In the summer of 2009, I was hired by a studio out of Mobile, AL to play piano on a couple country albums for these two brothers, Micky and Dickie as I recall. Though the booking was originally only supposed to be for one day, it ended up taking three due to those fella’s odd dietary habits. Apparently they were prone to taking a little bourbon with their breakfast before a liquid lunch, supplementing that with steady pulls from matching LSU flasks they kept in their ostrich skin boots.
This meant that we basically had to knock off around 11 each morning and find some other way to occupy our time. So I spent that first afternoon on the bay, eating fresh gulf shrimp and touring the USS Alabama. By the time I had finished taking stock of this illustrious naval monument, it was time for supper.
My self-imposed rule when traveling is to steer clear of any food I can get at home. Since the Gulf Coast is a great source of seafood, I drove the short distance over to Wintzell’s Oyster House. It is known that seafood just tastes better if you can look across the bay and smell the salt in the air.
As I sat munching on a fried oyster poboy, a group of construction workers came in and gathered at a table next to me.
“I ain’t never et a raw oyster” said one of the crew. “How do you do it?”
“Quickly” answered another one. “It ain’t gonna fight being et. Just tip the shell and slurp it down. You don’t even have to fool with chewin’.”
“Do it taste fishy?”
“Nah. It taste oystery. And salty. But that’s mostly the natural seasoning from the water.”
The uninitiated fella was wearing a pair of liberty overalls and not much else best I could tell. And though he may have been new to oysters, he didn’t appear to have been under-nourished.
A waitress passed by and the foreman hollered at her, “Shuck us four dozen, sis.”
I was trying to mind my own business, but the crew was making it impossible. The more beer they drank, the more public their business became.
“Why can’t I jus try em fried?” said the overall man.
“You need to taste the oyster on its own terms first,” said the bossman.
After a few minutes, the waitress brought over several platters of shucked oysters on the half shell so fresh that I swear you could still hear them whistling. Being a fan of culinary initiatory rites, I turned my chair slightly so I could watch the big fella.
“Squeeze a little lemon juice on it to cut the salt,” the foreman said. “You can try hot sauce on the next one.”
The big guy picked up a shell and brought it level with his eyeballs. They doubled in size as he peered at the gelatinous sea creature.
“What’s at green stuff on it?” He asked.
“Just seaweed. A natural side salad. It’s fine.”
The other men were knocking their oysters back like shots of whiskey, but the big fella gawked at the wiggling mass with equal parts fear and amazement.
“You gonna eat, or you just gonna make eyes at it?” asked the foreman.
“It just don’t seem proper. Eatin’ a livin’ thing like that. Leastways if its fried I’d know it was dead.”
“It don’t make no difference to that oyster whether you eat it raw or battered. He’s gonna be et either way.”
After a long draught from his beer mug, the big fella closed his eyes and sucked the oyster from the shell so hard I thought it would fly out the back of his head. Then all of a sudden he flung the shell down on the table, jumped up and started unhitching the top of his overalls.
“What in the world are you doin’?” the foreman yelled.
But the big man was frantic. “If that thing goes through as quick as it went down then it’s due any minute! I got to GO!”
It had been decided that we would start early at the studio the next morning. Around 9 or so. That’s basically the buttcrack of dawn for musicians. We were able to track three or four songs before Micky and Dickie took sail on Whisky River. So at around 10:30 am my workday was already over. There was little else in Mobile that held any interest for me so I loaded up in my truck and drove 71 miles north to see an old friend, Miss Nelle, whom I had never met.
There was no quick way to get where I was going. Which means it was a delightful trip, free from the monotony of interstates and roadsides littered with Exxon stations and fast food restaurants. In fact, if you wanted a cold drink for the road or didn’t want to pee in a ditch, you’d better take care of all that before you left.
Nelle herself had described her hometown as “an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland.” Monroeville, the county seat of Monroe County, Alabama is like many southern towns: small, quaint, largely empty of people, but full of history and secrets.
There wasn’t much to see as I drove into town save for a Piggly Wiggly, a tractor dealership, an old pulp mill, and a couple of clapboard barbecue shacks roughly the size of outhouses. I passed an abandoned middle school with children pouring in and out of it. Which struck me as odd until I learned that it served as the town theater, and those kids were the talent who had been putting on plays by local writers for years. The one building of any note in the town was the old courthouse, an imposing, domed edifice that looked like a Southern Vatican–more cathedral than courthouse. After a brief tour, I took the highway 21 bypass north toward Nelle’s.
She had been living in a nursing home called “The Meadows” since 2007. Her health was in serious decline. Her hearing was going, her sight was going, and a stroke claimed most of her mobility. But even at 82, her mind was still sharp. Her sister Alice, who was 99 at the time herself, would yell clues from the New York Times crossword and Nelle would shout answers back, demanding that Alice write them down in ink. And in the Fall, she was still ready with an Auburn joke at the drop of a hat.
When I walked into The Meadows I asked if Miss Nelle was available.
A southern fried version of Nurse Rached looked me up and down like I had just stepped in something and tracked it all over her freshly mopped floors.
“And who are you,” she barked.
It was known that Nelle was an intensely private woman who rarely received visitors. But I wasn’t there to pry into her personal life.
“I’m a preacher,” I said, smiling at the nurse.
“You don’t look like no preacher,” she spat, eying my blue jeans and faded t-shirt from Phil’s Barbecue which proudly claimed the title “Best Butts in Bama.”
“I brought lunch,’ I said, holding up a hot sack I had just picked up from David’s Catfish House.
Nurse Rached stared at me with unblinking eyes for what seemed like an eternity before she finally said, “I think all the ladies are in the cafeteria already. Go on back.”
I nosed my way back to the cafeteria which smelled like someone had cooked a barrel of green beans in BenGay. As I looked around at the couple dozen old folks sitting around discussing the finer points of strawberry jello, it dawned on me that I had no idea what Miss Nelle even looked like. So I flagged down a young black girl who a few moments earlier had been helping a gentleman retrieve his dentures from the ice dispenser.
“Ma’am,” I said. “I have lunch for Miss Nelle. Has she eaten yet?”
“Is she here in the dining room?”
“That’s her over by the window.”
“What is she doing?” I asked.
“She used to sit there and watch the birds. But she can’t see much these days. I think she just likes to feel the sun and listen to them. Her ears are going bad, but she can still hear some.”
I told the young nurse what was in the sack and she beamed at me, “Miss Nelle loves David’s.”
Then she walked me and the greasy bag over to the small octogenarian perched at the windowsill.
“Miss Nelle,” said the nurse, “This nice man came to see you.”
Nelle didn’t hear her, or at least she didn’t acknowledge her.
“He brought you a hot lunch from David’s Fish House,” said the nurse.
And then Miss Nelle looked at us with a wide grin, “Oh he did, did he? What did he bring?”
“Looks like a fried oyster poboy and some french fries.”
Miss Nelle eyed me suspiciously as she reached for the sandwich.
“Do I know you, son?”
“No ma’am. I just stopped by to visit somebody for a few minutes.”
Nelle was taking small, quick pecks out of the poboy, “Thank you for this. Do you want to sit down here while you wait?”
So I did. I sat beside her watching the birds until she finished eating. She didn’t say another word until I got up to leave. Then she said, “Oysters are an aphrodisiac you know?” Chortling in that wicked sweet way exclusive to mischievous old ladies. “Thank you, young man. That was a pleasure.”
“No, thank you, Miss Nelle,” I said. “The pleasure has been all mine.
As I watched The Meadows disappear in my rearview mirror, I decided that if Micky and Dickie asked me the next morning what I had gotten up to the evening before, I would just tell them that I went out for a few beers then went to bed early. That would be easier than trying to explain that I had made a pilgrimage of sorts, and had enjoyed the rare privilege of sitting and watching the birds with Nelle Harper Lee.
A great story, especially the last paragraph. Nelle Harper Lee. Wow.