He was the youngest of so many I don’t remember how many. He was feisty, the runt of the litter; tough, destined to make it. Most of the others died, succumbed to disease, malaria, the great flu epidemic; or died from eating the lead paint that cracked and peeled off the walls and window sills. It was back in the day before there were laws against lead paint. He had an older sister named Margaret who left home, and a brother, Johnny—my Uncle Johnny whom I barely knew. He came by one day and sat on our screened-in front porch, the Trumpet Vine wreathing the dying tree just beyond the screens. I don’t remember what kind of tree it was because it was leafless by the time Uncle Johnny came calling, his gnarled hands folded in his lap, his plain brown suit, shiny and clean. He sat there, proper-like for mama’s sake. He’d spent his life in the army, but finally came by to see us that summer day. I don’t even remember Pete there, and maybe he wasn’t. I imagine mama serving him an iced, sweet tea with lots of sugar. But I don’t know for sure if that’s what he drank, sitting there on the porch.
My grandfather, their father, was night watchman at a mill. Pete was about four when his father was murdered, hit over the head one night making rounds. After that, his mother mended clothes for a living and they stayed in the mill village until he was six-years-old and she was killed by a drunken driver crossing Wilshire Boulevard. It was 1921 and there weren’t any laws about that then, or many cars either, so the driver had to have been a rich man, above what laws there were anyway. The incident was just an accident, plain and simple. Or maybe it was hit-and-run. Pete didn’t talk much about it but he did talk about how the authorities took him to an orphanage in Monroe where he lived until he was nine; and how, one day, Uncle Johnny showed up at the door, hat in hand. He’d just turned sixteen, the legal age then, so he came for him, took him away, and they lived together at the YMCA in Charlotte. The year was 1924 and that was legal then, too. They shared a room and a suit—one suit between them. The suit was too small for Johnny and too big for Pete, but it was a suit and they were proud to wear it.
Pete sold newspapers on the corner to pay for room and board. He talked about that a lot. I think he also told stories about walking ten miles to school in the snow with holes in his shoes. But I’m not sure if that was true; he may have just made it up, especially the part about the ten miles. But the newspaper story was real. Now the amazing thing about living at the “Y” was that when normal kids come home from school, they play in their backyards with other kids; but when Pete came home, he played in a full-sized swimming pool and a full-sized basketball court; that was his backyard. And the kids that played with him were mostly grown men, older, and some very wealthy. That was how he met Ralph, delicate and prim, who came from a long line of stock brokers in Charlotte.
Before each meal, the butler always served pink curled shrimp on lettuce in ice with a delicate sauce made of ketchup and mayonnaise. And Ralph had sea water in gallon jugs flown in from miles off-shore which he drank as a tonic. His house was grey stone with a long driveway leading in that curved under an arched portico; terraced gardens led down, down to a dark pond, covered in lily pads with large, white flowers and frogs that croaked in the silence of the stone house. Statues of nudes, covered in moss, were half-hidden in gardens around the pond. The first time Pete went to the house, Ralph took him to his closet—a whole room lined with more suits than he had ever seen. And he showed him the suits and said to him: Take any one that you want. That, and basketball, was how their friendship began.
Old age set in when Pete was forty-five. His skin had a gray cast. Within the year, he was in a wheelchair and needed oxygen. In August, I went with him to visit Ralph for the last time. I walked down to the frog pond, brackish and overgrown with lilies, cool in the bamboo-filtered air.
Ralph had hired a young gardener in his early twenties who tended the yard—muscular, fit and lean. I don’t remember his name but I remember the pain on Pete’s face as he watched him from the ivied terrace, bathed in long shadows that fell around us off the trees, heavy with the leaves of late summer.