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June 17, 2005

Pete Valentic

The last time I saw Pete Valentic I avoided him, crossed in a hurry to the other side of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley so that I wouldn't have to talk to him. I stepped out in front of a Datsun pickup truck, idling at the corner of Channing waiting for the light to change, and ducked past a crowd of dreadlocked, tie-dyed hacky-sack players. Pete never saw me. He just kept walking, barefoot and breeze-tossed hair, that grin of his gracing one passerby after another. He was oblivious to their reactions. I stood and watched for a moment. A young woman smiled at him, grazed his shoulder with the palm of her hand as she passed. A frat boy contracted from brow to shoulder, put out at this hippie making eye contact. He sidestepped and ducked into Mario's Mexican Restaurant. A dog - there are always a million dogs hanging out on Telegraph - walked up to Pete, sniffed an offered hand, then leaned against his leg familiarly.

I had just talked to my father that morning, asking him to send one of my LPs out from Buffalo. The Force Of Life by The Red Star Singers, some execrable Marxist-Leninist folk music that I enjoyed back then. Dad was confused. "Your friend Pete stopped by a couple months ago, picked up all the albums you'd left here. He said they were all his." Only a few of them were his, and rather than be embarrassed at my not returning them I was incensed that he'd taken mine as payback. As I saw him walk toward Durant I felt a twinge of remorse at avoiding him, but I let him go.

Two years before, I was crashing in Pete's apartment in Buffalo. Susan and I were moving to Portland. She'd gone to New York to visit her parents. She'd been gone a week. The phone rang. She told me she was staying in New York for a year. She'd gotten a job and would save some cash to set us up in Oregon. I hung up.

Pete walked with me down to the shipping channel. We watched lakes freighters pull past soundlessly, the humid Buffalo night close around us. I was bereft, feeling utterly empty. He took my hand in his. At the end of the walk, I had decided to move to California.

I went to New York to say goodbye to Susan. She was mainly unavailable. I went to the big nuclear freeze demonstration, met with other draft resisters in the Village. After I'd been in New York a week, Susan invited me to a party. I went.

In that third-floor apartment on Central Park West, I was livid. Pete was there. He asked what was wrong, but he already knew. "I have to get out of here," I said. He came with me. "I'm really trying not to be jealous," I explained. Pete knew Susan better than I did. "I don't think you're doing anything wrong," he said. "She's your fiancée, and she's making out with other guys at a party?"

"You deserve better."

Leaflets still swirled through the park sky from the march. We didn't have a dollar between us. We walked from the Seventies, past Columbus Circle and Times Square, down to the Lower East Side.

A few days later I was heading west again, with someone I'd met through an NYU "riders wanted" bulletin board. She was leaving an apartment in Brooklyn Heights a few months after finding her roommate dead, a suicide. She was heading for Boulder, and from there to Idaho. We left Brooklyn late in the evening, camped illegally in the Catskills, and were just getting to western New York in her old car as the sun set. "I know someplace we can stay in Buffalo," I said.

Pete was home, with someone he'd met in Manhattan: a sensitive-looking woman named Debbie. He confessed, in an aside, to having a crush on her. He left to go meet some friends across town. He came back and found us in bed. I am not proud of this. Pete seemed unfazed. His smile never wavered. "I'm just glad for you."

"Better her than Susan."

I got to Berkeley. I met Elissa, got involved, moved in with her. The rains came, then spring. We had a seder. Halfway through the haggadah, Elissa sat up with a start. "We didn't open the door for Elijah!" I got up, went to the door, opened it. Pete was there, hand poised in mid-knock. He had a Pomeranian under one arm.

Time passed again.

I was walking home from work two weeks after I avoided Pete that day on Telegraph. Elissa had been out running, and met me half a block away from our house. "Pete's dead."

It had been a very bad month.

Debbie, her new boyfriend Ken and I drove down to Santa Cruz the next day. Pete had been living on the beach, and was hit by a car in nearby Watsonville while hitchhiking to a Grateful Dead show. We went to the county coroner's office to claim his personal effects: one shoe, one sock, a backpack and a Bob Marley T-shirt. We drove to Davenport to find the people Pete had been living with. We offered them his things. They seemed remote, peculiarly unaffected. They didn't want his stuff. I took the Marley shirt. The coroner had chuckled sympathetically when I asked about the lone shoe and sock. "Impact does strange things. He could have had that shoe tied on tight, and it still might have flown a hundred yards."

Pete died twenty-one years ago, and I've only lately figured out just how much he loved me, a forehead-hitting realization. He was in love. I was clueless. Nothing would have happened, and it would have been a wedge between us. It was best I didn't know, I suppose.

I am such an idiot.

One day during my last winter in Buffalo, Pete and I took our dogs to the river on a walk. Kudzu, my dog, was a sweet collie mix. Pete's dog Hohner was a wolfhound mutt. His favorite toy was a firebrick: he carried it in his mouth as we walked. The Niagara River had broken up: January ice rolled past at about ten knots, seven feet down the vertical concrete wall on which we stood. Hohner, a handful at the best of times, was fascinated by the floes. "Hohner, NO!" Pete yelled, but it was too late. There was a horrific splash. The frantic dog tried again and again to pull himself up atop the ice, floating downriver at a scary clip. He weighed a hundred pounds; each berg would topple just as he climbed it, tossing him back into the deathly cold water. There was a fire crew at the end of the park, and they saw the whole thing. They sped over with ladders and grappling hooks, tried to place a ladder down into the ice. No good. They might as well have tried to walk onto a cloud.

It was the only time I ever saw Pete not smiling. We were certain we were watching the death of his dog. Kudzu was frantic, crying at the predicament her friend was in. She weighed only forty pounds, and I had to restrain her with both hands to keep her from jumping in to try to save him. Hohner had been in the water for five minutes, long enough to kill a man. And then - obviously tired of waiting for the stupid humans to figure out what they were doing - Hohner kicked off against a large block of ice, flew into the air, and locked his front paws onto the top of the wall. The firefighters grabbed handsful of paw, fur and collar. They pulled him up onto the snowbank. Hohner trotted back to his brick, picked it up. We walked back home.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 17, 2005 06:05 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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A wonderful piece of writing Chris. I would have liked to have known Hohner. I "knew" Pete, but in my story, his name was Charlie.

Thanks also for dredging up those timeless memories of my 60s and 70s girlfriends. Now that I've become a monk and sex is as likely as my becoming 20...or 40 again, it's nice to have those warm thoughts. I'd forgotten how easy and fluid and heartbreaking my romances were all those years ago.

Posted by: OGeorge at June 17, 2005 07:52 PM
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I wonder if these stories shock younger people - but it's just the way it was back then. I sure am glad you survived.

Yet another beautifully-written and perfectly-told story, Chris (uhh, what kind of book did you say you were writing?)

Posted by: beth at June 18, 2005 05:48 AM
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It's embarassing, in a way, how much of ourselves we read into your story, Chris. I'd say that's pretty important, though. Both ways. You're a wonderful observer and writer.

Posted by: jonz at June 18, 2005 11:12 AM
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Oh, Chris. I read this and your other stories about J. I want to hug you, or be hugged, I don't know.

Last week I caught a movie on Chicago PBS about loneliness. Stories like this were compiled, our shames, regrets, dark moments that we are loathe to share. I want to show this movie to everyone. These are the stories that stick with me.

Thank you for writing.

Posted by: Lauren at June 18, 2005 12:34 PM
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A hearty neck-snapping nod of agreement to all who've posted praise above... this is among the best memoirish writing I've seen. And jonz is spot-on: when you have no choice but to see yourself in a word, or a letter, or the space between the letters, that's when you know you'd better keep your eyes wide open, because you're dealing with a writer who's kept his the same. Thanks for this!

Posted by: termagaunt at June 18, 2005 01:37 PM
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Oh, Chris.

Again, this is amazing.

They frighten me a little, these stories you share; I'm awed by the richness and depth and it bothers me that I should have even the slightest amount of difficulty reconciling this somber beauty with the Chris I in-person know. Also, I've soaked up too many memoirs, and I can only echo what everyone else has said: when?

Posted by: Siona at June 19, 2005 01:26 AM
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What, I don't have somber beauty in person?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 19, 2005 08:29 AM
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Jeez, Chris. This was ... way good.

I had a dozen things to say about this, and I sat and wrote on them for a good hour before I realized everything I was writing was moving me further and further away from the pure, perfect feeling your story evoked. Moving me into religion, and politics, and anger at the world for being the way it is.

Instead, I'll say this:

This was poetry. It was a rainbow over a high-mountain waterfall, it was the shiny edge of a brand new knife, it was still-steaming broccoli with the exact-right amount of butter, it was my dog waking up from the cool grassy shade of a summer afternoon’s nap, stretching and making that deep sigh of contentment.

Beautiful. Smooth. Delicious. Warm. Perfection.

Posted by: Hank Fox at June 19, 2005 01:11 PM
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The intimacy of the Internet is amazing. I have stopped by before and you made me laugh, which is a gift. But this is a different one. My Sunday night mood has kicked in again, this time from a different place.

You are an amazing writer, and an amazing person.

Posted by: jaye at June 19, 2005 05:28 PM
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Another beautiful piece. As for Beth's observation that your anecdotal stories may shock younger people, I can only speak for myself.

No shock.

The stories touch on universal experiences. Your Susan becomes my Kelly and your Pete, my Andy. I am not stealing your past lovers and friends, just sharing. I may have grown up on a steady diet of hip-hop, but that doesn't mean I don't also listen to The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Dylan.

Plus, although many of my fellow twenty-somethings tune out politics and "depressing stuff" (read: reality), the frustration and anger of the sixties and early seventies (at least, what I imagine to be that) has resurfaced. If only enough of us gave a shit, perhaps some sort of concerted effort to improve our lot would materialize. Not that the sixties and seventies necessarily produced that either - it seems good intentions often ran astray - but with so much fracturing currently, the politics of the young resembles more the high school lunch room, with myriad cliques occupying their respective tables, suspiciously eyeing their neighbors. Instead of communes, we have iPods and iMacs. It's all about the "i" these days.

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at June 19, 2005 06:20 PM
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I am really beginning to get annoyed with wonderful writers, who introduce me to equally wonderful characters, only to smack me upside the head with the fact that they're dead. (That wasn't supposed to rhyme;It just happened.)You are bad for this, an observation, not a complaint. Now James Wolcott has just performed the same surgery. I realize there is a point to introducing the deceased into the conversation. It keeps us from flowing breezily along, without giving due emotional consideration to what we are reading. That, after all, is part of the point. Still, you're racking up quite a considerable number of tombstones. Could you ease up, just a little? Please? Not that I grieve overmuch for the death of the serial killer. Even though I'm opposed to the death penalty, it wasn't safe letting Karma take care of this one.
OT I hope Harley hangs in for a little while yet. He certainly seems to be still enjoying life. And how is Thistle doing? Did his feet heal properly?

Posted by: ghostcatbce at June 22, 2005 01:04 AM
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