OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — ON THE KITCHEN wall, the cat clock ticks away the twilight hours. The rhinestone eyes slide on e way, the black plastic tail the other.
Miss Nettie Leery stubs out her Salem in the big glass ashtray on the table. When her visitor is not looking, she glances first up at the cat clock, then out the window, where the snow is falling in small, mean flakes. Deep inside the still darkened parlor, the wind moans and whines in the chinks beneath the doors, feeling at the window sashes, looking for entry. But the kitchen is warm and steamy.
''Listen to that. She's up and down the mast tonight,'' Miss Nettie says, rising from the table and brushing cigarette ash from her massive bosom. ''Don't think your folks will come lookin' for you on a night like this, no matter what you did. Anyway, they canceled the Rutger Hauer Film Festival up to the Community Center. So, as long as you're here wyn't you stay and see how I make my oyster fritters? It's a family secret, passed from my grandmother to me, and from me to you.''
Miss Nettie opened the refrigerator, taking things out and setting them on the counter. ''They're not gourmet or fancy, just plain Oysterback cooking,'' she tells her visitor, grunting as she bends to retrieve the big iron skillet from the place where it lives in the oven. ''Fetch me over that big ironstone bowl, that's a lamb,'' she says, dolloping out two walnut sized spoonfuls of Crisco into the pan. ''Now, you set thata on low heat while you build your batter.
''That young doctor would have a fit if he could see me makin' oyster fritters. When I was your age, we fried 'em in lard. Four times a year, Dad would go up to Baltimore on the skipjack, and come back with a barrel of flour, a sack of sugar and a 50-pound can of lard. He didn't know nothing about cholesterol, and he lived to be 97!
''No one on our side of the family's ever had a heart attack. Cholesterol! Huh!'' She breaks and egg on the side of the bowl, whisking it with a fork. Opening a pint jar of shucked oysters, she spoons them into the bowl and stirs them carefully.
''I was just your age when my Me-Mom showed me how to make oyster fritters. That gold and red set of china was her wedding set. It come all the way from China on a clipper ship. Keep an eye on that skillet, don't let it heat up too fast. No, I daresay that your mom and daddy won't come lookin' for you on a night like this, no matter what you broke,'' she assures her visitor.
She opens the red and white rooster canister on the counter and dumps about a quarter cup of flour into the bowl with the oysters. Then she adds salt and pepper. ''Get out in the pantry and fetch me the baking powder. Not the baking soda, the baking powder. Now, watch. You add a teaspoon to the batter, then three tablespoons Half and Half.
''When I was your age, I knocked over my mother's Chelsea Bow cat, smashed it into a thousand pieces. Oh, she was fit to be tied! I went to my Me-Mom and hid there. Now, watch me; I fold it all together, I don't stir it up with this here wooden spoon. You stir, you break the oysters apart. Is that Crisco smokin' in the skillet now? Fine.''
Carefully, Miss Nettie ladles the batter into the skillet. ''Now, some of the ladies at church, they make fritters the size of a pancake. Use pancake mix, too. Don't let me catch you doin' that! You want your fritters to be the size of the mouth of a drinking glass, no bigger.'' As the batter hits the hot pan, it sizzles, sending a delicious aroma into the moist and steamy kitchen.
''Now, when the edges of the fritters are crisp and brown, and the batter's bubbling on the inside, it's time to turn it. You run and get a jar of those green beans I canned last August and put that in the microwave. And get the silver out and set the table. We'll use the gold and red china tonight, for special. And we'll have some of that watermelon pickle and a taste of that chow chow you like, okay?''
The fritters slowly turn from buff to crisp golden brown, and Miss Nettie flips them over the spatula. ''Now,'' she says, ''Run and get me a grocery sack from the shelf. A paper one, not one of those nasty plastic ones. That's what we drain the fritters on.''
From somewhere, the cat appears, attracted by the smell of food. It rubs against Miss Nettie's legs. ''Beggar,'' she says, but she slips it a small oyster anyway. The cat seizes it and disappears.
As Miss Nettie eases the fritters from the skillet on to the coarse brown paper bag, the wind picks up, howling and rattling at the kitchen windows. ''That's the devil trying to escape the weather,'' Miss Nettie says complacently.
The fritters, round and crispy, stain the coarse paper dark brown. Miss Nettie ladles out more batter into the skillet. ''Never stop when the pan's hot,'' she says gaily.
Beneath the whining of the blizzard, she hears a sound and she cocks her head to one side, listening. A faint smile plays on her lips.