In Ollie’s Oyster House

by Barry Kelly

from Back to Apalachicola

“Damn! This aint happenin’!” Elroy Brown, sitting in his red ’57 Caddy under the only streetlight on Jefferson Street, shook his head. “I know I aint seein’ who I’m seein’. Look like Jack Riley sittin’ on the back porch of Ollie’s. What the hell he doin’ back in town?” Elroy looked across the street at Riley again, just to be sure. Yeah, it was Riley, older and heavier, but that’s who it was. “I’m gonna’ have to tell Fade.”


I was sitting on the back deck of Ollie’s Oyster House watching the sun bleed into the gray-black cloud hugging the bay. A broken-down lawyer, back in the town where I started. The vision of Apalachicola’s sunset—early this time of year, all purple and orange, spreading light yellow and blue fingers across the darkening sky—had never left me, even though I’d been gone for years.

Maybe Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. Yeah, but how long can you stay? Pondering this question, I glanced across Jefferson Street. A red ’57 Caddy, fins and all, was parked under the streetlight and the heavyset black guy behind the wheel looked familiar.

Waiting to be served, I amused myself by reading an Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce brochure. For 40 years the Chamber had claimed Apalachicola was the “oyster capital of the world.” In the new brochure the folks at the Chamber urged visitors to “Come to Apalachicola and enjoy the uncrowded sugar-white sandy beaches of the Florida panhandle and the clear azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico.” In fact, the town was located on a gray-brown bay and had an oyster and mussel shell shoreline. The nearest beach was eight miles to the north.

A few minutes later a waitress brought me a menu.

“Ollie’s got himself a menu now? What happened to the chalkboard?”

“The chalkboard?” This girl didn’t even know how Ollie used to list the day’s offerings.

I resisted telling her about “the old days.” There were no old days in this girl’s life. She was just a kid.

The three-page menu listed 46 different oyster dishes. Ten had red stars, denoting “specialties of the house.” Jesus, look at these prices. Avoiding Ollie’s tourist traps, I ordered a dozen oysters on the half-shell. The only way to eat ’em, according to my dad. At the bottom of the last page, I saw that Ollie had expanded his beer selection too; now there were twelve labels on tap. Another surprise. But he still sold green bottles of Heineken chilled in a tub of crushed ice. At least that hasn’t changed.

“Before you put in my order, bring me a bottle of Heineken.”

I was ten when I tasted my first Heineken. It was a Saturday afternoon. My father had taken me with him to Dot’s, a bar and grill two blocks south of Main Street, just a block from our old house. Dot looked up when we entered and smiled at my father who was a regular customer. He ordered a soft-shell crab sandwich and a beer. “Not just any beer, Jackie, the best beer in the world,” he said as he gave me a sip. He looked at me, assessing my manhood, and asked whether I liked it. I didn’t. But I knew what he wanted, and I matched his smile with my own. My father is gone now. So is Dot’s. But Heineken has survived.

My waitress brought the bottle of beer and a frosty mug.

“I don’t need the mug, just the bottle.”

“Yes sir.” She smiled, returned the mug to her tray, and left.

I looked at the Heineken and toasted myself.

A beer or two won’t cause me to fall off the wagon. God, how many times had I argued that point with Matthew Guinnis? Matt, who had been my sponsor when I attended AA meetings in the basement of St. Paul’s, in D.C., had said I was in denial. His “drug of choice” had been scotch. "If I liked beer, I couldn't write my last name without losing my sobriety." He used to love that line—told it to all the newcomers.

Matt still phoned now and then and he always got around to "So how are you doing, Jack?" which, in AA speak means, "Are you still sober?" I always gave the same reply, "Fine," which means, "I really don't wanna talk about it." Then he would drop the subject. We weren’t as close as we used to be. I'm not close to anyone now.

Twenty minutes later, after finishing the oysters, I left a five dollar tip and the bottle of Heineken. It was still full.


Elroy watched Riley walk out the front of Ollie’s and thought about what Fade might do.

Twenty years ago Riley had been a deputy sheriff for Sweetwater County and had arrested Fade for dealing cocaine. Judge Benton had given Fade three years, calling it “a light sentence for ‘your kind’.” Fade had told Elroy that Riley had planted the drugs. “He fucked me up, Elroy, an’ I won’t forget it.”

Two months after the trial, Riley had left Apalachicola. Now he was back.

Elroy pulled out his cell phone. His new cell phone. He couldn’t speed dial because Fade wouldn’t let him list his number. Didn’t want the number discovered if Elroy lost the phone like before. So Elroy had to memorize the number. Not a real easy task for Elroy, but good for his mind according to Fade.

He snapped on the interior light, punched in the number, and waited. No answer. Maybe he got it wrong. He squeezed his eyes and spoke each of the seven digits he had memorized. Then he pulled the phone closer and lifted his right index finger. Say the number, look at the key, punch…say the number, look at the key, punch…seven times. He waited.

Still no answer.

Barry Kelly has handled hundreds of discrimination cases in state and federal courts as a trial lawyer in northwest Florida. He was selected for inclusion in Florida’s Best Labor and Employment Lawyers and is listed in the millennium edition of Who’s Who in American Law.

About Back to Appalachicola—Jack Riley is a lawyer trying to escape from alcoholism, depression, and the tragic accident that stole the lives of his wife and children. When he returns to Apalachicola, the small town in the Florida Panhandle where he grew up, he is determined to handle nothing more stressful than an uncontested divorce. Nevertheless, he agrees to represent a white girl who claims that her father, a powerful banker, has coerced her to abort her biracial baby.