The Substance of Things Not Seen

September 28, 1994|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland.--Chelsea Redmond is 13 and in eighth grade this year. Every night after dinner she bikes down to the harbor and baits up her father's trot lines. For this, Junior pays her, and she's saving up the money.

Chelsea is the frugal one of the Redmond kids; she lends her brother Jason money at usurious rates of interest. Jason used to bait the lines, but now that he can drive, he's got a part-time job over to the Burger Clown in town. The one thing Jason knows is that he doesn't want to be a waterman like his father. He's got some drafting talent, and their mom, Doreen, hopes he'll go to college and become an architect.

No one knows what Chelsea will do; she's quiet and holds her thoughts to herself, like she hoards her money, which she keeps in a Rebman's Chocolate box under a loose floorboard in her bedroom. There's almost $400 dollars there, Christmases and birthdays and endless miles of salt-eel snoods. Getting herself to part with the money to buy the new Smashing Pumpkins CD was a struggle.

But Chelsea has ideas. Last summer, ''Pride and Prejudice'' was on her reading list, and when she finished that, she went on to ''Sense and Sensibility'' and then ''Northanger Abbey.'' Now, she's listening to ''Susan'' on tape, using her Walkman, a present from her godmother, Desiree Grinch, who runs the Blue Crab tavern and has been married four times. Desiree has read Jane Austen and understands certain things that Doreen would never in this lifetime understand. Or so her oldest daughter thinks.

While Chelsea baits, holding her breath against the stench of salt eel, and there is no smell quite as bad as salt eel, she wonders what Jane Austen would do if she lived in Oysterback. It's hard to picture Marianne or Elizabeth Bennett baiting up lines. If Jane Austen lived in Oysterback, she would be counting the days until she could leave, move to Manhattan and get an apartment and a life. Getting a life has been a goal Chelsea has been pondering lately. She knows she needs one, but she's not quite sure how to go about getting it. Chelsea isn't sure what else Jane Austen would do. One thing for sure, there are no Mr. Darcys around here.

Kevin Swann is around. Lanky and blond, he's a freshman this year, plays JV football, runs track, so he has to lope around a lot, and he runs around the harbor every evening,in his shorts and West Hundred High School T-shirt. He's known Chelsea all his life, and he's aware that she's down there baiting lines aboard her father's boat, listening to tapes on her headset, but he doesn't think about it too much, except to wonder if she's noticing him since he's started buffing up and got his ear pierced.

If he knew for sure that Chelsea noticed him, he might stop and talk to her, or at least make a point of stopping within her line of vision to stretch his hamstrings or something. The very fact that she always seems like she's a thousand miles away in her head intrigues him.

Maybe if he got a tattoo she would think he was really cool, but you have to be 18 or have parental permission, and Miss Catherine and Mister Hardee Swann aren't even worth the asking. They are, of course, hopelessly clueless. Kevin is their youngest, a surprise for their middle years. He gets away with a lot more than his older brothers and sisters, or so they tell him. Kevin doesn't feel like he gets away with much.

Some of the watermen think Chelsea is a real baby doll, but they know better than to try and start anything. Junie Redmond's a watchful father, but Doreen, she'd wipe the floor with some married man and ask questions later, if she felt like it. You'd almost prefer Junie to come after you with those fists of his, the size of footballs, to what Doreen could do to you.

Kevin, however, is not a grubby old waterman of 27 or so with three kids and a resentful, bitter wife but a teen-ager who has not yet figured out that he's a hostage to fortune. The world, as far as he is concerned, is his oyster, and the horizons are full of unlimited visibility.

Besides, there's something intriguing to him about a girl doing a boy's job, Chelsea Redmond in her baggy shorts and Spin JTC Doctors T-shirt, hacking apart putrescent chunks of eel, her red hair tucked up under a baseball cap, so that a few strands fall over the back of her neck. It's a very pretty neck, he thinks.

He thinks he would like to touch those strands of coppery hair.

Her mind is 200 years and 5,000 miles away in Regency England, but Kevin doesn't know that. He has only the dimmest idea who Jane Austen is. Ask him anything about the 'Skins, though.

He runs down the south leg of the harbor, past the skipjacks all rafted up, comes back and runs down the north leg, so that he passes her twice. It's getting dark now; the sky over the Devanau River is turning blood orange, and just as he stops, doing a little jogging in place about 10 feet away from the June Debbie's slip, she looks up.

Kevin and Chelsea make eye contact.

Kevin flushes a deep crimson and takes off at the same time Chelsea drops her gaze to the plastic barrel of salt and eel.

Tomorrow, Kevin thinks as his big ungainly feet hit the asphalt, I'll talk to her. He's got 24 hours to think of something to say.

Chelsea smiles to herself. Jane Austen, she thinks, would be pleased.

The orange sky is a canopy over a new and headlong world of infinite possibility.

Helen Chappell will be signing copies of her book ''Oysterback Tales'' at Mystery Loves Company in Fells Point on October 15.

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