OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland.--- Now, you take men; just when you think you've got them all figured out, one of them will come along and knock you for a loop. And I, Desiree Grinch, proprietor of the Blue Crab Tavern, know a thing or two about the gender, having been married at various times to four of them.
It so happens the other afternoon that it was business as normal down to the Blue Crab. Beth was in the kitchen, little Olivier was under the pool table teething on my porcelain Elvis Commemorative Bell and Professor Shepherd, who lost his tenure over to the college and has to live on his boat out back, was at the bar making notes for the book he says he's going to write about us all. And then Hudson Swann comes in.
Well, I sensed something was wrong right away; he had that I've-just-been-snuck-up-from behind-and-kicked-hard look that men tend to get when they've been confronted with some thought they don't understand. And when he took his usual seat up to the bar and lit a Camel, I didn't say anything, I just drew him a beer and slid it across the counter at him. Hudson just sat there and looked at it for a good long moment, so I went on about my business, getting up on the ice chest and chalking ''Oysters Desiree $5.95'' up on the blackboard, for the dinner crowd.
You see, usually, you have to give Huddie Swann a minute or two to collect his thoughts. I'm not going to say he's inarticulate, but he can spend a right good amount of time stumbling around in the dark looking for the right words.
Finally, he clears his throat, pushes his hat up with the ball of his thumb and takes a swallow off his beer, says, ''Listen here, Des, do you ever think about God?''
Well, I almost fell over and took the chalkboard with me, I was that surprised. I had to think that one over for a moment, since Hudson is the least churchy man I know.
''Well, of course I think about God,'' I replied at last. ''In fact, when I finally meet Her, there are questions I would like to ask.''
I guess that was the answer he wanted, because he looked a little relieved. At least he nodded and spread his hands out flat on the counter, and worked his lips a little while before anything come out.
''You know, when you're out there on the water, on Miss Jeanne, and you've got the engine running and the patent tong motor running and it's up and down, up and down, the tong pullin' a lick, pullin' a lick, and you're cullin' for all you're worth, trying to catch your limit before three o'clock, there's not much you can do, you know, with your mind except think.''
He looked at me so pathetic I didn't have the heart to say well, that must be a new experience for you, which sounds good but really isn't true anyway, so I just nodded.
It took a minute, but he continued on. ''You know, you're just out there in all weather, and you're cold and you're wet and you think about stuff like what you did 20 years ago, and should you have done it different, or about your kids, or the Bay, or this thought, which just come all over me at once.''
Then he leans over, so close I can see how black his pupils are and how green his eyes, as green as the Bay, and asks me, very seriously, ''When you're on God's culling board, are you box or are you cull?''
Well, even I, Desiree Grinch, did not have the answer to that one.
I guess it was a good thing that Professor Shepherd leans over at that moment and slaps Huddie on the back. ''Why, you're cull!'' he exclaims. ''You're always cull, Huddie!''
Hudson looked real relieved. I guess that was the answer he wanted, because he bought the professor a drink and invited him to play some pool.
I was still sitting there with my mouth open when Beth Redmond stuck her head out of the kitchen. She looks at those two then looks at me and shakes her head.
''I'd rather be spat,'' she says, and winks at me so hard I just had to laugh.
Helen Chappell is an Eastern Shore novelist and the amanuensis of Oysterback.