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Island Apartby Steven Raichlen
the hermit of chappaquiddick
No one knew his name. Everyone called him the Hermit. He had lived on Chappaquiddick Island for as long as most people could remember. Not that anyone could recall precisely when he had arrived. Perhaps he rode in on the tidal wave of summer folk, which swells the population of Marthas Vineyard from fifteen thousand year-round residents to more than a hundred thousand in August.
He certainly didnt look like the typical beachgoer who rode the Chappaquiddick ferry. His wild silvery-gray hair tumbled past his shoulders. A beard as wavy as eelgrass plunged halfway down his chest. The man wore a faded flannel shirt—even in summer—and his jeans had been mended so often, you couldnt make out where the denim ended and the patches began. His feet were clad in lug boots—even in July. As for the color of his eyes, no one could tell, for he always kept them downcast.
The man boarded the ferry as he always did—a few steps behind the other passengers. He placed his ticket on the binnacle rather than handing it directly to the deckhand. His orange ticket identified him as a year-rounder, but no ferry captain could quite recall selling him a commuter book. The tourists gathered at the front of the boat—a pastel swirl of Lilly Pulitzer and Polo—with sunburns that turned pale New England flesh the electric orange of boiled lobsters. The Hermit stood at the stern, his faded clothes blown by the wind, an island unto himself.
If the Hermit had a car, the ferry captains had never seen it. Nor a bicycle or moped. Invariably, he would arrive at and depart from the ferry landing on foot, a worn backpack patched with duct tape over his shoulder. Hed walk Chappaquiddick Road—the one paved road, the only paved road on the island—in a slow loping gait, oblivious of the joggers and cyclists, unhurried as if lost in thought.
Despite his unvarying route, no one could say for certain exactly where the man lived. Not the ferry captains. Not the FedEx driver or Angie, who delivers the mail in a cherry red Jeep. Not the young woman who runs the tiny Chappy store, the islands sole retail business, open only in July and August. Not even Gerry Jeffers, rumored to be the last surviving Wampanoag Indian on Chappaquiddick.
This uncertainty as to the Hermits domicile was remarkable on two accounts: first because Chappaquiddick is such a small community—fewer than seventy families live here year-round. And second, because everyone on Chappaquiddick obsesses about real estate—whether or not he or she would admit it. Chappaquiddickers are keenly aware of who owns each parcel of land and deeply paranoid that the wrong person will buy the acreage adjacent to theirs. After all, you dont move to an island with three-acre zoning—without a single hotel or restaurant—unless you want to maintain a healthy distance from your neighbors.
So who first called him the Hermit of Chappaquiddick? Perhaps it was Patrick, a twenty-year veteran of the Chappy ferry. Patrick was the quietest of the captains who piloted the On Time II and On Time III—a pair of green and white barges scarcely big enough to carry three cars and assorted bicycles and foot passengers across the 527-foot channel of water that separates Chappaquiddick Island from Edgartown and the rest of Marthas Vineyard. Patricks mild demeanor hid a wicked sense of humor. He had a nickname for everyone who took the ferry on a more or less regular basis, and no one escaped his wit.
If there was a question as to who coined the Hermits nickname, there was no doubt as to why. He never attended Chappy Island Association meetings or ice cream socials at the Community Center. He never appeared at Cleanup Day at the Mytoi Japanese Garden or participated in the Derby—the fishing competition that paralyzes Marthas Vineyard in the waning days of September. He never showed up at the celebrity-studded Possible Dreams Auction or at the July Fourth parade down Edgartowns Main Street. The fact is, in the ten or fifteen years the Hermit had lived on the island, he had never been seen in the company of another human being.
Naturally, no one knew what the man did for a living. You might see him with a wire clam basket in Calebs Pond from time to time, or with a fishing rod at the Gut. Or wading in the shallow waters of Drunkards Cove—site of a Marthas Vineyard bootleg operation during Prohibition—to gather periwinkles and scungilli. He owned a skiff, which he sometimes rowed on Cape Poge Bay. Early mornings in July, you might see him picking blueberries in the meadow at Wasque Point. But he didnt seem to be a commercial fisherman, and no one had ever seen him bring produce—either foraged or cultivated—to the local farmers market.
When the Hermit felt sociable—that is, when he was willing to run the risk of encountering other people—he gigged for squid off the ferry dock late at night or caught crabs with a hoop net baited with fish scraps. Most often, he kept to himself. Hed build simple weirs in Chappaquiddicks salt marshes to catch eels that slithered liked sea snakes. He had set up a series of sluices and pans in a neglected corner of Poucha Pond, where he evaporated seawater into salt crystals. No one on the island had any inkling of the latter activity, for despite his ungainly appearance, the Hermit possessed a singular ability to blend into the landscape.
On the rare times when spoken to—“Nice weather” or “Hows it going?”—he responded in such a low voice and in such vague terms, you had the impression you were talking to yourself. Not that anyone was aware of these evasions, for the Hermit did them in such an unassuming manner, no one paid them any heed.
The truth is that the Hermit managed to achieve the ultimate goal of any recluse. Thanks to his perpetually hunched shoulders and perennially downcast gaze, even his fellow Chappaquiddickers had long since ceased noticing him.
If youre quiet and self-effacing enough, you become invisible—perhaps even to yourself.
Copyright © 2012 by Steven Raichlen
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