That mortician who chopped a man’s head off: one afternoon at Darrell’s on Roanoke Island
If you’re wondering where to dine “authentically” while visiting the Outer Banks, you gotta eat at Darrell’s in Manteo, a simple place that’s been serving up simple fried, baked, or broiled seafood to the locals since the 1960s. The place is always packed with leather-faced islanders and a paler, softer species of landlubber from the mainland, all wolfing down fried shrimp, hush puppies, and slaw. Just now, as I pretend to read a William Faulkner book, I overhear one salty old fella waxing poetic in a “Hoi Toider” accent, that beautiful bizarre bastardized British accent still prevalent in parts of northeastern North Carolina. The old man leaned in across the table towards the young man in front of him, a 20-something year-old whose strong able back faces me. “Moi woif droives here from Stumpy Point oivery dai,” he says. Stumpy Point is about 25 miles south of Roanoke Island, in mainland Hyde County. It’s a long, desolate road from there to here, people. I ain’t kidding neither.
Old man says to the waitress:”Oi want froied oi-sters. Puddem’ in that hot grease for two minutes. And that’s it. I want them oi-sters squealing. And I want slaw and froid okra.”
The waitress grabs the menus from their hands. She looks to be in her 50s, the kind of weathered ole’ island gal who can balance a baby on her hip, a cigarette on her lips, and give a fisherman a hand job. The old man informs the young man as to where to find good BBQ. “There’s none down here on the oi-land. Gotta go to Wilson.” He is, I would venture to guess, referring to Parker’s BBQ.
He tells a joke: “I met a sailor from Siberia. At making love he was inferior. He met a nun, and gave her some that was good enough to make her a Mother Superior.” He roars with laughter.
All the folks in the restaurant seem to know one another and talk across the tables. All have the unique accent, so preserved from a couple hundred years of isolation and hard toil in this country of half-land, half-water. Hard living crabbers and fisherman, these people are a dying breed. But you can still find it in northeastern NC if you stay off the actual beaches of the Outer Banks where hundreds of overweight tourists roll around in the sand while their yapping and miserable terriers burn up in the sun.
The old man’s now discussing the wonders of collard greens as he pops fried okra into his mouth with his fingers. He says, “My buddy Joe swallows collard greens and fat back like a damn hoingry hog. You got to en-joi collard greens slow. It’s a sight to see, that man eating collard greens.” They eat in silence for a minute or two.
He adds nonchalantly, “His kin folks are that mortician who was cutting people’s heads off.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about that,” mumbled the son-in-law, giving up on eating his burger in peace and quiet. I just now glance directly at the old man and we make eye-contact over his lunch partner’s shoulder. His eyes are full and blue and set deeply in a million leathered wrinkles and he smiles at me. He then glances down at his okra and says, “That Joe eats collard greens like a vacuum cleaner.” He pauses. “Stonewall Jackson was one of the best confederate generals we ever had. I just got a book about him for Christmas from my daughter. Your wife.”
The younger man doesn’t respond, but holds up his empty beer bottle to the waitress, “Hey, get another Bud for the stud.” She laughs. It’s the laugh of a life-long smoker.
I finish my iced tea and prepare to leave, feeling sad in the sedate knowledge that I will never hear of Joe the Collard Eater or the murderous mortician again.
As I’m putting on my coat, the pair is asked by the waitress to give one of the dishwashers for some help. “His car battery is dead. Needs a jump.”
“Well. Woi not,” says the old salty dawg, “Sure thing. He’s a good enough fella. Come on son. Finish that beer quick-like.”
“Yes sir,” he says, guzzling down the beer.
The old man stops in front of me and taps me on the shoulder and says, “You are one purdy woman. I mean it.”
And just like that, he walked out of my life forever.