Dexter was so looking forward to a lusty week at Happy Valley Retreat Center, but the love-in got cancelled because of the dang virus that’s going around, and going around is a humongous understatement.
So in the aftermath of that tragic cancellation, and having heard a voice while watching a cloud, a voice that might have been Dexter’s imagination but might have been the voice of the universe, AKA God, Dexter decides to follow the advice of the voice and dig up his scraggly lawn and put in a vegetable garden and plant some fruit trees.
Who is Dexter? Why should we care about him? Those are two good questions. I would even say they are essential questions. Many novels and stories and movies, especially movies, go wrong because we never get to know the main characters as people rather than archetypes, and we aren’t given good reasons to care about those characters.
Dexter is forty-six, a Caucasian American male born and raised and living in Springfield, Oregon, a UPS delivery person for thirteen years now after four years as an auto mechanic at Super Fast n’ Cheap Oil Change. Before being an oil changer he was co-owner with his mother Doris of an online 1960s memorabilia company called Quicksilver Memory Service, which Doris still has though her sales in the last twenty years haven’t amounted to much.
In the next three paragraphs I’ll try to answer the question about why you should care about Dexter. If what I tell you doesn’t ring your bell, I suggest you stop reading and do something else with your precious time. Doesn’t ring my bell, by the way, is one of Dexter’s favorite expressions, learned from his mother who uses it several times a day.
Dexter is a kind and thoughtful person who is genuinely interested in other people. He is fascinated by history and neurobiology and reads voraciously about both. He learned next to nothing in high school and did not attend college, yet his two best friends are highly educated and consider Dexter a wonderfully original thinker. One of those best friends is a middle-aged Chinese man named Luis, a microbiology software designer, and the other best friend is a forty-year-old Danish woman named Greta, a researcher for an online encyclopedia.
Painfully shy around women he finds attractive, Dexter finds most women attractive. He would love to be in a relationship, but his several attempts all ended unpleasantly, not because Dexter is a jerk, but because he grew up without any sort of model for how one goes about having a relationship, except with one’s mother.
Dexter is a sweetheart who is afraid of seeming too sweet. He loves classical music, something he got from his mother’s father who was a classical music clarinet player. He also likes music that swings, something he got from being human. He has two cats he dotes on, Frank and Ethel, and he would love to have a dog but doesn’t feel he has the time and energy after ten hours of delivering packages to give a dog the attention and exercise he or she would require. He also has a large aquarium, home to seven neon tetras. His favorite television show is the British game show 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, his favorite ethnic cuisine is Thai, and if none of that makes you care about Dexter, read no further.
However, if you are still reading, Dexter’s parents split up when Dexter was five, and though they legally had joint custody of Dexter, he spent most of his childhood with his mother Doris in her Airstream trailer in the Riverside Mobile Home Park where she still lives today.
A spry seventy-six, Doris starts every day with several cups of black coffee and reading Tarot cards for an hour or so. Thus it has been since Dexter was born. A retired bookkeeper, Doris owns three other Airstream trailers and the lots they sit on in Riverside Mobile Home Park. The rent she derives from those three mobile homes is sufficient to support her minimalist lifestyle and leave her a little extra each month to contribute to the local food bank.
She is not terribly afraid of catching the dang virus going around, but she is a little afraid, so for the time being she visits with Dexter on the phone and not in-person. She has groceries delivered to her doorstep every few days and walks her toy poodle Cream around the mobile home park for a half-hour every late morning and again in the early evening. She believes 1972 was the apex of human culture, and the décor in her Airstream, the music she listens to, the movies she watches, and the books she reads reflect that belief.
Doris raised Dexter to believe the 1960s and 70s were the golden age of humanity and he continues to believe this. He thinks of himself as a latter-day hippie. He has two extraordinary tie-dyed T-shirts, drives a faded red 1977 Volkswagen van, wears his longish brown hair in a stubby ponytail, and digs Van Morrison, though his go-to music is anything by Mendelssohn.
So here is Dexter on a cool Saturday morning in May, digging up the scraggly lawn in the little backyard of his blue two-bedroom tract home he has owned for fifteen years. Built in the late 1970s, the house is sturdy and unpretentious with a small front yard filled with rose bushes. The somewhat larger backyard is enclosed by a seven-feet-high wood fence that gives no view of the yards on either side of Dexter’s yard, or of the yard behind his yard.
Dexter barely knows his neighbors on either side of him and he knows nothing about the person or people who live in the house with the yard in back of his.
Sporting a bit of a paunch but otherwise in excellent shape from delivering packages five-days-a-week for the last thirteen years, Dexter is very much enjoying digging up the scraggly lawn, which is so scraggly there is little lawn to remove. As he turns the soil with his big shovel, the lawn remnants disappear. His plan is to dig up the whole lawn, get twenty bags of manure, dig that in, and plant some stuff.
He gets lost in a fantasy of going to the nursery to get manure and meeting an intriguing woman who is also buying manure and they fall in love. And just as he and this fantasy woman are about to make love, a voice says, “Gonna plant some veggies? If so, you picked a primo spot.”
Dexter looks up and around, wondering where the voice came from. This is not the same voice that might have been Dexter’s imagination or might have been the voice of God telling him to dig up his lawn. This voice came from nearby and is male and a little gravelly.
“Hello?” says Dexter. “Where are you?”
“Back here,” says the man, chuckling. “Looking at you through a knothole. Thought you’d like to know your soon-to-be-gone lawn used to be part of the commune vegetable garden back in the day. Sixties and Seventies. Before my old man sold the land to the developers. He kept three lots and the big old farmhouse and when he died he left them to me.”
Dexter leaves his shovel stuck in the ground and walks toward his back fence. The man sticks his finger through the knothole and waggles Hello.
“I’m Dexter,” says Dexter, waggling a finger at the knothole. “Who are you?”
“Godfrey Moonstone,” says the man. “My old man was Ira Levinson and my mom was Shirley Goldstein, but they legally changed their last names to Moonstone. They were hippies until I was twenty and then virtually overnight, or so it seemed, they turned into Republicans. I think of myself as a latter-day hippy.” He sighs. “But who knows what we are anymore. Things are pretty confusing now, don’t you think? With the virus and everything?”
“I’m kind of a latter-day hippy, too,” says Dexter, stopping a few feet from the back fence. “You been infected?”
“Not yet,” says Godfrey. “You?”
“Not as far as I know,” says Dexter, shaking his head. “You want a beer?”
“Love one,” says Godfrey, sweetly. “However, I’m a reformed alcoholic. Seventeen years sober.”
“Good on you, Godfrey,” says Dexter, smiling appreciatively. “Lemonade?”
“Perfecto,” says Godfrey. “How shall…”
“I’ll hand your bottle over the fence,” says Dexter.
“Cool,” says Godfrey. “I’ll get a ladder.”
“I’ll get one, too,” says Dexter.
So they stand a few rungs up on their stepladders and look at each other over the fence and drink lemonade together.
Godfrey is a tall angular man in his early fifties with olive skin and short black hair. He lives with his sister Melody who teaches online Home Economics for the currently closed high schools in Springfield and nearby Eugene. Godfrey is a spiritual counselor at the neighborhood Presbyterian, and he, too, is fascinated by history and neurobiology and reads voraciously about both.
In fact, Dexter and Godfrey have such a deep and meaningful time talking to each other over their back fence, they decide to knock out some planks and build a friendship gate.