Ghost Story Oysterback Tales

HELEN CHAPPELL

October 26, 1991|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND. — Oysterback, Maryland -- Ghost is the term a lot of old watermen use for abandoned workboats towed up a gut or down some creek and left to the mercy of the elements.

Such a boat has already long outlived its usefulness, full of rot and worms, for watermen are a handy lot who will repair and make do with a beloved boat until she's all rope, patch and jury rig, even leave her up on the stands in the back yard, stripping her for parts, before taking her on that last journey up the gut or down the marsh.

Yet the Mary Jane lies under about 6 feet of water at the head of a deep creek, almost as intact as the day she came off the stands at Bainey Mills' boatyard, not even 200 miles on her

corroding marine engine, not even a second season's paint on her hogged hull.

And she has lain there some time, long enough for the oil to seep out of her engine house in a rainbow puddle on the water's surface, for the soft river mud to coat her with a fine green blanket as she settles into that viscous embrace, rotting by inches on the turn of the moon and the tides.

No crab will crawl into that watery cabin to shed, and no schools of silver minnows seek refuge from the snappers in her bloated washboards. No living thing will come near her as she lies like a corpse at the bottom of the creekhead, waiting for Resurrection Day. You can still see the color, just beneath the still waters in that quiet cove where no one goes.

The odd thing is, she is painted blood red.

Here's the story.

Steve Meachum was born bad. Steve Meachum was a thief, a liar, a bully and worse. Most people, at least people who were smaller and weaker than he, gave him a wide berth. He was bad to the bone. No socially redeeming value. So bad that even the working girls who cruise the strip on Kent Island stayed away from him. A guy from Northeast who was in 'Nam with him said that he'd never seen a man who took so much pleasure in killing, and he did not say this in a joking way.

Lots of people down to the harbor had often heard him say he wished he had a boat like the Mary Jane. Some other people said that he'd been crabbing nearby in his rotten old boat when the boy who had her built went overboard and drowned. Some people said that Steve Meachum could have helped that boy, but he didn't. Some other people said that he helped that boy drown, holding him down with a crab net while the kid struggled for the surface. What Steve did was buy up the Mary Jane from the boy's wife for about a third of what she was worth.

He painted her red from bow to stern. Now everyone knows that a man who's painted his workboat red has seen the devil, that's common knowledge. That someone who paints his boat red is trying to make a basic statement about his badness is common sense. Also, every sailor knows that red is the hardest color to see on the open water, so it was easy to figure out that Steve Meachum was up to nothing good, stealing crab pots, tools, gas, live boxes and everything else that wasn't nailed down or locked up.

It was just that no one could ever catch him at it, though everyone had their suspicions, although just like that boy who drowned, no one could prove anything.

''Steve,'' a boy from Saxis called to him on the radio one day, just fooling around, ''I see you've got your boat painted red. You see the devil?''

''I am the devil,'' Steve replied, laughing that hollow, unfunny laugh of his. And he believed it, too. He thought he was bad, you understand. Like most people who think they're bad, he just wasn't bad enough.

With that bit of arrogance, Steve tempted fate once too often, for that night he went to the back room of the bar to play cards, and no one was there but this one stranger. This stranger was a weird-looking dude, with a misshapen hat pulled low over his ears, and a dark fire in his eyes, like smoldering ash. When he smiled, his teeth were pointed, as if he'd filed them down, and they glittered in the neon light. ''Play some cards, bunk?'' he asked, and his voice was like the hiss of water on hot coals.

''I'll deal,'' Steve said, sitting down and reaching for the deck.

Now, there's a waterman's card game called tonk, which is a lot like gin, only different, and that's what Steve and the stranger sat down to play. Even at his cheating best, Steve was losing hand after hand and pretty soon, he was down to nothing. ''You'll have to take my IOU,'' he said, and the stranger just smiled, showing all those pointy teeth.

''I know better than to take your marker,'' the stranger said. He shuffled the cards through his long fingers, and cut them, once, twice, three times, face down on the table.

''We'll play this hand for the Mary Jane,'' he said. And then,

looking at Steve from beneath his hat, he added in his hissing voice, ''That is, if you're not too chicken.

Like a lot of bullies, Steve was a chicken, but he was also full of Heaven Hell and methadrine, and he just sneered. ''Deal,'' he said. There were beads of sweat on his upper lip.

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