I have a thing for tomatoes—magic or otherwise. My mother used to grow them in the summers of my youth. If I close my eyes I can still smell the greenery in her garden. Her small patches of tilled earth were surrounded by chicken wire, and hair clippings.

This morning, there were two dozen homegrown tomatoes on my doorstep. I arrived home to see Winn-Dixie bags hanging from my door, and I almost lost control of my lower extremities.

I come from country people. And country people regard tomatoes as holy things.

Country people get excited about things like tomatoes. We are also the kind of people who show our love in strange ways, using things like vegetables, casserole dishes, love-notes, or saturated fat. Sometimes we use all four.

There was no note attached to these tomatoes, which struck me as odd. A secret tomato-admirer, perhaps.

I brought the bags inside. I opened them. There were tomatoes of every shape and color. Yellows, greens, reds, and even purples.

Purple tomatoes, my mother once told me, were magic tomatoes. “You’ve hit the tomato jackpot,” my mother would say, “if you come across a tomato so full of magic that it’s turning purple.”

I have a thing for tomatoes—magic or otherwise. My mother used

to grow them in the summers of my youth. If I close my eyes I can still smell the greenery in her garden. Her small patches of tilled earth were surrounded by chicken wire, and hair clippings.

The clippings were mine. Back in those days, my mother used to cut my hair with dull scissors on our back porch.

In fact, this was the primary reason for my traumatic childhood. My haircuts were a cross between Bozo the Clown and an International Billiards Federation regulation cue ball.

Often, people at school would say things like, “Hey, who cuts your hair? Ronnie Milsap?”

Directly after my weedwacker haircuts, my mother would gather hair clippings into a dustpan and scatter them in her garden. The idea was that the human scent scares away vermin like raccoons, rabbits, and various civic-level politicians.

And it worked like a charm. Her tomatoes…

He and I weren’t good friends, but we knew each other. I lost track of him at age fifteen. He moved away to a group home.

Jacob was a foster child. He grew up in the Foster Pinball Machine. Birth to graduation. He was never adopted by a family.

He and I weren’t good friends, but we knew each other. I lost track of him at age fifteen. He moved away to a group home.

We got in touch a few years ago. I expected to learn he had a wife and kids, but that wasn’t the case. Jacob has animals.

Six dogs, three cats.

I don’t think Jacob would mind me saying that he marches to the beat of his own tuba.

He’s had little choice in the matter. His childhood was spent bouncing from family to family, looking after himself, remembering to eat regularly.

Today, he leads a good life. He’s a restaurant cook, he likes to hike, camp, and he’s had the same girlfriend for ten years.

I asked about all his animals.

“I dunno,” he said. “Just love animals.
Growing up, I was never allowed to have any.”

Jacob found his first dog after work one night. It was late. A stray black Lab was

sniffing trash cans behind a restaurant.

The dog bolted when it heard footsteps.

Jacob tried to coax it with food. The dog wasn’t interested. So, Jacob resorted to heavy artillery.

Raw ground beef.

He left an entire package on the pavement. The dog still wouldn’t come. Jacob gave up and crawled into his car to leave. Before he wheeled away, he glanced in his rear mirror.

The dog was eating a pound of sirloin in one bite.

“Started feeding him every day,” Jacob said. “I just wanted him to know somebody cared, that was it.”

For two months, Jacob cared. He fed the dog from a distance seven nights per week—even when he wasn’t working.

And on one fateful night, the old dog walked straight toward Jacob and had a seat.

“You shoulda seen how he…

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

Miss Lola places casserole dishes on the table. She forms neat rows. The table is full. There is enough Southern fare here to sink the U.S.S. Humdinger.

Close your eyes and imagine heaven’s own Golden Corral franchise. That’s what this fellowship hall is.

There are old women everywhere. They are buzzing through the room making sure things happen.

Miss Lola walks with a hunched back and resembles the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. She makes coffee in the Baptist Bunn machine.

The church roof has just been replaced. The fellowship hall was supposed to be renovated, but they ran out of money.

“New roof is expensive,” remarks Miss Lola. “The other ladies wanted new appliances and new floors, but all we could afford was the new roof and refrigerator.”

For supper, Miss Lola sits beside me. She eats slower than it takes to read the unabridged version of Gone With the Wind.

“Who fried this chicken?” someone asks.

“Ruth,” Miss Lola says. “But hers ain’t as good as mine.”

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her

from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

“This chicken’s too soggy,” she adds. “Mine was never soggy.”

The macaroni and cheese is equally as magnificent. It comes from Miss Lola’s niece, who just turned fifteen.

The kid used her grandmama’s recipe.

When Miss Lola finishes eating, she hobbles between tables. She wears a blue apron. She gathers used paper plates and silverware. Some servants never quit.

After supper, the room empties. People leave for the sanctuary. Save for a few women. Those who stay behind are mostly gray and white.

I stay, too. I collect trash and fold chairs. Miss Lola and I fold tables and nearly amputate my fingers. This makes her laugh very hard.

Later, she stands at at the three-compartment sink, scrubbing. Well,…

There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her. She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s wearing an oxygen facemask and a hospital bracelet. There’s a story here, I just don’t know what it is.

Cracker Barrel is quiet this time of night. There are few cars in the parking lot. My wife is with me. We’ve been traveling all day.

On the way into the restaurant, I see a few kids sitting on rockers outside. They’re playing checkers.

“HEY!” shouts a little girl. “YOU CAN’T JUMP BACKWARDS!”

“YUH HUH!” shouts a little boy.

“NO YOU CAN’T!”

I don’t like to butt in, but this situation calls for some well-tempered adult advice. And since there aren’t any well-tempered adults around, my advice will have to do.

“She’s right,” I tell the boy. “You can’t jump backwards unless you’ve been kinged.”

“I can’t?” he says.

“Nope. Besides, even if you COULD, it wouldn’t matter, because your girlfriend says you can’t, and girls are ALWAYS right.”

“GROSS!” he shouts. “SHE’S NOT MY GIRLFRIEND, SHE’S MY SISTER!”

His sister laughs until the vein in her forehead shows.

We get a table. Our waitress has long hair and tired eyes. We still have miles to drive, I order coffee. Black.

The waitress tells me about her son. He’s

about to start first grade when summer is over. She hasn’t seen much of him this summer. This isn’t her only job. She has two more.

She shows me photos of her son. He’s skinny. Thick eyeglasses. Freckles.

“He’s doing Vacation Bible School this summer,” she says. “He loves it.”

As it happens, I have passed many years in Vacation Bible School—both as an inmate, and as a warden. I consider the hours spent judging heated three-legged races to be golden.

I order my usual. Three eggs, bacon, biscuits.

There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her.

She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s…

You are my people. Sort of. I mean we’re not that different. The affluent and the blue collars all eat grits the same way. The red yellow, black, and white. The window washer, the Mississippian Episcopal priest.

I was on TV. It happened a few weeks ago. This was pure history for the Dietrichs. To my knowledge, I have never been on TV before. Break out the Natural Light.

The last time a Dietrich made television was when my cousin, Billy Joe Ed, got arrested for setting off M-80’s in the restrooms at the Methodist Church. They interviewed my father on television as an eye-witness.

He froze. His face developed exactly two zits.

“Hey, Mama,” he said to America.

No, this was different. It happened in Monroeville, Alabama. I was interviewed by Don Noble on Alabama Public Television. We were surrounded by the same kind of TV backdrop they use on Sixty Minutes.

You know the kind of décor I mean. A dim-lit, mostly wooden room. Leatherbound books on side tables, Robert Goulet records playing in the background. A suede wingback chair with a beer holder in the armrest.

I was nervous, watching men in headphones run in circles. They positioned me on my mark

and told me to “Speak up!” and “Quit mumbling!” and “Don’t LOOK straight at the camera, kid!”

Then, they aimed a NASA spacecraft lens at me until I developed two zits.

The makeup lady applied powder to my forehead.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said. “Pimples are just a natural part of life.”

So, Don asked a few questions, and I tried my best to sound smart—which is always a mistake. The only way I know how to sound smart is to make quotation-mark gestures with my fingers when I speak.

Don asked questions in rapid fire. I almost choked.

He asked about my favorite TV show—Andy Griffith.

He asked where I look for spiritual guidance—Richard Petty.

He asked what my favorite literary topic was—I blanked. “Hey, Mama” I pointed out.

Then, he asked a question I wasn’t ready for.…

My father would build campfires big enough to be seen by Sputnik. And he’d tell stories. Wild, lavish, sometimes true, stories. And when he told them people listened. He was a master if ever there was one.

A campfire, the South Alabama woods. I was spending time with a Little League team. My bloodhound (Thelma Lou) was sleeping on someone's lap.

The campfire smoke was the only thing keeping the yellow flies from sucking the flesh from our bare bones.

And I was telling a ghost story. It was about a one-legged man.

I come from a long line of storytellers and chicken thieves. I suppose you could say that much of my ancestry happened around campfires. That’s what folks did before iPads, iPhones, and shoot’em-up video games. We talked.

The Little League team sat in the dirt. A boy named Chris was petting Thelma Lou’s coat. Thelma snored.

I slapped yellow flies for dear life.

Long ago, my childhood Little League team would sit around campfires like this, eating weenies and beans from tin plates.

Boys on the team would emit smells from their hindparts potent enough to kill most small woodland creatures.

My father would build campfires big enough to be seen

by Sputnik. And he’d tell stories. Wild, lavish, sometimes true, stories. And when he told them, people listened. He was a master if ever there was one.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t another boyhood daddy-worship column where I tell you how downright spectacular my father was. No, I wouldn’t waste your time with that sort of thing.

My father was downright spectacular.

It was the way he used his voice. It was a sing-songy kind of tone. Whenever you heard him use that voice, you knew he was either going to start a ghost story, or a four-hour sing-along of “I’m Henry the Eighth I am.”

His signature story, however, was the tale of the one-legged ghost. He always finished it the same way:

“...And EEEEVEN now, the old man wanders the forest, calling, ‘Where’s my leg?’”

Then…

When my father died, my mother took to saying “thank you” a lot more. Those two words were her favorites. If you would’ve asked me, I would’ve told you that she said them too much.

Freeport, Florida—Nick’s Seafood Restaurant sits right on the bay of my youth. This place is only a hop, skip, and a jump from my mother’s place. My family is here to eat supper tonight.

And I am feeling grateful.

The sun is getting low, and the clouds are making scattered formations across the Choctawhatchee Bay. There are a hundred muddy trucks in the dirt parking lot.

This is an old place. Old timers used to come to this same building to buy oysters by the bushel, before it was a seafood joint. Not so long ago, I used to fish these bay shores with buddies—before my voice dropped.

My mother is walking across the parking lot. She is wearing a beach dress and flip flops. Flip flops. As I live and breath.

This woman used to wear very different clothes. Hospital scrubs, service clothes, fast-food uniforms.

Once, when I was a young man, we went to Cracker Barrel for Thanksgiving supper. The restaurant was about to

close. I had just gotten off work, my mother still wore her work clothes, and my sister was playing the triangle-peg game.

That night, when our food arrived, my mother bowed her head and said in a soft voice, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you...”

She followed it with an “amen.”

This woman believed the best way to start each day was with a “thank you.”

When I was a child, each morning before school my mother made me engage in a bizarre, semi-Pentecostal ritual. I would stand before my bed—half awake, wearing nothing but my skivvies—and my mother would make me touch my toes and say, “Thank you, Lord, for my feet!”

Then, she’d make me reach for the sky and say, “Thank you, Lord, for my hands!”

And so on.

Then, she would sing “I’m so…

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

Last week, I played music and spoke to a room of white-haired women. It was a dim-lit bar, with decent onion rings, heavy burgers, and waitresses who call you “sweetie.” Not exactly the place you’d expect to see the White-Haired Beauties of America.

But they were here. Ladies from all walks of life held glasses of beer and wine. A few had canes and walkers. A few got too loud. I was entertainment.

Eighty-two-year-old, Jo, approached me first. She wore a white blouse with houndstooth scarf. She asked if she could buy me a beer. I yes-ma’ammed her.

“Don’t yes-ma’am me, boy,” she said. “I’m trying to hit on you. Ruins the excitement.”

We sat at the bar together. She fired up her vaporizer cigarette.

“Doctor says I shouldn’t smoke,” said Jo. “But still I smoke two a day. One in the morning, one at night, and I vape until my throat’s raw.”

Jo is an M-80 firecracker. She is from rural Alabama and she sounds like it. She is a writer, a poet, an artist, and

a shameless flirt.

She told stories, of course.

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

By the time she had worn out her butterscotch vaporizer, she was talking about her husband.

“I miss him so much,” she said. “He was a precious man, the best thing in my life. You look a little like he did.”

There was another woman. Ella.

She was eighty-nine. She asked if the band would play “Tennessee Waltz.” We played it at an easy tempo.

She slow-danced with her son. He was careful with her. When he dipped her, she was nineteen again. That’s when he blew out his back.

Ella’s husband died when she was forty. She never remarried.

“Always had me a few boyfriends,”…

When the first sliver of light showed, the girl shot to her feet and ran along the beach, waving arms in the air. So did the others.

I’m writing this in the early morning. The birds are asleep, the crickets, too. The sun is about to rise, and it’s going to rise just for you. There is a faint glow behind the trees. Just wait. It’s coming.

I received a letter this morning from a girl I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is eighteen. She told me about herself.

She wrote:

“I feel ugly and I know that’s why I’ve never had a boyfriend... I probably never will have one. People don’t like me, and I’m worried that nobody will ever love me.”

Sweet Caroline.

Here’s another letter from a man we’ll refer to as “Elvis”—because that’s what he wanted to be called. Elvis is forty-four.

He wrote:

“My ex-wife broke my heart… Why is it I end up trusting somebody and they break my heart, and instead of hating THEM, I dislike MYSELF somehow? I don’t like myself...”

And this beautiful young woman:

“I have an arteriovenous malformation… Which is why my arm doesn’t work, and now it’s moving to my leg. The

malformation started small, but has grown to the size of a tennis ball, giving me daily seizures and other obstacles…

“The hardest part about all this is being forgotten. I used to have a lot of friends before my diagnosis, but now...

“I get that people are busy, but is life really about being busy?”

Well, I hate to disappoint these good people who’ve written me, but they’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.

The only thing I can possibly think to tell these good folks is about what happened to me during my seventh-grade year.

First, a little background: my seventh-grade year was shaping up to be a good one. Often, in the school cafeteria I’d have my pals laughing until milk spilled from their noses and they lost control of…

Her brother will make a full recovery, her parents tell me. And one day, he might even pitch in the major leagues—if all goes according to the plan. But until then, he has Big Sister.

A frozen yogurt joint. I’ve just finished supper. My belt is tight from eating too much pizza.

There are too many yogurt flavors to choose from in this place. Triple Dark Peruvian Fudgesicle, Very Berry Quite Contrary, Oreo Delight, Midnight Mudpie in Mississippi—shut my mouth.

Of course, the Orange Julius flavor doesn’t taste too shabby, either.

Then again, artificial orange doesn’t always set well with me. When I was a boy, the doctor gassed me with orange-flavored laughing gas just before tonsil surgery.

All I remember after that is hearing nurses play Righteous Brothers music through a transistor radio while I breathed in orange fumes.

Ever since then, I detest Sunkist, and I can’t hear “Unchained Melody” without breaking into a nervous sweat.

So I’m sampling yogurt flavors, and that’s when I see her. She’s twelve, maybe thirteen. She’s with her family. She is small. She is a redhead.

I have a soft spot for redheads since God made me one.

The girl is feeding her little brother with

a spoon. The boy has a cast on one arm, and a sling on the other.

“He fell,” the boy’s father explains. “He was climbing our gutter on the porch.”

“The gutter?” I say.

“The gutter.”

He broke one arm and injured his other shoulder. No sooner had he hit the ground than his twelve-year-old sister came running to the rescue.

And as the story goes: she carried her brother indoors—over her shoulder. Big Sister has been caring for Little Brother ever since.

“I love taking care of people,” the girl tells me. “I’m gonna be a nurse one day.”

The girl’s mother says that her daughter has always wanted to be a nurse, from Day One. And earlier this year, before Little Brother attempted his solo flight, the girl got her chance to be a real nurse.…