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Second Friendship Gate

So a couple months ago, Dexter Jones built a friendship gate in his back fence connecting his yard to his neighbors’ yard. Those neighbors happen to be siblings: Godfrey and Melody. And now Godfrey is one of Dexter’s best friends and Melody is Dexter’s girlfriend, though she and Dexter have yet to physically touch each other because of the dang virus going around, but they’re enjoying the suspense, if you know what I mean.

One late afternoon Dexter is weeding the broccoli patch in his burgeoning vegetable garden when someone asks, “Are those broccolis?”

Looking up and around, Dexter espies a little boy peering over the solid wood fence between Dexter’s yard and the neighboring yard to the south. The little boy is standing on something enabling him to look over the seven-feet-high fence, but Dexter can’t see what the boy is standing on.

“Yep these are broccoli plants,” says Dexter, gesturing to the big plants sporting numerous heads of broccoli. “Who are you?”

“Larry,” says the boy, frowning. “I thought broccoli grew on a tree.”

“Nope,” says Dexter, smiling. “More like a little bush. How old are you?”

“Five, but I’ll be six in three weeks,” says Larry, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “How come you put a gate in your other fence?”

“I’m good friends with Godfrey and Melody who live back there, so we made a gate for easy visiting.” Dexter sighs happily as he thinks of Melody and how he’ll be seeing her soon for an evening visit on her patio. “Hey what are you standing on, Larry?”

“I nailed some boards to the fence,” says Larry, matter-of-factly. “Kind of like a ladder and I climb up them.”

“Why did you do that?” asks Dexter, impressed by the little boy’s inventiveness.

“To look at things,” says Larry, nodding. “I made one on each fence so I can see other things besides our yard. I like your yard the best now that you have a vegetable garden. Your beans are growing really fast and you get lots of bees and butterflies. The yard behind us is just blackberry bushes and the yard on the other side is full of junk.”

“Do you have a garden?” asks Dexter, feeling a pang of sympathy for Larry and all the children confined to their little spaces because of the dang virus.

“No, we just have a patio and a lawn,” says Larry, shaking his head. “I wish we had a vegetable garden, but my mom says she doesn’t know how to grow vegetables so we can’t have one.”

“I can help you put in a vegetable garden,” says Dexter, smiling at Larry.

“Wait a minute,” says Larry, disappearing.

“Uh oh,” says Dexter, laughing. “Now what have I done?”

What he’s done is get Larry to go get his mother who comes out into her backyard with a little ladder and stands on the third rung up so she can see over the fence into Dexter’s yard. Her name is Harriet. She’s thirty, divorced, single, works at Safeway, and would love to replace her little patch of lawn with a vegetable garden, but she knows nothing about gardening.

Dexter and Harriet chat for twenty minutes, decide they like each other, and a couple days later Dexter and Godfrey knock out seven planks in the fence between Dexter’s yard and Larry and Harriet’s yard, and they build a second friendship gate.

And just a few weeks after they build that gate, this being the height of summer, Larry harvests his first radish from his new vegetable garden and calls Dexter on the phone to make sure it’s a good time to come visit.

Dexter steps out of the shower, having just gotten home from work, answers his phone, and tells Larry to come over in ten minutes.

Larry watches the clock on the kitchen stove until ten minutes have gone by and then he rushes out into his backyard and goes through the friendship gate into Dexter’s backyard to show him the radish.

“Wow,” says Dexter, admiring the radish from several feet away. “What a beauty.”

“I know,” says Larry, gazing in wonder at the beautiful red radish. “I think maybe I have a green thumb.”

“No maybe about it,” says Dexter, imagining giving Larry a hug. “You’ve definitely got the knack, kiddo.”

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Dexter and Melody Go Out

the next night

On a warm afternoon in May, Dexter Jones, forty-six, gets home at five from his job of delivering packages for UPS in Springfield, Oregon, undresses in his garage, drops his uniform into the washing machine, enters his kitchen naked as a jay bird, washes his hands with great thoroughness, feeds his hungry cats Frank and Ethel, and takes a hot shower during which he washes his longish brown hair.

Now he puts on his favorite tie-dyed T-shirt featuring lots of blue and green blobs, captures his hair in a stubby ponytail, slips into comfy old blue jeans, and saunters into his kitchen to make some guacamole to have with chips and lemonade for his first official date with Melody.

Melody lives in the house directly behind Dexter’s house, their backyards connected with a friendship gate Dexter and Melody’s brother Godfrey built a few weeks ago. Melody is sixty, trim and pretty with short brown hair. A high school Home Economics teacher, Melody does an hour of yoga and takes a brisk two-mile walk every morning before she conducts her online classes for five hours, and then she takes another brisk walk when she’s done with her teaching.

Neither Melody nor Dexter has been in a relationship in several years and they were both pleasantly surprised when they found themselves desiring to maybe get into one with each other. How to create a new relationship in the midst of a deadly epidemic is a mystery to both of them, but their desire to explore the possibility trumps their reluctance, and tonight is the beginning of their experiment in dating during a pandemic.

Dexter sets up a little table on the edge of his vegetable garden about ten feet from the friendship gate and covers the table top with a green paisley tablecloth upon which he arrays two bowls of guacamole, two bowls of chips, and two glasses of lemonade. Now he places a lawn chair on either side of the table and sits down to await Melody.

While he waits, Dexter closes his eyes and thinks back over his life, recalling several other first dates. And as he watches his memories, he notices that in every previous first encounter he was so anxious about wanting the woman to like him, he never allowed himself to be who he really was. Instead, he tried to say and do things he thought the woman would like. Thus he was never genuine with these women in the beginning, never the true Dexter, so no wonder the women were all confused a few dates along when he could no longer keep up the façade and they found out he was not the person he’d been pretending to be.

“But no more,” says Dexter, sighing in relief. “From now on I speak from my heart and tell the unvarnished truth.”

“Sounds good to me,” says Melody, standing in the friendship gateway.

Dexter opens his eyes and gazes in wonder at the lovely woman in a reddish short-sleeved summer dress, barefoot, with a red rose in her short brown hair, a plate of almond-butter cookies in one hand, a small glass decanter of red wine in the other.

“Wow,” he says, mesmerized. “You are so beautiful.”

She steps through the gateway and sets the wine and cookies on the table.

“Don’t hold back, Dexter,” she says quietly. “Say what you feel and I will, too.”

He gets up from his chair. “I’ll go get a couple wine glasses. Be right back.”

Melody moves her chair a little closer to Dexter’s chair, about seven-feet away, sits down, and exhales profoundly. “Just be yourself, Mel. You’ve got nothing to prove. If he likes you, he likes you. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. Better to find out sooner than later.”

Dexter returns with two small and delicate crystal wine glasses and sets them on the table next to the decanter of wine. “Got those in Venice. The one time I went to Europe. Nine years ago. Never used them until now.”

“They’re exquisite,” says Melody, her eyes filling with tears. “I never did get to Europe. Always wanted to, but never made it.”

“You might go some day,” says Dexter, his eyes filling with tears, too. “We might go together.”

“It doesn’t matter,” says Melody, smiling through her tears. “The only thing that matters is being here with you right now. Everything else is a memory or an idea. This is what’s real. And I want to tell you, need to tell you, that ever since you called two days ago and asked if I’d like to meet you here today, just the two of us, I’ve been happier than I’ve been in years and years. Just knowing you wanted to be my special friend is a great gift, Dexter. No matter what happens.”

“You have the most appealing voice I’ve ever heard,” says Dexter, feeling deeply happy. “You want to pour the wine or should I?”

“I’ll pour,” she says, removing the crystal stopper and pouring the wine into the delicate glasses. “I almost never drink alcohol, but I thought it would be fun to toast our new…” She half-frowns and half-smiles. “What are we calling this? Friendship or…”

“I like relationship,” says Dexter, reddening. “Everything it conjures up.”

“You mean sex?” she says, arching an eyebrow and raising her glass.

“Among other things,” says Dexter, raising his glass, too.

“Like what other things?”

“Like sharing time. Holding each other. Laughing together. Watching the cats goofing around. Gardening. Going on walks. Making food together. Telling each other things we don’t tell anybody else.”

“Here’s to all that,” she says, gently clinking his glass with hers. “Though I think we’ll have to wait a while before we hold each other. Until we’re ready to take the chance.”

“To all the possibilities,” he says, clinking her glass with his. “Whatever they turn out to be.”

They drink the wine and gaze at each other for a long time without speaking.

“You’re wonderful,” says Melody, the first to speak. “I’ve never wanted to kiss anybody as much as I want to kiss you.”

“I feel the same way,” says Dexter, grinning. “But in lieu of a kiss, try my guacamole.”

Melody dips one of her chips into her bowl of guacamole, and at the taste of the good green goo her eyes grow wide with delight.

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Friendship Gate

intersections

When Dexter and his neighbor Godfrey finish building the gate connecting their backyards, they decide to hold a celebration. Dexter invites one of his best friends, Luis, who is fifty-three, and Godfrey invites his sister Melody who just turned sixty. Dexter is forty-six, Godfrey fifty-seven. Because of the dang virus going around, four is the maximum number of people allowed for outdoor gatherings of an hour or less, and participants are asked to sit or stand at least six feet apart for however long the gathering lasts.

As it happens, Luis caught the virus, or the virus caught Luis, four months ago and he is now fully recovered. Even so, there are now multiple strains of the virus, so he is taking the same precautions as those who have not yet been infected with any of the variations on the dang bug.

Dexter is an Anglo Saxon UPS delivery person. Luis is a Chinese software designer. Melody and Godfrey are the children of Ashkenazi Jews, Melody a high school Home Economics teacher, Godfrey a spiritual counselor at the nearby Presbyterian.

The day sunny and mild, they sit in lawn chairs in a circle on Godfrey and Melody’s patio adjacent to their beautiful old farmhouse, their chairs eight feet apart. They sip lemonade and talk about life in the era of the dang virus and what they think and hope is going to happen sooner or later.

“This has to be the end of unregulated capitalism,” says Luis, a cheerful fellow with black hair and black-framed glasses. “And unless we start putting most of our resources into saving the environment and creating a comprehensive global medical system dedicated to eradicating this and other dangerous viruses, things will only get worse.”

“Capitalism used to be regulated,” says Melody, lean and pretty with short brown hair. “And medical care was excellent and inexpensive. But the super selfish guys got in after Jimmy Carter and they’ve been wrecking things ever since.”

“I think this is the start of a swift decline of civilization,” says Godfrey, tall and angular with short black hair. “Greed and selfishness and cruelty always beget decay and death. I don’t think we’ll see much positive change in our lifetimes.”

“Maybe so, maybe not,” says Luis, smiling at each of his three companions. “In any case, we need to counter the negativity and despair by becoming activist messengers of positivity and hope. Or so I believe.”

“Right on, Luis,” says Dexter, a robust fellow with brown hair caught in a stubby ponytail. “And now that the virus is better understood and proper protocols are in place, I think we should get together like this more often and encourage other people to meet like this, too. And maybe from these outdoor quartets good ideas for new and better ways of living on earth will emerge.”

“Four is my favorite number,” says Melody, smiling shyly at Dexter. “How’s your new vegetable garden doing?”

“Pretty well,” he says, seriously smitten with her. “Lots of babies coming up, the tomatoes taking hold. And so far anyway I’m keeping ahead of the slugs and snails and sow bugs.” He blushes. “Four is my favorite number, too.”

“How’s the package delivery business?” asks Godfrey, who counsels people via telephone these days, though when the warmer weather takes hold he intends to see people outside on the church terrace.

“The package delivery business is busier than ever,” says Dexter, gazing admiringly at the friendship gate in the fence that used to keep him apart from his wonderful neighbors. “Everybody’s buying everything online now. Everything. We’re adding drivers all the time.”

“I feel so sad for the young people and the little kids,” says Melody, shrugging. “All their natural instincts thwarted.”

“Trust in the resiliency of youth,” says Luis, pointing a triumphant finger to the sky. “Trust in the inherent goodness of people.”

Dexter looks at Melody and has a vision of being in a really good relationship with her, and she looks at Dexter and imagines the same thing.

And their hearts are filled with hope.

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Dexter Digs Up His Lawn

sally's cactus blooms

Dexter was so looking forward to a lusty week at Happy Valley Retreat Center, but the love-in got cancelled because of the dang virus that’s going around, and going around is a humongous understatement.

So in the aftermath of that tragic cancellation, and having heard a voice while watching a cloud, a voice that might have been Dexter’s imagination but might have been the voice of the universe, AKA God, Dexter decides to follow the advice of the voice and dig up his scraggly lawn and put in a vegetable garden and plant some fruit trees.

Who is Dexter? Why should we care about him? Those are two good questions. I would even say they are essential questions. Many novels and stories and movies, especially movies, go wrong because we never get to know the main characters as people rather than archetypes, and we aren’t given good reasons to care about those characters.

Dexter is forty-six, a Caucasian American male born and raised and living in Springfield, Oregon, a UPS delivery person for thirteen years now after four years as an auto mechanic at Super Fast n’ Cheap Oil Change. Before being an oil changer he was co-owner with his mother Doris of an online 1960s memorabilia company called Quicksilver Memory Service, which Doris still has though her sales in the last twenty years haven’t amounted to much.

In the next three paragraphs I’ll try to answer the question about why you should care about Dexter. If what I tell you doesn’t ring your bell, I suggest you stop reading and do something else with your precious time. Doesn’t ring my bell, by the way, is one of Dexter’s favorite expressions, learned from his mother who uses it several times a day.

Dexter is a kind and thoughtful person who is genuinely interested in other people. He is fascinated by history and neurobiology and reads voraciously about both. He learned next to nothing in high school and did not attend college, yet his two best friends are highly educated and consider Dexter a wonderfully original thinker. One of those best friends is a middle-aged Chinese man named Luis, a microbiology software designer, and the other best friend is a forty-year-old Danish woman named Greta, a researcher for an online encyclopedia.

Painfully shy around women he finds attractive, Dexter finds most women attractive. He would love to be in a relationship, but his several attempts all ended unpleasantly, not because Dexter is a jerk, but because he grew up without any sort of model for how one goes about having a relationship, except with one’s mother.

Dexter is a sweetheart who is afraid of seeming too sweet. He loves classical music, something he got from his mother’s father who was a classical music clarinet player. He also likes music that swings, something he got from being human. He has two cats he dotes on, Frank and Ethel, and he would love to have a dog but doesn’t feel he has the time and energy after ten hours of delivering packages to give a dog the attention and exercise he or she would require. He also has a large aquarium, home to seven neon tetras. His favorite television show is the British game show 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, his favorite ethnic cuisine is Thai, and if none of that makes you care about Dexter, read no further.

However, if you are still reading, Dexter’s parents split up when Dexter was five, and though they legally had joint custody of Dexter, he spent most of his childhood with his mother Doris in her Airstream trailer in the Riverside Mobile Home Park where she still lives today.

A spry seventy-six, Doris starts every day with several cups of black coffee and reading Tarot cards for an hour or so. Thus it has been since Dexter was born. A retired bookkeeper, Doris owns three other Airstream trailers and the lots they sit on in Riverside Mobile Home Park. The rent she derives from those three mobile homes is sufficient to support her minimalist lifestyle and leave her a little extra each month to contribute to the local food bank.

She is not terribly afraid of catching the dang virus going around, but she is a little afraid, so for the time being she visits with Dexter on the phone and not in-person. She has groceries delivered to her doorstep every few days and walks her toy poodle Cream around the mobile home park for a half-hour every late morning and again in the early evening. She believes 1972 was the apex of human culture, and the décor in her Airstream, the music she listens to, the movies she watches, and the books she reads reflect that belief.

Doris raised Dexter to believe the 1960s and 70s were the golden age of humanity and he continues to believe this. He thinks of himself as a latter-day hippie. He has two extraordinary tie-dyed T-shirts, drives a faded red 1977 Volkswagen van, wears his longish brown hair in a stubby ponytail, and digs Van Morrison, though his go-to music is anything by Mendelssohn.

So here is Dexter on a cool Saturday morning in May, digging up the scraggly lawn in the little backyard of his blue two-bedroom tract home he has owned for fifteen years. Built in the late 1970s, the house is sturdy and unpretentious with a small front yard filled with rose bushes. The somewhat larger backyard is enclosed by a seven-feet-high wood fence that gives no view of the yards on either side of Dexter’s yard, or of the yard behind his yard.

Dexter barely knows his neighbors on either side of him and he knows nothing about the person or people who live in the house with the yard in back of his.

Sporting a bit of a paunch but otherwise in excellent shape from delivering packages five-days-a-week for the last thirteen years, Dexter is very much enjoying digging up the scraggly lawn, which is so scraggly there is little lawn to remove. As he turns the soil with his big shovel, the lawn remnants disappear. His plan is to dig up the whole lawn, get twenty bags of manure, dig that in, and plant some stuff.

He gets lost in a fantasy of going to the nursery to get manure and meeting an intriguing woman who is also buying manure and they fall in love. And just as he and this fantasy woman are about to make love, a voice says, “Gonna plant some veggies? If so, you picked a primo spot.”

Dexter looks up and around, wondering where the voice came from. This is not the same voice that might have been Dexter’s imagination or might have been the voice of God telling him to dig up his lawn. This voice came from nearby and is male and a little gravelly.

“Hello?” says Dexter. “Where are you?”

“Back here,” says the man, chuckling. “Looking at you through a knothole. Thought you’d like to know your soon-to-be-gone lawn used to be part of the commune vegetable garden back in the day. Sixties and Seventies. Before my old man sold the land to the developers. He kept three lots and the big old farmhouse and when he died he left them to me.”

Dexter leaves his shovel stuck in the ground and walks toward his back fence. The man sticks his finger through the knothole and waggles Hello.

“I’m Dexter,” says Dexter, waggling a finger at the knothole. “Who are you?”

“Godfrey Moonstone,” says the man. “My old man was Ira Levinson and my mom was Shirley Goldstein, but they legally changed their last names to Moonstone. They were hippies until I was twenty and then virtually overnight, or so it seemed, they turned into Republicans. I think of myself as a latter-day hippy.” He sighs. “But who knows what we are anymore. Things are pretty confusing now, don’t you think? With the virus and everything?”

“I’m kind of a latter-day hippy, too,” says Dexter, stopping a few feet from the back fence. “You been infected?”

“Not yet,” says Godfrey. “You?”

“Not as far as I know,” says Dexter, shaking his head. “You want a beer?”

“Love one,” says Godfrey, sweetly. “However, I’m a reformed alcoholic. Seventeen years sober.”

“Good on you, Godfrey,” says Dexter, smiling appreciatively. “Lemonade?”

“Perfecto,” says Godfrey. “How shall…”

“I’ll hand your bottle over the fence,” says Dexter.

“Cool,” says Godfrey. “I’ll get a ladder.”

“I’ll get one, too,” says Dexter.

So they stand a few rungs up on their stepladders and look at each other over the fence and drink lemonade together.

Godfrey is a tall angular man in his early fifties with olive skin and short black hair. He lives with his sister Melody who teaches online Home Economics for the currently closed high schools in Springfield and nearby Eugene. Godfrey is a spiritual counselor at the neighborhood Presbyterian, and he, too, is fascinated by history and neurobiology and reads voraciously about both.

In fact, Dexter and Godfrey have such a deep and meaningful time talking to each other over their back fence, they decide to knock out some planks and build a friendship gate.