At the end
he was tilted that he might
remain in sleep.
If he woke he would know
just how bad
things were, would cough and dislodge
the intubation tube. A certainty. Fluids
out. Tilted his head
below his heart, all the rest
he never sought pooled
in the sunken gates
of his eyes, the
grate of his jaw.
Points of sophistication
the bony knobs of his arthritic
knuckles. His Adam’s apple
his lungs filled up
he never woke up.
Between the misery of the end
and the glory of beginning
all the glowing love made flesh
Certain are goldmines
certain are minefields
Time, mind, brain: “collapses.”
The body functions
that much his sister knows
but the ties between the mind
she will not recognize. He’s dead; she’s eating
his leftover painkillers to kill
the pain of muscular
brought on by the free-floating sadness
putting Bozo to sleep. The dog would not eat. In his obituary,
in a town paper he never knew,
a middle initial he always used. His daddy’s
name was Jennings, his middle name was
Jennings. It’s irritating when folks
don’t spell it out. That’s my hidden voice speaking. If I did not speak
you would have to assume I was the one
that killed him.
To move through the death back
a green and gold brightness segmented in the screen
door’s squares, stitched with glue
where the dog poked through, his loyal
claws. Peter sitting there
day after day, unbelievable what a being
can come to. Coke Rewards in the drawer, he would
cash them in at the store but
he can’t get there, can’t get anywhere. Twelve
years ago or so he had a massive stroke, suffered
it, they say, routinely. The things we say routinely, we say “we,” routinely. I
dive for these worn phrases, and suddenly
it’s all about me again. It’s not all about me.
Peter J. Perry
was born in West Tennessee. No. He lived in West Tennessee. Peter J. Perry
in the south of France, to Pat, a motherless drunk from Buffalo, escaped the convent, Jennings
a philandering newspaperman, fled Nashville to be Hemingway
already. Writing stories for the rags
on hounds and fishes. Two escapees, really. Their stories are so much richer for the times they lived in allowed it.
Peter’s time allowed that he die with the television on in his hospital room as it had been on around the clock for twelve years as he sat, bony knees and elbows, bony ass, on a malmy couch in a corner of a living room overrun by kittens and wild dogs and mice. The kittens ate the mice and the dogs ate the kittens, right in front of his eyes. He had a sweetness, Pete. Sweet on the animals, so he wanted them near, but hard so that he could bear it when they went and did their animal tricks: getting hit by cars in front of the house, at the far end of the lawn, Pete sitting in his wheelchair on the rotting porch. Pissing in a corner of the room where Pete kept all the important things, his genealogical charts and the albums of photos of Pat and Pop, a shot of the two of them on bicycles in the Sahara. It is said they bicycled across the Sahara desert.
Who says it?
It is not important that you be convinced of Pete’s importance. What follows is family history, in my voice the way I learned it.
Peter was not loved properly by his mother. Pat was tall, bony, elegant, mannish, with a small squared-off mouth, a cigarette jammed in it. A proud nose, a high brow, thin, lank hair, small eyes, long face, the bones of her cheeks high and prominent. You think “Supermodel.” She did do some modeling, for sculptors and photographers. She had big hands, big feet. She posed as a diver, and the Jensen swimming suit company used her bowed form for its logo, a Deco figure. Then she was drunk and dove off a bridge and hit her chest on a log in the river and tore the tissue of her breasts. There was some surgical repair. In France.
Peter was not loved properly by his mother; she did not take care of him. He played by himself on the beach down at the bottom of France, tall cliffs behind him, speaking both languages, and felt lost. He did not know where she was and she allowed him to search for her. She infused him singly with her own desires and set him on a path down which he loped. Eight abortions between his birth and that of his sister, Pamela. Pop could not, or would not, take certain measures. There was something about Pop like a stud horse, something like a prize bull, though he was not a large man, very dapper, like a squinty Clark Gable. George Clooneyish. Maybe they were “crazy about each other,” maybe the love they felt transmuted into flesh, over and over again, and had to be removed surgically.
These are the people who made these people. These are the true stories of their lives, though I am telling them. This is why soap opera is important to my friends. What else is so real: video art? Documentation of a moment, elderly man breathing into a mirror, yes, but it neglects the span, the span of years, about which I am aching, alive with mortality. It takes years to watch a whole life pass. Days of our lives.
So now when he dies, can you feel it? You can’t feel it, and when I say it it’s just the word, and you are permitted to feel nothing but informed.
Every time I feel it again I’ll come back to this page for you.
Aggregate of the diameter, the reasons he lived, the reasons he died, the rules by which he lived, the rules by which he died, the point of talking about it now he’s dead. Deterioration of his majesty, his manhood. He was a tall, sexy man, a deep rich voice on a tall, skinny man, not overly nice, long arms and legs, lean, naked ladies tattooed on his forearms. He made them dance by twirling his wrists, and in the first years after the stroke you could still feel his strength and his aggression even in his disability. At first he wanted to speak, and he tried to be understood, with the half of his face that worked. But over the years he lost the power, or he lost the desire, if he couldn’t be understood. Over the years of his abrupt, then gradual decline his patience for visitors grew shorter and shorter. A side effect of the stroke was a mildness, an acceptance, a resignation, even, and he lived for twelve years in an isolation and inactivity that would have made any other man cry out. It is possible that he did cry out, sometimes, alone in that old farmhouse in West Tennessee, on a country road, bordering cotton fields and wild dogs, the tenant farmers dropping by once a week or so to check on him, replenish his stores of buttermilk and TV dinners, the big pint mug of flat Coke he kept on the Plexiglas-topped coffee table next to the couch on which he sat all day long, day in and day out, and lay down on to sleep when the night grew deep enough that he could give up. He watched television all day long, and all night long. I don’t know what he thought about; I don’t know what anyone thinks about. His thinking must have had a flatness to it even before the stroke. He kept a little calendar, and in it he wrote the anniversaries of his parents’ deaths, his own birthday, doctor’s appointments, when the cats kitted and the dogs pupped, noted his sister’s quarterly visits.
When Pam came she brought her hair-cutting scissors, trimmed his beard and the lank, iron-grey hairs on his head. He wore a black air-force cap every day, and as best she could she would free it of the oils of his hair. She got him onto his plastic chair in the shower, washed him. Scraped the cat shit off the floorboards, vacuumed the rugs, hired a man to patch the porch where it was rotting. Hired another man to mow the lawn, another to come by for emergencies, like the time the pipes froze. For twelve years every three months, leaving behind her more immediate duties and responsibilities, and shored up his attenuated life in the old farmhouse in which their father had been born, and where they played as kids.
And what did she get out of it?
And did they converse, while she restored order? It was not in their nature to converse. Muted by mother? It was in Pete’s nature to tell stories, discomfiting stories, about hurricanes and suicides, about family dementia, stories of a peculiar grisly glory. But now he could not get far enough in his sentences; would close his mouth on the gob-stopping word and wave his one good hand, long, bony, in front of his own face, like shooing off a lazy fly, a perfunctory rejection, a perfect dismissal—say “F’get it.” And she was not a talker. She came to the farmhouse so that she could not talk to her brother.
Unbelievable what a being
in his youth
he was loved
by women but he did not
love them, it seems. There was no love or talk of love.
He married one wealthy woman, a recent divorcee, a new mother
of a baby boy named Mikey. Complicated situation. She was not simply
wealthy, she was an heiress, they lived in Bohemian
grandeur in Patchin Place.
Who else lived there?
e.e. cummings lived there, a shady doorway. Theodore Dreiser lived there. John Reed lived there. I think
Dawn Powell may have lived there, for a time. Deborah
paid for Pete, bought him
an airplane, a sailboat, an Amagansett
getaway where they kept thirty-two cats. Pete
raised the boy, and when Deborah threw Pete out he took
Mikey and flew off to St. Croix in his
little plane. Kept him there for weeks,
returned him without a fight. What’s best for the boy. Mikey
has been alerted of his death. Mikey sought him out once, a grown man, weak chin,
flying in from San Francisco to visit
the eviscerated man, bony and dehydrated in his wheelchair. They spent a day, Mikey
flew back home, didn’t keep
in touch. It’s astonishing how people
will neglect to
will refrain from
will hold themselves away
will deny Pete
Pat and Pop
Pop and Pat
At the end
her children. All three of them in Greenwich Village
in shared apartments, swapping beds and walls and jobs
sometimes. They had all fled Tennessee.
Later on, when her children wed
and began to breed Pat fled
to Athens—seat of civilization? Or maybe
that’s Israel—or Baghdad. And then
she lived a while and then
when she began to die
she began to die
dying dying parts of her body
failing: retina, kidney, heart, lung. All the systems abused
with drink and smoke
in final rebellion
deported (can you believe that? An old dying woman)
ejected. Pam picked her up at the airport
in an ambulance. To St. Vincent’s, where
others have died (Edna Millay’s named after it for
the sanctuary her uncle
and when it was clear
she was dying
sent on back to Nashville
to die at home with her husband with whom
she had not lived for twenty-odd years. But apparently
they’d always loved each other. Wrote letters. Thought of one
another constantly. Pat just didn’t
want to live in Tennessee.
But she died there.
The pint mug was from TGI Fridays.
Pete was a bouncer for five years or so while
Pop was ill. Pete set himself up
in his old bedroom upstairs, piles of porn all around
the bed, worked in his spare
time on an Austin Healy Mark 3 up on blocks in the yard. Haverford,
sounds like a country estate. A small stone house with a coolness, a dimness, a breakfast
nook where Pop sang Little Boy Blue and other rather mournful songs. He had Parkinson’s, and it took him a long time to die. Surrounded in his den
by young women. One buxom red-haired nurse took up with Pete
and kept up with him for a while, even after Pop died, until Pete
bought a houseboat in St. Croix. And then he lived there till
the hurricane took everything. He had no insurance, and he came back to
stay at the farm, to fix things up. Built a woodshop in the back, started
fixing things up. Fixed things up, built shelves for his records and books, fixed up a
cat door on the back so the cats could come and go. Pruned the trees, hung his tools on hooks, mowed the lawn, one day woke up on the floor and could not speak, could not
use his arm or leg, dragged himself across the floor to the phone and called my mom.
Who will remember Peter J. Perry
his non-representative life, his pointless, ineluctable, singular death?
There is no reason that he must be remembered.
Everyone deserves to be remembered?
For the extraordinary things he did.
For his ashes.
Memory: A memoir. A memorial. In memoriam. For the ages. His ashes
disseminated. It is
my love that draws him out. It is my love
you must contend with.
Rebecca Wolff is a poet, fiction writer, and editor and creator of both Fence Magazine and Fence Books. She has won the 2001 National Poetry Series Award and 2003 Barnard Women Poets Prize for her literature.
“The Curious Life and Mysterious Death of Peter J Perry” appeared in the Refrigerator Mothers issue of TLR (Fall 2010).