Let us speak of gumbo.
That’s the inscription in my copy of “The Ballad of Little River” by Paul Hemphill. We were at a book-signing at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, where Roy Barnes had just delivered a thundering introduction that begain, “Thank God for Alabama!” We all appreciated the double entendre: First, the story in “Little River” made Georgia look good by comparison; secondly, Alabama had given us Paul Hemphill.
The gumbo comment was Paul’s little way of reminding me that, while he had forgiven me, he still had not forgotten the night we had made gumbo in my kitchen. I don’t cook well with others. I was trying a new anti-depressant which wasn’t quite right, exacerbated by the fact that I was washing the medicine down with significant quantities of Jack Daniels.
And I was a pluperfect bitch. Probably one of my best (worst?) performances ever, at something I’m damn good at. The clever insults and putdowns rolled off my lips like little barbed honey drops. I contradicted him on everything about making gumbo, from the quality of the seasoning on a cast iron pot, to how brown the rue was supposed to get, to how much filé to add and when. At the time, I was confident of my brilliance. I didn’t know jack about making gumbo, but that didn’t slow me down.
Susan and Tom, our respective spouses, cringed at the kitchen table as Paul and I battled our way through classic gumbo. Battled might not be the right word. Paul was incredibly calm and tolerant. But it was obvious he was NOT happy. Somehow we got through dinner and the evening. And the gumbo was miraculously delicious. Maybe it was because of my nasty wand waved over it, but I rather suspect it was Paul’s patience and skill.
After dinner, we sat on the porch as he told stories of his time in Alabama researching “The Ballad of Little River,” which was subtitled”A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural South.” He spoke of the characters and the hatred he had encountered in south Alabama. About having his tires slashed. Turns out some of those stories appeared almost word-for-word in the book. I can’t remember if he had finished the writing by that time, but it was clear that these descriptions were tattooed onto his psyche. He knew them inside out.
Next morning early, I walked out on the screen porch to find Paul, barefoot, coffee in hand, smoking those stinkin’ unfiltered Camels. The morning was cool and calm. Our good mornings were cool, too. We sat for a while, saying nothing or doo-dah little things about the garden or the weather.
Finally, I attempted an apology. Thank God as I have matured I have gotten better at that task than I was then. It probably sounded more like a string of excuses than an apology. Paul listened attentively, nodding from time to time. Then he said something like, “We all have our demons. I’ll keep mine. You keep yours.” That comment might be only a creation of my imagination, but that’s what I remember. I took it as forgiveness.
Though Susan and I have remained friends, part of a girl group that is now many years old, I never spent much time with Paul after that. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from him.
I learned that the only way to get good writing done is, in his words, “write 2000 words a day, seven days a week, until you get it done.” He did that. He wrote relentlessly. I’ve not yet mastered that discipline.
Paul also taught me a lot about redemption. Paul’s life was one big redemption story. He lived it. He wrote about his own. Maybe the writing was the redemption. I’ve never been close enough to him to be qualified to make that judgment. After reading “Me and the Boy,” a book about walking the Appalachian Trail with his son, I told Susan I felt like I had been in her house, rifling through drawers and closets. She just shrugged.
The inscription in “Lovesick Blues” — his definitive biography of another son of Alabama, Hank Williams, and his music — is a simple signature, the date and “Manuel’s.” He had had his stroke by then. Chewed Nicorette like it was going out of style. We were all enjoying the advance copy of the review Garrison Keillor had written for The New York Times. Paul’s handwriting was wobbly, like an old man’s. The evening was clearly happy but tiring for him. As he finished signing my book, he grinned up at me and said, “Well, we’ve both mellowed a bit, haven’t we?” That comment might be only a creation of my imagination, but that’s what I remember. I took it as forgiveness.