Phillip Quinn Morris, author of Mussels and Thirsty City, is an old friend and gifted writer. He and I grew up in the small town of Athens in northwest Alabama, and although our fathers were buddies, Phillip and I did not become close friends until he was in his late teens and I was a young teacher at Athens College. I recognized his phenomenal talent when he was a student in my Freshman English class in the mid 70’s. He submitted a descriptive essay about his father’s meat market in north Athens, and I knew immediately that I was hearing an authentic voice. His powers of observation and his ability to render the most minute details of life in a small southern town marked him as a writer of considerable talent.
Some fifteen years later, Phillip published his first novel Mussels (Random House), a story about a weight lifter and erstwhile mussel diver who dreams of becoming Mr. America. It is a rich and evocative novel with a powerful sense of place and with characters almost too bizarre to be true---but those of us who grew up in North Alabama know that they are. The great southern writer Harry Crews said that Mussels has a “voice and vision all its own” and called the novel “a compelling tale by a talent to watch.”
The year after Mussels was published, Random House released Thirsty City, “ a celebration of moonshine, fast cars and beautiful women, enriched by vivacious characters, earthy scenes, and a witty, yet loving, look at some highly prized customs” (Publishers Weekly). Professor and critic Robert Walker said, “The novel’s major strength is that Phillip Quinn Morris can write. He can really tell a story. And the characters he has created here are so memorable and so interesting as to make me hope that we may see more of them, perhaps in a Return to Thirsty City” (Elk River Review).
When Phillip sent me a copy of his most recent manuscript Moonshine Max, I felt that he had come home, home to the subject he knows best: southern life, its customs and its people. After reading Moonshine Max, I went through my files. I knew exactly where to look to retrieve the letter that Phillip wrote me when my father died in 1979. I have kept it for nearly thirty years because it so perfectly captures the powerful sense of place and vivid characterization that is the hallmark of Phillip’s work and because the letter so precisely evokes a picture of my father. I read Phillip’s letter at daddy’s memorial service in March of 1979 as we scattered his ashes into the river.
J. D., who is mentioned in the letter below is Phillip’s uncle, J.D. Steele, who lived with us for a year while attending school in Athens. J.D. still resides in Winston County. The picture (circa 1954) is of J.D. and my daddy.
Here is the letter Phillip wrote.
When I think of Doc, I think of the last time I saw him. It’s not a story you would tell anybody. It’s not a story anybody would want to hear. It’s not a Dr. Jones story, not one of adventure, not one of those about his occupational expertise, and it’s not one of those funny stories which combined with the other two types of stories finish it off to make him a folk hero. I guess it’s a bunch of each one of those kinds of stories that I already know that make my story the story that I think of.
I looked up and there he was smiling at me where you came into the meat market, holding one of his country hams the way a student would carry an armload of books with one arm. His teeth and smile looked like yours. I don’t care what you say or anybody says if they had your two photos side by side and said “see they don’t look anything alike, “ there’s something about y’all’s smiles that are alike and I could have spotted it a mile off.
I smiled back and walked over and extended my hand to take the ham and I noticed his tie, distinctly noticed it. It hit me or jumped at really. It was the brown one with little tigers on it. The one you bought him for Father’s Day that I went with you to get and then I fussed about you paying for it with a Master Charge. There was something hilariously funny about that tie. I don’t know if it was my inside voice wanting to say “Hey, I know all about that tie,” or if it was the way he wore it. Maybe it was that I was thinking when you were buying it, “Hell, Doc is never ever going to wear that tie. He’ll throw it over in the corner and maybe, in a pinch, tie a dog up with it or something.” But there is was, bigger than shit, around Doc’s neck.”
Doc walked around with me to the back in that posture of his. It was that posture that I complained about one time to you that I had noticed you using before and you said not to let you ever use it, to bring your attention to it. But I never thought of it at the time as being your father’s posture.
I started washing the mold off with vinegar, and he started asking me if it was a good one. Always as soon as he hands me a ham he asks me “Is it any good?” and I always tell him, “It looks good. We’ll see in a minute.”
I washed the ham off and he kept asking me if it was any good and I kept trying not to say anything about his tie, which I didn’t. I wiped off the ham and we walked around to the meat saw, and I noticed his flat top and thought how it and his tie all kind of matched up.
I started cutting the ham and he looked at it and it was plenty good, a really superb country ham, and he was pleased and he stepped back then while I proceeded to slice it. He looked at me and smiled and said “Courtin’ much?”
I shrugged and said, “Oh, a little.”
“Any particular one?”
“Nah, not really.”
“Just kind of playing around?”
“Yeah, I guess. Something like that.”
Doc picked up a slice of ham and looked at it and then threw it back in the pile and said “I saw J.D. the other day. He came down to see me. He had his family with him. I was glad to see him. Almost didn’t recognize him at first. Has a nice family.”
I said, “Yeah, he told me he saw you. Then I tried not to laugh because J.D. had told me that he went down to the river to see him and he found Doc down there playing cards with three guys. Doc looked up and said, “Hi,” and then looked back up and said, “Oh, J.D., I almost didn’t recognize you,” and then kept on talking to J.D. without missing a lick at playing his cards or drinking his beer. I could just see it. So now between that story and the tie and the flat top and everything else, I was mostly smiling the kind of smile or grin that gets stuck on your face and you can’t wipe it off no matter how bad it gets to hurting.
“I’m going to go down and see J.D. pretty soon. He bought a house down in Winston County, you know,” Doc said.
“Yes, I know. I been wanting to go down and see him and his new house.”
“We could go down there together one day.”
“Then we could go on down to Greene County to see the dog races. Greene County isn’t too far.”
“That sounds good.”
“Yeah. We’ll go see J.D. and then we’ll go on down to the dog races and spend the night. Just you and me.”
“Just you and me” hit me kind of like the tie and there was something warm about it and I said, “I would really like that.”
“You’ll have to get off a couple of days.”
“Yeah, I can get off a couple of days.” I was still slicing the ham.
“We’ll take my Toyota. It doesn’t take much gas. Hardly any gas at all,” Doc said and it sounded funny to me like Doc was trying to tell me we could go down to the dog races and if we dropped a few notes it would be justified economically because we had gotten down there and back on better than 28 miles per gallon. Doc continued, “Yeah, we’ll go down there to the dog races. There’s some good restaurants down there and a good motel. We’ll go down there. Just you and me. Nobody else. Just us two.”
“That sounds good,” I said. And it did.
“ And we’ll stop by and see J.D. on the way back,” he said. And that nailed the grin on my face semi-permanently. We were going down to see J.D. and now we might stop by and see him on the way back from the dog races. I threw his ham in a box and he gave me a couple of center slices. He walked out of the meat market carrying the box, insisting that he would take it himself, carrying it in much the same way as he brought it in. And I heard him telling someone up front how he and I were going to go to the dog races.
“Just you and me. Nobody else.” That kind of stuck in my mind. One time you told me about liking someone that you liked that liked you. I guess that’s what it all gets down to.
--- Penne J. Laubenthal