Her boyfriend didn’t stick around during pregnancy. She was forced to work. Her job was in a hotel laundromat. She was promoted to a maid last year.

Colatta is her name. She and I are in the elevator together. She is pushing a large cart of cleaning supplies and mini shampoos.

Colatta is short, black, cheery. She’s wearing scrubs. She is pure Alabama. She has an accent that won’t quit, and wears a War Eagle headband.

“Went to Auburn,” she says. “Wanted to be a vet, but didn’t even come close to finishing ‘cause I had my son.

"Man, I thought my life was over, it was just beginning.”

Her boyfriend didn’t stick around during pregnancy. She was forced to work. Her job was in a hotel laundromat. She was promoted to a maid last year.

“Have a good day,” she says to me, rolling her cart down a corridor.

“You, too,” I say.

“Me?” She laughs. “Already HAVING me a good day. I’m so blessed it ain’t funny.”

Colatta. I love that name.

Later that day, I drive two hours east. I stop at a cafe inside a gas station. It’s a hole-in-the-wall.

After eating, I pay at the register. The cashier is older, very skinny. She places a handheld vibrating box

to her throat to speak. Her voice is robotic.

She hands me a receipt. Then, she presses the device to her neck again and says: “Have a good day. Enjoy this nice weather.”

There is a gnarled scar beneath her jaw.

And she's wishing ME a nice day.

7:09 P.M.—I’ve driven all day. I’m eating in a locals-only beer joint. People in this room are looking at me funny. I’m an out-of-towner and they smell it.

There’s an old man with a service dog—a brown Lab named Hershey.

The man wears a ball cap with a battleship on it. He shows me a tattoo on his forearm which reads: “Albert, Daniel, Adam.”

“My three brothers,” he says. “Killed in Europe. I was too young for the Big War, they sent me to Korea.”

That’s…

The man playing piano is blind. His eyelids are closed. He plays old favorites. “Sweet Sweet Spirit,” and “Give Thanks,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

A church fellowship hall in Chumuckla. There’s a serious church buffet happening. Kindhearted women with white hair keep the line moving with serving spoons.

You can’t visit a place like this without seeing white-haired women with serving spoons.

The chicken is exquisite. The fried catfish was caught in the Escambia River. Fried okra, cornbread, biscuits, macaroni and cheese. Ham hocks—seasoned with a few butter beans.

It’s my second time through the food line. The white-hairs ask how we liked our food.

The phrase of the night is one you’ll hear all over the Great American South:

“We enjoyed it.”

It's the unofficial motto of Lower Alabama and the Panhandle.

My wife and I sit on folding chairs. I am wearing seersucker.

It’s funny how life repeats itself. As a boy, my mother would’ve forced me into seersucker and penny loafers for a NASCAR rally. Today, I’m wearing such things of my own volition.

The room is alive with voices—talking and laughing. And, of course, there’s singing. You can’t visit a place like this without singing.

The man playing piano is blind. His eyelids are closed. He plays

old favorites. “Sweet Sweet Spirit,” and “Give Thanks,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

His hands feel the keys for the next chords. He’s playing through the musical score of my childhood.

He has a nice voice, but he isn't trying to impress listeners. That’s not how we Baptists do. If you’re looking for impressive vocal gymnastics, visit the Assembly of God up the road.

We're singing:

“When the shadows of this life have gone,
“I’ll fly away...”

People hum with mouthfuls of peach cobbler. Even kids who aren’t old enough to ride the Teacups at Disney World sing. Some folks are even brave enough to clap.

You cannot visit a place like this and not clap to “I’ll Fly Away.”

At the end of the night, people hug necks. They talk about what…

Some hold signs. Some carry photographs of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, best friends, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, students. 

Pensacola—I’m looking at one thousand people wearing running shoes and Spandex leggings. There are people laughing, smiling, stretching hamstrings.

A large man in a Roll Tide hat shakes my hand. He has a long gray beard. On his T-shirt: the image of a teenage boy.

“This was my son,” he says. “His girlfriend broke up with him, he shut himself in our garage and kept his Jeep running until he…” He pauses.

“I ain't never felt so alone until he died.”

Alone. As it happens, I know that particular emotion.

I meet a twelve-year-old girl with red hair. She also feels alone. She’s bone-skinny, wearing braces. She has so many freckles on her snow-white skin she looks half-orange.

“My mom was real depressed,” she says. “She overdosed, my sister and I found her not breathing in her chair.”

Grandma hugs them both.

I meet a thirty-two-year-old girl with the personality of cane sugar. She seems happy. She starts talking about her late father.

She shows me a photo. He’s a nice-looking man, holding a baby. He could be anyone’s daddy.

Speaking of daddies. I'm

here today because of mine. I'm here because of the way he died.

I was twelve. I was redheaded. Freckled.

Music plays over loud speakers. The historic downtown is catching the first bit of early sun. The Pensacola Bay sits behind us.

For most of my life, Pensacola has been my closest biggest city. It’s where I used to take dates for dinner. It’s sort of where I grew up. Today it's a place of pilgrimage.

The herd of survivors starts walking. They aren’t solemn—like you might think. In fact, they look empowered. Joyful even. Maybe it’s all the Spandex.

I’m walking with them—or are we marching? Whatever you call it, we are from all styles of life. Rural communities. Suburbs. City-dwellers. Out-of-towners.

We are here for loved ones, friends, relatives. We’re here to remember.

Some…

I should leave him. I should let him be with his memories. I should go inside and eat my burger. But I can't. I’ve got too much of my mother in me.

A beach bar. Early evening. These days, I only visit quiet bars that serve decent hamburgers in baskets. This bar allegedly has a decent burger.

It is anything but quiet.

There is a band. The musicians are supposed to be playing country. They aren’t. The lead singer has a voice that sounds like a recently maintenanced M4 Sherman tank.

There’s a man sitting beside me. He’s staring into his glass. He’s overdressed. He wears a loosened necktie.

The bartender refuses to serve him another drink. Then, the bartender gives me a glance which seems to say, “This guy’s tanked.”

He’s half-tight, all right. He introduces himself. We shake hands.

I shouldn’t engage him. I really shouldn’t. I know this. Drunk folks like me too much. They latch onto me like deer ticks on a German shorthaired pointer.

Take, for instance, the time in New Orleans, with my cousin. An intoxicated seventy-three-year-old woman forced me onto the dance floor practically at gunpoint. We danced a light bossa nova. We twirled.

She asked me to dip her. I did. Paramedics were involved. Her hip

was never the same.

The man at the bar tells me his daughter died five years ago yesterday. He’s in town, visiting her headstone. His face looks swollen when he says it.

“You think you’ve gotten over the worst,” he says. “But you never get over your baby.”

He’s a mess. The bartender helps him outside for some fresh air. He collapses on a bench.

I should leave him. I should let him be with his memories. I should go inside and eat my burger.

But I can't. I’ve got too much of my mother in me.

The bartender has taken his keys and called a cab. And here I sit. Babysitting.

He tells me about the time he took his girl to the zoo. How she acted when she saw the monkeys. She didn’t want to leave…

Life is good for Josh. The company just promoted him to regional manager. They gave him a big bonus, and a free two-week vacation in Orange Beach.

Interstate 65—the middle of the night. Josh is driving, singing with the radio. He’s on his way from Birmingham to Orange Beach.

His '87 Honda is packed with bags. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flops.

Life is good for Josh. The company just promoted him to regional manager. They gave him a big bonus, and a free two-week vacation in Orange Beach.

Free.

This is the best day of Josh’s thirty-year-old life.

He pulls off the interstate at Walmart to use a bathroom, buy groceries, and get beer.

In the dim parking lot, a tall man, smoking a cigarette approaches. The man says nothing.

“Can I help you?” Josh asks.

The man steps on his cigarette. He beats Josh until he’s cracked his jaw, fractured his ribs, and broken Josh’s knee.

The man drags Josh behind a dumpster, then speeds away with his, wallet, cellphone, and his Honda. Josh watches the tail lights head toward the interstate without him.

That night, Josh sleeps among empty cardboard boxes—he is too beat-up to move.

The next morning:

A Mercedes pulls to the dumpster. A clean-cut man in khakis steps out. He tosses

several bags into the trash. He sees Josh.

Josh moans.

The man furrows his brow.

“Help,” Josh says.

The man removes a few dollars and tucks them into Josh’s hand.

“Don’t spend this on crack,” the man says.

And he is gone.

A few hours later. A large SUV with tinted windows and a bumper sticker which reads: “Honk if you love Jesus.”

The man throws a crumpled McDonald’s bag into the dumpster.

Josh moans.

The man pats his pockets and shrugs. “Sorry pal, no spare change. Have a blessed day.”

And he is gone.

The sun sets. It’s been twenty-four hours since Josh has tasted water. He manages to curl himself into a fetal position.

He is coughing up red. His face is purple. When he breathes, it…

She is in good shape, she doesn’t talk much. Sometimes she is clear, other times not. But her eyes sparkle like they’re sixty years younger. Her name is Irene.

I wasn’t going to come tonight. I don’t usually attend birthday parties for folks I don’t know. But then, it’s not every day you get to sing “Happy Birthday” to a brand new ninety-nine-year-old.

She is in good shape, she doesn’t talk much. Sometimes she is clear, other times not. But her eyes sparkle like they’re sixty years younger. Her name is Irene.

She grips my hand and smiles. She is like looking at American History. “Oh, it’s good to see you, Sam,” she tells me.

I explain that my name’s not Sam.

She rubs my shoulder. “Don’t be fussy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

If you can’t beat them, join them, I say.

Earlier, her sons and nephews picked her up from the assisted living home. It was the first time she’d ridden in a car since Easter Sunday.

Her boys moved a high-back recliner into the kitchen.

Irene sits in the same kitchen she raised her family in. She sits with women who prepare supper. Women like her grew up in kitchens.

She sits, watching her redheaded daughter and granddaughters prepare potato salad.

She speaks. Maybe she’s offering words of advice. Nobody is sure because she’s not

using complete sentences.

“Pick’em taters, Sam,” she says to me.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Pick’em, I say.”

“I’m a pickin’ ma’am.”

“Oh, Sam.”

Her son smokes the pork. We stand beside a grill and sip. He talks.

He says, “My mama’s strong. I remember when Daddy died, she was going through medical problems of her own at the time. We didn’t think she’d last much longer.”

She certainly showed them. That was forty years ago.

“Mama’s tough,” he said. “Not in-your-face tough, but quiet-tough. Remember once, she chased me for a half-mile up the road, when I’s fourteen, just to give me a whippin’.”

Quiet-tough.

When the patio table is set, we sing “Happy Birthday.” It sounds like any rendition you’ve ever heard. Off-key, and sincere.

I have known love. Real love. The granite-busting kind. And it never came from where I thought it would. It came from strangers. People of no blood relation. 

I’m watching a sunrise through tall Southern pines. It’s making its heavenly climb, and I’m looking right at it, sitting on the hood of my truck.

Last night, I was almost killed. I’m not joking. I was nearly hit head-on by a red truck that was driving in the wrong lane.

It was dark. I was the only one on the road. I saw headlights speeding toward me. And I mean speeding.

I expected the vehicle would get out of my way. It didn’t. I almost swerved for the ditch.

I closed my eyes. I expected a loud sound, followed by pain, maybe the voice of Charlton Heston.

What I heard was a vehicle scream by fast enough to suck the rust off my hitch.

I pulled over. My heart beat hard enough to crack my sternum. And I cried.

It’s funny, what you think about in your final moments.

I thought about the old woman from my childhood church. She was white-haired, and balding. She claimed that on the night my father died, she had a vision. She said she

saw him laughing in heaven.

For years, I was not happy about her unsolicited remarks. I don't know why.

I don't feel that way anymore. I'm glad she told me.

During my brief encounter, I also wondered if I’d wake up to abelone gates. Would I see Granny? My uncles, my aunts? My father?

Or: would I wake up as a baby squirrel, high up in a longleaf pine. A mockingbird, tweeting in a nest. A newborn hound, in someone’s barn. A hungry raccoon, nosing through garbage for loaded diapers.

I thought about my wife.

When we first married, I once told her I didn’t want her to remarry if I died. I joked, saying I wanted her to grieve me as a lonely widow. We’d laugh about that.

But last night, I was sorry I ever joked like…

...She got married to a man with a drug problem. His problem got worse. One night, she took her teenage kids and left.

7:18 P.M.—I’m leaving a beer and oyster joint. It’s dark. I’m strolling through a parking lot. It is a soft rain. The blacktop is shiny from streetlights.

I see her sitting on the curb, in the drizzle. She’s dressed in a server’s uniform. She has weathered skin, hard features, but she is younger than she looks.

I know a hardworking woman when I see one.

“You need a ride?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Nah, I’ll be okay.”

She’s not okay. She’s stranded. I know polite lying when I hear it.

“I don't mind giving you a lift.”

“Really?”

Really.

I sound like my father. He gave rides to anyone who could fog up a mirror.

He once gave a ride to a young hitchhiker—a cocky Hispanic kid covered in tattoos. My father carried him to church for a free supper. He carried him to church every week thereafter, too.

The kid was at my father’s funeral.

The waitress crawls into my truck. It’s raining hard now.

I apologize for my vehicle interior. It’s disgusting. Food wrappers, bottle caps, coffee-stains, dog hair, empty peanut butter jars.

“It’s alright,” she says. “My

daddy and brothers are good ole boys, I’m used to filthy trucks.”

I'm touched.

A little about her: she got married to a man with a drug problem. His problem got worse. One night, she took her teenage kids and left.

“Hardest thing I ever done,” she says. “Uprooting and leaving. We came here to make a fresh start. I'd do anything for my kids.”

When she speaks, she stares out the window.

“We're getting by,” she says. “Got me this job, we’re makin’ it.”

Sort of.

A few months ago, her car tags were long expired. She didn’t know it because her life has been a whirlwind. She got pulled over. They impounded her car.

“Can’t seem to get ahead,” she goes on. “Sometimes, it’s like, no…

Of course, I didn’t mean to die this way—alone in the woods, trapped in a Tuna can. I had dreams.

Hurricane Nate is about to make landfall. I’m in a trailer which is about the size of a Skoal can. I'm camping.

A stinky coonhound is on my lap. I have limited cellphone reception in the woods. The trailer is rocking from gale-force winds.

This was supposed to be a fishing trip. Instead I'm going to wake up as SPAM.

It’s raining hard. Thunder.

Of course, I didn’t mean to die this way—alone in the woods, trapped in a Tuna can. I had dreams.

For example: I wanted to take a trip to Mexico with my wife.

A friend of mine once visited Oaxaca. He raved about his first night in the city. The locals prepared him chicken—battered and fried. And puré de papas—which is like mashed potatoes.

I asked where he found such exquisite fare. He said the KFC downtown was fantástico.

I want to pick wildflowers one more time before I go. A whole handful of daisies, yellow-eyed grass, Indian paintbrushes, and cahaba lilies. I'd pick them for my wife.

Corny. I know, but she prefers wildflowers to store-bought.

Before I got

sucked off the map, I wanted to see a few more NASCAR races. It’s been years since my last Talladega trip.

Once, at Talladega Campground, I saw a teenage girl—I’m not making this up—marinate possum meat in mustard, then cook it over a grill.

I want to see the sun go down over the Escambia River. I went canoeing on the river a few months ago. At sunset, I told myself, “If God’s in this world, he’s on the Escambia.”

And I want to be kissed by a litter of bloodhound puppies.

If there aren't bloodhounds in heaven, someone else can have my ticket.

I wanted to eat at Lambert’s, in Foley, Alabama, one last time. I’ve been there more than I can count.

I want the waiter to toss me a yeast roll. I want…

There is a little girl. A grandbaby. She's sitting on an old man’s lap. The man across from her wears a cowboy hat. He's showing her magic tricks.

I’m at a restaurant which is a double-wide trailer. I have spent a morning, riding past scalped fields and condemned barns.

A table of old men is behind me. They meet here for coffee regularly—that's what the waitress says. Same table. Same men. Every morning except Sundays.

She tells me they are Methodist men.

The eldest is eighty-six. He sits by the window in the sunlight.

If I'm fortunate enough see old age, I will sit by a sunny window, sipping coffee.

There is a little girl. A grandbaby. She's sitting on an old man’s lap. The man across from her wears a cowboy hat. He's showing her magic tricks.

When I am old, I will wear cowboy hats and do magic tricks for grandbabies.

The television in the corner plays footage from the Las Vegas mass shooting. Gruesome images fill the screen.

The conversation comes to a pause. They watch.

“What’s this world coming to?”

“Those poor folks,” says Cowboy Hat.

“What happened, Granddaddy?” asks the little girl.

“Folks is being mean to each other,” says Grandaddy. “That's what happened.”

Next, the television shows NFL football players

on knees, hooking arms. People on TV shout at each other.

One man clears his throat loudly. He says, “I ever tell you my grandson is JV quarterback?”

When I’m old, I will clear my throat loudly to change the subject.

“QB?” answers one man. “You must be proud.”

The men erupt in smiles. There are congratulations. You would’ve thought someone won the Florida Powerball.

“My grandson got his talent from me,” the man goes on. “I was pretty good, you know.”

Humility is not a necessary attribute among Methodists.

The television plays video of an oncoming hurricane. The white cyclone rolls on the map. Palm trees bend sideways.

“They say this is gonna be a bad storm,” Cowboy Hat remarks.

“They always say that.”

“Well, sometimes they're right.”

“Hell, even a…