South Alabama looks good this morning. There’s a low mist on the farmland. The cattle are sleeping. The sun is not up yet. I’m driving.
It was a morning like this I first learned how to chew Red Man. My father and his friend showed me how to tuck a wad in my cheek. It tasted like raisins and kerosene.
“Whatever you do, don’t swallow,” said Daddy.
I got so sick I fell off the tailgate. He laughed and said, “If you even THINK about telling your mama, I’ll put you up for adoption.”
This is a good morning. The orange sun is still behind the trees. It’s thirty-some degrees. The grass is green, even though it’s January.
My cousin lived on a cotton farm. Long ago, I helped run heavy machinery for one weekend. The smells of the earth were enough to make a kid drunk.
It’s too early and too cold to think about heavy machines.
I’m passing dilapidated mobile homes with seventy-five-thousand-dollar trucks in the driveways.
There are dogs, wandering the highway. Scrappy ones, looking for trouble. Or love.
I’m behind a school bus. Kids are staring out the windows at me. I wave. They wave. They’re laughing, sticking out tongues.
I’m on a dirt road. This is a shortcut my friend showed me long ago. I’m cutting through scalped fields with dry rotted fences which are older than I am.
The road spits me onto pavement. I hope my truck caught enough red dust to make it pretty.
I pass faded brick buildings with Coca-Cola signs. I miss the days when good folks called it “KOH-kola.” I miss a lot of things.
I miss an age before cellphones. And kids who rode bikes to a best friend’s house to ask, “Can Sammy play?”
Today they text.
I pass old homes with outdoor workshops. The kind of one-room buildings where old men piddle. With workbenches covered in screws, bolts, and bicycle chains. A boy could get lost in a shop like that.
Once, I spent the night in my uncle’s workshop during a family reunion. The house was overrun with people. My aunt made me a pallet in the bed of my uncle’s Chevy, parked in his shop.
I laid awake, staring at a tin sign which read: “That Good Gulf Gasoline.” There were rusty oil cans, hanging tools, and a poster with the words: “Red Man Chew.”
I got dizzy on smells of refined oil and pine dust, and fell asleep.
Still driving. Traffic is clogged on this two-lane. A large John Deere tractor is to blame. The big machine is riding in the right-hand lane at a snail’s pace. Twenty cars behind it. The tractor veers right, onto a dirt road.
The kid driving the machine looks twelve.
Vacant churches. Abandoned service stations. Orphaned chimneys. Election signs. Crumbling barns. Longleaf forests—which never change. Heaven, I am convinced, is full of longleaf pines.
A horse trailer. A church van. I pass a rusty truck that looks like the truck I was raised in. It’s white, with welding equipment. It is weighted with oxygen tanks, long hoses, and ladders.
I half expect the driver to be a welder who once taught his kid how to spit chewing tobacco.
But he’s been gone a long time now.
The sun is breaking over the trees. I’m not far from home. Life is too damn short.
Which only makes it more beautiful.
Hug the ones you love today.