Susan Kerr and Jewel Beth Davis

Susan Kerr

Talking With the Dead
By Jewel Beth Davis

Inspiration Piece

My friend Janna and I talk about our mutual friend Peter all the time. He’s dead.

“Can you believe it’s been ten years since Peter died?” Janna asks.

That’s what we do. We sit on the phone for hours telling stories that Peter told us. Is that what our thirty-year friendship is based on? Dead Peter? Not completely.

We met in the Berkshires while working at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge. Janna still lives in the Berkshires; Peter and I got out.  I now live on Seacoast NH, and Peter is…well… Peter is just around the corner every time you look up and think you’ve caught a glimpse of him.

Peter was magnificent. Charismatic. So physically beautiful, he could take your breath away. A mouth full of beautiful white teeth. That mouth. That smile. When you were in the presence of that smile, you never wanted to leave. Thick head of sandy brown hair. Slender, he moved like quick silver. And funny. That was the main thing. In the way that Lily Tomlin is if she were crossed with Billy Crystal. Physically funny. He could physically be everybody in his story. His humor was like a drug we couldn’t get enough of. Still can’t. That causes problems because it’s a finite commodity now.

Peter was gay. He died of AIDS in San Francisco in 1995. He never saw Y2K. Never lived through 9/11. Never knew the planet was warming dangerously. So Janna and I keep him alive by telling each other his stories. Some day, we’ll tell them all one too many times and there are no new ones coming.

“Hey, Janna, tell me the Peter story again, when he’s working in the Chinese restaurant. I haven’t heard it in a while. Please.” I’m like a five year old begging for Goldilocks for the umpteenth time, even though I know every word, every lilt and tone.

Janna doesn’t tantalize. She immediately dives right in, happy to be with Peter again. “Well,” she says, relishing her role of Peter pundit, “Peter was working in a Chinese restaurant in California. He was waiting tables and the restaurant was always slammed. He was running like mad.”

“I worked in one, too. Crazy.”

“So there’s this middle-aged Chinese woman who works there who speaks with an accent.”

“What was the name of the restaurant?”

“I don’t remember. Something like, ‘Sum Chow Fat.’”


“So, this Chinese lady is always harassing Peter about making the coffee. He made the coffee and tea just like everyone else.”

“Of course. Sum Chow Fat?”

“I made that up.”

“I know. I love it.” I’m lying on the wine-colored velour sofa. Lizzie, my silky charcoal cat, walks to and fro on the windowsill behind me, massaging the back of my head. I reach up to feel her softness.

“Sum Chow Fat,” Jackie laughs at her own wit. “So the Chinese lady keeps saying to Peter, ‘You never make cuffee. I always make cuffee but you never make cuffee. Why you no make cuffee?’”

We are both aware that this story is not politically correct but choose to ignore that for the sake of our visit with Peter. Peter approves.  He said it was political correctness that was killing humor in this country.

“Peter says to this woman a zillion times a day, ‘I make coffee. I make it all the time. I make tea and coffee!’ And she says, ‘No. You never make cuffee …I make cuffee. But you, you never make cuffee.’”


“So, Peter says, ‘Jesus Christ! I make coffee.’

And she just says, ‘No. You make tea. You no make cuffee.’”

“You’re killing me!” I gasp for air; I’m laughing. I laugh so much, I pee a bit into my undies. Then I become dizzy.

“So, one day, the Chinese lady says it again in the middle of a slammed lunch rush, ‘You no make cuffee. I…’”

I say, “’I make cuffee.’”

We both chime in harmony,”’ Why you no make cuffee?’”

Janna says. “Peter is so frustrated, he leans over the stainless steel counter and cries out in an agonized rage, ‘If you don’t shut the fuck up about the coffee, I’m going to fucking kill you!’  He’s practically on the verge of tears and takes off in a frenzy, out of the kitchen. After he leaves…”

I encourage, “The lady turns around…”

“The Chinese lady turns around and says to another waiter who later tells Peter, ‘Boooyyyyy! He really mad at me!’”

I howl at the punch line. “Ya’ think?  I can’t believe it!  Like it just struck her at that moment. ‘He really mad at me!’”

“Like her world had had a paradigm shift. ’He really mad at me,’” Jackie repeats and we both go into paroxysms. We repeat our favorite lines as many as three or four times. The longer we drag out the story, the longer we’ll be able to hold onto Peter. Letting go does not yet appear on the menu. So we hold on instead.

This is our language; one that only Janna and I speak. It is a world we’ve created that no one else can enter. It‘s about Peter but not just Peter. It’s what he stands for to us. Who we were when we were all in our late twenties, when we were young and funny. When we were waiting table while waiting to come into our own. We think of Peter as our potential, what we could have been. All three of us were involved in theater to varying degrees at any given moment. I performed on stage; they performed in life. Full of talent and energy. Anything was possible.

Now we’re in our fifties and though I’ve accomplished many things I’m proud of, I’ve yet to realize my potential. I’ve worked to earn an MFA and now I’m working to get a full time teaching job. I’m a late bloomer. Janna too. She’s just discovered at this age that she’s an artist of hand painted clay hanging pieces and jewelry. Her work is becoming very desirable and kitschy in the Berkshires. Some things I’ll never do. Like having children, being a successful working actress, getting married.

Of the three of us, all extremely bright and talented, Peter had the most to give the world and in many ways, gave the least in the end. Not just because he caught the virus and his life was cut short, but because of certain career choices he made and others he didn’t. He spent many years as a male escort instead of as a male model or actor. I don’t think he took himself seriously. I don’t think he loved himself enough. Janna disagrees because she thinks his existence on this earth alone blessed everyone he met. That’s true too.

Still, I’m grateful to have known him. He made me feel so alive, like every second of life was a walk on a vibrating wire and would be experienced with all five senses, or more. Who were we when we were with Peter? We weren’t necessarily happier then. We weren’t goal-directed. We just were. In that moment only. Then Peter moved from Stockbridge to LA and I never saw him again.

I decide to impersonate another of Peter’s favorite characters. Without segway, in an old lady, slightly Irish-accented voice, I say into the receiver, “Mary MacDougall. That Billy McGillicuddy. Is such a nice boy.” I’ve skipped the narrative and have gone straight to the punch line. You can do that with a secret language.

Peter is in junior high or high school.  Two elderly women are sitting in rockers on a porch in Lenox in the early sixties, as he watches and listens from his open kitchen window next door. Mary is smoking a Marlboro Light Extra Long and her ash, miraculously balanced at the end, is about an inch and a half long. Mary’s cigarette arm is up and out in the air as if she’s holding a tray. Her hand is bent way back like Gloria Swanson with a cigarette holder in Sunset Boulevard. She rocks back and forth, waiting patiently for Ann Marie Foley to complete her pronouncement. Billy McGillicuddy, neighborhood scallywag, has just roared by on his motorcycle, his long dark hair combed into a greasy DA to match his shiny black leather jacket

“BALONEY,” says Mary McDougall. She wasn’t fooled.

Of course, that Billy McGillicuddy was not a nice boy, which is precisely the point. And so, Peter lives on.



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