The days that followed were the worst of her life. Not only because he was gone, but because a piece of her had been buried, too.

The picture of her son was a wallet-sized, high-school portrait from the late sixties. The boy’s hair was painfully dated. His smile was easy.

He was a good kid. That’s what they say.

He and his mother were close. Best friends, even. She was a single mother; he was a mama’s boy.

They were driving home from Atlanta one afternoon. They saw a car stalled on the side of the road.

“Don’t pull over,” she told her teenage son. “We don’t have time. Don’t wanna be late for kickoff.”

In those days, high-school kickoffs ruled the world. Her son was a good fullback. There was even talk about recruitment. Not serious talk, but talk.

Either way, he was a poster child. He had high cheekbones, promise, a sweet girlfriend, good grades.

“I gotta pull over, Mama,” he said.

He veered to the shoulder. He stepped out to help an old man change a tire.

She didn’t actually see it happen. But she heard the old man shout, “Move!”

And out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man jump. Then, a crash. Skidding.

And her boy was gone.

The days that followed were the worst of her life. Not only because he was gone, but because a piece of her had been buried, too.

Someone once heard her say, “I asked God to take me on the day of his funeral. I wanted to give up living.”

But God didn’t take her.

One sunny day, a knock at her door. Her son’s girlfriend. They sat at a table together. They cried big tears. They looked at photos. They held one another.

The girl told her she was pregnant.

And I understand that his mother’s happiness outweighed sadness.

The pregnancy was a normal, joyful one. Still, for each “congratulations" someone offered, an “I’m so sorry" followed.

But babies are immune to sadness. They make people feel warm, no matter…

My father once wanted to be Navy pilot. He failed the physical exam into flight school. He was deaf on his left side. He’d spent a childhood wanting to see the world from the top, but he had to settle for posters.

Hank Williams music is playing on an old radio, sitting on a workbench. I’m nine. Hank’s voice bounces off the garage.

The room smells like gasoline and dirt. The walls are covered—and I mean covered—in posters of jet planes.

My father once wanted to be Navy pilot. He failed the physical exam into flight school. He was deaf on his left side. He’d spent a childhood wanting to see the world from the top, but he had to settle for posters.

“Toss me that wrench,” says Daddy.

He slides from beneath the Ford. There is a longneck bottle in his hand. Daddy sings along with the radio. He sounds like a dog with a chest infection.

“Daddy, will you ever fly a plane?”

“Nah, too deaf and stupid. Pilots ain’t deaf or stupid.”

“YOU’RE stupid?”

“Compared to a pilot. They got big IQ’s, they can practically move inanimate objects with their minds.”

“What’s inanimate?”

“It means UN-animate-like.”

My father walks to a white Philco refrigerator. He removes a bottle. He pops the cap with a box-wrench.

“You know,” he says. “I didn’t WANNA be a steelworker. I was kinda

backed into it. Always WANTED to be a pilot. Wanted to see the world from up top.”

I look at him. He's bone skinny. He has grease on his face and hands. There are scrapes on his veiny forearms. My father always had cuts and scrapes. It was the price of blue-collar workaholism.

“But Daddy,” I suggest. “You can STILL be a pilot. Billy’s daddy knows a man who gives flying lessons.”

My father takes a pull on the bottle. He smiles. He is all stubble and crow’s feet.

“Gotta be rich to take flying lessons,” he says.

“We could save up.”

“Take a lotta saving.”

“I’ll save ALL my money.”

He rubs his chin. It makes a sandpaper sound. “Guess I could take up flying during retirement,” he says.

“What’s…

The man says, “To see my son get excited about a new hat is the highlight of my day. I’d sell everything I own just to see him smile. I love him more than my own life.”

A dinner rush. There’s a line of young, fashionably dressed people in this fancy restaurant, waiting for tables. Actually, it's more like an angry mob with skinny jeans and low blood sugar.

I’d rather go to a Waffle House, if you ask me, but my wife is hellbent on eating here.

There’s a child ahead of me. He's with his parents. He’s an animated kid. I notice him because he is wearing a leather football helmet—the kind college lineman wore in the ‘20’s.

I ask the kid about the piece of nostalgia on his noggin.

The child seems uncomfortable. He doesn’t look me in the eye. He looks at the wall and says in a loud voice, “My linebacker hat.”

I ask if he’s a linebacker for the Tigers.

"No,” he says. “I just like hats.”

Well, as it happens I am a hat man myself. For my first day of school I wore a ten-gallon hat, chaps, and holster.

My teacher stopped me at the classroom door, reminding me that gentlemen never wear hats inside. Then, she told

me to check my iron at the door.

It was to be the last day I ever wielded dual peacemakers.

“We have TONS of hats,” says the boy’s mother. “My husband was online last night ordering a hundred more.”

She explains that her son has autism. He also has a major stockpile of headwear. Sailor hats, baseball hats, flight gear, astronaut caps, stocking caps, even a genuine Auburn football helmet.

“At first,” she said. “We couldn’t get him to wear ANYTHING on his head. It would make him freak out. But then, something changed.”

It started with a knit cap she bought from Target. Her son liked the color of it. He wore it until the thing started to fall apart.

One day, her husband found a leather gridiron helmet in an antique store. He bought it to decorate his home…

And I wish you could hear them. They are your ancestors. And mine. They are soft, but not weak.

Greenville, Alabama—welcome to Country Place Senior Living. I’m playing guitar for a room of people who have more life-experience than a sackful of white hair.

My guitar is beat-up and old. It once belonged to my father. It’s been with me a long time.

It’s traveled to a lot of places. Beer joints, all-you-can-eat-catfish joints, weddings, crab boils, Baptist chapels. And nursing homes.

I’m not a good guitar player per se, but here I am just the same. I’m standing before a ninety-nine-year-old colonel who sits in a wheelchair. He is watching me sing.

Life is funny sometimes.

I'm taking requests from the Southern Baptist hymnal.

The Colonel calls out, “Play ‘When the Roll is Called up Yonder.’”

“Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” suggests one woman.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

“Precious Memories.”

Another woman claps in rhythm to “I'll Fly Away.” She barely has enough stamina to clap two full verses.

A lady says, “Can you sing ‘Blessed Assurance?’”

I give it a shot. It’s been a long time since I last sang the great Fannie Crosby anthem. I get through verse one.

Then, I

forget the words to the second verse.

And even though long ago I won a county-fair talent show singing this EXACT American classic; even though I took the blue ribbon playing this VERY guitar; even though I have bellowed this song a hundred times before in the church; I have to stop singing.

Life is funny sometimes.

Alaina, the activities director, knows the lyrics. She starts singing for me.

“Perfect submission,
All is at rest…”

She has a good voice. And while she sings, I hear more than just her. I hear old folks singing.

The old colonel’s voice is strong and sweet. Hazel—the ninety-four-year-old—sounds like country chapels and chess pies.

And I wish you could hear them. They are your ancestors. And mine. They are soft, but not weak.

“This is…

Some people might call this the Middle of Nowhere. But they’d be wrong, I think. The Middle of Nowhere is any place that's empty, with no heart.

Big trees hang over Highway 31 South. The sun is out. I am riding behind an eighteen-wheeler whose signage reads: “Eat Alabama Beef.”

I’m passing through Pintlala. It’s a one-horse town—maybe two horses.

I also pass plenty of kudzu, Spanish moss, live oak groves, secluded railroad tracks, and red-dirt road offshoots.

Rusty mobile homes with Lexuses out front. A John Deere 5100 MH parked beside a clapboard general store.

Old churches.

I like antique churches—the kind that struggle to pay electric bills. Buildings with window-unit AC’s, and cemeteries out back.

Somewhere along the way, churches traded small graveyards for slide-projectors and rock and roll instruments.

On the highway shoulder: a girl riding a four-wheeler. She has a mile of traffic behind her. She wears pigtails and camouflage.

I ride past beat-up service stations. They’re a dying breed.

In this part of the world, these convenience stores are more than gasoline pumps. They are milk, eggs, after-work twelve-packs, Red Man Golden Blend, and gossip.

They sell things like live crickets, red wigglers, and green peanuts from coolers.

The Pit Stop Food Store, for instance,

has a lettered sign which reads: “Now we have pistols and rifles.”

I pass cattle. Mudholes. Ancient farmhouses, white-washed before the Battle of Chickamauga.

“Now entering Lowndes County.”

My wife's family has a hunting camp here. I could die happy in Lowndes.

I see a roadside sign which reads: Greenville; 21 miles. Mobile; 165 miles.

In other words, this exact piece of world is approximately 150 miles from any city.

Some people might call this the Middle of Nowhere. But they’d be wrong, I think. The Middle of Nowhere is any place that's empty, with no heart.

I’ve been to New York City. New York City is the Middle of Nowhere.

I see a faded, handwritten sign on a pine tree: “Deer processing and taxidermy for cheap.”

Another sign: “I can fix your i-fone.”

Now entering Butler…

“I’m made to help people. My whole life, people have helped me time and again. I wanna do something to give back for once. Make my own way.”

Birmingham, Alabama—Jeremy sits behind a volunteer desk at Children’s South Pediatric, greeting visitors.

You can't miss him, he’s the only black man in a wheelchair who is smiling more than the legal limit.

Jeremy is a soft-spoken, thirty-one-year-old. He has cerebral palsy. His speech is labored. His eyes are strong.

His birth-mother put him up for adoption as a newborn when she discovered he had problems.

“Had fluid on my brain,” says Jeremy. “My mother couldn't deal with it. So, I was on my own, so to speak.”

So to speak.

He's always been on his own. Nobody adopted him. Jeremy became part of the Alabama foster machine. He underwent God-knows-how-many operations in his lifetime. He learned to be tough and tender at the same time.

Our chat is interrupted by a mother with a sick baby. Jeremy rolls into action. He greets her, then tells her which doctor is on which floor.

“Nurses raised me,” he explains to me. “Spent almost my whole life in Children's Hospital, from ten months old until twenty-five. They my real family.”

It was in the wings of Children’s Hospital that nurses, doctors, and therapists took turns loving the sweet-mannered baby with the big eyes.

Women in scrubs became his mothers. Men in lab coats became his brothers. He taught them about the human spirit. They taught him to smile.

And he smiles a lot. Even though life has been a battle.

He doesn't mind battles though. In fact, that's how he earned his degree from Lawson Community College. It's how he survived childhood.

Recently, he moved into his own apartment. It was a major victory. After a lifetime of hospital beds, foster homes, and rough neighborhoods, Jeremy is a first-time bachelor.

“I LOVE it,” he says. “But sometimes at night, it gets creepy. Ain't used to being alone.”

His coworkers threw him a housewarming party. It was a real shindig. They loaded his…

Truth told, I always wished I were a poet, like my friend. But I’m not. I use too many words for poetry. If I WERE a lyricist, however, I know what I’d write about.

I got a note from my friend in the mail. He just got married. It was a private ceremony, he didn’t invite anyone.

He enclosed a handwritten poem:

“Thought I’d be single until I rot,
But someone thought I was hot,
Look at me, I just tied the knot.”

Cute.

My friend is a bona fide poet. He went to school for such things. He was an eccentric free spirit who lived alone in a poet’s ratty apartment—which smelled like a wet bird dog.

He stayed up too late, writing poet’s poems. He ate ice cream for breakfast. Cereal for supper.

He had big plans for his life.

Then she happened. He met her at his nephew’s soccer game. She had three kids.

Our middle-aged, fun-loving, bird-dog smelling bachelor became a family man with three kids, a minivan, and a backyard that won’t mow itself.

Yes. I like love.

I know another woman who found love. Her husband divorced her at age seventy-three. She was a wreck. She didn’t think she would survive.

She stayed indoors for a few years, and hardly ever saw

the sun.

Then, something happened. She began to make friends. She went to the beach some. She stayed up late, she went on dates.

Then, he happened. She met a retired boat captain—he steered barges on American river routes.

She married him. He asked what she wanted for a wedding gift. She wanted to see the world. He booked a one-year trip to Europe the very next month.

I could tell love stories all day.

Like the one about Stephanie and her husband—now there’s a story. They were told they couldn’t have kids. It devastated them.

A few years later, her best friends passed away unexpectedly. Her friends were in their thirties, with a two-year-old son.

Stephanie adopted the orphan and welcomed the child into a pink-walled nursery she’d already given up on.

Then,…

Today, I saw kids practicing baseball in a driveway. I was driving to Birmingham. It reminded me of you, pitching fastballs through an old tire.

Hey. It's me again. I'm sure you're busy, I just wanted to say hello. How are things? How's the fishing up there?

I thought about you today. I remembered how you used to point your truck in one direction, and drive dirt roads that led nowhere, your skinny bare arm, hanging out the window.

Today, I saw kids practicing baseball in a driveway. I was driving to Birmingham. It reminded me of you, pitching fastballs through an old tire.

God, that was a long time ago. Sometimes I wonder if you remember me, or if your memories died with you.

Things were bad after you left. Having a father who dies by his own will doesn’t exactly make a boy popular among the sixth grade.

Mama had it hardest, of course. You left her in a real mess. She should hate you for what you did. She has every right to, but she doesn’t. That woman couldn't hate a waterbug.

You and I both know you didn’t deserve her. And she didn’t deserve what you did.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about

that.

Sarah is all grown up. You wouldn’t recognize her. She’s got a daughter, and that means you would’ve been a granddaddy.

I wonder what you’d look like as a granddaddy. I’ll bet your red hair would be white, and I’ll bet you’d still be working from whistle to whistle, dangling from iron beams, welding lap splices.

Because if there was one thing you despised, it was laziness.

You and I are very different in that regard. I believe laziness can be a virtue.

You’d like my wife. I wish you could’ve met her. Everyone likes her. That’s because she’s speaks with a strong voice and has an I-can-do-anything-by-myself attitude.

She brought me back to life. When I met her, I was tired. She helped me find my spirit.

You missed a lot. In fact, you missed…

Miss Martha is every woman who’s ever punched a clock. She is every woman who lived on coffee and bad habits, who still found time to make Deviled eggs for the grieving.

Pensacola, Florida—Hurricane Irma made landfall. Most people are watching raw footage on the corner TV in this breakfast joint.

But not her. She sits at the counter alone. She has sugar-white hair, sharp blue eyes. She’s holding her coffee mug, people-watching.

“Can I sit here?” I ask.

“It’s a free country,” she says.

I shake her hand. Her name is Martha, she’s almost ninety. Her face is angelic. Her laugh is sweet enough to initiate world peace.

“Hope this Hurricane ain’t as bad as they say,” she says. “My grandson’s in Tampa.”

We are instant friends. This is a strong woman, I’m thinking, who knows how to fry chicken using nothing but peanut oil and the King James Bible.

On her breakfast plate: bacon, sausage, eggs, hashbrowns, and enough grease to lubricate the axle of a ‘69 Buick Roadster.

“Bacon’s what keeps me young,” she explains. “Doctors been telling me to quit eating it. What do they know?”

Miss Martha been single for a long time. She lost her husband forty years ago. After he died, she raised three children on her own.

“When

he died, all I knew was being a housewife. Had to get me a job’s what I done.” she said. “It was a hard time.”

She says her life began a second time. She found a job, and paid her own way. Hers is a story you’ve heard a thousand times:

Hardworking woman faces adversity, muscles her family through life without getting slaughtered.

Woman ages. She slows down. Her kids talk about her like she’s a saint.

She is a saint, of course. She’s the closest thing to holy you’ll ever see—just like anyone who taught children to fly.

Miss Martha is every woman who’s ever punched a clock. She is every woman who lived on coffee and bad habits, who still found time to make Deviled eggs for the grieving.

She is sacred. And she…

I’m in a Holiday-Inn lobby. This place is overrun with people. The desk clerk tells me that most guests are evacuees from south and central Florida.

September 9th, 9:18 A.M.—Hurricane Irma is making landfall in less than 24 hours. Anxiety fumes are in the air—you could light a match and the room go up in flames.

I’m in a Holiday-Inn lobby. This place is overrun with people. The desk clerk tells me that most guests are evacuees from south and central Florida.

In the main area: televisions are playing—volume cranked high. A few families gather around screens with worried faces.

I meet a Miami man.

“I’m pretty stressed right now,” he says. “We’re crammed in two rooms. My mother’s eighty-three, man. She don’t travel well.”

If the hurricane hits where forecasts predict, he’ll lose his home and his business.

He goes on, “I worked eight years finding new clients. All those twelve-hour workdays, my livelihood is gonna disappear.”

He snaps his fingers.

“This is my wakeup call, dude,” he adds. “I’ve spent too much time with my business, not enough time with my son.”

I meet a woman. Late sixties, wiry, with white cropped hair.

“Lost my husband two months ago to cancer,” she says. “And this hurricane might

destroy our house, where we raised our kids.”

A few weeks ago, she started riding a bike to help fight depression. She brought the bike with her to help release nervous energy.

“I told God this morning,” she says. “Go ahead, take my house. It's all just stuff anyway. I'm just grateful to have my kids with me this weekend.”

I meet a man with a long beard. He is six-four, and roughly the size of a General Electric refrigerator. His family lives in Central Florida.

“I'm with my wife and son,” he says. “But my mama and baby sister are evacuating now, they're still stuck traffic.”

He shows me a cellphone photo of a traffic jam.

“My sister’s freaking out,” he says. “She’s twelve. I try to tell her funny stories to make her laugh.”

His…