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Angels On Horseback And Other Memories Of An Oyster Eater As A Young Man

By T.R. Healy

When he was small Albie often helped his mother in the kitchen at large family gatherings on the holidays.  She could use another pair of hands, of course, but he also did it because he felt awkward around all the relatives he scarcely saw more than a couple of times a year.  They were as alien to him as people he passed on the street.  One of the items his mother often asked him to prepare were the appetizers she always served with chilled white wine.  The selection seldom changed.  There were bowls of sesame crackers and salted English pecans, marinated carrots, and celery stalks stuffed with cream cheese and a little lemon juice.  But at one Easter dinner she had him wrap strips of bacon around oysters and bake them until the bacon was crisp then serve them on rounds of buttered toast.

"These are delicious," one of his aunts declared after she took a bite of the appetizer.

Her husband agreed and ate a second one.

"What are they called?" a cousin of his father inquired.

He didn't know but his mother did and shouted from the kitchen, "Angels on Horseback."

The cousin smiled.  "I guess it takes one to know one."

As he circled the living room with the appetizers, Albie didn't feel embarrassed or out of place but felt as if he belonged there as much as anyone else.  He had made something everyone seemed to enjoy and for a change believed he had made a difference.

                                                           ***

The first time Albie ate raw oysters he was with his Uncle Roy in a grungy waterfront diner.  He was 13 years old and his uncle, who had served eight years in the Navy as a medical corpsman, had taken him to the docks to visit a Trident submarine that was in port for the weekend.  They explored nearly every inch of the sleek vessel, proceeding through one narrow passage after another, as if making their way through an intricate maze.  Afterward, his thirsty uncle led him to the diner and ordered him a ginger ale and himself a Guinness and a plate of Pine Island oysters served on a bed of crushed ice.  Carefully he pried open one of the shells with the edge of a butter knife, loosened the oyster and lifted it out with his fingers, and plopped it in his mouth and swallowed with his eyes closed.  Grimacing, he then slurped the cold, clear liquid inside the shell and washed it down with a long swallow of beer.

"Here, have one, Albie," his uncle urged as he pried open the shell of another oyster.

The youngster shook his pendulous ears.  "They're not cooked."

The older man smiled.  "You do that, son, you lose all the taste of the sea."

“I'm afraid I'll get sick."   

"You do, you're not the person I thought you were," he said half seriously.  "Now show me what you're made of and swallow it like a man."

Reluctantly he opened his mouth and his uncle set the slimy oyster on his tongue. Albie fought it down with a bitter frown, and, laughing heartily, his uncle clapped a hand on his back.  He laughed, too, and together they finished the plate of oysters.

                                                          ***

It was a sweltering July day, and Albie pedaled his bicycle down to the grocery store to purchase a pound of oysters, among other things, for dinner that evening.  The man at the fish counter scooped the oysters onto a scale then wrapped them in butcher paper, but before he handed them to him, he asked if his mother knew he was buying them.  His tone of voice made the boy feel as if he were buying a package of cigarettes.

"Of course," he said, startled by the question.  "She made out the shopping list."

"When I was a young person, younger even than you," the concerned grocer muttered, "I was told that oysters should only be eaten in months with an 'r' in them."

Albie, confused, stared at him in silence.

"It was believed that oysters could only be eaten safely during cold weather," he explained as he handed the package to him.  "These days folks eat them year round because of the improved refrigeration techniques, but I'd still be careful if I were you."

"You don't think I should buy them?"

"Oh, no," he said.  "But if I were you, I'd tell your mother to cook them.  You don't want to get food poisoning."

"That's for sure."

"There's scarcely anything worse you can put in your stomach than a bad oyster."                                                          

***

"I hear you're going out with Libby Acheson tonight," Walter, the senior lifeguard, remarked when he relieved Albie from the towering red chair at the end of the neighborhood swimming pool.

He nodded as he peered down at all the swimmers.

"You been out with her before?"

"Once."

"You guys do anything?"

"We held hands..."

"Hell, I can do that with my sister," he scoffed, applying more sunscreen on his massive shoulders.  "I know a sure way how you can get some bare tit if you're interested."

Albie looked at him skeptically.  "And how's that?"

"Oysters."

"What?"

"It's a fact.  My cousin ate a bucket of fried oysters the night of his junior prom and he had both of his date's puppies in his hands before eleven o'clock."

"All because of oysters?"

"Don't believe me, but if you're after what I think you're after tonight, you better eat plenty of oysters before you pick Libby up.  They're a real aphrodisiac according to my cousin."

"And I suppose he's now married to the girl he took to the prom?"

"Nah.  But they went together almost two years and did everything a couple can do together, I understand."

                                                         ***

Not that night but another one, a few months later, Albie devoured a dozen blue point oysters before going out with a girl he met at the pool.  Her name was Audrey.  She was not the most attractive girl he had ever taken out but probably the most receptive to his feeble advances.  She let him stroke her arm soon after they met, let him kiss her on the mouth at the end of their first date.  And tonight he was hopeful he could get to know her even better, maybe even touch her breasts.  He was mistaken, however.  Shortly after the film he had taken her to see began, he felt a little queasy and excused himself and hurried into the rest room where he retched all the oysters into the sink.  Frantically he tried to rinse the sour taste from his mouth with hand cream but it remained there as stubbornly as a sore tooth.  He knew then he would not be doing anything with Audrey that night, and stared in the grimy mirror and cursed himself for ever listening to Walter.

                                                          ***

The first thing Albie did after the swimming pool closed in the evening was dive to the bottom and search to see if anything was lost by swimmers.  He seldom found anything other than keys and some pocket change, but some lifeguards found bracelets and watches and necklaces and earrings.  Eventually he would too, he was convinced, as he glided night after night up and down the tiled blue surface.  The longer he stayed underwater, he believed, the better his chances were of finding something valuable.  Some nights he made-believe he was one of those Japanese women pearl divers he’d seen once on television and kicked his legs as hard as he could, forcing himself to the very bottom of the pool.  Then he would sift his fingers through imaginary clumps of grass and seaweed until he touched something solid and smooth.  Sometimes his lungs burned he stayed down so long but he knew he had to if he was ever going to find anything down there as precious as a pearl.

                                                         ***

Finally he found one at a Creole restaurant his parents took him and his sister to the night before she graduated from high school.  Along with his father he ordered scalloped oysters. When he bit into the third one he heard a crunch and right away was certain he had struck the mother lode.  After locating it with the tip of his tongue, he plucked it out of his mouth and held it up to the candlelight, and though it appeared a little rough and grainy to be a pearl, his father was sure it was and though it might pay a year of his college tuition.  Grinning uncontrollably, Albie showed it to their waiter who showed it to the hostess who called out the chef.  A burly man with a bristling black mustache, he examined the pearl for a brief moment then, all of a sudden, ground it into dust between his gigantic thumb and forefinger.

"Sand," he growled, then turned on his heels and stomped back into the kitchen.

Albie was disappointed but was still confident that some day he would find one.  Those Japanese divers, he recalled, brought up hundreds of shells for every one with a pearl in it, so he figured he might have to eat that many oysters before he found one that was blessed.

 

T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such publications as The Hawaii Review, Limestone, The Red Cedar Review, and Sequoia.

Detail of photo "Under Pool" courtesy of Stephanie, Hayden, Ohio.

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