Excerpt: 'The Mockingbird Next Door'

"The Mockingbird Next Door" by Marja Mills (Penguin

"The Mockingbird Next Door" by Marja Mills (Penguin Press, July 2014). (Credit: Penguin Press)

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One afternoon, I had a message from Nelle. Since I would be in town awhile longer, would I like to go for breakfast? If so, she would swing by the motel the next morning and get me. Once again, I found myself waiting in the glass vestibule of the Best Western, not sure what to expect.

She was right on time. She pulled up in a dark blue Buick sedan and motioned for me to get in.

"Good morning."

"Morning," she said. "Have you been to Wanda's?"

I hadn't. We made a left onto Highway 21 and, a short distance later, just past the intersection with 84, turned into a large gas station parking lot. Behind it was Wanda's Kountry Kitchen, a low-slung diner painted yellow. Nelle glided into a parking spot and glanced over at me.

"It's not fancy. But it's good food. More or less." She gave a wry smile. "You've discovered Monroeville's dining options are limited?" This was a statement more than a question.

A sign posted near the front door had the silhouette of a video camera and a warning: These premises protected against burglary, holdup and vandalism.

Nelle opened the door for me. "Proceed."

I proceeded. Cigarette smoke greeted us, and the din of regular customers at their usual tables. A gentleman with an enormously round belly and scraggly beard was holding court, loudly, at a table of several men. In one corner, a group of older women was deep in conversation, flicking cigarettes in a couple of ashtrays in the middle of the table. Half of the other tables were occupied. To our left, the woman behind the counter looked up.

"Anywhere," she told us.

Nelle and I slid into two empty places along the far wall. Our waitress was a slim woman in her fifties or sixties with a tanned, lined face. She set two large plastic menus in the middle of the table.

"Hi, hon," Nelle said.

"How y'all doing this morning?"

"Tolerable."

"Coffee?"

"Please," Nelle said.

I studied the menu. It was standard fare: eggs and hash browns and hotcakes, along with that Southern staple, grits. Nelle barely glanced at the menu and set it aside. The waitress returned with the coffee carafe and filled our cups, the thick white mugs of diners everywhere. Small curls of steam rose from the mugs.

"Bless you, hon," Nelle said. She wrapped her hands around the mug.

Now Nelle was spooning a couple of ice cubes from her water glass into her coffee. She looked over at me. "Do you need a minute?"

"No. That's all right. You go ahead and I'll be ready." The waitress pulled out her pad.

"I'll have two eggs, over easy," Nelle said. "And a side of sausage. And a biscuit."

"Gravy?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

I was pretty sure ordering my trying-to-be-healthy usual -- scrambled egg whites, a piece of wheat toast, and a side of fruit -- violated the spirit of this place. It could mark me as a city girl or a granola head, neither a popular demographic around here. I set down my menu.

"I'll have the same, please. But with bacon instead of sausage, please."

I wondered if Nelle had invited me to breakfast to ask me something specific or just to continue our conversation. Those eyes of hers, brown and penetrating, could be unnerving but at the moment they were sparkling. She smiled broadly.

"Have you had sawmill gravy?"

"No, I haven't." Sawmill gravy . . . sawmill gravy. I should know what this was. Was it mentioned in "To Kill a Mockingbird?" This was lumber country, after all, sawmill country.

"You're in for a treat."

Nelle was draining her cup as we spoke. When the waitress stopped by, Nelle tapped lightly on the side of her mug. "Keep it coming, would you, hon?"

I'd studied Nelle, subtly, I hoped, at the Best Western, at the catfish pond, and now here at Wanda's. Each time her humor and her down-to-earth demeanor struck me.

There was an edge there, too, though, of suspicion or impatience, and I didn't want to set it off. Tom had warned me she had a temper. When something set her off she could get creative with her cursing, her salty "Conecuh County English," in Tom's words.

"Have you been back to the courthouse?"

"Yes, I was there and I stopped in the history room in the library. I spent some time with Dale Welch." Nelle's expression softened.

"Dale's a good egg. She was a librarian, you know. And she taught. She's a reader, unlike most of the people around here."

As I was recounting my conversation with Dale, our food arrived, and I had my first look at sawmill gravy, poured over my biscuit. It was thick and white with bits of sausage. I had never learned to like gravy of any kind. At holiday time, my family knew not to pass the gravy boat my way. But if this was part of local culture, and possibly a test of my willingness to partake, I was going to eat it all and look like I was enjoying it, no matter what.

It was viscous stuff. I swallowed hard.

Nelle dug into her own biscuit and eggs with gusto. That surprised me a bit, because I'd read so much about her reserve. But that was at public events, I suppose. In person, her heartiness was appealing: her relish of the food and coffee; that big laugh; her obvious affection for Alice and Julia and Dale and Tom. I had assumed I would have to keep my distance from the famously private Harper Lee but I couldn't help but enjoy her company. She might have been prickly but she was a delightful companion.

From "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee," by Marja Mills. Copyright © 2014 by Marja Mills. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company.

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