As it happens, I've spent a long time not belonging to much family. My daddy was a union man, Mama worked at Chick-Fil-A.

Early morning. Belleville Avenue. That's me in the kitchen, eating bacon by the handful, wearing a coat and tie.

I just got engaged. My future in-laws are throwing a brunch. My soon-to-be aunt, Catherine, cooked nearly fifty pounds of bacon for this shindig.

I even bought a new shirt for this brunch. Also: a coat, necktie, and new belt—one without a buckle.

“You can't wear a BELT BUCKLE to an engagement party," proclaimed my future-spouse. "People will think you're a 'neck. You need a DRESS belt.”

What could be dressier than a fella waltzing around, sporting a Beechnut buckle the size of a pie-plate?

It would never do.

Earlier that week, my wife carried me to JC Penny's in Andalusia. She selected a skinny belt not fit for stroping a razor. And a fifty-dollar button-down with a shirt-tag reading: “wrinkle-free.”

I want my money back.

The doorbell rings. Folks in their Sunday best begin to arrive. I've never met these people before, I'm not sure they'll like me. I am sick-to-my-stomach nervous about it because I have

about as much sophistication as an empty mayonnaise jar.

Many guests are elderly. Lots of pastel colors. Strings of pearls. Floral hats.

An old woman hugs me. Then another. Then another. And I smell like lady's perfume in a matter of milliseconds.

Someone invites me to church. Another invites me drinking. One fella invites me to do both.

Next: my future uncle. He's a small Baptist man, with eyes that shine. He shakes my hand, tells me he loves me.

Then, I meet a fella with a prosthetic arm and a warm face. He hands me a silver dollar and winks. I still have that coin.

I meet ten Flossies, five Roberts, one Mary, two aunt Catherines, a Mary-Catherine, eleven Jims, nine hundred Jameses, the West Boys, a Ben, a Bob, a Bill, a Blake.

And one Bentley.

I meet aunts, cousins, childhood…

Today we wrapped Rascal in a blanket and took her to the vet. She laid in my wife's arms while she whispered, "You're a good girl."

Rascal's old. Too old to purr, she sleeps all day, she can't jump anymore. She's twenty years old.

Her back legs quit working months ago—arthritis. And she only eats soft food.

She came into this marriage as Jamie's illegitimate feline. Back then, Rascal was piss and vinegar, wrapped in fur, with a preference for squatting on expensive items.

I don't mind telling you: she used to hate me.

As a young cat, she'd glare at me like Rosemary's Baby. Once, she hid beneath our mattress to avoid a veterinary visit. I tried to remove her; she tried to sever a major artery.

Another time: she vomited in my dress-shoes. And once, on Christmas Eve night, she deposited a holiday miracle on my pillow.

But that's ancient history.

I'm not sure when it happened, but we fell in love. She quit despising me and started waiting in our windowsill for me to arrive home from work.

I even took her fishing once. I gave her a few baitfish. She tortured them, then licked their guts clean.

During football games,

she'd sit on our coffee table—beside my beer—watching TV. So help me, the cat watched television.

When I'd holler, “C'mon, dammit!” at Alabama's offense, she'd flick her tail.

And she's a daddy's girl. While I write stories, she sleeps on my desk, between my typewriter and computer. Or in my lap.

I went to pet her last night. A clump of twenty-year-old hair came off in my hand. Her skin is paper. She's been losing weight. Her bones are porcelain

God.

Time is running away. I've changed a lot in twenty years. You wouldn't even recognize the person I used to be, either.

I used to be stupid, impulsive, short-sighted. Long ago, I skipped a college English final to go on a fishing trip. I earned an F.

What was I thinking?

Some days, I look in the mirror and wonder…

...This is Old Florida, a place where everybody knows everybody. Where the school principal graduated with your daddy's fishing-buddy's cousin. Where gossip flies across Facebook faster than a greased hog.

Calhoun County, Florida—a small world bordered by the mighty Apalachicola. A rural community, forty minutes south of the Georgia line. A place where you can get live crickets at supermarkets. Where you can still buy plug tobacco.

It's a progressive area.

Here, for instance, they observe Goat Day—a holiday honoring goat-milking, banjos, hell-fire preaching, and greased pig chases.

It bears mention: I've chased a greased pig once—at a Baptist fair. I broke two ribs.

So welcome to Blountstown. It's more than a small town. It's Tonya Lawrence's life. She grew up in these schools, played softball on this dirt, shopped at The Pig, birthed Calhoun-County babies.

One day, she went to the doctor for a routine visit. The doctor ordered lab work. The results were a punch to the face. Her kidneys were shutting down.

Tonya says, “It was devastating, I always considered myself a strong person, but once I started dialysis...”

Yeah.

Seven nights a week, she hooked to a machine, watching her strength run through little tubes.

Her condition isn't just the kind that kills. It's

the sort that ruins your life first.

And there's a problem: kidney-donor lists are more exclusive than US congressional barbecues. It takes a long time to locate an organ. Best case scenario: seven to fourteen years.

Tonya's children will be filing for AARP by then.

Still, this is Old Florida, a place where everybody knows everybody. Where the school principal graduated with your daddy's fishing-buddy's cousin. Where gossip flies across Facebook faster than a greased hog.

Tonya's friends put the word out for donors.

But sadly, this isn't a fairytale. And drumming up vital organs isn't as easy as holding canned-food drives at the sheriff's station. Tonya waited.

In the meantime, she's received affection. Lots of it.

She's been fielding billions of phone calls, responding to texts, tapping out Facebook thank-yous. And I'm willing to bet she received enough gift baskets to…

Her first marriage ended when her husband got hooked on painkillers. One day, she found him unconscious. He almost overdosed. That's when her life changed.

She's had a hard life. I can tell. Her skin is rough, she's got wiry brown hair, and if I'm not mistaken, false teeth.

She's on class break, standing on the sidewalk. She offers me a smoke. I decline.

The closest I've ever come to being a smoker was sitting with my grandaddy while he lit his pipe.

I ask her why she's here.

She flicks her lighter and tells me, "Because I'm a flunky."

Her first marriage ended when her husband got hooked on painkillers. One day, she found him unconscious. He almost overdosed. That's when her life changed.

She took her kids and left.

“I tried to find a good job,” she says. “But there ain't good jobs out there for flunky losers, that's something I learned real fast.”

The first thing you should know: she's no flunky. In fact, she's the opposite. I don't know her, but I know her sort. She descends from a long line of South Alabamians who work like mutts.

"Two days after I left him," she says. "I signed up to take

GED prep classes."

School was hard. Hours were late. She was no spring chicken, and working a day-job makes a body tired. To make matters worse, she had a bad instructor.

“He was a jerk,” she remarks. “He talked too fast, and didn't care if we understood things.”

So, she took charge. She self-taught. Once she'd learned the material, she wandered from desk to desk, helping others diagram sentences, memorize multiplication, and solve for X.

Flunkies.

"Listen," she says "That test is tough, took eight hours to finish."

Eight.

"Had to break mine up into two days. I thought for sure I'd failed. I flat-out cried when they gave me my graduation slip.”

Her eyes glaze.

So do mine. All that smoke.

"I didn't think paper would matter so much," she says. "But it was like, I mean, when you…

The high-school parking lot is full. The school is plain-looking, with Old Glory flying in front. The small campus sits across the road from a cotton field

I'm watching the sun rise over Interstate 10. It's magnificent. My wife and I ride two hours until we land in Pace, Florida.

The high-school parking lot is full. The school is plain-looking, with Old Glory flying in front. The small campus sits across the road from a cotton field.

In the parking space beside me sits an old truck with Browning stickers on the back. Muddy tires.

This is Small-Town USA.

Miss Carrie gives us the dime tour. The school halls are lined with framed photos of seniors dating back to the Nixon administration. Each portrait is a history lesson in the evolution of bad American hairstyles.

“Our school's special,” Miss Carrie says. “Our staff has tried really hard to make it this special.”

She leads us into the yearbook room. There's a buffet loaded with biscuits, grits, and bacon.

Special.

My wife and I fix plates and meet the faculty. These are real folks—the sort with accents like your mama's Wednesday night Bible-study group. Some teachers have been here forty years. Other are wet behind

the ears. There's something different about this lot.

They believe in this cinderblock building.

“You're not gonna find many schools like us anymore,” says one woman. “We're old-fashioned.”

Miss Carrie shows me a plaque with student names. "I want you to see our exceptional students."

Exceptional. But not because of GPA's. These are students who overcome adversity, who help others. The kinds of qualities Pace thinks are important.

She taps the plaque. "This girl had a cognitive disorder, she had to work twice as hard as other kids. We're all really proud'a her. She deserves to be honored."

This must be heaven.

So, why am I telling you about an ordinary high school, sitting behind a plow field? You already know why. Because this is the American South. And it's precious.

Because this is a school with a hunting-fishing club that prints its…

There's a woman ahead of me at the sandwich counter. She has a son sleeping in a stroller. He's no baby. In fact, he's not even a small kid, he looks like a fifth-grader.

Freeport, Florida, 8:39 P.M.—Publix. It's halftime for the National Championship. I'm here to buy a sandwich. I just left a party at my friend's house.

Publix is quiet. I'm tired. I'm hungry. The food at the party was god-awful. My pal tried making Mexican cheese dip that tasted microwave-melted fertilizer.

So I'm here.

There's a woman ahead of me at the sandwich counter. She has a son sleeping in a stroller. He's no baby. In fact, he's not even a small kid, he looks like a fifth-grader.

She's wearing a “Roll Tide” sweatshirt.

And this makes us best friends.

So, we chat football.

While the young man at the counter makes her sandwich, she talks. She tells me she's recently moved back to town. She was raised here, but moved away when she got married.

I asked what brought her back.

"My divorce," she said. "I'm starting over."

Then, we're interrupted by her son.

No sooner does he open his eyes than he's screaming loud enough to affect the climate. He flails his arms. Cries. Kicks. She tries to hush him.

He

won't have it.

He throws a plastic toy at her. It hits her square in the face. Hard.

She doesn't react. She only looks at me and says, “He didn't mean that, it's just past his bedtime.”

Yeah.

She picks the kid up, holding him like a newborn. The boy is almost as tall as she is. His legs are limp.

Once her sandwiches are made and wrapped, her boy has calmed. She places him back in the stroller. She thanks the man behind the counter.

Then she looks at me. “I know this is weird, but would you mind watching my son while I go to the bathroom? He's finally relaxed, I don't wanna disturb him."

Absolutely, ma'am.

She walks toward the restrooms with her hands over her face.

She's only gone a few minutes. When she…

This Bellville-Avenue Belle grew up in a time of cotton dresses, bare feet, and decency. She has survived a handful of dear friends, thirteen US presidents, and one late husband who fished with firearms.

My mother-in-law fell yesterday. She stumbled in the garage. It was bad. She smacked her face on the pavement. She busted her glasses. And her nose. When I found her she was bleeding.

“We're going to the ER,” I said.

“I feel lightheaded,” remarked the white-haired Scarlett O'Hara.

“Yes, ma'am. Here, take my arm.”

“Wait, I need to brush my teeth before we go.”

“But you're bleeding all over.”

"These shoes don't match my belt, get my blue shoes from the closet, the sling-back heels.”

“But...”

“...And my lipstick, it's in my purse. I need my pearls."

Meet Mother Mary.

I've called her that ever since our first supper together. That was a long time ago. I remember the meal: rump roast, served with enough trimmings to make the table buckle.

For desert, we had pear salad—a half-pear topped with mayonnaise, shredded cheese, and a cherry. I ate every bite. but you should know: I'd rather lick a possum than eat pear salad.

I nearly choked.

Even so, that night Mary and I discovered we liked each other. She told me

to call her Mother Mary. It's all I've ever called her.

Before she was my mother-in-law, I visited once to take her daughter on a movie-date. Her husband answered the door with a twelve-gauge.

"Jamie's upstairs," he said. "Her mama and I are on the pier, fishing.”

Her daddy led me to the dock where Mother Mary was working a rod and reel. She started screaming, "I got one!"

Without saying a word, my wife's daddy aimed the double-barrel at the water. He unloaded two explosions and ten cuss words.

It was a speckled trout the size of a grown man's leg.

That night, we canceled our movie date and ate with my wife's parents. Fried fish, hushpuppies, French fries, okra, and anything else her daddy could stuff into a deep-fryer.

I'm hard pressed to remember having a better…

It's who I talk to when I'm alone. It's hymns I know by heart. It's my childhood pastor who once told me, "I'm sorry, son, your father's gone."

I wasn't going to write this. But I did anyway.

Yesterday, I got accused of being a Christian. It was an odd insult. He said the word hatefully.

I didn't answer.

So he said it again.

I paid my tab and walked outside to get some air.

The first thing you should know is that I had it coming. Earlier that evening, I'd asked the perfect stranger not to shout the F-word at the restaurant TV. He was watching a game. I don't even know which one.

My pal's six-year-old daughter was in a nearby booth. "Daddy," she said. "Is the F-word really Jesus' middle name?"

So I asked the man if he'd keep it down.

"Who the hell're you?" he said, standing. He towered over me by at least fifty thousand nautical miles. "You some mother #%*!ing Christian?"

It surprised me.

I've never been called that before. If he'd truly wanted me to wound me, he went about it all wrong.

This is the deep South. If you want to get a man riled, you call him

a "no good sumbitch," then strike a beer bottle briskly against an unforgiving surface.

A Christian.

I won't lie. I've spent a lot of time in church. Religion was in my drinking water. I've even attended services where snakes were handled. My cousin held one with both hands and said he felt the power of the Almighty vibrate his bones.

He sells used cars today.

Anyway, this fella wasn't just insulting me. He was referring to my heritage. The peanut-fields, the sod cabins, summer revivals, and clapboard houses of my ancestry.

The word "Christian" was engraved on my grandaddy's dogtag. And when the bullet struck him, he said the medics hollered his rank and denomination.

This word represents the best memories of my childhood. Sunday school with white-haired ladies who taught us to love fellow human beings—whether red, yellow, black, or white.…

This was a Depression, the only thing she had left was a voice. Her children hadn't eaten in two days. Her eldest boy was losing hair in clumps.

She was shouting in a general store, hollering until her voice broke.

And back in those days, women didn't holler.

It was a small store; a tiny town. It was the kind of market where the cashiers knew your name—and asked about your mama.

The screaming lady waved her finger at a man wearing a necktie. She was dressed in rags. She had wiry auburn hair, sad eyes, rough hands, three kids—filthy ones.

The owner asked the woman to lower her voice.

But the woman would not. She could not. This was a Depression, the only thing she had left was a voice. Her children hadn't eaten in two days. Her eldest boy was losing hair in clumps.

The store owner had no charity. He was new in town. He didn't know her from Adam, nor did he care for women who shouted.

She told him how the previous store owner let the family charge groceries on an account. On the first of every month, she put money toward the bill—though it was never enough.

He

wouldn't hear her.

She screamed, telling him she had no husband. She told him how she took in wash for a pittance. She pleaded for beans, salt pork, or even a few tins of hard biscuits.

The new shop owner was fresh out of pity, a business man. The only things he knew about this woman were in his logbook.

He removed the food from her basket by force. The kids wailed. She slapped him. He kicked her out and warned her not to come back until she settled her debt. Then he called the sheriff.

She left in tears.

For supper that evening: water and hollow tummies. The oldest boy later recounted that he was so hungry he felt drunk. Sometimes he laughed for no reason. Then cried.

The next morning, the family awoke to loud noises on the porch. She walked downstairs…

“My son had a distended belly from not eating proper, and he was close to slipping into a coma."

I used two words and made a fat mistake. I guess that's progress. Usually, it only takes me one word.

Anyway, I wrote about an adopted girl. I referred to her mother as an “adoptive mother.”

Poor choice of words. Mothers who adopt are REAL mothers. Those who give children up for adoption are "birth-mothers."

Adoptive mothers don't exist.

Sometimes I have the IQ of a room-temperature Budweiser.

That day, I received forty-two messages from parents of adopted children, and step-parents. They all had adoption stories. These were kindhearted letters from people with so much sweetness they make pound cake look bland.

I read each message aloud to my wife. It took me an afternoon to read through them—it was one of the finest afternoons I've had in a while.

Here's why:

One woman wrote: “I was working as a waitress. This girl who washed dishes was pregnant and told me in passing that she was going to abort her baby because her boyfriend had landed in jail...

"I didn't sleep all night. The next

day I just went right up to her, my hands were trembling, and asked if she'd let me and my boyfriend adopt.

"It's been a long road, but the bottom line is, my son is my pride and joy. I've never looked back. I just wanted you to know that I fully consider myself his real mother.”

As you should, ma'am.

Another friend writes: “When I heard I couldn't have kids it made me feel like I was a broken washing machine or something.

"The day we first held our baby girl my husband said I smiled so big... He says I looked like an unused coloring book who was finally getting colored in—I don't know if that makes sense.”

It does.

Someone else: “My son was born in a bad part of town... People were doing meth, trading drugs for sex. Later, we…