Pickled Peter Picked a Pyre

Not everyone born with a silver spoon in his mouth makes a successful transition from privileged child to responsible adult. Peter was one who didn’t. At age 42, he lived in a beach-side studio bungalow on Long Island Sound, conveniently located next to the busiest bar in town. Years before, having worn out the patience of his influential family, residents of a gated estate a few miles from town, they’d set him up with a monthly stipend that provided for his basic needs in return for never returning. Happily, he drank away his money and stumbled home each night to sleep off the effects.

Despite Peter’s perpetual inebriation, occasionally he showed up at church for the eleven o’clock service. How he managed to get up that early was a mystery, but it was one the parishioners did not care to solve. They just let him plop into a coveted back row and left him alone. Perhaps it was because they feared being too close when the acolyte, carrying the brass candle-lighter with the burning wick, passed by, lest they be caught up in the fireball if the open flame ignited the alcohol cloud that settled over his pew. More likely it was so Peter might not accidentally let slip a story that involved them. Methodists are, at least in front of each other, absolute teetotalers…

Since few people spoke with him, Peter always got my ear after the service. One Sunday, as he filed out of the sanctuary on his way to coffee hour, he paused to shake my hand. Leaning forward, he used his other hand to point inside his partially zipped jacket.

“Hey pastor, want a kitten?” he whispered. When I gazed in, I saw a gray ball of fur curled up and sleeping. “It peed on me during the sermon,” he said as he released my hand. I winced as he turned and headed downstairs for a cup of Joe and a cookie.

Another week he complimented me on the duet I had played with a volunteer flautist during the offertory. “I played the clarinet, too, when I was in High School,” he said. “I liked the way it sounded.”

“Do you still play?” I asked, hoping it was something we could encourage that didn’t involve drinking.

“Nope. It was too much work. I gave it up,” he said flatly. He paused before heading for the stairs. “I got a friend who hasn’t been doing too well. Could she call you to talk if she wants?”

“Sure,” I said. “My phone number is on the back of the bulletin.” Just before three the next morning, my telephone rang.

“I can’t sleep,” mumbled a hoarse voice when I answered. Accustomed to calls in the night, I sat up, turned on the light so I could stay awake and pulled the blanket around me.

“Are you having a problem falling asleep or staying asleep?”

“Falling asleep.”

“Have you tried reading a book until you get sleepy?”

“I don’t like to read.”

“Do you need to talk about something?” I asked, realizing at once it was a dumb question. Why else would this man have called?

“No,” said the voice, and then he paused. “Will you play your clarinet for me?” This caught me off guard.

“Who is this?” I demanded.

“Peter … You know, Peter Clark… I was up and thought it might be nice to hear you play again.” I looked at the clock. It was 3:01 AM. I had to be up in a few hours for a funeral.

“So, you aren’t having a problem falling asleep?” I asked, trying to control my growing annoyance.

“Well, not really. I’m just bored. So, will you play the clarinet for me?”

“No, Peter, I will not entertain you. Go to bed and get some sleep. I have a funeral in the morning and I need sleep, too.” I put down the receiver. He did not call back.

The following Sunday Peter showed up in church again. I was standing in the narthex waiting to walk down the aisle when he arrived. The choir was milling about, rustling pages in their music folders and talking in what they thought were stage whispers. He pushed past them and leaned toward me. The smell of alcohol was unusually less pronounced.

“That friend I said wasn’t doing so well… I took her to the hospital last night. They admitted her. I stayed until she got into her room. Then they made me go home. Do you think you could visit her this afternoon?” He looked worried.

“Yes, Peter, I will visit her. Write down her name and room number and give it to me after the service.” During coffee hour, he handed me a scrap of paper torn from his bulletin. Along the edge in pencil he had scribbled “Diane–ICU bed 8.”

“Diane is my next-door neighbor. We hang out at the beach a lot,” he explained.

“Would you like to go with me to the hospital?” I asked, even though the thought of going anywhere with him was none too appealing.

“No… no, I’ve had enough of hospitals. I’ll just see her when she gets better,” he said emphatically.

“OK,” I responded, inwardly relieved. “I’ll call you when I get back and tell you how she is doing.”

That afternoon I headed to the local hospital to see patients. I stopped by to visit Diane first. She was still in the ICU. When I arrived, she was sitting up and talking on the phone. I stood in the doorway and waved. She waved, too, and went on talking. I took out a business card and scribbled, “I’m Peter’s pastor. I’ll come back later,” on the reverse, and placed it in front of her on the bed tray. She nodded.

After visiting three other parishioners, I returned to the ICU. Diane was still on the phone. I stood in the doorway. She raised her hand to let me know she had seen me and went back to her phone call. I waited a few minutes. It was obvious she had no intention of hanging up and talking with me.

“Peter sends his regards. I’ll stop again tomorrow,” I mouthed. She waved again and kept talking.

When I arrived home, I dialed Peter’s number to tell him about the “visit.” I got his answering machine. He was likely out at the bar, so I left a message. Early the next day he called back.

“She’s dead,” he announced.

“Who is dead?” I asked the voice, which sounded like Peter.

“Diane. She died this morning. The hospital just called.”

“Why did they call you?” I queried, remembering he was only a neighbor.

“Because I took her to the hospital. Because she gave them my name when they asked for next of kin. She doesn’t have anybody else, you know.”

“OK. I’ll pick you up in a half hour. Be ready.” I hung up without waiting for a response.

As I pulled into the parking area near the bungalows, I remembered that I didn’t know which was his. Thankfully, Peter was standing outside, accompanied by a small group of women. One was wearing a pink fuzzy bathrobe and Garfield slippers, her oily suicide blonde hair desperately in need of another death wish.  The other two, clad in jeans and tee shirts, one which advertised the bar and the other which highlighted the spaghetti sauce she’d recently enjoyed, looked like they’d slept in their clothes. Both of them were smoking, and one was holding a beer. Peter, a stocky man, with dark hair that showed a hint of gray, looked as disheveled as the others. His “old money” fashion sense coupled with his disregard for hygiene made him look pathetic. He was wearing stained khaki pants and an untucked blue flannel shirt. His scuffed boat shoes were dirty, and a leather button on his tan corduroy blazer had come loose and bounced as he talked. I rolled down the window.

“Is that ya pastor?” I heard the woman in the bathrobe drone with a nasally New York accent. Peter nodded and headed for my car.

“We got it all set,” he said as he positioned himself in the passenger seat.

“First tell me what happened to Diane,” I said, curious how a woman burning up the telephone lines a few short hours ago could suddenly be dead.

“Massive heart attack.”

“Must have been massive if they couldn’t save her while she was in the ICU.” I paused. “I am sorry for your loss, Peter. Diane must have been a wonderful friend.”

“Yeah, she was,” he said, “But we got it all planned out, just the way she’d like it.”

“What have you planned? And who is ‘we’ Peter?

“Me and doze ladies you saw me with. They’re her other neighbors. You do funerals, right?”

“Well, yes, but they are usually arranged by family members, not neighbors.”

“Since we’re all she’s got, we’ll be doin’ it,” he said. Figuring that this would sort itself out shortly, I let him continue.

“So, Diane really liked the beach. Most nights the group of us would sit by the water and have a few beers before going to the bar and we’d talk. Not too long ago we got talking about those Viking funerals, you know, the ones where they float you out to sea and set your body on fire… Well, we’re gonna build a raft out of pallets from behind the grocery store. Then we’ll pile sticks on it like they do for the Fourth of July bonfires. If we pour the gasoline on before we put Diane on top, she should burn real good. She might burn all the way to Connecticut. We just need you to say the funeral prayer before we push her out into Long Island Sound. When we get to the hospital, I’ll let them know what we’re gonna do. I think they may let us sign out her body today. I guess we’ll just put it back in her bungalow until we have the wood ready.”

Peter was serious. And so was the hospital social worker when she informed him that only next of kin could arrange for the disposition of a body. Undaunted, he launched into his proposed floating pyre plan, certain that once she heard it, she would be persuaded to fork over the corpse. I watched as her eyes grew wider and wider.

“I’ll take him home now,” I told her, when he finished explaining.

“Thank you,” she said, and leaned toward me. “Is he having a problem?” she whispered.

“Always,” I replied, directing Peter to the door.

“But aren’t we picking up the body?” he asked.

“Not today, Peter.”

In fact, nobody claimed the body since Diane’s only next of kin was her husband, who was in a permanent vegetative state in a nursing facility an hour away. After three months, her remains were released to the county who, I heard, gave her a send-off that was not quite up to Viking standards.

Peter was absent from church for several weeks after Diane’s death. I guessed he was unhappy with me for not being able to get the hospital to hand over the corpse. Then one Sunday, I looked up during the first hymn and there he was, coming in the back door. This time he was not alone. The congregation was singing How Great Thou Art, a hymn everyone knew by heart. We were just starting verse two when Peter and a woman we later learned was Caroline, but was known to her friends as “Candy,” headed up the aisle to the empty seats in the third row. Peter was grinning, pleased to be showing off his arm charm. Soon the singing grew weaker, and I began to notice that people seated on the aisle were paying more attention to our visitors than to the hymn.

When Candy finally slid into the pew, the first thing I noticed was cleavage, which was not something one saw much of in church. Her black leather biker’s blouse was cut almost to her navel, but then again it was a perfect match for the leather micro mini skirt and the black spiked heels with rhinestones across the straps. I was cold just looking at her. “Here we go…” I mumbled, hoping it was not loud enough to be picked up by the microphone.

But after Peter and Candy took their seats, things with the congregation returned to normal. Since it was common for this bunch to get distracted or even to whisper a snarky remark, I thought we might be okay. Then I remembered it was the first Sunday of the month. Communion. The altar guild had planned for intinction at the rail. The common cup and loaf were already in place. Soon the ushers would invite people to walk up the aisle, kneel at the rail, and receive a small piece of bread to dip into a chalice filled with grape juice. I could see disaster looming before me.

“The Lord be with you,” I announced.

“And also with you,” the congregation responded.

I launched into the liturgy. As I was consecrating the bread and “wine” I looked up. Candy was staring at me. I slipped my thumbs into the serrated bottom of the loaf and broke it open. At least the altar guild had remembered to prepare the bread, so I didn’t have to wrestle with it.

When I gave the invitation to come forward and receive, I saw Candy whispering in Peter’s ear. He nodded. Since they were in the third row, it was not long before the ushers directed them out of the pew and up to the altar rail. Together, they kneeled. Murmuring could be heard from those seated toward the front, and from those waiting in the aisle.

The lay leader assisting me walked ahead along the rail, giving each communicant a bit of bread broken from the loaf which he held in his hand. Each person kept their “Body of Christ” until I offered the chalice in which to dip it. Except Candy. She popped hers in her mouth and swallowed. When I got to her with the communion cup, her hand was empty. Before I could get the lay leader’s attention so he could give her another piece of bread, she took action. Immediately she stuck the inch long, polished black and silver nail of her right forefinger deep into the grape juice. She swished it three times around the inside of the cup, pulled it out of the liquid and then used it to make the sign of the cross on her body. When she was done, she stuck her fingernail into her mouth and loudly sucked off the remaining grape juice.

Over Candy’s shoulder, I saw a woman slap her husband on the arm. He closed his eyes as he tried in vain to “stifle himself.”

He’s in trouble… I thought as I offered the cup to the next person. “The blood of Christ, shed for you,” I said out loud.

No one else at the rail let their bread touch the juice; they just moved it close enough to make a good showing. When they returned to their seats, I went back to the altar and grabbed the second chalice I always had the guild prepare in case of hygiene emergencies or other disasters. Then, smiling as angelically as possible, I returned to my place. More people filled in at the altar rail and everything proceeded without issue through the end of the service.

Thankfully Peter and Candy did not stay for coffee hour to hear the church ladies going on about how, besides being noticeably braless, Candy also lacked panties, which had become obvious when she’d kneeled at the rail. “I could see what that hussy had for breakfast!” a member of the Thursday Morning Bible Study exclaimed.

“You could see more than that,” her husband snickered. His wife’s reaction told me he’d be in the doghouse the rest of the day, if not the entire week.

“This is an opportune time to get a few odd jobs done around the church,” I thought. “I must make a list to leave with the secretary since he is likely not the only one who will need to get out of the house for a while…”

The last time Peter came by the church was during Lent. I guess he’d heard we were serving soup and salad on Wednesday evenings, followed by a study. That night we were reviewing the history of the hymns traditionally sung during Holy Week. He must have liked the soup because he ate several bowls full. We were glad he was eating something nutritious and kept filling his plate with salad, too. While everyone else was clearing up the dishes, stacking the tables and setting the chairs around the piano, Peter wandered down the hallway between the church office and the nursery school. Next to the office door was an upside-down ten-gallon bottle.

“What’s with that water cooler jug full of pennies?” he asked when he got back to the fellowship hall.

“The nursery school is collecting pocket change as a fundraiser,” a woman replied.

“Well, it’s mostly pennies.”

“There are other coins in there, too,” another woman declared. “I’ve put lots in myself.”

Just then, the pianist called us to take our seats. “Turn in your hymnals to #231,” she said, “No one wants to be here all night.”

That’s my favorite hymn, I thought, giggling to myself. About fifteen minutes into the program, Peter disappeared out the side door. He returned a few minutes later smelling of cigarettes. Soon after, he got up and headed for the men’s bathroom closest to the fellowship hall. His flush accompanied the last verse of The Old Rugged Cross. When he came back in, he got another cup of coffee and stood near the urn, likely for a quick refill. I lost track of him through the next two hymns, then just before the third verse of Were You There, Edith, a retired school teacher, sprang from her seat. I watched as this spry 70-year-old sprinted out of the room and down the hall where Peter had wandered earlier. Worried, I got up and headed after her. As I did, I heard the hymn end abruptly, and metal chairs scrape the tiles. Apparently, others were worried, too.

At the other end of the hallway, in front of the door that opened into the parking lot, was Peter.  He had his back to us and with his right hand he was dragging the enormous bottle of coins. Edith was running up behind him, yelling for him to stop and before we could intervene, she leaped up on his back causing him to lose his balance. In what seemed like slow motion, the two tumbled to the floor.

“What do you think you are doing?” she shouted.

“Well… uh… umph…” was all he could mumble as two men, rushed toward them and reached down to help Edith off the floor. She stood up, remarkably unscathed for having tackled a man nearly 30 years her junior and twice her weight. By that time, the rest of us had gathered and were now staring at Peter, slumped in a heap near the doormat.

“What were you doing with that bottle?” Edith demanded, using her teacher voice.

“Well, I was listening to those hymns, and I started thinking how it says in the Bible that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ so I was helping myself.”

“You haven’t helped yourself a day in your life, Peter. You are in your forties and your parents still pay for everything. All you do is whatever pleases you. If you were my student again, I’d… I’d…” Edith was so angry she couldn’t finish her thought. The gaggle of us stood silently and waited for Peter to get up. He didn’t.

Finally, Edith regained her composure. “You don’t understand that verse at all, Peter, not one bit. Yes, God helps those who help themselves, but what you are doing, Peter, is stealing. This is the last straw.” She paused. “It is about time you are held accountable for your actions. Somebody please call the police.” With that, Peter got to his feet, brushed the dust off his pants, and walked out the door.

I suppose I should have mentioned that “God helps those who help themselves” is from Poor Richard’s Almanac, not the Bible, but I didn’t. I’d had my fill of drama by then and just wanted everyone to go home.

Later that evening a police officer dropped by the parsonage to explain that, like many times before, Peter had been given a stern “talking to,” but since he was well on his way to drunk by the time he received it, it was not likely to make any difference. The officer also explained that it would not be wise to make a report in which we admitted that a parishioner had assaulted Peter. That news would surely make the papers, and she could be in a lot of trouble if he wanted to press charges.

“Peter probably won’t remember what happened after a night of drinking and my advice is to leave it that way,” the officer chuckled.

So that’s how we left it. This decision saved the church from embarrassment, Edith from legal issues, and Peter from ever having to grow up. I can attest to that because the last time I saw him was in the parking lot of the local grocery store. I was heading home on foot with a small bag of staples when I noticed him. Good thing I did, because he was heading straight for me with his car. If I had not leaped into the grass at the edge of the lot in time, I would have made an instant career change to “hood ornament” as he skidded out into the roadway. Maybe he was drunk; he could even have been angry. I’m just glad I did not become the next guest of honor for that well-planned Viking funeral.

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