The two-man band plays something slow. Her voice is older than the brunette's, but she sings with more conviction.

Somewhere south of Montgomery—a girl sings on a barroom stage. She’s college-age. Brunette. Her family plays backup. Her daddy is on bass. Brother plays guitar.

She doesn’t do the American Idol act—no vocal gymnastics, no hair flinging. This girl sings Patsy Cline with her eyes closed.

A loudmouth in the crowd makes a gross remark. Her daddy stops playing. A man who weighs as much as a Pontiac bounces the would-be rowdy.

I’ve never visited this place before, but I’ve been to hundreds like it. There’s a spot like this on every American rural route. A glowing sign. Trucks parked around a cinderblock building. Broken cigarette machines.

My fellow Baptists hate this kind of den. But it's a good place to find honest lyrics.

The guitarist speaks into the mic, he calls the bartender to the stage. The crowd of mostly men cheer.

The bartender is a bottle-blonde, early-fifties, pink T-shirt. She’s got a dry voice that sounds like Virginia Slims.

She waited on me earlier. She had the bottle-cap off before I finished saying, "Budweiser." She said her name, but I couldn't

hear over the noise.

The two-man band plays something slow. Her voice is older than the brunette's, but she sings with more conviction.

“In the Sweet By and By,” is her first number. Then, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

By now, men have placed bottles on flat surfaces. We’re at the Meeting House.

She finishes with “Old Rugged Cross.” And if there’s a dry eye in the county, it’s probably made of glass.

She’s behind the bar again, refilling peanuts, dumping ashtrays. I tell her how much her singing moved me.

All she says is: “Thanks, hun.”

I press my luck and ask where she learned to testify like that.

She laughs. “My dad was a traveling minister. My whole family sang. We went from church to church, it’s how we survived.”

They sang four-part harmony…

Now, she helps folks who are near the end. It’s a heavy job, watching people die. But they say she has a gift for making it easier.

Hospice nurses work like dogs. But then, this woman has never been a stranger to work.

She's got strong eyes and wrinkles. Before she landed this gig, she was a hotel maid, raising two children. It was a tough life, but her kids ate.

Then her mother got sick.

“I sat with Mama every day at the end,” she said. “Our hospice nurse was off-the-chain awesome. If not for her, I don’t know how I woulda gotten through."

Her mother died in the morning. It was raining. The world turns ugly when people die.

That afternoon, she sifted through her mother's belongings. She found her mother’s framed high-school diploma. The glass was broken.

“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “Mama always wanted me to go to college. You know, have the opportunities she never had. Well hell, I never could. We'd always been so poor."

Well hell.

Anyway, she hadn't always been a hotel maid. At eighteen, she'd fallen into the role of a wife. He was a pipe-fitter. She gave him two kids and hamburger steaks

over rice each night. Things weren't great, but they were okay.

One day, he didn't come home. He sent his girlfriend to collect his things. There was a fight. Cops were involved.

She moved in with her mother, she looked for jobs in the newspaper. After a few years of making hotel beds, they were almost a happy family. Almost.

Then her mother’s diagnosis.

"It felt like my life was over," she said. "I was like, 'God, how much more $%#* can you throw at me?'"

So she threw it right back where it came from.

She enrolled in community college. She applied for student aid. She worked full-time, studied. She managed to keep everyone fed.

Her seventeen-year-old son contributed toward rent, her thirteen-year-old daughter cooked. At night, she helped the kids do homework. And when she opened nursing textbooks, they helped…

He’s a nice man, but I can tell he borderlines on being grumpy.

He’s old, sitting outside the restaurant on a bench. He's got white stubble on his face, shoes that have no laces, and a tattered ball-cap.

If I am lucky enough to see old age, I will wear a tattered ball-cap.

I sit beside him. I'm meeting a friend for lunch here. There's a fifteen-minute wait.

“You believe this great weather?” the old man says.

And the conversational ice is broken. Elderly fellas are experts at small talk. A lost art in today's age.

One day, I want to sit outside lunch joints and make remarks about the weather.

We talk. I learn that he's waiting for his daughter. He hasn’t seen her in a long time. She lives a few hours away. They’ve tried to meet for lunch several times, it never works. She's busy. So he drove to her.

He asks what I do for a living. I ask him the same thing.

He says, “Used to be a mechanic, owned my own garage. Never been so happy to retire. Everyone thinks you’re trying to screw’em when you own a garage. Life’s

too short.”

One day, God-willing, I will finish all my sentences with, “Life’s too short.”

During our chat, he checks his watch a dozen times. The hostess tells him there's a table ready. He answers, “No thanks, I’m still waiting on someone.”

He’s a nice man, but I can tell he borderlines on being grumpy.

But when he tells me about his kids, all signs of grumpiness vanish. He talks about his daughter—she's an interior decorator for famous people whose names he can't remember. He tells me how many grandbabies he has. Three.

His cellphone rings.

He slides on reading glasses to answer. He shouts into the receiver. “Can I help you?”

I will answer phones by shouting.

He listens. He frowns. “Of course, darling," he says. "Oh, sure, I understand. No, don’t worry. We’ll do it…

I pulled over for each whimper. Ellie Mae would leap from the vehicle and leave her signature on Arkansas, Mississippi, and every pasture in Alabama.

I traveled four states with a coonhound riding shotgun. She sat between me and my wife. She's a big dog—four hundred pounds of fur, stink, slobber, and hot breath.

She gets restless.

I pulled over for each whimper. Ellie Mae would leap from the vehicle and leave her signature on Arkansas, Mississippi, and every pasture in Alabama.

We spend the night at a KOA, since Marriotts frown on hound dogs drinking from their toilets. Our small cabin is near a pond overrun with geese.

Don—KOA campground host and the man who gets to drive the golf-cart—says, “Better watch them geese, they'll steal food off your table if you ain't careful.”

A few kids feed the birds with white bread. Ellie notices them. She takes the opportunity to go introduce herself. Ellie reasons that any child who would feed geese, would certainly feed a malnourished canine.

I sit on the porch and let her go.

Don relaxes in his golf cart. He wears a yellow KOA T-shirt and Georgia cap. He reaches into a cooler. “You want a beer?”


don’t get that kind of service at Marriotts.

Don is from Georgia. He and his wife travel the KOA circuit, working for peanuts and rent-free living.

He has a friendly face. And when he talks, he sounds like a trotline across the Coosa.

“Used to have a dog just like yours,” he says. “When I first seen her, brought back memories.”

Even though he's smiling, I recognize the look he’s wearing. I’ve buried enough good dogs to know it.

His late hound's name was Van. Her formal name was Savannah, but in this part of the world, dog-names are shortened to the fewest possible syllables.

Take me, for instance, I once had a Lab named Hurley Josiah. I called him Jo. He slept in my bathtub. A good boy. Hated thunder.

Another dog: Boone Bear. His nickname was Boo. I watched…

He fingerpicks the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I've never met this man, I know him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It's a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn't. It's more than that.

He plays a banjo downtown, Crestview, Florida. He’s a big fella, thick-bearded, with a personality so jolly he makes Santa look like a jerk.

“Whatcha want me to play?” he asks a few kids.

Somebody's mother asks, "Do you know ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’”

He does. And he plucks through it like a man whose beard is on fire. He plays this music like he belongs in a different world. An older one.

The world your great-grandparents came from—long before twenty-four-hour news channels.

He was homeless for a long time, and it's been hard on his body. He uses a wheelchair. Once, he even died on an operating table from a collapsed lung.

But he's a cheery son of a banjo.

He fingerpicks the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I've never met this man, I know him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It's a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn't. It's more than that.

It's a rural church, with wood floors. Where preaching is more like shouting, and the

pastor rolls up his sleeves to pray for folks.

It's a funeral procession made of cars with headlights on.

The music is salt peanuts in Coca-Cola, straw hats, and side-of-the-road boiled-peanut shacks.

Like the peanut stand I stopped at last week, outside Dothan. The old man filled my bag until I needed a forklift to move it.

“It's on the house,” the man said.

I paid him anyway.

The banjo-man isn't playing for onlookers at all. He's playing for men who hunted coon with oil lanterns, and women who could grow camellias in red clay dirt—and did.

Women like Miss Flora, whose hair is whiter than Elvis’ Resurrection suit. Who still remembers when the biggest news in the universe wasn't Facebook politics, it was a war in Europe.

“During the Great War,” Miss Flora says—tapping her foot to the banjo rhythm.…

It happened when he was on his way home from school for holiday break, years ago. He twisted his car around a tree. He should’ve died, but he didn’t.

He’s young. Mid-twenties I'd guess. He is bagging my groceries but he isn't paying attention. He is just looking at me.

So, I give him the nicest smile I can, then I make a startlingly obvious remark about the weather.

He answers by saying, "You like cheese?”

It feels like a trick question. So I plead the Fifth Amendment.

“It’s REALLY GOOD cheese,” he insists.

The cashier giggles, and I half-expect this kid to ask me to pull his finger.

But instead he whispers, “It just came in. You wanna go see it?”

"Go see what?"


How silly of me.

Thus, even though the cashier probably thinks I’ve fallen off my toy horsey, I follow him to the dairy section.

He walks with a limp, but he moves fast. I notice a large moon-shaped scar on the side of his head where hair doesn't grow.

“Hey Dan!” says my dairy-liaison to a man in a red apron. “This guy wants to see the CHEESE!"

The man leads me to a basket in the cooler case.

“This is it,” says the red apron. “We only get

it once a year. Comes from Georgia, aged thirty months.”

It doesn't look so special. I ask him if it’s truly as good as my broker advertises.

“It's pretty good,” he says. “If you’re into cheese."

“AND IT COMES IN A WHEEL!” the young man points out.

The older man explains how the cheese arrives in a big circular package, and how it’s up to the deli to slice the stuff.

Traditionally, such an honor is given to the most valued deli employee. This year, the privilege fell to a certain young bag-boy with a vibrant personality.

The kid’s face lights up like Biloxi. "I CUT THE CHEESE!" He laughs as hard as he can.


As it happens, besides being a champion cheese-cutter, I learn this kid was once a promising outfielder, and…

I don't care what your friends say, your bosses, professors, or old Lou himself. If anyone says you're lacking, they're wrong.

I don't know how to put this, so I'll just come right out and say it.

You are enough.

Maybe you don't need to hear that. But I feel it's important to tell you since some folks are sending today's kids a different message. One that says you AREN'T enough.

And they're full of Shinola.

I don’t know where these screwy messages come from. But just for laughs, let's say they come from a radio-tower operated by a fella named Lou—who has goat horns and a pitchfork.

And these radio broadcasts play inside our brains. They go something like:

“Welcome to tonight's broadcast of: You're a Big Stinking Loser, Kid. Tonight's episode: Top Ten Reasons Why You'll Never Amount To Spit. Now let's take our first caller..."

Everyone's radio picks up Lou’s god-awful programs. Both rich and poor people. And after listening to Lou for a while, these folks start to feel unsatisfied. And it's a feeling that's spreading like black fever.

Chances are, even your mailman feels dissatisfied—just ask him.

Today, too many young folks feel like they

aren't enough. To fix this, some kids find heroes who they consider MORE than enough. These are usually the wrong heroes— celebrities with fat bank accounts and fake body parts.

And this is exactly what Lou wants.

But you should know: Lou is a liar. And I know this because he still owes me money from the Super Bowl.

So don't listen to him. Don't be one of those kids who tries to measure up to Lou’s ridiculous ideas.

If you want to know my opinion, here it is:

You came out of your mama’s belly. Which was no easy task. Your mama probably screamed bloody murder, squirting you into this world. You should've seen yourself, you were something else. When folks caught glimpses of you, they couldn't help but stare.

And on that day, you weren't just “enough.” You were…

When I pay at the pump, I hear a voice. It's a man. He makes a beeline for me, hollering, “Hey boss!” He's old, wearing a backpack and an Army ball-cap. His eyes are bloodshot.

Prichard, Alabama—I’m pumping gas. This is a bad part of town. The kind of place you see on the evening news, where they string yellow tape on people’s porches.

Here, locals often speak to news cameras, saying: “He seemed like such a nice man, pumping gas, minding his business, then WHAM!”

I should’ve waited to buy gas somewhere else.

I see a man pushing a shopping cart full of tin cans. After him: two women in leopard-print Spandex, probably on their way to Bible study.

When I pay at the pump, I hear a voice. It's a man. He makes a beeline for me, hollering, “Hey boss!” He's old, wearing a backpack and an Army ball-cap. His eyes are bloodshot.

He says, “Help a veteran out, man. I'm a veteran. I swear. You wanna see my veteran card?”

I shake his hand and introduce myself. He misunderstands me when I tell him my name and calls me “John.”

This man's breath is strong enough to kill mosquitoes.

I reach for my wallet. All I have is a ten and

a Target gift card. I hand them over.

It's not much, but he thanks me and says, "John, I'm gonna use this to buy food, John, I promise."

I wish he’d quit calling me that.

Anyway, modern wisdom says it’s unwise to give money to men like this. And maybe that's true. But, I come from a long line of men who do stupid things with cash.

My great grandaddy, for instance, was a card-playing gambler and a whiskey sipper.

My father was frivolous in a different way. Once, I rode to Franklin with Daddy. He picked up a hitchhiker. We rode some two hundred miles while that young man talked Daddy's ear off. He was filthy, and smelled like a substance commonly found in cattle pastures.

My daddy just listened.

We pulled into a truck stop. Daddy bought him lunch,…

I'm sorry, I have no answers, I'm a fella who doesn't even have qualifications to make a Labrador sit and stay. But I do know how you can feel better.

Marie was a Waffle-House waitress with two kids. She smoked like a fish, worked like a trail horse, and was self-conscious about her teeth.

Several of us fellas used to visit her every weekday morning for breakfast.

Once she showed me a bronze token.

“I've been in recovery for nine years," she said. "My boyfriend got me into meth, it almost killed me. I’ve learned that sharing my embarrassing secrets is what sets me free...”


Like the man I know whose mother lived with him. She died in his living room. I’ve known this man a while—he lived four houses down. He borrowed my lawnmower once. I thought he lived alone.

I asked him why he never talked about his mother.

He said, “Aw, everybody's got problems, nobody wants to hear about mine.”

Then, there's the secret I learned at my friend’s second wedding. The same fella I’ve known for years—since his long-haired days.

“My ex-wife used to beat me,” he admitted. "She’d throw things, hit me, kick me… Once, she punched me so hard, I had to have eye

surgery. I was too humiliated to talk about it.”

Or: Deidra—which isn't her name. She's wife to the pastor of one of those Six-Flags-Over-Jesus churches that have Chick-Fil-A's in the lobbies. Her husband has been cheating on her and stealing church funds.

She finally left him, but his sins never surfaced. Instead, he told his congregation that Deidra had robbed the church blind.

She’s been in therapy two years, battling ideas of suicide.

That brings me to my daddy, a man I write about often—probably too often. And I won’t beat around the bush, he was a tortured soul.

But he was also a good man, trapped in a vicious brain. His self-inflicted death came as a shock to anyone who knew him, even close friends. But then, few knew the hell he suffered in secret.

How could they?…

Every good thing in my life can be traced back to that night—the evening I became who I am. With her I have everything. Without her I'm a blind man.

It was a Wednesday. I know this because on Wednesdays the Baptist church had family suppers.

And although I wasn't exactly a faithful Sunday churchgoer, I was a devout mid-week supper-eater.

That night, I stood in line behind a girl, holding my plate. She was funny. She had so much personality she hummed like a neon light.

Later, I sat beside her during service. That week, there was an out-of-town preacher. The kind with big hair, sweat rags, and nice shoes. He invited people to walk the aisle to get born again.

My pal, Craig,—who lost his religion every football season—recommitted for his thirtieth time. He said he felt something in the air that night.

I did too.

When service let out, the girl wasn’t ready to go home. Neither was I. So, I suggested we drive. She liked the idea—though I’ll never know why.

I pointed my vehicle east, we headed for nowhere, traveling as slow as my engine would run. The miles of pines made her more chatty. She propped her feet on my dashboard and

let the words roll.

She talked about things. About how she saw the world, about her favorite kind of mustard, about religion, and the proper way to eat fried chicken.

I gave one-syllable responses because I didn't want to interrupt. She had a voice that sounded like Escambia County in June.

By the time we landed in Port Saint Joe, her one-sided conversation had faded to a stop. I looked at her. She was sleeping.

So, I pulled into a gas station and got lukewarm coffee.

On the ride back, I thought long and hard. Not just about the sleeping girl, but about how I'd gotten a late start in life. And about how my childhood was a pitiful one.

So pathetic, in fact, it embarrassed me to talk about—kind of like I'm doing now.

When my father died, he left a…