Meeting Peter Ling
When I meet Peter Ling, he’s been dead ten days.
I decide to go to his wake out of respect for this local icon, not knowing I’m about to meet the spirit of our small, strange town.
Peter owned the Olde Angel Inn, a local pub that has seen me range between my best (usually at the beginning of the night), and my worst. I never met Peter, at the Angel or anywhere else. Now, having read his obituary in the local paper, I wish I had known him, and that’s why I’m going to his wake. I want to get to know the spirit of this man, I want to meet him and understand him and learn his philanthropy.
As I approach the familiar building, people are pooling outside the doors, all politeness and suits in the new dusk. I make my way through the heavy wooden door, holding what I hope is an appropriate expression of sympathy on my face. The pub inside is crowded, humid with breath and mourning and free booze.
I couldn’t justify going to this stranger’s funeral this afternoon, so I’m out of sync with everyone in this room. They’ve all heard Father Bob’s great eulogy; they’ve shed the tears and laughter at the memories; they’ve even sung ‘Jeremiah was a Bullfrog’ together. I’m off the emotional grid, but I’m here.
I look for the man in the faces of those he left behind. I talk with Father Bob. He led the funeral service and was a friend of Peter’s; maybe he can introduce me. Bob’s wife has just left him, and I know he’s feeling the loss of his marriage more deeply than the loss of his friend. He tells the Peter stories, great tales of generosity and kindness, but I can feel the misery and bitterness through Bob’s charm.
Gorgeous George the pizzaman sits down next to me, smelling freshly of weed. ‘Nice cologne, George,’ I say, grinning. He laughs. George too has great stories about Peter. I know George is one of the many stray cats Peter fed with bowls of cream and tamed with words of confidence and praise.
I head to the bar, and am stopped along the way by a small woman, who touches my arm warmly as she says, ‘I’m Dianne. And who are you?’ I have no context—for her or myself—so I tumble something out involving my name and that of my husband. I’ve already lost her halfway through my sentence, and I clue in as she turns away: that was Peter Ling’s widow. She’s all grace, and I’m all wrong. Is it selfish to look for some sort of awakening at the wake of a stranger?
Eventually I leave the Angel, not sure what I’ve learned. As I squeeze out through a side door, a local musician friend, all pierces and hair, leers, ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’ Outside, two women I know casually are wavering in their heels, drunk and giggly; they’re planning to take the party to the next bar. I worry for them: I can already see tomorrow’s headlines.
As I walk home through the quiet streets wet with this November evening’s dew, I look again for signs of Peter in the evening’s encounters. And then it clicks: he was everywhere. Peter’s legendary tolerance and joy and support and whimsy and love of life ran as an energy through the Angel tonight. He was in Father Bob’s sadness, and George’s monkey-smile, and the musician’s wink, and the party girls’ need for more, and the widow’s kind touch. He was in the wood of the tables and the beer on the bar. Peter was everywhere, and we were all held in his embrace.
A quiet settles inside me and in the air. I think I can hear an angel’s wings. Hello, Peter.