They've grown used to having a secretary of defense in their midst -- the way his weekend estate is tucked behind a bend in the road, how he takes casual walks tailed by dark SUVs. Now, residents of this Eastern Shore retreat are preparing for someone even bigger to buy a house down the road: the vice president.
"I'd heard it was going to close either Tuesday or Wednesday of this week," Carroll Hurley, a funeral home owner, said Saturday, seated with his breakfast gang at the Carpenter Street saloon and restaurant.
Whether it's true -- that Dick and Lynne Cheney are buying an estate here -- could not be confirmed. Those closest to the deal -- Cheney's office, the purported sellers, the listing agent -- aren't talking. Hurley admits he's not certain: "All I have is hearsay. It wouldn't stand up in court."
Still, a nosy visit here leaves a person with one of two possibilities: Either the Cheneys are coming or a lot of people have bad information. Police Chief Ed Henry -- who breakfasted along with Hurley -- even referred to the lot in question as "Cheney's house."
The house, listed at $2.9 million, backs up in spectacular fashion to an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay. "Right out by [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld's," said Charles Mangold Sr., whose Benson & Mangold agency brokers high-end estates in the area. "It's under contract, but he hasn't settled yet."
Reaction to the two men's presence is embedded into everyday conversation -- even as residents take pride in taking it all in stride. They tick off celebrities who have lived in or visited the area: Margaret Thatcher, Walter Cronkite, James Michener, Yasser Arafat and Vince Vaughan -- the latest during nearby filming of "Wedding Crashers."
Residents joke about the occasional helicopter overhead and what flavor Rumsfeld gets at Justine's Ice Cream parlor. One woman even drew a clear distinction -- pro-Rumsfeld, anti-Cheney.
"Cheney's a politician. He's connected with Bush," said Rhonda Lewis, 58, a bookkeeper at a bike shop in nearby Easton. She has always had a crush on Rumsfeld. "He is just adorable."
She thinks the defense secretary often looks stressed out on TV, and seeing him walk casually through St. Michaels in khakis is comforting. "Bush just dumped all the hard stuff on him," Lewis said.
At Albright's Gun Shop, a highly regarded draw for goose and duck hunters, a photo of the vice president hangs near the counter. "Best Wishes. Dick Cheney," says the autograph.
Near the photo, behind the counter, Jim Kohlhaus remembered a recent day when several security people walked into the store, followed by the vice president. "I'll be . . . ," Kohlhaus said. He recalled telling Cheney he voted for him twice, "and I finally get to shake your hand."
Cheney extended his hand, Kohlhaus said, and bought some shotgun shells.
Rumsfeld bought a weekend house in St. Michaels two years ago, reportedly for about $1.5 million. He gets generally good reviews here for his desire to blend in -- even if that means taking a walk with his wife, Joyce, down a rural stretch of road tailed by SUVs. Residents say he doesn't like to pose for pictures alone, preferring to ask people to stand next to him and have a brief chat.
Lori Cuthbert, who lives nearby, said she met the defense secretary at a neighborhood St. Patrick's Day party. She intends to invite the Rumsfelds to an upcoming barbecue -- despite the Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on her Honda.
Sue Stockman, an artist who sells jewelry and mosaics, bears witness that different types of people blend together here. Her Volkswagen van parked in her driveway is painted with flowers and sports "Think Peace" and "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child" bumper stickers. She protested the war in Iraq before it started and describes herself as an "environmentalist, holistic thinker and a pacifist."
Stockman reported having a run-in with someone she suspects was part of Rumsfeld's security detail. They argued over the film "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the Blue Crab Coffee shop -- ending with her putting a hand on his shoulder, sending him Reiki energy healing and telling him she had to get going.
A short time later, the man showed up at her house and gave her a small book, Stockman said. She fetched it from inside her house. "The Meaning of Life" is filled with photographs of animals, bits of wisdom and an inscription from the former Marine asking Stockman to accept his apologies and the book "as a token of friendship."
Cheney seemingly has spent far less time here. He, his wife and the Rumsfelds did dine on April 16 at 208 Talbot, a high-end restaurant in central St. Michaels.
"Cheney had the lamb," said Deborah Miller, seated behind the hostess stand.
She knew something was up that day when security agents showed up in the afternoon to scout out the place. An attache of Cheney's then arrived, saying he'd prefer a table among the regular diners -- rather than in a back room. No one bothered their table, and the foursome couldn't have been more pleasant, Miller recalled. But she didn't know whether Cheney was buying a place.
And the owner of the house in question declined to comment, saying politely from the end of its long driveway that he didn't want to talk about anything.
The estate goes back to 1930 and was said to be built by one of Thomas Edison's daughters, according to Robert Snyder, the Coldwell Banker agent who is listing the property.
The nine-acre lot includes extensive gardens, ornamental pools and spectacular views of the water behind it. Deer and osprey can be seen.
Snyder, who is vice president of the St. Michaels town commission, declined to say when any deal might close and whether the Cheneys were going to move in. "It truly is a magnificent piece of property," he added.