“Hot aw-mighty,” remarks one old woman. “Hope folks don't judge us by what’s on TV. It’s too bad about that mess with Governor Bentley.”

Columbiana, Alabama—a place with front porches bearing American flags. There are hanging ferns, historic homes, dog-walkers who wave.

The welcome-to-town sign reads: “Home of Governor Robert Bentley.”

“Hot aw-mighty,” remarks one old woman. “Hope folks don't judge us by what’s on TV. It’s too bad about that mess with Governor Bentley.”

It sure is.

Because this place is more than a two-word byline in a shocking news story. This is heaven.

Reason number one: Davis Drug Company.

In the back of Davis' there’s a flat-top grill. They serve cheeseburgers and tea that's sweet enough to cause temporary blindness.

Bernard P. Fife sits at the counter.

Vinyl stools. Milkshakes. Pimento cheese. Coke in green-tinted bell glasses.

This place.

We’re eating lunch with Rachel. She teaches tenth-grade English. She has the personality of a cherub.

“Wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says. “This is our bubble from the rest of the world.”

A bubble. Kids mind their manners in Columbiana. High-schoolers drive trucks, wear boots, and listen to Alan Jackson. Teenagers still know who Loretta Lynn is. There is low crime.

It's a place where schoolteachers are like mothers. Principals are

like chaplains. Where the librarian deserves his own book in the Bible.

Rachel says, “Always knew I wanted to teach at THIS school.”

I ask why.

“My tenth-grade teacher, Mrs. Owens, she was the best. I wanted to be like her.”

Mrs. Owens. During my short time in town, I’ve heard more about Mrs. Owens than I have about the aforementioned ex-politician.

I motion to include Mrs. Owens’ name on the town sign. Because she is local values, country wisdom, and good people.

“Mrs. Owens, was my favorite,” says Rachel.

I also meet Rachel’s husband Joe—from New Jersey. He's a long way from home.

“I’m the only Yankee around for miles,” he says. “But this is home.”

He’s lived here for many years now. Joe has even picked up the hint of…

This chapel is a lot like that one. Small. Only, this one used to be crowded on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. I used to sit with a girl in the third pew from the back.

I’m not a religious man, but I have a thing for churches. Old ones, like this one. Small-built. Modest steeples. Concrete steps.

I was married in this room. I haven’t been here in years.

The sanctuary is dark. They don’t use it for regular services anymore, it often sits vacant.

It’s hard to be here and not think about Cokesbury Hymnals, old ladies with beehive hairdos, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on Tuesday nights in a Boy-Scout uniform.

Or church retreats.

Church-folk love retreats. Like father-son weekends on the lake. Once, I accompanied Billy and his daddy on such a retreat—since I had no father.

There was a football game. Fathers against sons. I played corner while Billy sat on the sidelines.

Before the game, I overheard Billy’s father whisper to him, “You’re sitting out this game, son. Sean don’t have no daddy, it’s his turn.”

I never felt more pitiful.

That night, I left my bunk to make water in the woods. I saw a few kids and fathers, sitting on picnic tables. They saw me.

Men stomped out cigarettes. Everyone headed for

their cabins.

Alone again. So, I talked to Daddy in the woods—I did that a lot back then. I had this idea he was floating in the sky, just like in the song: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

I love that song.

As a young man, Miss Lydia Devenson paid me fifty dollars to sing that very hymn for her husband’s funeral. It was the first time I'd ever performed such a role. And it didn’t seem right—like I said, I’m not a religious man.

Before the ceremony, my hands and knees trembled so bad I could hardly stand upright, let alone hold a guitar. I nearly vomited behind the church.

My friend’s aunt, a foot-washing Baptist, found me. She said a prayer:

“Dear Lord, he ain’t got nothing in this world for…

The ghost helps keep this place running, even though he doesn’t do any cooking.

Greenville, Alabama—downtown. This bakery is a no frills joint with glass deli cases and plain tables.

Help yourself to the tea. Have a seat wherever you like.

“Try the chicken salad,” says Miss Ann. “It was my husband’s recipe.”

Miss Ann is wearing a blue apron, bouncing her grandbaby on her hip. She’s standing behind the deli case, smiling.

There’s a ghost beside her. Nobody can see him. He's tall. White-haired. He has a happy face. He wears an apron.

“Ozzie died back in two-thousand fourteen,” Miss Ann says. “He used to make every dish on our menu, this whole deli was his baby.”

The ghost nods.

Ozzie Judah. He was Greenville’s own Chicken Salad Genius. I know this because my sandwich tastes like summer lunches on a Baptist lawn. The only ingredient missing is the out-of-town Gospel quartet, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

There are newspaper clippings, hanging on the wall. They bear pictures of a white-haired man in an apron.

The ghost taps one frame, motioning for me to read it.

They all read the same, more or less: Ozzie Judah will be sorely missed.

He was

a cook’s cook, a family man. A good soul. A workhorse. He spent his final years behind this deli counter, single-handedly helping his community gain weight.

To Ozzie, this place was more than a deli-bakery. It had been a childhood thing. Everyone has dreams, I guess.

Ozzie’s was pimento cheese.

“His pimento cheese recipe,” one customer says. “It’s SO good, you’ll keel over.”

“And Ozzie’s red velvet cake,” another woman says. “Christmas wasn’t Christmas without his cakes, they were incredible.”

The ghost helps keep this place running, even though he doesn’t do any cooking.

And when he’s not floating in the kitchen, he’s busy watching over his grandbabies—being guardian angel is a full-time gig.

The toddler in Miss Ann’s arms smiles. Maybe she's smiling at him. Maybe he’s smiling at her.

“We…

I drove two-lane highways. Old bridges. Township after township. Unincorporated dots on a map.

This is a hole-in-the-wall. They have napkin dispensers on tables, burgers that need warning labels from the surgeon general.

There are deer antlers above the cash register. My waitress has bottle-blonde hair and talks like a pack of Menthol Lights.

I’ve spent the day driving the best parts of America. I passed towns no bigger than bowling alleys. I pumped gas at places that don’t accept credit-cards.

And just this morning, I used an antique Case pocket knife to fix a fuel line in my truck.

It’s the Americanest of pocket knives. I don’t always carry this particular knife—I’m too afraid of losing it.

It belonged to an American man. A dead man. Who, from toddlerhood, was hell-bent on joining the military. Who got rejected because of his bad American ear.

I passed farms. Acres of red rows. I passed hillsides. I saw the foothills. My God. The foothills.

I drove two-lane highways. Old bridges. Township after township. Unincorporated dots on a map.

In one town, I saw a flag hanging from an antebellum house. It was draped over an ornate balcony. I

had to pinch myself to make sure the War Between the States was over.

There were kids riding bikes in the street. They were hollering, laughing.

You don’t see as much bike-riding as you used to. One news report claimed the percentage of kids who ride bikes to school is in the point-zero-zero-digits.

Maybe so. But not here. I stopped my truck to let them cross the street. I waved. They waved back.

Small towns.

Outside town, I found this restaurant—if you can call it that. I almost missed it. It was behind a gas station.

There were only three or four folks inside. The waitress asked if I wanted sweet tea—and that’s how she said it.

She didn’t say: “What can I get you to drink?” Or: “What’ll it be?”

She said, “You want sweet tea,…

She was a forty-seven-year-old, taking Algebra One. But she was no stranger to hard work. Schoolwork was nothing compared to pulling double-shifts and feeding hungry mouths.

Her husband left her with two kids and a Honda. She didn’t even have a place to stay. She moved in with her sister. She worked thankless jobs.

And she hardly ever smiled. Not because she wasn’t happy, but because she was missing teeth.

“Lost these two teeth in middle school,” she says. “My dad got in a car wreck. My brother and I were in his passenger seat.”

Teeth or not, the woman is tough. It's in her hillbilly blood. She raised three kids single-handed. She fought off rowdy teenage boys who dated her daughter. She taught her sons how to be men.

The day after her youngest left for the military, she marched into a local bank. She only had one hour before work.

“I had good credit,” she said. “I knew they couldn’t turn me down. Never had any debt.”

She borrowed a lot.

She could have used the loan money to buy a house. She could’ve invested in dental work. She could’ve replaced her rusted Honda.

She enrolled in community college.

She was a forty-seven-year-old, taking

Algebra One. But she was no stranger to hard work. Schoolwork was nothing compared to pulling double-shifts and feeding hungry mouths.

“I’m a good student,” she said. “Always been a quick learner.”

She was more than quick. She was a natural. She enjoyed each class, each lecture, each teacher, and each test. But more than anything, she liked carrying a backpack.

During her first summer semester, she met a woman. The woman had salt-and-pepper hair and wore white scrubs. She took nursing classes.

Sometimes, between classes they ate lunch together in the breezeway. The woman was nice. They both talked about life. About their families.

“I looked at her,” she said. “And I was like, 'Hell, this lady’s my age. If she can do it, so can I.'"

She enrolled in the nursing program. Seven years, she worked. Seven long…

We aren’t like other clans. We don’t have cookouts anymore. We don’t do three-legged races at barbecues. We don’t own real estate. We're less like a family, more like a support group.

This is the kind of place where tourists eat. It’s on the Gulf. The breeze is warm, the air is sticky.

Mama got here early. She’s drinking a Corona with a lime—as I live and breathe. Beer is something I hardly ever see her do.

Mike is with her. He is gray-haired, blue-eyed, all Alabama. He is family.

I hug Mama. She fits beneath my arm. Always has. She calls me "baby." Always will.

I order a beer. Budweiser. My wife orders something with lime.

Mike and I talk football. He’s an expert. He can name each equipment manager in the SEC since Wade Wallace.

My sister is late arriving. She’s walking onto the deck, carrying a baby. Her husband is with her.

The baby looks like just like her.

She lets me hold her. The kid is heavy—like a sack of Quickcrete. She looks me in the eyes and holds her stare. I make a funny face. I would’ve made an okay daddy.

“She has your eyes,” my sister remarks.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah, you’re the only person in the family with gray eyes.”

Well

I’ll be dog. A baby with my peepers is an unfortunate soul. But then, I guess this means she’s one of us now.

Poor child. We’re not much of a family.

After Daddy died, Mama, my sister, and I slept in the same bedroom with the door locked. For four years I slept on the floor with our dog. And when my sister had bad dreams, she slept on the floor beside me.

Nobody tells you grief feels just like fear.

We aren’t like other clans. We don’t have cookouts anymore. We don’t do three-legged races at barbecues. We don’t own real estate. We're less like a family, more like a support group.

But we’ve done life together. Lots of life. The three of us worked menial jobs together. We threw newspapers at two…

He talked about creeks, mud cats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and Cahaba lilies.

Mister Vernon died last night. He went easy.

You never met him, but you knew him. He was every white-haired man you’ve ever seen.

He spoke with a drawl. He talked about the old days. He was opinionated. He was American. Lonely.

Miss Charyl, his caregiver, did CPR. She compressed his chest so hard his sternum cracked. She was sobbing when the EMT’s took him.

Caregiving is Charyl’s second job. She's been working nights at Mister Vernon’s for a while.

She arrived at his mobile-home one sunny day. Mister Vernon was fussy, cranky. A twenty-four carat heart.

She listened to his stories—since nobody else would. He had millions.

He talked about creeks, mud cats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and Cahaba lilies.

And he talked about Marilyn. Marilyn was the center of his life once. His companion. But she was not long for this world.

He talked politics, too. Charyl and he disagreed. Mister Vernon would holler his opinions loud enough to make the walls bow.

He was a man of his time. An oil-rig worker, a logger, a breadwinner,

a roughneck. He helped build a country. And a family.

Each day, he’d thumb through a collection of old photos. His favorite: the woman with the warm smile.

Marilyn. The woman who’d helped him make his family. Who’d turned his kids into adults. Adults who had successful lives and successful families. They live in successful cities, they do successful things.

“He sure missed his kids,” says Charyl. “They hardly came to see him. They were so busy.”

Busy.

Last night, Vernon asked Charyl for a country supper. She lit the stove and tore up the kitchen. She cooked chicken-fried steak, creamed potatoes, string beans, milk gravy.

“Marilyn used to make milk gravy,” he remarked.

She served him peach cobbler. Handmade. The kind found at Baptist covered-dish suppers.

“Marilyn used to make peach cobbler,” he said.

After…

But today is different. Today, I'm at a small-town soda fountain. I rest my elbows on cold marble. I eat. A woman named Miss Penny hugs my neck.

The sun is setting in Washington County, Alabama. The gnats are out. You can hear crickets downtown. This place is a fleck of ketchup on the map.

It’s something else.

I’m at the Courthouse Drugstore. This is a real soda fountain. Marble counters. Knee-high barstools, vinyl cushions. I’m eating a sandwich that tastes exactly like shaking hands with the Risen Savior. I forget which decade I’m in.

Miss Penny sits beside me. She’s got gray hair. Feisty. She smokes a vaporizing cigarette that smells like butterscotch and Lysol.

“Sixty years ago,” Penny says. “Folks used’a come here to drink Ko-Cola floats, they'd watch people get off at the train depot. It was something else.”

Not much has changed here—except there’s no train anymore. People are rural. Some folks drive seventy-five miles to Mobile for groceries.

“After the drugstore shut down,” says Miss Penny. “Only place to get a milkshake was your own kitchen. It was something else.”

The Courthouse Drugstore reopened last November. The town threw a party. Washington County showed up to christen it.

For nearly four decades, the

building sat vacant—complete with overgrown parking lot and plywood windows.

This restoration was no business venture. It was a resurrection.

“Chatom's in my blood,” says Holly, who restored the drugstore. “My ancestors founded this town, least I can do is try to keep it going for my kids.”

So, she reopened the landmark. Chatom’s soda fountain is a one-of-a-kind, even for the Old South.

Out-of-town visitors have already been coming to see it. Not long ago, tourists from Germany stopped by to experience the authentic American tradition. They ate chicken salad. It was something else.

Tiffany keeps the place running. She says, “I make chicken salad the old-fashioned way. The other day I tore apart seventy-five pounds of chicken by hand. Worked so hard, I strained a muscle in my neck.”

In the short time I visit, the place is…

They tell me her daddy is dead. A car wreck. Her mother does what she can to keep bill collectors at bay. Most days it’s not enough.

“Have a blessed day,” the little girl says to an old man at the counter.

He smiles.

Every customer at this thrift store gets the same blessing when they pay. A little brunette girl is the one who gives it.

Her smile is big enough to set the woods on fire. She wears pink shoes.

“We told her to greet customers, both coming and going,” says thrift store manager, Donna. “She's never missed a one.”

The girl is all kinds of friendly. But she is poor. Barefoot poor.

She volunteers here. In return, Donna lets her pick out whichever T-shirts she wants. Or toys. Or shoes.

I meet the little girl. She is sorting a pile of clothes at the counter.

“Are you having a good day?” is the first thing she asks me.

They've trained her well.

She’s tiny. She doesn't know a stranger. She’s wearing an “Eagles,” T-shirt—the band, not the team.

“Do you like the Eagles?” I ask.

“My dad does,” she says.

They tell me her daddy is dead. A car wreck. Her mother does what she can to keep bill

collectors at bay. Most days it’s not enough.

Donna says the church tried to help financially, but got rejected.

“You know,” says Donna. “Poverty don’t always want help. This is the Deep South, pride goes back several generations.”

And old times are not forgotten.

The thrift store sits facing a slow two-lane highway. Today, they get all sorts of shoppers. Mexican laborers, needing clothes. Young couples, looking for skinny jeans or vintage lamps. And poor folks.

Donna met the girl last summer. One afternoon, the girl’s half-barefoot family walked through the doors. They browsed the narrow aisles, quietly.

The little girl found a T-shirt with Princess Elsa on it.

“Put that back,” said her mama. “You got plenty of shirts. We’re buying school shoes for brother.”

That day, Donna was sorting clothes. She asked if…

One July day, she quit eating. Then came the moaning. Her eyes looked lazy. Lots of drool. Cancer. It happened so fast.

A farm in South Alabama. We’re visiting a friend. She has two Golden Retrievers. Cody and Piper. They sit on the porch, staring while I eat a sandwich.

Cody is my new best friend. He’s giving me sugar.

I ask my friend how old Cody is.

“Six,” she says. “And Piper’s seven.”

That’s middle-aged in dog-years. Just enough arthritis to make mornings tough; just enough youth to make one stupid.

Take, for instance, me. I am a six-year-old dog.

Cody is big, reddish, and runs faster than I can throw sticks. He has a wide neck, big paws. When he gets excited, he pants harder than The Little Engine that Stunk.

He gives good sugar.

Piper is small. She is Cody’s manager. She leads by example. Her virtues are: calmness, patience, loyalty, and gluttony. She has talents, too. Piper can sit for three full seconds.

I finish eating. I’m taking a walk. It’s seven. The sun has just set. Crickets make me deaf. It’s a big field.

Cody and Piper are following. They stay behind, noses near my hands.

“They must like you,” says my friend.

I

wish, but I'm afraid there's more to it than that. The truth is, they’re staying close because I have beef jerky in my pockets.

Old Indian trick.

I’m a pathetic dog admirer. I’ve never met a dog I didn't talk to. I've owned my share, and I’ve even tried training a few.

I'm hopeless at it. I never get past the basic command: “Nonononodammit!”

That is, except with Lady. That dog was smart enough to pass the Bar Exam.

I was young. Lady arrived in our open garage. Black, curly hair. Floppy ears. A gash on her backside. At first, she didn’t give affection, she was too clever for that.

So, I filled my pockets with jerky.

She kept her distance for days. Finally, she wandered near and (snap) I got my sugar.