Peter Murphy was the assistant manager at The Fish Store when I worked there during college and also my boss and landlord/roommate for a while. I just found out this morning from a friend that he died a few days ago. I referred to Peter when I wrote about Frank Lull’s death in 2012. It was Peter’s bad back that Frank helped out with the mattress.
Peter was a thin man, some might say drawn, tallish, with brown hair he always wore long to his shoulders and combed straight back, and riding above his hawk-like nose were his large, round glasses. More often than not, a lit bent pipe stuck out from between his beard and he would be wreathed in a lazy cloud of puffed tobacco smoke. I think he was in his mid-to-late 30’s when I met him.
Mischievous at times, you could mistake him for Santa’s younger, skinnier, darker cousin by the twinkle in his eye. Peter loved to tease, and his personal narrative of emigrating westward from the East Coast prep world of his father’s urological sphere where he had trained and worked as a chef, and landing in Montana as a cattle driver before coming out to Seattle was hard to verify. He did wear cowboy boots everyday, and a duster and leather rimmed hat in foul weather, and walk like he had just gotten off a horse, and he was a very good cook, but who knows?
I spent many long hours alone with Peter in the store, scrubbing algae, changing water, pulling dead fish from tanks, facing shelves, and all the other shopkeeping tasks that must be done when commerce slows, and we talked. Frugal with words, our conversations were often brief, staccato exchanges that punctuated long silences. He didn’t talk too much about himself. He seemed content to leave his past behind him and listen bemusedly to the trials and tribulations of the mostly college-age staff.
When my roommate, Dave, and I sought a cheap place to live because the place we were at sucked, he offered us two rooms in the house he was renting in Ballard. His only condition was that we remove the semi-feral cats his previous roommates had left behind. We jumped at the chance. The rent was cheap and Ballard back then was a more funky neighborhood, with a gun shop and four-star restaurant in the adjacent block right across the street from each other, not the condo-strewn hot spot for youthful tech people with money it is today.
It turned out there were five cats in various levels of domesticity that had taken up residence in Peter’s basement. There was a window missing a pane that Dave quickly blocked up and we scooped two right up and put them into milk crates for safekeeping. Two more took sincere effort to catch, mostly requiring us to run around the house shutting doors behind us to section off and corner them.
The last cat was probably wild. When we went looking for it, we couldn’t find it, but we knew we had seen it. A careful examination of the basement discovered it wedged deep between the joists in a hole in ceiling. Dave and I both donned leather gloves, and while Dave used some sort of stick or rod to prod it out, I was to catch it on the way out.
In theory, this was a solid plan. In practice, when a wild, angry cat, hissing and bearing teeth and claws is barreling towards your face your resolve wavers, and decide discretion is the better part of valor and you half-heartedly attempt to grab it to protect a shred of your dignity. It quickly vanished upstairs, and we ran upstairs after it, shutting the door behind us. Prepared, we had the rest of the doors shut and we figured it a simple matter to corner it.
We went looking, but couldn’t find it. It had vanished. We checked all the doors. They were secure. The windows were shut. We triple-checked underneath the couches and chairs. It was gone.
Had we missed it? Had it somehow feinted running upstairs? Impossible. We took to overturning the furniture, looking for tears in the upholstery it could have wormed into. And lo and behold, in the very last chair we overturned, a recliner, we discovered it wedged up underneath the seat, claws splayed and hooked into the fabric and unable to free itself. Hissing and spitting, Dave went for the cat, it deeply scratched him, and then leapt upstairs to the landing where we pursued and secured it.
It is only in retrospect that this folly was an omen of future events.
Peter was an alcoholic. We often rode home together after closing up work, and every night without fail, he would stop and pick up a six-pack of Rainier Ale, which Peter would call Green Death, for the green bottles it came in. Upon arriving home, Peter would disappear into his room for a few minutes and then emerge, bottle in hand, and for the rest of the night he would nurse it.
He had a dog named Coo he would call Coo Dog, an ill-trained setter-like animal that he loved. Coo would put his paws up on the counter when we would cook, and Peter would only gently scold him. Once, Dave made a sandwich and sat down with it to watch a television show and then remembered he forgot his drink and went back to the kitchen for it. By the time he had returned, Coo Dog had eaten his sandwich and Peter was sitting there laughing at Dave’s misfortune. Words were exchanged, with Peter taking umbrage that his dog did something wrong. It was clearly Dave’s fault for leaving his sandwich out for Coo to eat.
When Peter drank, he could get angry. He also blacked out. There was one night where Dave and I both came home late from our respective jobs on Peter’s day off to find him shuttered in his room as he often was unless his favorite show, McGyver, was on. It was late, and we went to bed.
In the morning, we awoke to a faint burning smell and Peter swearing in the kitchen. He had made a burrito the night before and placed it in the oven to warm, but he had passed out and it had cooked all night. Coming downstairs to investigate the commotion, the slightly charred burrito sat on the stove and Peter immediately lit into Dave for leaving the stove on all night and chancing a risk of fire.
Not being a morning person, Dave did not take this well and pushed back, having me to verify his alibi and pointed the finger back at Peter. Peter became even angrier until Dave pointed out that even if it had been him, there was no way he could ever make a burrito as good-looking as the toasted one on the plate, (and it was perfectly shaped and folded, well beyond Dave’s skill.)
Dave proceeded to suggest that perhaps someone had broken into the house after Peter had gone to bed, decided to make a burrito and pop it into the oven before starting to steal things, and then done the dishes before being scared away by some noise, locking door behind them.
Peter fumed at this suggestion, and knowing he was in the wrong, stalked out of the room. The burrito sat untouched on the stove for a day and a half before disappearing.
The Burrito Incident was shortly followed by the Recycling Incident, where Dave and I discovered and recycled the huge trove of empty Green Death bottles in Peter’s room, solving the mystery of why we never saw more than a single bottle a night in the recycling bin, which led to much shouting. Then there was the Rent Incident where we discovered he was skimming our rent, the Stereo Incidents, where Steve Vai and country twang battled mightily, and then finally, there was The Incident.
I was not home for The Incident.
My girlfriend and I were out to dinner and returned to the house to find Peter sitting uncharacteristically quiet on the couch watching TV. He didn’t even turn his head to acknowledge us as we entered, just monotonically intoning that there was a note on the dining room table for me. It was from Dave’s girlfriend, and I read it with increasing shock and frustration as I realized what it meant.
I walked around to talk to him about it, and he didn’t move his head a fraction of a millimeter to acknowledge me when I came into his field of view but just quietly said, “I want you two out by the end of the week.”
There wasn’t anything to say, so I left him and his black eye and went upstairs to grab a bag of clothes to spend the night elsewhere.
Dave and Peter had gotten into an argument about something that escalated to a fist fight so severe, Dave’s girlfriend called the cops to pull them apart. The cops arrived, discovered a really drunk Peter and an angry Dave and let Dave grab some stuff before decamping.
Work the next day for me was uncomfortable to say the least, and since there were other things about The Fish Store that I had become increasingly uncomfortable with, I tendered my resignation to Frank within a week. I regret I never told Frank about Peter, because Peter’s behavior at work had also become erratic, and Frank fired him just a few months later for performance issues.
The last time I saw Peter was at Frank’s memorial. He had not aged well. He walked with a cane and tongue cancer had robbed him of that organ and speech. He carried a small, hand-sized notepad, which he scribbled words on to communicate.
We are not our demons and in the forced silence, I apologized to him for the things that had happened in years prior, and we made our peace. I knew I’d never see him again.
He and I did have some good times together as friends, and I will remember the twinkling smile when we was deep in a personal joke.
And the Burrito Incident. I’ll never forget that.
He laughed about it, too.