It was just too hot to think last week so I just sat around with a dead brain remembering silly things, which is a lot easier than some of the other stuff I think about.
I found in the archives of my head a case of mass hysteria that hit the island on mail day toward the end of May one year. It began with Captain Ray calling ahead to say that two guys in suits carrying briefcases had gotten on board for the island.
He made a point of telling them that it wasn’t the Nantucket ferry but they seemed to understand that. They didn’t say another word and seemed to be on a mission, so the captain radioed the island to tell us that he would take a more circuitous route to kill time in case there was somebody who really didn’t want to see two guys in suits carrying briefcases get off the boat at the mail dock. He had no idea just what he set in motion with that call, but got a pretty good idea when he finally got to the island 45 minutes late and was greeted by no one, not a soul. Nobody to catch the lines, nobody to pick up the mail, nobody to unload or deliver the freight and nobody to pick up the guys in the suits who seemed unfazed and just started walking up the hill as if nothing was wrong.
They walked the whole town over the next three hours, knocking on this door and that looking for someone or something but never got to ask anybody anything. A blind or a shade would lift here or there, but no one would answer a door. Finally when the ferry was ready to leave, they walked back down the hill, got on the boat and were gone. Slowly but surely shades went up and windows opened and some very rattled people began to emerge from their houses, all looking guilty as hell.
Coot was sure they were after him for the lobster car that opened and spilled out about 100 short lobsters all banded up and ready for late night sale at a buck apiece to the less-than-sober boat people. The rest of us had been catching short banded lobsters in our pots for two weeks after that, and Coot was sure that somebody had figured it out and dropped a dime on him. Freddy Legg was positive they were after him for back alimony payments. He had awakened one morning in New Orleans a few months back after an evening or a month of partying and not remembering how he even got to New Orleans to find that he’d married this fine, not so young thing (not so fine either). He told her that he needed to go out for some milk and never came back. Hasn’t touched a drop since, he swears. We all knew that Dense Garfield had about 87 parking tickets and a couple of drunk and disorderlies he had never shown up in court for over in New Bedford. At least that’s one of the things he’s been bragging about and boring people to death with for some time, but he also says that on his last trip to Miami, in itself is suspect, he was included in a shoot for Playgirl Magazine, which he could never produce a copy of and nobody cared enough to try to find. The postmistress was sure they were looking for her other son Robbie who we hadn’t seen since the great clam scam of the previous summer. Wherever he was, she was sure he was up to no good.
We knew that Joe Cleveland wouldn’t be answering his door; he had dodged the draft in 1968 and has been hiding on the island under his bed disguised as a fur ball with eyes ever since. He either didn’t believe or hadn’t heard that Jimmy Carter pardoned draft dodgers on Jan. 21, 1977. We hadn’t told him, either. We liked to watch him squirm whenever somebody mentioned the war, any war. There have been several since Viet Nam, but not for him; he’s been in a beer haze since he got here, happy to dig clams and stumble on the occasional errant five-gallon pail of pot on the beach tossed from chased boats in the Sound. Which reminds me of the six people who were sure it was the law after them because of those errant five-gallon pails in each of their closets. As if this island isn’t far enough removed from reality without it. Jesse Pile was up to his ankles in drying weed all over his living room floor when Captain Ray’s radio call blitzed the town. First Jesse stopped up his toilet trying to get rid of it; then he stuffed the rest of it into a bag and emptied it into the ocean, breaking his already broken heart.
It also goes without saying that there were the usual few Catholics, myself included, and a couple of friends of the Jewish persuasion who had no idea what those guys were here for but whatever it was we were probably guilty of it. “Don’t bother reading the charges, Your Honor, we’re guilty.” And have been since birth. There was no way we were going to be answering the door even though we were going to feel guilty about that too. None of us could even pass a lie detector test on the Lindbergh kidnapping, no matter that it happened 15 years before any of us were born.
For three hours many worlds had stopped turning, and it would be awhile before they would be up to speed again, if ever. They whole island had stopped for a instant in time. Finally a palpable sigh of relief could be felt in every one of us as that ferry pulled away from the dock, empty except for Captain Ray and the suits.
Not far out beyond the breakwater and with no danger of turning around, Captain Ray let his curiosity get the best of him and invited the two young men up to the pilot house for a friendly chat. He found himself fighting off the two-on-one pressure to be baptized into a Jehovah’s Witness, and when the boat pulled into the wharf in New Bedford the captain and two suits could be heard singing at the top of their lungs the 14th round of Nearer My God to Thee, the only hymn Ray knew. Not looking good for Captain Ray. He would later tell us that he talked them into taking him home if he promised to distribute 150 copies of The Watchtower to the islanders if he were ever to see them again.
We were all happy to help Captain Ray fulfill his promise by taking about 15 each, but at least he would not have something to feel guilty about. There was already enough of that to go around.
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.