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.”
“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.”