Angels Unaware Tales from Oysterback

December 15, 1993|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland.--Dense snowflakes the size of quarters had begun to fall from a fishbelly-white sky when Doreen Redmond wheeled her cart out to the Buy and Bag parking lot. She glanced at her watch. As she piled her groceries into the back of the Cherokee, she decided she could get home by the time the kids got out of school if she took Haunted Marsh Road. ''Ugh,'' she said aloud.

There was just something about that desolate causeway that made you feel as if you'd dropped off the planet, made you want to put the pedal to the metal and barrel on through those four or five winding miles of barren marsh until you reached Tubman's Corners. Nothing seemed to live there but an endless sea of bile-yellow grass. It was eerie, she thought; most wetlands are living places.

As she turned onto the causeway through Haunted Marsh, she '' held her breath. Snow flew at the windshield, coming right at her.

When the mangy doe burst from the snow and hurtled across the causeway before her, her first thought was that something evil was chasing it. Automatically, she slammed on the brakes and turned the wheel sharply. Bad move, she thought, even as she was doing it.

In slow motion, she slid across the icy asphalt. Gallons jugs of milk and boxes of cereal careened from the grocery bags. The Jeep slid off the road, sinking in the soft mud. She cursed, shifted into four wheel drive, tried to back out to the asphalt again, but the wheels spun deeper and deeper into the muck.

A fearless woman, she still hesitated before opening the door and climbing down to survey the damage. It wasn't good, she thought, looking at the front wheels sunk a foot deep into the slushy mud. In the seconds it took for her to walk around to the shoulder, she was coated with snowflakes.

Preoccupied with her next move, she did not see the truck looming out of the darkness until it was almost upon her. Even then, it was the sputter of its ancient engine that caught her attention; the headlights barely penetrated the gale.

Doreen Redmond had seen some old pickup trucks in her time, but this one could have qualified for historical plates. Beneath layers of mud, dust and rust, it was held together with bailing wire and duct tape; steam rose from the hood.

Slowly, the passenger window creaked down and a face that was grime, red eyes and a John Deere cap peered out at her. ''You need help.'' It was a statement of fact.

From the driver's window, another face, all beard and bandanna appeared. ''We got a log chain in th' back.''

She watched as two raw-boned men in antique coveralls climbed down from the truck and inspected her rear axle. They smelled like kerosene and old sweat overlaid with the pungent aura of homegrown. Flying snow stuck to their flying hair.

''We kin fix 'is,'' the driver said, showing missing teeth as he walked past. ''We're the Boone Brothers. We fix just about any damn thing that's gone up.'' There it was on the side of the truck, hand-painted in careful block letters:

BOONE BROS WE FIX

Silently, they went to work with the log chain. In five minutes, the Cherokee was back on the causeway again, headed for Oysterback. Doreen reached for her purse, grappled for the proper words of thanks. She was nonplused, something new for her. ''Thank you,'' she repeated. ''Thank you so much.''

''It weren't nothin' '' said the driving Boone. He took a healthy swig from a pint bottle, then his grime-encrusted hand offered it to Doreen, who was babbling gratefully about payment, free haircuts from the Salon de Beaute, a bushel of oysters, whatever.

''Don't need none o' that. We live off the land,'' the other Boone Brother said, taking the pint. As they climbed back into their truck. Doreen got into her warm cab, still talking. As the ancient truck lumbered up alongside the Cherokee, the passenger window opened and a Brother thrust his head out the window. The sound of ''Dark Side of the Moon'' and the smell of killer weed spilled out of the cab into the snowy twilight.

''Yew know, lady,'' the Boone Brother said earnestly, ''Yew really oughta be careful. There's all kindsa weird people these days.''

?3 Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.

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