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short story

Why You Are Here

On a Saturday morning in September, nineteen-year-old Fernando Ontiveros is stocking dairy products in a big refrigerated display case in Walker’s Groceries in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. Fernando has worked at Walker’s since he was fourteen, after school and on weekends while in high school, full-time since graduating from Mercy High in June.

A handsome fellow with shoulder-length black hair, Fernando is hoping to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts a year from now, but to do so he must make a short movie that will, as he explained to his skeptical parents, knock the socks off the faculty at that esteemed training ground for many of tomorrow’s movie and television directors.

Fernando has been writing and directing and shooting short films since he was nine, and though he is a fine actor and singer, making movies is his great passion. He has spent thousands of hours experimenting with lighting, camera angles, tracking shots, and sound recording, and he has meticulously studied hundreds of great movies, old and new, in search of cinematic techniques to improve his art.   

“Excuse me,” says a man with a British accent. “May I impose upon you to help me locate the Egret Creek wine?”

Fernando turns in the direction of the voice and smiles to see the man known around Mercy as the shy guy from England, a slender fellow with short gray hair turning white, a man Fernando has long been curious about and never spoken to until this moment.

“You may,” says Fernando, his accent revealing the influence of his Spanish-speaking parents. “Are you looking for red or white?”

“Both,” says the Englishman, smiling in response to Fernando’s smile. “My wife and I… I wouldn’t say we’re addicted, but we are deeply habituated to drinking and cooking with the Egret Creek wines, and they’ve always been right here,” – he gestures to the island of boxes of wine, some of the boxes open to reveal their contents – “and now they seem to have disappeared, which for us would be a catastrophe.”

“They are there,” says Fernando, loving this fellow’s accent and the way he phrases things and his gentle manner and expressive hands. “We just shifted everything a few feet to your left. Look again.”

The shy fellow returns his gaze to the island of boxes and exclaims, “Goodness. There they are. Just not exactly where they’ve been for so many years.” Now he looks at Fernando and confides, “I would blame my age, but I think it’s more a matter of deeply entrenched habit.” He laughs a soft musical laugh. “How kind of you to put up with an old cuckoo like me.”

*

That night, very much under the influence of his encounter with the shy guy from England, Fernando writes the first draft of a screenplay for a short film based on his encounter with the shy guy, the scene continuing beyond what actually happened – Fernando loading a few boxes of wine onto the old fellow’s shopping cart and ultimately helping him load the boxes into his truck, while the Englishman babbles in his charming and humorous way – the end of the movie a surprising exchange about the meaning of life.

*

A few days later, having reworked the script several times, Fernando goes to the Mercy Players Company theatre and shows the script to Harold Thorndyke, the company’s General Manager who frequently stars in their productions and was Fernando’s Drama teacher at Mercy High for two years before landing the cushy gig at MPC. Harold loves Fernando’s script and volunteers to play the role of the elderly British fellow in Fernando’s movie, though Harold is only forty-six, his British accent is pathetic, and he is one of the worst actors Fernando has ever seen.

“I’ll keep you in mind,” says Fernando, heeding advice gleaned from the autobiography of his favorite movie director Jason Randle Jones: be kind and courteous to everyone unless it’s absolutely impossible not to. “I’m very glad you like it, Harold.”

“I really do,” says Harold, who spent four years in Los Angeles trying without success to get a toe in the door of the television biz before falling back on his BA in Drama and becoming a high school Drama teacher. “It’s poignant, yet funny, and the dialogue is marvelous. Write us a play, Fernando. With a big part for me. Just kidding. Not really.”

*

Buoyed by Harold’s praise, Fernando shows the script to his Uncle Mario’s wife Joan Steinberg who was a Drama major at Sonoma State before switching to Business and eventually opening a chocolate shop. Joan loves the script, too, and says to Fernando, “You know, really, there’s no reason why the main character can’t be a woman, and I would be happy to play the part.” She laughs her high staccato laugh. “When I was in the Sonoma State production of The Importance of Being Earnest, my British accent was so indistinguishable from the real thing, the reviewer in the Sonoma State Star said my Lady Bracknell was England incarnate.”

“What an intriguing idea,” says Fernando, who is sorely tempted to ask Joan to give him a sample of her British accent, but decides not to. “I’ll definitely keep you in mind, Joan.”

“In any case, it’s a marvelous script,” says Joan, half-smiling and half-frowning at Fernando as if she doesn’t quite believe he wrote it. “Your ear for dialogue is remarkable.”

*

Fernando’s savvy girlfriend Dolores Garcia, who also aspires to be in the movie biz, loves the script, too, and says, “Hey Nando, why not ask the shy guy to play himself? He’s right here in Mercy. Wouldn’t hurt to ask him, would it?”

“Genius,” says Fernando, acting as if the idea had never occurred to him, though it has always been his intention to ask the shy guy to play the part. “You’re amazing, Dolly. If I make it big in the movie biz, you do, too.”

Aroused by Fernando’s enthusiastic praise, Dolores initiates some profound smooching.

*

With the intention of sending the shy guy from England a letter introducing himself, Fernando asks several of his fellow employees at Walker’s Groceries if they know the shy guy’s name, and he hits pay dirt with Sylvia Viera who has been a checker at Walker’s for thirty-five years and is one of Fernando’s mother’s many cousins.

“His name is Bertram Hawley,” says Sylvia, speaking in Spanish to Fernando on their break in the small employee lounge at the back of the big grocery store. “He always pays by check. So does his wife Alison, but Bertram does most of the shopping for them. And the cooking, too, I think. The first few years he shopped here he was so shy he never said a word to me, though I always said Hello how you doing? Nothing. Then one day I said Hola Bertram because I knew his name from his checks, and he smiled his shy little smile and said, ‘You know my name?’ and I said I did and I knew his wife was Alison, and after that he started talking to me a little more, and now we talk the whole time I’m checking him out.” She arches her eyebrow. “You know what he does for a living?”

“Tell me,” says Fernando, holding his breath.

“He’s the guy who makes those big wooden statues of naked women they show at the Fletcher Gallery every year.” She gives Fernando a wide-eyed look and nods. “Can you believe it? We go every year. Maria and Pedro would never miss that show, and I like it, too. Those carvings are so real you think they’re gonna come to life.”

“I go every year, too,” says Fernando, laughing. “So he’s that guy? He’s famous. Those things sell for fifty thousand dollars and the show sells out every year. His phone number on his checks?”

Sylvia nods. “And his P.O. box, too. I always look at the checks to make sure the total is right, you know, and I’ve been looking at his checks twice a week for more than twenty years, so I know them by heart.”

*

Before finalizing his letter to Bertram Hawley, Fernando attends a big family barbecue at his Aunt Conchita’s farm a couple miles inland from Mercy, and while Fernando is hanging out with Conchita’s husband Zeke who is tending the three barbecue grills, Zeke asks Fernando what he’s been up to and Fernando tells him about his movie script and his plan to approach the shy English guy.

“I’ve been doing yard work for Bertram and Alison since I started gardening,” says Zeke, basting the chicken legs and thighs with Conchita’s spicy barbecue sauce. “That’s ten years now. Three hours a week. Bertram’s a great guy, but I doubt very much he’ll be in your movie.”

“Why not?” asks Fernando, frowning. “Because he’s so shy?”

“He’s more than shy,” says Zeke, thinking fondly of Bertram. “He suffers from extreme anxiety and panic attacks. He was an actor in England, but after he was in a terrible car accident, he had to give up being in plays and movies because he couldn’t be around large groups of people or do any kind of stressful work.”

“He told you that?” asks Fernando, who always feels a little uncomfortable that Zeke, a sophisticated white guy in his thirties, is a gardener, while nearly all the men in the Ontiveros Viera Gomez Martinez clan, the sons of farm laborers, are plumbers and electricians and building contractors, and their children are lawyers and doctors and software designers.  

“Oh yeah,” says Zeke, laughing. “Once Bertram gets talking, he can really talk.”

“Would you introduce me to him?” asks Fernando, undaunted by Zeke’s doubts about Bertram being in the movie.

“Sure,” says Zeke, who admires Fernando’s artistic ambitions. “I do their place on Tuesday afternoon from two to five. Probably be best if you came with me one day.”

“I’ll take next Tuesday off,” says Fernando, beaming at Zeke. “And I’ll put your name in the credits of every movie I ever make.”

*   

The following Tuesday afternoon, Zeke picks Fernando up at the four-house complex at the north end of Mercy where Fernando has lived his whole life with his parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins and nephews and nieces.

Fernando is wearing a fine brown leather jacket over a gray shirt with a black bowtie, gray corduroy trousers, and red running shoes, an outfit he imagines a movie director would wear to meet with a star he hopes will play the lead in his new film.

Zeke’s little black mutt Eso sits between Zeke and Fernando in Zeke’s old truck as they drive to Bertram and Alison’s house in the forest a mile inland from Mercy.

“I like your script,” says Zeke, who used to spend more time writing short stories and novels than he did working as a gardener, though he hasn’t done much writing in the last few years. “Especially the first half. The ending feels a bit glued on. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do know what you mean,” says Fernando, nodding. “The first half is pretty much what Bertram actually said to me, and the second half is my attempt at carrying on in his voice. I’m hoping if he agrees to do the part, he’ll help me rewrite the dialogue so it sounds more like him.”

“I admire your confidence, Nando,” says Zeke, turning off the highway onto the gravel drive leading to Bertram and Alison’s house. “I could use some of that.”

“It’s not so much confidence,” says Fernando, shrugging, “as what my grandmother told me a million times when I was growing up and what Jason Randle Jones, my favorite movie director, says in his autobiography. If you don’t ask for what you want, you’ll never get anything.”

*

Zeke parks in front of the lovely old redwood house flanked by two large modern studios, one in which Bertram carves his wood sculptures, the other in which Alison sees her psychotherapy clients. Donna, a very friendly Golden Retriever, comes to greet Zeke and Eso and Fernando, and now Bertram emerges from his studio and beckons to them.

“This is my wife’s nephew Fernando,” says Zeke, as he and Fernando enter Bertram’s high-ceilinged workshop where a human form is emerging from a massive seven-feet-tall pillar of oak standing under a big skylight in the center of the room. “Fernando, Bertram.”

“I know you,” says Bertram, not seeming at all anxious as he shakes Fernando’s hand. “You’re the kind soul who helped me see the Egret Creek wines a few feet to the left of where they’d always previously been. And, of course, I’ve seen you many times over the years at Walker’s, not to mention strolling around town in the company of beautiful young women, and I can see why you attract such a coterie of admirers. You’re a charismatic. Has anyone ever told you that? Because you are.”

“No one ever has,” says Fernando, gazing around the studio and wanting to make a movie here. “Why do you think so?”

“I don’t think so,” says Bertram, shaking his head. “I know so. Just listen to your voice. Ageless and preternaturally calm. You’re in synch with the rhythm of the natural world and not with the pretenses of human folly.”

“I think you’re the charismatic,” says Fernando, grinning at Bertram. “Has anybody ever told you that?”

“One person,” says Bertram, smiling sadly. “One dear person who died too young.” He shakes himself away from the memory. “What brings you here today, Fernando?”

“I’m applying to film school,” says Fernando, clearing his throat, “and I have to submit a short movie as a major component of my application. I’ve written a script inspired by our interaction about the Egret Creek wine, and I’m wondering if you would like to play yourself in the movie. Be a few hours of work one night at Walker’s after the store is closed, and a couple hours during the daytime in the parking lot. For which I will be happy to pay you. Would you like to see the script?”

Bertram, astonished, says, “The one person before you who thought I was a charismatic was a brilliant young director named Andrew Foster. He’d written a movie for me to star in, a comedy. I’d only ever had supporting roles in movies. He and I were driving away from the studio where we’d just signed big fat contracts to make our movie, all systems go as the studio head liked to say, when we were hit by another car and Andrew was killed. And that was the end of my life as an actor and the beginning of my life as a person beset by anxiety, though I’m much better now than I used to be.”

“I’m so sorry,” says Fernando, bowing his head.

“Long time ago,” says Bertram, looking at Zeke. “I told you about Andrew, didn’t I?”

“Never about the movie he wrote for you,” says Zeke, shaking his head. “Just that he was your dear friend.”

*

That night Bertram and Alison are sitting on the rug by the fire in the living room playing Scrabble and Bertram asks, “Did you read Fernando’s script?”

“I did,” says Alison, who is British and the same age as Bertram – seventy-three – and was an actress before she became a psychotherapist. “I loved the first half and found the second half a bit stilted, though potentially quite charming.”

“I think we can fix the second half,” says Bertram, using three of his letters to spell JINX and take advantage of the X Alison left dangling at the end of INDEX.

Alison looks over the tops of her glasses at Bertram. “We?”

Bertram nods as he selects three new letters. “I’d like to try to do this, dear. I think it would be good for me. Face my demons in a short movie about me buying wine.” He chuckles. “Cinema verité.”

“I’m mildly stunned,” says Alison, using the J of JINX to spell JASPER. “I hope you’ll let me come watch.”

“I am depending on you coming and watching,” says Bertram, thinking of his dear pal Andrew and what a joy it was to act for him. “Holding my hand in between takes.”

“What fun,” says Alison, remembering how very much Bertram loved acting.

*

At midnight in Walker’s Groceries where the dairy products are on display, Fernando makes a final check of the four video cameras he’s using to record the scene from various angles and distances. Now he nods to Dolores, his Assistant Director, and goes to his mark in front of the big refrigerated display case.

Four camera people – Fernando’s Drama pals from Mercy High – step behind the cameras, and when Dolores says, “Press Record,” the four camera people do so, and Dolores says, “Take Five, and… Action.”

Fernando begins stocking the shelf with containers of yogurt, and a few moments later Bertram pushes his shopping cart into the scene, stops at the island of wine boxes, scans the boxes, and not finding what he seeks, turns to Fernando and says, “Excuse me. May I impose upon you to help me locate the Egret Creek wine?”

“You may,” says Fernando, turning to Bertram and frowning. “Are you looking for red or white?”

“Both,” says Bertram, frowning in response to Fernando’s frown. “My wife and I… I wouldn’t say we’re addicted, but we are deeply habituated to drinking and cooking with the Egret Creek wines, and they’ve always been right here,” – he gestures to the island – “and now they seem to have disappeared, which for us would be catastrophic.”

“They’re right there,” says Ferdinand, pointing to the Egret Creek wines. “We just shifted everything a few feet to your left. Look again.”

Bertram returns his gaze to the island and exclaims, “Good God. There they are, though not exactly where they’ve been for so many years.” Now he turns to Fernando and smiles. “I would blame my age, but I think it’s more a matter of deeply entrenched habit.” He laughs a soft musical laugh. “How kind of you to put up with an old cuckoo like me.”

“Not at all,” says Fernando, smiling in response to Bertram’s smile. “You buying a case?”

Three cases,” says Bertram, turning to the wine again. “I wonder if I might further impose upon you to load them on my shopping cart for me. Back’s a bit wonky these days. If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” says Fernando, coming to load the boxes of wine into Bertram’s cart. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Bertram gazes in wonder at Fernando and says, “How marvelous it must be to know why you are here. I wish I did.”

“And… cut,” says Dolores, the four cameras stopping simultaneously. “Brilliant. Best take yet.”

*

On an evening in February, four months after Fernando put the finishing touches on his short film Why You Are Here, Fernando and Dolores arrive at Bertram and Alison’s house for supper, the other guests Zeke and Conchita.

When supper is over and before Alison serves dessert, Fernando struggles to say, “I heard from USC film school today and… they don’t want me. But there are other film schools, so…”

“Indeed there are,” says Bertram, looking at Alison. “Will you tell him our news, dear?”

“We sent your film to our old friend Jason Randle Jones and he rather likes it,” says Alison, her cheeks reddening. “Called it brilliant and he doesn’t use that word lightly. Said he’s watched it three times so far and cries harder with each viewing.”

“Jason Randle Jones?” says Fernando, the name giving him chills. “Director of Tiny Giant Changes and The Magpie Game? You know him?”

“I was in the first three movies Jason ever directed,” says Bertram, smiling at memories of good old JRJ. “He’s one of the only people from my days as an actor who’s kept in touch with us over the intervening years. Owns three of my sculptures, one for each of his houses. Says he wants another. I told him I’m sculpting a man now and he said he’d wait for me to get back to women.”

“He’d like you to come work for him,” says Alison, smiling brightly at Fernando. “Which would mean you’d be moving to London, but Jason will pay you very well so you can afford it.”

“Oh my God,” says Fernando, bursting into tears.

“Isn’t it wonderful,” says Bertram, putting a comforting hand on Fernando’s shoulder, “when the universe says Yes?”

fin

Now and Then