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…

They have roasted peanuts for sale at this kid's baseball game. Six bucks per bag. That’s highway robbery, I know, but the money goes to a good cause. Baseball camp for team-members whose parents can't afford it.

I eat peanuts when I watch baseball. Roasted, boiled, or otherwise. I don’t care which kind. It’s nostalgia, really. I don’t attend ball games without them.

They have roasted peanuts for sale at this kid's baseball game. Six bucks per bag. That’s highway robbery, I know, but the money goes to a good cause. Baseball camp for team-members whose parents can't afford it.

The boy sitting next to me is eating peanuts. Let’s call him Derrick.

Derrick’s younger brother is on the team, a magnificent athlete.

I ask Derrick if he plays ball. “Not really,” he says. “I got asthma, doctors said I shouldn’t.”

Derrick has more than asthma. He has severe diabetes, and a few other related health problems that make him different than your typical Sears-and-Roebuck twelve-year-old.

His mother overhears us talking. She interjects.

“Derrick’s good at ART,” she says. “Show him some of your art, honey.”

Derrick is thoroughly embarrassed.

She brings out a cellphone and thumbs through photos of landscapes, portraits, and colorful drawings.

“These are good,” I remark.

“Not THAT good,” says self-effacing Derrick, still recovering from the humiliation of his braggart mother.

The crack of a bat.

Derrick’s brother smacks one. Parents go wild. Derrick’s brother runs. The third-baseman makes an error. Derrick’s brother sprints for home. It’s going to be close.

Big slide.

Safe.

Derrick is cheering so hard that my ears will never be the same. He excuses himself and leaves for a refill on peanuts.

His mother tells me Derrick has gotten good at being supportive of the other kids. It hasn't always been easy. But then, it was Derrick who started the peanut-effort to raise money for baseball camp.

“Sometimes I’m mad…

The old man in the suspenders stands from the group of white-hairs. He walks to the kitchen. I see him through the window. He’s tying on an apron.

This place is a dive. Part trailer, part screen-porch. Plastic blinds. Window-unit air conditioner.

My waitress has a hoarse laugh and smells like morning cigarettes. She is middle-aged, wiry, she she wears high-school colors.

She asks what I want for breakfast. I order three eggs, a chicken-fried steak, hashbrowns, grits, and the tallest glass of OJ allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

She asks how I want my eggs.

“Over medium,” I say.

“Yellow runny, white done?” she clarifies.

This lady’s good. Some waitresses think “over medium” means: “cooked until the yellow is hard as billiard-cue chalk.”

After my order, she walks toward the kitchen. I can see through the food-delivery window. She’s cooking.

Funny. I thought there would be a cook here. But it looks like Sister is on her own today.

It takes her three trips to bring all my food. My glass of orange juice is level with the brim. She carries it like she is balancing the Emily Post encyclopedia on her head.

Doggone impressive.

She jots the order of the table beside me. Three white-haired men just made

themselves at home.

She calls them “honey” and “sugar.” The man in suspenders gives her a kiss on the cheek. She kisses back.

She warms up coffees, makes small-talk, then back to the kitchen to rustle up several more breakfasts.

While she’s cooking, the bell on the door jingles. A group of men. They are tall, round, and they look like they are hungry enough to eat a 1976 Pontiac.

She hollers, “Have a seat wherever!”

The door jingles again. Two older couples. Women in pearls. Men in ironed blue jeans. They look like someone’s grandparents.

“Sit anywhere!” she yells.

More people arrive. So many, in fact, they begin to back up. They're forming a line on the porch outside.

She’s jogging from table to kitchen. Cooking. Serving. Refilling. Bussing. Yes-sirring. Working up a sweat.

One man…

I remember the blue shirt he wore the last time I saw him. I remember him singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” while fishing the river. I remember the way he swallowed his tongue for the amusement of his boy.

The Choctawhatchee Bay is calm this morning. I’m fishing. I always fish on Father’s Day weekend.

There is a blue heron standing on the shore, looking at me. He doesn’t move. He only stares.

Strange bird.

Today has been an unproductive day. I caught exactly one catfish and an old Pepsi bottle.

I have eaten my weight in Conecuh Quick Freeze Sausage and Bunny bread.

Things were going fine until this bird showed up for a staring contest.

My wife believes people come back as birds after they die. I don’t know how she came up with this idea.

Once, outside Mobile, we stopped on a red dirt road so she could introduce herself to a flock of turkey buzzards in a hayfield.

An ugly bird stood a few yards away from the flock. It stared at my wife and would not move.

“Do you see that bird?” she said with a grin. “That’s gotta be my daddy!”

I threatened to carry her off to Searcy if she didn’t get

back into the truck. She ignored me.

But this heron is not ignoring me. He looks at me with sharp eyes. Maybe my wife is on to something. This bird could almost pass for my late father if you used your imagination. Long legs. Bone skinny. Quiet.

“Hey,” I yell to him.

He is unmoved.

“Don't you have anything to say to me?” I ask.

The bird doesn’t even blink.

So I cast my line into the water and pretend I can’t see him. He steps closer.

I miss my father. I’m ashamed to tell you that. Because it’s been too many years, I should be over him. I should be grown up. I’m…

He removed his hat and kissed his best gal. To watch the elderly lock lips is a blessing unmatched.

Andalusia, Alabama—my wife and I got our picture made with Hank Williams Senior.

The broad side of a brick building bears the painted portraits of Hank and Audrey Williams. It is the exact spot where they were married in ‘44.

I sang “Hey Good Lookin’” to the spitfire brunette beside me.

She said, “Hush, people’re gonna think you’re out of your mind.”

I am out of my mind. I’ve been a Hank fan since I was knee-high to a beer bottle.

Not long ago, I played an eightieth birthday party with my band. The birthday boy’s wife hired us to play four hours of Hank Williams music.

After driving miles of dirt roads into the sticks of Conecuh County, we set up in a sheet-metal barn with a rusted roof, and concrete floors.

The smell of horse manure was offset by the aroma of barbecued ribs.

If I live long enough to be eighty, I will barbecue ribs at my barnyard shindigs.

There was a table with all

the usual fare. Pimento cheese, potato salad, devilled eggs, raw tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, okra, white peas. Coolers of cheap beer.

A few young folks danced. The birthday boy wore a ten-gallon hat and made his way to the dance floor. He dosey-doed with his wife of sixty-some-odd years.

They were something to see.

“Saw Hank play once,” said Birthday Boy. “Was the biggest fun of my life, my daddy and my best gal was with me.”

He removed his hat and kissed his best gal. To watch the elderly lock lips is a blessing unmatched.

“You’re the best damn present God ever gave me,” he said to her.

Hank couldn't have said it better.

I drove home that…

...Even though you walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, you shouldn't fear any evil because you aren't alone. Thy rod and thy staff, and thy Louisville Slugger will comfort you.

DEAR SEAN:

My mom and dad are getting divorced and my dad is leaving us, it makes me so sad, and my brother is going away for college, too, so I won’t have him anymore starting soon.

Then my doctor told me I have a problem with my heart valve and I’m doing all sorts of tests for it. They say not to worry because it's only a small thing, but I am so scared about everything.

Help me,
SCARED IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR SCARED:

After my father’s suicide, I was scared. Very scared. My mother, my sister, and I were all terrified. I can't even tell you why, exactly.

And it was worse at night. We slept in the same bedroom for many years. I slept on the floor, at the foot of Mama’s bed.

Before bedtime, I’d push a dresser in front of her bedroom doorknob.

Irrational, I know.

But that’s fear. It makes you do strange things. And after someone dies—or when parents divorce, or when you get sick,

or when someone hurts you—you get bucketfuls of fear.

One night, my mother heard a crash downstairs. I grabbed a baseball bat—the same slugger I won regional championships with.

I walked the dark house barefoot. I trembled so that I could hardly hold the bat. My heart beat hard.

I saw glowing eyes in the kitchen. Our outdoor cat had gotten trapped indoors. She jumped onto the refrigerator and knocked something over.

I almost vomited. I dropped the bat. I collapsed on the floor and cried until my ears rang.

So, I’m the wrong fella to ask about how to not be afraid. I can’t tell you how because I don’t know.

But I can…

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

Miss Lola places casserole dishes on the table. She forms neat rows. The table is full. There is enough Southern fare here to sink the U.S.S. Humdinger.

Close your eyes and imagine heaven’s own Golden Corral franchise. That’s what this fellowship hall is.

There are old women everywhere. They are buzzing through the room making sure things happen.

Miss Lola walks with a hunched back and resembles the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. She makes coffee in the Baptist Bunn machine.

The church roof has just been replaced. The fellowship hall was supposed to be renovated, but they ran out of money.

“New roof is expensive,” remarks Miss Lola. “The other ladies wanted new appliances and new floors, but all we could afford was the new roof and refrigerator.”

For supper, Miss Lola sits beside me. She eats slower than it takes to read the unabridged version of Gone With the Wind.

“Who fried this chicken?” someone asks.

“Ruth,” Miss Lola says. “But hers ain’t as good as mine.”

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents

her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

“This chicken's too soggy,” she adds. “Mine was never soggy.”

The macaroni and cheese is equally as magnificent. It comes from Miss Lola’s niece, who just turned fifteen.

The kid used her grandmama’s recipe.

When Miss Lola finishes eating, she hobbles between tables. She wears a blue apron. She gathers used paper plates and silverware. Some servants never quit.

After supper, the room empties. People leave for the sanctuary. Save for a few women. Those who stay behind are mostly gray and white.

I stay, too. I collect trash and fold chairs. Miss Lola and I fold tables and nearly amputate my fingers. This makes her laugh very hard.

Later, she stands at at the three-compartment sink, scrubbing. Well,…