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.”


“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


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.”


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.


Friendship Gate


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.