Outside past the porch, across the small town, up through the creeks and marshes, water and air become one. Street light reflections ripple in the deluge of dappled gray, the October sky undulating like a liquid veil blown by the wind. Behind the trees and falling leaves the Piankatank and the East River and Mobjack Bay blend to form Mathews County, at the eastern edge of the Middle Peninsula. The Chesapeake Bay stretches to the Eastern Shore beyond opaque fog. People gather around us in the warm café.
“It washed my tackle box away,” says the older gentleman sitting across from me. “Saw it leave and go off down the water and it was gone. Sunk.”
A weathered man walks up and stops to talk. Everyone here seems to know each other and no one is a stranger, not even me. Local beer flows, crab cakes and soft shells ride plates carried in threes on shoulders from the kitchen. Coming in with my friends Scott and Dee assures me that we will meet everyone in the place at some point tonight. That is the allure of Southwinds Cafe in Mathews, Virginia, a place that feels so much like home that I look around for my dog now and then.
I have known Scott Witthaus and Dee Briggs for 20 years. I should ask them what they do for a living, but it does not matter and other things are more interesting.
“It’s Thursday night,” says Scott. “I’d hoped Ripley would be here.”
Ripley is a legendary character most likely manning the drawbridge to Gwynn’s Island tonight.
“Had to row from my truck to the house in my homemade boat,” says a man on break from his marine railway over in Deltaville.
“Business slows down when it’s hard to tell the water from everything else.”
“Good fishing here?” I ask.
“When it’s not flooding,” says Dee.
“Caught a red drum off my dock couple days ago,” says the man with the sunken tackle box. “Was about this big.” He holds his hands a foot and a half apart.
“Got a green light under there?” asks Dee.
“Of course,” says sunken tackle box man.
“I bet croakers swim upside down under there thinking it’s the sun,” says Dee.
“They do,” says Scott. “At my place too.”
Tackle box man has the face of a person who has seen a lot of the world and is glad much of it is past.
“You a writer?” he asks.
I nod. It is easier than explaining the MoonPie gig, which often turns into a whole other conversation. And since my truck and all my boxes of MoonPies are out in the sideways storm, I let it go.
“I remember something like work,” he says. “Long time ago.”
A man passes the table on his way to either the restroom or the pie rack and catches hold to a piece of our conversation, which has turned from fishing to music. I am introduced and he grins.
“You playing tonight?” says tackle box man, looking up at my newest friend.
“No. It’s raining too hard to play guitar.”
There is more small talk about the flood and a local music festival coming up in Gloucester, Virginia. People just walk up and sit down at our table and talk for a while. Then the conversation turns to hunting.
“I was in New Zealand last year hunting elk,” says sunken tackle box man. “They cross elk with red deer there. Makes a beautiful animal.”
The scene reminded me of an episode of Cheers: beer, good food, interesting conversation, unique characters, old friends and somewhere outside, others wishing they were here.
The place is clearing out so we pay up to leave. As we walk out the front door, we run into everyone we saw earlier sitting around a small table on the front porch, the night wet and chilly around them. They are talking about rain and boats and fishing and life in a little town surrounded by water while the streets are filling with more of it. Scott decides to stay.
“I love this place when it rains,” he says.
He is not alone.