After supper, all the boys stood out front, filling the night air with blue smoke. Nobody said a word to each other, we just exchanged sappy grins—like we were up to no good.

He was tough. And poor. I suppose the two go hand in hand sometimes. He grew up fast, without any choice in the matter. Not having money can do that to a child.

We worked together. I didn't know him well—he was too hardened to have any friends. Each morning, he'd show up to my house on a bicycle, I'd give him a ride to the job-site.

When his little brother needed eyeglasses, he took a second job stocking UPS trucks at night. Because of this, he'd show up most days with baggy eyes, sipping a two-liter bottle of Mountain-Dew. During lunch, he'd sleep in someone's car until they woke him.

Sometimes, we'd just let him sleep.

He rarely smiled. I don't think anyone ever heard him laugh. And I can't say I blamed him. His mother was a custodian, his sister was a middle-schooler, his father was an inmate, his brothers called him, Daddy.

On his twenty-first birthday, several of us forced him into a Mexican restaurant. It was a miracle he even

agreed to come.

But it was a good night. At first, he was uncomfortable. After a few drinks, he loosened up. We laughed, got loud. The waiters put a sombrero on him, they sang happy birthday in broken English. He blushed.

We howled until we went into oxygen debt.

After supper, all the boys stood out front, filling the night air with blue smoke. Nobody said a word to each other, we just exchanged sappy grins—like we were up to no good.

He didn't like our looks. “What's going on, guys?” he finally said.

Nobody moved a muscle.

Then, a dinged up truck came rolling from behind the building, honking its horn. It was junk, but it had a fresh Kelly Green paint-job—the kind done with roller brushes. The front bumper was a bolted-on four-by-four. No tailgate. Broken taillights. The tires were brand new.

He didn't…

Anyway, I paid my tab and left before the debates ended. They were about as educational as chewing on Energizer batteries.

I watched the presidential debates in a Pensacola, Florida bar. The man next to me kept shouting at the television, saying, "Oh, for the love of Jeezus!"

Jesus.

The first time I remember hearing that name was when Mrs. Gelding swatted my five-year-old hindparts for telling a certain joke—with a less-than-reputable punchline.

While she beat the whiteness out of my hindcheeks, she hollered, “A little more Jesus never hurt anybody!”

I didn't know who Jesus was. But later, I would learn how fondly Mrs. Gelding felt for him. Rumors claimed she cross-stitched his face onto her cotton britches.

She called him Savior. And this was a revelation. Because until then, I'd understood Roy Rogers held this title.

Over time, I grew to admire Jesus—even though he didn't ride a well-trained horse. You couldn't help but like him, he's famous. Here in the South, you hear about him everywhere. In Tom Thumbs, beauty pageants, billboards, bingo-houses, and beer-joints.

A few nights ago, I drove past a billboard reading: “Jesus will scare the hell out of you.”

Then, I turned on the radio and caught the tail end of a preacher's prayer, which closed with, "...in Jesus' name, amen."

I've even known a man named Jesus. He was Mexican. We worked construction together. On the job-site, we nicknamed him, Lordy. He was a good sport about it. Sometimes, he'd pretend he could change water into beer.

We'd roll on the floor when he did that.

Jesus once said that his mother gave him the most holy name she could think of. She wanted him to have every chance he could get, since he was born into base poverty. Jesus didn't own shoes until thirteen. At fifteen, he hopped a train for the U.S.

During his time here, he was not treated kindly. If you've ever wanted to know what real hate is, ask Jesus.

Jesus said, “When I was little, my father…

“Best decision we ever made,” he said. “As a driver, I've racked up seven million log-miles. Maybe seven and a quarter.”

“I love this country,” he said. “Seen every inch of it. Been driving a truck forty-three years.”

He's old. Lines all over his face. Tall. He's wearing a turquoise belt buckle, faded Wranglers, and steel-toed boots. He's making a delivery in North Carolina tomorrow. He's hoping to see the mountains before the sun goes down.

“I's raised a ways outside Shreveport," he went on. "Town so small, we went to kindergarten barefoot, sometimes. Seems like forever ago. I signed up for the Marines soon as I could, wanted to see the world.”

His was a short-lived military career. A patrol vehicle ran over his back during a mission. It broke his spine. He retired.

“You know,” he said. “In the Marines, we got to see how poor other countries were. Some of'em folks is so homeless, they ain't even got a toilet where they can go take a—”

Use your imagination.

He started driving an eighteen-wheeler. The thing cost as much as two houses. He and his wife borrowed the money from a

bank to buy the rig.

They saw the entire country.

“Best decision we ever made,” he said. “As a driver, I've racked up seven million log-miles. Maybe seven and a quarter.”

If it's out there, he's seen it.

Portland in the fall, Wyoming in the winter, and L.A. at rush hour. He's seen the shadows in the Grand Canyon, driven through the Rockies during storms, and slept on the shoulder in Oklahoma City. He's ridden the highlands of Virginia, and seen every last bit of the Carolinas.

“Took my wife on the road with me," he said. "We was just two Southern hillbillies, but we saw it all. We'd pull over for the night, she'd cook supper, we'd play cards, or just watch the sun go down in the mountains. God, she loved mountains."

She's been gone ten years now. It breaks him up to talk about…

Well, just take a gander at this moon. It's been making appearances every night since the dawn of man. And it comes out each evening just to tell you something...

If you ever park in a South Alabama field at night, you'll see things that take your breath away. The big waves of grass make it seem as though you're in the middle of creation.

And God, these stars.

If you happen to know a place like this, don't tell anyone where it is, or else they'll build a shopping mall on it.

Of course, at this hour, it's not about the field, really. It's about the moon.

I'm writing this while sitting in my truck. I've just spent the last three hours watching the moon. Ellie Mae, my coonhound is with me. We split a hamburger for supper on the tailgate—though not equally. She ate the beef, I ate the bread.

Rotten dog.

When she was done, she stared upward at the sky. She held her eyes on the moon like she could see Neil Armstrong. She stayed like that twenty minutes.

I've never seen a dog do that before.

You know, I'm lucky. Admittedly, I haven't seen much in my life, and I

haven't visited anywhere of merit. But I'm lucky just the same. And I'd be hard pressed to get any more satisfied than I am right now.

Yeah, I know, life is hard. And they say being happy is even harder. It's true. I've known heartache. So have you.

The world can be mean. Some days you wake up and someone's busts you in the teeth before it's even lunchtime. It's easy to get sad.

But don't stay that way. You can take my word for it: it will ruin you.

Besides, look at this field. Look at this moon. This world isn't all thorns. It's a nice place. We have hamburgers, Ford trucks, coonhounds, number-one pencils, Saturday-morning cartoons, and teenage romances.

I love to watch teenage lovebirds hold hands, something about it makes me believe in love.

I once saw a boy and girl in…

Truth told, I don't know why I'm telling you this. Maybe these pecans are getting to me.

I'm in a pecan orchard. The trees are blocking out the sun, and I'm in some kind of heaven. Pecan trees do that to me. I could spend an entire day here.

The year before my father died, we planted nearly one-acre's-worth of baby pecans.

I'll bet they're huge now.

It was late October, chilly weather. We dug holes all day. I wore a coonskin cap made from real raccoon. My father hand-made the thing when he was a young man. Folks from our pedigree often hunt coons with spotlights and longneck bottles on the weekends.

While planting each tree-row, he blasted music from his truck cab. I can't remember which songs were playing, all I remember was a twang.

While we worked, Don followed us around.

Don was a duck. He was pure white, and behaved cantankerously toward anyone but Daddy. The old bird hung around wherever Daddy went. Sometimes, you'd see them walking the fence posts, side by side.

“Don," he'd sometimes say. "Why don't you make yourself useful, dammit?”

Don would

just stand there, blinking.

“You freeloader,” he'd go on, "I'm gonna eat you if you don't start pulling your weight.”

But Daddy would've never done such a thing. He didn't want to admit that he loved that stupid bird. He did. Later that year, we found Don's white feathers scattered all over the yard, I saw Daddy cry.

After we'd finished planting the trees, we looked at the mini-orchard in the low sun. Daddy let me sip his beer. Don wandered back and forth, grunting.

The pecans sat in long rows, straight and neat. Like a little army.

"One day," said Daddy. "Maybe these things'll make a little money."

I was too tired to care whether they ever would. We'd worked so hard, I was half-delirious.

Daddy finally looked at me and said, “These trees'll outlive me. One day, they'll be huge. Hell, maybe I'll…

“My parents were in love,” my friend says. “I used to think everyone's parents were like that. But I know that's not how it goes .

They were married a long time. Sixty-seven years to be exact.

My friend's daddy had a voice like a tuba, and a drawl as thick as sorghum syrup. The man was as tall as a pine, and about as skinny, too.

When he met her, she was an eighteen-year-old, non-English-speaking Mexican. His daddy: just out of the Army—without any idea of what he wanted in life.

Fate happened on the day my friend's father saw some hoodlums harassing a Mexican girl and her two young sisters, outside a cafe in Atlanta. The men made horrible gestures toward the girls. My friend's father intervened and got his hindparts whooped. The fight broke his ribs, but he claimed the girl's brown eyes were worth it.

Theirs was an ill-conceived relationship. Not only did both families oppose the marriage. But neither of the lovebirds spoke the other's language. They were as different as it got.

So, they eloped.

Eventually, they learned how to speak to one another. It took years of practice. Whenever they'd visit her

family, his daddy tried his best to speak a fragmented Spanish.

According to my friend, his childhood home was a loving one—with good chicharrones.

In his mother's elderly years, she came down with headaches. Bad ones. My friend said the torment would linger for days. He said his daddy would lay beside her on the bed in a dark room. And, since small noises pained her, his father would just listen to her breathe, his ear against her chest.

“My parents were in love,” my friend says. “I used to think everyone's parents were like that. But I know that's not how it goes .

"When my mama got sick,it was like someone was killing Daddy from the inside out. That's when his Parkinson's got real bad.”

My friend's mother suffered so long that when she passed it was a blessing. But his father wasn't the same…

She's a lady of her time. And her generation regarded chicken and dumplings as more important than college degrees.

"My mind ain't what it used to be,” she said. "Wish you could'a seen me back then, I was smart."

She's ninety-four. Feisty as a pair of sandy underpants. Southern as ham hocks. Her hands look like prunes, she has a severely bad memory.

But she still remembers when we won the Great War. There aren't many like her left.

“My first son was born during a coastal blackout, in Mobile. Hospital was lit up by candlelight. That's war for you.”

She laughed.

“After the war, we felt like we'd triumphed over the Devil. That's when everyone started saying things like, 'I'm proud to be an American,' because we were the good guys.”

She may be forgetful, but she's a cheery little thing. More than anyone I've met in a while. And why wouldn't she be? She can vaguely remember the old world. A world which has disappeared—along with console radios, trumpet music, and hamsteaks.

In her fragmented memories, she still attends baking parties—when women sipped tea and cooked all day in farm kitchens.

"Sometimes," she said. "Four or

five of us still get together and bake bread and cookies... No. Wait. I don't do that anymore do I?"

She cursed herself.

"Sometimes I get confused."

Anyway, what she means is:

She misses those days. When her kids would play in the barn while she tended kitchen. When she and her husband wandered into town with pocketfuls of change, just to take in a double-feature.

Nowadays, it sounds more like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Back then, it was a Thursday.

“Everything was less complicated,” she explained. “That's why we were less ugly-acting. Today, folks are miserable. All our kids're sad. Did you know, my granddaughter doesn't even know how to bake. She's too busy."

She scoffed.

“Busy? When I's a girl, we were BUSY baking peach cobblers. Or was it strawberry? No, blackberry."

She's foggy, but she's…