Part Three: Petey
Petey Pappas told me that he never used his real name because he didn’t know what his real name was. He was raised in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans by mute parents and a mean spirited older sister. He knew his sister’s name. His sister’s name was pearl. Whenever Petey asked his sister what his name was, she would give him a different answer…every time. So, Petey, finding it easier than contradicting her, stopped asking and accepted whatever name his sister gave him at any given time. Because his parents were mute, they could not repudiate his sister’s edicts. His sister’s name was not really Pearl either. It was a name that she adopted.
She had come across the name ‘Pearl Prentiss’ in a batch of birth certificates that she had stolen from the mute parent’s doctor. Petey’s parents were named Moe and Marsha. Moe and Marsha McMannis; Mister and Mrs. That was not their real name either, in fact, they were not his real parents.
Petey didn’t know when his birthday was either; he could only go by what Pearl told him. Pearl would change his name and his birthday on impulse. One day Petey came home from school and Pearl had a cake waiting for him. The cake said “HAPPY BIRTHDAY ROBERT!” It had an icing drawing on the top of the cake of a cowboy on a rearing black stallion with a lasso that he was twirling right around the name ROBERT. The side of the cake had the sweet white flesh of coconut on it and a spiral trimming of azure blue. The lettering and the drawing of the cowboy, stallion and lasso were on a snow white background; it smelled like heaven.
As she lit the candles, she explained to Petey that his real name was Robert and that today was his birthday; Petey believed her and wanted to know what the day’s date was so that he could mark it down. Pearl exclaimed (as she always did) “April Fools!” and Petey, now Robert, believed her; the actual date was June 12th. At the birthday table a chair had been set for Maureen, a headless doll. Pearl told Robert that Maureen was his other older sister and that she, pearl, had decapitated her (Maureen), because she refused to obey her (Pearl). Naturally Petey/Robert believed her. Pearl also told him that the new kitten that she had found could actually speak to her in English. Petey would take a long time before he disobeyed Pearl or questioned her. That’s how it was when Petey was growing up; at least that’s what he told me. He also told me never to believe him about anything.
Pearl was a kleptomaniac that had St. Elmo’s Fire seizures, that’s how she came to be in Moe and Marsha’s doctor’s office. While the doctor and nurse were trying to get information from the mute parents, the young girl was thief enough, even in her starry eyed condition, to glom a fistful of the doctor’s documents, among them couple of dozen copies of stillborn birth records and stash them in her book bag. One of the certificates was in the name of ‘Pearl Prentiss’; the rest was herstory.
Mr. and Mrs. McMannis, along with Petey and Pearl, lived in a camel back house on St. Maurice St. Saint Maurice is the patron saint of infantrymen, armies and oddly enough weavers and dyers. I say oddly enough because the McMannis household was a household of weavers. The adult McMannis’ were weavers of bath mats, you know, the kind that are made from scraps of materials braided together in an oval shape? Pearl wove fabrications and Petey grew up weaving possibilities.
Moe McMannis roamed the streets and alleyways late at night, gathering rags to bring home to the missus. Marsha cleaned and disinfected them with the vigor of the demon possessed; of which she was one. Later into the evening the adults would weave the scraps into mats, Pearl would fashion falsehoods into realities and Petey would fantasize about the meaning of life and the workings of his universe.
Petey used to fantasize about his other brothers and sisters. Pearl had told him that he had four other brothers and three other sisters and she pointed with pride at the seven cigar boxes by the space heater in her room where she kept their ashes. Each box was labeled with the names of the departed siblings. Pearl often told Petey of the tortures that she had inflicted on each one before she killed them and cremated them in the space heater, prior to labeling and boxing them. She told Petey that if he ever looked into one of the cigar boxes that the spirit of the dead child would escape in a cloud of ashes and choke him to death. She also told Petey that she wasn’t quite done with Maureen yet and that Maureen was still alive and that if Petey listened closely, in the dead of night (pun intended), he would be able to hear poor Maureen’s screams as she begged for death. She also showed him two empty cigar boxes that she said were reserved for him and Maureen. She also told him that her pet feline had revealed to her that his name was Professor Morriarity and that if he (Petey) crossed her in any way the Professor would tell her straight away and there would be hell to pay.
Moe and Marsha often wondered why little whatshisname slept with pillows covering his head. Moe and Marsha didn’t know Petey from a turkey giblet, and no matter how many times Pearl had used sign language to explain his presence they remained baffled at his presence. They finally eased their confusion when they decided that he probably came with the house. The condition of miscommunication occurred because Pearl signed in the English language and the McMannis’ only understood sign language in their native language. It was a language that they had made up because neither one of them could get the hang of their native language signs, which were in Macedonian; and who could blame them.
Petey came to a sad realization on his fifty fourth birthday when he was sixteen; that is to say that Pearl had given him fifty four birthday parties, an average of three point five per year. Pearl was a real nut for birthday parties and she bought birthday cakes at the day old bakery counter and fashioned Petey into whatever name was written on the cake; on occasion she would regress Petey’s age, like when she bought a cake that said “HAPPY FOURTH BIRTHDAY LITTLE RALPH” when Petey was eleven.
Anyway, Petey’s mournful epiphany was this: Petey finally realized that his sister was lying to him with every breath and that she was using him like a frigging tool for her own warped amusement and that he was destined to be her plaything for the rest of his miserable life because he was too weak to do otherwise. Truth be told, it had taken the cat months to get Petey to answer the ‘get-a-clue phone (you know, “ring ring? GET A CLUE Petey!). Better late than never, you say? Well, that was before Petey met the librarian.
From the time that Petey was little, Pearl had dropped him off at the Martin Luther King branch of the New Orleans public library system and told that it was school. He was also told that if he misbehaved that he would suffer a worse fate than his sister Maureen, and Petey wanted ever so much to keep his head on his shoulders.
To Pearl’s credit Petey did not lack for education; she schooled him at home and gave him lists of things to take from library shelves to read and understand. She started him easy and advanced him as required, even giving him diplomas and graduation parties with her and Maureen. The cakes that were served had nothing written on them. Petey advanced through the grades and sections of the library until one day a young librarian stopped by the corner of the library that Petey had used for years as his desk and workspace. He was reading a book called The Art of War by Sun Tzu. By this time Petey was a long gangly youth with peach fuzz and acne on his face; his ears, nose and feet were four sizes too big for his frame. When he was older he would learn that this life stage was called ‘adolescence’ and was quite natural.
The librarians name was Anne Kenney. Anne Kenney was twenty years old, willow thin and as pretty as a speckled pup on a red rug. She gave Petey’s pheromones an olfactory stimulation as fresh as a soft breeze in springtime and as intuitive as rutting season in the Rockies; and just as nature intended in situations such as this, all the blood in his body rushed to his face and his groin. And also, as nature intended, the winsome Miss Kenney was as oblivious to her affect on an adolescent boy as a female mantis is to her doomed lover.
Anne was wearing a light cotton dress with daisies and black eyed Susans printed on it, at her waist was a cinched patent leather belt. The sun was streaming in a window behind her and cloaked her in a radiance that Petey had never seen before; the sun was also shining through her dress, outlining her shapely legs and torso. She stood with her legs slightly apart and Petey had never dreamed of seeing anything so stimulatingly exciting.
“Can I help you with anything?” asked Anne.
"Grummasigamafrackers". replied Petey softly.
Anne didn’t miss a beat “I’ve seen you in here before, haven’t I? What’s your name?”
Petey was able to blurt out that his name was Billy and that he had just had his thirtieth birthday two day ago.
“Well… my, you look young for your age” said Anne, sitting down beside Petey and glancing over his shoulder. Petey inhaled a breath of the sweetest aroma he had ever taken into his lungs; the earthy aroma of a female in estrous.
Anne put her dainty hand lightly on his forearm. She gently started asking more questions and slowly Billy/Petey opened up to her like a lotus and emptied the contents of his soul and mind; for an hour and a half.
He told her of taking law courses by mail (he wanted to be a lawyer), how he had just about mastered chess except for the famous problem proposed by Edward Laskers and how he had taught himself four languages and could navigate by starlight.
Anne asked about his future plans and told him about a friend of hers that was “looking for a few good men”; just by coincidence, his name was also Billy and he wore a very manly uniform that she was sure that he would look “just dreamy’ in. She turned her sloe eyed Alice blue gaze deeply into Billy/Petey's big brown cow orbs and sighed.
About that time Pearl came in to fetch Petey.