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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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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

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1. Funny Love Story

A longtime resident of Melody, a small coastal town in northern California, Joseph Ross is seventy-four, healthy, friendly, attractive to women, and thrice divorced. A few months ago, after three years of marriage, his fourth wife asked for a divorce and went to live with her daughter in Los Angeles.

Joseph has no children of his own, but he helped raise the son of his second wife and the daughter of his third wife, and both children grew up loving Joseph and thinking of him as their father, and now their children think of Joseph as Grandpa Joe, which makes Joseph very happy.

As Joseph sees things, the main reason his marriages didn’t last was that he never stopped being on the lookout for a soul mate, even when he was married. He was never adulterous, but his wives and girlfriends, none of whom was his soul mate, sensed his desire for a soul connection with someone else and they felt betrayed.

*

One warm afternoon in early summer, Joseph goes to the town beach with his dog Lucille, a seven-year-old Golden Retriever, and after Joseph tires himself and Lucille out by throwing a tennis ball into the ocean thirty-eight times for Lucille to retrieve, they sit on the sand and look out to sea and think about life.

Joseph thinks about what to buy at the grocery store for supper, and he thinks about a woman he was madly in love with forty-five years ago and how he believed she was his soul mate, though she apparently did not share this belief because she married someone else and broke Joseph’s heart. Which brings up for Joseph the questions: what is a soul mate and can we have more than one in the course of our lives?

As he ponders these questions, his ideas about supper shift to getting take-out instead of cooking tonight, possibly fish & chips.

Now someone says to him, “Excuse me, would you mind if I shot some pictures of you and your dog? You’re so wonderful together and the light is perfect right now.”

Joseph turns to see who is speaking to him and beholds a beautiful woman with shoulder-length dark brown hair wearing a green T-shirt and red shorts, her feet bare, an expensive camera in hand.

“No, we don’t mind,” says Joseph, guessing the woman to be in her late twenties and therefore not a potential girlfriend. At seventy-four, Joseph knows better than to pursue anyone younger than mid-sixties. “We will try not to pose.”

“I was just going to say that,” says the woman, firing away with her camera. “I’m Carmen. Who are you?”

“This is Lucille,” says Joseph, gazing at Lucille who gazes at him. “And I’m Joe. Nice to meet you, Carmen.”

“Likewise.” Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. “Oh God. Perfect.”

Now Carmen comes closer, kneels in the sand a few feet from Joseph and Lucille, and continues firing away.

“I should be taking your picture,” says Joseph in his easy-going way. “You’re the gorgeous one and the light is exquisite.”

“Great,” she says, handing him her camera. “Fire away.”

So Joseph, who has a camera exactly like Carmen’s, fires away, and Carmen, as far as Joseph is concerned, makes loves to the camera with her eyes and face and body, though she isn’t posing.

The more he looks at her, the more he realizes she is not making love to the camera, but rather showing him her soul, and he forgets he is seventy-four and says, “I’ve dreamt my whole life about something like this happening to me.”

“What do you mean?” she asks tenderly. “A woman kneeling before you and baring her soul?”

He lowers the camera. “Is that what you’re doing? Baring your soul to me?”

“Feels that way,” she says, returning his gaze. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

“Nor to me,” he says, raising the camera to his eye. “Though I doubt my feelings because I just remembered I’m seventy-four and you are twenty-seven.”

“Thirty-three,” she says quietly. “I don’t think soul connections have anything to do with age, so don’t doubt your feelings, Joe, and I won’t doubt mine.”

*

Picture taking over, Joseph and Carmen sit on either side of Lucille and watch the waves breaking on the shore.

Carmen tells Joseph her last name is Fernandez and she lives in Santa Rosa and is a photographer and videographer. “I pay my bills shooting weddings. The rest of the time I write and direct and shoot and edit short films. My ultimate goal is to make feature-length movies, but for now I’m happy making shorts.”

“What are your movies about?” he asks, remembering when he was thirty-three and driven by similar ambitions.

“What all my favorite movies are about,” she says, smiling at him expectantly.

“Which is?” he asks, arching his eyebrow.

“You tell me,” she says, closing her eyes. “I’ll think my answer and we’ll see how close you come.”

So Joseph closes his eyes and hears Carmen’s thoughts as if she is speaking aloud.

“The quest for a meaningful life,” he says quietly. “And on our quest we meet soul mates who help us discover who we really are.”

“Word for word,” says Carmen, opening her eyes.

“I suppose we do learn who we are through our relationships with others,” says Joseph, opening his eyes. “If we’re lucky.”

“If we’re ready,” she says, nodding.

“Do your movies have happy endings?” he asks, no longer believing in happy endings.

“My movies have hopeful endings,” she says solemnly. “I want to give people hope.”

“Hope of what?” he asks, hearing bitterness in his voice.

“Hope of finding meaningful ways to relate to each other and maybe meeting a soul mate or two along the way.”

“As we have met today,” he marvels.

“As we have met today,” she echoes.

*

On the way home from the beach in his old pickup truck, Joseph and Lucille stop at Murray’s Seafood and Joseph gets two orders of fish & chips because one order is never quite enough and he likes scrambling eggs with the leftovers for breakfast the next day.

Murray, a jovial fellow in his sixties, having heard about Joseph’s wife moving away, asks with some concern, “How you doin’ Joe?”

“Great,” says Joseph, still exhilarated from his time on the beach with Carmen. “Just great, Murray. How are you?”

“Good. I’m good,” says Murray, relieved to hear Joseph is handling the demise of his marriage so well. “You still taking pictures? Making movies?”

“I took a little break,” says Joseph, stretching the truth—he hadn’t held a camera in seven years until he held Carmen’s camera today. “But I’m getting back into it.”

“Hey why not make a movie here,” says Murray, gesturing magnanimously to the interior of his shop and surprising himself with the suggestion. “A funny love story set in a fish shop.”

“If you’ll be in it,” says Joseph, imagining the movie beginning with Murray arriving at his shop in the morning and unlocking the front door, “we’ll make it.”

“I’ve been waiting my whole life to be in a movie,” says Murray, beaming at Joseph. “My dream come true.”

*

Driving up the hill from town, the divine smell of fish & chips making Lucille whimper in anticipation of a treat, Joseph wonders if Carmen will contact him.

She tried to give him her card but he said, “No. I’ll give you my card and you can contact me if you want to. Okay?”

“I get it,” she said, looking him in the eye. “And I want you to get that I’m calling you tonight and we’re going to be friends. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a movie together. What do you think about that?”

“I will try not to think about it,” he said, his heart aching. “If you call me, you call me. If not, se la vie.”

*

Sitting at his kitchen table eating fish & chips and drinking red wine and listening to a baseball game on the radio, Joseph hears the phone in his office ringing, but he doesn’t go to answer.

“The machine will get it,” he says to Lucille, who is sitting on the floor hoping for a few more treats.

Joseph sips his wine and imagines the opening scene of the funny love story set in Murray’s Seafood; a faraway shot of the front of the shop, morning sunlight reflecting off the glass door, a woman walking by with her dog on a leash, Murray arriving in his van with a load of fresh fish — the day just beginning.

Dream Of You