Nothing but a Shucking Kind of Place

SHUCKING-OYSTERS1

WHEN WRITING, what happens is never as important as the people who make it happen.

We had been on the road four days now, traveling through the southern reaches of Georgia and finally cutting our way through thick pine forests and into the Florida Panhandle.

Nothing was different.

Same old towns.

Same tired farmlands.

Same stand of pines.

A narrow, two-lane, blacktop road ran both ways, but nobody other than us was leaving, and nobody was going back.

The day was bright.

The woodlands were dark.

There were some scattered patches of ground where the sun never hit.

Gerald Crawford hadn’t taken the Nikon out of his bag of miles, maybe for days.

No reason, he said.

One pine looks like the last one, he said.

Old is old.

Dark is dark.

Miles are miles.

He was hungry.

The sun was hanging low among the trees when we came to a little sign pointing the way to Chipley, Florida.

The sign said it was Florida’s Friendliest Community.

And it probably was.

We found a little diner by the side of the road and pulled into the parking lot.

It was empty.

I was too early for supper.

And too late for lunch.

But the neon sign was turned on in the window, and it said open, so we walked in.

It was clean.

A well lighted place.

Six tables.

Twenty-four chairs.

They were empty.

The counter had four stools.

They were empty, too.

We sat at the counter.

A wizened old man in a white apron was standing in the doorway that separated the dining room from the kitchen. Probably fifty. Thin and as wiry as a cane fishing pole. Thick head of black hair. His face was gaunt and had spent too much time in the sun.

He was smiling.

He thought his place of business was closed.

It wasn’t.

He nodded.

He didn’t need to look at the license plate on the rented car.

He knew from the moment we walked in that we were from out of town.

In his day, he had served the other three thousand, six hundred, and fifty-six people who lived in and around Chipley.

He hadn’t served us before.

“What’ll you boys have,” he said.

“What’s your specialty?” I asked.

“Oysters,” he said.

“You’re not on the water,” I said.

“I’m close enough.”

He was still smiling.

I shrugged.

If his specialty was oysters, that’s what we wanted.

Oysters.

And beer.

“How about a Coke instead?” he asked.

“Coke cold?”

“Been on ice.”

“Coke will do fine,” I said.

I reached for the jar of red sauce seasoned with horseradish.

“It’s hot,” he said.

“We like it that way,” Crawford said.

He could say that.

He was hungry.

The proprietor threw a couple of round, tin platters in front of us, grabbed a big-bladed knife, and began shucking oysters.

He was good at it.

I had shucked oysters before.

It was hard work.

And slow.

He sailed through the oysters like cutting hot butter.

He shucked.

We ate.

He kept shucking.

We kept eating.

I had downed my second cold coke before I realized that I had eaten eighteen oysters, and he was still shucking.

“Excuse me,” I said.

The wizened old man looked up.

“When I order oysters, how many do I get?”

His smile broadened.

“Well,” he said, “I keep shucking oysters until the customer tells me to stop.”

He paused.

He shrugged.

“I sell a helluva lot more oysters that way,” he said.

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