The lakeside communities clustered around Lake Ray Hubbard here in north central Texas, just east of the sprawling DFW metroplex, sometimes seem more like one entity than a collection of suburban cities. That community lost a member this week, when my friend Pete left to meet his Maker, leaving behind very little in material possessions but more people who cared about him than he probably realized.
I first “met” Pete Murphy in 1995 when I joined an online writing workshop where he reigned informally as the official Crusty Old Curmudgeon of the List. He was the older, more experienced guy who fancied himself something of an expert on fiction writing techniques, and his critiques were often blunt, made all the worse (to floundering young aspiring writers who were still shaky in the self-confidence department) by the fact that they were also often right on target. As the years went on, we became online friends. Even after both of us had left that group, he started his own little email list called The Basement Kids, and kept in touch with several of us through that. During that time, he was always working on a novel called Salamanders, which he eventually finished but didn’t really know how to market. When he wasn’t able to publish it the traditional way, he did it his way: He put it on the web. You can read it on his “Notes from the Basement” website at http://home.earthlink.net/~salamanders . Indicative of how important it was to his life, his email address remained salamanders@ <isp> for the rest of his life.
Pete lived in New Orleans when we got acquainted. During the next ten years, I had to visit the Big Easy several times for conferences and business, and each time we talked about getting together, but it never happened. I always had something going on, or he was working or out of pocket at the time. Then came August of 2005, and the news that New Orleans had been hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Pete was the only person I knew personally in NOLA, and I worried about him. Those of us on his little email list waited anxiously for word that he was okay. And after a few days, it came – he had gotten out, packed up his old van and hit the road, and landed in Lake Charles, where he rented an apartment.
But as Pete said, Mother Nature seemed to be following him. In September, Hurricane Rita pummeled the Gulf coast again, flooding St. Charles. Pete moved on again, this time heading across the state line and north to the DFW area – out of range of any but the most monstrous hurricane. My husband and I had just moved to our lakeside home here in Rowlett, but we still owned two houses next door to one another (one we’d lived in and the other we’d used as an office) in Seagoville that we were trying to sell. Since they were vacant, and Pete was homeless, he moved in to keep an eye on them for us. He was there for a few months, until we found buyers for both houses. He had visited us here on the lake and liked the area, and found a small apartment on Chaha Road where he set up shop.
See, Pete was a pretty good writer, but that wasn’t his only talent. He was also a highly skilled carpenter. Not the kind who builds houses – although I believe he’d done some of that, too – but the kind of true old-world craftsman who creates works of art. He built shelving for my kitchen that fit right into the existing cabinetry as if it had come with it, and a lovely stand for our flat panel TV that almost exactly matched the big entertainment center surrounding it.
He settled in and seemed to be pretty happy here. He got some more carpentry work and other odd jobs to supplement his social security check, and he got along. Oh, he hit a few more bumps in the road – his van was burglarized one night and all his carpentry tools were stolen. He was pretty depressed about that, as the carpentry work was one of his main sources of livelihood. My husband and I gave him $1000 to buy new tools, and he got back in business.
But Pete’s age and a life of a little too much drinking and way too many cigarettes was catching up with him. He started having trouble breathing, and his life became filled with doctor visits and medications. He quit the alcohol, and then he stopped smoking, and for a while he was feeling much better – on top of the world, in fact. But it didn’t last long. Within a year, he was in and out of the hospital with digestive track problems, and when he was home, he was too weak to do his carpentry work anymore. He kept on truckin’, though. He had a great love for old time radio programs, and he had created a web site where he sold CDs of his favorite collections. He took his little business very seriously, and each time he was hospitalized, his biggest concern was that he would let his customers down. I loaned him my iPad so he would be able to keep up with his email orders while he was in the hospital.
Even when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, he maintained an optimistic attitude. He had surgery to remove part of his colon, and seemed to be recovering from it well. The last time I heard from Pete, it wasn’t about his health; it was about his hard drive. He’d bought a new Dell and apparently the drive had failed – he came home from one of his hospital stays to find that his computer wouldn’t boot and wouldn’t find the drive. But he was happy because Dell was sending him a new one. He was especially impressed with the service he was getting from them.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I heard that one of our mutual friends was back in the hospital, and I wrote to him to let him know. I didn’t hear anything back, which was fairly unusual, but I thought maybe he was still having computer problems. I was planning to go by his apartment to check on him, but I never got the chance. And last Saturday, I saw a message in my Inbox from someone I didn’t know, but the subject line said “Peter Murphy.” I had a bad feeling before I even opened it, and in fact I hesitated for a few minutes, trying to convince myself that Pete had probably just asked someone to relay a message because his computer was on the blink.
The message itself didn’t say much, just that it was from a friend of Pete’s who wanted to return my iPad to me, and a phone number. Not ominous in itself, no urgency stated nor implied, but I had the feeling there was a lot that wasn’t said and it wasn’t good news. I usually don’t return calls immediately when I’m working, but this time I did. And Pete’s friend told me that he had passed away in the hospital on Friday night. We arranged a time to meet, and I went to her house the next day and picked up the iPad, and we talked about Pete. She showed me some carpentry work he’d done for her, and it was beautiful like all of his work. We discussed what to do about his little business, his van and his meager belongings – he had told us both that he had no family, and I guess we were the only close local friends he had, too.
When Pete told me that he wanted me to have his tools if something happened to him, I told him that he needed to make a will. Sure, I could easily get the tools, but he needed to designate who he wanted to get his van and take care of his bank accounts; those things require legal transfer of title. He agreed, but as far as I know, he never got around to it. So now his other friend and I are trying to sort things out, and I’m hoping one of my attorney friends can give us some guidance.
Meanwhile, there’s a peculiar void in my life where Pete used to be. I didn’t really see him that often, but I was used to him popping up, either at my door or in my email box, at least once or twice a month. He loved my dogs and cats, and always made it a point, when he came over, to seek each of them out and pet them and talk to them. Even my little girl dog, Suki, who’s picky about who she befriends, loved him and would run up to him and spin in excitement when he came in.
Pete was like a favorite uncle and in fact, he called himself my honorary uncle. We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum and we had some lively discussions about that, especially around election time. But we didn’t make it personal, and we finally just agreed to disagree and spend our time on more pleasant topics. I wish I’d made the time to stay closer to him, to see him more often. I wish I’d known he was in the hospital right here in Rowlett this last time; I would have visited him. I wish I could have done more to help him. I wish I’d had the contacts to get his novel published; that would have meant more to him than anything else. I wish I could have stopped time from taking its toll on him, as it does, eventually and inevitably, on us all.
And if wishes were horses … well, you know the rest. It’s too late for any of that now, but I’m glad I knew Pete and could do a few things, now and then, to make his life better. And I’m glad he decided to spend his last years here in beautiful north central Texas before going on to that better place. Heaven is about the only place that’s better than here, and I think Pete will fit in there just fine. I imagine all he’ll ask for is a corner in the Basement – although he deserves a lot more than that.