When people die, those around them usually and sometimes perhaps unintentionally, raise their immortal memory to the status of a saint through veneration and praise. I will not do that with Ray. But this is not out of maliciousness or criticism. No, to pretend he was perfect would detract from the man like attempting to paint a portrait of intricate light and shadows with only one color.
Ray was not a saint. Not even by a long shot. He was a troubled soul burdened by a sordid past. He frequently enjoyed hard liquor, loved gambling, vanity and money. But like many things in our world he was a dichotomy of conflicting attributes. He was also charitable, kind, quick to laugh, and a hard worker.
Despite a nature mired in the various hedonistic pleasures of the world, Ray was desperately in love with a woman that many would call a “godly woman” who was independent, compassionate and frequented church regularly.
Ray’s love was requited and it made him shine in the way true love has a way of doing. However, this possible relationship was hampered by two mistresses that kept them apart. Sisters known as partying and gambling. The faith of this woman forbade her from indulging in such so she refused to join him. It also warned her about as much associating with those who enjoyed such vices.
However, through it all, she could see Ray's good heart. So, like the inspiration for many love songs, poems and tragedies, she decided she would offer him a chance through waiting for his change. Right or wrong, Ray wanted to be with her, and vowed to transform his life. This would prove a herculean task for a soul who so enjoyed the caress of the night life.
It is the little things I remember most about him. Those miniscule details that somehow sum up the entirety of who he was. He was the type of guy who strummed his fingers along the steering wheel of his car while listening to old Motown performers from his youth like Teddy Pendergrass, James Brown, the O’Jays, and Marvin Gaye. It was as if those winds of nostalgia caught the bright sails of his soul and aided in helping him drift happily along from one destination to the next throughout his day to day life.
At the most random of times, Ray had this way of telling odd stories that left the listeners puzzled and asking, “Why on earth is he telling me this? And what does it have to do with what is happening right now?” Yet, at least they were always at once odd and funny.
Not all his stories invoked laugh or smiles. Ray was also a man haunted by sins and ghosts of the past. He was a soul scarred by the hardships of inner city life, and the horrors of the Vietnam War. On more tragic occasions these terrible ghosts howled through the corridors of his schizophrenic mind, feeling him with paranoid warnings of enemies from the past seeking to enter his present. On most occasions Ray was medicated, productive and happy. Then on rare falls he would sink into the chaotic madness threatening to take him. The very same kind that claimed the life of his sister.
A memory I still hold dear to this day happened when 15. Ray invited me to help him paint a carport he was being paid to repair. I doubt he needed the help as he could do those sort of jobs with his eyes closed. I think he just figured a teenage kid needed to keep money on him in order to meet the teenage girls. At least that is how he explained it.
After the job was completed he gave me nearly a hundred dollars, then offered to take a couple of friends and me to the mall when he overheard us talking about it. I can still recall how big, bright and crisp the sky was on that late autumn afternoon as we drove along with the windows down. There are some days that truly make it feel good to be alive. That was one of them for me.
All these years later I can still pick up the scent of his favorite cologne, “Night Flight”, if I am wading through a crowd, or instantly remember his favorite Motown songs if I catch them playing by chance.
I was told Ray passed away. It is said a heart-attack was the catalyst that lead to his exit from this world. I accept and understand he has died. Yet, on occasions, I like to think he is not dead. Death is too simple and bland for a guy like him.
No, Ray is in one of those fancy suits he loved so much, with his hair combed to perfection, and his shoes polished to a spite shine only those old military vets can accomplish. He is cruising along in his car down a moonlit highway towards some sort of celestial casino, Motown turned up on his speakers, and his fingers strumming the steering wheel. He heads off into the night with a smile and a prayer taught to him by that woman he loved, leaving behind all those ghosts that kept him away from her.
God speed, Ray