OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland.---OMAR HINTON'S Store sits at the corner of Log Cabin Point Road and Razor Strap Lane, just far enough from where you live that you can't just stroll over and buy a quart of Two Percent Milk and a can of Happy Cat, but not so far that you don't feel guilty every time you get in the car to drive.
Although Omar has taken to stocking a few bottles of Perrier in the cooler, just to the left of the King Cobra Malt Liquor, he really doesn't get that many strangers shopping there. Most of the foreigners from the Western Shore take one look at that big old stuffed chicken hawk, poised to swoop, that's been hanging behind the counter for the past 40 years and go right out again.
On any blowing day, you will find the usual collection of retired watermen and farmers gathered around the pot-bellied stove having an Oysterback breakfast, a bottle of R.C. Cola and a Little Debbie Snack Cake, and doing what old men do best when they get away from the women: talk about the past and tell bigger and better lies than their neighbors. And what they love best is a new audience.
There was one day last fall when the wind was out of the Northeast, and the rain was battering against the store windows. All the old gentlemen were gathered on their benches, getting a little bored, when the strange man walked in.
Well, they all knew he was up to no good, because he was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and even Omar had to raise his eyebrows up to where his hairline used to be when the man asked for someone named Wilbur Rivers, talking real slow, as if he thought none of them could speak English.
It was so quiet you could hear Hardee Swann shifting his upper plate, which he does when he's thinking hard. ''Wilbur Rivers?'' he said slowly, tugging at his ear. ''I knew a Wilbur Rivers, back in '59, '60. Lived over to Uranusville. Married a Bugg.''
''Married Inez Bugg. Or was it Juanita?'' Bosley Grinch asked, without opening his eyes. ''Their mother played the piano over at the Jewel Theatre when they had silent movies. Named her daughters after Rudolph Valentino's girlfriends in the movies.''
''Naw, that was Bunky Bugg. Lived out on Old Route 50. Raised minks. Smelly little creatures, minks. Now, he married a Tump. Not one of the Jesterville Tumps, but one of the Tumps from over to Eldorado. Her mother was a Whorttley.''
''Any relation to the Whortleys up the road?'' asked Faraday Hicks, known throughout the Delmarva region as the tuba-playing soybean farmer. He was peeling his nails with a Barlow knife, tossing the peelings into the stove.
''No, but they were related to the Winters that lived down the road.'' Hardee said thoughtfully. ''Elzee Winters was a first cousin to Ray Whortley. Or was it Hurley Whortley?''
''Naw, Hurley Whortley was a foreigner from Cambridge. Now he married twice. Once to Elsie Shays, and once to poor Mina Harker, the one who went crazy after the war and tried to flush the laundry down the toilet. There was always bad blood in the Harkers.''
''Buck Harker.'' Omar Hinton said from behind the counter where he was pricing a case of Indian Quarter Locally Grown Red Ripe Tomatoes.
''Clifton T. Perkins is where they sent him. Burned that workboat to the waterline,'' Bosley said matter-of-factly.
''Burned down the house.''
There was a moment's silence, in which Omar put a dollar in the register and bought himself an instant Lotto ticket. While he was scraping the silver stuff off with the coin from the Need A Penny Take A Penny Have A Penny Give A Penny bowl, Hardee Swann cleared his throat.
''His brother used to roller skate to church every Sunday. And him a grown man,'' Faraday Hicks murmured, but the stranger had fled, leaving the bells on the door jingling.
''Didn't mean to.''
A companionable silence descended on the little company, and the only sound was the digestive flatulence of Omar's black lab Warner, who had spread himself out on a carpet sample before the stove, dreaming the dreams of an old dog.
No one even looked up when Wilbur Rivers returned from a trip to the Port-O-San in the back yard. He took a bag of peanuts off the rack, opening it with his teeth.
As he poured the peanuts into his R.C. Cola, he looked around. ''Did I miss anything?'' he asked.
*Helen Chappell keeps an ear peeled whenever she shops at Omar Hinton's.