The family hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. They live in the Birmingham hospital. They eat whatever they can get out of vending machines.

Birmingham, Alabama—a hospital room. A steady beeping noise. The fluid bag doles out one drop at a time. Fluorescent lights. The god-awful smell of disinfectant.

Four-year-old Paisley Corbitt is a long way from her home in Graceville. She's fast asleep. When her mother walks in, she doesn’t wake her.

Paisley is worn thin. She's been through hell. Sleep is precious.

Paisely is a towhead with the face of a cherub. She has slept in this bed for too many nights—off and on. This small-town girl would rather be fishing for bream, running in the woods barefoot, or watching TV.

Anything but this.

In January, she got diagnosed with neuroblastoma. If you don’t know what that is, think: the worst cancer imaginable. Then triple it. Then, multiply it by sheer horror. Carry the two. Divide by your worst nightmare.

Her treatment clipboard reads like the unabridged Japanese Dictionary. Five rounds of chemo, invasive surgery, more high-dose chemo, stem-cell transplant, radiation, immunotherapy.

Like I said. Hell.

The family hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. They live in the Birmingham hospital.

They eat whatever they can get out of vending machines.

“It’s been hard,” says her mother. “Even harder with two kids. Her brother doesn’t realize what’s happening, he just wants her better so she can play again.”

That makes two of us.

Paisley is weak. She’s lost weight. Her skin is pale. Her hair is falling out. She wears a mask. It is a long, woeful road ahead. A fight. But she is not alone. And that’s why I’m writing this.

“Our community has overwhelmed us,” says her mother. “Graceville has given so much support, food, and love… People have even thrown fundraisers.”

There's a local flyer. It reads: "Team Paisley Raffle." On the front is the photo of a smiling four-year-old with white-blonde hair. Five dollars per ticket. Win a Yeti cooler. I understand they sold a shipload of…

It’s all around us—whatever you call it. I suppose it's always here, hanging in the air like potpourri my mother would make on the stovetop.

Cracker Barrel, 8:17 P.M.—it's busy tonight. There’s a boy in a wheelchair at the table beside me. His father is spoonfeeding him cooked apples.

When the boy's sister says something funny, the boy claps and laughs.

His father wipes his face with a rag and says, “You’re my special boy.” Then, he kisses his forehead.

A nearby girl wanders toward the boy. She is four, maybe. Her hair is in dreadlocks. She stares at him with her hand in her mouth.

“Is he okay?” she asks.

The boy leans and gives a big “HELLO!” There are apple bits on his chin.

The girl gives a smile brighter than a Christmas tree. “HI THERE!” she says in return. Then, she skips off.

Three tables from the boy is an old man. He is a wearing ball cap, Velcro shoes. He’s sitting at a two-top. He orders chicken-fried steak and potatoes. He has no cellphone to occupy his attention. No reading material. He sits.

He and I share a waitress. Her name is Blanche—it’s embroidered on her apron. Whenever he speaks

to her, he holds her hand. Something you don't see much.

He has a voice that sounds genteel enough to predate the War Between the States. It's a wonder he's all alone.

Behind him is a table of Mexican workers—men, women, and kids. They sit covered in paint and grit. They speak rapid Spanish. Lots of laughing.

One Mexican boy crawls into his mother's lap. She strokes his silk hair with her paint-spotted hand, saying, “Cariño mio,” over and over.

And though I don't know Spanish, I imagine this, more or less, means: “You're my special boy.”

To their left: a teenage couple. He weighs a buck ten, she is a foot taller than him. They hold hands when they walk out. They kiss. They look drunk on each other. What a feeling.

When I pay my tab, Brooke is my…

One night, she approached the homeless man with the offer. She walked right into his camp. This woman is fearless.

This is the quintessential beer joint. There are pool tables, chain-smokers, dartboards, a jukebox, and a plywood stage. There’s a young guitarist. He knows three songs. He repeats them.

I think he's overdue for a break.

My friend tells a waitress that I am a writer—if that's what you call it. My pal is only teasing me. The waitress says she has a good story.

And without awaiting my response, she's already telling it.

She is the quintessential barmaid—a no-nonsense woman, mid-fifties, a few tattoos on her forearm. Tough.

“Okay,” she begins, like she’s rehearsed. “So there was this homeless guy..."

I like the story already.

She tells me the man rode his bike all over town. She often saw him on her way to work and wondered where he was going.

So one day, she followed him. He lived behind a strip mall, in the woods. She discovered he had a son.

“It was enough to break your heart,” she adds. “They were living underneath a tarp.”

The next day, she and a friend delivered gift bags. A prepaid cellphone, snacks,

clothes, toys, food. As many items as they could fit into a few gym bags.

“He was skittish,” she said. “Very protective of his son, didn’t want us getting close.”

She couldn’t get him off her mind. She contacted her brother-in-law—a church deacon. She convinced his church to offer the man a room and meals.

One night, she approached the homeless man with the offer. She walked right into his camp. This woman is fearless.

He refused. He told her he didn’t want her charity.

"So I got in his face," she says. "Told him if he didn’t take my handout, I was gon' call the law and have his kid removed."

Magic.

He moved into a small Sunday-school room which she and her friends had outfitted with beds and a mini-fridge. The church agreed to hire him…

He is your typical American kid. Cheery face. Large ears poking beneath a red baseball cap. Freckles. He has a big bandage on his collarbone.

There's a television in the corner of a breakfast restaurant, it's broadcasting a political talk-show. The TV hosts are flinging hands at one another, arguing about God-knows-what while I eat eggs.

“Nonononononono,” says the talking head. “Don’t tell ME I’m un-American, sir. YOU’RE un-American…”

In the booth ahead of me: a young boy. Five years old. Six maybe. He orders cheese and scrambled eggs—I know this because he shouts his order. Which draws looks.

Some children’s voices are shrill when they shout. Not his. His sounds like a laugh fit for a playground.

His mother hushes him.

He is your typical American kid. Cheery face. Large ears poking beneath a red baseball cap. Freckles. He has a big bandage on his collarbone.

He coughs. It sounds like a bad cold. He uses his hat to cover his mouth. His head is bald. I see blue veins underneath his pale scalp.

The TV host shouts, “DON’T YOU TELL ME I’M UN-AMERICAN! I’M AS AMERICAN AS…”

The boy asks his mother, “Are you tired, Mom?”

She smiles and nods.

“Are you as hungry as ME?” he says. “NOBODY'S as

hungry as me.”

She doesn’t answer. She’s pretty. Young, but weathered. She looks like she’s lived twice the life any of her peers have.

He leans on her shoulder. There is a medical bracelet around his wrist. He tells her he’s sorry for being so sick.

Her face swells. “Don’t you ever say that again,” she says. “You hear me?”

“I’M UN-AMERICAN?! I’M UN-AMERICAN?! YOU’RE UN-AMERICAN! YOU, YOU, YOU…”

The boy asks if he’ll be going back to the emergency room again. “I hate it there,” he adds. "I don't wanna go back."

She shakes her head. “I don't know, Tray. We'll have to see.”

Tray. It’s a sturdy name. And he must be a strong kid because he has a tough mama. Life for some five-year-olds is carefree. I don’t get the…

“Moment tickets go on sale,” Miss Connie says. “We sell out in three hours. Celebrities even come to town. Last year, we had Katie Couric.”

Monroeville, Alabama—the middle-school gymnasium smells like one. This old wood floor is about the age of my late granddaddy. It creaks.

I’m watching a rehearsal for a community play. Atticus Finch is hugging his children in the final scene of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The kid-actors fidget between takes. They’re an energetic bunch, just freed from school an hour ago.

“Cut!” yells the director. He calms the rowdy.

Welcome to town—a place with a little over six thousand folks. Here, you’ll find tractor dealerships, barbecue joints, a Piggly Wiggly, a pulp mill.

And, an abandoned middle school—which is where I am tonight.

This is the twenty-sixth year the community has put on this play. It started as a way to raise money for courthouse renovations.

It turned into something else.

“We’ve gone all over the cotton-picking world,” says Miss Connie—wearing a church-lady hat and white gloves. “Hong Kong, England... We’re about to go to Ireland. It’s funny, I guess everybody wants a taste of Alabama.”

I guess.

When the cast isn’t bringing Lower Alabama to the world, the world comes to Monroeville.

“It’s wild,” says

one cast member. “During April and May, we get visitors from Europe, Japan, and Canada to see this thing... Guided tours, busses, crowds... Craziness.”

The city turns into a downright feeding frenzy for anyone who’s never sipped sweet tea, seen shotgun houses, longleaf pines, or heard gospel choirs.

“Moment tickets go on sale,” Miss Connie says. “We sell out in three hours. Celebrities even come to town. Last year, we had Katie Couric.”

My cow in the morning.

“Harper Lee made our way of life famous,” she goes on.

Maybe. But these actors are the furthest thing from famous. They are insurance salesmen, steelworkers, funeral-home directors, policemen, mill-workers, middle-schoolers, grandmothers, attorneys, and preachers with accents so thick they sound like your daddy.

Director Stephen Billy helps children into stage-positions with an easy touch. He’s good…

And while she carried on, I was in another world. Her world. An old one, that we’ll never see again. One with turntables, sitting parlors, barefoot kids, fish-fries, and coffee made over open-flame stoves.

I had a date tonight. My mother-in-law cooked me a steak. A fat one. In one hand she held her walker. In the other, a skillet. The meat made a lot of noise.

“Gotta sear it good,” explained my mother-in-law. “Keeps all the juice in.”

She baked potatoes and yeast rolls, too. Between us, we split a pitcher of sweet tea. I don’t know how she makes her tea, but when the roll is called up yonder, God better have his glass ready.

My T-bone is perfect. Pink. Tender. My coonhound rests her snout on my lap, in case I feel like sharing with starving canines whose owners neglect them.

I’ve been in this family a long time. I’ve eaten my share of steaks at this table. I’ve known this woman since her hair still had color to it. Before the walker.

On the day of my wedding, she greeted me in the lobby before the ceremony. She and my wife's aunt straightened my tux and fussed over me.

“Hot awmighty,” said one. “Who put this tux on you, a wino?”

“You’re a

mess,” said the other. “Looks like you slept in your truck.”

“Your shoes are filthy.”

“Gimme that comb."

“Is this BARBECUE sauce on your collar?”

"I Suwannee."

"I Suwannee, too."

Everybody Suwannee together now.

After she’d trimmed my ear hair and cleaned the smudges from my face using her own spit, my mother-in-law said, “We’re so glad to have you in our family.”

Nobody had ever said anything like that to me.

Anyway, we ate steak, she talked. Mostly, about the old days. She spoke about times before smartphones and twenty-four-hour political channels. An era when towns closed on Sundays. When men cut work to go fishing.

She talked about her mother and how the woman was self-reliant. She could rescreen windows, raise chickens, stain floorboards, and fix mechanical fans.

“But she couldn’t cook to save her…

This is a place where waitresses call you "sugar." Where eating ribs requires two hands, where tea is sweet enough to power residential lawn mowers.

Crestview, Florida—Desi’s Downtown Restaurant is the All-American experience. The food here is something fit for Baptist covered-dish socials.

This is not the tasteless fare that passes for home cooking in modern chain-restaurants. No.

This is real.

This is a place where waitresses call you "sugar." Where eating ribs requires two hands, where tea is sweet enough to power residential lawn mowers.

The buffet selections are basic. Catfish, creamed corn, turnip greens with hocks. They have turkey neck gravy so good it’ll make you look for your aunt in the kitchen.

The local customers are relaxed. Men wear caps with heavy-equipment brands on the fronts. Women wear jeans and scuffed boots. This place is a bona fide field-trip back to 1945.

Beside me: a white-haired woman. She’s friendly. “This used to be the old Lamar Hotel,” she tells me. And she says the word “hotel” like “hoe-tail.”

She goes on, “We pray no out-of-towners find this restaurant because then everybody’d be here.”

Folks like me.

Her husband adjusts his hearing aids and smiles. He tells me the turkey-neck gravy is particularly good today.

So, I waltz to the food-line.

On my way, I see a group of teenagers in camouflage. They're talking about something important. Their plates are piled high. None of them hold smartphones.

A young girl walks by them. They recognize her. Two boys stand and remove their hats just to say hello. I hope this practice never dies.

The waitress is back at my table. "More tea, Sugar?" She’s already pouring before I answer. This is a woman who works hard for a living.

“Isn’t their tea great?” asks my new friend with the hearing aids.

It sure is.

But it's more than tea. It’s the way a woman in a booth hugs a girl and asks how her sick mama is doing. Or how one man tips his waitress twenty bucks.

And it's my server—wearing her high-school…