Even a Jonah Can Have a Piece of Luck

August 24, 1991|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK MD. — He had done everything he could think of to do, and the damned engine still wouldn't turn over. Worse, while he'd been fiddling with it, trying to get it cranked up again, the workboat had been drifting steadily away from his lay and in toward shore. With a nudge, her bow hit mud bottom 20 feet from the bank, and the June Debbie gave a little sigh, as if she were saying ''well, what do you expect?''

Junior Redmond, in the throes of a run of bad luck, expected nothing. He merely cursed, slamming the lid back down on the engine box, glaring into the cuddy, where the radio rankled with static. He had sent out a call for a tow, and he hoped that some waterman, coming in late might have heard him and even now be heading toward Log Cabin Point and his eventual rescue. But, being a philosophical type, he didn't expect too much. Off to the west, the setting sun was obscured by black and evil-looking thunderheads, pregnant with rain and lightning. The storm was moving toward him.

With a sigh, Junie unrolled his unfiltered Camels from his T-shirt sleeve, watching as his lighter slid through his greasy fingers, bounced on the washboard and sailed over the side of the boat, disappearing into the water with a solid plunk.

Experience had taught him that when a man is in the throes of a spell of being a Jonah, the best thing to do was wait it out, just as when a man is on a roll, the best thing to do is take every advantage. Such are the seasons of change.

Junie reached into the ice chest and pulled out a can of Vienna Sausages. He did not even wince when he laid his finger open on the lid, merely wiping his bloody thumb on his pants.

The first drops of rain splattered across the boards as he thoughtfully munched on a Vienna Sausage, swatting at the mosquitoes swarming around his face.

Save for the restless clawing of the crabs in the bushel basketsuneasily sensing the coming storm, it was still. The water lay flat, without so much as a ripple; no wind stirred through the pines on the shore, and not so much as a mockingbird sang in the soybean field beyond.

As Junie munched his sausages, he watched the storm darkness gather over the twilight, and heard the distant rumble of thunder over Calvert Cliffs, across the Bay.

The radio squealed and died, the static fading to nothingness.

It was still, too still, he thought, spearing a Vienna sausage with his Buck knife. He knew he was going to have indigestion later, but his other choice was a mouldy packet of Little Debbie Devil Dogs one of the kids had shoved under the charts on the rising beam last August.

The thunder, having rumbled, was silent.

Splatters of rain fell on the boat, on Junie's neck and shoulders. The rain felt cool in his skin, and he lifted his face to the gray skies.

Having finished the last sausage, he tossed the can into a compound bucket and lifted the top off the engine box again, as if, refreshed, he could now divine the problem he had been unable to fathom all afternoon. Like the shade-tree mechanic he knew himself to be, Junie fiddled with the battery wires again, as if a jiggle would work, then eased forward to pull an oar out from the cuddy.

Standing up on the washboard, he began to rock the June Debbie loose from the mud; with a sucking sound, she shifted off, afloat, free on the shallow water.

At that moment, there was a terrible cracking sound, as if the very skies themselves had broken apart, and for a second the whole world was illuminated in white light.

Blinded, Junie took a step backward, gripping the shaft of the oar for support.

The stillness that followed was even more eerie than the silence that had preceded the lightning strike. After a brief mental assessment to be certain that he had not been struck by the bolt, Junie shifted in his gumboots and whistled through his teeth. As soon as his ears stopped ringing, he noticed another, familiar sound, and realized that his engine was running again.

As best as a shade-tree mechanic could figure, the jump from the blue had struck his radio antenna,traveled through the wire dTC and charged the battery. Or something like that. His radio was beyond repair, but the big old Ford Marine V-8 was purring as if she had just been tuned up.

The Redmonds were a race bred not to question the vagaries of chance. Throwing the throttle into medium, Junie backed off the mud shoal and pointed June Debbie's bow toward the channel, making for the harbor before the rain.

Briefly, he considered what the tale would tell like down at the Blue Crab, then dismissed it. No one would believe him anyway. His Jonah, he assumed, was over, but he was not about to make a test case of it.

Helen Chappell, the amanuensis of Oysterback, is an Eastern Shore novelist and journalist.

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