The older he got, the harder it was to speak. He became the butt of a few high-school jokes from fools who couldn't look past his slow-moving mouth.

He had a lot to say—only he couldn't say it.

Whenever he'd open his mouth, it was like, “...someone took hold of my throat," he said. "The words just got all tangled up.”

I knew him back then. He lived to ride horses. And his stuttering might have been the reason for that. On horseback, he could go a whole day without saying anything, which suited him just fine. Because whenever he did open his mouth, it was like trying to extract a tooth. His eyes blinked, his face grimaced. Embarrassment mixed with determination.

Inevitably, someone would finish his sentence for him.

“I hated that,” he

said. “People think they're helping you out when they do that, but they're not. It's like they're kinda saying, 'Geez, man, I'm sorry you stammer so bad.'”

The older he got, the harder it was to speak. He became the butt of a few high-school jokes from fools who couldn't look past his slow-moving mouth. His confidence went down, he quit spending time in the company of his peers—more time in the company of horses.

“I just didn't fit in,” he said. “And if ever I was around girls, I just prayed…

I won't lie to you, she's ruined my vehicle. You'll find dog saliva on my truck windows, seats, and dashboard.

Right now, a big lump of black fur is busy snoring at my feet. She sounds like a diesel semi-truck warming up on a cold morning.

This dog does almost everything alongside me. She eats what I eat. She goes everywhere I go. Even on long road trips. We've been doing this for years now.

In fact, each day around ten o'clock—which is when I run errands—she sits at the front door, whimpering. Every few seconds, she'll trot up to me. Then to the door. To me. To the door. Me. Door. Me. Door. Back and forth, until she's a blurry streak of fur

and dander.

I won't lie to you, she's ruined my vehicle. You'll find dog saliva on my truck windows, seats, and dashboard. And, there's enough black hair in there to build a special kind of black-and-tan snowman. But it doesn't bother me. I carry a lint brush.

The other day, I took Ellie to Geneva, Alabama. I drove backroads. We rode past a scenic, open field just off Highway Two. I pulled over. If you've ever wondered where Heaven is, it's on the way to Geneva.

I kicked the door open and tossed…

This place hasn't had a real congregation for a half a century, hardly anyone lives nearby anymore. But that doesn't matter. Because when he's in here, his face lights up.

“This place was our life,” he said. “Growing up, going to meeting was everything.”

The country chapel sat empty, lights off. It looked more like a shed in an overgrown pasture than it did a church. Daylight peeked through the clapboards, the floor made creaky sounds. Seeing it from the road, it resembles a leftover from another world.

"See up there?" He pointed above the choir loft. “A hornet's nest was right up yonder, long time ago. As a boy, I had to knock it down. Whoooo-weee! I got stung to beat the band.”

This place hasn't had a real congregation for a half a

century, hardly anyone lives nearby anymore. But that doesn't matter. Because when he's in here, his face lights up. It's the same grin your face might have when you bump in to one of your aunts at Piggly Wiggly.

“Folks don't understand,” he said. “This weren't juss our religion. It was life. Out here in the sticks, some of us didn't have running water, women come here just to use the communal washing machine out back. Ladies all took turns.”

A different era.

He pointed to the rotary phone. “Most folks didn't have…

Hell is a remote-control away, you can see it any time you want. Which is probably why folks think there's more hate out there than love.

New Orleans, Louisiana—I saw a homeless man playing guitar. His Labrador sat nearby. His singing voice sounded like a tin bucket scraping against concrete.

The man's cardboard tip-box was overflowing. Folks took turns throwing handfuls of money in, then they stroked the dog.

The man said he'd found the dog underneath a bridge, years earlier. When he found her, she was even skinnier than he was. He gave her all the food he had, and went to bed hungry.

“This is my girl,” the man said, patting the Labrador's ribcage. "I thank God for her every day. And she's my biggest money-maker. Without her, we wouldn't eat. People

just love her.”

But not as much as he does.

Mobile, Alabama—inside Target, a woman's purse fell from her cart, she didn't know it. Without skipping a beat, a scruffy boy in a hoodie came behind her. He gathered the contents, then chased after her.

“Ma'am!” he said. “Your purse!”

You should've seen the look on her face.

And mine.

Pensacola, Florida—a parade downtown. I watched an old man struggle to keep up with his family. He moved slow with his walking stick, then fell knees-first on the sidewalk.…

This woman could write the book on how to be a grandmother.

It's one in the morning, I'm in the ER waiting room with my wife. I have a gash in my foot from stepping on a piece of glass the size of a Dorito.

I'm only here for a tetanus shot and—God-willing—a free lollipop.

The waiting room is empty except for a white-haired lady at the desk who looks a lot like Aunt Bee. She talks like she's from a hundred years ago. Back when every child was either honey, sweetie-pie, or sugar; when women wore housecoats, put baking soda on bee stings, and fed anything that moved.

In only a few seconds, Bee manages to complete paperwork, fit me with a

plastic bracelet, and ask about my favorite baseball teams.

Through the automatic double doors walks a young couple. A girl clutching her chest.

“Oh, good heavens, what's the matter?” Aunt Bee says.

The boy can't get the words out. “M-m-my wife, she just woke up, short of breath...”

This fella is about as helpful as a pair of muddy boots. Bee turns her attention toward the girl. “Tell me what's wrong, baby.”

The girl says, “Panic... Attack...”

Bee escorts her to a seat. The girl is huffing while Bee…

He fried his catfish whole, smother-fried his dove, and whatever he did with squirrel was heaven on a fork.

When I first met him, it was early morning. He picked me up in his old truck, and we zipped off to Brewton, Alabama. The truck smelled like the backside of a filthy goat.

He botched my name. He called me either Shane, Sheen, or Seen. The Irish spelling didn't register in his brain. He finally settled on calling me, Jeezus, because of my beard.

I called him Brother Jim.

His religion was food. He believed in slaving at the stove, and he wouldn't fix his own plate until everyone had too much on theirs.

"You're looking puny," he'd say. "Getcha some more."

And then I'd go back for seconds,

thirds, and dessert.

He fried his catfish whole, smother-fried his dove, and whatever he did with squirrel was heaven on a fork. He barbecued like a fool, made his burgers too thick, and his creamed corn gave my life purpose.

He took me fishing, I caught several bream. He'd squeeze their bladders, making them squirt urine on my face.

He told jokes, long ones. He full-mooned me whenever he saw me riding up the driveway.

If you knew him, you'd know he had his share of problems. He made mistakes.…

My first instinct was to swipe my hand through the colors. The cows nearby watched me with big eyes while I behaved like a six-year-old.

"STOP THE TRUCK!" my wife screamed.

She scared the stuffing out of me. I slammed the brakes and nearly swerved into the ditch. I came to a stop in the middle of a cattle pasture.

"A rainbow!" she said, staring at a giant arch of color. “Can you BELIEVE it?”

I could believe a lot of things, but I wasn't in the mood to squeeze out a kidney stone over a rainbow.

This is because only few days earlier, our vacation had been full of thunderstorms and sadness. Jamie's father had just died—she was a wreck. And on top of everything else, it had been raining.

All week, we'd stayed inside

the condo playing five-card draw, using Cheetohs for poker chips, watching the rain.

So, we ended our trip early and left for home. And as fate would have it, as soon as we traveled three miles outside town, the weather broke. The sun busted through the clouds—it looked like God was announcing summer.

And so, there we stood, staring across ten acres of fresh Alabamian cow pies, watching moisture evaporate into color.

"Is that the tail?” she asked, pointing.

So help me God, the end of the rainbow was…

The truth is, people don't talk or behave this way anymore. Often, when young folks open their mouths, they do it while gazing at smartphones.

Donald has a Southern drawl that won't quit. It's the same accent many older folks from his walk of life have.

I wish you could hear him. He sounds like an afternoon in the shade, swatting gnats. And if you don't know what I mean, you probably own a snow shovel.

Right now, Donald is telling a story about his days picking tobacco in lower Alabama. But it doesn't matter what he's talking about. I could listen to him read the phonebook with that voice.

He uses old phrases, like: "you got it, buddy," instead of, "you're welcome." Or: “by all means,” which is how folks used to

say the word, “yes.”

There's a difference between new talking and the old kind.

Try listening to a few elderly women chat, you'll swear you've gone backward in time. All they have to do is open their mouths, and the old stories practically tell themselves. They'll carry on about catching frogs by the pond, outdoor country dances, and sneaking past the ushers in the old theater.

While you're at it, ask one of them for a sample of her poundcake—they always have cake on the counter.

When you do, all ten will…

Friends visited, brought flowers, told Jordan all the usual things said in hospitals. Like, “Keep fighting, buddy,” or, “C'mon, Jordan, we love you.”

Tuesday, 12:01 p.m.—Grady Hospital, Atlanta. A group of people gathered around a hospital bed and sang, “Happy Birthday.” The beeping of the life-support machines accompanied them.

This is the burn unit, where they send bad cases.

In the bed: Jordan Sims. His family hardly recognizes him. He doesn't look much like the Jordan they remember. He's a burned-up, bloody, purple mess.

It happened on a Sunday night in Valley, Alabama. He lost control of his car, colliding headfirst into a tree. The vehicle caught fire— Jordan pinned inside. Nearby neighbors doused it with residential garden hoses. Emergency responders had to cut his body from the front seat, the

life-flight helicopter carried him to Atlanta.

One all-night surgery later, here Jordan lays. Eyes taped shut. His liver has taken a beating. His arms and legs have the worst kinds of burns you could have. He has too many bone fractures to count, his stomach is wide open, and they amputated his right leg.

Now for the bad news.

Doctors found two fractured vertebrate and enough fluid on his brain to fill a watermelon. Not only that, but his kidneys are a wreck.

They tried to wake him, to inspect the cranial…

...it's okay for grown men to feel like little boys from time to time—kind of like I'm feeling right now.

I thought of you a few days ago. I was driving past a controlled burn. The fire department had lit up half of the lower Alabamian forest. It was terrifying but beautiful—the flames surrounding the trees. Fire trucks lined the road. It took several men on four-wheelers just to manage it.

"That's a prescribed burn," you said once, watching a forest fire. "It can save the woods, kills off bad things."

"Really?" I asked.

"Yes sir. You should see this forest in a few months. It'll be green, far as the eye can see. Fire ain't always a bad thing."

Maybe not. But

it's deadly stuff. I remember the day we burned off thistles and dead weeds in the pasture. After saturating ten acres with gasoline, the fire got all the way to the porch and nearly burned our house down.

The things I remember.

I also remember the time I wrecked the tractor. And how I did chores for god-knows-how-long to pay it off. Afterward, you rewarded me with a fishing trip, where I caught a large mouth the size of my leg.

You pulled it in the boat and said, “This here's the…