OYSTERBACK — Oysterback, Maryland.
Casting an experienced eye over the funeral meats on his paper plate, the Rev. Alfred Briscoe settled himself into the glider on the sun porch. He nodded companionably as Parsons Dreedle the funeral director eased himself and his brimming plate into the opposite end of the swing, saying, ''. . . she coulda shot Haney and there wouldn't be a jury in the county who would have convicted her. If you ask me, there are a lot of folks here today who turned out just to make sure Haney Sparks is really dead. Course, you'n' me coulda set 'em right, hey, Doc?''
Startled by Mr. Dreedle's plain speaking, young Dr. Samuel Wheedleton gave a covert glance into the living room, where the rest of the mourners were balancing buffet plates on the knees of Sunday suits and dark dresses. Their voices had settled into a low hum as they addressed their brimming plates. The widow was as renowned a cook as her late husband had been famous for his deeds in the West Hundred. None of them seemed to have heard Mr. Dreedle, including the widow of three days, who was generally considered to have been relieved of a terrible burden when Haney had fallen on his face into a plate of giblet gravy and sour cream potatoes, dead as a doornail, victim of a massive heart attack.
But then, Dr. Wheedleton was new to Oysterback.
''You note that none of the children come to the funeral, and whose blame is that?'' Mr. Dreedle continued, addressing himself to a heaping fork of oyster pie. ''Listen, if it had-a been my choice, I would have as soon buried Haney with a stake in his heart at a crossroads after all the misery he caused. As it was, it took me and both my boys to load him on the drainin' table, he musta weighed three-seventy-five, three-eighty, and tryin' to get the trocar into all that flab was -- ''
''There is a limit to Christian forbearance,'' Reverend Briscoe agreed quickly. ''Why Ella took him back after that last episode . . . '' He contented himself with stringbean and mushroom soup casserole, and looked as if he would have liked to say more.
''Ella took him back in, though,'' Mr. Dreedle growled. He was known to have been sweet on the former Ella Swann in high school.
''And from the time he come back, he never shifted his carcass any further than from the TV to the kitchen table to the bed. Bad back, he says, and she waited on him hand and foot! The only exercise he took was when he put himself in the truck and drove to the Blue Crab every afternoon for a cheese-steak and a quart of vodka. Made her walk everywhere. Saw Ella one morning walking to the store for cream! Milk wouldn't do for that one! Ate up his breakfast in the bed, on a tray! Every morning, she had to fry him up six eggs and a half-pound of bacon, three, four cat's-head biscuits with butter, dry beef and gravy and half a pecan pie for lunch, then that cheese-steak and fries for a snack, and a big ole slab of roast beef and gravy for dinner. Lie up on the couch in front of the TV all day with them cheap cigars while she slaves over a hot stove! As thin as a bird, Ella, and did all the work around the house, too!'' Mr. Dreedle was indignant. He bit angrily into a snowflake roll.
''It passeth understanding, just like it says in the Bible,'' he added. Mr. Dreedle was proud of his Scriptures and his knowledge of the poems of Robert Service.
''She must have loved him to death,'' Reverend Briscoe sighed. ''Although I cannot understand why.''
The sound of Dr. Wheedleton's voice startled them both. He rarely spoke more than three words at a time. ''Loved him to death'' he repeated thoughtfully. ''Yes, I guess you could say that.'' He looked at his professional companions.
''When Mr. Sparks came back, Mrs. Sparks asked me to have a look at him. His back was fine, but his arteries . . . Let me put it this way about his arteries; you would have needed a stick of dynamite and a miracle to push a microbe through them when I saw him. I told Mrs. Sparks that she would have to put her husband on a whole regimen. Exercise, no alcohol, no tobacco, no fats, no salt, no sugar, no cholesterol, if she wanted him to live. If she wanted him to live,'' he repeated softly, and looked from the minister to the undertaker, shrugging. ''Mr. Sparks was a thoroughly unpleasant human being,'' he added.
Reverend Briscoe opened and closed his mouth, but Mr. Dreedle, whose wits were quicker, slapped the young doctor on the back. ''You'll do for Oysterback, Doc!'' he exclaimed, satisfied.