He says, “I really didn't plan on doing this today. But this morning, I just realized that I love her so much, and I love her kids, too. I just want us to be a real family.”

I'm at a jewelry store to get my watch repaired. It’s a cheap watch.

The jeweler is a white-haired man with a grandaddy face. He’s staring at my watch, squinting.

“It’s Italian,” I tell him. “El Timexo.”

He says the thing needs a new battery-o.

There is a kid browsing the glass cases behind me. He’s young, skinny built. He’s wearing a neon-orange reflective vest, work boots.

He asks the girl at the counter if he can see a ring. She unlocks the case.

He looks at it, frowns, then hands it back.

He asks, “Should ALL engagement rings have diamonds?”

She tells the kid that there’s no constitutional mandate, but that it’s strongly recommended by the American Jeweler's Association.

He asks about payment plans. She shows him a flyer and tells him about financing options.

The kid asks to see a cheaper ring.

He looks hard at it. “You sure this is the right size? It looks so big.”

“Yep. That’s a six.”

“If it’s too

big, can I bring it back?”

“We can resize it.”

He takes a few heavy breaths. He sighs. He says, “I just hope she says yes. I mean, I think she will. But what if she doesn’t?”

The woman smiles. She holds up her left hand for him, showing him a small ring. Then, she tells the story that goes with it.

She was at a swimming pool. Her boyfriend showed up unannounced. He climbed the high-dive. He screamed his proposal from the top of the world.

She hollered, “Yes!”

So, he attempted a backflip. He slipped. He skinned his backside and hit his head on the springboard. He had to visit the…

One woman embraces me, then says I’m welcome in her guestroom any time I visit. Another man invites me fishing tomorrow. A six-year-old girl insists I take her fidget spinner as a gift.

A church lawn. The middle of nowhere.

He’s old. He’s wearing high-waisted trousers, a pressed shirt, and a fedora. So help me, a fedora. Seeing him is like seeing nineteen hundred and fifty-two.

My dog, Ellie Mae, follows this man.

There aren't many folks here, maybe fifty. Kids are playing with fidget spinners. Girls wear summer dresses. Young men wear boots. Middle-aged men in khakis.

This is dinner on the church grounds.

Behind the building is a hayfield, recently scalped. A few boys hop the fence.

Tables are lined with casserole dishes. Plastic pitchers of tea. Behind the church is a grill. It’s the sturdy kind made from a two-ton iron pipe.

The smell of pecan smoke makes the world seem happy.

Abe is cooking ribs and chicken. His name isn’t really Abe, he admits. It’s Danny. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. He was an incurable tattle-butt. His mother nicknamed him “Honest Abe” to cure him of his habit.

The name stuck.

“Any hotdogs?” asks a kid.

“You want HOTDOGS?” Abe remarks. “Instead of RIBS? What’s wrong with you, child?”

I’m

next in line. I ask for a little of everything.

Honest Abe tells me greediness is a vice worse than gluttony.

The evening kicks off with a gospel quartet. The high-tenor is outstanding. He sings notes only Gabriel could reach.

On our blanket: two adults and ten empty plates. My coonhound is nowhere in sight. She has made friends with the old man in the fedora. They are across the lawn.

The unfaithful animal.

The quartet sings “Moving Up To Gloryland.” The baritone is singing so low, it looks like he’s about to lose consciousness.

The adults finish eating. The sun is almost gone. Kids are in the hayfield. And it looks like—if my eyes are correct—they’re playing Red Rover.

As I live and breathe.

I haven’t played Red Rover since fourth grade. Greg…

Behind me is a literature professor from New Hampshire. He’s a slender man. Polite. He has a big vocabulary. It takes two minutes to discover that “unparalleled” is his favorite word.

Monroeville, Alabama—the sun is setting. One hundred and nine people wait outside the courthouse to see “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

You can hear crickets downtown.

In line, I meet a millworker from Milton, a mechanic from Montgomery, a Birmingham neurosurgeon, a football coach, a peanut farmer.

Behind me is a literature professor from New Hampshire. He’s a slender man. Polite. He has a big vocabulary. It takes two minutes to discover that “unparalleled” is his favorite word.

He’s driven a long way to see this play. He is a well-known author—I know this because he tells me.

Three times.

“We’re excited about the show,” says the professor. “We hear it’s unparalleled.”

He’s right. This is the quintessential hometown play, in the world’s most famous hometown—second only to Mayberry.

This production has all my favorite stuff. Clapboard porches, antique automobiles, linen suits, ladies in cotton dresses.

The professor sits a few seats from me. He tells me he's memorized parts of the famous novel. He demonstrates this. He's pleased with himself.

“What brings you here tonight?” he asks.

“My cousin, Robert,” I say. “He plays

the farmer.”

The play starts. It's fast paced. The second act is a clencher, taking place inside the old courtroom. It's a majestic building with heart-pine floors made from trees which were once cut from a forest up the road.

The cast’s delivery is heartfelt. Close your eyes. You can hear sniffles from the audience. Most of those are mine.

Afterward, the professor remarks, “I can NOT articulate how this UNPARALLELED story and its cupidity absolutely ingressed me.”

Gazoontite.

Well, my vocabulary might be small, but I’m inclined to agree with him. This play is some kind of special. The soft accents, the down-home morals, the women wearing nylons thick enough to stop bullets.

This classic story is about community—one so small you need a magnifying glass to see it. It’s about small-town living. The good,…

She's a little girl with an uncle who looks like me. An uncle who once cried at a Willie Nelson concert when he discovered he had a new niece.

One year ago—Atlanta, Georgia. Willie Nelson stood on stage and sang my childhood. He sang: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

I rose to my feet in honor of Mama—who expressly failed in this regard.

While Willie played for thousands, my wife handed me her glowing cellphone. There were photos of a pink newborn baby on it.

“That’s your niece!” yelled my wife.

I cried, then smiled for three hundred days.

Though it bears mentioning, life hasn’t always been worth smiling about. Take, for instance, the day we scattered my father’s ashes. That was a particularly bad day.

I had hoped his remains would catch the wind and fly away like angel dust. They dropped like a brick.

That following year, I wore out Daddy’s vinyl record collection, trying to remember him.

One of my favorite records: an album bearing portraits of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings on the cover.

I listened to “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” until I half-hated the melody.

But, of course, I never could hate that song. I sang it on my very first gig.

And I was god-awful.

At the end of the night, the owner paid me fifteen bucks and said, “Learn some new songs, kid. If I hear that damn Willie song one more time, I’m gonna go crazy.”

I tried to learn as many new songs as I could. After swinging a hammer during the afternoons, I’d practice music until the wee hours.

I peddled my unimpressive songs to rundown places and earned next-to-nothing for my mediocre performances.

They were joints Mama would’ve been ashamed of, with neon signs in windows and sad people at tables.

In one such…

For a woman who has spent her life working her fingers into nubs, Miss Liza has the disposition of a ten-dollar Hallmark card.

Not far from the water tower in Grove Hill, Alabama, sits Bertile’s. It's an old burger joint with hand-patted burgers and homemade biscuits.

Miss Liza stands behind the counter. She looks much younger than she is. There is gray in her hair.

She’s worked at this fast-food hole-in-the-wall for thirty years.

Thirty.

“She needs a day off,” one young employee tells me. “Miss Liza, she works EVERY day.”

Even Sundays.

“But I only work AFTER church,” Miss Liza says. “My husband is a preacher, we can't skip church.”

Miss Liza and her husband have managed to muscle through thirty-five years of marriage, raising two boys—working overtime. He's an electrician and preacher. She manages this burger joint.

She is a faceless working-class woman you'll probably never hear about—there's no reason you would, unless some fool were to write about her.

She's having a rough time. Her mother is dying. She has dementia. Liza makes the long drive to Meridian as often as she can to visit, but there's not much

time left.

“Visited last week,” she says. “When Mama saw me, she throwed her arms out and say, ‘Come here, Liza.’ My mama don't always remember me, so that was a blessing.”

Liza wipes her eye.

So do I.

“But, I ain't complaining,” she says. “We poor, but my children turned out to be good adults, God blessed me.”

Blessed. For a woman who has spent her life working her fingers into nubs, Miss Liza has the disposition of a ten-dollar Hallmark card.

I ask when she took her last vacation.

She laughs. “My last WHAT? No sir. Ain’t got time. My husband, he got the asthma, and health problems. I don't do vacations.”

There…

They ate fried chicken and potatoes, and afterward they did dishes. He went to Wednesday night church. He sat in a pew. He sang. It meant a lot to Granny.

Granny had family supper in her dining room last week. It was her first family supper in two decades.

She has a small family. Her nine-year-old granddaughter sat beside her. Her forty-three-year-old son sat across.

Hers is an old trailer. A double-wide. Linoleum floors, shallow ceilings. She bought it with her husband before he died. She's been poor her whole life.

This is the nicest home she’s ever had.

So supper. Her son wore a necktie and dress shirt. The little girl: long braids and a dress.

Granny said a prayer. She thanked God for second chances, little girls, and sons.

“My son’s an addict,” Granny tells me. “In and out of rehab. Learned a long time ago, an addict only thinks about themselves, it's how they are.”

Her son's little girl was born in a bad neighborhood—the kind where questionable transactions take place on the front porches.

The day his girlfriend announced she was pregnant, Granny redecorated the spare bedroom in her own home. She fixed the room just

like on HGTV. Pink drapes, frilly pillows.

One Sunday, when the baby was only a few months old, Granny parked herself on her son’s doorstep. The intoxicated girlfriend told her to get lost.

Granny would not.

“I’s gonna take my grandbaby to church,” she told me. “Wasn't leaving without her.”

The girlfriend lost it. She cussed, threw things.

Granny demanded the baby. Girlfriend refused. Granny called the law; a mess followed.

Police handcuffed her son and his girlfriend. He screamed at his mother. He told her he hated her.

Granny said, “'Course it hurt, but I just thought: 'Fine, he's just gonna have to hate me. ‘Cause I'm worried about this little girl.’”

Her son spent…

I had a burger and a beer for supper, outside Frisco City. I rode past water towers, cattle, and rusty mobile homes. I pulled into an overgrown hay patch and looked at the stars.

It’s late in Grove Hill, Alabama. There are dirt rows stretching from here to the tree line. The sky is starry.

I miss my father. No. I miss having a father. At this age, I can hardly remember what it was like.

When I was a boy, my friends and I once climbed a water tower. It was midnight. We were colossal fools. We could've fallen and ended up as teenage pancakes.

We leaned over the railing, looking at the farmland. Our boyish conversation drifted toward fathers.

“Daddy took me hunting last weekend,” said one boy.

“Oh yeah,” said another. “My daddy’s teaching me to throw a fastball.”

Daddy this, Daddy that. Give me a break.

We rode home on bikes. My friends snuck back into their own beds. Picture-perfect homes, with two parents sleeping in master bedrooms.

That night, I sat on a bicycle seat, looking at the sky. I asked how Daddy was doing up there. I needed something. A voice. A bright light. A gust of wind.

No response.

So I answered myself.

“Oh, I’m doing fine, son,” I

said to myself. “How about you?”

A colossal fool.

Anyway, I grew up trying to father myself. I’ve been doing that for a long time. Truth be told, it’s not very hard. You learn how to take yourself fishing, how to carve a Thanksgiving turkey, how to give yourself advice.

On my wedding day, I talked to my reflection in the bathroom mirror.

“You’re a good kid,” I told myself. “You make me so, so, so proud, son.”

Ridiculous.

The day I finally graduated college, I sat in my truck for nearly an hour feeling like I should celebrate. I needed someone. Anyone.

So, I drove. I rode upward through three counties. I stopped at a joint where cars were parked. I sat at the bar. A little girl sat beside me on a stool, eating a hamburger…

I met him when I was a young man. He owned a truck camper—sometimes he lived in it. He rooted for Alabama football. He had false teeth, though he never admitted it.

He was a good man. He worked construction. He was tall, bone-skinny, had cropped silver hair. He kept spare cigarettes behind his ear—I'll never forget that.

I didn't know him long, and there's a lot I don’t know about him. But I can tell you the things I know.

I met him when I was a young man. He owned a truck camper—sometimes he lived in it. He rooted for Alabama football. He had false teeth, though he never admitted it.

He smoked like a paper mill.

The first day I worked with him, my truck was blocking the driveway of a construction site. He needed to unload a trailer.

“Hey man,” he said, “Gimme your keys, I’ll move your truck for you.”

I tossed him my keyring. He was gone a long time. I never thought twice about it.

That night, I drove home and noticed my gas tank was full.

My gas tank was never full.

Something else I remember: once, on a lunch-break, we stopped at

a Tom Thumb. There was a man, sitting on a bench. He had reddish-tan skin, a long beard, and a backpack. He held a cardboard sign.

“Where you headed?” asked my friend.

“My daughter’s in Miami,” he said. “I don’t have money for a bus ticket.”

The next morning my pal wasn't at work. People asked where he was.

He called in at lunchtime.

“Tell everyone I'm sorry,” said my friend. “I got nine hours of driving left. I’m on my way back from Miami.”

Once, in the dead of summer, July I think it was, we stood in line at a fast-food joint. A Mexican woman and her child waited ahead of us.

My pal made…

When they stand to leave, he holds her arm. They shuffle outside. I see them through the window. It’s an ordeal fitting Old Blue Eyes into the front seat. She buckles him in.

It’s early evening. We are waiting for a table. My wife and I are standing in a long line of people who all had the same brilliant idea—to take the interstate exit and visit Cracker Barrel.

Behind me is a Baptist youth group. Mostly boys. I saw their vans in the parking lot. There must be fifty of them, and they all smell like hormones.

Ahead of me: an elderly couple. She’s pretty, wearing a floral shirt. He is two feet higher than she is, with wide bony shoulders. He is wearing a ball cap and holding her arm.

His hands are trembling. His head bobs back and forth. He doesn’t seem to have any control over his movements.

The hostess calls them.

The woman says into the man’s hearing aid, “Table’s ready.”

He smiles. It’s a nice smile. I wish my smile was half as inviting as Old Blue Eyes.

I see them in the dining room. The man keeps his shaky hands in his lap, but it doesn't

stop him from moving. He looks uncomfortable in his own body.

She is playing the wood triangle game. I’ve never been very good at this novelty test. And apparently, neither has she.

No sooner has the waitress delivered their plates of food than the old woman takes a seat beside Old Blue Eyes. She tucks a napkin into his collar. She spoon-feeds him.

His shoulders start to toss violently. His head jerks to the side. He’s a making a mess.

She stops feeding and waits.

The shaking gets so bad that he starts rocking in different directions. It’s hard to watch.

But not for her. She talks to him like nothing is wrong. And even though he flails, even though the eyes…

The men are from different walks of life. They meet here, swapping stories, remembering what this world was like before cell phones ruled the solar system.

Dothan, Alabama—Ray’s Restaurant. This place is nothing fancy. A plain building with fluorescent lighting, decent coffee, and Bear Bryant photos on the wall.

Inside, it smells like bacon.

There is a table of white-haired men. They wear camouflage caps, jeans, suspenders.

A placard on their table reads: “Table of Knowledge.”

I overhear their discussion. They’re chatting about politics. They laugh while they do it.

You don’t see folks laugh about politics much anymore.

The men are from different walks of life. They meet here, swapping stories, remembering what this world was like before cell phones ruled the solar system.

They solve problems. Talk philosophy. They flirt with waitresses.

In my booth: a police department chaplain, and two South Alabamian belles. It’s early. Our conversation is a tired one.

I order grits, eggs, bacon. The waitress brings coffee. She looks as tired as she is skinny. Her accent is pure Wiregrass.

I ask her which booth Bear Bryant sat in when he visited long ago—I bet all out-of-towners ask

her this.

She points across the room. “He sat over there,” she says. “All the out-of-towners ask me that.”

Welcome to Circle City. They say that the peanuts in your American supermarket come from this local soil. And that's what this place is known for.

But it's more than just a peanut capital. It's rural communities that surround the city.

Places like Slocomb, Wicksburg, Malvern, Rehobeth, Taylor, Cowarts, and Hartford.

Towns where tractors outnumber steeples. Where men still wear neckties to church and use twist tobacco recreationally.

The waitress brings our food. The chaplain says grace.

His prayer is poetry. He’s an Episcopal priest, he knows how to recite a blessing sweet enough to knock paint…