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After Rosalind

This is a story about Desdemona Peoples, known to her friends and those who read her poetry as Dez Peoples. She works at Oberon’s, the only stationery store in town, and used to be married to Larry Peoples who is now married to Penny Peoples. Given that they all live in Ophelia, Washington, a small town, you may wonder why Dez doesn’t drop Peoples and go back to using her maiden name Persons to make things less confusing for everyone. And the reason she doesn’t go back to Persons is poetry.

A striking brunette, Dez was born in Ophelia, the youngest of three kids with two older brothers. Her father Skip was a logger, her mother Ernestine a housewife who took in sewing work to supplement the family income, and both Dez’s brothers became loggers, too. By the age of twelve, Dez was determined to get out of Ophelia and never come back. Blazingly smart, she thought everybody in town was an idiot. Now she knows everybody in Ophelia is not an idiot, but when she was twelve that’s what she thought.

Dez graduated from high school at sixteen and went to college at San Francisco State where she majored in Dance. Upon graduating with honors, she moved to Portland and joined a modern dance company called Epiphany, had parts in several plays, and wrote poetry. She worked as a waitress, had a series of musician boyfriends, wrote hundreds of poems, and tried to get them published with little success.

When Dez was thirty-seven her father died and she went back to Ophelia to take care of her grieving mother. After she’d been home for a month, she had a fling with Larry Peoples who had briefly been her boyfriend in high school, and because her birth control implant gave up the ghost six months early, she got pregnant, married Larry, and took his last name to make things less confusing for everyone in Ophelia.

Much to her surprise, Dez enjoyed being married to Larry who was sweet to her during her pregnancy and sweet to their child Rosalind until Lindy, as Larry called Rosalind, was three. Then Larry got together with Penny and had little to do with Dez or Rosalind ever again.

But during Larry’s initial sweetness to her and their child, Dez stopped signing her poems Desdemona Persons and started signing them Dez Peoples, and the minute she made that change, literary magazines started publishing her poems, which led to Seven Painted Elephants Press publishing her first volume of poems Before Rosalind, which was subsequently published in a German-English edition by the Swiss publisher Werner Schaffen. And when Before Rosalind proved successful, Seven Painted Elephants Press published Dez’s second volume of poems Now She Is Two and Werner Schaffen published a German-English edition of that collection, too.

Which is not to say Dez became famous, but as poets in America fare, she was faring quite well, which is why when she and Larry divorced, she kept on being Dez Peoples.

*

On a muggy Saturday in August—Rosalind eight, Dez forty-six, and Dez’s mother Ernestine seventy-two—Dez and Rosalind are working in the vegetable garden in back of the two-story house where Dez grew up, digging horse manure into the soil for planting pole beans and potatoes.

Ernestine comes out on the back porch and says, “Phone for you Dez. Somebody named Lulu.”

Rosalind laughs. “You mean Zulu, Grandma.”

“Lulu, Zulu,” says Ernestine, laughing, too. “Some sort of ulu.”

“Dig on, Roz,” says Dez, hurrying to the house. “I won’t be long.”

Zulu Manhattan is Dez’s editor at Articulate Dinosaur Press in Seattle, publisher of Dez’s last three volumes of poetry. Dez’s latest volume, her seventh, Controversial Recipes, just came out in America and Europe and is getting stellar reviews. Werner Schaffen has published German-English editions of all seven of Dez’s books and she now has a small following in Germany and Switzerland.

“Hey Dez,” says Zulu, her accent southern, “we just got a call from Nathan Grayson. Well… from his people. Do you know him?”

“No,” says Dez, sitting at the kitchen table and using the same wall-mounted telephone she grew up with. “Somebody sent me the book he won the Pulitzer for. Can’t think of the title. Haven’t read it yet.”

“Well you better read it, honey,” says Zulu, emphatically, “because he apparently loves your work and wants you to open for him at a big show in Seattle on October fifth, PBS taping the show for a national Christmas special. Wants you to do about twenty minutes. They’ll pay you two grand and put you up at the Four Seasons and interview you for the special, too. Yes?”

“I’ll need to check with my mother,” says Dez, terrified. “Make sure she’s available to take care of Roz. Can I call you back tomorrow? Or Monday?”

“Monday at the latest, darling,” says Zulu, hearing the fear in Dez’s voice. “Grayson is going to be the next poet laureate, you know. Or the one after that.”

“I probably can do it,” says Dez, breathlessly. “I’ll call you back.”

Dez hangs up the phone and bows her head. This is her dream come true and her worst nightmare. She wants to be successful and wants to be anonymous.

Ernestine comes in from the garden cradling zucchinis and cucumbers in her apron, dumps the produce on the kitchen counter and says, “You okay, Dez?”

“They want me to read with Nathan Grayson in Seattle,” says Dez, anguished. “In October. For a PBS Christmas show.”

“For your new book?” asks Ernestine, getting Dez a glass of water.

Dez smiles at her mother who knows nothing about poetry except that Dez is a poet and Psalms in The Bible are poems.

“Nathan Grayson is very famous,” Dez explains, “and it certainly would help my new book if I read with him and a million people watched the show, but I’m not sure I want to.”

“Why not?” asks Ernestine, frowning at her daughter. “Wouldn’t take long. Three-hour drive to Seattle, read your poems, come on home. We’ll hardly know you were gone.”

“You make it sound so wonderfully simple,” says Dez, giving her mother a hug. “But it isn’t.”

*

As they plant the bean seeds, Dez tells Rosalind about the reading in Seattle.

“Can I come?” asks Rosalind, nodding hopefully. “I love Seattle.”

“I don’t know if I’ll do it,” says Dez, sinking her hands in the soil and closing her eyes.

“Why not?” asks Rosalind, frowning at her mother. “We could go to Pike Street Market and get fish and chips and salt water taffy and go on a ferry boat ride.”

“It’s complicated,” says Dez, thinking Maxine is the only person I know who will understand what I’m up against.

*

When Ernestine and Rosalind take the mutts Portia and Petruchio for a walk, Dez sits at the kitchen table and calls Maxine in Portland. Maxine is an artist ten years older than Dez who makes her living staging houses for real estate agents. She and Dez shared a flat and were waitresses together when Dez lived in Portland.

“Hey baby girl,” says Maxine when she hears Dez’s voice. “I’ve been meaning to call you and tell you how much I love the new poems. The one about the old lady buying whiskey in the Pakistani liquor store? I laughed until I cried. You just get better and better. And who took the picture of you on the jacket? You look like Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“Roz took it,” says Dez, smiling as she recalls standing in the vegetable garden, her hair still wet from her shower, Rosalind snapping pictures with a tiny camera. “You got a minute?”

“For you, baby girl, all day.”

Dez tells Maxine about the gig with Nathan Grayson and her mixed feeling about saying Yes, and Maxine says, “Self-sabotage or self-preservation? That is the question.”

“I’m not unhappy,” says Dez, as if that might be a good enough reason not to read with Nathan Grayson.

“What are you afraid of?” asks Maxine, getting out her notebook.

“I write poetry,” says Dez with anger in her voice. “I don’t want to be mistaken for Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“You’d be sensational,” says Maxine, writing Sensational at the top of a blank page. “And that would open a Pandora’s Box of interest in you. Tell me why that’s bad.”

“I like not being famous,” says Dez, hearing how false she sounds.

“And what will happen if you don’t do it?” asks Maxine, writing Pandora’s Box under Sensational.

“If I don’t do it,” says Dez, knowing how the world works, “my publisher will drop me and I will ever after be known as the uppity bitch who wouldn’t read with Nathan Grayson.”

Maxine laughs. “You are so not an uppity bitch, baby girl.”

Silence.

“I’m stuck,” says Dez, quoting Rosalind who often says I’m stuck when seeking help.

“Let’s go back to the beginning,” says Maxine, writing The Beginning under Pandora’s Box. “Why do you write poems?”

“To capture moments,” says Dez, thinking of Rosalind on her knees in the garden placing big white beans in the little trench snaking through the dark brown soil.

“Why capture moments?” asks Maxine, writing Moments.

“To share them with others.”

“Why do you want to do that?”

“To connect. Maybe help.”

“Help?”

“You know… maybe awaken someone a little.”

“Do it, Dez,” says Maxine, writing Awaken! “Pandora won’t bother you much in Ophelia.”

*

So Dez takes the gig.

*

At the end of Dez’s sound check a few hours before the big show, Nathan Grayson and his entourage enter the vast theatre and Grayson strides down the center aisle to meet Dez coming off the stage.

A movie-star handsome fellow in his fifties, his hair a flawless gray pompadour, Nathan takes Dez’s hand in both of his and says, “Your author photos don’t lie. Why no videos?”

“I’m low tech,” says Dez, who got her hair cut stylishly short for the reading. “Just write.”

“So you’ll do about ten minutes,” says Nathan, winking at Dez. “Sound good?”

“I was told twenty,” says Dez, having memorized six poems that take her seventeen minutes to recite without haste.

“Less is more,” says Nathan, winking at her again. “Aim for ten. They always take fifteen.”

“Will do,” says Dez, wanting to like Nathan but finding him repulsive.

“Perfecto,” says Nathan, winking at her a third time. “Just be yourself.”

*

The first poem Dez recites is called Café Idyll, about a day in her life as a waitress—the seventeen hundred people in the audience entranced from the first line and roaring with laughter throughout.

Aiming to finish under fifteen minutes, Dez skips her second and third poems and performs A Tale of Two Bass Players, a funny poignant imagining of her long-ago bass player boyfriends showing up in Ophelia to take her back to the life she had in Portland before the coming of Rosalind.

The audience goes bonkers when she finishes the poem, cheering and whistling and applauding thunderously.

Now something in the wings catches Dez’s attention and she glances to her right and sees Nathan Grayson gesturing wildly for her to stop, to be done, though she’s only been on for nine minutes.

And when the stage manager and the show’s director fail to calm Grayson down and he’s about to walk onto the stage and do God knows what to get Dez off the stage, Dez leans close to the microphone and says, “I’ll close now with a poem inspired by Nathan Grayson who so graciously asked me to read with him.”

Which simple speech quells the beast.

*

After Rosalind

When I was a child my older brothers would say to boys

questioning the little girl playing ball with them, “She’s tough

as nails. Not afraid of anything.” Which was true for all my

life until at thirty-seven I swelled with child, my Rosalind,

and in a second-trimester dream I drew my sword to fight

a man who would slay me before my babe was born. And

in that bloody duel was born my fear and the prayer

Oh let me live until my babe is born and weaned and strong.

And when my babe was four-years-old my prayer became

Oh let me live until she can make her way without me.

Now Rosalind is eight and as fearless as I

before she came to be, and in a dream

two nights ago that same man came to slay me.

But this time when I drew my sword I felt no fear,

for Rosalind was beside me, her sword drawn, too,

a cunning smile on her soon-to-be-a-woman’s face.

*

A gorgeous day in October—Rosalind thirteen, Dez fifty-one, Ernestine seventy-seven—they are having breakfast in a café in Zurich, Switzerland with Dirk Rosenfeld, Dez’s translator at Werner Schaffen, publisher of all ten volumes of Dez’s poetry in beautiful German-English editions.

“Soon,” says Dirk, watching Rosalind take a sip of coffee from her mother’s cup, “you will be having your own cups of coffee, Roz.”

“I prefer sipping from my mother’s cup,” says Rosalind, smiling at Dez. “I suppose I might move away some day and then I’ll have my own cups of coffee, though I only ever want a few sips.”

“It begins with a few sips,” says Dirk, nodding sagely. “Then one day we want a little more and a little more, and soon one cup is not enough.”

“That’s me,” says Ernestine, never having imagined she would ever go to Europe as she has now twice with Dez and Rosalind. “Two cups every morning and sometimes three, and another two in the afternoon. But not Dez. She finishes the one with breakfast and that’s it for the day. Been that way since she was twelve.”

“Not counting the twenty years I lived away from home,” says Dez, remembering the cozy flat she shared with Maxine in Portland, purple paisley curtains, big pillows on the living room floor, Othello the cat snoozing on the windowsill, the air rich with the scent of coffee brewing.

fin

Morning Coffee

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Without A Story

There once was a man who made his living writing funny short stories. The man’s name was Azben Hummingbird and the stories he wrote came to him unceasingly for fifty years until one day they stopped.

“How strange,” said Azben to his cat Hernando who often curled up on Azben’s lap when Azben sat by the fire writing in his notebook. “Nothing.”

Azben sipped his nettle tea and thought back over his life and remembered a few other days when nothing came to him to write, and these memories reassured him the stories would come again, probably the next day.

But no story came the next day or the next or the next, and Azben could not remember ever going so many days without a story coming to him, and he began to worry.

You see, Azben could not make up stories. He had tried on a few occasions, but after making up just a few sentences he would start to feel terrible, as if he was committing a crime. Then he would read the sentences he’d written and find the writing poor, so he would burn the page and feel immensely relieved.

Thus he knew it was not a good idea to try to make up a story, yet after a week of no story coming to him he did try to make one up and only got a far as The day dawned chilly before his head began to ache. So he stopped writing and decided to go for a walk.

*

Azben and his wife Zenevia lived in a lovely little house on the edge of a forest about a mile from the ocean.

“I’m going for a walk,” said Azben, finding Zenevia in the kitchen making bread to go with minestrone soup for supper. “Would you like to come with me?”

“Can’t right now,” said Zenevia, shaping her loaves. “Bread, soup, etcetera. Would you mind picking up a quart of milk on your way back from the beach?”

“How did you know I was going to the beach?” asked Azben, getting a basket for bringing home what he knew would be more than a quart of milk.

“Because you always walk to the beach when you’re pensive,” said Zenevia, smiling at her husband. “And I know you’re pensive because you’re frowning and you only frown when you’re pensive. Oh and some cheese and wine and…”

*

Azben sat on a driftwood log and watched the waves rolling in, and he thought Stories came to me as unceasingly as these waves. I wonder why they stopped?

Then he thought about the last story he wrote, a story about a boy who runs away from home and intends to never go back, but a few hours into running away the boy remembers his mother is making a pumpkin pie, his favorite, for dessert after supper, and supper is probably going to be spaghetti, also his favorite, and then he encounters a ferocious dog who gives him quite a scare, after which an ominous man offers him a ride, so he goes home and no one ever knows he ran away.

“For which the fiction editor at Neon Bloom paid me two hundred dollars,” said Azben, speaking to a passing cloud, “and said it made her cry the best kind of tears.”

*

After supper, Azben and Zenevia played Gin Rummy on the rug by the fire and Zenevia won for the fourth night in a row.

“No story has come to me in seven days now,” said Azben, putting the cards away. “Not a line. Not a word. Not even a syllable.”

“Is that a long time?” asked Zenevia, going into the kitchen to put a kettle on for tea. “Seven days?”

“It’s forever!” said Azben, irate. “In fifty years I’ve never gone more than a day or two without a story coming to me.”

“Maybe your muse needed a vacation,” said Zenevia, who recently retired from teaching school for fifty years.

“My entire life my muse never took a vacation,” said Azben, his voice growing shrill, “and now, without warning, it leaves for Hawaii?”

“It?” said Zenevia, perusing the tea bags. “I’ve always imagined your muse was a she.”

“I’ve never imagined my muse was anything,” said Azben, exasperated. “Stories came to me. I wrote them down. Now they’ve stopped coming. I don’t know who I am or what I’m here for if not to write the stories that come to me.”

“You’re Azben Hummingbird,” said Zenevia, gazing at her husband. “You’re married to me, Zenevia Chickadee. We live in our house together, grow vegetables in big tubs, and have two cats. Every afternoon you build a fire to warm the living room for the evening. You’re seventy-three, I’m seventy-two.”

“Yes,” said Azben, putting another log on the fire, “and until a week ago I wrote stories every day and sent them to magazine editors who sometimes published them. And every ten years or so I’d publish a collection of stories. Now what do I do?”

“You’ll find out,” said Zenevia, bringing him a cup of chamomile tea.

How will I find out,” he asked despondently.

“Time will tell, dear. Time will tell.”

*

Another week went by without a story coming to Azben so he bought a ukulele and taught himself to play ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’ Inspired by his success with the old show tune, he learned several other songs and then composed an original ditty called ‘Cats Are Lots of Fun.’

Then another week went by without a story coming and Azben deep cleaned his office that hadn’t been deep cleaned in ten years and got rid of so much stuff the room seemed twice as big and rather elegant.

But when another week went by without a story coming, Azben began to feel desperate and crazy, so he went to the only psychiatrist in town, Morvuli Grebe, and told her what was going on.

Morvuli pondered Azben’s situation and said, “These things happen.”

“I despair,” said Azben, despairingly. “I’m at a loss. I’m a rudderless boat on a turbulent sea, and now I’m using tired clichés, which I never used to use. I feel I’m disappearing, and painfully so. Is there some sort of medication that could help me?”

“I can prescribe something that will make your despair more tolerable,” said Morvuli, “but it won’t make the stories come again.”

“What will?” he asked with the innocence of a child.

“I don’t know,” said Morvuli, who was remarkably humble for a psychiatrist, “but I know someone who might know. Do you know Taligaba Nighthawk?”

“I’ve heard of her,” said Azben, frowning. “Lives at the top of Hermit Thrush Mountain. Something of a cuckoo, no?”

“Unique,” said Morvuli, writing Taligaba’s phone number on a piece of paper. “Give her a call. And if your despair becomes unbearable, we’ll get you started on some despair-blocking meds.”

“Do they have any unpleasant side effects?”

“Possibly,” said Morvuli, nodding. “That’s the trade-off. Less despair, possible other things.”

*

A few days later, Azben drove his old pickup truck to the top of Hermit Thrush Mountain to consult with Taligaba Nighthawk.

Taligaba emerged from her brown adobe house wearing a black robe, her long white hair in a three-strand braid, and Azben thought if I did have a muse she would look like Taligaba Nighthawk and live in an adobe house at the top of a mountain.

“Welcome Azben Hummingbird,” said Taligaba, bowing theatrically to Azben. “Come in and get warm by the fire.”

When they were settled in Taligaba’s living room, Azben told Taligaba everything he could think to tell her.

“And,” said Azben, his voice full of excitement, “Morvuli Grebe thought you might be able to help me restore the flow of stories.”

Taligaba gazed out the window and said, “There is only one way I know of to restore the flow of stories.”

“And that is?” asked Azben, holding his breath.

“You will have to completely, and I mean completely, let go of wanting stories to come to you again.”

“But I do want them to come again. More than anything.”

“Therein lies the problem. Let go of the wanting and maybe they’ll come again.”

Maybe?” said Azben, horrified. “Maybe isn’t good enough.”

 “Maybe is not only good enough,” said Taligaba, laughing. “Maybe is the best we can ever hope for.”

“But why would they suddenly stop coming after fifty years of never stopping?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps stories come to people like you for fifty years and then stop for a year and then come again for two years and then stop for one. Who knows?”

“I’m at a loss,” said Azben, despondently. “A terrible loss.”

“Don’t be,” said Taligaba, encouragingly. “There’s no end of things to do.”

*

So Azben returned to his house and lived in despair for several more months. Sometimes the despair verged on unbearable, other days not quite so terrible. Some days he almost called Morvuli Grebe to get started on despair-blocking meds, other days he felt he could overcome his suffering au naturel.

One evening, as he was chopping an onion for the soup he and Zenevia were making, he realized he’d gone the entire day without despairing about stories no longer coming to him, and he thought Maybe I’ve turned a corner.

And then he remembered Taligaba Nighthawk saying, “Maybe is the best we can ever hope for,” and he cried the best kind of tears.

fin

La Entrada

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Ego Chronicle #17

Todd’s bud vase made in 1966

Just prior to my senior year of high school, much to my parents’ dismay, I decided not to continue on the science and math track they had hoped would turn me into a doctor. Instead of Math and Science, I took Drama and Ceramics, the first and only high school classes I loved.

In Ceramics, my excellent teacher Mr. Dunning started us out with hand-building projects, which I found delightfully challenging. If we proved diligent and hardworking, as opposed to being goof-offs as many kids were, we might graduate to learning how to use a potter’s wheel. After two months of making things with slabs of clay and coils of clay, Mr. Dunning promoted me to a wheel.

Our wheels were kick wheels, not electric. Having learned to wedge my clay to remove all the air bubbles, I was instructed in how to center a ball of clay on the wheel. This seemingly easy step in the process of making a bowl—easy for Mr. Dunning—took me several days to master, and, in truth, I never mastered centering. Sometimes I managed to center the ball of clay, sometimes not. Once the ball of clay was centered, the ball could be opened and the sides lifted into a cylinder. From this cylinder, a bowl or vase could be made.

After two weeks of practice, I finally managed to throw what I believed to be a beautiful bowl. I was overjoyed. From mere mud, I, a young Zorba in the making (Zorba the Greek was a potter), had created a beautiful artifact.

The protocol was to raise your hand when you wanted Mr. Dunning to come examine your work. So I raised my hand, Mr. Dunning approached, and before I knew what was happening, he took his fettling knife and sliced my bowl in half so we could examine the walls for thickness, air bubbles, and other possible flaws. My precious creation. Cut in half. I’d spent weeks trying to make a bowl and… SLICE!

I went back to work, but was too upset to make another bowl that day. The next day, however, I made an even better bowl, raised my hand, Mr. Dunning approached, whipped out his blade, and cut the bowl in half.

Battling my tears, I listened to his comments, he departed, and I made another bowl, a most excellent bowl, my best bowl by far.

I raised my hand.

Mr. Dunning approached.

I took up my own blade and cut the bowl in half.

Whatever For

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Todd’s New Oasis

I’m happy to announce the publication of my new book Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories. Some of you may be familiar with my science-fiction novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror because I brought out a coil-bound edition of the novella nine years ago and several readers declared it their favorite of my fictional creations.

So because I’m glad Little Movies is available as a paperback and e-book online, and the paperback can be ordered from your favorite local bookstores, I decided to bring out Oasis Tales of the Conjuror in the same way and couple the slightly revised novella with two of my longer short stories The Golden Light and Of Water and Melons and two shorter tales When Is It Done? and Clumsy Booby. The collection makes for a lovely 200-page paperback and e-books.

For those of you who like supporting your local bookstore, you may order the handsome paperback of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories from them, as well as the paperbacks of Little Movies tales of love and transformation and Buddha In A Teacup.

Here are links to book sites where the paperback of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories may be purchased. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.

The Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Nook e-book editions of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories will be available in a few weeks. I hope you will share this announcement with your sci-fi and short story-loving friends. Your reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble are very much appreciated.

Here are the first four chapters of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror.

*

Oasis

In a land where the rainy season lasts four moons and drought rules nine, the tiny paradise possesses both abundant water and fertile soil. Cradled by rugged mountains to the west and north and east, with a vast desert lapping her southern fringe, the oasis and her six hundred citizens are loosely allied to the city of Tropolis, a hundred miles to the north.

 A wall of stone twenty-feet-high and four-feet-thick encloses the oasis entirely, save for a breach in the containment at the southeast corner where waters of the marsh flow into the desert. This great wall was completed fifty years ago in the aftermath of a terrible war, and though the ramparts have yet to be tested by any foe, the people of the oasis are glad for the illusion of security and the very real barrier the wall provides against the fierce desert winds.

Nearly all the land of the oasis, three square miles, is cultivated. Only the seventy-acre marsh and four massive granite outcroppings are kept free of human interference for the benefit of fish and insects and rodents and tortoises and lizards and snakes and birds.

Conjuror

Anza the conjuror is fifty-nine, handsome and lean, a masterful guitarist, his brown hair turning gray. He is a widower and lives alone. His daughters Serena and Luno left the oasis five years ago to seek their fortunes as singers in Tropolis. Luno has a child named Desai, a boy much loved by his grandfather. Serena has yet to give birth.

 Anza’s commodious house overlooks his three acres of ground. One acre is wild, a haven for birds and bees and tangles of wild vines and fourteen promising oak trees. One acre is given to grapes that Anza trades to Tul for the making of wine. And one acre is given to fruit and nut trees—apricots, apples, almonds, walnuts, and plums—and to a garden of vegetables and flowers and amaranth. Anza also keeps quail for eggs, rabbits for meat and pelts.

 The conjuror’s supreme wish is for Serena, Luno, and Desai to leave Tropolis and come live with him in the oasis.

Figs

One morning in the first days of the dry time, old man Chesha, short and stout and stiff-legged, mounts his skinny donkey and rides from his home at the northern end of the oasis to visit Anza in the south. Chesha intends to hire the conjuror to cure his fig trees of an invisible malady. To pay for the conjuring he will give Anza three ounces of black tea, a valuable offering. Chesha is renowned for his stinginess. Thus giving Anza three ounces of black tea will be a most painful sacrifice for the old miser.

“Stone and lumber,” mutters Chesha, frowning at Anza’s house of oak and brick. “They say his house stays cool on the hottest days, while my hovel of twigs cooks me cruelly. I might as well have no house at all. See how rich he grows from conjuring. I work from morning until night to make ends meet, while he waves his hand and gifts rain down on him.”

A black cat sits in a patch of sunlight on Anza’s threshold, gazing curiously at the old man on the donkey.

“Anza,” shouts Chesha, disdainful of those who keep pets. “I have tea for you, but I will only pay if…”

“Welcome, my friend,” says Anza, appearing in his doorway. “What brings you so far?”

“I think you know,” says Chesha, fearing to look at the conjuror. “My fig trees. The fruit is late. Very late. You knew I was coming, didn’t you?”

“I’m a conjuror,” says Anza, smiling at the old man. “Not a seer.”

“Will you conjure for me?” asks Chesha, whimpering. “If my trees won’t fruit I’m ruined.”

“I will come at dusk,” says Anza, gazing at the cloudless sky. “But before I arrive, you must water your orchard and leave a cup of wine under each of the trees.”

“Seventeen cups?” cries Chesha. “Are you mad? I am not rich. I live in a hovel. I work from morning until night to make…”

“A cup of wine for each tree, my friend,” says Anza, closing his eyes. “And water your trees deeply else the cure will fail.”

Chesha rides home in a fury, whipping his donkey with a bamboo stick. “Seventeen cups. Seventeen! I have but two cups in my house. Where am I to get fifteen more cups in which to pour the wine? I have the wine, but it’s meant for me, not to be wasted on trees.”

The truth, however, trumps the old man’s outrage, for Chesha is the second wealthiest citizen of the oasis, a notorious glutton and a guzzler of three and four bottles of wine every day. What’s more, his fortune is derived entirely from the sale of his fabulous figs. No other fig trees in the oasis bear so heavily or produce such delicious fruit, though Chesha has never watered or fed them. And no one knows how old his trees are, for none among the living was alive when the magnificent trees were planted.

 Chesha, who never married, inherited his house and five acres from his Aunt Bysar when he was thirty, a bequest that made him rich beyond his wildest imaginings. His figs bring buyers from near and far, and his days are filled with bargaining and selling and counting his gains.

But now the fruit is late emerging, very late, and for the first time in his life Chesha faces the prospect of poverty. So the old miser purchases fifteen clay cups from Uma the potter and irrigates his orchard, though it pains him to spend water he might otherwise sell to his neighbors.

When at last Chesha has placed a cup of wine near each of his trees, he shakes his gnarly fist at the golden horizon and grumbles, “There. I have done what the conjuror demanded. Now he must work his magic and bring me greater gains than ever before.”

Tambourines and drums announce the coming of Anza at the head of a procession of seventeen people.

“What is this?” splutters Chesha, sneering at the conjuror. “I hired you, Anza. Not these others. This is no wedding. My trees are dying.”

“I have come to conjure,” says Anza, bowing to the fig trees. “These good people are my helpers, one for each of your trees.”

And the people go into the orchard and take up the cups.

“What are they doing?” cries Chesha, stamping his feet. “How dare they drink my wine?”

Anza raises his hand to silence the old man. “If my conjuring is to succeed, your trees must all drink in the same moment.”

“If these people pour my wine into the ground and my trees do not fruit,” says Chesha, glowering at Anza, “I will give you nothing.”

“And if the fruit emerges?” asks Anza, smiling slyly. “Then what will you give?”

“Three ounces of black tea,” says Chesha, gritting his teeth. “We bargained so this morning. You agreed to come for that price and that is what I will pay, but only if….”

“I agreed to come,” says Anza, nodding slowly. “But I will require more than three ounces of tea to ease the malady of these trees.”

“How much?” cries Chesha, wringing his hands. “I am a poor man. Without my figs, I will starve.”

“But if your trees give forth their bounty, you will be rich. So I ask you, my friend, to give one of every four of your figs to these people who are not so fortunate as you, and to give them a quarter of your harvest for the rest of your life.”

“These people?” says Chesha, glancing furtively at the men and women. “Who are they that I should give them my figs?”

“Your brothers and sisters,” says Anza, raising his hands to the sky. “Now I will conjure. Are we agreed on the price?”

“Brothers and sisters? They lie! I have no brothers or sisters.”

“Then we will go,” says Anza, beckoning to his helpers. “We will leave you to your cups of wine and your barren trees.”

“Wait!” cries Chesha, terrified. “I agree. One of every four figs to these people. For the rest of my life. Now conjure and save my trees.”

Anza gestures for his helpers to give the wine to the trees, and as the precious liquid seeps into the ground, Anza falls to his knees and presses his forehead to the ground.

Now the trees begin to shiver and rattle as if swept by a powerful wind as thousands of tiny green orbs emerge on the branches and the air grows sweet with the scent of divinity.

Anza weeps convulsively, for he has conjured the terrible sorrow of the ancient trees, abused by Chesha for fifty years, though they never failed to give him their fruit.

Messenger

Lev is eleven, a big strong boy with brown hair and dark green eyes. Known as the boy who loves stories, he is forever asking people to tell him tales so he might write the good ones down. Lev has traveled away from the oasis twice in his life, once with his father to Tropolis to sell almonds, and once with his mother to visit her sister in the farming commune on the shores of Blue Lake, seventeen miles to the south.

Marga is ten, tall for her age, with light brown hair kept in a braid, her eyes the blue of morning sky. Known for her lovely voice, she is the youngest member of the women’s choir at Southgate. She has never traveled away from the oasis and is not greatly drawn to the outside world.

Every few days, Lev and Marga walk from their school at Eastern Plaza to Northgate to visit Lev’s godfather, Tornio, the watchman of the northern gateway and the seventh oldest citizen of the oasis.

The children stand on the threshold of the gateway, scanning the hills for dust clouds presaging a bus or truck or caravan. Seeing no sign of anyone approaching the oasis, they knock on the open door of the gatehouse and Tornio invites them into his little room.

Tornio is tall and skinny with bony fingers and a hooked nose, his gray eyes ringed with wrinkles gained from a lifetime of squinting at the bright horizon. He loves visits from the children, for they break the monotony of long days in which he has little to do.

As is his custom, Lev requests that Tornio read the day’s entries from the gatehouse log. Happy to oblige, the old gatekeeper dons spindly reading glasses, straddles the creaky stool behind his desk, and places his finger at the top of the page.

“Here we are. Late morning of the third day of the fifth moon of the dry season. I was roused from my review of yesterday’s entries by the screeching of a hawk, she who nests in the wall some sixty yards west of the gate. She is an exquisite raptor, seven years old, with splendid red tail feathers and exceptionally long legs. I have taken the liberty of naming her Twyla for I once knew a woman named Twyla, a dancer with long legs. Given there are no Twylas among the current population of the oasis I foresee no difficulties arising from my giving the hawk this name. Twyla is often away hunting, for she has two fledglings to feed and I fear her mate has fallen to feather hunters, which means she is solely responsible for the feeding of her ravenous offspring. No easy task, I’m sure.

“At the sound of her cry, I took up my telescope and espied a telltale dust cloud. By its volume and density, I surmised this mass of dust to be the creation of the bus from Tropolis. My surmise proved correct. Bus #7 (twelve seats) driven by Alix Inger, badge number 174, is sounding quite unwell these days, like a person with a raspy cough. When I mentioned the rasping to Alix, he replied, ‘This old gal needs an overhaul, but what can we do with the shortages and all?’

“I remarked to Alix that he had inadvertently made a rhyme, but he gave no indication he grasped my meaning. I discerned he was vexed from his long journey, though he reported no difficulties en route and said he expected none on the return trip if the bus did not break down.

“The conveyance disgorged seven oasis residents returning from Tropolis. They reported success in trading raisins, dates, oranges, and figs for a variety of staples, notably flour, rice, and tea. Baza came home with two young parakeets, yellow with orange breasts, lively and full of song. The parakeets, that is, not Baza, though Baza is certainly lively and a fine singer.

“As is his custom, Alix parked in the shade and slept for two hours. He then ate his breakfast and sounded his horn to announce his departure. Three people boarded the outgoing bus, each carrying sacks of oranges that are commanding excellent trade in Tropolis what with the shortages.

“Alix saluted me as he drove out the gate and drove slowly until he was clear of the oasis so as not to stir up too much dust hereabouts. Alix is a most considerate driver.”

Lev gazes out the window, the far hills displaying dramatic afternoon shadows. “Maybe I will be a bus driver. Wouldn’t it be exciting to drive across the plain and over the hills to Tropolis and back again?”

“Are there more entries?” asks Marga, smiling wistfully.

“No,” replies Tornio, taking off his glasses. “Only the morning bus.”

“Do you think anyone else will come today?” asks Lev, wishing he didn’t have to go home and milk the goats. “When the sky grows pink, caravans seek stopping places for the night. So says a poem we learned in school.”

“No telling,” says Tornio, placing a tin kettle on his iron stove. “I will make for us a pot of tea to share and then you, Lev, must tend to your goats, and you, Marga, must weed your vegetables.”

Marga nudges Lev, for Tornio only serves them tea when he has a story to tell.

“I was born eighty-three years ago,” he begins, nodding to affirm the magnitude of the number. “In Tropolis. The great famine having ended four years before my birth.”

“How did the famine end?” asks Marga, never having known hunger.

“Slowly but surely the outlying communes were able to grow enough food for everyone,” says Tornio, continuing to nod. “And, of course, there were not so many people to feed, the famine having taken two of every three people.”

“Two of every three,” says Lev, awestruck by the power of death. “Imagine if two of us suddenly disappeared.”

“I can imagine,” says Tornio, dropping mint leaves into a yellow teapot. “The famine resumed when I was seven and my family ate little for two years. Many of our neighbors died. But this is not the story I wish to tell.”

“May we never know famine,” says Lev, reaching into his sack and bringing forth a small chunk of candy. He breaks the morsel in two and gives one piece to Marga, one to Tornio.

The old man grins at the boy. “Blessings and thanks for your generosity.”

“Blessings and thanks to you,” says Lev, smiling at his godfather. “And for the tea we are about to drink and the story you are about to tell.”

“Yes, yes,” says Tornio, snatching up the kettle and dousing the mint to sweeten the air with scented steam.

“Blessings and thanks,” says Marga, popping the candy into her mouth. “Which story do you wish to tell, Tornio?”

“How I came to live in the oasis,” says Tornio, adding a pinch of chamomile to the brew. “When I was not much older than you, Lev.”

The children exchange frowns of wonder, for though Tornio has spoken many times of his birth in Tropolis, they have never imagined him as anything other than the old watchman of Northgate who lives with his wife Ahdi in a stone house on the edge of Tul’s olive grove.

“When I was fourteen,” says Tornio, pouring tea into three black cups, “I was the swiftest of runners.”

Lev and Marga snicker, for oasis children are often admonished for their tardiness with the expression Slow as Tornio.

“Oh, I know,” says the old man, chuckling. “I’m an ancient tortoise now, but when I was fourteen I won the race around the outer walls of Tropolis. Thirteen miles. Against the swiftest men and women. Indeed, my victory gained the attention of the ruling council.” He nods slowly, savoring the memory of his triumph. “Remember, children, this was before the revival of engines, when everything was carried by mules and on our backs, not in buses or trucks. And the most important messages were entrusted to the fastest runners.”

“They paid you to run?” asks Lev, dazzled by the thought. “Now that would be a dream come true.”

“Hard work,” says Tornio, clearing his throat. “When the war came, I ran many miles back and forth between Tropolis and our forward army.”

“What enemy were you fighting?” asks Marga, having only recently heard about the war from her mother.

“Peoples of the north,” says Tornio, his voice falling to a whisper. “People just like you and me. Their crops failed. So they came south to take food from Tropolis and her allies.”

“Thousands of people died,” says Lev, repeating the words his father spoke but a few nights ago.

“Yes,” says Tornio, nibbling his candy. “And there came a decisive battle won by the army of Tropolis and the peoples of the north were annihilated, save for two hundred who rushed southward to this oasis.”

“They came here?” asks Lev, his heart pounding.

“They came here,” echoes Tornio, gazing out the window to the north. “You are finally of an age to hear the truth. Until now we have not wished to disturb your childhood with such fearful history.”

Marga reaches for Lev’s hand as he reaches for hers.

“So…” says Tornio, grimacing at the memory, “the rulers ordered me to outrun the invaders and rouse the people of the oasis to fight until the army of Tropolis could arrive.”

 The children hold their breaths, for as the old man speaks they seem to hear the starving people fast approaching.

“I ran those hundred miles in less than a day,” says Tornio, closing his tired eyes, “arriving just in time to warn the people of what was coming. And the battle did rage for three days and nights until the army of Tropolis came to kill the last of those poor peoples of the north.”

“Here?” says Marga, sobbing. “Those people were killed here?”

Tornio nods gravely. “I was badly wounded and lingered on the edge of death for many days. But the people of the oasis would not allow me to die. When I recovered, I helped build the walls that protect us now. When the walls were complete, I was given work in the vineyards, and when I married Ahdi we were given our house and two acres on the edge of Tul’s olive grove. And when I grew too old to labor in the vineyards, I was given this job, for I saved the people of the oasis by running those terrible hundred miles.”

Walking home from the gatehouse, Marga says to Lev, “I wonder why our people didn’t share their food with the peoples of the north?”

“Perhaps there were too many of them,” says Lev, wondering the same. “Even now there are people here in the oasis who don’t have enough food. Think of Nori and how we share our school snacks with him to quell his hunger. Imagine two hundred more without food. There would surely be famine.”

“And two of every three of us would perish,” whispers Marga, stunned by the thought of such enormous loss.

“There are six hundred acres within the walls of the oasis,” says Lev, stopping at the entrance to Marga’s yard where a dozen citrus trees shade the garden of vegetables and herbs. “With three hundred acres under cultivation and nearly six hundred people to feed. My father says we are too many by at least a hundred.”

“That’s why Anza’s daughters moved away,” says Marga, nodding, “because the council decreed no new children may be born here until at least fifty people die.”

“Who do you think will die next?” asks Lev, taking Marga’s hand.

“I don’t want to think about death,” says Marga, wrinkling her nose and shaking her head. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” says Lev, kissing Marga’s hand. “May your dreams be full of wonder.”

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What’s In A Name? Revisited

I recently read aloud to Marcia part of my essay What’s In A Name? I originally posted the piece on my blog ten years ago. We had several good laughs during the reading, and since everybody can use a good laugh, I re-post here part of the article for your reading pleasure.

By the way, I have now posted an essay or short story or something on my blog at least once a week for thirteen years. All of these several hundred pieces are archived and searchable by title and subject matter here on my blog page. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you will find the archives and a search box.

What’s In A Name?

“Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

As I answer the ringing phone, I am distracted by my cat chasing his tail and do not hear the brief telltale silence presaging a stranger seeking money. “Hello. This is Doralinda Kayamunga of the NRA calling for Mr. Tom Walsmar.” I hang up, though in retrospect I wish I’d thought to ask Doralinda how she got Tom from Todd and Walsmar from Walton.

My childhood friends delighted in calling me Toad Walnut, and did so with such frequency that their teasing ceased to rankle. Please note: their playful distortion of my name was intentional, whereas the thousand and one subsequent manglings of Todd and Walton result, as far as I can tell, from endemic dyslexia. I have been called Tom, Toby, Tad, Ted, Tony, Don, Rod, and Scott hundreds of times in my life, usually in combination with Watson, Walters, Weldon, Waldon, Walsmar, Wilson, Welton, Waters, Waldo, and most recently Watton.

For goodness sake, my name is not Jascha Heifetz or Ubaldo Jimenez or Ilgaukus Christianoosman. In England, Walton is as common as Smith. My surname derives from Walled Town, and in medieval England nearly all towns were walled towns. In those long ago days, a person might be known as Roderick of Walled Town or Sylvia of Walled Town, and over the ensuing centuries, William of Walled Town became Bill Walton of UCLA and the Portland Trailblazers.

I’m sure that you, at one time or another, have had your name and/or names misread and mis-said, but I have yet to meet anyone with a name as simple and straightforward as mine who experiences such persistent moniker mishandling. My wife, Marcia Sloane, her first name frequently spelled Marsha by even her close friends, and her last name often presented minus the E at the end, posits that the very simplicity of Todd Walton is the cause of people mistaking my name (s) for others. She has yet to convincingly explain why simplicity breeds confusion, and in support of my theory of rampant dyslexia I remind her that when she recently gave a talk at the Unitarian, both the Beacon and the Advocate referred to her as Marika Solace.

Perhaps the most egregious distortion of my first name came in 1967 at the outset of my first year of college at brand new UC Santa Cruz. Dazed and confused, I dutifully followed the orders in my freshman orientation packet and went to consult with the advisor assigned to me, a nationally renowned sociologist I shall not name. This mean little man would soon be locally renowned as a middle-aged sex fiend preying on gullible undergrad females. To that end, he made sure only females landed on his list of advisees. So why was I on his list? Because some administrative dweeb transcribed my name Todi, and this horny old fart took the misspelling to be an Italian (or possibly Finnish) girl’s name. Needless to say, he was extremely displeased when a sweaty boy and not some svelte female darkened his door. After a brief and icky meeting, he grimly suggested I find other counsel. Todi, indeed.

 “And we were angry and poor and happy, 
and proud of seeing our names in print.
” G.K. Chesterton

When I published my first novel Inside Moves, I did what all first-time authors do; I visited myriad bookstores to see if they were carrying my book. In several of these stores, my book was shelved in the hobby section, the resident geniuses having read the title as Inside Movies. When the book and subsequent film provided me with a brief stint of notoriety, I was asked to provide congratulatory blurbs for other books. And on the back cover of one of these books I was Tod Wilson, author of Night Moves. On another, I was John Walters, author of Forbidden Pulses, my second novel being Forgotten Impulses. What a woild!

 “Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”  W.H. Auden

In 1973 my mother offered me her doddering and essentially worthless Ford LTD so I could move with my girlfriend and our paltry earthly possessions from Palo Alto, California to Eugene, Oregon. We got as far as Sacramento when the old car began to shimmy like my sister Kate. By some miracle, we managed to pull into a wheel alignment garage moments before the car could shake into pieces. As it happened, we had just enough cash to fix our coach, but the mechanic said he was booked solid for three days.

And so, resigned to crashing on a friend’s floor for the duration, I despondently signed the estimate sheet. But when the mechanic saw my signature, his eyes widened and he blurted, “Walton? You’re a Walton? Walton’s mountain? John Boy. The Waltons. That’s our favorite show in the whole world. That show… that show is the story of our life. You’re a Walton?”

I had never seen The Waltons, but I’d heard of the popular television show and been called John Boy by countless cretins, so I vaguely knew what this fellow was talking about. I also knew that the creator of The Waltons was named something like Hammer, and the stories were based on his family’s history. However, since Hammer lacked the grace and elegance of Walton, he decided…

“I gotta tell my wife,” said the mechanic, nodding hopefully. “Could you…if we did your car this afternoon could you hang around so my wife can meet you?”

“Sure,” I said, struck by the happy realization that for the first time in my life there might be some advantage to being named Walton.

And though I felt compelled to explain to these good people that I was no relation to the fictional characters they worshiped, they would hear none of my disclaimers. I was a deity to them, and all because I hadn’t followed the lead of many of my cohorts and changed my name to Rainbow River or Jade Sarong.

The mechanic’s wife presented us with a special pumpkin pie “just like the Walton’s have for Thanksgiving supper.” She spoke of the Waltons in the present tense, for they were very much alive to her.

This blessed nonsense culminated in the mechanic donating all parts and labor to our exodus from the golden state. Then he fervently shook my hand and declared that meeting me was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. Yet neither the mechanic nor his wife seemed stupid or deranged. Indeed, they struck me as intelligent and resourceful people, their only shortcoming an inability to distinguish a television show from what they imagined to be a docudrama set in the Deep South about people related to me.

When I asked if I might know their last name, the mechanic said, “Oh, it’s a common old name where we come from.”

“Still,” I said, having finally surrendered my fate to the largesse of satirical angels, “I’d love to know your last name?”

“Knuckles,” said the mechanic and his wife, speaking as one.

“Knuckles?” I echoed. “I’ve never heard of anyone named Knuckles.”

“Dime a dozen where we come from,” said the mechanic’s wife. “And every last one a cousin.”

Bill Evans

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6. Future Life

Near the end of Stephen Ornofsky’s performance the audience is laughing so hard, Stephen has to wait several seconds for the laughter to subside before he can say anything else, and as he waits, he is aware he has never before connected so profoundly with an audience, a kind of super joy.

A charming fellow of thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen’s show of ever-changing songs and stories has been the Thursday night attraction at McCarthy’s pub in the coastal town of Melody for seven years now.

“As some of you know,” says Stephen when the laughter finally dies down, “I was in therapy for a year when I was a teenager. I was suffering from a crippling psychological disorder known as Being A Teenager.”

Stephen takes the microphone off the stand and crosses the little stage to a high stool where he sits and looks out at the audience, the pub filled to capacity.

“Fortunately I had a wonderful therapist, and what he loved more than anything was interpreting dreams. And being the kind of person I am, I very much wanted to please him. And because I didn’t think my actual dreams were all that interesting, I started making up dreams, really wild ones, and my therapist just loved them and said they were really helping us get to the bottom of my issues.”

The crowd roars with laughter.

“But then I started feeling guilty about misleading my therapist, so I said to him, ‘You know the dreams I’ve been telling you lately? I didn’t actually have those dreams. I made them up.’ And my therapist said, “It doesn’t matter. They still give us valuable information.’ And I said, ‘But they aren’t really about me.’ And he said, ‘Of course they are. Only you can make up those particular dreams, just as only you can have the dreams you actually have. And just as you made up those dreams, Stephen, you can make up your future life. You really can.’”

Stephen crosses the stage, puts the microphone back on the stand, and straps on his guitar.

“So I decided what I really wanted in my future life was a Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s where I sing songs for my friends and tell them stories I think they’ll enjoy. And my dream came true, and this song is for you.

I give to you, you give to me

We plant the seeds to keep the garden growing

You give to him, he gives to her,

she gives to me, I give to you,

we keep the spirit flowing

So now when those night winds blow

I want you to know I will always love you

I want you to know I will always love you

*

A good many people wait around after the show to give Stephen a hug or shake his hand, and one of those people is a woman in her mid-thirties visiting from Los Angeles named Nina Zubinsky. Stephen met Nina for the first time a few days ago, and when he found out she was a studio musician, a guitarist, Stephen asked her if she’d like to get together with him and play music. Thinking Stephen might be interested in her romantically, Nina made sure to tell him she was a lesbian, something Stephen never would have guessed.

Tall and slender, Nina has short curly brown hair, dark green eyes, and wears wire-frame glasses. She is dressed identically to Stephen in a black corduroy sports jacket, pale pink dress shirt, black corduroy trousers, and red running shoes.

When Nina’s father Abe, who is one of Stephen’s guitar students, finishes giving Stephen a hug, Nina shakes Stephen’s hand and says, “I am now officially in awe of you and would very much like to play music with you.”

“I’m thrilled,” says Stephen, ferociously attracted to her despite the aforementioned lesbian information. “Your father has my number.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says, seeming reluctant to let go of his hand. “You blew my mind. You really did.”

*

Stephen gets home around midnight to the lovely old house he shares with Maya Johansen, an elderly woman confined to a wheelchair and for whom Stephen is the primary caregiver. To Stephen’s surprise and delight, he finds Maya’s other caregiver, Celia Flores, a beautiful middle-aged Mexican woman, reading by the fire in the living room.

Dressed in a dark blue nightgown, Celia has loosed her long black hair from its workaday bun and removed her copious makeup, which is how Stephen prefers her. She is usually asleep when Stephen gets home from his Thursday night gig—Celia lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday to Sunday every week—and Stephen guesses she stayed up to talk to him about Maya.

Stephen’s dogs Hortensio, a large black mutt, and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are in their beds by the woodstove, and they both briefly open their eyes to look at Stephen and confirm what their ears and noses told them. He’s home.

“How was your show, Esteban?” asks Celia, her Spanish accent quite strong.

“Went well,” says Stephen, flopping down on the sofa. “How was your evening?”

“Okay,” she says, putting down her book. “One day I’ll go to your show again. I’ll ask Josephine to come for a few hours so I can go. I don’t think Maya will ever go again. She so tired at night now. She wants to go to bed earlier and earlier.”

“She told me yesterday she doesn’t think she’ll live another year,” says Stephen, who has lived with Maya for nine years now.

“I don’t like to think about her going,” says Celia, looking at Stephen. “I love my days here with you and Maya.”

Stephen wants to say Then keep coming here after she’s gone, but he knows that’s not possible. This is Celia’s job and she and her husband depend on the income.

Celia smiles. “Maybe you’ll make a million dollars from a song you write and I can be your cook and housekeeper.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” says Stephen, a familiar sorrow taking hold as his performance high fades away and he feels alone in the world with no partner to share his bed and know his deepest feelings.

“Time for me to sleep,” says Celia, getting up from her armchair. “Hasta la mañana.”

“Hasta la mañana,” says Stephen, rousing his dogs and ushering them out to the garden where they pee and Stephen imagines Celia is his wife waiting for him to come to bed.

*

Nina calls the next morning while Stephen is doing the breakfast dishes and they arrange for him to come to Nina’s father’s house for some guitar playing and lunch.

Abe Zubinsky is sixty-two, a former movie sound engineer in Los Angeles who worked on dozens of Hollywood blockbusters and is now the owner of Studio Z, a small recording studio Abe built adjacent to his house overlooking the Pacific Ocean a couple miles south of Melody.

Abe moved here ten years ago with his second wife Carol, an interior designer. Six months after they arrived, Carol returned to Los Angeles and filed for divorce because, as she is fond of telling people, “I felt like we’d been exiled to Siberia and Abe thought we’d landed in heaven.”

Following a tour of Abe’s spectacular house and the surrounding meadows filled with purple and white wild iris, Stephen and Nina get situated in Abe’s state-of-the-art recording studio, and to humor her father, Nina acquiesces to Abe placing several microphones in the performance room to record the session.

“Something for me to listen to on long winter nights,” says Abe, getting his volumes set. “Two of my favorite people playing music together.”

“You can stay, Pops,” says Nina, tuning her father’s fine old guitar.

“I’ve got a bunch of calls to make,” says Abe, leaving the control room. “Carry on.”

Stephen and Nina are dressed identically again—black cotton T-shirts and baggy blue trousers—and Stephen says, “I assume you are aware of our uncanny tendency to dress alike, and not just alike but exactly alike?”

“I am aware and find it mildly unnerving,” she says, playing a lightning fast melodic run of notes up and down the neck of her guitar that makes Stephen’s jaw drop. “I’m what’s known in the vernacular as an L.L. Bean dyke, and you apparently shop there, too.”

“No, I get my clothes at garage sales,” says Stephen, playing an elegant chord on his small teak guitar, “though Celia recently knitted me a beautiful wool sweater.”

“Celia being?” asks Nina, searching for the elegant chord Stephen just played and quickly finding it. “Nice.”

“Celia is Maya’s other caregiver,” says Stephen, tuning his guitar. “She lives with us from Thursday evening until Sunday morning. An incarnate angel.”

“I was raised by an incarnate angel named Celia,” says Nina, figuring out four more equally elegant chords to go with Stephen’s initial elegant chord. “Celia Maria Gomez. My parents being otherwise engaged on movie sets around the globe, Pops doing sound, Moms a cinematographer, and they rarely worked on the same film.”

“Moms was not Carol,” says Stephen, having met the hyper-perky Carol a couple times before she fled Siberia and returned to Los Angeles.

“No, thank all the gods of all religions,” says Nina, playing the five elegant chords again. “Carol didn’t infiltrate my father’s life until I’d made my escape to the lesbian enclave in Echo Park where I live to this day.”

“Would you mind teaching me those chords you just played?” says Stephen, awed by Nina’s facility on the guitar.

She plays the chords again a few times and Stephen imitates her until he has them memorized.

“Best guitar lesson I’ve ever had,” he says, playing the chords again and again.

“You’re self-taught,” she observes. “Whereas I had excellent teachers from the age of eight and graduated champion hot chick guitarist from the Berklee jazz factory. Yet you’re every bit as good as I am and easily seventy jillion times more original.”

“Nonsense,’ says Stephen, playing the five chords again in a steady rhythm and singing in his smoky tenor, “These chords put me in a melancholy mood, but that don’t mean I’m sad.”

“Hey melancholy is my middle name,” sings Nina to those same five chords, “but that don’t mean I’m bad.”

“Melancholy’s my name, too,” he sings, changing the third and fifth chords, “though I’m not always blue.”

“And I am really digging this song,” she sings, “making it up with you.”

They stop playing and smile shyly at each other.

“Not what I expected,” she says, shaking her head. “Thought you’d play a song from your show and I’d noodle along. Studio work. But no.”

“Speaking of noodling,” says Stephen, thrilled by her playing, “here’s a little something I came up with you might be inclined to noodleize to.”

“Play on, Ornofsky,” she says, feeling a glimmer of something she hasn’t felt since she was fourteen—sexual attraction to a male.

Stephen swings into a Gypsy groove with a run of jazzy chords full of surprising twists and turns, and when Nina has listened to the run three times through she begins to solo with a few choice notes, playing more and more notes with each iteration of the chord sequence until her solo grows complex and majestic and at last she takes over playing the run of chords and Stephen rips off a dazzling solo that ends on the last chord Nina plays.

Mutually astounded, Nina gawks at Stephen and says, “I’m not religious but I’m praying fervently my father’s recording equipment captured that amazing thing we just played.”

“I’ll pray for that, too,” says Stephen, looking into her eyes. “But it doesn’t matter, Nina.”

“It doesn’t?” she says, terrified to be falling in love with him. “Then what does?”

“What matters is we made that together,” he says, grinning at her. “And we’ll always know we did.”

Always Love

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5. More Than Genetics

Stephen Ornofsky is in shock. Two hours ago he thought he was embarking on a love affair with a woman he believed might be his partner for the duration, and now she is gone, her last angry words to him, “Please don’t try to contact me.”

A charming fellow, thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen is a musician and poet. He lives in a beautiful old house in the town of Melody with Maya Johansen, seventy-seven, for whom Stephen has been the primary caregiver for nine years.

Maya, small and slender, a renowned dancer and choreographer paralyzed from her waist down, sits in a high-backed wicker wheelchair on the deck of her rambling redwood house and looks down at Stephen who is lying on his back on the deck, staring up at the sky.

The June day, a Saturday, is ending, fog rolling into the little northern California coastal town where Maya has lived for thirty years and Stephen has lived for twenty. Stephen’s dogs, Hortensio, a large black water dog, and Moose, a floppy-eared brown Chihuahua, are sprawled on the deck next to Stephen, both keenly aware of Stephen’s distress. And Harpo, an enormous orange cat, lies on Stephen’s chest in the pose of The Sphinx, Harpo’s whiskers nearly touching Stephen’s chin.

“So you’re walking on the beach, ecstatic to have found each other, and everything is going wonderfully well when…?” prompts Maya, who loves Stephen beyond measure and wants more than anything for him to find a good partner.

“We were walking along the shore, holding hands and talking about her moving here, living with us,” says Stephen, aching from head to toe, “and she said, ‘That will be fine until I get pregnant and then we’ll want our own place.’ And I laughed and said, ‘Pregnant? We haven’t even slept together yet and we’re already pregnant?’ And she let go of my hand and said, ‘You do want children, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘I’ve always thought I would adopt a couple kids after Maya dies.’ And she said, ‘You don’t want kids of your own?’ And I said, ‘Well they would be my own, only I would adopt them.’ ‘Then they wouldn’t be your own,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t have your genes.’ At which point I said something like, ‘I think love matters more than genetics,’ and she said, ‘Then this won’t work,’ and she walked away.”

“Oh dear,” says Maya, shaking her head. “How sad.”

“So I followed her back here, trying in vain to restart the conversation, she got in her car, rolled down her window and said, ‘I’m sorry I intruded on your life. Please don’t try to contact me.’ And then she drove away.”

“Stephen, I’m so sorry this happened to you,” says Maya, who thinks of Stephen as her son. “She seemed like a lovely person. Wonderful energy.”

“She is wonderful,” he says, frowning at a passing cloud. “And maybe I would have eventually come around to the idea of having a child with her, but not as a prerequisite for loving each other.”

“Of course not,” says Maya, exasperated. “Daniel divorced me when I was thirty-two because I didn’t want to interrupt my career to have children, and then when I was going through menopause at fifty-two, Gerald, who was twelve years older than I, suddenly decided he had to father a child. So he divorced me, married a woman half his age, they had a darling baby, and Gerald promptly died. We’re a species of irrational out-of-control baby makers who don’t have the sense to realize there are far too many of us on the planet now and we need to do lots more adopting and lots less baby making.”

Silence falls. The air grows chilly. The sliding glass door opens and Celia Flores comes out on the deck and says, “Time to come inside, Maya. Getting cold.”

Celia is a lovely Mexican woman, fifty-four, with long black hair. She is Maya’s other caregiver and lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday evening to Sunday morning.

“Thank you, Celia,” says Maya, looking down at Stephen. “Get up now, dear. We don’t want you catching a nasty summer cold.”

Celia brings Maya into the house, parks her in the living room, and goes back out to encourage Stephen to come inside.

“I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,” he says, looking up at Celia. “Just throw a blanket over me.”

“No Esteban,” she says, kneeling beside him and moving Harpo off his chest. “Come in and lie on the sofa. I’ll start a fire and make supper.”

“You’re so good,” he says, needing her help to stand up. “I’m weak as a kitten.”

“She’s an idiot, that woman,” says Celia, helping Stephen into the house. “You’re the best person I know.”

*

With the fire in the woodstove roaring away, the dogs sprawled on the hearth and hoping Stephen won’t wait too much longer before taking them for their pre-supper walk, Stephen lies on the sofa and says, “Why am I so void of strength? We were only together an hour. Is she some kind of psychic vampire?”

“She’s a bruja,” says Celia, making supper in the kitchen adjoining the living room. “A witch. She put a spell on you and stole your strength. Thank God you didn’t marry her.”

“I don’t think she’s a witch,” says Maya, staring at the flames visible through the glass door of the woodstove. “I think when we give ourselves completely to another and they leave, they take part of us with them.” She looks at Stephen. “You were ready to be with her forever, weren’t you?”

“I was,” he says, nodding. “Or I was ready to be with who I thought she was, but then she turned out to be someone else, which is why she said did I want to see about being in a relationship with her, which was smart of her and why she was angry rather than demolished when we came to our great divide.”

“If she’s not a witch,” says Celia, dropping spaghetti noodles into a big pot of boiling water, “she’s an idiot.”

“What do you mean?” asks Maya, frowning at Celia.

“How could she not want to be with Esteban?” says Celia, chopping tomatoes. “She’s thirty-four and hasn’t found a partner because she wants someone special. But when she finds someone like Esteban, she won’t be with him unless he promises to give her a baby? Idiota.”

Hortensio whimpers, wanting to go on a walk so he can pee and poop, and Moose growls a little to second the motion, and Stephen feels a little surge of strength and says, “I’m gonna take the dogs for a quick walk. Fear not, I’ll bundle up.”

*

Twilight, the town cloaked in fog, Stephen bends down to bag up Hortensio’s mountainous poop and Moose’s smaller offering, and he thinks This is love, too.

And now he thinks of something he wants to share with Maya and Celia, so he tells himself the thing over and over as he walks home with the dogs, and with each telling he tries to be more succinct, so that by the time he gets home and takes off his shoes and unleashes the dogs to go have drinks of water from their bowls in the kitchen, Stephen has the thing down to a few sentences.

*

At supper—spaghetti, topped with sautéed vegetables from Stephen’s garden and a sauce rich with tomatoes and jalapeños—Stephen says, “I met Carmen at the precise moment we were both finally ready, biologically emotionally spiritually, to merge completely with another. And under the spell of that ideal moment, we imagined each other to be ideal, when, in fact, we are just two people who met, if you will, at a magical moment in our personal evolutions.”

“Sounds right to me,” says Maya, gazing across the table at Stephen. “Thirty-four is an age when many people who have not yet wed often do.”

“I got married when I was nineteen,” says Celia, who is having a rare second glass of wine. “But when I was twenty-four and already had my kids, I felt like I came to this moment you talk about, Esteban, and for the first time in my life I was ready to merge with another person, not only with my body, but with everything about me. Only I was already married and would not leave Miguel. But for some years I almost did leave because I wanted to be with someone who was also ready in their heart to be with me.”

*

Stephen wakes early the next day, as is his habit, his dogs waiting patiently in the living room for him to emerge from his bedroom and take them for their morning constitutional. He lies on his back and gazes at the ceiling of his bedroom, the gorgeous planks milled from the hearts of old growth redwoods, the house built seventy years ago when those ancient trees were still being felled as fast as the rapacious logging companies could fell them, until finally the tree huggers managed to save the last few thousand acres of the ancient ones.

*

Celia is in the kitchen, dressed for work in sweater and sweatpants, her heavy makeup applied, her long black hair in a bun, her husband Miguel due to pick her up in a few hours. She and Stephen confer about breakfast and getting Maya out of bed, and Celia tells Stephen her often-sore back is fine today and she will take care of Maya.

As for breakfast, Stephen suggests he pick up a pumpkin pie at Zeke’s, one of Melody’s two bakery cafés open early in the morning, and Celia smiles brightly and says, “I was hoping you would say something like that.”

“I so appreciate your help yesterday,” says Stephen, who loves Celia no end. “I’d still be out there on the deck if you hadn’t carried me inside.”

“You’ll find someone, Stephen,” she says softly. “But you don’t need to look for her.”

*

Stephen parks Hortensio and Moose in front of Zeke’s where another familiar dog is already parked—Abe Zubinsky’s Black Lab Tarzan—and enters the warm bakery where the smell of freshly-baked bread and pastries makes everyone happy.

He gets in line behind Abe Zubinsky, a slender guy of sixty-two with long white hair in a ponytail, Abe one of Stephen’s fourteen guitar students.

“Maestro,” says Abe, greeting his teacher with a hearty handshake. “Your show at McCarthy’s this week was spectacular. I thought I was gonna give myself a hernia laughing so hard.”

“I’ll suggest McCarthy put that on the marquee under my name,” says Stephen, gesturing to an imagined marquee. “Hernia-inducingly funny.”

“This is my daughter Nina,” says Abe, turning to a young woman exactly Stephen’s height with short curly brown hair wearing wire-frame glasses exactly like Stephen’s, and dressed identically to Stephen: turquoise Zeke’s Bakery sweatshirt over a white dress shirt, brown corduroy trousers, and gray hiking shoes. “Nina, Stephen.”

“I feel like I’m looking in a mirror,” she says, shaking Stephen’s hand, “and wondering why my hair lost its curl.”

“And I feel like I’m looking in a mirror,” says Stephen, enjoying her strong grip, “and noticing how good-looking I’ve become since I last looked in a mirror.”

“Be that as it may,” she says, rolling her eyes and letting go of Stephen’s hand, “I must tell you how impressed I am by my father’s guitar playing. I tried several times to teach him, with minimal success, and you’ve turned him into a veritable Segovia. Albeit the very very young Segovia, but still…”

“I’m bringing her to your show on Thursday,” says Abe, having reached the counter where he turns his attention to ordering pastries and coffee.

“Where are you visiting from?” asks Stephen, finding Nina more attractive by the moment. “And how long are you here for?”

“I live in LA,” she says, inadvertently glancing southward. “And I’m not sure how long I’m here for. Have coffee with us.”

“I would,” says Stephen, grimacing regretfully, “but I’m bringing home breakfast for two others and myself, and they’re probably gnawing the woodwork in anticipation of my return.”

“You live with termites?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Beavers?”

“My reflection is coming up with some great lines this morning,” says Stephen, a sucker for funny women. “When are you taking Tarzan to the beach? I’ll meet you there with my dogs.”

“I’ll ask my father,” she says, giving him a long look. “I assume he has your number.”

“He does,” says Stephen, having forgotten all about Carmen. “I’ll be sitting by the phone waiting for your call.”

“You don’t carry your phone with you?” she asks, curiously.

“I… no. I don’t have that kind of phone. I got one a few years ago and I started getting terrible headaches that wouldn’t go away until I got rid of the phone.”

“Oh my God,” she says, gaping at him. “That’s exactly what happened to me. I’m the only person in LA without a cell phone.”

*

Following a most delightful breakfast of pumpkin pie and coffee, Stephen and the dogs walk through town to the beach at the mouth of Melody River and find Nina and Abe and Tarzan awaiting them.

Nina has changed into brown shorts and a blue T-shirt, as has Stephen, and while Abe flings the ball into the surf for Tarzan, Stephen and Nina move a little north of Abe so Stephen can throw a similar ball into the surf for Hortensio.

“How’s life in Los Angeles?” asks Stephen, who has never wanted to live anywhere but Melody.

“Insane,” says Nina, captivated by a line of pelicans gliding mere inches above the waves. “But my work is there so I stay.”

“Your work being?” asks Stephen, guessing she’s an actress.

“I write a television show,” she says, watching the pelicans grow small in the distance. “And I’m a studio musician. Guitar and bass.”

“That’s exciting,” says Stephen, wondering why Abe never mentioned his daughter played guitar. “A super creative life.”

Nina makes a disparaging face. “Creative? I wouldn’t call what I do creative. Television writing is formula shtick and studio work is formula sound. I’m skilled at both, but it’s not creative.”

“Oh,” says Stephen, who hasn’t watched television since he was nine. “I always imagined studio musicians were fantastically creative.”

“Some are, most are not,” she says, shaking her head.

“My illusions are shattered,” says Stephen, sensing Nina wishes she did something else for a living.

“But enough about me,” she says, forcing a smile. “What do you do besides giving my father guitar lessons and performing at McCarthy’s?”

“I’m a caregiver for a woman who can’t live on her own,” he says, picking up the ball Moose just dropped and flinging the soggy orb into the surf for Hortensio. “And I write poetry and songs and have thirteen other guitar students besides your father.”

“What different lives we lead,” she says, sounding bitter.

“Hey while you’re here,” says Stephen, seriously smitten with her, “want to get together and play some music?”

“Do you really want to play music?” she asks, glaring at him. “Or is it possible you can’t tell I’m a lesbian and you’re coming onto me?”

“I can’t tell you’re a lesbian,” says Stephen, who has several lesbian friends. “But then I’ve never been good at guessing sexual orientation. And I admit I thought playing music with you would be a fun way to see if there might be a romantic spark between us, but now that I have been disabused of that notion, I’d still like to play music with you because you’re probably fabulous and I love playing with fabulous musicians, which I don’t often get to do.”

She laughs incredulously. “You really thought I was straight?”

“I thought you… I think you’re lovely,” he says, blushing, “and we feel nicely matched intellectually verbally sense-of-humorly, and, yes, I thought you were straight. Forgive me.”

“To be continued,” she says as her father approaches. “I’ve got your phone number, but don’t wait by the phone. Okay?”

“Okay,” he says, grinning. “I won’t wait by the phone, but I hope you’ll call me.”

If You Would Call Me

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4. Her Makeup

Early on a sunny Saturday morning in June, Stephen Ornofsky sits in a big wooden chair on the deck of the beautiful one-story redwood house where he lives in Melody, a small town on the north coast of California. He is thirty-four, two inches shy of six-feet-tall, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses. His dogs, Hortensio, a big black mutt, and Moose, a brown floppy-eared Chihuahua, are sitting on either side of him waiting to go for their morning walk.

Stephen lives in the beautiful old house with Maya Johansen, a former dancer and choreographer who is seventy-seven and paralyzed from the waist down. Stephen is Maya’s primary caregiver and best friend. Celia Flores, fifty-four, another of Maya’s caregivers, comes to live with Maya and Stephen every Thursday evening and leaves on Sunday morning, which means on those days Stephen is free to do as he pleases, though he always gives Maya plenty of care on those days, too, unless he goes out of town, which he rarely does.

A musician and poet and gardener and guitar teacher, Stephen was just yesterday asked to be in a movie, and he told the moviemakers he would give them his answer today.

The sliding glass door opens and Celia steps out on the deck. She is still in her blue flannel nightgown, the morning chilly. Her long black hair is down and she has yet to put on her makeup. Stephen wishes she would always go without makeup, but he knows she feels compelled to try to hide her wrinkles, so he never reveals his wish.

“Buenos dias,” she says quietly. “Como estas?”

“Bien,” he says, smiling as she comes near. “Y tu?”

“I’m okay,” she says, looking out over the town cloaked in fog. “Did you decide to be in the movie?”

“Still thinking about it,” he says, getting up. “Shall I do the morning lifting?”

“Would you?” says Celia, smiling radiantly. “My back is okay today, but if I don’t lift her this morning that would be better.”

“I’m happy to,” says Stephen, who loves making Celia smile.

*

When Maya is dressed and in her wheelchair at the kitchen table, Stephen makes coffee and Celia makes scrambled eggs and toast.

“To be in a movie or not to be in a movie,” says Maya, waxing Shakespearean. “That is the question. Can’t you decide after they write the script? What if it’s horrible?”

“They want me to help discover what the movie is about through improvising with the cast,” says Stephen, thinking of the alarmingly charming and disarming Carmen Fernandez, exactly Stephen’s age, and Joseph Ross, seventy-five, Stephen’s old friend, who are making the movie, working title Funny Love Story.

“Like Mike Leigh,” says Maya, who once danced in a Mike Leigh movie. “Only Mike is a genius. I worry Carmen and Joseph are not.”

Stephen serves Maya her coffee to which she adds sugar and cream.

“I’m torn,” says Stephen, sitting down with his coffee to which he adds nothing. “On the one hand, I like them and making a movie might be an interesting creative challenge. On the other hand, I have so many other things I like to do, why be in a movie, too?”

“I was in a movie,” says Celia, serving the eggs and toast. “When I was seventeen. Before I got married and had kids and got fat.” She laughs. “In LA.”

“You are not fat,” says Stephen, ever amazed by Celia. “You’re gorgeous.”

“I agree,” says Maya, tasting the eggs. “Rubenesque. Or is it Rubensesque? His name was Rubens after all. Oh my these eggs are cooked perfectly.”

Stephen and Celia exchange smiles—Maya having recently groused about Celia overcooking the eggs.

“What was the movie you were in?” asks Stephen, finding Celia surpassingly lovely at fifty-four and unimaginable at seventeen.

Gangster King,” says Celia, smiling self-consciously. “My cousin Veronica was dating a movie agent and he told her to find two more pretty Latinas to be the gangster king’s women. So Veronica asked me and her niece Paula and we went with her to the movie set for three days and they put us in sexy clothes, you know, and told us where to sit and lie down and walk around, but we never said anything. We were just there in the gangster king’s mansion and they paid us three hundred dollars a day.” She laughs. “We were rich!”

“Did you ever see the finished movie?” asks Maya, amazed by Celia’s story.

“Oh yes,” says Celia, nodding. “Many times. It was a big movie in LA and Texas and Mexico and South America, you know, for Latinos.” She sips her coffee. “We have a DVD. Very violent. I don’t get killed, but many people in the movie get killed and they shoot Veronica at the end when they kill the gangster king.”

 *

After breakfast, Stephen takes the dogs for a walk to the post office where in his box he finds a letter from a friend, four checks from guitar students, and the latest issue of Normal Magic, a literary quarterly to which Stephen has submitted many poems over the years, though none have been accepted for publication. However, a few years ago one of his poems did garner a personal note from the Poetry editor saying she loved his poem but didn’t feel it was quite right for Normal Magic.

Stephen wrote the editor a thank-you note for responding personally to his poem and asked if she would elaborate on what was not quite right about his poem since she loved it, and he enclosed a self-addressed stamped postcard for her reply.

She wrote “Not quite enough magical realism,” and doodled a smiling face next to the word realism.

Her reply inspired Stephen to write a song about rejection, a song that always gets big laughs when he performs it at his Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s, the largest pub in Melody. The title of the song and the last line of the chorus are Not Enough Magical Realism.

*

From the post office, Stephen continues through town with the dogs to the beach at the mouth of Melody River where he throws a rubberized tennis ball into the surf for Hortensio to retrieve while Moose runs up and down the shore yapping at Hortensio until the big dog gets back on dry land, drops the ball, and Moose can bring the soggy orb to Stephen.

*

On their way home from the beach, Stephen and the dogs stop by Murray’s Seafood, and Stephen and Murray Steinberg, a gregarious guy in his sixties, sit at a picnic table behind the fish shop and talk. Stephen holds Moose on his lap while Hortensio lies on the ground beside them exhausted from his exploits in the surf.

“Maya and Celia loved their fish & chips last night,” says Stephen, having brought home three orders of fish & chips after meeting at Murray’s Seafood with the moviemakers. Murray and Murray’s Seafood are to be in the movie, too, and Carmen and Joseph have taken to using Murray’s shop as their in-town meeting place.

“I’m glad,” says Murray, who admires Maya and was devastated when she became paralyzed and was no longer able to dance.

“Maya even went so far as to use the word genius,” says Stephen, avoiding eye contact with Murray. “A word she reserves for the likes of Van Gogh and Mendelssohn and Mike Leigh.”

“You don’t want to be in the movie, do you?” says Murray, who has known Stephen for twenty years.

“I don’t think so,” says Stephen, stating his decision out loud for the first time.

“I’m not sure I want to be in the movie either,” says Murray, who was gung ho at first about Joseph making a movie set in the fish shop. “I thought they were gonna make a short, you know, a ten-minute vignette, and now they want to make a feature film and they’re auditioning professional actors and they want to improvise scenes to guide them in writing their script, and they’re so serious about everything. And though I really like Carmen, and I like Joe, the whole thing feels very weird now. You know what I mean?”

“I think,” says Stephen, choosing his words carefully, “Joseph and Carmen are having a love affair by making this movie in lieu of actually having a love affair, and I think that’s a beautiful thing, if you’ll excuse my use of the expression a beautiful thing. However, I am not drawn to participate in their beautiful thing.”

“I hear you,” says Murray, nodding in agreement.

“Yet,” says Stephen, raising both index fingers skyward, “I, too, really like Carmen, as in I have a crush on her transcendent of any crush I’ve ever had, and believe me I’ve had some big ones, and I’ll always be grateful to Joseph for helping me out when I was a teenager, but I still don’t want to be in their movie, and hearing your take on things confirms my feelings.”

‘Fortunately for me,” says Murray, resignedly, “Joseph is adamant I only be Murray of Murray’s Seafood in the movie and not involved in the days of improvising prior to them writing the script.”

“Why not?” says Stephen, aghast. “You’re one of Melody Theatre Company’s finest actors. You were astounding in A Thousand Clowns.”

“Thank you,” says Murray, gazing thoughtfully at Stephen. “But for some reason just the idea of me being on equal creative footing with Joe and Carmen makes Joe furious. As in livid.”

“Yet another reason to avoid the proceedings,” says Stephen, rising to go. “Thank you, Murray. For everything.”

“The feeling is mutual,” says Murray, slapping Stephen on the back. “Say hi to Maya and Celia for me.”

*

Home again, Stephen calls Carmen, thanks her profusely for inviting him to be in their movie, and graciously declines.

And Carmen says, “May I come see you? Now?”

“To try to convince me with your beauty and charm and ineffable je ne sais quoi to be in your movie?” says Stephen, who under no circumstances wants to prolong his escape from the movie business. “No you may not come see me.”

“Not about the movie,” she says quietly. “About something else.”

“Okay,” he says, looking out the kitchen window at the wooden bench in his vegetable garden and thinking that will be the perfect place to discuss something else with Carmen.

*

A striking brunette with a Spanish father and a French mother, Carmen arrives twenty minutes later and Stephen introduces her to Maya and Celia and Hortensio and Moose before taking her out to his big vegetable garden where they sit on the wooden bench with a foot of space between them. They are both wearing shorts and T-shirts, Carmen’s long hair in a ponytail.

Carmen takes off her dark glasses and says, “So… would you like to see about being in a relationship with me?”

Heart pounding, Stephen says, “Yes.”

“Oh,” says Carmen, blushing in surprise. “You would?”

“But I still won’t be in your movie,” says Stephen, shaking his head.

“No,” she says, shaking her head, too.

They fall silent. Birds twitter. A neighbor’s dog barks. The ocean roars faintly in the distance.

“So,” says Carmen, taking a deep breath, “do you think it’s too soon to kiss?”

“Maybe a little,” says Stephen, also taking a deep breath. “I feel like I might be getting into a sticky situation with you and Joseph, and I really don’t want to do that.”

“I understand why you feel that way,” she says, nodding, “but Joe and I have decided not to make a movie together and not see each other for a while. Things were getting confusing, for him more than me, so…”

“I understand in a non-specific way,” says Stephen, feeling both relieved and sad. “You think he’ll be okay?”

“Yes,” says Carmen, inching closer. “What about hugging? Do you think it’s too soon to hug?”

“No,” says Stephen, who hasn’t had a girlfriend in seven years.

“Just so you know,” she says, hugging him, “I haven’t been in a relationship in seven years.”

“No wonder you were in such a big hurry to kiss,” says Stephen, kissing her.

In the house, watching Stephen and Carmen kiss, Maya says to Celia, “So it begins.”

“She’s so lucky,” says Celia, her tears washing away her makeup.

Procession of Desire

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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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2. The Songster

Joseph Ross and Carmen Fernandez are making a movie together with the working title Funny Love Story. Joseph is seventy-five, a movie director emerging from several years of creative dormancy. Carmen is thirty-four, a wedding photographer and aspiring filmmaker who lives in Santa Rosa, California, a two-hour drive from Melody, the small coastal town where Joseph lives and where they are planning to shoot their movie.

They met a year ago on the town beach and discovered they were soul mates. They are not sexually or romantically involved, but they enjoy each other immensely and have had a great time getting to know each other while figuring out how to make a feature-length film for fifty thousand dollars.

Their current task is finding two actors—a woman in her sixties and a man in his thirties—to round out the five-actor cast of the movie. Joseph and Carmen will write and direct and act in the movie, and Murray Steinberg who is sixty-three and owns Murray’s Seafood will be in the movie, too.

Carmen has made a dozen short films and is a big fan of movie directors who write scripts resulting from ensembles of actors improvising together and discovering characters and relationships that make for compelling drama. The current plan is for Carmen and Joseph to write the script after they have assembled the cast and improvised scenes for a few days to find out who their characters might be and what the movie might be about. Joseph thinks this is a crazy way to write a script, but he defers to Carmen because he cares more about her being happy than he cares about how they make their movie.

And so in early June, Carmen comes to stay with Joseph for a few days while they meet with the four actors Carmen culled from several dozen applicants she interviewed online, these in-person meetings to be held at a table in Murray’s Seafood.

*

Carmen and Joseph enter Murray’s fish shop at ten o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning and seat themselves at a table in the far corner of the dining area. The shop is not large and most of Murray’s customers come to buy fresh fish or get fish & chips to go.

Carmen is wearing a white short-sleeved blouse and black corduroy trousers, her dark brown hair in a ponytail, turquoise earrings dangling from her ears.

Joseph is looking dapper in a turquoise dress shirt and brown slacks, his white hair neither long nor plentiful.

Murray, a burly fellow with rambunctious gray hair, is wearing his usual outfit of faded blue jeans, a red Murray’s Seafood T-shirt, and a large white apron.

“Today’s the big day, we hope,” says Murray, bringing two mugs of coffee to the table. “The field narrowed to four. Yes?”

“We are hopeful,” says Joseph, nodding his thanks for the coffee. “How’s business?”

“Booming,” says Murray, smiling at Carmen. “I’ve got Jessica coming in for the lunch rush and Pepe in the kitchen. The blessed hordes have arrived for the summer and apparently they all want my fish & chips.”

“And well they should,” says Carmen, checking her phone. “That’s what we’re having for lunch.”

Now the bell on the door jingles and here is Daphne, one of the two female finalists. A petite woman in her early sixties with short reddish brown hair, Daphne recognizes Carmen from their online meeting and hams it up a little by sashaying across the room.

Joseph rises and offers Daphne his hand. “Welcome Daphne. I’m Joe.”

“Hi Daphne,” says Carmen, giving Daphne a wave. “We knew you were beautiful, but in-person you’re stunning.”

“You should look in the mirror if you want to see stunning,” says Daphne, sitting across from Carmen. “I’d love some coffee.”

“Coming right up,” says Murray, grinning at Daphne.

“This is Murray,” says Joseph, sitting in the chair next to Daphne. “We’ll be shooting some scenes here in his shop.”

“My ex-husband’s father was a lobsterman,” says Daphne, looking at Murray. “In Maine.”

“I love Maine,” says Murray, going to get her coffee. “I grew up in New Jersey. We went to Maine every summer.”

“So…” says Daphne, looking from Carmen to Joseph and back to Carmen, “are you two father daughter? Grandfather granddaughter?”

“No,” says Carmen, glancing at Joseph. “Soul mates.”

Daphne stiffens. “You’re a couple?”

“No,” says Joseph, shaking his head. “Friends. Fellow movie makers.”

“Because I can’t do this if you’re a couple,” says Daphne, shifting uneasily in her chair. “That kind of thing makes me sick.”

Murray serves Daphne a mug of coffee. “Cream? Sugar? Milk?”

“Nothing,” says Daphne, bowing her head. “I screwed this up, didn’t I?” She glances forlornly at Joseph. “Maybe I should just go. Not waste any more of your time.”

And before Joseph can say No, don’t go, Carmen says, “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”

“Okay,” says Daphne, rising to go. “Good luck with your movie.”

Joseph wants to ask her, “How would you characterize that kind of thing? An elderly person sexually involved with a much younger person? An elderly man sexually involved with a much younger female? How about an elderly gay man with a much younger man? Or an elderly woman with a much younger partner?” But instead he says, “Good luck to you, too.”

When Daphne is gone, Murray clears away her mug and says, “Too bad. I liked her.”

“I did, too,” says Joseph, frowning at Carmen. “What if…”

“Patricia,” says Carmen, naming the next actor they’ll be interviewing.

“What if Patricia is also sickened by the thought of us being a couple?” says Joseph, feeling awful about their swift dismissal of Daphne. “Even though we’re not?”

“It wasn’t that,” says Carmen, checking her phone again. “It was that the first thing she asked about was that.”

Joseph shrugs. “And so might Patricia. It’s a question many people might ask.”

“Then we’ll keep looking,” says Carmen, putting down her phone. “We’ve got an hour to kill. Stroll around town?”

“I’ll reserve your table,” says Murray, bowing to them, “and await your return.”

*

Forty-five minutes later, Carmen and Joseph return to Murray’s Seafood and find Murray at the audition table talking to Patricia, a tall woman with big brown eyes and graying brown hair in a bun. She’s wearing black trousers and a purple sweater over a white dress shirt with a purple bow tie, no makeup.

“Ah here they are,” says Murray, giving Carmen and Joseph a look to say I think you’re gonna like her.

Patricia turns in her chair to watch Joseph and Carmen approach, but she doesn’t get up, which is disappointing to Joseph and a relief to Carmen.

When Joseph and Carmen are seated, Patricia looks at Joseph and says with a slight Danish accent, “I did a double-take when I googled you and saw The Songster in your filmography because I’ve never known anyone besides me who ever saw it, and here you are the person who directed it.”

“Ran for three days at the Belvedere in West Hollywood and a week at the Crest in Brooklyn,” says Joseph, who hasn’t thought about The Songster in forty years. “As far as I know, no copies of the opus still exist, which is a good thing. Where did you see it?”

“At the Belvedere in West Hollywood,” says Patricia, her eyes sparkling. “And do you know why I saw it?”

“Why?” asks Carmen, enchanted.

“Because I read for the part of the girl the hero of the movie writes the song for. And I was sure I was going to get the part, so of course I had to see who got the part instead of me.”   

“Anne Frederick,” says Joseph, remembering the long hot days of shooting that lousy movie in Bakersfield. “She was dreadful.”

“But so beautiful,” says Patricia, looking at Carmen. “She was seventeen and reminded everyone of Marilyn Monroe.”

“Except she sounded like a duck,” says Joseph, laughing. “And every character in the movie was a stereotype and every line a tired cliché. But they paid me seventy-five thousand to direct and it was my first film with a budget over a million dollars, so…” He frowns at Patricia. “You didn’t sit through the whole movie, did you?”

“Probably,” she says, nodding. “I rarely walked out of movies in those days.”

A silence falls.

“And now we’re here,” says Carmen, smiling at Patricia. “You don’t look sixty-seven. I would have guessed fifty-four.”

“When I’m happy I feel fifty-four,” says Patricia, laughing. “When I’m sad I’m definitely sixty-seven.”

“So you’re happy today,” says Joseph, liking her very much.

“A beautiful drive from Petaluma,” says Patricia, relaxing, “and thinking I might be in a movie made by the person who wrote and directed The Unerring Heart? What’s not to be happy about?”

*

When Patricia leaves, Carmen says excitedly, “I love her. I love her voice and the way she talks and everything about her. Yes?”

“Yes, she’s wonderful,” says Joseph, yawning. “And I’m running out of gas. Shall we have some of Murray’s finest?”

“Grilled or breaded?” asks Murray, who is hovering nearby. “And by the way, I love her, too.”

“Grilled,” says Joseph, who rarely goes more than a few days without getting an order of Murray’s fish & chips.

“Grilled,” says Carmen, beaming at Murray. “And a lemonade, please.”

Murray calls into the kitchen, “Two extra-large fish and chips! On the grill!”

“And now for the men,” says Joseph, yawning again. “Who will it be? Leonard or Justin?”

“Well it won’t be Justin,” says Carmen, looking at her phone. “Shall I read you his eloquent text?”

“Please,” says Joseph, wishing he could take a nap.

Carmen. After two hour drive realize have two more, can’t do this for what offering. If 8000 and motel Yes. 4 and sofa crash No.

“A man of few words,” says Joseph, glad not to be meeting Justin.

“No,” says Carmen, texting Justin that solitary word. “Said the woman of even fewer words.”

“Let’s hope we like Leonard,” says Joseph, smiling as Murray’s lunch waitress sets their table for the impending fish & chips.

*

They don’t like Leonard.

*

When Leonard departs, Murray joins Joseph and Carmen at the table and says, “Hey what about Stephen Ornofsky?”

“What about him?” says Joseph, glaring at Murray.

“For the movie,” says Murray, holding out his hands as if offering a gift. “He’s handsome, he’s charming, he’s a great performer, he’s thirty-four, he’s funny, he’s local.”

“You mean loco,” says Joseph, angrily. “He lives in a van with who-knows-how-many dogs and cats. He sings stupid songs in front of the post office and people throw pennies at him. He’s the last person in the world I’d want in our movie.”

“What are you talking about?” says Murray, shocked by Joseph’s response. “Stephen’s been Maya Johansen’s live-in caretaker for eight or nine years now and before that he rented a house with Jerry Atkins and Tommy Cosca. And he hasn’t played at the post office since he was a teenager. He’s the star attraction at McCarthy’s on Thursday nights and does standup between songs. And he’s really funny. Where have you been for the last fifteen years?”

“Today is Thursday,” says Carmen, smiling hopefully at Joseph. “Shall we go see him?” 

“No!” says Joseph, furious. “He’s a disaster.”

“Joe, that’s not true,” says Murray, pained to see Joseph acting this way. “He’s a wonderful person.”

“No,” says Joseph, looking at the ground and shaking his head. “I’ve known him since he was a kid. He was Lisa’s friend. Irene’s daughter. Irene was my third wife. When Stephen dropped out of high school and his parents kicked him out, we let him park his van in our driveway. I paid him to do chores and I even paid for him to get some therapy, not that it did any good.”

“Oh Joe, don’t say that,” says Murray, grimacing. “You saved his life.”

“Some life,” says Joseph, slapping a fifty-dollar-bill on the table and getting up to go. “We’ll see you.”

*

To celebrate Patricia agreeing to be in their movie, Joseph takes Carmen out for Mexican food at Dos Hermanas, the place packed, the mood festive.

At meal’s end, Carmen says, “I would love to take a peek at this Stephen Ornofsky character. You game?”

“I’d rather not,” says Joseph, making a sour face, “but if you want to… okay.”

“You’re not curious to see how he’s changed?”

“Not even a little bit. Crazy people don’t interest me.”

“Why do you keep saying he’s crazy? He was homeless and now he’s not. Murray says he’s doing really well. This so unlike you.”

When he hears her say This is so unlike you, Joseph is struck dumb.

“Joe? You okay?”

“Yeah,” he says quietly.

“What’s going on?”

“I just admitted to myself why I don’t want him in our movie.”

“Why?”          

“Because he’s sweet and kind and gifted,” says Joe, remembering Stephen’s battered old Volkswagen van parked by the woodshed. “And I always felt like a selfish talentless fool compared to him.”

“But you helped him.”

“We had an empty guest room and a big sofa in the living room,” says Joseph, recalling the countless times he wanted to go out to Stephen and say Come in and get warm but never did. “He was barely surviving and I made him sleep in his freezing van. And when Lisa left for college and Irene moved out, I told Stephen to go away. And he thanked me for my help and moved his van into town, and though he had almost nothing he took in stray dogs and cats and fed them and cared for them. And no one threw pennies at him. People gave him money because he was a beautiful singer. And then he got a house and gave guitar lessons and worked as a gardener, and every month…”

Joseph stops talking and closes his eyes.

“Every month, he’d send me a check for fifty dollars. For three years. And I never thanked him and never apologized for being so horrible to him. And I’ve avoided him like the plague ever since I kicked him out. And that’s why I don’t want him in our movie, because I’m ashamed of myself and because I think you would love him more than you could ever love me.”

“Then we won’t have him in our movie,” says Carmen, offering Joseph her hand. “We won’t give him another thought.”

“Yes, we will,” says Joseph, taking her hand. “We will go see him now. And who knows? Maybe he’ll turn out to be the one we’ve been looking for.”

“That’s the Joe I know,” says Carmen, smiling sublimely. “That’s my soul mate.”

Complicated Feelings