The line of customers at the counter is the usual crowd. Lanky men with burnt skin and greasy shirts. One man orders three chili dogs. Three.

Things move slow in Fadette, Alabama. This rural community is a fleck of ketchup on the map. Trees. Fields. Farmhouses. Masey Ferguson 8600’s.

I could die happy in Fadette.

The Fadette Convenience Store sits smack-dab on the main drag, between here and nowhere. It’s a Marathon gas station, a country store, and an eatery.

Today, it's hot as twelve hells outside. A boy is shelling peas out front. Inside the store, there are typical things. Beer coolers, beef jerky, Marlboros, Red Man, five-gallon buckets of heavy-equipment hydraulic fluid.

In the back: a one-room restaurant. The kitchen serves food good enough to make grown men blush. Catfish, ribs, smoked chicken, slaw, hush puppies, and Grandmama’s signature chili dogs.

I order a little of everything.

I sit next to a woman and her son. Her husband is a tractor mechanic, her son raises show cattle.

“We come here to eat all the time,” she says. “Best food around.”

It's more than that. This is the best food within

ten thousand country miles. And it's perfect.

The line of customers at the counter is the usual crowd. Lanky men with burnt skin and greasy shirts. One man orders three chili dogs. Three.

“When we started this place,” says owner, Ronald Brannon. “My grandmama cooked. She told me, ‘You make MY chili the way I show you, people will come from miles just to eat it.’ And boy, lemme tell you, they sure do.’”

God rest her soul.

Ronald began this place fifteen years ago. Before that, he worked every job in the book.

“I was a cable installer, a landscaper, a paramedic, a farmer,” he says. “I done it all.”

The old building sat vacant for years before he bought it.

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I meet Don, who works in concrete. Billy, who repairs small engines. Steve, who is still looking for work since he quit truck driving. Cassie, who studies stage-acting in Atlanta and works for local newspapers.

The rural South looks good at six in the evening. The sun is low. The peanut fields are so green they’re blue. The grain silos are rusty.

We drive through Slocomb, home of the Tomato Festival. We pass through Tabernacle. I’ll bet they don’t get too worked up in Tabernacle.

And we arrive in Hartford. They tell me this is quite a town. The small community sits in the middle of the Fruited Plains, and it is quintessential Little America.

Nice-looking homes. Old churches. A boy walks on a sidewalk. His dog follows, off-leash.

The public library is a brick building which also serves as courthouse, community center, historical museum, and a reception hall for wedding parties.

I’m in town tonight to speak. I play guitar in a room that's roughly the size of a baptismal tank. I tell a few stories on a microphone.

I have no earthly idea what I’m doing.

Afterward, I am fortunate enough to shake hands with God’s finest people. They are walking-talking masterpieces from Ozark, Wicksburg, Clayhatchee, High Bluff, Bellwood, Earlytown,

Dundee, Malvern, Taylor, Circle City, Slocomb, and Fadette.

I meet a tomato farmer, a cotton farmer, a watermelon farmer, a corn farmer, a goat farmer, an ostrich farmer, a cattle farmer, a tractor mechanic, an twelve-year-old girl who raises show hogs and is strong enough to arm wrestle an adult male.

There is a woman with a walker. She is ninety, with flour-white hair. Martha Green is her name. She has large eyes that sparkle. She eats a cookie and tells me what FSU was like before it turned co-ed.

J.C. shakes my hand. He is a big man with mitts like frying pans, who shares my affection for poundcake.

There is Mandie: five-foot-tall, sweet, gives good hugs, doesn’t know strangers. And former Miss Slocomb gives me a full basket of tomatoes.

If I can find a saltshaker, these tomatoes won’t last ten…

His father was a good man. The kind who had no extra time between mill-whistles. Thursday night Scout meetings were impossible. He drove long commutes, worked overtime, his hateful boss ran him raw. He barely found time for supper.

The early sixties. An era of thick-rimmed glasses, beehive hair-dos, Andy Griffith episodes, and too much eye-makeup.

The sixth-graders made fun of Greg Ford. Nobody could even tell you why. Maybe because he was a soft-spoken kid.

Maybe because kids will be kids.

Greg lived with his father on the poor side of town. His mother left them long ago. Nobody heard from her again.

Young Greg talked about her sometimes, but he was only repeating stories he’d heard from his father. He couldn’t remember her.

He wore a key on a shoestring around his neck. The key to his front door. The other children teased him about that.

Like I said. Kids.

A teacher made him wear the key around his neck after he lost it once. The last thing Greg Ford needed was to wait on a porch-step until dark for his father to get home from the mill.

Anyway, the story here isn’t about keys, or childhood bullies. It’s about the day Greg found a copy of the Boy Scout Manual on the school

bus. He took it home and read it cover to cover.

He asked his father if he could join the Scouts. His father told Greg it wasn’t in the cards.

His father was a good man. The kind who had no extra time between mill-whistles. Thursday night Scout meetings were impossible. He drove long commutes, worked overtime, his hateful boss ran him raw. He barely found time for supper.

Thus, Greg carried the Scout Manual with him. He read it often. He learned about campfire safety, water safety, identifying bear tracks, and how to handle the American flag.

“He never put the manual down,” one classmate remembers. “Was like his security blanket, he really wanted to be a Scout.”

Which broke his teacher’s heart. She looked into taking Greg to meetings herself, but she had a busy family life. Meeting times couldn't have…

On my drive home that evening, I rode the beach route. I pulled over and walked the shoreline. The moon and stars were putting on quite a show. I looked for major constellations, but I’m no good with astronomy.

A few years ago—I played music in a rundown bar on my late father’s birthday. It was a slow night—which felt a lot like singing to a roomful of house cats.

The crowd fizzled. The bartender was reading Cosmo magazine.

On break, an older man offered to buy me a drink. He was droopy-eyed and long-faced. He told me his son had just ended his own life, days earlier.

He drained his bottle, then made small-talk with a thick tongue. I don’t know how our conversation drifted. But conversations involving beer often do.

He said he didn’t believe in God. After his son’s death he came to believe God was nothing but a cruel joke.

He fell from his barstool. I helped him off the ground.

He started crying. “Jeezus,” he said. “You look like my son.”

All I could think to do was hug him.

A cab arrived to carry him home. He tipped the band fifty bucks before he left.

On my drive home that evening,

I rode the beach route. I pulled over and walked the shoreline. The moon and stars were putting on quite a show. I looked for major constellations, but I’m no good with astronomy.

So I thought about the man at the bar.

I reasoned that, if the Almighty were indeed real, He might have sent that poor man to that particular joint. And if that were true, maybe I was supposed to say something to him.

Something like: “Buck up, Daddy Warbucks, the sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Gag.

God knows, that’s the sort of thing everyone said to me after Daddy ended his own life.

Anyway, that night I listened to the Gulf water. The sound was hypnotizing. It made…

...When I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.

DEAR SEAN:

You’re an idiot and I’m sick of your storytime bull $@%+, you don’t know half as much about life as you think you do… And it pisses me off when you go off giving advice to people.

You’re too young, why don’t you just shut up until you’ve lived a little?

I AM UNFRIENDING YOU

DEAR UNFRIENDING:

Thank you for your words. I sincerely mean that. Even though they weren't exactly the prettiest sentences I’ve ever read, I’m grateful for them. Sort of.

Because when I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.

Anyway, I’d like to go back to seventh grade for a moment. The year my father swallowed the barrel of a hunting rifle. I lost a lot of good things that year.

I grew up rural. I did not attend high school. I worked.

My first job was at age fourteen, hanging drywall.

My peers attended proms and picked out colleges; I smiled and congratulated them from the sidelines.

The word “outsider” comes to mind.

I visited the library a lot. Once per week, Miss Terri, a short white-haired lady, hand-picked stacks of books for me.

She chose subjects like: chemistry, botany, ornithology, American history, agriculture, wood joinery, classic literature, and Western novels.

I read until my eyes went blurry.

When I hit my mid-twenties, I met an older man on a construction jobsite who had his masters degree. He was swinging a hammer just like me.

I clocked off work early and rode to the local community college. I walked inside and told the…

“My job is to help people make peace, or relax when they’re scared. I try to tell them it's never too late to forgive. I'm living proof.”

He will be seventy-eight this fall. He looks good. He blames his strong health on poor diet and Coca-Cola.

His father was a Pentecostal preacher. As a boy, he grew up underneath a microscope. He was a good kid. He did things all good preacher’s kids do. He sang in church, attended Wednesday services, youth groups, Saturday prayers, and marathon Sundays.

Until age eighteen.

“My girlfriend got pregnant,” he said. “It was hard. People were so judgmental.”

His father kicked him out. The eighteen-year-old gathered his clothes and stayed at a friend’s house.

“All happened so fast,” he said. “One minute I was a straight-A student, the next second I was homeless.”

He and his girlfriend left town. He took a low-paying job. A full two years went by. He called his father and arranged a visit.

He appeared at the church office. He and the preacher spoke for ten minutes before tempers flared.

Old wounds ran deep.

He had a tantrum. He kicked

a hole in his father’s office door, and for almost two decades he and his father had nothing to do with each other. Nothing.

On his forty-sixth birthday, his mother called. It was bad news. His father was sick, they expected him to pass at any moment.

He made an all-night drive to a familiar town. He pulled his car into a familiar driveway. He walked through a familiar front door, into a home he still knew by heart.

“The house was smaller than I remembered,” he said.

His father sat in a recliner. They held one another. They cried. Apologies came easy.

Father and son stayed awake half the night, sipping coffee, telling stories. They laughed. They shed tears enough to fill gallon jugs. One…

I don't know who you are or what you're going through today. But I know life is hard. Damn hard. I know that it breaks you, then mails you a bill.

Somewhere outside Montgomery, Alabama—a gas station. A young girl stands in line. She has long woven hair. In her hands: a soda bottle and a bag of chips.

In front of her is an older gentleman. He has weathered skin, ratty clothes, and work boots.

He tells the cashier he wants twenty-dollars worth of gas. He hands his cash over.

“This ain’t twenty,” says the cashier. “It’s only fourteen bucks.”

The girl steps forward. “Here,” she says, laying a five on the counter.

The man tells the girl he can’t accept money from a little kid.

The girl ignores him.

The cashier rings him up, the girl returns her soda and chips to the shelf. Before the girl leaves, she high fives the man.

He smiles and almost ruptures a cheek.

“God bless you,” he says.

Alpharetta, Georgia—his wife cheated on him and ended up pregnant. She left him and moved in with her lover.

Her lover turned out to be a piece of work—he ditched her. She

had her baby alone.

A few hours after she gave birth, the girl called her parents. They refused her—for religious reasons. A few of her friends did the same.

So, she called her ex-husband. He answered his phone. She expected him to hang up. He didn't.

In fact, before they finished talking, he had already piled into his car and pointed it toward the hospital.

He held her new baby, he kissed it. And years later, that kid still calls him “Daddy.”

Mobile, Alabama—her father committed suicide when she was sixteen. She had three brothers, and a mother who was mentally ill.

And a mortgage.

She got a job to support the family. She…