Oysterback, Maryland. -- It was hot for June, one of those blank, humid days that come during a long dry spell. The dust lay on the road and in the fields, coating the limp and thirsty soybeans with clay grit. It was so hot that the usual collection of retired watermen and farmers had moved themselves outside of Omar Hinton's store and on to the old wooden benches under the shade of the overhang, hoping to catch the memory of a breeze from the distant river.
Omar himself had come out and taken a seat, next to Hardee Swann. After the lunch rush, business was dead, and he was catching a cat nap under the latest Bugeye, featuring a picture of Miss Carlotta Hackett giving a Historical Daughters Plaque to Venus Tutweiler, rising and falling on his gentle snores.
Faraday Hicks, rode up on his John Deere mower. He was gloating about his own cleverness in eluding his daughter as he extracted a chew from his tobacco pouch. Bosley Grinch and Wilbur Rivers were just sitting, nursing their R.C. Colas, squinting out across the fields into the hard, colorless sunlight. Ferrus T. Buckett occupied himself carving the head of a merganser from a chunk of scrap pine.
No one was talking; for one thing it was too hot, and for another, there was nothing to say. Weather, crabs, crops, gossip and the government had already been dispatched. The ability of old men to sit in companionable silence for long periods of time has been honed to a fine art in Oysterback. It gives the younger people something to look forward to, and
the old men are aware they have to set an example for the coming generation.
When a sullen little dust devil came twisting up the road, all
beige dust and dry leaves, no one stirred. When it stopped before the overhang, forming itself into the shape of a cloven-hoofed, scarlet-skinned demon, replete with horns, tail and flashy yellow eyes, the old men barely raised an eyebrow, although the faint stench of fire, brimstone and perfume ads from the glossier magazines hung in the still air. The apparition turned fiery yellow eyes on the assemblage, drawing itself up to a pretty good height and breadth.
"KNOW YE THAT I AM SATAN!" he exclaimed self-importantly.
Faraday Hicks spit a long stream of tobacco juice. Hardee Swann half-opened one eye. Ferrus never even looked up from his carving.
The Bugeye on top of Omar's face crackled a little as he let out a particularly loud snort. Wilbur Rivers scratched himself in an impolite place and Bosley Grinch tore open his Little Debbie snack package with his few remaining real teeth.
"I AM SATAN!" that gentleman repeated, speaking a little louder now just in case they hadn't heard him. You never know with old men; they might not hear too well.
"Used to be a family around here named Saddin, but they moved," Hardee Swann yawned.
"Bought a farm over to Shaft Ox Corner," Omar volunteered from beneath the Bugeye. "One of the girls married a Glack.'
"I AM LUCIFER!" the devil roared, but he was starting to sound just a shade uncertain about it.
"Nah, Lucy Santana married one of the Pusey boys from over to Tubman's Corners. It was Phyllis who married Dembo Glack.'
"Dembo was the one who fell out of the Tilt-A-Whirl at the Harrington Fair that time. His cousin Widge was the Glack that Phyllis married. They had Glack's Good Oil and Propane over to -- "
"I AM THE LORD OF HELL!" Satan exclaimed, and tried to produce some special effects to prove it, but it was already so hot that no one noticed the fire and sparks.
"That young fella say he was related to those Lords over to Marydel?" Bosley asked Faraday Hicks, inclining his head toward the devil, who was sullenly kicking a hoof at the old bottle caps and oystershell in the road like a thwarted, showoff kid.
"No," Faraday slowly replied after some thought. "That's not their name, it's Loud, or Lloyd, or something like that. But she was a granddaughter of Old Man Lumpkind, the one that had alla them German POWs picking fruit for him during the war -- "
"Maybe it was the Lumpkinds I was thinking of," Hardee admitted grudgingly. He shifted his upper plate as he squinted at the stranger. "You looking for the Lumpkind place, son?"
"I AM SATAN!" The devil stamped his hoof in frustration, shell and bottle caps scattering. "What's wrong with you people? Don't you watch TV? I'm the Great Satan? The Ultimate Evil? The Prince of Darkness?"
"I had a dog named Prince once," Bosley Grinch sighed around a mouthful of Snack Cake. "That dog wouldn't hunt, neither way."
Omar's newspaper was shaking gently; he was really trying to stifle himself under there.
By that time, Hagar Jump had come to the door of the P.O. and was staring across the road, looking as if she were just about to head over and investigate. Hagar was notoriously interested in other people's business.
"Aw, come on, guys," Satan pleaded. "Help me out here."
Ferrus sighted down the bill of his merganser head. "You go on down the road about four miles, and turn west. Can't miss it," he said. "There's a big sign out on the road."
"Thank you," the devil said stiffly. In less time than it takes to tell, he was gone, perfume ads and all, in a cloud of dust.
"What was that all about?" Hagar called as she came across the road, fanning herself with a Buy'N'Bag Supermarket flier. She stared down the road at the disappearing cloud of dust, then back at the men on the benches, who were looking entirely too innocent to suit her.
"Oh, just some lost tourist looking for Route 50," Omar replied. Carefully, he rolled up the Bugeye and used it to swat a mosquito that had landed on his arm.
"If I owned Route 50 and hell," Hardee Swann said solemnly, "I'd rent out Route 50 and live in hell."
"Amen to that," Faraday spat.
Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.