Ray Hopper died the day our first child was born. It wasn’t a natural death, or a peaceful death.
At the time Ray was the husband of the storekeeper and he had a daily ritual. He would load his antique dueling pistol and his muzzle-loading rifle, roll up a couple of dog-haired, dust-bunnied, washashore joints and head out looking for deer. His route was exactly the same every day, so when he did not show up by dark, the island went looking for him. They found him, still warm, with his much-loved antique guns, pack, wallet and one joint neatly stacked on a rock nearby.
Muzzle loaders are notorious for delayed firing, actually taking up to a minute to ignite the powder sometimes. Rare, but it happens. He was probably putting the gun back in his belt thinking that it wasn’t going to fire when it sent a ball into his liver. A definite “I think I just killed myself” moment. He bled out internally.
I had spent the day before with Ray having taken a break from a month-long babywatch on the Vineyard, city life on the Vineyard had been getting to me. It was an unusually beautiful and flat calm January day, an easy crossing both ways. Ray had changed his routine for the day so that we could go to West End Pond and dig a few quahaugs, drink a couple of beers and tell a bunch of lies, guy stuff. After a good day, I headed back to the Vineyard refreshed and ready. The next day my son, Cal was born and I got a call telling me that Ray was dead.
That was not the end of the story. January being a slow media month someone in the news business in New Bedford got the idea to look into Ray’s background since all residents of this small island must be on the run from something. Even Tom Brokaw got in on it at NBC. They discovered that Ray Hopper was not my friend’s real name and that he was an illegal Canadian immigrant who had taken the identity of a friend to enter the country. He may have ridden with the Hell’s Angels for a while, too — he kept a Harley in the living room with a four-inch flexible pipe hanging out the window for exhaust — and he had a criminal record.
As far as the media was concerned it was murder or drug-related or both. All kinds of stories rose up out of nothing, January being the month for hysteria in a population perpetually on the edge anyway. The state police got involved, the Gazette did a story, everyone on the island was interrogated and under suspicion. It became a circus for the sake of something to do, forgetting that one of our own had died terribly alone and for no reason.
Lost in all this was Ray, a kind and gentle man who thought he’d stumbled onto Shangri-La when he found the island. For the first time in his life he was content and in control of his destiny. Nothing bothered him, he’d seen it all. Ray had the perfect attitude for living in a grossly imperfect little society.
“Why ask why?” he would say whenever I got frustrated with one of our crazies being crazy. Ray took every day as he found it and made the best of it. His crime? When he was 14 years old he took a car for a joy ride. Ray was now in his 40s and felt some guilt for that lapse of judgment every day.
Ray was raised in an orphanage, as I was, with a hundred other kids who weren’t really orphans either, just the angry, abused, unwanted and illegitimate sons and daughters of the whores, drunks and losers of Montreal, Canada. They were taken care of by women of the cloth who had never given birth and had long ago run out of the sense of charity that brought them into the service of the Lord. Wrung dry of sympathy, the nuns ultimately ruled over the little unbaptized bastard souls who would never be let into heaven, with sticks, small pipes and straps.
These kids rarely if ever saw family and were deemed not worth the bother of love, compassion or guidance. The little people clung to letters, postcards, bags, candy wrappers or anything else touched by a mother or a father or a brother or a sister or anyone who would acknowledge that they had ever existed. The letters were neatly folded and hidden under the mattress, never to be thrown away. It was their only contact with the home of their fantasies and the only show of any kind of love that they could remember.
Anyone who knew Ray well knew these things about him, not from his stories so much as the way he treasured his life and anyone in it as if it could all be taken away at any moment. He was, underneath it all, just a little boy hiding in the bushes with his wrappers, bags and mementos waiting for someone to come and take him home. Ray was available to anyone for any reason, without question. He was a caring person having saved his wife from a life of drug and alcoholic chaos and helping her to make the decision to retreat in victory and sobriety to the island and to take over the family store which is pretty funny now that I think about it. They certainly weren’t taking over a 7/11 somewhere outside of Boston. It wasn’t just a store, though. It was a clinic, a procrastinator’s retreat, a zoo where one could go to chain-smoke Camels, eat chips, drink Grand Marnier or gallons of black coffee with Bung and the gang while taking a turn listing all of the reasons one could come up with for not doing what you were supposed to be doing all winter and probably getting paid for it. All this with total understanding and support from a collection of like minds. And if commerce became a distraction it was dealt with as well. “All out.”
The store back then was always the last resort anyway. Anything that came from it in the off-season had absorbed so much cigarette smoke that it permeated all life once you got it home. Sell-by dates were a joke and if you were to have the hamburger analyzed it would probably have contained quite a large proportion of venison. Pretty lean stuff. Somehow the store got by on summer money.
The store and the island are different now. Not many people remember Ray, but I do. He’s one of several children I’ve collected over the years and keep hidden in my pocket with their hopes and wrappers and letters still waiting for someone to take them home.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.