MOBILE—When you take in a deep breath, the salt air hits the back of your throat and you know you’re near the Gulf of Mexico.
I am eating a cup of gumbo for lunch, writing you, spilling food on my shirt.
There’s a saying about gumbo: “The longer it sits, the better it gets.”
I don’t know who said that. My wife, maybe. Or maybe it was Abraham Lincoln, or Engelbert Humperdinck.
I never knew what the phrase meant until my wife made gumbo for a bridal shower. The gumbo came out good. But after sitting in the fridge for two days, it became poetry.
Mobile and I have history. When I was younger, all my teenage friends wanted to visit New Orleans to sow their wild oats.
But not me. Mobile was the siren that called to me. And I didn’t have many oats.
I remember visiting here for Mardi Gras when I was seventeen. I clocked out from work, I stood on a curb with a duffle bag, waiting for a truckload of my friends.
My mother had given me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to stay out of trouble. I promised her. She made me look her in the eyes and promise again.
The city was full of things that kids from nothing towns haven’t seen before.
For instance, Mobile was once a baseball town, the home of Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron. The old mansions are worthy of Margaret Mitchell’s words. Dauphin street looks like an oil painting. And the azaleas.
One of my friends pointed out the truck window and said, “Look, a band!”
A brass band played “O When the Saints.” We saw old ladies with umbrellas strutting on the sidewalk. Their dance looked like a cross between the Funky Chicken and a seizure.
Somehow I felt I belonged in this colorful world. I was a lost boy with a dead father. Boys like me don’t often feel they belong anywhere.
My friends and I split the cost of a grungy motel room. That night, I laid on the floor, listening to four sleeping teenage boys demonstrate early symptoms of sleep apnea.
The next day, we explored. We found a joint that served gumbo. It was rich. Buttery. Spicy. It was so good that it brought out the Catholic in me, even though I was raised fundamentalist. I ate six bowls.
That night at the motel, while my friends snored, I digested six bowls of gumbo, reading a book with a flashlight.
I’d found the book in the nightstand drawer beside the Gideon Bible. It was a novel written by Winston Groom. I opened it and read the whole thing. It meant something to me. I still have that book somewhere.
The next morning, we awoke late. We ate more gumbo for breakfast. I was in hog heaven.
In France, people drive across countrysides to sample regional wines and cheeses. They swish bordeaux in their mouths, then spit, and talk about its “body” or “bouquet.”
In America, we have filé gumbo. It is the fingerprint of our Gulf Coast. No two roux are alike. No two recipes are the same.
After the Mardi Gras parade, we boys sat in an ugly motel, eating a supper of gumbo and beer, talking about the things we’d seen that day.
Our conversation turned toward serious matters. We talked about where life would carry us. About what we wanted from the world.
One friend wanted to get married and move to Tennessee to buy a farm. Another was going to start a business in Andalusia. One boy was going to join the Navy.
I simply wanted to be found. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, just to be found by someone. And maybe, if God wasn’t too busy, I wanted to one day write a novel somebody might find in a motel nightstand and enjoy reading.
One kid said, “Hey, let’s shake on it.”
“Shake on what?” another said.
“Let’s promise to follow our dreams, no matter what.” Then he spit into his hand.
“Gross. What are we, ten years old?”
“You gotta spit or it don’t count.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“You gotta do it, or you’re a loser baby who wears his mother’s bra.”
We all spit. Then shook.
That’s how boys can get when they eat too much gumbo.
Over time, your memories get hazy. But other memories blend together and become even more perfect than before.
Like the memory of a brass band. Or the memory of an ugly motel. Or the twenty bucks your mother gave you. Memories stick with a man.
And one day you wake up in Mobile and you get to relive them again over a cup of seafood and sausage. Only this time, you realize that the lost kid you always thought you were was never really lost. He just needed time, that’s all. Life itself needs time.
Because the longer it sits, the better it gets.
I love you, Mobile.