I decided to leave J-Lo right where she was sitting and hike on over to Peckerwood’s. I was sure I could find something to choke down, but was having second thoughts about not buying the flounder. I mean, how much of a restaurant could a town of 643 support? And if it were a nice place, why’d they name it Peckerwood’s?
The first thing I discovered when I walked through the door was why the streets of White Sands were deserted: anybody who wasn’t home was eating at Peckerwood’s. A sprawling room with maybe 20 tables tastefully accoutered in red Formica with metal trim. All but one or two were filled with . . . well, peckerwoods, I guess you might say. There wasn’t a maitre d’, but a harried waitress hollered out in my direction, “Just sit anywhere, hon. Somebody’ll be right with you.”
A handful of people looked up when she sang out, then a few others. The level of conversation dropped dramatically as a significant percentage of the population of White Sands stopped discussing the price of soybean futures or whatever they were talking about in between poking food into their mouths to check out the stranger. Ah, small towns. You gotta love’em.
The waitress, a robust forty-year-old with a smile that stretched about as far as her flushed face would allow, dropped off a menu and took my order of iced tea. I took a sip before adding any sugar—holy shit, it was already sweeter than Kool-Aid. I’d forgotten that in the Deep South away from the cities and our elitist city ways, iced tea meant sweetened iced tea and hopefully you weren’t a diabetic. Purists will swear it’s just not the same when you try to add sugar after it’s already on the ice. I guess not—no way could you get that level of empty calories to dissolve in cold water. Don’t make an issue, Rick. Just ask for a glass of water.
The menu had a caricatured peckerwood on the front—a stalk of hay stuck in a mouth missing a couple of teeth, cross-eyed from staring at the fly on his nose, a bedraggled straw hat cocked back on his head. Inside, the left half was filled with the standards—fried fish, fried shrimp, fried oysters, and a fried seafood platter for those with big appetites, along with fried chicken, meatloaf, liver and onions, and pot roast for those who didn’t want seafood. The right half had the specials of the day which included Brunswick stew, blue crab cakes and seafood étouffée. The back had desserts and drinks as well a dozen “breakfast any time we’re open” offerings, all of which came with a side of grits and contained double the daily recommended dose of cholesterol for a healthy male. I went with the seafood platter and the food was outstanding: fish and shrimp both fresh, hushpuppies crisp and not even a little bit greasy, fries perfect, cold slaw with just the right amount of mayo. OK, White Sands. The road here may be fraught with danger and your TV options leave a lot to be desired, but dying of hunger was not going to be a problem. Dying of hardening of the arteries, perhaps, but not hunger.
“So what brings you to the metropolis of White Sands on a Thursday night, hon?” the waitress asked while she was refilling my water (I hadn’t been able to drink the tea). I had known this was coming after the unabashed inspection from the clientele-at-large. Strangers were an extraordinary event, and by morning probably half the town would have heard about me. Well, not only hadn’t I been given any instructions about keeping things secret, I was going to have to interview the citizens of White Sands if I were going to be thorough in my investigation.
“What? You don’t think I’m here merely to corroborate the widespread reputation of the local cuisine? Well, Darla,” I assumed she wasn’t wearing somebody else’s nametag, “I’m actually here at the request of Ms. Adeline Foster to validate the official investigation of her father’s disappearance.” I lowered my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Seems a little late, if you ask me, but she didn’t,”
“So you’re what, a private detective?”
“What, do I look like a dick?” I thought as the words were leaving my mouth that it might be a little over the top for small town humor, but Darla laughed at my clowning. “Actually, I’m a reporter on leave from the Charleston paper to do this job on commission.”
“Hmmm. Well imagine that.”
“If anybody has any information on what might have happened, I’d appreciate them letting me know. I’m staying at the Foster cottage, but I’ll be around. I’m sure people will be able to find me right here at Peckerwood’s fine bistro around breakfast time, probably noonish, evenings for sure.”
“You sure do use a lot of big words, mister.”
“Aw, you’re just saying that.”
And so I filled my belly and established my bona fides with the locals in one fell swoop. I was sure that by tomorrow afternoon at the latest, pretty much everybody would know who I was, where I was staying, and what I was doing there. And if they knew anything useful or just had any wild-ass opinions, they’d be eager to share. ‘Tis the nature of the small town. My biggest problem would be sorting out the kernels of truth from the mere speculation and the gossip.