When my father died, adults planned a funeral. There were photographs scattered on the kitchen table. A few of his personal items. His eyeglasses. I stole his glasses when nobody was looking.

Somewhere outside Mobile, Alabama—a string of car headlights. There must be one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles behind us, stretching from here to Ardmore.

I pull over.

So does every car on the road.

First, the blue lights pass. Then, a long black car. This, followed by a mile-long chain of high beams.

When my father died, adults planned a funeral. There were photographs scattered on the kitchen table. A few of his personal items. His eyeglasses.

I stole his glasses when nobody was looking.

My father once found those glasses in the dirt, outside a supermarket. He dusted them and said, “These look expensive, don’t they?”

He put them on.

I laughed. The wire frames looked out-of-place on his face. He stared into the rearview mirror. He grinned at himself, then tucked them into his pocket.

He visited an eye doctor for an exam. The doctor said Daddy had perfect vision.

“You don’t need glasses, sir,” said the doc.

“Not even a little?”

“Nope, you're twenty-twenty.”

Daddy insisted he replace the lenses with fake ones.

Thus, he wore phony glasses. He didn't wear them all the time, but he wore them often. For family photographs. For Sundays. For trips into town.

“These things make me look smart,” he once remarked.

Smart.

After he died, I locked myself in the bathroom and tried on those glasses. I inspected my reflection for nearly ten minutes until the floor was wet.

That night, I fell asleep wearing them. During sleep, the wire frames cut me on the temple. I woke up to dried blood on my pillow.

The morning of his funeral, I wore his tweed jacket—which hung off my adolescent body. And…

So, I let him talk. He handed me a flyer and recited a frightening speech about my eternal soul. He told me exactly where I was going, and how long I’d be there without cable television.

11:32 P.M.—he walked a crowded Palafox Street with a friend. I saw him a mile away. They were nineteen, maybe twenty.

They carried Bibles, they wore neckties. They passed flyers to innocent bystanders who lingered outside dim-lit establishments.

They zeroed in on me.

“Howdy, Tex,” said I.

This two-word salutation was my daddy’s greeting of choice. When I say it, it sounds like he’s inside my throat.

The kid asked if I were going to heaven when I died.

Instead of waiting for my answer, he spoke in a loud voice. It took ten seconds for him to explain that I was riding the southbound train to Fire-and-Brimstone City.

While he spoke, I noticed his hands trembled.

So, I let him talk. He handed me a flyer and recited a frightening speech about my eternal soul. He told me exactly where I was going, and how long I’d be there without cable television.

I asked the kid if he would pray for me—right then.

“You mean you wanna get

SAVED?” the kid asked.

“How about we just stick with a short prayer for now, Tex?”

His prayer was something to the melody of:

“God, help this sinner repent before he lands in Eternal Hellfire, where flames are hot enough to melt U.S. manufactured steel, where there are no vending machines, and the possum dieth not…”

When he finished, I thanked him. Then, I asked if I could pray for him in return.

He exchanged a look with his partner. I swore on Daddy’s grave that I’d be respectful. They agreed. We bowed heads.

The kid closed one eye.

“Dear Lord,” said I. “Thank you for these nice-looking, kind hearted young men. And let me…

He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

DEAR SEAN:

I was wondering if you have any bad habits or vices. I have a couple, drinking and smoking, mostly, and I feel like they're holding me back. Any advice?

Best,
DRINKING TOO MUCH

DEAR DRINKING:

Sure, I have bad habits. I wait too long to file income taxes. I haven’t made my bed since nineteen hundred and twenty. I avoid confrontation. And according to my doc: I eat too much barbecued pork.

I also apologize too much—which is an embarrassing habit. I don’t know why I do it.

I’m sorry.

My friend, Davey, was king of bad habits. Davey was an alcoholic for most of his life. And when I say “alcoholic,” I mean: face-down-in-his-own-vomit-for-six-hours alcoholic.

We painted houses together. At night, we played music at various bars and beer-joints.

He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

He was in his seventies, but years of hard living made him

look two hundred years old. He had white hair, pale skin, stubbly face.

His one-bedroom apartment was on Campbell Street. His walls were lined with books—floor to ceiling. A feral cat lived on his porch. Dirty dishes sat in his sink.

Davey puffed Winstons all day. His emphysema was so bad he barely had the diaphragm-strength to smoke.

One night, we played in a Pensacola joint. He sat on a barstool during the break. The bartender asked what he wanted.

Davey buried his head and said, “Whatever you do, DON’T give me what I ask for.”

She looked at him and blinked. He ordered a stiff drink. She told him to get lost.

“Thank you, ma’am,”…

Her name is Ellie Mae, and she has ruined the passenger seat of my pickup. Which is why I don’t take many guests in my vehicle—least of all my wife.

There is something sleeping on my feet while I write this. A she-something. Her snoring sounds like a diesel engine.

She has paws bigger than skillets, a bladder the size of a teacup.

Every morning, at approximately 5:13 A.M., she wakes me. And every morning, I walk the yard with her, saying, “Go tee-tee, dammit,” in my morning voice.

No dice. Instead, she digs holes, eats unidentified stinky objects, and trees various housecats.

Her name is Ellie Mae, and she has ruined the passenger seat of my pickup. Which is why I don’t take many guests in my vehicle—least of all my wife.

Not many appreciate black coonhound-hair on American-made Ford upholstery, and wet-nose marks on windows.

Today, Ellie sat in the passenger seat. We went into town.

I started my busy day by ordering breakfast at the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. The servers at the window made a fuss over Ellie.

We parked outside Winn Dixie to eat. I ate. She ate.

I keep cans of

dog food (beef tips with brown gravy, rice, and snap peas) in my glovebox. There’s a dog bowl on the seat between us.

I talk to her about things over breakfast. She listens. I read the paper. She watches people.

Then, I wipe her face with baby wipes. She licks my forehead. Her breath often smells like a substance plentiful in most barnyards and hog pens.

After our meal, I ran errands while she slept in the truck with the AC blasting, listening to the radio.

Ellie and I have the same taste in music. She likes Willie Nelson just as much as me—maybe more.

Funny. I’ve had many dogs in my life. Almost too many to count. But I have only had two who…

“Wish my kids lived closer,” he went on. “My house is always quiet. Take my advice. Don’t never get too busy to call your old man. We live for those phone calls.”

I met him outside a barbecue joint in Lynn Haven, Florida. His hair was so white it glowed.

There was a tattoo on his forearm—a crude looking image of a bull. He used to be a rodeo clown long ago. It was a hobby, but turned into something that paid well.

“Not a bad job,” he said. “You DO have occasional bad days, but it’s big fun.”

I asked why he got out of the business.

“My wife got pregnant.”

Once, I met an elderly woman. On Saturdays, she bakes several poundcakes, layer cakes, sugar cookies, and banana puddings. Her adult daughters help. So do her granddaughters.

Until this stage of life, she never had time to teach baking. She was a single mother, fighting to keep her head above water.

“Want my girls to learn my kitchen tricks,” she said. “If I don't teach them, all my mother’s recipes will disappear.”

Last year, her daughters and granddaughters were faced with a choice between summer softball, or cooking lessons with Granny.

They haven’t played softball since.

An elderly man from Crestview, Florida—he retired from driving semi trucks several years ago. He wore a large belt buckle and ostrich-skin boots.

“Driving was my life,” he said. “Retirement is killing me.”

He started driving after his wife left him, forty years ago. Since then, he’s seen America. Every part of it.

“Took my grandson on a trip once,” he said. “At first, he wasn’t happy to be away from home. But then I showed him the Grand Canyon.”

He handed me a photograph of his grandson, sitting behind the steering wheel of thirty-thousand horsepower.

“That boy’s everything to me,” the man said.

In an antique store, yesterday, I…

I can’t think of anything I like more than Slocomb tomatoes. I’m eating one right now, the same way I'd eat a Granny Smith.

It’s a lazy weekend. Mill’s Produce Stand is a shack on the edge of Dothan, Alabama, sitting behind miles of farmland.

I buy fifty pounds of Slocomb tomatoes.

I can’t think of anything I like more than Slocomb tomatoes. I’m eating one right now, the same way I'd eat a Granny Smith.

I’ve already ruined my shirt. I’m doing forty-five miles per hour, taking in sights.

A car speeds around me, Pennsylvania tags. He must be traveling eighty.

Sorry, pal. This is Wiregrass country. We own the copyright on laziness. And I am on a lazy drive home.

There has been a light rain, the sun is poking from the clouds. There are miles of peanut fields. Firework-stands. Condemned barns.

I pass Slocomb. If you’ve ever wanted to know where God’s summer house is, it’s in Slocomb. A town with not much more than grain silos, a Methodist church, Baptist church, First Assembly of God, and the best tomatoes you can shake a New American Standard Bible at.

I pass three girls on

horseback, riding the highway shoulder. They wear ten-gallon hats. The leader of the group tips her brim to me.

Howdy, ma’am.

Now I’m behind a truck with a bumper sticker that reads: “What a friend we have in Nick Saban.” He’s driving even slower than me.

Like I said, we invented lazy.

Esto is just over the Alabama-Florida line. There is a combination ice-cream shop and lottery-ticket store.

Lopsided shotgun houses, pretty enough for postcards. Cattle beneath live oaks in green pastures.

A creek bridge with bicycles parked at the railing. A rundown beer-joint named Sam’s Place—within spitting distance from Mount Olive Baptist Church.

I’ve reached Bonifay. Here, there are magnificent homes with feral cats…

Take a gander at the magazine racks in the Piggly Wiggly. Half-naked bodies on magazine covers. Pop-stars dressed like senators from Planet Krypton. Reality television hosts with plastic hindparts.

I’m sorry. That’s what I want to say to any woman reading this. I’m just flat-out sorry.

The world is trying to squash you like an albino cockroach, and you deserve an apology.

Today’s modern female is expected to be a walking-talking industrialized domestic machine.

If she’s not busy bathing toddlers, dropping kids at soccer, or changing her own transmission fluid, she’s supposed to be planning a three-course supper, scrubbing dirty underwear, learning a foreign language, or making her living room fit for HGTV.

She must be a certain size, weight, width, she must have a gym membership, a midsection stronger than most outboard motors, tight underarms, young-looking hands, perfect teeth, slender neck, soft-spoken voice, no gray hairs, no eye wrinkles, and the amiable disposition of Princess Grace of Monaco.

I’m even sorrier for young girls.

Not that it matters what I think, but I believe television and magazines are trying to ruin females.

Take a gander at the magazine racks in the Piggly Wiggly. Half-naked bodies on

magazine covers. Pop-stars dressed like senators from Planet Krypton. Reality television hosts with plastic hindparts.

Anyway, the reason I am writing this is because of my friend’s daughter. Her name is not important. But let's call her, Little Miss Alabama.

She is in seventh grade, top of her class. An athlete, a social butterfly, a horseback rider, fluent in Spanish, math wiz, funny, kindhearted, and well-loved.

Miss Alabama has dreams of attending Auburn University, she wants to study zoology, she is pretty, has brown hair, blue eyes, flawless health.

She has aided in the birth of exactly three colts. She can spit farther than any boy, and cook just as well as granny alive. I know this; I have eaten her biscuits.

And she hates herself.

The person who believes you aren’t quite enough. No matter what you do, the feeling is there, beneath the surface. It nags at you like the tag in a new pair of underpants.

To the kid with cancer of the bones. Who is up late tonight because his meds won’t let him sleep. To his mother, who is beside him, rubbing his tummy.

Mothers have been rubbing tummies since the dawn of the man.

To the man who raises palmettos in South Alabama, whose wife passed yesterday morning. The same man who is starting a pecan orchard because it’s what she always wanted.

To the woman who is the janitor for the Baptist church. Who clocks out of her other job to push her cart up and down the halls.

She cleans bathrooms, dust offices. Who doesn’t get home until eight at night, and still has time to cook her kids a full supper meal before bedtime.

To the nine-year-old girl whose father abused her. Whose life will forever be painted with the badness he left. She is now thirty-three. She got married this morning. Someone emailed me photos of the ordeal.

Once, that same girl said, “I didn’t trust anyone for a

long time, it was a big mistake. I’ve wasted a lot of years being scared of good people.”

And to the young man who fell off the roof of a construction site. He broke two ribs. The woman across the street took him to the hospital.

She carried him twelve hours to Texas to be in his mother’s house while he recovered.

“Sometimes,” said that neighbor woman. “A man needs his mother.”

I’m writing this to the Walmart employee who was on a smoke break ten minutes ago. She sat on the sidewalk.

She cried while talking on the cellphone. If I didn’t know any better, it sounded like her boyfriend was breaking up with her.

And to Jason, who just discovered he’s good…

He talked about one thing in particular that evening: anonymous acts of charity. And for some reason—call it good timing—her husband took the idea seriously.

My mail-lady handed me a stack of mail and said, “Looks like mostly bills.”

Then, she lit a smoke and we talked about a whole lot of nothing. Namely: the weather. Though we do have some things in common. For example, we both have too many bills.

Good talk.

When she left, I opened my stack of mail. She was right. Bills. Coupons, real-estate flyers, a Bass Pro catalog, and a gift certificate for a free chiropractic consult in a bad part of town.

And one thick envelope from Georgia. A three-page letter.

The author of the letter is ninety. She has stunning penmanship. Her name is Louise. I've never actually known a woman by this name. But I wish it would make a comeback.

“I am not good on your Facebook,” Louise begins. “I still write letters...”

I wish more people would.

She’s from the old world. Her husband was a blue-collar. A grease-covered face who smiled at her just right when she was eighteen.

He was rowdy, but he settled down the moment he slipped a ring

on her finger. Rings do that sometimes.

“A minister came through our church," she said. "I brought Joey to listen to a quite captivating speaker...

“And though my husband was less than impressed with Methodism as a whole, the minister made it through to him..."

The holy-roller did more than make it through. He talked about one thing in particular that evening: anonymous acts of charity. And for some reason—call it good timing—her husband took the idea seriously.

At lunch after church, he wrote a Bible verse on the back of a business card—one which he carried in his wallet for many years. It was the only Bible reading she ever saw him do.

The verse:

“...A man who has two coats is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise."

That same…

I heard applause from the other side of the terminal. It was loud. There was cheering. Whistling. Hollering. I turned to look—so did everyone else. It sounded like the Second Coming of Elvis.

The airport. I wasn’t flying. I was filling out paperwork for a rental car. The woman behind the counter claimed she would upgrade me to a Super-Duper-Grade vehicle for only twenty-nine bucks.

I agreed.

So she pressed further. For another fifty big ones, she offered to upgrade me to the Ultra Super-Duper-Grade Platinum rental.

No can do. I’m allergic to platinum.

Then.

I heard applause from the other side of the terminal. It was loud. There was cheering. Whistling. Hollering. I turned to look—so did everyone else. It sounded like the Second Coming of Elvis.

On an escalator were men and women in camouflage and boots, carrying backpacks.

They waved to those hollering.

The first man off the stairs walked to a woman with a toddler on her hip. He dropped his bag and group-hugged them.

More young men and more young women in uniform rolled down the electric stairs.

A tall black woman in uniform. She set her bags down. Two boys came

running—no older than three or four. They sprinted, full force, and knocked her over.

Next: a man. Broad shoulders and a strong walk. He made a beeline for an older woman. He stooped to let her kiss his forehead. She did more than kiss him. She almost broke his neck.

The clapping started to fizzle. But each new pair of desert boots earned at least a few shouts.

Even some strangers in the airport joined the cheering. Take, for instance, this redheaded stranger.

The woman from the rental company came from behind her desk and stood with me. The rest of the airport had returned o business as usual.

Not me and my new platinum-rental friend. We watched the reunions. Some were tearful. Others…