by Snowden Wright
At the tractor-frequented intersection of Arnold and Berryville Roads near Benton, Mississippi, there once stood a one-room shack with two gas pumps out front, a long-drop outhouse in the back, and, next to the front door, a rotating cast of stray dogs. My father would take my siblings and me to that country store whenever we visited our family farm located a short ways down the road. Every time we came, my brother and sister and I would use the outhouse for the novelty rather than from necessity, acquiesce when the latest stray dog offered its belly for a scratch, and run into the poorly lit, poorly air-conditioned store, where we would be greeted by its proprietor, Q.T. Campbell.
“Hey there, Wright children!”
Q.T. was a short man with coriaceous skin and glasses like two Petri dishes fastened together side-by-side. He walked with a slight limp and had hands big as old-time baseball gloves. On first meeting Q.T., however, most people didn’t notice any of those traits. Instead, they noticed and, if they had any manners worth a damn, tried not to stare at his face, which had been hind-kicked by a mule when he was a small child. The deformity that resulted from the kick left one side of his face shifted about an inch south on the other side.
For reasons I did not yet know, Q.T. would treat us like royalty. He’d limp out from behind the counter and shuffle across the puncheon floor to welcome us. “Mister Snowden! Miss Taff! Mister Parker!” His accent was the same mix of Hill Country and Delta as the county in which he lived. “Y’all pick yourselves out some candy and a Co’-Cola while I go tend to your dad,” Q.T. would say before walking outside to gas up our father’s truck.
Q.T.’s store was basically an authentic version of a Cracker Barrel gift shop: dingier but more dignified, its dusty shelves lined with boxes of saltines, cans of tuna, cans of chicken stock, cans of sardines, motor oil, WD-40, boxes of nails, and cat food. We always headed straight to the refrigerated display case by the front counter. Inside it, protected from the chocolate-melting Mississippi heat by a cool pane of glass, lay boxes of candy: Snickers, Hershey’s, Mr. Goodbars, Milky Ways, Kit Kats, M&M’s, Reese’s. After deciding on our preference, my sister and brother and I would move on to the sliding-top cooler, where the various sodas were kept. My favorite combo was a Dr. Pepper and a Butterfinger.
After coming back into the store, Q.T. would retrieve the candy we called out, ring it up along with our drinks, and put everything on our father’s running monthly tab. “Don’t forget to see if you won a prize,” Q.T. would often say before we left, referring to the common practice in those days when soft-drink companies would print instant-win sweepstakes prizes inside the twist-off bottle caps. I never saw Q.T. happier than when he was able to give me the free Dr. Pepper I’d won.
Years later, long after Q.T. passed away, I asked my father why he’d always treated us so well. “Your grandmother, my mother,” he said, “she went to school with Q.T. Whenever the other boys on the playground picked on him because of his face, she was the only one who stood up for him. She even whupped some of those boys’ asses for picking on him. So when Katherine Ledbetter’s grandchildren came to his store, it was a special day for Q.T.”
That story loitered in my thoughts as I worked on my second novel, seemingly aimless and possibly criminal, distracting me from the fictional narrative I was trying to create. American Pop concerns a family from Mississippi that founded the world’s first major soft-drink company. Aside from our mutual home state, the family in the novel is nothing like my own. Therefore, I figured my family’s history, while I fabricated that of another one, would go sit in the corner, keep its filthy mouth shut, and think about what it had done.
I can be a bit of a snob about autobiographical fiction. Why rehash your own life when you can invent an infinite number of different ones? Although I’ve written plenty of personal essays about my own lived experiences, I’ve always prided myself on writing fiction that is largely separate from my biography, a flexing of what I consider the most important muscle for a novelist: the imagination. As I wrote American Pop, though, I came to learn that memories, no matter how hard you try to avoid them, tend to show up spontaneously in a work of fiction, tiny skeletons inside an owl pellet.
Because I wrote the novel in Mississippi, where I hadn’t lived since I left for college, the sensations I remembered from childhood found their way into every chapter of American Pop — the wail of cicadas and the mind-boggling heat, the tang of comeback sauce and the midday asphalt haze — to the extent that I assumed I had more than enough inspiration to get me through the entire novel.
It wasn’t even close to enough.
To fix that problem, I looked deeper into my memories of growing up in the South, finding stories that accompanied the sights, tastes, smells, feelings, and sounds I was experiencing for the first time in years. I remembered my father’s Chevy Silverado, extended-cab and cloth-upholstered, with a cassette deck that, for six excruciating months in the early nineties, played Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable album on repeat. Each December, we used to ride around the farm in that truck, searching for the perfect cedar to be our family Christmas tree. I remembered the stray dog who wandered up to our cabin on the farm and decided to hang around for the next few years. We named him Lucky — because we figured that’s what he was to have found us — though his luck ran out when a trespassing poacher, tired of his scaring away the deer, poisoned his food.
More helpful than the stories I lived through were the ones I didn’t. Take my grandfather, a man who, like me, distrusted teetotalers and all the other breeds of ne’er-do-ill. My father once told me, referring to his father’s penchant for gambling, “The Delta was his playground,” a sentence that bloomed into a chapter of American Pop centered on a game of poker played in that beautifully tragic, tragically beautiful region of Mississippi. Even the store about Q.T. Campbell, how a simple childhood act of kindness engendered a loyalty that carried on through generations, wove itself, unbidden, into the novel via a similar character.
A few miles from Q.T.’s store, on the farm where I wrote much of American Pop, stands an old pecan grove. Until it burned down fifty years ago, the house where my grandmother was raised used to sit in the middle of the grove, shaded by the trees’ bushy foliage, its slate roof frequently thudding with their dropped nuts. I decided to build a house in that same spot. While the house was under construction, I periodically took photos of it to document the progress. I often look at one photo in particular. Next to the half-finished house rests a six-foot-high pile of rubble and concrete, the remnants of the foundation to my grandmother’s house.
I had to dig it up before I could build my own.
Images by Snowden Wright.
Snowden Wright, born and raised in Mississippi, is the author of the novel American Pop, a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Okra Pick, WSJ+ Book of the Month and selection for Barnes and Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Columbia University, he has written for The Atlantic, Salon, Esquire, The Millions and the New York Daily News, among other publications, and previously worked as a fiction reader at The New Yorker, Esquire and The Paris Review. Wright lives in Atlanta, Georgia.