Every Saturday you can find her at Swell’s, hawking her wares at a small stand tucked away in a dark corner of the massive market. She’s a bit plump and squat with gray hair teased high above a sweet elderly face buttoned with a stubby nose. She rubs her arthritic hands and shuffles her slippered feet when she walks. Arriving before seven in the morning and staying till well past noon, comfort is her priority. The slippers are accompanied by socks that used to be white and a pair of too-big gray sweat pants. The part of her that shows above the make-shift counter is covered in a white sleeveless top and, on the days with a chill, a light colored cardigan. She can’t afford a booth in the climate controlled portion of the market, so an old fan and space heater keep her company, patiently waiting in the wings until she needs them. They are her only company.
The stand is composed of two rectangular folding tables and two shelves, which create the walls of her little cubicle. Beneath the tables are large plastic bins that store the excess of her goods that do not fit into her display. There’s simply not enough room for all she has to offer. Already, every square inch of surface is adorned with halved shells. Some are creamy and pearlescent inside, others are a plain grayish white. All of them have rough exteriors that, if left face down, could cause them to be mistaken for rocks; some even have barnacles on them. Oyster shells. The shelves hold the larger, more exotic shells on stands – some even crafted into lamps! – and yet more bins holding yet more small oyster halves. As for the tables, one is clearly reserved for shells in their natural state while the other houses those that have been decorated by her expert hand.
They come in a variety of colors but her favorite, she’s keen to tell you, is red. Some hold hearts, others hold messages, photos, or words. She makes them for holidays – St Patrick’s Day is popular – and special occasions; seasons and just for fun. Birthdays and bible verses are among the top sellers, but those she did for the recent election have been less than popular. If you tell her what you like, she’s sure to find one or two (or perhaps a dozen) that are bound to catch your eye. Fifty cents for one, or a discounted five for a dozen.
If you ask her where she gets all these shells, she’ll tell you in that deep southern drawl that her husband goes out to get them for her. He was a fisherman in his youth, but now he just works part time down town. On his days off, he goes out and finds them for her – though it’s likely he finds them in the kitchen of the oyster bar downtown. She beams with pride at his support of her hobby. After almost six decades of marriage, he still treats her like a queen and makes her smile every day.
And if you ask her about herself? Well… she’ll tell you.
She is the Oyster Lady!