always wants when Stephen bathes her at night.

“She want to wait up for you,” says Celia, nodding. “But then she gets too tired.”

“I’ll get her out of bed this morning,” says Stephen, wanting to caress Celia, but not daring to. “And if you will chop up strawberries and bananas, I’ll make pancakes for breakfast.”

*

Fridays and Saturdays and Tuesdays are technically Stephen’s days off from caring for Maya, but because he lives with her and they eat most of their meals together and they are devoted to each other, the lines blur on those days. Celia is there from Thursday evening through Sunday late morning, and Josephine comes on Monday evening and stays until Tuesday evening, so Stephen feels much freer on those days to do as he pleases.

*

Pancakes devoured, Celia goes to take a shower and dress for the day, and Stephen does the dishes and tells Maya about the amazing coincidence of Joseph being in the audience for the unveiling of Joseph Fantastico Joe.

“I’ve never told you,” says Maya, gazing out the kitchen window, “that Joe asked me to marry him.”

“When?” asks Stephen, shocked she withheld this from him until now.

“The year before my accident,” she says, vividly remembering those last months of being able to walk. “After Irene left him we kept bumping into each other around town and having wonderful conversations, and I’d been single for three years, so we went out for supper and went to a couple movies and plays, and then we took a trip together, motel hopping up the coast from here to Astoria and back, and when we got home he asked me to marry him.”

“And?” asks Stephen, expectantly.

“I said ‘Why get married? Why not just be friends and lovers?’ And he said, ‘No. I need to know we’re committed to each other.’ And I said, ‘Isn’t loving each other enough?’ And he got very angry and said, ‘Saying you love someone isn’t the same as proving you love them. And marriage is proof.’ I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. I said, “I’ve been married twice, you’ve been married three times. What did getting married prove? Nothing as far as I can see.’ And that was that. He didn’t speak to me again until a couple months after the accident when he called to ask if he could help, and I said, ‘I’ll let you know,’ but I never wanted anything from him.”

*

Stephen is in the vegetable garden weeding the broccoli when Celia comes out on the deck with the carry-around phone. “For you Esteban. Should I take a message?”

“No, I’ll come,” he says, climbing the five stairs to the deck and taking the phone from her. “Hello?”

“Stephen, it’s Carmen. We met at the pub last night. I was with Joe.” She waits for him to reply, and when he doesn’t, she says, “I think you’re the only person in the world who calls him Joseph.”

“Oh Carmen,” he says, remembering her now. “Beautiful name and not easy to rhyme.”

“Charmin’?” she suggests. “Alarmin’. Disarmin.”

 “Of course. Silly me. Hadn’t thought to excise the g. I’ll get to work on that song right away.”

“Oh good,” she says, laughing. “I’m calling because Joe and I are wondering if you’d be interested in being in our movie.” Again she waits for Stephen to reply, and again he says nothing. “There will be an initial two or three days of the cast improvising scenes, after which Joe and I will write the script, and then there will be two weeks of filming in and around Melody. September-ish. We can pay you four thousand dollars.”

“Who else is in the cast?” asks Stephen, who until now has never even thought about being in a movie.

“Joseph and I, a wonderful actress named Patricia, Murray of Murray’s Seafood, and you. Would you like to meet for coffee and talk about this?”

“Sure,” says Stephen, more interested in seeing Carmen again than being in a movie. “Where and when?”

Murray’s Seafood in an hour. We’ll treat you to lunch if you haven’t eaten already.”

*

Stephen informs Celia and Maya he’s going to meet Joseph and Carmen for lunch at Murray’s Seafood, which prompts a powwow about supper resulting in the decision that he bring home three orders of fish & chips.

He shaves, puts on his green Murray’s Seafood sweatshirt over his black McCarthy’s T-shirt, decides to wear jeans instead of shorts, and heads downtown. On his way, he imagines being in a movie with Carmen, and in every scene they tumble into bed.

*

Joseph and Carmen sit side-by-side facing Stephen across the table.

Carmen looks darling in a billowy white blouse, her dark brown hair in a braid coiled on top of her head.

Joseph looks exhausted, his blue Hawaiian shirt faded and wrinkled.

“So…” says Joseph, smiling a tired smile, “what more can we tell you?”

“Well,” says Stephen, who is now vastly more interested in Carmen than being in their movie, “I understand you have yet to write the script, but the cast you’ve assembled suggests you have an inkling of what the movie might be about. Yes?”

“The quest for a meaningful life,” says Carmen, matter-of-factly, “and possibly meeting a soul mate or two along the way.”

Stephen considers this and smiles wistfully. “I think you will find I’m not much of an actor. Maya and I have a play-reading group and I’m renowned for sounding pretty much the same no matter what part I’m reading.”

“That’s true of most movie actors,” says Joseph, who has directed several big-budget movies. “Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers were the exceptions not the rule.”

“We want you to be you,” says Carmen, nodding in agreement with Joseph. “Only you won’t be Stephen. You’ll be someone else. Patricia might be your mother or your lover, or you might be Joseph’s son or his nephew or his neighbor, or you might be my brother or… but whoever you are, you’ll still be you.”

“Like being in a dream?” says Stephen, trying to understand. “I’m still me, though the dream is nothing like my waking reality?”

“Exactly,” says Carmen, crazy about him. “We will be in a dream together and film the dream.”

Mystery Sweet

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