Chitlins. I’d rather lick a possum between the ears. However, my saintly mother spent her entire youth popping me with a hairbrush for the express purpose of teaching me to do “nice things.”

I’m watching a Mexican construction crew. They are working on a friend’s house. It is the weekend, and the sun is twelve kinds of brutal.

At noon, they prepare lunch in the shade of a live oak.

The cook for the outfit connects an electric hot-plate to a power cord. He is pan-frying something strange-looking.

He asks if my friend and I want to join them for lunch.

“What’s that you’re cooking?” asks my friend.

“Tacitos tripas.”

I ask what this is, exactly.

The other men giggle.

“I think,” the man explains. “You call them chitlins in Americano. You wanna try?”

Chitlins. I’d rather lick a possum between the ears. However, my saintly mother spent her entire youth popping me with a hairbrush for the express purpose of teaching me to do “nice things.”

So I agreed to try some.

As it happens, I’ve seen some other nice things recently.

For instance, yesterday, in the Walmart checkout lane. I saw a woman with a full cart. She had four

children.

She tried to pay with a card. It was declined.

Her teenage daughter removed a wad of bills and said, “Lemme pay, Mama. I got babysitting money.”

“That’s a REEEEAL good daughter,” said the cashier.

“The best,” said her mother.

Here’s another: I was at a traffic light. I saw a man with a long beard and a guitar on his back. I have seen him before. I’ve even given him money. He’s a nice fella who smells like a distillery.

I saw an arm reach from a car window ahead. The hand was holding a What-A-Burger bag.

The man took it, then sat cross-legged in the median to eat.

She had labored speech and a nice smile. She explained that she would be stocking up on beer, buffalo nachos, Magic City Hotdogs, and burgers for her friends.

Birmingham, Alabama—a baseball game. My wife and I went to see the Barons play. It was a well-attended game.

I stood in the concession line for a forty-five-dollar beer. A girl in a wheelchair was ahead of me. She was a happy thing. Early twenties. Pretty.

Our line was long. But not like the line to the women’s bathroom. Ladies stood single-file, stretching clear back to Chatom.

The girl in the wheelchair turned toward me.

“You go ahead of me if you wanna," she said. "I got a REAL big order.”

She had labored speech and a nice smile. She explained that she would be stocking up on beer, buffalo nachos, Magic City Hotdogs, and burgers for her friends.

I asked why her friends had chosen her to be the neighborhood pack mule.

“‘Cause I got a motor,” she said. “Check me out, I’m practically riding NASCAR.”

She demonstrated her motorized wheels, spinning in a complete circle.

Richard Petty, eat your heart out.

“Sure you don’t wanna

cut in line?” she went on. “My order will take a while.”

“It’s only baseball,” said I.

So, we talked. I was hoping to learn some of her story. But that didn’t happen.

All I learned was her name, and that she has cerebral palsy.

Instead, she asked me questions. The more we talked, the more personal her questions.

And since I have my mother’s talkative genes, I talked. I told her about myself, about my mama, my wife, my coonhound. I told her about a rocky childhood, and a daddy who died too young.

I talked about my education—and lack thereof. I told her I spent the first three quarters of my existence as an aimless kid, working…

His daughter shows me photographs lining his dark hallway. Most photos are of a boy. The kid’s entire childhood is hanging on those walls.

Donald's home is half trailer, half homemade lean-to. He has two little dogs, but his daughter takes care of them. He's too old to care for pets.

His daughter’s home is on the adjoining property. It’s a new-built home. She offered to move her daddy into her spare bedroom. Donald wouldn’t have it.

So, she practically lives with him. She sleeps in a back room. She keeps him fed. She keeps him moving. She encourages Donald to play his fiddle.

He's the creative type. Donald used to build things, wood-carve, paint pictures, grow roses, tell stories, and bow a fiddle.

His house is a wreck. There are piles everywhere. Cardboard boxes, junk-mail, potato-chip bags, radios, guitars, clocks, and enough coffee mugs to construct a national monument.

Donald pitches a fit if ever she tries to clean.

He’s done a lot in his life. He was a cotton picker, a veterinary assistant, a crop duster, a house painter, a janitor, a hunter, he traveled with a band, playing gospel fiddle.

Today, Donald is

slow-moving and half aware.

His daughter shows me photographs lining his dark hallway. Most photos are of a boy. The kid’s entire childhood is hanging on those walls.

A toddler on a tricycle. A boy holding a dead turkey. A young man with a Louisville Slugger. A high-schooler, playing guitar—his daddy on fiddle, smoking a cigarette.

The boy’s name was Daniel. He is no longer.

Donald's daughter opens a book of poems. Her father wrote them long ago. She’s compiled them into a binder with plastic sleeves.

A few lines:

“...And the place below heaven, where suns and moons both rise,

“Is yet bitter and the same, without my little boy closeby.”

His daughter tells me…

My waitress has a weathered face. At first glance, I’d guess she’s old. But she’s not old. Just weathered.

Waffle House is quiet this time of evening. The sun has set. I’m on my way back home from Montgomery.

There are eighteen-wheelers in the abandoned parking lot next door. Most of the world is winding down for the night.

My waitress has a weathered face. At first glance, I’d guess she’s old. But she’s not old. Just weathered.

She asks what I want. I order three eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, toast.

“White or wheat?” she asks.

“Surprise me.”

She reads my order to the cook. I never get tired of hearing them do that.

A kid is mopping the floor. He’s tall, skinny, tattoos on his neck. He looks like he just graduated.

“You mean he KICKED you OUT?” the kid asks the waitress.

“No,” she says. “I left."

"Really?"

"And I ain't going back to him. I’ll sleep in my car if I have to.”

The kid leans on his mop. He has a young face.

He says, “You could stay with me and my brother. I can sleep on

the couch.”

She smiles. Her teeth are stained, she has lines on her face, but she is handsome.

“That’s real sweet, E.J.,” she says. “But I can’t.”

“Well, you CAN'T sleep in your car.”

“I'll be fine.”

“C’mon,” he says. “We got Netflix and everything.”

My food’s ready. She hands me my plate and asks if I need anything. And because I’ve eaten enough Waffle House food to own stock in the corporation, I know exactly what I need.

“Ranch, please,” I say.

The kid goes on, “My stepdad used to cheat on my mom, too. She SHOULDA left him, but every time we’d leave,…

You know love because you are a product of it. It's in your blood. You breathe it. You touch it when you pet dogs. You see it on Andy Griffith reruns.

DEAR SEAN: 

Recently, I started talking to a guy who has been my friend for a while, and actually, I’ve fallen in love with him.

This will be our sixth month together. He’s AMAZING, goes to church every Sunday when he’s home because he works offshore. He’s respectful, loyal, and treats me like no other person.

I genuinely love him and, God willing, I see a future for us.

But the thing that hangs some people up, is that he’s black.

Most of my family loves him, but the other half sees our relationship as “morally wrong.”

I just need a little advice from someone who can tell me to keep going.

Sincerely,
GIRL NEEDING REASSURANCE

DEAR REASSURANCE:

I met a preacher who lived to one hundred and one. They tell me he spent days sitting by the window in a wheelchair, talking under his breath.

He told people he was chatting with his best friend.

Once, I saw him point to a tree outside the window.

“THAT'S love,” he said. “Right there.

See it?”

“That’s a tree,” a nurse pointed out.

He laughed. “What do you think MADE that oak tree?”

She shrugged. “The Good Lord?”

“Close,” he said. “Love made it! Look it up!”

While he cackled, she wheeled him into his room where she changed his diaper.

Well, technically, if we’re following the old man’s way of thinking, “love” changed his diaper.

Anyway, I’ve thought about him for many years. And if that man was right, love does more than sprout trees and change diapers.

It floats through the universe, making everything work. It’s the green stuff inside leaves. It makes flowers grow.

The boy holds his fish as high as he can. His father hugs him and kisses his hair. They make a fine picture together.

I'm watching a father and son fish in a state park. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

After a few minutes, the boy’s rod starts to bend.

He screams, “I GOT ONE DAD!” His voice carries on the water all the way to Birmingham.

And I am a nine-year-old again.

In fact, if I were to shut my eyes right now, I would see my father, shirtless, standing on a sandy teshore, smiling. A beer can by his feet.

“Quit messing with your reel so much,” he’d say. “You’ll scare fish away if you don’t relax.”

On one particular day, my father caught three bass and a shellcracker. Mister Unrelaxed had not been so fortunate—I’d caught one Penzoil can and a medium-sized turtle.

But my luck changed. My rod nearly jerked out of my hands. I tugged and cranked.

And it happened. I caught a bass bigger than most residential water heaters. Daddy whooped and hollered.

He let me take a sip of his lukewarm beer. He discussed how to clean a fish.

He handed me a Buck knife to cut off the head. He made me swear to keep both hands on the handle.

The next thing I remember is a puddle of my own blood. I nearly fainted.

Daddy wasted no time. He tossed my flopping fish into the truck bed. He pressed a wadded T-shirt against my cut hand. We sped to the Emergency room.

I glanced through the back window and saw my fish flopping in the pickup bed.

“Your mama’s gonna kill me,” said Daddy.

The doctor was an old man. He looked at my hand and said, “What kinda fish you catch, old timer?”

Old timer.

I told him. He smiled,…

Listen, I know this world isn’t all confectioners sugar and honey bees. I know life is hard, I’m no fool. I know hatred is out there, just waiting to beat the hell out of another victim.

Fayetteville, North Carolina—the middle of the night, on the interstate. She was on her way to start a new life in a new place.

She pulled over at a rest area.

It was dark. She was young. A man came from nowhere, forced her into a car, and held a gun to her. He told her what he was about to do to her.

Then, someone kicked open the window and pulled him off. There was a fight. Her attacker was never caught. Her hero was never found. She was unharmed.

“My mom thinks it was an angel,” she says. “I think so, too.”

Birmingham, Alabama—Daryl saw a man walking the highway. He offered the man a ride.

The man said, “No thanks,” and mumbled something nonsensical.

Daryl dove past him the next afternoon. And the next. One day he pulled alongside the man and said, “Please let me do SOMETHING for you, sir.”

The man said, “I’m so scared, dude. Help me.”

Daryl brought him home. He made contact with the

man’s sister, who said her brother suffered from schizophrenia. He’d gone missing days earlier.

In a few hours, the family was reunited on Daryl’s front lawn.

“You saved my brother’s life,” said the man’s sister. “And mine.”

Flowood, Mississippi—on Tuesday afternoons, Mary instructs a gymnasium of women, of varying ages and fitness levels, how to dance hip-hop.

One of her students—an elderly woman—had chest pains.

The ambulance came. Mary rode with her to the hospital. She lied to nurses, claiming to be the woman’s daughter so they’d let her into the woman’s room. She called the family.

One emergency open-heart surgery later, the old woman is alive and moving.

“Anybody woulda done what I…