Neighborhood Watch by Cheston Knapp
Mar 25 ● BY Cheston Knapp
Maybe it’s just me, some personal or spiritual failing, but so little of my life feels like it’s lived in the warm groove of scene. Seems I’m always getting caught in the sticky wicket of self-consciousness, overaware of how the story’s being told. Overaware that a story’s being told. My default mode tends to be this one of narration, meaning, roughly, that an experience doesn’t really become “real” for me until it’s prosed. Put under the hitchhiker’s thumb of words, all dolled up in the dinner jacket of syntax. During broodier jags, I suspect this inability to “live in the present” has robbed me of experiential richness, kept me from partaking in the full range of emotion available to me as a human being. Are my joys as joyous as they can be? My griefs as grievous? Am I experiencing love as deeply as I’m able? At a full-force level ten? But every now and again it’s like the gears of life will move in such a way as to force me out of myself and into the story. So then, action—
Home sick and I heard the first sirens around one in the afternoon. This was a Tuesday in March, some months back. Although my neighborhood in North Portland is changing, caught up in the tidal shift of gentrification, its soundtrack still includes the high whine and squeal of emergency vehicles, the call and response of crisis. But a strange thing had happened to me in the three-plus years I’d lived here: the sirens had stopped registering with the urgency of alarms. Instead, when I heard them, I’d started to feel weirdly secure. On a handful of occasions, in fact, beset by a low-level suspicion or frustration or fear, I’d summoned the sirens myself. I know now that not everyone in my community feels the same way, shares this faith in how justice is meted out and by whom, and that I didn’t question this faith then was thanks to embarrassing historical ignorance of nearly epic proportions. Among the many examples? I didn’t know that my neighborhood had been redlined, and not all that long ago. But see, here I am, already impeding the action, contextualizing, betraying the way the event was lived.
I was lying on the love seat that looks out my house’s old picture window, reading, and noticed that the sirens didn’t pass by as they typically did, on their way to other, presumably less rehabilitated parts of the neighborhood. Their sound waves didn’t elongate with Doppler predictability, but beat a steady and strident pulse. I pulled on some shoes and walked outside and found a fire truck, an ambulance, and several police cars gathered in front of Peter’s house—he’s three doors down and across the street. This wasn’t itself surprising either, not really. For the months foregoing, Peter’d been spending more nights on his unlit porch, hanging out with shadowy characters, guys whose faces I could never quite make out in the darkness, staying up later and playing his music even louder than usual. His wife, Linda, had at some point moved out and was off living elsewhere with their two silken windhounds. Our walks to Peninsula Park had long since dropped off and though I’d given him an old racket of mine, I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d seen him on a tennis court, let alone hit with him. His howls, what he’d probably call “yawps,” had gone from being an occasional and endearing nuisance to a near nightly production, an unholy evensong, and they’d acquired a certain edge, too, were serrated with something like desperation or anguish or dread. They unsettled Alexis and me. And we couldn’t have been the only neighbors who took all this as evidence that Peter was courting a minor disaster.
I made it to the corner, where a woman wearing a TriMet uniform was talking to a police officer. I’d never seen her before—was she my neighbor, too?
“I was walking by and saw the dog run off,” she kept repeating. She must’ve meant Boo, the white pit bull Peter adopted after Linda left. “Just wanted to make sure the dog was okay.”
Somehow I knew that what she was giving was a statement, that what she was was a witness.
Ernie, who lives across the alley behind me, emerged from Peter’s house, and I waved him over. He’s a light-skinned black man of around sixty, with a high forehead and a long braided ponytail. Soap-opera handsome and affably chatty, he’s the type of guy who’ll tell you his life story if you give him the time.
I asked him what was going on, was everything okay.
“Someone’s been stabbed,” he said. Just like that. Eerily vague and passive. Flat and far-off.
And Peter? What about Peter?
“Peter’s dead.” The words had a tried-on feeling to them, lacked the conviction of the fact they conveyed, and I almost didn’t believe him. He said them the way an actor might deliver new lines, lines from the script of a cheap melodrama, something straight to streaming. “I tried to give him CPR. It was a deep gash, though. Nothing we could do.”
His face went into a distant stare, and I didn’t know what to do or say and had already begun to calculate all the ways I was failing to live up to this moment when, without realizing it, I had taken Ernie into my arms and was hugging him tight. He was quivering, his body a kind of tuning fork, vibrating like it was trying to find life’s frequency again. I raised my hand and held it to the back of his head, cupped the nidus where the ropy tether of his braid roots, and, to be honest, I don’t know whether I made this gesture out of genuine human sympathy and solicitude or because making the gesture created an image, better yet a tableau, that would fit the story I already knew, someplace deep down, I’d tell about this experience later.
We broke and I held Ernie by the shoulders. He was still fuzzy and uncertain about the eyes. I asked what I could do to help. He told me to go into his house, into his kitchen, and see if he’d left the oven on. If he had, he said, I could turn it off.
Mine’s not a memory that regularly date-stamps what it stores away, so I can’t remember exactly when I met Peter. Seven, eight years ago now? Looking back, he begins for me as a vague presence, ghostly and out of focus. The setting would’ve been the tennis courts at Irving Park, which is in one of the bougiest neighborhoods in Portland, a neighborhood much farther out on the gentrification spectrum than our own. He would’ve ridden up on his bike, his ashy hair emerging out from under his black, brimmed hat that was straight out of Crocodile Dundee. The Beatles or the Grateful Dead or the Doors would’ve been blaring from the boom box he always kept in his handlebar basket. After riding in circles on the blacktop outside the fence, he may have parked his ride and begun to blow soap bubbles. He had a largish plastic wand that he’d slip into a scabbard of bubble juice and then he’d arc it through the air as though part of an interpretive dance—he often looked like he was trying to catch imaginary butterflies. I would’ve noted his height (news stories after his death listed him as six-seven and one neighbor he hadn’t alienated described him as a “gentle giant”), and chances are he was barefoot. But really I’m just speculating here. Truth is I probably wrote him off as another of this city’s many hippie holdovers, another Elder Dreamer, an archetype my generation tends to look on with a strange mix of respect and pity. What I’m sure of is that Peter didn’t come out onto the courts and play—that wasn’t until some time later.
Another reason he might not jump out in my memory is that he was but one of a whole crew of characters who hung out at Irving then. I was in my midtwenties, renting a house with Alexis a few blocks away, and whenever I passed by I’d find that they’d colonized a court or two. And they always appeared to be having so much fun, laughing and hooting during points, ribbing one another jocosely after. Their interactions were unscripted and unedited, governed above all else by spontaneity and wit. They seemed so free with themselves, with one another. It’s worth noting that most of these guys were black, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this was a large part of what appealed to me, why I wanted in. I’d rather lie, to be honest. Play it like it wasn’t a thing. Because while it’s true what they say about this city and its appalling lack of diversity, it’s not entirely uncomplicated, either, is it? addressing the lack of diversity in one’s life? There’s the squirmy notion of tokenism—you know, “Some of my best friends. . .”—and the icky tendency to romanticize difference, to apply a filmy whitewash to an entire group of people. It’s a real question, though: How can we honor the desire to expand the range and timbre of our experience without turning that desire into a microaggression? some iffy form of social cred? Without all the smug self-satisfaction? How can we acknowledge, accept, and celebrate difference, but not too much? Is there an alternative path to the patronizing PC bullshit that proliferates online? These are knotty questions that occurred to me only later, ones for which I still don’t have satisfying answers. At the time I wanted no more than to pledge this fraternity of tennis players, a group of dudes who yucked it up—communed—in a way that appealed directly to my herniated soul.
There was John, he of the scoriated voice and shimmery metallic grille, who liked to get a little stoned (“take his medicine”) before playing. He’d worked tanks in Vietnam and loved storying, shooting the shit, and he sat around watching other folks play, calling foot faults from two courts over and laughing at his joke, just as often as he played himself. And look, I know how this might sound, but Fred really did look a touch like Michael Jordan, and he greeted you with a chill upright–hand clap–chest bump production that I found thrilling and even vaguely exculpatory, and he was basketball tall with a wingspan that made him a nightmare at net. Ronnie’s wardrobe was generously stocked with argyle sweaters, and those that weren’t vests he often wore in the French way, tied over his shoulders. He had an air of hardness about him, though, that broadcast the message loud and clear: Fuck not with Ronnie. Tony, who grew up in a town house across from the courts, had some form of martial arts under his belt and practiced an obscure sciamachy between points, fending off imaginary assailants by chopping and punching the air in front of him.
The list could go on, but no matter how long it got, it’d have to end with Lawrence. Lawrence acted as the unofficial (and unelected) president of the Irving Park Crew, strutted around all cock-of-the-walkish. Come fall, it was Lawrence who brought a leaf blower and push broom to clear debris from the courts, but he had a way of turning this courtesy into an assertion of power and ownership so that you actually ended up resenting him for it. He had long dreads and always played in sagging warm-up pants and what you’d probably call an athletic sunhat. Rumor had it that he’d been a star fullback in college, but rumor it was doomed to remain because it was nigh on impossible to get anything in the way of personal info out of Lawrence. If he was there as much to socialize as to play, like the rest of us, he had a strange way of showing it. He must’ve thought that because he had some of the better strokes out there he was justified in going around telling everyone else what was wrong with theirs. But such gratis instruction was almost always unwelcome and tended only to piss folks off. A few times during sets of doubles against him, after hitting a winner, he clutched his crotch and waggled that fisted gnarl at me. That so many years passed without a serious incident is, in hindsight, miraculous.
The story’s still told in the hushed tones reserved for major family fallouts. And like those stories, it’s come to be told mostly in shorthand: the time Lawrence and Tony fought. I wasn’t there when it happened, and there are conflicting reports about what started it, but all the tributaries converge in the mighty ancient river of human violence. After a kerfuffle over a line call or a score escalated, all that pent-up ill will and frustration was released. Lawrence, so it goes, left the courts only to promptly return with a knife, intending harm of a Renaissance drama sort. He approached Tony, blade dancing ready at his side, talking his brand of incendiary and instigative shit. I imagine there was a tense pause before Lawrence made his play, at which point Tony proved the usefulness of his kung fu shadowboxing, disarming and dispatching him with frightening ease. Embarrassing ease. As though all along he’d been practicing for this very moment. And when Lawrence left the courts for the second time that day, he appeared to do so for good.
Point is, memory-wise, this is what Peter was competing with. He only begins to shore up in my mind, to emerge and materialize as Peter, when he steps onto the court, which he does like something out of Field of Dreams. You see, the quality of tennis at Irving wasn’t great, and at times it was almost laughably bad. Most of these guys had picked the game up later in life, were self-schooled and choked up on their grips and hit everything way short and with a maddening amount of back- or sidespin. They played a devious and wily Old Man game. Now, as something of an aesthete when it comes to tennis, I’ll sometimes claim to value hitting pretty shots more than the end result, than winning. But still there were times I left the park so frustrated, having lost, that I swore I’d never come back. So then I invite you to imagine my surprise when one afternoon, after months of going to Irving, I watched Peter trade his bubble wand for a racket and step on the court and start hitting with long and fluid strokes, strokes as graceful as they were anachronistic. They might as well have been taken from a time capsule, come down from when courts were predominantly grass and rackets were wood and players wore pants and spikes and drank cocktails on changeovers. Sometimes, when he was so moved and wanted to goof off a little, he’d hit a lob fifty, sixty feet in the air, so high you nearly lost sight of the ball, and it’d make its meteoric return to earth and land six inches or a foot inside the baseline, throwing the opposing team into a tizzy, a wry half smile on his face. That he could exercise such control, that he was capable of producing such beauty, given how large and tall he was, how very barefoot—it didn’t add up. Turns out he’d played in college, that he had a PhD in history and used to be a professor, that he’d written a book about Wittgenstein. Turns out he had all kinds of stories to tell.
After seeing to Ernie’s oven, I wandered back out into the midday sun of March 4, 2014, the day Peter died, was killed, murdered. What had started as just another Tuesday in March was now a point on a timeline, part of a plot. A false spring was on—local knowledge has it that you can expect rain here until July 4—and the light and the warmth made it seem like time itself was somehow out of joint, like God was scratching on the ones and twos. Before that week we hadn’t seen the denuded sun since I couldn’t remember when, and it seemed that even the weather was contributing to the afternoon’s irreality.
An old Crown Vic pulled up as I came to the corner. A woman in the passenger seat hailed me over. She was unhealthily thin, and her blondish hair was on the last legs of an already shitty dye job. The driver leaned way over and, state I was in, it looked a little like he’d emerged from her chest.
“You know what’s going on here?” he asked, and nodded to the cop cars. His body was electrically restless in a way that suggested doings unsavory. There was a compact video camera in the woman’s lap, a small screen open at its side, and between them a police scanner crackled with staticky voices.
“No clue,” I said. “Was just out to see for myself.”
“Cool, thanks,” he said, and pulled off, the words hanging momentarily behind the vanished car like this was a cartoon.
I looked around, confused, and spotted my across-the-street neighbor standing in the road. He’s a youngish Latino hipster-looking guy who can often be found in his front yard with his cat on a leash. Alexis and I met him and his girlfriend/wife/partner back when we moved in, but hadn’t acted on any of that new-neighborly goodwill, and very soon after found we’d forgotten their names. Consensus was we’d passed the point that it’d be cool to admit this, so now we waved to them and exchanged the occasional, rudderless small talk, content to live in this bizarre social penumbra between knowing them and not. We talked often about how convenient it would be for one of their monthly bills to show up in our mailbox, then at least, at last, we’d have one of their names. As I approached Luis or Juan or John or Louis or Brad, a realization came over me with a shameful terror: I didn’t know Peter’s last name.
“Peter was murdered,” I said. “It’s crazy.”
I felt cheap, relating it like this, like it was no more than some dirty laundry I’d spotted, a gripping piece of gossip I hadn’t been told directly but picked up while eavesdropping, and I immediately regretted it. Can an event like this be told in such a way that the words don’t so apparently and so thoroughly fail the story? That doesn’t level it into the voluptuous sensationalism of local news? Or is it that something essential about an experience is always lost when it’s compressed into a story, like what happens to music when you convert it into a shareable audio file? In any case, the little info I’d related seemed to fully satisfy ________’s curiosity, and he headed back into his house without asking anything further. Had he, like me, watched Peter walk by every morning, to and from the store on the corner, one of the many convenience stores around here that, owing to crimes past, is sometimes referred to as a “murder mart,” to pick up the day’s domestic tallboys, one by one? Had he also measured his morning’s progress by these walks? Were they now forever lost from his daily routine, too?
There was a separate hub of police cruisers down the block, and I couldn’t make out whether they were working this same incident or whether something else had gone down yonder, some unfortunate coincidence of misfortune. Ernie was talking to a pair of uniformed officers near where I’d left him. Caprice, his wife, a short white woman with curly, astonished blond hair, had joined him. She’d been Peter’s closest friend, at times what you could maybe call his ally. Other uniformed officers had started to square off the intersection with yellow police tape, turning this part of my neighborhood into a crime scene. These cops, they appeared to be almost giddy with purpose—one was literally whistling while he worked.
Maybe it was shock that had caused the oversight, but it hadn’t yet occurred to me to wonder who’d done it, who’d committed murder. And did the police have the perp in custody? Downtown? Or was the suspect still out there, still on the loose? All these clichéd words and phrases, bearers of cheap tension, it was a relief, electrifying even, to have reason to resort to them. This was the language of action, of story, was it not? And though I tried, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining a chase, a frenzied search through my neighbors’ backyards, the K-9 unit nosing shrubbery, hot on the trail, maybe a Cool Hand Luke–ish captain looming large somewhere in the background.
I walked up to the officer working the tape who wasn’t whistling. I’d intended to have a simple conversation, see if I could get a handle on where things stood with the investigation and whether we had to worry about a criminal being at large in the neighborhood, but realized at once that we were working at cross-purposes. I, a civilian, was simply talking, chatting, but he, an officer of the city, was “communicating,” abiding by some preordained set of rules for dealing with the public that he’d probably picked up in a Saturday seminar on crisis management. He could traffic only in facts, couldn’t tolerate or indulge any uncertainty or speculation. This made any vagueness seem excessively, almost preposterously, vague.
“I can’t say for certain we have the guy,” the officer said. “What does that mean, exactly? Like, you have a guy and you aren’t a hundred percent it’s the guy? Or you’re not sure you even have a guy?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Yes, you have a guy? Or yes, you don’t have a guy?” “Yes, the first one.”
“Okay, so I don’t necessarily have to hurry back inside and lock all my doors, is what you’re saying.”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I can’t say that’s not a good idea. It’s a good idea actually. Regardless.”
Trying to imagine the protocol he had to follow, all the cogs of bureaucracy his uniform represented, was like trying to hold my entire family tree in mind. It just kept going back, back, back, back, back. I decided to cut my losses, thanked him for his time, and headed for home.
By now the first reporters had arrived, ageless men and women in civvies holding spiral notebooks and little electronic voice recorders. It was mesmerizing, watching them bop around like pollinators, bystander to bystander, as they tried to catch up to the story, a story that’d started as all stories do for them, in medias res. A few of these reporters approached me for information, but I begged off, claiming I knew only as much as they did, which was next to nothing, and mostly true. Being approached in this way unsettled me—I’d been unwittingly cast as a minor character here. Plus I couldn’t shake the thought that we, Peter’s neighbors, were entitled to a knowledge that they, the reporters and by extension the public, were not. At least not so soon.
A woman reporter wearing a no-nonsense pantsuit pressed me after I played dumb. But had I known the man who was murdered? The victim, what was he like?
No, I said. I hadn’t. He was just my neighbor. And as I walked away, resentment burbled in my gut. Gone pugnacious now, I wished I’d known something real juicy, if for no other reason than to feel like I was withholding something from her. Back inside my house, a new urgency gripped me. I knew I had to break the news to Alexis. As I took the stairs up toward her office, I debated how to phrase it. Died? Was killed? Murdered? Died? Was killed? Murdered? My resentment of the reporters grew more pointed and intense. I held them responsible for my feeling like I’d been turned into the bearer of information, a data delivery system, and decidedly not a storyteller, or at least not the kind I was comfortable with. The story here was related to this news, of course, but wasn’t exhausted by it. There would be excess, ragged edges. I mean, this was Peter’s story after all, wasn’t it?
When Alexis and I were looking at what would become our first house, in 2010, near the bottom of the most recent financial crisis, our Realtor talked a lot about this neighborhood’s potential. She emphasized this word, “potential,” in such a way that you knew it existed somewhere as a bullet point. Worse, you knew it existed there for buyers like us, a couple of young white DINCs with more future ahead of them than past behind. And we felt full of this potential ourselves, full of the very power that lives inside that word. There seemed to be no difference between our lives and how we’d choose to tell the story of them, no need to alter or amend. We’d gotten engaged not long before—and in Paris. I’d planned things for the story I thought Alexis would want to tell, hopefully, for the rest of her life, so the bridge we stopped on afforded an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower, which glittered bedazzlingly behind me as I proposed. And now we were planning a wedding. We’d settled on a location, an idyllic farm outside Portland. In their pitch the owners told us that, on a clear day, you could see the four ghostly mountain peaks of Hood, Adams, Saint Helens, and Rainier. The prospect of buying a house (we were preapproved!) had only kicked our imaginations into overdrive. How easy it was to cast ourselves ahead in time. How wondrously did the future shimmer! We populated that future with children, a whole passel of towheaded and cheeky little cherubs, so adorbs that people flagged us down on the street to tell us so, children born so painlessly and inconsequentially that they didn’t disrupt our lives, not a smidgen. Experience after experience unfolded in the crystal balls of our dinner conversations—holidays, sure, birthdays and other special occasions, but summer BBQs and routine pizza Fridays, too, the predictable rhythms of a Tuesday afternoon—experiences that brimmed with significance, that were so loamy rich with meaning that they’d continue to feed us well into our dotage. All these future memories, would they begin in this house? In this neighborhood? The stock here was among the city’s best, after all, block after tree-lined block of handsome old Foursquares and Craftsmans, places with “good bones,” a phrase I now understand to mean that they’ll renovate nicely, which is really to say that it won’t be too tough to erase what’s currently there. And the cutesy knickknack shops and fancy restaurants that the city was (in)famous for? They were getting closer to us all the time. Had we read about the upcoming development on Williams? All the eco-friendly condos and their concomitant storefronts? Or about the projects the city had planned to beautify—or at least descarify—Killingsworth? She might as well have sparked some incense and taken us on a guided visualization that replaced the murder mart with a tasty brunch spot, the sketchy furniture outlet down the block with an industrial-chic cocktail bar. But go further still and imagine a street full of young families like ours, with kids of their own, kids who could play in the streets undaunted, crime having dropped to squat, who would attend the local schools that had, with time, improved beyond all recognition.
Obvious though it is, it bears stating: to imagine what a place can become is to dismiss or reject what is already there. “Imagination” of this sort really functions as an insidious and particular brand of arrogance, one that ignores all but economic forces. I understood this in an abstract way when we moved in, and it gave me pause. I felt guilty. But this guilt didn’t give way to historical inquisitiveness, to a desire or, better still, a duty to understand the social dynamics that had swirled through the area like pressure systems. No. My guilt was one fit for a venial sin, something mincing and pesky but that nonetheless called for forgiveness. It was like, growing up, having to apologize to and ask forgiveness from one of my younger brothers: I knew I’d done whatever wrong I’d done and felt ashamed for it but disliked having to apologize, because apologizing ratified the story of my wrongdoing, made it real and put it in the world, and of course that was the point but still. In any case, I understood all this had to do with community, a word I kept hearing tossed around. I no longer fully understood what people meant when they said it, and it now put a question to me like a poke in the chest. At root it seemed to have something in common with the idea of family, to partake of the same sense of belonging, complicated and fraught as it may be, full of the same self-sacrifice and intimate fucked-upedness, fucked up because of the very nature and extent of that intimacy. But it was more casual than that, the way I was hearing it used. I kept wondering what community was supposed to mean in an age that also advocated such staunch and unremitting individualism, whose highest ideal is the turbidly vague state of authentic selfhood—a culture of you-do-you. Is it nothing more than social back-scratching, then, the orgy of mutual masturbation you find online? Follow-for-follow, like-for-like, etc.? Or, worse, was it simply economic symbiosis, as it seemed when my neighbor thanked Alexis and me for buying our house for what we bought it for because it allowed him to refinance his? What I knew for sure was that the chief downside of gentrification was the dissolution of community, and I didn’t want to feel responsible for that, for what amounts to arriving at a party and immediately changing the music. I didn’t want to think of myself as that kind of character. So when I saw Peter walking down the sidewalk soon after we moved in, I experienced something like relief. Here was the agent of my absolution, just the man to sell me an indulgence of sorts and open the door to a form of membership, belonging. “Community.” And all of this could happen below board, without anyone (possibly even me) being the wiser.
It so happened that Peter and Linda got their first silken windhound, Apollo, at about the same time Alexis and I got our dog, Percy. This was a couple months after we moved in and, sharing the giddy excitement of new parenthood, we formed a quick and easy bond. On walks with Percy, I’d first stop by Peter’s house, a beautiful old Craftsman he’d been in since the eighties, with a yard he’d let go to seed and grow into a ready metaphor for madness, with a small rickety metal fence out front that kept the dog penned only when he didn’t feel like jumping over it. He’d suit Apollo up and we’d head to Peninsula Park, less than half a mile away. A sunken rose garden with manicured, rectilinear hedges and a century-old fountain season the park with a distinctly continental flavor. Down in among the roses, you might could be in a French or Austrian or Danish city. This flare of foreignness, the way the park can make you feel like you’ve been transported abroad, was one of the things that finally sold Alexis and me on the neighborhood. When there, we could easily imagine we were, in fact, elsewhere, as though our lives together were nothing but a permanent vacation, a sixty-year holiday before our second and final shift down in the mines; where, as on vacation, we could easily overlook or ignore whatever at the time was making our lives complicated and hard, whatever we might choose to revise or edit out of our life story. And while it’s not a dog park, after we made sure no security was about, Peter and I would let the dogs off their leashes and, as they chased each other through the hedgerows or circled each other in the field above, we’d stroll behind them and talk.
Peter was about as old as my dad, and at the time, in my late twenties, after a spate of father-son contretemps, banal run-ins that left me feeling embarrassed about how much pain they’d caused me, it seemed I couldn’t meet a man of a certain age without saddling him with filial baggage, great bulging panniers of misapplied longing, thinking maybe he could help me, give me some guidance. Of exactly what sort, this guidance, I couldn’t say. Might’ve been as simple as wanting someone to demonstrate that life was possible, that one could get accustomed to the fact that it went on, that is, until it didn’t. Something so straightforward, but it seemed impossible to me then, that one’s life continued to happen, that the days and years and months and weeks kept coming. How did one countenance it? And what was one to do with the collateral damage of all that time: “experience”? It was in about here that I found myself walking around muttering this sound bite from Gertrude Stein like a sinister mantra: “Identity always worries me and memory and eternity.”
Everything seemed so far away, maybe most of all myself, and I thought someone could or rather had to shepherd me out of this morass. Prima facie, sure, Peter made for an odd casting choice. Even when he had his shit together, when Linda was still living there and he had the dogs, his life, by any conventional marker, was a mess. He was no longer teaching, and the reasons for this were cloudy and charged in a way that you knew not to ask after. I figured it had something to do with his drinking and that the drinking was related to unrest of a deeper, more unresolvable sort, an unrest that fed his wildness. And it was this wildness that first attracted me. There was something poetic to it, something that suggested the age-old binary star of madness and genius. He seemed, in short, to live closer to the sweet sour molten marrowy core of life, and I envied that, idealized that way of being. It had a musk of authenticity I hoped would wear off on me. This musk, on Peter, had a whiff of failure freely embraced, of ambitions deferred or retrofitted or abandoned altogether. Not shamefully, but willingly, in a way that struck me as noble. In my work as an editor at the time, I seemed to be dealing exclusively with successes, with writers who’d just sold—always “just”—X to Y for $Z00,000, who’d been nominated for Important Prizes, who’d won them. MacArthur Fellowships and National Book Awards and Pulitzers. I worked on a story with one writer who, shortly after, won the fucking Nobel. Being exposed to accomplishment on this scale was obviously and rightly humbling, but it got to be cloying, stultifying. It made it so easy for me to indulge the worst and most facile sort of writerly kvetching. Perhaps I would always only help others tell their stories, I’d bemoan, my authorial jollies forever confined to having an image or sentence of mine not accepted, exactly, just not stetted. How’s a little dinghy supposed to navigate waters crowded with such tankers? Being around Peter eased the lamest of these anxieties, and helped me recall why I’d started reading and writing in the first place: for the fun of it, for the leagues-deep sense of belonging.
And so we walked, talked.
These talks, they were the kind that almost erase themselves as they go, that follow digression after digression until the starting point has long been lost, no Hansel and Gretel trail of thought leading back to the beginning. Peter was nothing if not a world-class talker, and it’s thanks in large part to this that, rangy as they were, these conversations never felt scattered or diffuse. He had a scholar’s thoroughness and attention to detail and a poet’s gift for association, so that each digression he introduced in some way augmented or amplified what’d come before, no matter how big a leap it seemed on the surface, from philosophy to poetry to music of all genres to pop culture to painting to history. Big as he was, I sometimes imagined he had more literal room to store knowledge, that his body was one great lumbering maze of learning. He often adopted a Socratic style, proceeding by interrogative feints and parries, so sure of himself, of all he did and did not know. And early on this frustrated me. I’d bristle when he introduced a new angle, a related topic, ask whether I’d considered things from this or that perspective, etc. I also thought of myself as something of a reader, fancied mine to be catholic tastes, book- and culture-wise, and while decidedly not a scholar, I was no sciolist either. But then I learned to give over to the experience of our conversations, let them grow into the untamable organic things they wanted to become, and began to understand that when Peter projected authority, it was not at the expense of his curiosity. He wasn’t being pompous or dickish, but a teacher. He’d admit when he didn’t know something and would really listen as you talked about it—you could practically see him rearranging his mental lumber to make room for the new knowledge. And as each day’s walk came to an end, what we were left with, more than knowledge proper, was a sense of resonance, something akin to what exists in the air after a rung note stops ringing, a gentle disturbance in the fabric of shared space. So this is how I prefer to see us now, when I survey the past, as two men, neighbors, standing side by side in the field at Peninsula Park, the marked difference in our heights making us look like a bar graph of considerable loss, letting a break in our conversation extend and experiencing in the silence the tug of respect, the pleasure of it, of giving as much as receiving it, as we watched our dogs play.
Silken windhounds—I’d never heard of the breed before. They’re sight hounds, like something straight out of the pages of Tolstoy. They have the lithe f-hole bodies of a borzoi or whippet, and their long legs and flowing coat make them look ghostly and elemental when they run, which they were bred to do. And Percy? She is a silly small vehicle of hypoallergenic cuteness, imagineered for the dander-intolerant to cuddle, a breed whose name embarrasses me too much to set down here, but—hint, hint—it shares a suffix with a world-famous cookie. It was always impressive and entertaining to watch Apollo, hunched low, his paws appearing to barely touch the ground, looking not unlike a rhythmic gymnast’s ribbon, run literal circles around Percy. A thing of wonder, to behold an animal in its element like that, unencumbered by questions of purpose or ends. Every so often Percy would get spooked and pull up short and Apollo would have to make a last-second adjustment, often leaping gracefully over her, and, skittish as she is, Percy would tuck her tail and cower and look back at me. How, she seemed to ask with those cartoonishly adorable eyes, how is he managing to be everywhere all at once?
By almost any standard you want to judge it, the chase that followed Peter’s murder was tame, even dull, and as Caprice told me what’d happened (gave me the scoop), I found myself having to temper what I recognized immediately was a very shitty form of disappointment, a species of boredom brought on by life’s having failed to live up to the expectations that stories had nurtured in me. There were no roadblocks or helicopters or K-9 squad. No standoff or hostages or demands. No. The action here had been far more ho-hum than that, actually almost Lynchian in its banality. After the stabbing, the suspect, Steve, one of the heretofore nameless figures Peter had sat with nightly on his shadowy porch, walked calmly up the block to the murder mart. There, according to Caprice, he bought a six-pack of beer, cracked and downed one can right away, and was at work on a second when the police picked him up, when they apprehended him.
“This was just there,” she said, pointing down the way to nothing in particular at Williams and Jessup, where the second cluster of cop cars had been earlier.
Caprice was eager to relay these details when at last I got some time with her. I’d returned outside after Alexis and I shared our private moment and after talking to Scott and asking him to let the folks from Irving know what’d happened. I told myself it was important that our people find out from one of us and imagined word racing like a lit fuse through the branches of a ramifying phone tree, trying to outpace all the other, less intimate media channels out there. The action outside continued as more officers showed up, suit-wearing homicide detectives now among them. But before I left the house for the second time, I grabbed my pocket notebook. It was a pathetic gesture of credibility, I knew, and there in my hand it seemed a cheap prop, an absurd affectation. Who was I hoping to fool with this act? With this performance of myself as “writer”? More than anyone, to be honest, probably myself. I hadn’t written anything in months and had started to wonder whether I ever would again. It seemed recent life events had conspired to crowd me out, to deny me the space I needed to translate them, which is to say tame or control them. And after all, couldn’t I be happy with a life in literature lived offstage, gesturing directions inaudibly from the wings? Wasn’t I already fluent in the passive-aggressive semaphore that editors employ? Guilty as it made me feel, though, even I, with my underdeveloped nose for narrative mojo, recognized that what was happening outside was material, the makings of a story.
From the elevated vantage of my front porch, I watched on as Caprice and Ernie circulated among the reporters and officers like the hosts of this demented cocktail party. My heart began to hurt for them and the friend they’d lost, for the grief that was stalking them, immense and relentless as hunger, as they talked to all these men and women whose concern was so manufactured and cynical it was practically coming off them in stink lines. By now the broadcast journalists had arrived—the heavies. Their crews had schlepped tripodal cameras around until they’d found the best angle of the scene, which the officers had boxed them out of. Between the officers and the journalists there seemed to be a flirty hostility reminiscent of middle school love affairs.
I stepped off my porch and made for Caprice and Ernie, trying to stay out of the cameras’ sight lines because I couldn’t stomach the thought of appearing on-screen later and being outed for what I was, another supernumerary ogling on, standing around as though this were a block party. They were still occupied with reporters, so I hung in the background. Skulking about like this, I got a little spooked. Paranoia needled me. And for a spell there I pretty much just wigged out. Every stranger’s eyeballs issued an indictment: Interloper! Buttinsky! Asshole! And were they not correct, after all, these eyeballs? Was I not a voyeur of a particular American stripe, having been seduced by the suffering of my neighbor? By the trauma he’d endured? How was I any different from the other journalists here? I had a GIF going in my head and that GIF was this: with both hands Peter clasps an absurdly spurting wound and exclaims, “O, I am slain!” before keeling over. Keeling over—Christ. All the language I had available seemed so callous, to lack the reserves of empathy I’d hoped to find in it, and only made me feel more fraudulent. But knowing no better course of action, I doubled down on language, hoping to ground myself by taking notes, hoping something fruitful would come of them. I scribbled in a frenzy, wanting to appear serious and studious, as committed to the story as a courtier, but probably looked a touch, well, touched. Through my thick skull I couldn’t get it, the simple fact of Peter’s murder, couldn’t resolve its peculiar mix of momentousness and mundanity. Among so much else, I noted that the fire truck and ambulance were now gone. They must’ve left while I’d been inside with Alexis, and again I had to check my crappy American disappointment, this time at having missed a good part, a climax. Surely a shrouded stretcher had been borne out of the house. My mind teemed with shameful morbid questions. Who’d hoisted Peter’s tremendous body onto the gurney? Had it shown any signs of stress under the weight? How had they negotiated the stairs? Now dead, how much would the body continue to bleed? Had the sheet been stained a lurid incarnadine? Or had the situation demanded a body bag? And oh, what a horrible do-si-do those two words do: body bag, body bag, body bag. . .
Know this: Caprice is a real piston of a woman, a larger-than-life-of-the-party type. An ardent and longtime lover of cigs. When Alexis and I first toured our place, she was out on her back porch, tossing feed down to the chickens that have free range of her big backyard. “I’ll sell you this place for three-fifty,” she called across the alley, her voice as seasoned as cast iron. Once a cheeky blush-pink, their old Foursquare is now the worse for wear—think: sorority girl, out all night. “Chickens come with if you want ’em,” she added, and laughed a laugh that was maybe as much a cough. She sometimes builds ziggurats of cubed white bread in the middle of our intersection to woo gulls over from the river. The commotion around us continued, but when she was free I stood and listened dutifully as she took me through a skeleton key of the incident. The basics. From her brief account, which she already told with the polished ease of multiple tellings, I put it together that Steve had been living with Peter. Apparently it’d been months. And before that he’d lived with Caprice and Ernie, right behind me. For all that time he, too, had been my neighbor, and here, if asked, I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.
We were interrupted by the arrival of the Portland Police Bureau’s Mobile Command Center, a twenty-plus-foot RV painted an official blue and white and emblazoned with the city’s seal. Officers broke the yellow tape and allowed it to pass into the middle of the intersection. The RV had a handful of R2-D2 domes on the roof, and I imagined they enabled a direct feed to headquarters downtown, allowing them to do remote forensic work, analyze evidence like fingerprints and DNA and ballistics. Somewhere inside the belly of the beast, a generator kicked on with the borborygmic vigor of a washing machine.
One of the suit-wearing homicide detectives called Caprice over for Official Business, and I went and posted up next to a cruiser parked with its doors open in front of my house. Two officers were inside drinking Venti coffees, their job being, it seemed, just to be there. I’m still somewhat new to this, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever get over the astonishment of encountering state authorities who’re younger than me.
All afternoon I’d been ping-ponging between competing thoughts. One was that I knew exactly what was going on here, from all the police procedurals I’d ever watched, and the second was that I didn’t have the first clue. It was uncanny, that peculiar mix of the familiar and the utterly foreign. Hoping to clarify some of my impressions, and undeterred by my earlier failure, I asked these officers a few Qs. They were open and amiable, happy to help, probably because I wasn’t asking about this case in particular.
We talked about violent crime in the neighborhood, how numbers were down here but well up in Gresham, the suburbs, where the gangs had been displaced. Then we got on about all the journalists, one of whom was practicing what he’d say on camera later. He sounded like a Gertrude Stein poem: “A witness witness? witnesses called police to this house house? home? to this home on North Haight Haight? North Haight to say that a man was to say a man had been stabbed. . .”
“I got a buddy,” one started. “He drives around getting video of scenes before we tape them off. Sells that to the networks, sometimes more than one. Makes pretty good money, too. More than you’d think, at least.”
Eureka! Tweaker guy and the blondified ectomorph— vigilante videographers.
“In the footage the official media gets, we’re always laughing in the background or something,” the partner said. “But they show up like way later, so what do they expect?”
I then inquired as to the forensic appurtenances one might expect to find inside the MCC. What manner of high-tech crime-solving gear was it packing? Could they do 3-D facial recognition? Alternate light photography? Was laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry an option?
“Oh, nah. It’s mostly just a lounge,” the first cop said. “There’s a table and some chairs. Coffee. Snacks. Probably snacks.”
“Well, that’s disappointing,” I said, before I could stop myself.
“We get that all the time,” he said. “People seen too much TV.”
I left them to their coffees and spent much of the rest of the afternoon sitting on my porch, taking in the scriptless drama from a distance. As I watched everyone go about their business, I felt like I was witnessing a holy rite of alien and opaque significance. It reminded me of attending my friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs, when I’d listened to them perform their guttural, glottal passages from the Torah. There was something undeniably ritualistic to all the day’s doings, something with the skin of the sacred. The crisis, the intercession, the working out of innocence or its opposite. The great profane paddle wheel of justice, churning us down the river time. Perhaps crime, and maybe especially violent crime, is the last way we feel comfortable addressing the ancient notion of sin, a notion gone nearly vestigial in us. Not to play loose with etymology here, but it’s neat to note that many of the words we associate with crime—“incident” and “case” and “homicide” and “casualty” and “cadaver”—share a common root, cadere, which means “to fall.” At some point during all this gummy and fruitless ruminating, I started to understand that no amount of journalistic diligence could possibly redress my confusion. Facts would not, really could not, resolve for me the primeval mystery of what’d gone down here on the __00 block of N. Haight Ave. Death had been here. Murder had left its sudden, inexpungible stain on the day.
The sky bruised up as the sun began to set and the journalists took off to meet their deadlines and the cruisers peeled off to pursue other urgencies. The MCC hung around until after it went dark and even from inside the house you could hear the dyspeptic chugging of its generators. Alexis and I missed the initial television reports but watched them online later. The anchors enthused while introducing the news. Their voices pitched, their manicured eyebrows lifted. Little windows floated on-screen beside their statuesque coifs: “Deadly Stabbing,” “Fatal Stabbing,” they read, and were accompanied by clip-art graphics of knives and police tape. Watching these reports, I experienced an almost cosmic echo of the day, like there’d been a hiccup in space-time. I saw my street teeming with life and light—there were my neighbors milling about and there was my car, my house—while out my window the same street was dark, the same houses featureless silhouettes. Sure enough, in a brief establishing shot of the neighborhood two cops stood in the background, laughing. “Witnesses called police to this home. . .” I heard, in a nauseating déjà vu. The night wore on and an eerie stillness bloomed outside, and at first I couldn’t place what was different, what’d changed. But then it hit me: the Mobile Command Center must’ve finally taken off. Now at last we were left to contend with the haunting hum of absence that had been at the heart of the day’s noise.
The letter arrived in an unsealed, unaddressed, and unstamped envelope, a rogue missive slipped in with my other legit mail. I should clarify: a photocopy of the letter arrived thus, along with a copy of its first envelope, addressed to Linda Strauss, Peter’s wife. It’s postmarked 20 August 2012—more than a month before I got it, a year and a half before everything above went down. The return address is for “Percy Perwinkle” (Periwinkle?) at “ 00 N. Haight Ave.” No such street number exists, and the only results I found online for Percy Per- or Periwinkle led me to a site that showcases amateur erotic fiction.
“Dear Laura,” it begins, bafflingly.
I am a neighbor of yours and I want to bring some things to your attention concerning your husband (?) Peter. On Friday, Peter was outside yelling ‘Woo!’ and spraying water into the air. Inside the house, all people can hear is ‘Woo!’ However, outside of the house is a different story and I would like to let you know what he said. Peter yelled ‘Woo! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you all! Woo!’ He kept this up several times until I heard him say ‘Woo! Fuck you! I will KILL all of you! Woo!’ I have been afraid ever since. This is illegal and I have seen ‘Peter’ do several illegal things over the past few years.
This is the first of eight single-spaced paragraphs that fill two typed pages. The work entire amounts to an impressive jeremiad, an impassioned rant in which the anonymous author (“I will not identify myself out of fear that Peter will kill me. . .”) states the problem over and over: Peter is “terrorizing our neighborhood.” He listens to his music at an “absurd and ILLEGAL level.” He’s lowering property values. He has prevented the author from getting a job and is responsible for untold hours of talk therapy. Among the illegal things he’s been witnessed doing: he once cut a tree “down into the street without a proper permit.” And now he has threatened to visit death upon the entire neighborhood. Quite simply: “He has made my life a living hell.”
The writing throughout is unhinged and obsessive, its logic only loosely qualifying as such. For example, property values? The problem isn’t that they’re getting lower, of course, but too high, driving taxes up so that many folks who’ve been here for decades are having trouble paying them. It’s this febrile and half-cocked quality that makes the letter so compelling. Paragraph to paragraph, often sentence to sentence, the tone varies wildly, cycling through concern for the community’s and Linda’s safety to exasperation with Peter’s “antics” to anger of a rarefied sort. The author pleads with Linda to kick him out, to divorce him, and, anticipating the failure of these more reasonable forms of suasion, goes on to suggest menacing and portentous courses of action—e.g.: “I have homicide thoughts against your husband, daily . . . However, I do nothing illegal, but I do know Kerby Blocc Crips and this is their turf. In fact, I used to be one of them . . . And if they heard or knew about this threat, your husband would be put down like a dog.” Threatening to fetch the gang should daunt us, but it doesn’t. It reads as desperate, not to mention that it’s a fundamental misapprehension of how things work now. My imagination can’t get them out of Gresham, this crew of aging thuggards, dully peeved by proxy, arguing over which bus is best for the commute back to their turf. And of course, as all such letters must, this one includes an ultimatum: “I’m giving him a week to stop being a terrorist and respect his neighbors before I send out letters to fellow neighbors informing them of what he said.” And later we get a wicked little addendum: “We may be sharing self-defense videos with our neighbors as well, so everyone knows how to kill him in a snap or at least paralyze him. Then you’d be forced to keep him in your life forever and feed him baby food.” The letter goes on, but continues only to rest its restive case over and over again.
While it’s abundantly clear that the author overreacted (“I don’t care if he means no harm because I think he DOES”), that he or she got all hootered up on a beastly brew of enmity and pique, I’m sad to say I can sympathize. I’d been in the neighborhood for almost two years, and my own patience with Peter had started to chafe. My house was far enough away that his music and hollerin’ were muffled when I was inside, but I could imagine how frustrating it’d be if you lived next door, like Jim. Story goes that Jim and Peter had been tight, best friends, used to spend Thanksgivings and Christmases together, but, according to Caprice, the neighborhood’s recording angel, they’d had a falling-out. Jim could no longer deal with how erratic Peter was, how downright mean he could be at times. Similar in kind, my grievances were fractional by degree. For example, on nice days Peter would often sit out on the corner improvising percussive travesties upon some bongo drums. Imagine an EKG of a cardiac arrest and you will have an idea of the rhythm of his beats. My solution? I’d visited my local Home Depot and splurged on a pair of commercial-grade, noise-canceling earmuffs—with them on, the only beat I could hear was the soothingly metronomic shloomp-shloomp of my heart. But on an afternoon when Peter was thus inspirited, sometime after I got the letter, Alexis had a migraine and was laid up downstairs with packages of frozen veggies over her eyes. Every high-pitched plinky-twongy thwack was for her a violent trepanation. I knew it was my husbandly duty to go out there and politely ask him to cool it awhile, but I kept putting it off. Instead I whipped myself into a rich and furious lather. The fuck are you thinking, carrying on like that? Don’t you have a thought or care for anyone but yourself? And if play you must, couldn’t you at least avail yourself of a recognizable rhythm? By the time I’d wound myself to a critical point and was about to go out there and further the ruckus, Peter stopped playing and went back inside his house. Alexis could’ve cried, so soothed was she by the relative quiet. And I was relieved, too, having dodged a confrontation with Peter.
But why? What had happened to make me want to avoid him?
The story had changed. I’d let it. As I settled in after the move, I started to collect fresh habits. Repetition tamed and automated my perception. The new route to work became my everyday commute and our new grocery store became just where we had to go to procure grub and bit by bit we filled our new old house with the warm safe security blanket of the Familiar and sure enough, as it happened, dailiness of this sort dulled me to Peter’s charms. His wonderful whacked-out madness-genius modus came to seem a perpetual psychology experiment without a control. He’d become a burden, someone to deal with—by which I mean that he now sat on the same psychic shelf as Dad. Another quondam example turned cautionary tale. Soon enough Alexis and I had been in the house a year, and it’d been months since Peter and I had taken the dogs to Peninsula and talked Auden, Branca, Caravaggio, et al. And with alarming ease those months became years. It was happening: I was aging. Linda left. Linda returned. They got a second silken windhound puppy and named it Pippin. Then Pippin was a dog and it was night and he and Apollo had together leapt the fence and fled the yard and were tear-assing around the neighborhood without a chaperone. I was coming home from the murder mart when I saw them on the corner across the street, smoky and apparitional. They came at me then, appearing to emanate more than properly move, closing the distance between us with frightening ease. Quick as pickpockets they were circling me, nipping at my ankles, and I started goose-stepping down the sidewalk, yelling “Peter! For fuck’s sake! Peter!” as I went. Again Linda left with the dogs, but for good this time. And soon thereafter began the relative chaos of the late nights and the excruciating howls that no one could’ve imagined would end in his murder. Now on walks with Percy I stuck to my side of the street. If Peter happened to be out on his porch as I passed, I’d raise a hand across the way, a hand that said both “hi” and “stay.”
When I first received the letter, I assumed that the author had made good on the promise to alert the neighbors to what Peter had said, to his “threat.” This seemed the easiest and most reasonable explanation, the one that required the least amount of mental gymnastics to figure. But there was a catch, a snag: the envelope. If it’d been the author, how to account for the photocopy of the opened, postmarked envelope? The longer I thought on it, the more I came to believe that it’d been Peter who’d made the copies, who’d slipped the letter in my mailbox. Maybe this was his way of reaching out, of asking for help. Or maybe it was his strange take on neighborhood watch, selling out the squares or narcing on the narcs or whatever. It’s also entirely possible that he thought I’d find it funny. I can see him there, standing in the self-service copy shop up the street, laughing to himself as the pages multiplied in mysterious mechanical accouchement. But in the end, I can’t say for sure one way or the other that it was or wasn’t him. The only thing I can say with certainty is that no self-defense videos ever arrived. Had they, well, then we’d have a different story.
That Saturday night, a handful of us gathered at Ernie and Caprice’s for an impromptu and pretty half-assed wake. Their place is always murky dark and a little leaden and, as a result, entering presents a perceptual mindfuck, because while you walk up the porch to do so it feels more like a descent, like surprise! you’re spelunking! The decor inside appears to have sat undisturbed for ages, and Caprice smokes wherever she well pleases, so there’s a pervasive and hearty musk of spent cigs. But I don’t mean to suggest it’s uninviting or cold. It’s not. It’s rather more ember-warm and homey, imbued with decades of coziness and conviviality. By now it should be apparent that Ernie and Caprice are party people, people people—tap their walls with your Moses staff and you’d drink a delicious eau-de-vie. In a way, to visit them is for one’s spirit to slip into a pair of footie pajamas. Hospitable as they are, though, isn’t it also always bizarre? going into a neighbor’s house like this? It begins to dawn on you as you walk around, as you take in their choice of curtains and paw their gewgaws, the uncanny realization that life happens here. Life! A vital and vivifying mystery, this—all the meals made and eaten and the stacks of dirty dishes done, the routine maintenance of bodies (shit shower shave, lather rinse repeat, a whole kiddie pool’s worth of fingernail clippings) and the innumerable loads of laundry (all those undies folded into drawers), the walls positively sponged up with scenes of sickness and sadness, anger and reconciliation, tenderness and care. Can it be? That all this is housed here? And so close to where the epic drama of your own life is set? It’s almost too much to get your mind on the outside of.
Alexis and I added a bottle of wine to the smorgasbord of inebriants on offer and took our place on the barstools at the kitchen counter. The soft lighting felt fittingly lugubrious. Someone had brought one of those frozen pizzas with the laudable, leavening crust. A great tree of a woman, attractive in the mother goddess mode, was leaning on the end of the counter. When I asked her how she’d known Peter, she was bashful, even a little dodgy. In due time it became clear that things between them had been complicated, to use the parlance, that they’d been “involved.” Visibly heartsore, she seemed confused as to what her role there was, how exactly she fit into the story. I could sympathize. In the far back corner, at a table in the breakfast nook we look out on from our kitchen window, a Native American man wearing a feathered fedora sat smoking, a blanket or shawl wrapped around his shoulders. With him was an older woman who appeared to be consoling him.
While Caprice fixed us drinks, she told us about the memorial service set for the next morning. It was to be a celebration of Peter’s life and, as such, we were encouraged to bring music or poetry to share by way of a eulogy—this would be my first West Coast funeral. She handed us our glasses and raised hers. “To Peter,” she said, and in kind we responded, “To Peter.” And together we drank in remembrance of him. Full of an almost spritely energy, she left the room and returned in a trice with a CD and a number of articles she’d printed off local news sites.
“Did you see this one? About the song?” she asked, and laid an article before us. “Man wrote song just before he was stabbed to death, says friend,” the headline ran. And of course I’d seen it—I’d read everything I could get my eyes on and in the process had learned that his last name was also that of an apostle: John. Story goes Peter had been sitting on the porch that morning, watching a bird lave gaily in the stone bowl on the ground, when inspiration had seized him. He strummed out chords on his guitar and jotted down a quatrain. “They weren’t here for the Appalachian spring, / The sweet oboe solitary ring, / That small sparrow dipping wing, / Even frolicking.”
“ ‘Appalachian Spring,’ ” she said, and held up the case after she’d loaded the CD. “It was one of Peter’s favorites.”
The first measures of Copland’s suite played so quietly you had to strain to hear. But this was disturbance enough for the two people in back, who stood and made for the front door.
“You know Chinook,” Caprice said, and, in response to the silence that followed, “This is Chinook. And Marilyn.”
To them she presented Alexis and me, and we all greeted one another, but Chinook made clear with his face that now was not the time for further niceties and continued on his way out the door. Marilyn and Peter’s onetime inamorata followed him out.
“He’s pretty shaken up,” Caprice said, and then explained that he’d been there when it all went down, that he was an eyewitness. After Steve stabbed Peter, she went on with his story, he stood there blocking Chinook’s path to the front door. Peter lay on the ground between them. A brief standoff ensued. “Are you gonna murder me, too?” Chinook asked, and Steve nodded, slowly, yes. In these moments, he appeared to Chinook possessed, his eyes having gone frosty, vacant. Chinook then took up the fireplace screen and hurled it at Steve, buying himself enough time to bolt out the back door.
“Jesus,” I said. “I can’t imagine.”
And none of the reports I’d read online had asked me to. The public story had been bowdlerized into a simpler, more digestible form, one related to the event in the way a blueprint is to a building. Given the bones, you had to picture the skin for yourself. Freed from the burden of specificity, the simple facts had been repeated until they wore a groove in the community’s consciousness, a narrative path that would usher the incident, and so Peter, into the past, the rampant radio static of history. That Peter had been helping Steve, letting him crash at his place, made this a story of senseless betrayal, one that challenged our deepest beliefs—in the inviolability and sanctity of the Home and in the notion that we’re duty-bound to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed. And from what we learn of him, Steve Kovacs makes for an easy Bad Guy, on par with such Disney villains as Maleficent or Jafar. He’d committed capitalism’s cardinal sin, was unemployed, and, worse, he was homeless. His mug shot, featured online with most of the reports, shows the weatherworn mien of long, hard living, of bad decisions made daily. Beneath a dingy beard his washed-out face skin sags. Suspicious red-eyed sores spot his cheeks and forehead like someone’s had at him with a tenderizer. And to his last name there cling little barnacles of xenophobia: “Kovacs, Kovacs. How are you supposed to pronounce that?” What’s more—and this I had not known, because how would I have?—Peter had planned to leave town. Though there’d never been a sign out front, he’d actually arranged, with Caprice’s help, to sell his house, and had gone so far as to put money down on a parcel of land upon a hill not far off, over the border in small-town Washington. There he would build a modest house where, rid of the stress of testy neighbors, he could play his guitar and his music as loud as he pleased and live again in peace with Linda and his dogs, looking out on a bucolic view of the river down below. In this way Peter’s was a story that’d been interrupted at a turning point. It teases our desire for resolution, for redemption. An Oprah ending had been in the offing, the reports would have us believe, if only he’d been given the time. If only, if only, if only.
“That’s when I ran into him,” Ernie said. “He was out in the street saying his phone was dead, call 9-1-1. Then he said Peter’d been stabbed, and I ran over to the house as fast as I could.”
He went quiet. Ice tinkled in his glass and he replenished it with a four-finger whiskey. He took a long, measured look at the booze, as though the rest of the story lay in it.
“I’d lost my scarf,” Caprice said, lifting an end of the one girding her neck. It’d been a gift from Ernie, who for the moment seemed happy to relinquish the story’s reins, and it was among her most cherished possessions. High and wide they’d searched the house—no scarf. “I thought I might’ve left it in the car so I sent Ernie out to check.”
The misplaced scarf was now a link in the great chain of cause and effect. Magical thinking had put it to work in the day’s plot, transformed it into a horrific meet-cute. And many such details, things that’d gone from arbitrary to weighty and welling over with consequence, populated the day’s growing matrix of meaning. Caprice took us through some of her favorites, but only after first refilling our drinks. The bird song, for one—his last poem and proof positive that, above all, Peter’s had been a creative life. That he’d eaten what sounded like a kingly dinner the night before, prepared by an old friend, an accomplished chef, and that he’d remained sober, or at least relatively so, through it—a meal fit to serve as a last one. That he and Chinook had started to get serious about sobriety, had planned to attend AA meetings together, according to some as soon as that very day. That he’d been reading Proust and listening to Concert for George when Steve came into the room.
These details were meant to charm part of the chaos still, to capture some aspect of Peter’s life worth memorializing, and, maybe most important, to direct our attention away from how it had ended. Caprice was wired as she related them, too, in a swoon of sorts. For the moment it seemed she might also be getting drunk on significance, on symbolizing. And while I hadn’t been aware of it before going over to their place, I started to realize just how badly I’d wanted to hear this, the unexpurgated version of the story.
“Inside, the first thing I had to do was to roll him over,” Ernie said, tapping back in. “He wasn’t a small guy either, you know. Something like two-eighty or two-ninety or something. And there was blood everywhere.”
And was this not also part of what I’d been hankering to hear? The straight dope? Was there not something sickly delicious about learning that the floor had been in such a state that Ernie’s boots had trouble finding purchase? That as he attempted to administer CPR he was slip-sliding away like something from an SNL skit written by Cormac McCarthy? But beyond scratching an itch for morbidity, what purpose did such information serve? To what end were such details put? In order to understand what had happened to Peter, did I need to know that the knife Steve had used was a USMC KA-BAR, a fixed-blade, leather-handled combat weapon whose clip point gives it a sharklike profile? Did I need to watch as Ernie approximated the blade’s length, measuring between his pointer fingers the size of a fish you’d keep? In what way was I edified by descriptions of the wound, by picturing a slot in his chest large enough to accept a silver dollar? Or by being asked to imagine his breathing, gone disturbingly audible? How necessary was it that I learn that Ernie thought he’d felt, between his compressions, the final beats of Peter’s expiring heart? Did these details aid my efforts to understand what’d gone down?
My gut tells me that, at bottom, this has to do with empathy, with our ability to imagine ourselves into another person’s situation and exercise deep care. This is an essential characteristic of our humanity, after all, isn’t it? Part of what sets us apart from the lower order of beasts? My question then is something like: can so-called empathy coexist peaceably alongside the relief and gratitude we feel that what happened to someone else did not happen to us? Does pity preclude care? Can we learn so many details about a story that they cease to be empathically productive? At what point do horrific details begin to double back on themselves? To merely stoke the horror and so stultify any manner of healing? Like trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline? What do we say, for that matter, after we hear such horrible things? To my mind the most respectful, and so least pitying, thing we can say is “I can’t imagine.” But doesn’t that seem to be the very opposite of empathy? Or maybe it’s empathy’s purest expression, in that it articulates our inability to comprehend the details, allows them to haunt and confound us, too, and therefore validate the sufferer’s own confusion, the ineffability of his or her pain. And perhaps this is the final mystery at the bottom of all tragedy, the way life can scramble our greatest humanizing resource, the imagination.
“They say it’s good to talk,” Ernie said. “I grew up on farms and such, around animals. I’ve seen death before. I’ve seen dead babies. But never anything like this.”
It nearly passed me right on by, so casually was the revelation made. Dead babies? What could have compelled him to offer up such an observation? I let it sit awhile and, sure enough, our drinks again revived, the conversation ended up providing an answer. I hadn’t known this, but back in late May, early June, a dead baby had been found at a local recycling center. It’d rolled right out on the conveyor belt. This, too, had been a big story, local news–wise, full of brutal facts. The child was full-term, or very nearly so. A girl. Five pounds, four ounces. Her umbilical cord had been cut or torn, but was otherwise intact. A forensic pathologist confirmed that she’d been alive at birth, had breathed. From the evidence he’d gathered, he couldn’t say for sure how long she’d been there. A day, maybe two. “One of our employees found human remains on the commercial sort line,” the company’s president offered in a statement. “We are saddened by these events.”
That employee was Steve. He’d gone into work expecting another day of rote labor and walked out with a new ghost. And ever since he’d suffered a form of psychic torment that falls under the capacious diagnostic umbrella of PTSD. He’d ended up losing his job at the recycling center and hadn’t been able to find another since. And according to Caprice, among the bad decisions he made was that he couldn’t be bothered with unemployment or disability. What details from that day had been kept alive by the incubator of his memory? The imagination reels when it tries to re-create the moment of recognition. The foreign form on the conveyor belt resolving into limbs, a tiny body. The frayed end of a torn umbilical cord, affixed to the nameless baby’s tummy like a Pull ’n’ Peel Twizzler. It’s almost too much, attempting to picture the condition of newborn skin that’s been stewing in a slurry of beer cans and cardboard and backwash. To whom does such foul shit befall? And how would one begin to recover from it? I can’t imagine.
The conversation moved mercifully on and we ended up discussing Ernie’s family, his history. He took us through the house, pointing to portraits of his relatives on the walls. Our drinks were filled again and the photo albums brought out. Here were Ernie and Caprice at our age. Pictures of old neighbors, friends from community theater, adorable shots of their daughters from times bygone. Alexis and I finished our drinks for good and made an exaggerated show of needing to leave. It can be endearingly difficult to extract oneself from a hang with Ernie and Caprice.
“You know, I really needed that hug,” Ernie said as he saw us to the door. “Just wanted to say thanks for that.”
It was the least I could do, I assured him, and said we’d see them in the morning, at the service. We hugged again, this time more tentatively, bashfully, peppering the embrace with many manly backslaps. Tempted though I was to do it again, another tender cupping of his braid’s nidus wasn’t in the night’s cards, not even with the aid of all the sauce. And as Alexis and I made the short commute across the alley to our house, I couldn’t get over how caught up we all are in one another’s stories, how much we happen to share what happens to us.
On this idea of community much academic ink has been spilled, a whole wine-dark sea’s worth. And the curious autodidact, hoping only to glean some pointers for how to draw closer to the people he lives around, can find himself swiftly to the nostrils in jargon and charts, in schemas that smack of specialization and icy expertise. You’ve got your gemeinschaft vs. gesellschaft and your manifold forms of social capital, be they bridging or bonding or what. If you were of such a mind, you could freely brain yourself with a pallet of Bourdieu. Though at times enlightening, such reading can also make it seem so effortful and dull, this getting up with and going amongst other people, so much so that you can get to wondering how we ever manage to do it at all. And yet of course we do. Without ever really learning all the rules, we play the game. We get up with. We go amongst.
Reared as I was under the aegis of protestant faithfuls, I can trace my own most enduring and articulable notions about neighborliness and community to stuff I learned from the Bible. There are the basic Sunday school moral imperatives like “Love your neighbor as yourself” and the parable of the Good Samaritan, which ends with Jesus’s simple and startling call to mercy, “Go and do likewise.” Then we find this in Romans: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.” And what a phrase that is, how odd and poetically out of joint, “members of one another.” With that sharpened clause Paul captures the sense of belonging and interdependence that a community is founded on, a sense of belonging that I’d experienced growing up, as an active member of my church’s youth group and Young Life, not to mention as part of a large extended Christian family, a family that met for reunions not once but twice a year. And what about those times when a member of our community becomes difficult? When internecine conflict crops up? In Life Together, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” I’d been assigned to read this book before arriving for that summer of intentional Christian living on Martha’s Vineyard, an experience I still sometimes find hard to believe is part of my story. But I’ve strayed far less dramatically from this part of my history than I often like to think, and, consciously or not, I continue to try to act accordingly, to measure my behavior against it.
And so as Peter’s behavior grew increasingly erratic, in the months before his death, I started to feel guilty, ashamed of how our friendship had failed to develop past its infancy. This failure seemed to echo my recent string of relational difficulties and disappointments with Dad. And when I found myself tucked up in the womb of resentment and frustration that I felt I’d let that relationship become, I tried to urge myself to think about all of Dad’s positive character traits. Unlike me, for example, he’s never been niggardly with his free time, never been so fiercely protective of his energy and attention. He used to enlist (compel?) my brothers and me in all manner of service activity, be it Saturday mornings swinging hammers for Habitat for Humanity or shuttling us of an evening to visit with a member of the church going through a rough patch. It was never a question of whether, but how he would help other people—“Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” He’s always been a doer, almost restlessly so, and it seemed his faith manifested most in deeds of this sort. The frustrated and resentful cynic in me thinks that maybe he was so keen on service like this because it was visible, could be observed and therefore end in praise. But it’s wrong to scrutinize motives like this, wrong to judge. The point is that if I was indeed a member of this community, that is, if I wanted to go on thinking that I was different from the author of the irascible letter, then surely something more was demanded of me than the nothing I was doing.
On one of my walks with Percy during these last months, I saw a slick new Cadillac parked in front of Peter’s house. I couldn’t place it at first, but I knew I knew that car. And sure enough, there he was as I passed by, visiting with Peter on the porch: Lawrence, shunned wielder of the blade. I hadn’t seen him in ages, but that didn’t mean a lot. I hadn’t been around Irving much myself since the move. I waved my customary wave and Peter alone waved back—for Lawrence, the simplest human interaction is often cumbered with suspicion and distrust. But for days to come the image of them sitting together convicted me. It was something Dad would’ve done, come around to check up on Peter, see how he’d been doing. Sit, chat. Just be there.
A few days after I saw Lawrence on the porch, in a welter of nostalgia, I stopped at Peter’s house on my way home from a run. He was outside, of course, with Boo, the white pit bull he’d adopted from a friend who couldn’t care for him anymore. Peter came down his steps to meet me. And although I’d never been up there before, it seemed significant that he didn’t invite me to come sit with him on his porch. We stood with the rickety fence between us and talked. The specter of our short former friendship seemed to haunt us, to imbue the conversation with cautiousness—perhaps he, too, preferred to think of us standing in the field at Peninsula Park watching our dogs play. We stuck mostly to tennis. He asked about “that backhand of yours” and said he hadn’t been playing much lately. It couldn’t have been the only reason, but he said he’d busted the strings in all his rackets. I jumped at the opportunity to be generous and offered him one of my old ones
“They’re just gathering dust in my closet,” I said. “Hold tight.”
Before he could say anything I jogged home. I fished the rackets out of the closet and hit them against one another, listening to the pitch of each string bed, and chose the one with the least amount of wear. I hustled back, and when I presented the racket to Peter, he thanked me but insisted on paying something for it. No, no, I said, it was my pleasure, a gift. Some excessively polite dickering ensued before he caved and took it. Case might’ve been that in the end I was the more grateful, somehow.
We then got on about the guys at Irving and of course ended up talking about Lawrence.
“He’s a good guy, really,” Peter said. “Just a little pissed off at the world.”
“Who? Lawrence? Nah. . .” The joke lamed about effetely at our ankles.
“He comes by every now and again. Knows I’ve got,” he broke off, and his hands came alive, working through an inscrutable sign language before his words caught up to him: “Issues.”
Though it was obvious to everyone in the neighborhood, this still seemed to qualify as a confession for Peter. Or if it wasn’t a confession, it was something more than a simple acknowledgment. And his sincerity and vulnerability disarmed me. I didn’t know how to respond. Did he mean this to be an invitation for further discussion about these issues? Or was it meant to be an apology? As if by reflex, I made noises of sympathy, ventured gestures of understanding, though in truth I didn’t quite experience either just then. All I can be said to have experienced in the moment was awkwardness. This isn’t uncommon for me, hyperaware as I am of social discomfort (And is not this self-consciousness de rigueur now? Do we not consider being alert to minor social hiccups a mark of sophistication and refinement?), but I often worry that I am also too intolerant of this awkwardness, too quick to turn my back on it. Sometimes, yes, an awkward moment simply needs to be gotten past, forgotten, erased as best as it can by some well-timed backchat. But sometimes awkwardness is only the first step on the way to something deeper. Intimacy or fellowship or whatever you want to call it. Community. Maybe the most evident and ancient example of this is grieving.
Sad as it makes me now, looking back, my talk with Peter more or less ended there, with his confession. And despite the semishaky way we left things, for some time to come I was flush with that particular pride that altruism brings on. I began to spin out clichéd sports narratives about Peter. His passion for tennis would be renewed. He’d soon start spending his copious free time giving lessons to underprivileged kids in the neighborhood, teaching a new generation his long and magnificent strokes. The community would take notice and he’d be honored with a service medal, an award of some sort. In his acceptance speech he’d quote the philosopher Martins, Buber and King Jr., and the poet Johns, Lennon and Donne. We’d share a knowing glance over the heads of the other crowd members; maybe he’d give me a slight head nod of gratitude. It was like I’d taken a time-release pill of bonhomie, so hopeful was I for his future.
But Peter must’ve sensed the undercurrent of selfishness in my gift—maybe he suspected me of merely fishing for praise—because one afternoon not long after, I went out to get my mail and found, mingling with the envelopes and catalogs, a loose twenty-dollar bill. And even though there wasn’t an envelope or a note, I knew exactly what it meant.
On the way to the funeral home Sunday morning, Alexis and I listened to the Dead’s American Beauty. The sky had gone to pigeon shit–gray again and “Box of Rain” seemed a fitting theme song for the drive over—“Such a long long time to be gone / and a short time to be there.” We arrived and made our way into the lobby, where we found a large wall-mounted TV playing a slide show. Against a stock image of an idyllic woodland river and to the accompaniment of a generic string quartet, pictures of Peter passed over the screen. Certain images kept recurring but at intervals irregular enough to make me think they’d been edited hastily, if at all. We found the programs in a wicker basket and both took one. They were just a piece of paper folded in half like it was touching its toes. On the front was a stick-figure sketch of Peter on his bike, black eighth notes coming from the basket in front. Behind him there trailed a solar system of bubbles, which were filled in with elaborate swirling patterns done with pastel colored pencils. Though it wasn’t credited as one, I’d bet it was a self-portrait. Inside, on a vibrant watercolor background, printed in purple ink, was a short biography of Peter. I hadn’t known he’d been born in England or that he’d shared a birthday with John Lennon or that he’d worked as a plumber before heading off to graduate school. I was suddenly ashamed, embarrassed, wearing a wrinkly suit and holding the book of poems I’d finally settled on. I’d known so little about Peter, had heard so few of his stories. And it seemed then like it would’ve taken so very little for me to have known more.
As we watched the pictures scroll across the screen and took in the program, Alexis began to weep. Her whole body got involved and we discreetly excused ourselves outside, to the parking lot, where we hugged and chatted until the fit passed.
“It’s just so sad,” she said.
We’d been married for years now, and still the depth and clarity of Alexis’s emotions routinely surprised me. It could still hit me with the force of a revelation, that she was a many-dimensional and, therefore, mysterious being, attuned to a situation in a way I couldn’t fathom. I loved her sensitivity, her awareness of other people’s needs and hurts. And most of all, I envied her apparent ability to experience something without immediately spiraling away from it, wondering how that experience might work in words. Here, I envied her grief. Because the scene had failed to produce in me the same Wordsworthian surge of powerful emotions, and I considered this to be another in a long line of my failures to meet life with the proper response. Again I understood this had to do with my overawareness of the story being told. What had seemed most sad to me were the pictures, the program—the absurd distance between these documents and Peter’s life. I kept returning to the idea that there must be an irresolvable tension between life and stories. Life is lived and stories are told, after all, and to turn an event from life into a story, to pick and choose details and plug them into a symbolic system, to manipulate them in such a way as to make meaning, is to cheat life in some way. “The symbol is the murder of the thing,” Lacan wrote, basically pointing out that a word is never the thing it names. I don’t think he’s being melodramatic here, either, when he suggests that violence is inherent in the naming process, that there’s a strange betrayal in the house of experience. But then again, without stories, without that linguistic betrayal, how would we get at the stuff of life?
Back in the lobby we ran into John and some other guys I recognized from Irving but whose names had long since slipped my mind—had I ever really been part of that community? John was wearing a black suit with a shiny purple shirt open wide at the neck. No grille. We all shook hands and our heads as we expressed disbelief. We talked about how speechless we were.
“Can you imagine?” we asked. “I can’t imagine,” we answered.
Given how little else any of them had to say, I suspected that they hadn’t known Peter any better than I had, and in that moment it seemed as though we were all there to pay our respects to his tennis game. People had started to gather in the hall, and we were directed in ourselves. At the front, artistically arranged with the flowers, were Peter’s hat and guitar, relics of a sort, things invested with his presence. Alexis and I took seats in the middle of a row about halfway back. Around the hall I spotted many of my neighbors. Ernie and Caprice were up front, as was Linda, of course. Even Jim had come—he was sitting in the way back. I wondered whether the author of the letter was part of the crowd, basking in some sick sense of vindication. But not everyone was here. Not either of my next-door neighbors and not from across the street. Perhaps the most noticeable absence, though, was Lawrence—I could’ve sworn he would’ve made this a priority. Before the service started, Boo walked around the hall off leash, sniffing people’s feet and laps. A woman sitting up ahead of us hypothesized that he must be looking for Peter, and the folks around her cooed sympathetically.
When everyone had settled in, a friend of Linda’s, acting as the emcee or officiant, stood and offered some prefatory remarks. We’d gathered this morning to share stories about Peter, to celebrate his life. In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin writes, “It is . . . characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life— and this is the stuff that stories are made of—first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death.” The program put this idea more succinctly with, “We are all stories in the end. . .” And the woman kicked things off by telling an anecdote about how Peter had helped her daughter learn the guitar. She then invited us, the crowd, up to tell our own stories. And for the next two and a half hours or so, if you count the intermission, that’s what we did.
Former students talked about how instrumental Peter had been in their development, intellectual and personal. Friends lauded his passion for music, for both playing and listening to it, and his insatiable curiosity, his fierce devotion to beauty. A man with curly hair wearing great big clown shoes stood and stumbled through a speech about how much Peter had meant to him. At one point he looked at the ceiling and said, “I wore the shoes for you, man.” A cigar box of snapshots was passed around. They were loose and unorganized, and the color had started to fade out of some of the older ones, from when Peter and Linda were young. Each picture, like each eulogizer, told a sliver of the larger story, its truth or value not at all diminished for being partial, incomplete. Caprice got up there and mooned about all the times she and Peter had stayed up late chatting in his backyard. What she remembered most, she said, was laughing. There was a recklessness to the way she spoke, as if she wasn’t entirely in control of what she was saying, and this made me a little squeamish. Sure enough, things got a little tetchy and awkward when she got on about how upset Linda used to get, how she’d ask them to keep it down or go to bed, badgering them as though they were teenagers. I was thankful I could see only the back of Linda’s head. No one was reading poems, and with every new speaker it grew more and more clear that I wasn’t going to get up there and read mine. I thought I’d call an audible and talk about his tennis game, how pretty it was to watch, how incongruous, but someone beat me to it. After a while I started to wonder what Peter’s parents, elderly British expats, were making of this production. They were sitting in the front row, their four hands origamied together. What thoughts accompanied his father when during one of the speeches he excused himself to the bathroom? What was Peter’s brother thinking, sitting next to his parents? He turned out to be the only family member who wanted to share something with us. He’d chosen a song—apparently he, too, had inherited the musical gene. “What a Shame,” by the hard rock band Shinedown, includes the lines: “I knew him more than most / I saw a side of him he never showed.”
The time between speakers continued to increase until it was clear that those people who wanted to share had shared, and then it was Linda’s turn to speak. She talked about how Peter had been taken from us in a moment of darkness, about how his life had of late been shrouded in that darkness. But now we could all take comfort in knowing that he had moved on into the light. It was strange—had I encountered this line in a story, I would’ve found it hokey, forced, and not bought it whole cloth as I did in the moment. And Linda spared no details as she went on to detail that darkness, talking openly about Peter’s struggles with bipolar disorder and his recent hospitalizations. About how they’d been living separately but together and how she’d been the one who found the property he was going to move to. Her tone throughout was calm and measured, almost clinical. And while it was oddly moving, her candor also felt strategic, like she was using these details to exert control over the story. Because it was clear that in telling it she was also settling on a version of events that she could go on living with.
After she finished, miniature bottles of soap bubbles were handed around. We were instructed to blow them as we walked out of the hall, which would happen to the tune of “Give Me Love,” by George Harrison. But first we’d sing through it once together. If you know the song, you know it’s repetitive and incantatory, and with it on repeat it was tough to discern when it ended and when it began again, so it wasn’t until we were into maybe a third communal singing that we started to leave. And while some folks struggled to make any at all, what bubbles there were that floated and shimmered wet and oily and then blipped out of existence under the funeral parlor’s fluorescent lights were really quite something to behold. I’m even tempted to go for the cliché here and say you couldn’t have written it better, so well did the scene appear to encapsulate the end.
“The first symbol in which we recognize humanity in its vestiges is the burial,” Lacan also wrote. And in an essay on memory and forgetting, Lewis Hyde offers a helpful gloss on this, explaining, “The grave marker is the symbol that recognizes that whatever has happened need not live forever. The symbol lives on but the real, once properly inscribed, is temporal and can be buried. Forgetting is the erasing angel that murders particularity so that concepts can be born, so that time can flow again.”
And for a while after I finished a draft of the above, I thought I’d accomplished just this. Successfully translated and conjugated my experience, both of the afternoon and of my friendship, such as it was, with Peter. I thought I’d fixed things in such a way as to bury the tragedy. But the story hung around, wouldn’t go away. In the weeks and months to come, I couldn’t turn off my awareness of things that could be put to use as details, invested with significance. After the murder, for example, I was alarmed to find Peter’s porch light turned on. And it stayed that way, bracingly bright, for days. Coming home from Peninsula with Percy one afternoon, I walked up the front steps and, at long last, stood on the porch. I took in what had been Peter’s view and then peered through the front window and thought I spotted, on the ground in front of the fireplace, a massive amoebic stain. I bought “Appalachian Spring” on vinyl and listened to it over and over, trying to develop a taste for it, an ear for what distinguished it from the soundtrack of, say, Fievel Goes West.
My cache of details about Peter continued to expand. Late one night and many clicks deep into a Google sesh, I stumbled upon his Rate My Professors page. It covered his time in the writing department at UC San Diego. Given my experience and what I’d heard at the service, I’d imagined Peter as a Dead Poetsy teacher, beloved by his pupils for inspiring freethinking and resistance to sociocultural bullshit. The site, I was sorry to find, failed to confirm this story for me. He had fifty-six ratings, and their mean, out of a possible 5.0, was a dispiriting 2.6. A pitiable score. And a lot of the comments, Christ, they stung. “His lectures are interesting, if your not falling asleep after the first 10 minutes of class.” “Peter John, he is horrible . . . i guess some people like him . . . like 10 people that is out of almost 200 . . . His points are invalid and our topics of discussion are ridiculous.” “No. No no no.” It was hard to keep my mind from forming a narrative, reading through these responses. Peter struggling to get his students to care, losing interest, his patience. And finally maybe his mind. Because sure enough a few alluded to a rupture, a breakdown. The most succinct among them put it thus: “He mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the quarter, so I deduce he is unreliable.”
At first this simply saddened me. Sad for all he’d had to put up with, sad he never figured out how to fit in. Also sad that I had access to these comments and lacked the willpower not to read them. But then a strange form of guilt began to court me, and this guilt only grew more dogged when, during another evening’s Googling, I came across a site that suggested he’d left a different teaching job in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. All at once my reading and research seemed excessive, borderline invasive.
I switched tacks, started to look into Steve. To hear Caprice tell it, Steve had looked up to Peter. She’d gone so far as to say that Steve had loved him, as one would a brother. And a capacity for or tendency toward violence? She never would’ve guessed it.
“He was just a Bubba,” she said. “Just a beer drinker. A bump on a log.”
In an effort to better understand his motives, I thought the police report might prove useful, so I filed a request. In return I received an official letter saying the case was still open and, therefore, the information I wanted was “exempt from disclosure.” Other channels proved more fruitful, though, and soon I had in my possession a copy of all the classified documents relating to the case. That I could resort to “other channels” thrilled me, made me feel like I was a character in a spy story, engaging in a bit of tradecraft.
The day’s events were recounted under a bold header: FACTS. I learned, among other things, that Steve had considered Peter his “last hope,” which fit with Caprice’s read on the situation, and that he’d had six beers that morning, not counting the one and change he had after the murder. Steve didn’t consider that a lot, though, because he typically had twelve or more in a day. I also learned that he’d acted in a watery tunnel of unknowing—it was all a blur. I read: “He admitted that stabbing a person in their chest would ‘probably kill ’em.’ He admitted to Detective Michaels that he knew what he was doing was wrong and that he knew he’d be caught ‘probably because I wanted to be.’ ”
“I’m very remorseful,” Steve went on to tell the detectives. “I still have the fear but, for some reasons, I feel a little better because I know I’m gonna get three hots and a cot.”
There’s a word in German that is, well, germane here: Torschlusspanik. It translates literally to “gate-shut panic” and connotes that crazed anxiety we experience when we feel time is running out on us. Bets made to recoup losses, doubles ordered at last call, overbidding for items on eBay, etc. Steve seems to have succumbed to some limit case of this that morning. Faced with the tremendous uncertainty of his changing circumstances, “the fear,” he’d snapped. Gone into a fugue-like state and murdered a man he’d looked up to, his “last hope.” My neighbor.
But learning this was no salve. It only deepened the mystery for me. The story was incomplete, hadn’t been put to rest. And maybe it never could be. I started to feel like I’d wasted my time. Soon I could be found luxuriating in the familiar bathwater of writerly insecurities. At my nadir I believed I was doomed to live out my days as an editor, as a top-hatted fuckwit who niggles with other folks’ prose.
But it was a fraud, above all else, that I knew myself to be. All along I’d been working under the assumption, tacit though it was, that I could control the details of Peter’s story in a way I couldn’t control those of my own. I’d sought them out as a distraction, as a way to keep my mind actively off other things. Because in the months following Peter’s murder, my parents finalized their divorce, and my maternal grandmother, Mamaw, died. I didn’t get back to Richmond for her funeral and because of this would every so often experience a haunting flutter of doubt. Could it be that she was still alive? One evening I found myself dialing her old phone number, my fingers working through the digits with startling ease. It was as though memory had stored them somewhere so accessible that in recalling them I bypassed conscious thought. I returned to my senses before placing the call, but it was too late, that sequence of numbers had unlocked a trove of memories that left me sentimental and weepy. Nostalgic. During one of our conversations afterward, Mom told me my uncle, one of Dad’s four brothers, had driven down from Connecticut to attend the funeral. Dad hadn’t been there, she added. He’d been at the graveside service, though. Had apparently ridden his bike over—I didn’t know his license was still suspended. And Jesus, the thought of him arriving to see Mamaw into her grave on some shitty ten-speed he’d bought at a yard sale or off Craigslist was almost too much for me to imagine. For the third time in her life, Mom got a boyfriend. She was always wanting to talk about him, too, and I twice had to ask her to stop coming to me for relationship advice. Dad left the country to be a gym teacher in Morocco, and in a conversation we had before he left, he talked about how lonely he was. Later, from an internet café in Casablanca, he confessed to having a girlfriend himself. She lived in Florida and had retired early from her career as a flight attendant. She was “real attractive, a cheerleader type” and used to get busy with singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins. In his voice when he told me this, was that pride? Was Dad boasting about his new Eskimo brother? Bragging about having entered the danger zone? It was as though my past were eroding away, my history being rewritten. And the future? The stretch of time that’d opened so easily before Alexis and me? We lost our first pregnancy to miscarriage, and the pain of that was ramifying and pervasive and so very adult. The doctor assured us we’d done nothing wrong, that these things sometimes just happen. But that it was random and out of our control wasn’t the comfort she intended. It only intensified our confusion, contributed to the pain of our loss. This pain went all Whac-A-Mole on us soon after, as several of our closest friends announced, rapid-fire, that they were expecting. And what a fine expression that is, “expecting.” How deftly and gracefully it involves you in your own future. We were no longer “expecting.” And the powerlessness I experienced in the wake of this and all the other life experiences made me painfully aware of an obvious and basic existential truth: I could be the narrator of my life story, its hero or antihero depending on my mood, but I could never hope to be the author of my life. Shit now existed that I could never hope to pin down in prose. I’d gone in for some emotional sleight of hand, then, and ended up putting an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to articulate the senselessness of what’d happened to Peter.
A story is a residue. It’s the moisture that remains in a sponge after it’s been wrung out. And it’s both a wager in and against time. We hope our preserved little packets of time, fixed between the bookends of beginning and end, will endure. That they’ll float on over the prodigious and imponderable amount of time that flows us right on by, that does not get memorialized in writing or images.
My faith in narration had been shaken, the foundation now cracked and unsound, but time continued to flow just fine. Daffodils bloomed all over Peter’s yard. Books and cassettes and miscellaneous furniture began to appear on the curb out front as Linda cleared out the house. I found a volume of Auden’s poems but it’d gone fatly dropsical with rain so I left it behind. The buyers Peter had lined up for the house had apparently been undeterred by what’d gone down there—it had good bones, after all—and a woman in her twilight years soon moved in and started to renovate. The rickety fence out front was taken down, the yard tamed, largely cleared. The birdbath, site where inspiration once struck, was disposed of. A retaining wall was built out by the sidewalk, and all around fresh beds were laid and planted with sensible, matchy-matchy flowers.
And before I knew it, it was summer again, and at the tennis center in St. Johns one morning, I ran into Lawrence. While we waited to take our respective courts, I mentioned, casually, offhandedly, that I’d been surprised not to see him at Peter’s memorial service. They’d been close, after all. Hadn’t they?
It’s never taken much and I should’ve known better—this set him off.
“I was a friend to that man in life,” he said, among many exaggerated gestures of aggression. “Any fool is welcome to be a friend in death.”
I initially shrugged the encounter off—typical Lawrence. But what he said came to assume a new and startling significance after Alexis read an early draft of this essay. She said she hadn’t realized I’d felt so close to Peter, seeing as we’d only gone on a handful of walks and played tennis a few times. This planted a seed of doubt in my mind. Had we been as close as I thought? Or had I merely suggested the closeness for the purposes of the essay, fudged things for effect? It brought to mind the famous last stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” which was what I’d brought to share at the memorial service. “It’s evident / the art of losing’s not hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Among other things, Bishop is talking about how problematic it is that our loss is wrapped up in its articulation. Pointing out the tension that exists between what we experience and what we say (or write) that we experience.
And like Bishop, urging herself on to the end, I, too, was having trouble finishing. In the materials my source had retrieved for me there was a schedule for Steve’s trial. I saw that he’d filed various motions and managed to postpone the proceedings. But the trial was scheduled to begin, finally, in August, a year and a half after the murder. I marked my calendar, sure at first that I wouldn’t miss it. The journalist in me knew the story would continue in the courtroom and wouldn’t be properly over until the judge’s gavel sounded and Steve was pronounced guilty. Until the bailiff escorted him out a side door and into the relative stability of what would likely be the rest of his life. Before that happened, the story would, in a way, continue to live and breathe. Another type of storyteller, though, would’ve opted to end things with the image the memorial service provided: bubbles shimmering and blipping out of existence. It provided a ready metaphor— how fleeting our time together is!—and it happened in scene, and ending in scene is one of contemporary storytelling’s many tenets. It’s a tenet I often stress, to the authors I edit, the students I teach. Doing so leaves a reader with the fizzling menace of partial resolution, of consequences to come. But the longer I sat with that, the more it seemed just a trick of time, a contrivance. Deceptive and dishonest. In the end, what I was on the hunt for, and what I suspected I’d never find, was a way to express my astonishment at what remains, at the fact that time goes on and stories take shape. My abiding sense of wonder at how much of this living, in language and life both, is a living without.