The day of his funeral, people with phony grins lined up to shake my hand, saying things like, “Your daddy was just sick...”

We had a bench by our pond. A pine-log bench. It sat near the edge of the water. Daddy called it the Thinking Bench. I remember the day he built it—using only a sharp axe and cuss words.

It's funny, how I can remember things like benches, but not the last words he ever said to me.

Weeds grew around his bench. He trimmed the grass using a jack knife. Cody, his Lab, would sit beside him.

One December morning, when the weather was unusually cold, I found him there. He'd been sitting all night. He wasn't moving. Eyes open. There was a thin layer of frost on his back and shoulders. His red hair stiff from the cold.

Mama ran outside with a blanket. He didn't want it.

“You could'a froze to death," she said. "You need serious help."

"Help doing what?" he'd say with vinegar in his voice.

He didn't trust shrinks. Besides, nobody seemed to know what professional help was. Fewer understood depression. Back then, these were modern ideas used by folks who ate snails

at dinner parties.

Daddy was the kind who made log benches. The kind who liked to sit.

Toward the end of his life, you could find him sitting in his workshop, shirtless. Lights off. No music. Staring.

Or: on the hood of his truck, parked on fifty acres. Leaning against his windshield. Or: in the corner of the barn, on the floor, knees pulled to his chest. Eyes pink and wet.

“What's wrong, Daddy?” I'd ask.

He'd wipe his face. “I don't know, dammit.”

“Will he be okay?” I'd ask Mama.

“I don't think so,” she'd say, giving honest answers—she was through pretending. "He needs help."

The day of his funeral, people with phony grins lined up to shake my hand, saying things like, “Your daddy was just sick...”

I heard that a million and three times. It offended me. These people…

...He told me about marching from Selma to Montgomery as a young man. About Doctor King. About getting arrested during the riots.

I don't know his real name, but his friends call him Bubba. He has skin darker than walnut, and a white fuzzy beard.

I met him once. He raises bluetick hounds on a farm with his son, selling them to gun-dog lovers everywhere.

In the short time we talked, he told me about marching from Selma to Montgomery as a young man. About Doctor King. About getting arrested during the riots.

Nice man.

Then, there's the elderly woman I met outside Opp who raised sixteen kids. Sixteen. Her hair, still as red as copper.

She lived in a twelve-by-twelve shed her son made into an apartment—complete with flat-screen television and AC.

Her son told me, "In a big family, we used'a compete for Mama's attention. Man, I feel so lucky she lives with me."

Don—an old man who weighs a buck ten. Maybe less. He runs a mechanic shop out of a barn in North Florida. Auto collectors come from all over for him work on rare vehicles.

"Started this business after I got outta prison," he said. "Was

in the pen four years."

I asked why they locked him up.

"Mary Jane," he answered.

Lydia. She is Birmingham's June Cleaver—Scarlett O'Hara accent. Her nineteen-year-old daughter contracted a rare disease while on a mission trip in Africa. She died suddenly.

Lydia is flying out this week to retrieve her daughter's body.

“When you have a daughter," she said. "You imagine your little girl will get married some day. You never think this will happen."

John, from North Georgia. He's a man who shoots dove and deer on weekends. Once, he was a high-powered attorney. Today, he works part time at Home Depot so he has time to care for his wife with MS.

John said, "Having so much time with my wife is a privilege. Mostly, we watch a lotta Netflix."

Why am I telling you this? Because.

I overhead…

Why is it I have plenty of money when it comes to buying fishing rods, new clothes, or beer? But a man needs supper, and all I can say is, “Sorry, pal.”

Pensacola, Florida—it's raining. Hard. I wish I had a few bucks to give the man standing at the stop sign. He goes from car to car, holding an open stocking cap.

The fella in the Lexus throws in some loose change. The driver of the Altima donates a buck.

Then he raps on my window.

I remove my wallet. Empty. I used all my cash for a tip at a Mexican restaurant.

“I'm sorry, sir,” I tell him. “I'm out.”

“Hey man,” he's saying. “Don't apologize. I should be the one who's sorry, I've never done this kinda thing before. It's frickin' humiliating. God bless.”

This bearded man looks just like my late father.

The rain is coming down harder. The light turns green. I want to say more, but the line of vehicles blows by him.

I can't think about anything else after I leave. Maybe because he looked like he hadn't eaten. Maybe because he had those familiar green eyes.

Damn me, for not having cash. Why is it I have plenty of money when

it comes to buying fishing rods, new clothes, or beer? But a man needs supper, and all I can say is, “Sorry, pal.”

My mama would be proud.

I pull into a gas station. I ask the cashier where I can find an ATM. She shrugs. So I ask how I can get cash off my card. She says she can't help me, their machine is broken.

I leave. I ride to the nearest supermarket. I can't see taillights ahead because of the rain. The long walk from my truck is like swimming across the Mississippi.

“Credit or debit?” the cashier asks.

"Debit," says Mister Soaked Britches.

I get forty bucks. The girl behind the counter tells me to “Have a nice day,” with as much sincerity as it would take her to scratch her hindparts.

I drive back to the stoplight where…

I can't think of a happier place than this ratty Baptist hall with water spots on the ceiling. This is as close to Heaven as you can get without sleeping in a pinewood box.

I attended a potluck in the sticks. It was for a funeral. The man who'd passed was a deacon. An elderly man I once knew who used to call me Critter.

I never figured out why.

The covered dish supper took place in an ancient fellowship hall. Linoleum floors. Cheap Christmas decor. Upright piano.

I can't think of a happier place than this ratty Baptist hall with water spots on the ceiling. This is as close to Heaven as you can get without sleeping in a pinewood box.

I grew up in a place like this.

Consequently, I realize not everyone knows what I'm talking about here. For example: my pal Dan, from New York. His family never darkened the doors of a church. For socialization, his father joined a bowling league.

Dan once asked, "What're covered dish suppers?"

Allow me to walk you through one, Dan.

For starters: imagine you're a chubby redhead with a proclivity toward barbecued ribs. Your mama makes you wear a necktie, then she wets your hair with spit.

Now imagine card-tables weighed down

with all the artery-clogging poultry permissible by county law.

A few greatest hits on the buffet:

Chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, fried backstrap, potato salad, Jell-O salad, ham salad, chicken salad, creamed corn, ambrosia, and some unidentifiable mayonnaisey deal with raisins.

While you fix a plate, elderly women with beehive hair-dos observe you. Their job is to keep the line moving with horsewhips.

“How 'bout some tea?” one says, filling your plastic cup.

Or, she might say, “How 'bout leaving some damn chicken livers for the rest of God's children you greedy little cuss?”

At the tables, you'll find white-haired men in button-downs and steel-toed boots. Good men, who cheerfully give up their seats to anyone wearing makeup.

And every potluck has a prayer.

Take, for instance, the one I attended. The pastor—an eighty-three-year-old—asked the blessing. He used old words folks…

"I learned a long time ago, you only get one shot at making a kid feel important, so you'd better go big."

His first Christmas was in the neonatal intensive care unit. His mother was an alcoholic. She brought him into this world premature, then abandoned him.

He spent his first months in a Plexiglass box.

They say he was a strong kid, cheerful. Much smaller than others his age. He was a cracker-jack at school, smart, respectful toward foster parents—he's had several.

Early on, they discovered he liked animals. Dogs and cats, especially. When he turned fifteen, his foster parents, Michael and Debbie Gaynor, let him volunteer at an animal shelter.

“Basically,” said Michael. “We just wanted him to do what he loved, no matter what that was.”

A shelter volunteer remarks, “We gave him all the not-so-fun chores, because he made them fun. He'd talk to animals like they were people, he really cared.”

He cared, all right. One day, somebody dropped off a stray. The dog was uncontrollable, with a bloody gash, bearing its teeth at anyone who came close.

Except him.

In only a few minutes the kid managed to calm the dog

and guide it into a kennel. He sat with the dog a few hours, soft-talking.

That was when the shelter manager contacted her friend, a veterinarian. She told her about the exceptional teenager. She arranged a meeting.

The next morning, the doctor stopped in. They hit it off. She offered the kid a job at her clinic. It was a paying gig.

He spent two years helping vaccinate rowdy cats, rubbing the tummies of sick puppies.

Christmas was around the corner. So was college. His foster parents conspired to make the holiday a good one.

In secret, they signed him up for federal tuition scholarships. They called the veterinary clinic where he worked. The doc pulled a few strings at a local university and managed to get him accepted into an animal science program for freshmen.

For icing on the proverbial cake: Michael put money…

One morning, she fell from the top. Her fingers got caught in the chicken wire. It was serious and bloody. She lost two fingers and severed a tendon in her thumb.

She is old. And she tells a story of the old days. Back when the world was a different place. Electricity was a luxury. Suppers were cooked on iron stoves. Men tipped hats to ladies.

Things have changed.

She was a nice-looking child. I saw the photo that proves it. Big smile. Blonde curls. And like three quarters of Alabama at the time, she lived on the rural route.

As a young girl, her morning routine was feeding chickens, then helping her mother fix breakfast. She'd run outside, climb over the chicken fence, and gather eggs. Her mother warned her not to scale the tall fence, but nine-year-olds do not listen.

One morning, she fell from the top. Her fingers got caught in the chicken wire. It was serious and bloody. She lost two fingers and severed a tendon in her thumb.

Throughout childhood, she became good at hiding her mangled hand. Often, she kept a fist to conceal her missing parts. When she got old enough to like boys, they did not return

the favor.

One year, her high school threw a Sadie Hawkins dance—where girls invite fellas. She cooked up enough courage to ask a boy. He turned her down. So she tried another. Same response. No takers.

That hurt.

Life went on. When she was in her twenties, she accompanied her father to the hardware store—a place men lingered to talk gossip. It was a pleasant porch, covered in brown spit.

That's where she met him. He was sitting with the others. He rose to his feet when he saw her. He was eleven years her senior. A war veteran. Tall. Skinny. Sandy hair.

She kept her hands in her dress pockets.

He smiled at her. She smiled back. That weekend, he called on her—and in those days that meant calling her father.

He picked her up. They took in a movie. He gave her royal treatment.…