The Death Of Honey’s Unusual Cousin, Peter
By Honey van Blossom
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)
Honey van Blossom
I didn’t really meet my cousin Peter until I was 32. I had met him when I was a baby and he was nine. I know I was a baby because my grandfather drove car with running boards. When I had to pee, he slowed down and my grandmother pulled down my pants and made me stand on the running board. She held both my hands. “I hate diapers,” she said.
We camped in a forest and a squirrel sat on Peter’s shoulder.
I slightly met Peter when my aunt drove my mother, my evil little brother and me to Berkeley. The family used to live in Berkeley, at 66 Panorama Terrace, but they sold the house in 1938 when my father got his degree at the university and went to Mexico and camped in state parks. Around 1940, another uncle and his family and my grandparents shared a run-down duplex in Hollywood. That uncle taught at UCLA and was a member of the John Birch Society. My grandfather had a medical office on Kenmore. My father was a copywriter downtown. By the time I was born, they lived in two regular houses next to Forest Lawn. When my pregnant mother was taking a bath in the larger house, a truck came up the almost invisible path behind the house and crashed into the house.
I slightly met Peter when I was seven. His mother Aunt Nina had divorced his father and she and Peter lived in a Victorian on Castro Street only in those days the wonderful old houses were just old houses and were all painted white. The screen door was rusted and there was a hole torn open in it.
Aunt Nina was born in Russia and was Jewish. She was a member of the Communist Party. My uncle had wanted to be a member of the Communist Party but no one had let him in, as Peter was later to say, “Because my father was too weird, too weird for anyone.”
A tall shadow appeared at the door. “Your cousin is here. Come into the house and say hello.”
The tall shadow came into the house, said, “Hello,” and went back out through the rusted screen door.
Another of the uncles complained about Peter a lot but that uncle also complained about me a lot. The two of us – the cousin I only slightly met and me – were on Uncle Harry’s shit list forever. Zane Grey was also on Harry’s shit list.
“Zane Grey thinks he can write,” my uncle said. “He knows nothing about the west.” Harry came from Chicago where he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times and before that from Alabama so he couldn’t have known that much about the west. Because of Internet, I learned Harry actually had participated in the Mexican Revolution, and he testified about it in a Congressional hearing.
On my fifteenth birthday, my aunt drove her Nash Rambler north with me in the backseat and Harry in the passenger seat. One of Harry’s brothers lived up in a cabin in Twain Harte, which I assumed meant a torn deer.
Harry was, primarily, short. He was miniature. He once had red hair but by the time I knew him, it was white. He thought of himself as a great writer. My aunt supported him, content to be married at all although no one ever considered Harry a real husband. He was too old, thirty years older than she was. My grandparents loathed Harry, and he loathed them back. “They think they’re smart,” he said.
They had met when she was a schoolteacher in a one-room school in Trinity County, which was the only job she could get during the Depression. She was the same age as his granddaughter.
Above the windshield hung a bobbly compass that told her what direction she was going although of course she knew where she was going. The 99 only went two directions. The needle bobbed NORTH NORTH NORTH.
“Peter thinks he’s something,” Harry muttered. “He thinks he’s so smart.”
We passed a eucalyptus windbreak. The Central Valley was different then. It was almost all farms, and skinny dirt roads curved around the few yellow hills.
“Everyone thinks eucalyptus is a California tree. It’s not,” he said. “They come from Australia.”
“You’re not any better,” He said. He lit a cigar. “You’re so full of yourself. You think you’re smart, too.”
Peter immediately interested me but then I forgot because we got to the cabin and his brother made the same stew in a pot on a wood-burning stove every night. The adults ignored me. I read the Kinsey Reports and Chaucer lying on the floor behind the couch. Then it snowed. I hadn’t seen snow before, not real snow. It had snowed once in Los Angeles. When we drove back to Los Angeles, most of the time, the compass bobbed SOUTH SOUTH SOUTH. We passed peach trees painted white on the bottoms and Quonset huts left over from World War II.
Harry said, “I know the meaning of every word in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary.” We went to his niece’s house in Modesto. No one in that house read anything but they had an unbroken set of Encyclopedia Britannica on a shelf for show, and his niece made tuna casserole with corn flakes on top.
In the summer of 1980, I rented a room in a boarding house in Berkeley. Peter and I lay in the person-high weeds in his backyard and drank Dago red and looked up at the blue sky. “I love my weeds,” he said happily. He loaned me his father’s journal, written in Vienna during the rise of Fascism when my uncle was a medical student. After he got his medical degree at 23, his father served in the Lincoln Brigade in Spain. His father’s handwriting was clear. I read about his growing sense of horror about what was happening to the Jews he went to medical school with: they disappeared.
We got in Peter’s van and drove across the Bay Bridge to a Victorian house where my supervisor lived. She came with him in the van when he drove me back to the boarding house.
She phoned me the next day and said she didn’t know where she was. I asked her to describe where she was. She said in a rambling house without any soap. There were giant weeds in the backyard. There was an articulated skeleton in the entry closet. A stuffed mongoose on the mantle was eating a stuffed cobra. I said, “You’re in Peter’s house.” A lot had happened the night before. At one point, she left us to sit on a bus bench to wait for a bus for Fresno where, she said, real people lived.
He had a medical degree from the University of California. He refused to practice medicine. He said he would never be part of the establishment. I told him he could open a free clinic. He shook his head. “They wouldn’t let it happen, you see,” he said. Years later, there might have been an opportunity for someone like him to do research.
His half-brother Steven – Peter had another half-brother I never met and a half-sister I never met – was schizophrenic. Steven had haunted me for a time, appearing without warning to change his socks on my doorstep and to scream about the government, which was stealing his ideas from his head. I told him the government paid him for his ideas so they belonged to the government. Steven was a nuclear physicist. When I visited Peter, Steven came through the window. He did not use the door. Maybe he didn’t use the door because Peter had built the stairs to the door from tombstones.
Peter spent his young years as a stevedore on the Oakland docks. He was a big broad-shouldered strong man – a union man. Harry Bridges and his wife used to eat at Aunt Nina’s house on Castro Street. After container shipping, he was a crane operator, way up at the top of those giant metal insects you can see from the BART windows before the train descends into the tunnel to San Francisco. He wrote an opera about life on the docks. He wrote a math text for the California school system. He played the violin.
One of his half-sisters was working with the Peace Corps in Central America in the 1960s when she became very ill. The government flew her to a Florida hospital, and Peter flew out to be with her. She almost died, he said, but she didn’t die until 1996 from liver failure. She had hepatitis C.
My mother said she’d gotten it from a monkey but who knows. No one knows. I don’t even know if there are monkeys in Central America.
In 1989, he and I spent two hours on the phone when I was a public defender in Ukiah. He explained literature to me, and what he said was better than any book I’ve ever read on writing. He did not remember this in 1993, when I was living in Virginia and we talked for hours on the phone about John Steinbeck.
In 1995, at our aunt’s memorial service, we sat at the back of the Unitarian Church, and we sang non-denominational hymns. That is, he and is half-sister sang in their beautiful soaring voices and I hummed. The rest of the family was in the front row. Peter’s stepmother Evelyn was in the front row. My aunt couldn’t stand her and she was in the front row. Whenever Evelyn came to visit, my aunt had a seizure. Those were the only times she had seizures: when Evelyn was around. That’s why we were in the back row.
Evelyn came up to me after the service and said, “I’m Evelyn.” I said I knew that. “I’m 83. I’m next.” It turned out that she was.
We went to Laurie’s house in the San Gabriel Valley, and he argued ferociously that Herman Hesse was not a good writer and Sidhartha was puerile. The house shook in an earthquake and I ran outside. Peter and Laurie laughed at me because I was famously the family coward. I stayed outside nonetheless until the house stopped shaking.
He phoned me when his sister died of Hepatitis C. She had been waiting for a new liver. I was in Florida. I don’t know how he found me. It wouldn’t have done any good to ask my mother where I was. My mother’s memory by then was like a colander. Nothing stayed in it.
He retired when he was seventy-four. He couldn’t retire before then. He had too many people to help. He paid for the college educations of two of Majela’s nieces. He paid for a young woman’s wedding. There was always someone living in his house in South Berkeley. Someone was always out of work.
He took a plane down for my wedding party in Silver Lake. Lionel was there, too. He didn’t look at where the driver took him or know at all where he was, which was too bad, because some years later he needed to find me because one of Majela’s nieces had an awful child custody battle and so he rented a car and drove all over Los Angeles looking for my house. He didn’t find it and paid $35,000 to an attorney for the girl. It had not occurred to Peter to look in a phone book or to call information or to call the State Bar.
Eventually, years later, he found me, and I represented the young woman. He was one of my witnesses on the first day of trial. I wanted the judge to see how normal the family was. Peter appeared and spoke very normally.
When we had lunch on the ninth floor of the courthouse, he said, “Come with me.” We walked over to the edge of the building. “What on earth is that?” He said.
“It’s Disney Hall,” I said. He laughed his head off. “Isn’t that something?” He said.
Majela said, “We’ll go to Cuba. They have the best doctors in Cuba. Peter wants to meet Castro. You’ll come with us.”
When my grandson Ethan was smaller Peter drove us to the Lawrence Hall of Science and crawled through the children’s exhibits with him. He gave Ethan a book on the solar system from his large collection of children’s science books and told him what his weight would be on Mars. After, Ethan said he loved Peter. Peter would be perfect if Peter combed his hair and took the dog shit out of the back of his Prius.
Peter was on a list for a new liver. He – who didn’t have a blood transplant, didn’t do drugs, almost never drank anything alcoholic except once in a great while Dago Red — had Hepatitis C.
Majela said,” You won’t like this. I’m praying for you.” Peter was an atheist. He smiled.
I took Ethan to visit him in the Oakland nursing home. Peter loved children. His daughter-in-law urged him to take his medicine. I urged him. He shook his head.
The nurse tried to get him to comb his hair. He wouldn’t. I said it was okay, that’s how Peter’s hair was. She said that was fine then, so long as he was keeping up appearances.
They thought I must be Peter’s wife at the nursing home, and the nurses were themselves black. I don’t know who they thought Majela was, at his side every minute. So she said, “I’m his wife. She’s his cousin.”
When Ethan and I left, against the rules, he got out of bed and walked us to the door as if it were the door to his house and hugged me and did that patting on the back thing people do.
As Ethan and I walked to the BART station, we saw a skinny black man huddled against a wall. “Come here,” he said to Ethan – who could pass for black or for Middle Eastern or for Jewish. We were in Oakland. Ethan went over. The man whispered something to him. Ethan gave him his $10 allowance.
Ethan said, “Peter is wearing adult diapers.”
I said, “I know. Is that why you gave that man your allowance?”
He said yes. I understood. When I was young and someone I cared about died, I threw everything I had with me into the wind – gloves, money and then the whole purse. When Bobby Kennedy died, I saw maybe a thousand people on the Old Bridge in Istanbul throwing scarves and jackets and shoes into the water.
Majela said he didn’t suffer. He was a union man for over fifty years. The union health plan paid for morphine. Peter got morphine every hour and then fell asleep forever.
“Is this it?” Ethan’s mama said to me when I told her. “You work and you do things and then you die? Is that all?”