The Village Idiot
Peter William Moss died this week and the whole little sleepy town read with puzzled
interest his lengthy obituary that he composed himself 25 years ago for this very
Some people wondered as they read what had happened to him because few really saw
him out and about for at least a decade portraying the village idiot to such a remarkable
tee. Others thought he had been dead already for some time. Yet others hadn't thought
of him at all since his likeness was immortally captured on the back of a Grateful Dead
album cover. Only a handful of us really knew of his whereabouts in the meantime.
Peter William lived on the main street in town all his life in a huge, 17-room gothic-like
Mansion that scared kids due to the grotesque winged gargoyle ornamental statues on the
roof eves. I was one of those kids who disliked and feared everything about the man and
the house that looked so out of place on the street with colonial style homes built in the
I was five the first time I saw and encountered one half-baked Peter William Moss. My
grandmother, a recent widow, was moving across the street from us into a duplex from
her little cottage where we cousins had "secret passage ways" through the woods where
we walked. The movers were quickly emptying my grandmother's little house of her
furniture and exquisitely packed and organized boxes when Peter William interrupted the
peaceful day and came bouncing on the scene with a mad vengeance.
I could hear him coming in a big, awful tizzy the second he got out of his car.
I remember moving quickly to take refuge and hide behind my grandmother and hold on
for dear life as the short, stocky madman entered her kitchen in his angry, manic mood
and walked quickly behind his workers to force them to pick up their pace on the next
trip in for more boxes.
His arms flapped wildly and his long hair made him the first hippie I had ever seen. He
seemed to be blatantly ignoring my grandmother's voice telling him that the movers were
working fast enough for her. She didn't want her belongings broken or damaged in a
"Fuck you," he and his angry, rough, gruff voice snapped at my grandmother, who no
doubt felt my grip around her tighten.
Was that "The Bad F Word" that my brother got grounded for a month for saying at
school? My grandmother was simply horrified and called Peter William's dad to
complain. She wore a rare look of sheer panic on her face as she listened, swore in
Italian and then dialed her nephew the doctor to ask what acid was.
From the back bedroom the two men came again through the kitchen carrying boxes
with Peter William playing pit boss on their tail degrading them. Unexpectedly, he
stopped to turn his venom towards me.
"Your Nona should have beat your little ass and your brother's ass for catching your tent
on fire. You could have burned down all the woods here," he didn't need to remind me
but said anyway.
More quickly than Peter William moved, my grandmother made it to the other side of
the room to bolt the door after he exited the kitchen in a huff behind the movers with
their last trip of boxes.
"He's on that high dope," my grandmother informed me. Over the next 22 years, I
would come to laugh when she said those words phrased so wrongly that way about
others. But on the day when she moved from the cottage in the woods, I couldn't have
been more afraid of whatever it was that she called high dope and the madman Peter
William who was on it.
"His pap says that he dropped out of college in San Francisco to be with those crazy
people out there," she said of Peter William who had more than just a promising start to
become a chemist or scientist or whatever it is that he would've wanted to be. He hasn't
been right since, she said his dad told her. She called my parents waiting at her new
apartment to warn them to expect a moving van followed by an absolute lunatic on high
dope driving his dad's Cadillac who would want his workers to sprint with her boxes.
None of my grandmother's precious belongings were broken in the packed boxes the day
she moved from her little cottage, but Peter William's dad saw it fitting to return her
check with a note expressing his sincere apologies for and embarrassment over his son's
outlandish behavior and language. For me, he sent a doll. Peter William drove his dad's
once successful business into the ground in a short time, simply because nobody wanted
to deal with him. His dad's investments and income from rental properties kept the
family afloat financially and secured the madman's place on our streets over the next few
Sometimes, I wondered how Peter William knew that we accidentally set the tent on fire
and nearly destroyed my grandmother's home, garage, out buildings and all the trees in
that remote corner of God's country. That riddle was answered the next time I saw him
20 years later. He burst into the newspaper front office where I worked with the same
manic energy level that he displayed in my grandmother's home. He burst in, yelling the
last name of a writer on my right who wrote something for the daily paper that obviously
Peter William strongly disliked. I immediately recognized the rough angry voice and the
man under the bushed mop of long gray hair.
From the front entrance door, Peter William loudly expressed his difference of opinion
and disgust with my coworker's article. To my right, my coworker smiled and couldn't
get a word in edgewise, while to my left, my editor tried hard not to laugh. When Peter
William finished his lengthy litany of why my coworker would burn in hell for his
opinion on the borough's new garbage ordinance, he started to leave but turned around
to point at me and warn my editor that he had hired an arsonist.
"He used to be," I started to tell my editor who interrupted me to finish my sentence.
"Yeah, I know, a genius. Me, too," he said before laughing.
They wanted to hear my account of being an arsonist. I told them how we weren't
allowed to camp out, but snuck out at 5 A.M. with a candle to the tent...about how my
brother bragged to friends that we, at 5 and 7, were allowed to camp out and how the
candle caught blankets on fire, about how he tried to drag the burning blankets to the
pool but couldn't, and about how I ran for my grandmother when the tent also started to
flame and my brother ran back in it to get the new shoes that our parents just bought
My newsroom co-workers explained that Peter William for years roamed all night
walking and probably stumbled on the tent fire on his rounds. They assured me that he
understood boundaries not to step further into the newsroom than to the entrance. They
assured me that he would be sure to return again to yell at one of us on a somewhat
regular basis depending on the day and the given article or editorial. And they were right.
He was there yelling at one of us at least twice or three times weekly, always telling us
off with excellent diction, wording and grammar evident that parts of a genius were still
in there occupying that body and mind somewhere.
Around 20 years after she moved from the little cottage, my grandmother died while I
worked in that newsroom. I was surprised to read a card attached to a bow on a large
basket of flowers that came from Peter William on behalf of the now otherwise all
deceased Moss family, except for him.
About a week before she died, Peter William came into the entrance to the newsroom
and almost yelled my first name but didn't. He said that he liked a story that I wrote
about restoration work underway on an old bridge in town. He praised my accuracy in
telling its history because local history references had some of the details wrong. My
coworkers looked at me with raised eyebrows, but true to form, as not to disappoint us
or break his own record for delivering sour oral letters to the editor, Peter William then
snarled at me for taking a written swipe at a Democratic politician he liked who was
arrested during my interview with her.
Over the years, the mansion where Peter William resided started to deteriorate. Some of
the dreaded gargoyles fell from atop the third floor roof and crashed to the sidewalk. I
would see him coming and going from a community outpatient mental health program
and participating in some outings with those folks. He had a fairly sizable trust even
though most of the family rental properties were condemned and uninhabitable or torn
down for some time.
From a business parking lot next door to his home a couple years ago, I noticed that he
put cardboard inside most of the bottoms of the long windows to block the view. One
night one of the pieces of cardboard shifted and I saw Peter William pouring himself a
cup of coffee. He was almost bald but the little hair he had in back was thin and in
length to his waist.
Through the thick two-foot walls of the home, I could still hear his rough, gruff voice
yelling to himself about the price of coffee and milk. Waiting for my take out order, I
was in the parking lot talking to an off duty police officer when Peter William came out
of his home, now naked for his nightly roam through the neighborhood, and disappeared
down the block.
He was someone people didn't like to see so he was ignored. The sight of Peter William
Moss crossing the street naked on the start of his couple-hour walk was something I
couldn't go home, eat my take out food and forget. I became the mental health petitioner
in an involuntary commitment process to get Peter William into the care of professionals.
I attended the hearing to extend his stay beyond 72 hours.
A week later, he was back home basically because the executor of his trust didn't want
hospitalization costs depleting the trust. The executor promised the courts that he would
provide some type of home supports to monitor Peter's nightly walks. Those supports
faded out after 6 months of compliance to the rules. Peter William continued taking his
overnight walks fully dressed for the next year or so until he suffered a heart attack in
his home. The coroner estimated that he had been dead in his livingroom chair for about
four months before his body was discovered.
Had there still been a daily newspaper in the small town, maybe someone would've
wondered why Peter William wasn't out and about. After running his dad's moving
business, nobody knew him to work per se. Yet his self-composed obituary listed one
impressive professional accomplishment after another. Few of us knew that he authored
text books on finance and business, arts, music and pet care. Few of us knew that he
worked under an alias as a writer and as an artist whose work filled about 9 album
covers and hung on walls in classy museums.
Peter William Moss wanted no public viewing of his body and wanted no memorial
service. Instead, he invited the public to his home for 24 hours to see his impeccably
clean, tastefully decorated home, with room after room of his artwork and displayed
writings. One framed poem of his caught my eye on my way out the door. The poem
was called, "The Village Idiot," in which he laughed at himself, at all of us and proudly
accepted the title. He would get the last laugh, he promised, and that he certainly did.
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