I don't know what it is about shoes and poverty. They're the first things to go when times get rough; first things you buy when you can.

They were poor. Deep-fried poor. So destitute, they didn't have running water. And according to my sources, they cooked meals over an oil drum. The kids had hardly any meat on their bones.

They say the pastor visited their house with money. The father refused the money, claiming things were looking up. But this was a Depression. There was no up.

The pastor left a check anyway. And I understand he cashed it before lunchtime.

The first thing school kids noticed were her new shoes. Red leather ones, she loved red. I don't know what it is about shoes and poverty. They're the first things to go when

times get rough; first things you buy when you can.

The oldest girl walked with a bounce in her step, down the school hallways. She was a nice-looking girl, who rarely spoke. Nobody paid her any mind. Too bad. She had an angel-face. I suppose ratty clothes are hard for junior-high brats to look past.

It was during field class—when kids changed into white T-shirts and white shorts and exercised outside. She left her new bright-colored shoes in her locker.

When class was over, her shoes were gone.

They say she cried…

What we need are people with jumper cables, men unafraid to open doors for girls, and Samaritans—who don't give a blessed hallelujah about money. Good people, who don't use foul language except in heavy traffic.

“Nobody likes me, I'm a loser,” claims my friend's son, Billy.

Loser.

That's a sad word, coming from nice-looking Billy. Today, he's as blue as a twelve-year-old can be. I asked his daddy where Billy got this ludicrous notion.

“Group of boys,” he said. “Middle-school cliques, you remember how it was.”

Do I.

In middle school they elected me president of the Mouth-Breathers Association of America. I still have my tiara somewhere. So unpopular did I become, I approached my forgetful grandfather for advice one day. My grandaddy pulled me aside and he left me there.

Billy, listen up, I want to tell you about my friend, Murphy. Murphy sought

popularity, too. When Murph was seventeen, he wanted to fit in with the athletes—who all had tiny eagle tattoos above their left nipples. We tried to talk him out of it, but Murph had a will of iron.

So, a carful of us drove two hours into the bad part of town. After Murph worked up a whiskey-glow, he stumbled into a parlor and proclaimed, “Hey, I wanna tatermy misshongreat sallerwacky.”

They knew what he meant.

We boys waited outside, watching various folks dressed in leather walk by. One woman…

“He was a coon hunter. He and his buddies were some of the only men I knew who went after coons at night. But he was also an artist..."

“Would you write a tribute about my dad?” John asked. “I don't mean publicly, just something for my family, his birthday's coming up. I wasn't sure if you did that kinda thing.”

Well, not really, John, but how about a little information? Maybe I can help.

“Okay, he was an abused kid, our grandfather beat him and his brothers. Sometimes bad. My grandfather was awful, I believe that's why my daddy never got mad about anything. Even when my brother backed the car into the garage... Dad just laughed.

“He worked in a pulp mill since the sixties, loved hunting dogs, he thought my mama was a frickin' goddess, he liked humor, too. I think he would'a liked you.”

You've got my attention now, John.

“He was a coon hunter. He and his buddies were some of the only men I knew who went after coons at night. But he was also an artist. He painted, I still have lots of his paintings, and his wood carvings. When Mama died, he got into whittling pretty

good.”

A coon-hunting millworker, who likes hounds, painting, and whittling. Keep talking.

“He carved bears, buffalo, coyotes, and all sorts of animals from out West. But it was funny, because in reality, he never really travelled anywhere outside Dallas County.

“Oh, and there's one time, he saved someone's life. Yeah, he was on his way home and saw a car on the shoulder, this guy was choking, dad said his face was purple, the guy would'a probably died.”

A good Samaritan.

“No, he was a Methodist, but not a serious one, you know?"

My favorite kind.

“Everyone invited him to parties, he was the life of parties, had a million jokes he could run through, like the one about the farmer's daughter and the...”

This is a family story, John.

“After he died, our family kinda fell apart, it's hard getting together, 'cause he was…

My waitress was a doll. She kept calling me sweetheart, which sounded more like, “sweehar.” Her name-tag read: Luanne. She couldn't have been more than eighteen. A rough eighteen.

I took the long way home. I drove through miles of dead cornfield. It was like riding through an upside-down whisk broom. Then, green fields, fat clouds, ranches on two hundred acres. Ten, maybe twenty dead possums. Lots of old implements laid to rest in pastures.

I passed inmates on the side of the road, using commercial lawn equipment. They were wearing stripes. I haven't seen stripes in a long time.

I stopped at a rural gas station for tater logs. I once had a friend from Sacramento whose shoes cost more than my coonhound. He didn't know what tater logs were. I pity the soul who's never eaten a tater log.

I drove past trailer hair-salons, and women hanging clothes on honest-to-goodness clotheslines—something I haven't seen since I used to pee the bed.

I blew past a speed trap in Beaver Creek; a cemetery behind a

gas station; a kid advertising a carwash in Milligan; a stray dog with a rabbit in its mouth.

I stopped at an antique store. Two older fellas sat out front. They didn't care if I bought anything, they were glad to have company.

A cooler sat on the porch. One man opened it and said, "You wanna buy some homegrown 'maters?”

These tomatoes looked decidedly suspicious. I've seen my share of handpicked fare. This wasn't it.

“You sure they're homegrown?” I asked.

“Course I'm sure, they had to come from SOMEBODY'S home.”

Then he laughed, because putting the shuck on out-of-towners is an Alabamian pastime.

I passed John Deere dealerships, feed stores—the kind where you can buy anything from cases of beer to Wrangler jeans.

I didn't care if I ever got home.

Long ago, I knew a kid afraid of anything that smelled…

One man invited me hunting. Another invited me to church. One man offered to take me on a drinking trip with fishing poles.

I was going to write about something else, but I can't do it. Not after last night. It wouldn't be fair to the good people I saw.

This is a small town. Our band played music in a small abandoned storefront with dusty floors and plywood on the windows.

I asked about the plywood windows. Someone said that recently, two different vehicles smashed into this place. The surprising part was: both drivers were stone sober—if you don't count beer.

Anyway, I believe it. No sooner had I arrived in town, than someone shoved a longneck in my hand.

I met country accents. I met kids. I met a fella

with so many freckles, he put buckshot to shame. I met an elderly woman who said she'd skipped her nightly meds— since they would've made her drowsy. She said, “I don't want to fall asleep and snore during your music. Or worse.”

I didn't ask her what could be worse than snoring.

In the front rows: my friends, my wife's friends, my family, cousins, surrogate aunts, somebody's lap dog, and folks who were at my wedding.

I shook hands with opposing mayor candidates, and swore that—if I were a resident here—I'd…

Anyway, I once heard a radio preacher claim that people are all one and the same. That we're all drops of water belonging to one ocean. Sinners and saints.

It's early. Pitch black. I'm staring into the dark woods outside my house. If it wasn't so pretty, it'd be eerie.

Only a few nights ago, we were outside Atlanta. At a big gas station, there was a boy pumping gas. He was happy, black, maybe nineteen. Beside him: a beat-up compact car full of boys. They spoke with strange accents.

They were from Mali. They said they were driving to Florida. They heard there are lots of new-construction jobs there.

The kid said, “We're new American citizens, last week. We take test and everything."

When he said it, his friends looked at each other like they'd just discovered teeth.

I congratulated him,

then apologized for our politicians.

Before he left, he said, "God bless America."

And he meant it.

The week before, a Decatur, Alabama barbecue joint—I saw a woman with her wheelchair-bound mother.

The elderly woman shouted, “I gotta pee!”

The girl rolled her to the restroom. And for all I know, she helped her mother tend to business, too. When they came back, her mother kissed her on the forehead. She held her face and said, "My sweet Marilyn."

Marilyn said, "Love you, Mom."

Then she hand-fed…

At sunset, the sky lights up pink. By then, you'll be thinking about important stuff—frog-noise helps with that sort of thing.

Shame on her. She brought her kid into a bar. Well, it's more of a burger joint. Dusty floors. Loud people. Lousy beer. Televisions blaring. Great burgers.

She's wearing a Walmart shirt and name-tag. Her little boy is eating the same thing I am. A cheeseburger.

The television is rolling footage of recent floods, bodybags, crime scenes, explosions, outbreaks. I can see the look on the boy's face watching the screen. He's troubled.

One headline reads: "The end of the world?"

That does it. He pushes his burger away. "Mama, I'm scared."

To tell you the truth, I don't blame Junior for feeling disturbed. Because I'm disturbed too. Everything

on television is god-awful. And I'm sorry to say, it only gets worse.

I'm talking about screaming congressmen, overpaid athletes, and celebrities who, for personal reasons, conscienciously object to underpants.

Then there's child murder, animal abuse, cyber terrorism, killer mosquitoes, killer fungi, undercooked chicken, ozone holes, reality TV, Korea, Isis, and suicidal McDonald's employees. And if that's not enough to scare the shucks out of you, watch a little politics.

I won't lie to you, Junior. It's bad. We have everything from soft-porn in supermarkets, to beheadings in the headlines. You…

She laid in a casket looking as beautiful as ever, which seemed wrong. Dead people aren't supposed to be pretty.

Somebody once told me the secret to life was learning how to breathe. I don't know if that's true or not, but he was a doctor, you'd think he knew something.

He said people don't breath deeply or slowly enough. And that, over time, this causes them to—scientfically speaking—feel like hell.

It hit close to home. As a child, my mother had acute asthma. I can't recall anything more frightening than seeing her gasp. She had an old metal respiratory machine that weighed a hundred pounds and had tubes on it—a predecessor to the inhaler.

I'd lug it onto her bed, and watch her breathe into it. Sometimes

it helped. Other times it didn't.

My close friend's mother also had asthma. I remember her well; outgoing, loud, laughed a lot. My father took me to her funeral. She laid in a casket looking as beautiful as ever, which seemed wrong. Dead people aren't supposed to be pretty.

After service, my father and I ate fried chicken on the hood of his truck. We loosened our neckties and watched the bright red sky that follows sundown. I started crying.

Perhaps it was because I was thinking of Mama. Or: I was…

One day she got a call. An IED bomb. He was on routine security patrol. It was nasty.

He started college. To his wife's knowledge, he's one of the only forty-year-old students wandering around campus. But there are probably others like him.

His wife said he was surprised at how the fashions have changed throughout the years. When we were much younger, folks dressed different. Girls, for instance, wore enough to cover their hindparts. Boys tucked in their shirttails. Today, kids have primary-colored hair.

He's interested in teaching agriculture, has been for a long time. I've never understood this. The world is a huge place, with lots of exciting things happening. Why study cattle mating practices, or how to recycle goat pellets?

It's been a long

time coming for him. He's got two daughters, who look alarmingly like his mother did at their ages. And her. He's been with her his whole life. I've never known him with another. So many years have they been together, I can't say his name without saying hers.

Their friendship started way before high school, on a playground. He plucked a handful of tall grass and told me, “I'm gonna ask her to marry me.”

"Nice. What's the grass for?"

"It's a bouquet, stupid."

It seemed like a good idea at the…

I bid them goodnight. She tried to pay me for gas. I refused.

I have a thing about railroad crossings. I like them. Once, I sat parked at one for twelve minutes, watching freight car after freight car in the dark.

In my passenger seat: a woman in her thirties, Mexican, ninety-five pounds sopping wet. Her children mixed—looking more black than latino. Her oldest kept asking me, “You gonna stay for cena?”

The other boy chimed in. And pretty soon, they were threatening suicide if the seventeen-year-old with red hair didn't stay for supper.

Hers was a bad neighborhood; the area had gone to pot. It might've been nice once-upon-a-time, but the front porches had bars on the windows.

I sat in her

den while she, her aunt, and her cousin cooked.

Her boys showed me their toys—different-colored blocks of wood. They were building a city. The youngest was King Kong, smashing the metropolis to pieces. A stray block hit his brother on the lip. That did it.

King Kong died, right there.

Supper was Hamburger Helper. Not the good kind, but the cheap, off-brand variety. I've eaten expired hog livers that tasted better. Her sons went back for seconds. King Kong led the charge.

I helped with dishes. It was a manual…