Southern Legitimacy Statement:
I was born on the same day that George Armstrong Custer died, though “Autie”, as he called his adopted self, and I never exchanged letters. But that don’t make me a soldier or a Southerner. The first ever color broadcast of commercial television happened in New York that same day in 1951. But I ain’t no Yankee either. Though I was born in Baltimore, a so-called neutral state, my family quickly realized the error of their ways, and 6 weeks later carried me banjo-like back to Huntsville (Rocket City) Alabamy (the Yellowhammer state) where they had met, courted, and later eloped to the land of dreamy dreams, New Orleans, aka The Big Easy. Now we’re talking. Guy Davenport (born in the Palmetto State (SC) in writing about the photographs of Eudora Welty (born in the Magnolia State (MS) offered this up on a heaping platter: Character is the design of our boundaries. Seven goddamn lovely words that say more about what we call the south than Charlie Bob Mason (was the jar named after him?) and Jerry Dixon (Dixon Dixie?), two Brits brought over to arbitrate a dispute between Maryland aka The Free State – it refused to recognize Prohibition) and Pennsylvania (Keystone State). As a side note, I met Miss Eudora once. Her Collected Stories had just been issued by HBJ. I was a bookseller at the time, managing a store in the heart of the French Quarter, on Royal Street. 3 blocks from the meandering Mississippi. One block from the open human sewer that is Bourbon Street.
The American Booksellers Conference was in Hotlanta (Peach state) that year. 1980 it was. What passes for memory says we were all in a Hyatt. It was the second day of the conference. I was on the 15th floor. It’s 5:30. I’m using coffee to dilute the previous night’s overindulgence and working on book orders to be placed. I had brought my copy of Collected Stories with me. It can’t all be work you know. And I like to Read. And Reread. (I later opened my own bookstore named, wait for it, The Readers Bookshop. No Shoppe for me). One last detail is important. For some reason that morning I had removed the book’s dust jacket to look at the spine. (It’s a holdover from my teenage years when I would haunt antiquarian bookstores looking for old books with fore-edge paintings). What I discovered in this case was that my copy was English bound. by American publishing standards. Interesting. Novel. But it was the contents that mattered. Seriously. I put the jacket back on and continue with my ordering chores.
The Hyatt had an open center and an area where coffee, tea, and aged pastries are either adopted and eaten or abandoned. At some point I become aware of Miss Eudora entering. She sits down at a round table adjacent to mine. A young man in his mid-twenties appears, ivy league prep, clearly assigned by her publisher to make sure she is attended to. I overhear the following conversation: Would you like some coffee. Oh, I had some in my room. The helper looks puzzled and she continues. I made some up with hot water from the faucet. He is clearly horrified. Clearly he has failed. He doesn’t have a clue. All this time I have been thinking about what fate has thrown before me. The only time I ever actively sought out an autograph was with Dr. Seuss. (A book I later offered up in an auction to benefit a school in Tuscaloosa, AL). And here I was with her book on my table and her a table away, and no monstrous line. Spoiler alert. Of course I did it. Southern gentleman that I am (my mother beat manners into me with a leather belt), I went over, introduced myself, and asked if she would mind signing my book. And then I added, it’s bound upsidedown, and showed her the spine. Her eyes lit up. (I have another story about Borges, autographs, eyes, even blind eyes, and books in New Orleans, but you will have to read that poem to know about that). She agreed to do it and even offered to sign it left-handed, much to the horror of her handler, who declaimed, oh no we can’t have that. We’ll get a copy that’s not defective. She signed it and I returned to my humble table and tepid coffee with my treasure. I have married two women from Alabama. The first has my copy of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. It was that or chew off another body part. The second has my heart. Unlike Custer I kept my hair. Nuff said.
In the Year of the Mullet
many ray-finned members of the Mugilid clan flew through the air, free from water, slippery from dying, sand free, cigar-shaped javelins hurtling across the Florida Stateline into Alabama. It’s April. Shoulder season at the beach. The time after the exodus of and spring breakers and snowbirders. 3 days of sun, suds, sex, and senselessness. Once more onto the beach. The annual Mullet toss. Anyone can enter. Many do just for the t-shirt. Some have a 3-decade wardrobe to bequeath. Most make it out to the 10-foot circle only once. Disqualified. Dismayed. Undistinguished. Relieved. Tosses average less than 25 feet. All blame the fish. Too slimy. Too pliant. Poor aerodynamics. Too dead. All mullets are kept cool in refreshed water, away from direct sun. Most are reused until deemed unworthy before being tossed aside. Technique matters. So does beer and multiplying shots. Sunscreen is optional. Winners and whiners re-scrum inside where a large-scaled wildness prevails. Time stands alone in a corner. Forgotten. The mullet are near uniform in weight, 1 lb, and size, 12-14” Mulleteers are loudly critiqued by the crowd. Chants begin. Be the fish. Be the fish. Zen and the art of Flinging Fish. Style points are not given, and a good thing too, since after each toss the tosser must retrieve the tossee, and return it to the cooler. The walk, or run of shame can be brutal, and reason enough to become overserved. Mullets are well-shaped for this purpose: thin lipped, elongated, well-weighted, and with rough scales good for gripping. They are known to jump out of the water fleeing from predators or boredom. Graceless as a plank, they launch themselves upward between 45-60 degrees before flopping belly flat. If they have a heaven surely this is not it. Their diurnal beforelife too sudden. Barely time to write the first autobiographical line in sand before all is erased. There’s no arguing with a godly proofreader. But for most partiers here the quest is to transcend time and space in such a way that obviates both. The ideal toss will never land, but will escape with a smile on its thin lips, its forked tail parting clouds.