She has two girls, ages four and six. They eat supper; she does dishes. They watch Netflix; she does laundry.

You’ve met her before. You know her—sort of. You just haven’t had a chance to talk to her yet. Most people don’t get that chance.

That’s because she’s a behind-the-scenes woman. She’s hardworking. She’s busy.

Most days, she’s at the elementary school, cleaning. She even works Saturdays. She is there when the first employee arrives; she is there after the last one leaves. She is there when others enjoy the weekend.

She begins each day with an energy drink. She pushes her custodian cart through hallways. She empties trash, picks up refuse, cleans the lunchroom.

She scrubs windows, desks, walls, and toilets. She vacuums classrooms, buffs floors, changes light bulbs, and even cleans up vomit during stomach-bug season.

When the sun is sinking, you’ll see her out by the school dumpster pausing for a breather.

After she clocks out, she drives to Walmart. There, she buys a roasted chicken—the biggest one they have—and a few cans of vegetables. It’s not exactly supper fit for kings, but it’s for her family.

Speaking of family. After Walmart, she drives to the babysitter’s house to pick up her kids. Her children run to her when they see her. They love their mama. And she loves them. In fact, these aren’t just her kids, these are her greatest achievements.

She left a bad marriage to give them the moon. She works two jobs to make sure they have decent clothes.

She has two girls, ages four and six. They eat supper; she does dishes. They watch Netflix; she does laundry.

They fall asleep. She carries them into bedrooms. She dresses them in Disney pajamas. She tucks them in. And after she turns off bedroom lights, she watches their faces for a long time.

She can’t get over how precious they are. When they were babies, people said the joys of new motherhood would eventually wear…

She broke a chain on the bike. She was trying to fix it, but she doesn’t have the means. She was stranded. The sun was hot. She was tired.

Lockhart, Alabama—I saw her on the side of Highway 55. I pulled over.

Her scooter was broken down. Behind her seat is a milk crate with a dog in it. A sign on her scooter reads: “Traveling homeless...”

She broke a chain on the bike. She was trying to fix it, but she doesn’t have the means. She was stranded. The sun was hot. She was tired.

She’s no spring chicken.

I introduced myself. “Ma’am,” I said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.”

She looked at me funny. “Me?”

Let me explain:

Her name is Lisa. The first time I heard about Lisa was several months ago in Grove Hill, Alabama. My friends, Gail and Johnnie, met a homeless woman on a scooter, heading to Texas.

They stopped to buy her food and a motel room. The next morning, I tried to find Lisa, but she’d already left.

Months thereafter, I heard about Lisa again—hundreds of miles away in Oneonta. My pal,

Jim Ed, and his wife came across a woman and her dog, riding a scooter.

This time, the woman was bound for Mississippi.

They loaded her scooter onto a trailer and gave her a ride through the steep North Alabama hills. They gave her money, food, phone numbers. They told me all about her.

I have been hoping to meet Lisa for a long time.

And here she was, in the flesh. Her hair is white, her skin is weathered. She is worn. Her eyes are sharp. She is perfect.

On her handlebars hangs a Bible in a handmade case. Her cigarettes are wedged in the Bible case.

Her old boy, Noah, is an old animal with a smile on his face.

“Been everywhere on this scooter,” she said. “Rode from Pennsylvania to Georgia on this thing. Texas, to Mississippi.

Then, the bloodhound looked at me with wild, mildly Satanic eyes. And I realized that we were playing a game.

There are certain days in a man’s life when, for whatever reason, he has the urge to chase a runaway bloodhound up a Tennessee mountain.

This puppy, Thelma Lou, happens to be an expert at running. All it takes is the right breeze to hit her nose, and she’s off for Canada.

She was on a leash today, trotting beside me. We reached an overlook. The view was green and majestic. I remarked to myself, “Take a gander at them mountains.”

And it was during this moment of deep reflection that I noticed Thelma had chewed through her leash. All I could see were hindparts, bouncing merrily through the Greenest State in the Land of the Free.

“Don’t panic,” I told myself. “Just remain calm.”

I called her name. I shouted it firmly, but not aggressively. And I clapped. Lots of clapping. Clapping is important when calling a fugitive dog so that others nearby are sufficiently aware of what a human toadstool you are.

So I walked the

trail, looking for a dog, clapping. I heard rustling ahead, and I could see her.

I used my high-pitched baby voice: “That’sagoodgirlyesyouareThelmaLouyesyouare.”

And I was so busy calling her that I almost forgot that I’ve hiked this trail before, as a kid. I was with my father at the time.

I remember that day well. We both wore coonskin caps from a gift shop. That day, my father referred to me as Davy Crockett. I called him Daniel Boone.

We sang songs, we ate peanut butter sandwiches, we carved walking sticks. I still have those sticks.

When we hit the top of a mountain, my father looked over these very hills and whistled at them.

He said, “Would ya take a gander them mountains.”

He was a good man.

Anyway, I saw a dog in the distance. Her head was down,…

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in every subject. Her disposition got sweeter, too.

Her life was on the upswing. She dated her first boyfriend. She joined school clubs. She played in band.

And on the last…

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

Thank you for holding the door for an old woman at Cracker Barrel. You must’ve been fourteen, you were with friends. You were laughing and carrying on when you saw the old woman, pushing a walker. You jogged ahead. You beat her to the door. You held it open.

She thanked you. You yes-ma’amed her. And you made my day, kid.

My whole day.

And thanks for giving money to a homeless man in Birmingham, Alabama. You don’t know me, but I watched you.

I was at a stoplight. You were outside UAB School of Medicine campus. You wore green scrubs, and carried a backpack. You gave money. Then, you gave a cup of coffee and a fast food to-go bag.

Thanks for sitting with that young girl after work. She was seating on the sidewalk outside the bar. She was waiting for her ride.

It was two in the morning. She didn’t need to be alone at that hour. So you sat with her. You might

not think you did much, but you did.

Thank you for filling that backpack with food, then leaving it in a tenth-grader’s locker—anonymously.

You know who you are.

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

When the hitchhiker stepped into your car, you could tell he had mental illness. But you didn’t try to fix him, you didn’t try to be a hero, you didn’t try to DO anything. You were just nice to him. And he appreciated that.

Thanks for driving a kid named Peter to baseball practice. After his father died, his mother has been working double shifts. Peter has been babysitting and cooking supper for his sisters since his mother started working longer hours.

Peter had to drop out of baseball because he didn’t have a ride.…

...I miss mom-and-pop restaurants, beer joints, country stores, ice-cream shops, and side-of-the-road barbecue pits with waitresses bearing double first names. And I don’t want to lose them.

This place used to be a barbecue joint. It’s not anymore. It’s under new ownership. They’ve renovated. They have a summer beer menu with eighteen-dollar maple-bacon flavored beer.

Do what?

Years ago, this place was duct-tape on the seat cushions and a water fountain in the back. Pork sandwiches for three bucks. People asking how your mama’s doing.

Now it’s burgers made from Colombian black beans for eleven dollars. What’s next? Rapping in country music? Say it ain’t so.

“There are no hole-in-the-walls left,” my friend suggests, screaming over the music that’s playing overhead. “I think we’re seeing the end of the local dive. Everything’s going big-business corporate.”

I can hardly hear what he says over the techno music. This particular song sounds like a young woman brought a guitar to a chainsaw fight.

So, I walk to the jukebox to look for something with more fiddle. And I’m remembering when this place used to have a traditional lit-up jukebox that played Patti Page, Haggard, and Ernest Tubb.

This new juke-shaped super-computer has

a digital screen. No quarter-slot, only a credit-card reader and a keypad.

Shoot me.

“Corporations,” my friend says again. “They’re taking over the world, I tell ya.”

I hope he’s not right. Because I miss mom-and-pop restaurants, beer joints, country stores, ice-cream shops, and side-of-the-road barbecue pits with waitresses bearing double first names. And I don’t want to lose them.

I don’t know where they have gone, but I miss them enough to go look for them. I miss vinyl stool-cushions, dartboards, rotating pie-coolers, and servers who make small-talk because you look like you “ain’t from around here.”

And jukeboxes.

Daddy used to carry me to a barbecue joint that had a jukebox. For a dime, I’d enjoy “Waltz Across Texas” while I ate. The restaurant menu consisted of three things. Smoked pork, fries, and Arctic-cold beer. I was…

The wedding ceremony was in a big, old, tall, scary-looking church. When the preacherman said, “kiss the bride,” I heard sniffing from the girl beside me. I started sniffing, too.

The sun is low, the gnats are out. A barbecue grill is smoking with pecan wood. My wife is asleep in a lawn chair. She is out like a porch light.

Thelma Lou, the bloodhound, lies beside me, chewing on a two-by-four she found.

I’m cooking Chicken à la Beer Can for supper. I’m using my uncle’s secret recipe.

I remember when he would cook this chicken dish long ago. He’d smear on the seasoning, shove a Budweiser can up the carcass, and (voila!) redneck gourmet.

Pecan smoke during my childhood was always accompanied by stories. I’m talking big tales told by men with gray hair who held sweaty cans and wore jeans during the summer.

It would’ve been blasphemy to sit before a fire pit without stories.

So I need a story to go with this pecan smoke. After all, it’s part of my ancestry. Let’s see here...

I’ll tell you about this sleeping woman.

Our first phone conversation lasted nearly two hours. We were strangers then.

That night

on the phone, I hardly spoke. She used enough words for both of us. I did, however, manage to ask her to be my plus-one at a friend’s wedding in Birmingham. She agreed.

The next Friday, I wore khakis and a necktie. My mother remarked that she’d never seen me wear a necktie of my own volition.

I used cologne, too.

The cologne had been my father’s. The irony here is that my father was not a cologne man. Still, on my twelfth birthday, he gave me a bottle of French toilet water. For years, I wondered why he did this—since we weren’t toilet-water people.

I asked why he did that.

“Because,” Daddy said, “One day, you’ll be around some girl you REALLY like, and you’ll wanna smell fancy. Trust me.”

So this girl showed up at my…