There, by the grace of God
Editor’s note: When he was a younger man, Crash Barry spent two years working as a sternman on Matinicus, Maine’s most remote island. This is another of his true stories.
Ray and I became pals due to happenstance. We were both sternman, living in neighboring shacks without running water. Outsiders, because we weren’t from the island. Drug buddies, because we both enjoyed dabbling with mind-altering substances, including LSD and mushrooms. A little blow here, a couple pills there. Occasional huffing, perhaps. No heroin, thank goodness. Some sweet hash, fortunately. And lots and lots and lots of weed.
We bought booze and smokes from the island bootlegger who stocked up, tax-free, in New Hampshire and resold the vices to islanders at almost triple her cost. Lord Calvert, my then-whiskey of choice, went for 10 bucks a quart. A pack of Camel Filters set me back a five-spot. And this was way back in 1991!
Together, Ray and I fetched our drinking and washing water from the well dug behind the post office (contaminated, I would learn years later, by a lengthy list of invisible poisons). During the coldest stretches of winter, we’d use an eight-foot tree limb to break the ice so we could haul buckets and buckets of cold water.
Ray and I were the same age: young, strong and tough. We played lots of cards and listened to rock ‘n’ roll. Both of us escaped strict religious upbringings. Me, the cult of the Irish Roman Catholic. For Ray, a born-again sect populated by speakers in tongues and rife with fervent, non-sexual, dancing.
The car wreck took place on the mainland, on a Sunday, on one of those frigid mornings wedged between winter and spring. Ray was in a car headed to church. That’s right, church. For reasons he was never able to explain, he had decided to return to God. The car hit a patch of black ice and flipped over. And Ray was paralyzed. From the waist down. Instantly.
I incredulously heard the news the next day. Three nights prior, we’d partied with herb and drink on our remote Maine island. Now he was in Maine Med and never gonna walk again.
A week later, I hitchhiked down to Portland to visit him. His girlfriend was there, too. They’d always been a couple of horndogs. Minutes before my arrival, she’d been sitting on his face, Ray pleasuring her with his fingers and mouth. They were proud of their achievement and told me so.
We got him out of bed and into a wheelchair. Ray rolled himself outside, where a steady breeze blew trash across Maine Med’s front parking lot. Under the noonday sun, we each smoked a huge joint (so it wouldn’t look like we were sharing), plus many cigs, and drank rum disguised as Coke. After an hour, we were chilled, so we returned to his room and laughed at the TV for a bit. Then I took off.
My second visit, a week later, was quite different. She wasn’t there and he was glum. Justifiably. He was trying to figure out the rest of his life. A life he hadn’t planned. A life he didn’t understand.
That was the last time I saw Ray.
Actually, that’s not true.
Five years after the accident, on a beautiful summer day, I was in Freeport with my parents. I spotted Ray on the crowded sidewalk, rolling in our direction. I quickly fabricated an excuse and led my folks across the street to examine some banal storefront’s window display.
I didn’t want to have to introduce, then explain, Ray to my mother and father. They had made a brief, yet arduous, visit to the island, and were not impressed with my life — long hair, big beard, no plumbing — although they did love buying a 100-pound crate of lobsters at the boat price.
But the real reason I crossed the street, of course, was to avoid an uncomfortable reunion with someone I abandoned.
Even now, so many years later, I cringe writing this. I wince at the memory. I’m embarrassed. Ashamed. Guilty. Haunted.
I’ve replayed the scene in my brain so many times, it’s an old movie to me. I see him, in the chair. Wearing an orange t-shirt. His muscular upper body is well-toned. Black leather gloves pushing his wheels. A determined, tenacious look on his face.
Where was he going?
For years, I feared he had spotted me. I even believed he’d seen me.
Now I think differently. Ray, concentrating on his rolling path, couldn’t possibly look at the face of each person potentially blocking his way. Not a chance he saw me.
God, I hope not.