The regular fry-cook is gone. He has evacuated town. She’s here alone until the replacement cook shows.

SEPTEMBER 7th, 9:29 A.M.—Hurricane Irma is close enough to smell. Most of Florida lives within the geographical area meteorologists are labeling the “Run-Like-Holy-Hell Zone.”

I’m eating a late breakfast at Waffle House. I am the only customer here. George Strait sings in the background.

The woman behind the counter is in her late sixties. She is lean, rough features. Her voice is like a pack of Camels.

The regular fry-cook is gone. He has evacuated town. She’s here alone until the replacement cook shows.

She takes my order, then cooks my breakfast herself. She is a go-getter, this woman, she knows how to cook an egg.

I ask if she’s worried about Irma.

“Ain’t worried about nothing,” she says. “Been through too many hurricanes to worry about this little old storm.”

Irma isn’t a “little old” anything.  Irma is wider than the SEC, stronger than forty-mule-team Borax, and heading straight up the pant-leg of Florida.

The woman delivers my plate, refills my coffee. We talk.

Her husband was killed when they were newlyweds, long ago. She raised two children on her own. It

was no cakewalk.

Every summer, she managed to take them to Disney World as kids. She saved her pennies and dimes to do it.

“Family vacations was important to me. Used to stay in an RV park, only we was the ONLY tent, between all them big rigs.”

After raising her kids, she should’ve been cruising Easy Street. But that’s not how it happened. Her daughter got pregnant and returned home with two grandbabies.

She raised them while her daughter attended college.

Today, her daughter is a registered nurse in Birmingham. Her grandkids are in college. Her son lives in Albuquerque. They are successes, and they make her so proud her teeth are showing.

“That’s my daughter,” she says pointing to a cellphone photo. “She's pretty, ain't she?”

I hear melancholy in her voice. I’m not the…

Mom turns to him. She gives him a warm look. It’s the same sweet look mothers have been giving children since the invention of the diaper. 

September 6th, 11:13 A.M.—Hurricane Irma is moving closer. And it looks like the storm is getting angrier every few hours.

Here in the Panhandle you can see people gathered around TV’s and cellphone weather videos everywhere you go.

Walmart is a nuthouse. They are out of bottled water, milk, bleach, toilet paper, bread, and according to one official, they’re running dangerously low on ketchup.

People wander through the store with tight faces. There is a man wearing a homemade T-shirt that reads: “Irma Sucks.”

In the peanut-butter aisle, I see a child who follows his mother’s cart. The woman is stocking her buggy with essentials.

The kid holds a cellphone, volume turned up. I hear the tinny voice of a weather report.

The little boy says, “Mom, are we gonna be okay?”

Mom turns to him. She gives him a warm look. It’s the same sweet look mothers have been giving children since the invention of the diaper.

It’s a look that says: “Everything—no matter how afraid you are—is going to be alright.”

It's the same look my mama gave me when a swarm of red ants crawled up my legs and bit the Holy Spirit out of me. I had an allergic reaction, trouble breathing.

“Mama,” I said. “Will I pull through?”

She gave me that look, and here I am.

I also see an old woman. She is frail, she walks bent over. She’s searching for bottled water on barren shelves.

A female employee notices her. She asks what the woman needs.

“Where am I gonna find water?” the old woman asks. “What am I gonna do?”

The employee gives the elderly woman that look—the same one I was just telling you about.

“Let’s…

We live in the Wiregrass. This is not my first big hurricane. In fact, we’ve seen so many storms that nearly every year we see Weather-Channel vans come to town.

SEPTEMBER 5th, 8:03 A.M.—Hurricane Irma approaches. It’s morning. The first thing I hear is the blaring Weather Channel.

My mother-in-law likes her television at volumes robust enough to rattle her artificial hip. Especially when the world is ending, like today.

On the screen: a lady-meteorologist is having a nervous breakdown. She points to a red-colored cyclone that’s roughly the size of Greenland, and says, “THIS IS A HURRICANE!”

She traces the map with a digital pointer, making colorful and scientific designs. She says, “ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE MILE AN HOUR WINDS, FOLKS!”

My mother-in-law turns the volume up.

The weather-woman looks like a sophomore in high school, and she’s about to faint. She adds, “It’s ESSENTIAL to make sure you have bottled water, triple-A batteries, and a BIKE HELMET…”

The first thing I’d like to mention, is that the weather forecasting business has changed. For most of my life, weather-people wore polyester suits and looked like your father’s dentist. They pointed to maps, and told forecasts in easy voices.

This weather-woman is shouting, and her mascara is running.

“Do we have

bike helmets?” my mother-in-law asks.

I go to the garage to check for helmets. All I find are four AAA batteries, and my old catcher’s mask.

“We need bottled water,” my mother-in-law goes on. “Is my car gassed up? Get more batteries. I’m out of bread-and-butter pickles.”

I drive into town to fill her tank. The gas station has a ten-mile line of cars. So, I go into Walmart instead. There are families jogging through aisles with panicked faces, pushing carts. One woman has eighteen bottled-water crates in her cart. Her child is riding on top, like George Washington crossing the Delaware.

Of course, we live in the Wiregrass area. This is not our first big hurricane. In fact, we’ve seen so many storms, nearly every year the Weather-Channel vans come to town.

Half of my immediate family has been…

“They made the quilt for me,” one woman says. “When my husband was dying, and everyone took turns staying with me in the hospital.”

Somewhere in Alabama—a white clapboard building. The place is a trip backward in time. The steeple was added during the Great War. The cemetery is even older.

It’s a weeknight. Small-town kids play tag on the church lawn.

A mother barks: “Be nice to your sister!”

I meet an old woman who has been the church organist since Davy Crockett sailed the ocean blue.

A black-and-white image of her hangs in the fellowship hall. Think: big hair, petite frame, and one metric ton of eye makeup.

“Wasn’t I pretty?” she asks.

She still is.

Anyway, I have never seen a covered-dish party this size for a church so small. There are more casseroles than there are forks.

One old woman says, “Some of our ladies usually bring two, maybe three dishes. Willie Sue brought the tea.”

Willie Sue.

There are plenty of elderly people here. Several younger ones in their late forties and fifties, too.

One man says, “I came back last year. Used to

work in the big city, for a company that built smartphones. I was miserable. Doctor said my blood pressure was through the roof.”

He quit his job, and he left the tech field. He moved home and started attending potlucks again. They elected him janitor.

Today, he carries the church key ring and takes out the trash.

I meet another man who is missing his right arm below the elbow—a hunting accident. He cooks hamburgers on the grill, using a prosthetic hook.

“When I lost my arm,” he says. “The whole church chipped in and delivered suppers for a year, they never skipped.”

Three hundred and sixty-five foil-covered plates.

The children in the congregation are few. There is only…

Mother Mary also talks about a period in history which is only remembered in black-and-white photos now. A time before her rheumatism slowed her. When she was slender as a bird, with dark hair, and sharp eyes.

The Alabama-Florida State game is on television. My mother-in-law is watching with me. She’s sitting in her recliner, Velcro shoes propped in the air.

She just had surgery, she’s too weak to cheer. She’s been in the hospital for two days. Doctors discharged her only a few hours ago.

When she arrived home, my wife and brother-in-law helped her limp into the house on weak knees. I carried purses and offered verbal assistance.

They ushered Scarlett O'Hara over the brick steps, through the hall, into the living-room—where she sits now.

On the wall behind her are graduation photos of her children—framed in gold.

On her sidetable: a magazine, with her redheaded son-in-law's article in it. She shows this to visitors.

“You can’t write about me tonight,” says my mother-in-law. “I’m not wearing my pearls. You’re only allowed to write about me if I have pearls on.”

My wife disappears, then returns with a strand of pearls. She fastens them around the sophisticated belle's neck.

“There,” my wife says. “Now he

can write about you.”

My mother-in-law knows, of course, I’ll write about her. This is why she starts telling detailed childhood stories during the most pivotal moments of the SEC football game of the century.

She knows I like her stories.

There’s the story, for instance, of when she lost her pet duck. The duck escaped and flew over Brewton, Alabama's downtown during hunting season.

The fellas sitting in front of the hardware store shot the bird dead. The duck made the front page of the paper.

Then there’s the one about her pet baby alligator. She loved her alligator. She dressed it in girly clothes, took it to tea parties, and let it sleep beside her.

One autumn morning,…

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

I’m in a Mexican restaurant. I’ve been driving. I’m tired. I’m here to enjoy cold beer and something salty.

Earlier, I tried visiting the joint up the road. The place has allegedly good barbecue. I left after three seconds. They had a band that only knew two volume levels: loud, and nuclear holocaust.

So I’m here.

Behind my booth are children. It’s a birthday party. There are at least fifteen. They sit around a long table which is mounding with gifts. They holler and laugh.

A few wear pointy hats. I didn’t know kids wore pointy hats anymore.

My waitress brings my beer, and I overhear all the Top-40 hits of childhood happening behind me.

“Gross, you eat boogers?”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

“My dad could beat up your dad.”

“COOTIES!”

How have we come this far as a civilization, and still not eradicated cooties?

Then, parents hush kids. Children's voices run quiet. A mother walks to the door and looks through the glass.

"Here

she comes,” the woman says to her group. “Get ready.”

There is a pregnant pause. I am holding my beer with both hands, watching the door.

The door opens.

Children scream “Happy Birthday!” loud enough to break stained glass. Then, applause.

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

Her father helps her to the table, holding her arms. The girl sits and covers her face. She’s blushing.

“YOU GUYS!” she says.

Her smile is bright enough to tear the cotton-picking world in half.

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents…

Her voice is the Great American South. It’s tiny meeting houses, hardware stores with live-bait wells, fiddles playing on porches, and raw tomatoes with salt.

She’s almost ninety-six. And when she talks, it sounds like lightning bugs, swarming over a mossy pond.

She admits, most days she doesn’t do much talking. She sits beside her window, reading, or sleeping. But she has good eyes, she has her mind, and she still has a voice.

“Started making up songs when I’s a girl,” she says. “They helped me through some very hard times.”

The hardest of times, you might say. She asks me not to dwell on this part of her story—so I won’t. But when she was ten, her father killed her mother, then himself.

Her brother and sister raised her. Her childhood was spent in a plain, plank house beside a creek. She led a lonely life—kids her age rejected her.

Her first made-up song was meant to help her sleep.

“Got so dark in my bedroom,” she says. “Thought I’s seeing ghosts and spirits, it was terrible.”

She sings:

“Don't wanna be afraid,
So I won't be, I won’t be,
Not gonna

be afraid, no, no,
Nobody here but me…”

Her voice is cracked and old. Sweet, but sad.

I wish she'd hold me.

After the War, she fell in love. They settled and had two kids. She helped him forget a battlefield. He helped her forget childhood trauma. He played guitar. She sang.

She made many songs with him. Like the one for her son, when he fell from a tree.

“Oh, John, don’t you frown,
It ain’t right to get so down,
Dosey-doh, and don’t you know,
There’s always someone sadder…”

Her voice is the Great American South. It’s tiny meeting houses, hardware stores with live-bait wells, fiddles playing on porches, and raw tomatoes with…

Maybe you can’t remember the last time anyone listened to you—and I mean, REALLY listened.

Hi. We hardly know each other. And I know this won’t mean much coming from a stranger like me, but I have to say it:

I’m sorry.

I mean it. I am sorry. I’m sorry about the big and the little things that happen to you.

I’m sorry you didn’t sleep last night. I’m sorry your back hurts. And I’m sorry about the long-term repercussions of fiscal American inflation.

Also: I’m sorry you don’t laugh as often as you used to. I’m sorry money doesn’t grow in the backyard—God help me, I am.

I know what it means to work long hours and get nothing but a bloody lip in return.

I’m sorry your car won’t start. I’m sorry alternators cost more than booze-cruises to Barbados.

I’m sorry that every time you get some money saved, your roof begins leaking, your water-heater goes out, your toilet backs up, or you need a root canal.

I’m double-sorry about the root canal.

I’m sorry your dog died. And for the sour feelings you get when you see the empty food-bowl

on your kitchen floor.

I miss every good dog I’ve ever owned.

I’m sorry your loved one died recently. I’m sorry grief has become a permanent part of you, and that your heart has been polished with a cheese grater.

I’m sorry the doctor said you need surgery. I’m sorry you’re diabetic. I’m sorry your entire world caved in when they said, “Ma'am, you have cancer.”

I’m sorry you have felt sick and rundown for so long that you don’t remember what the old you felt like.

I’m sorry life doesn’t go the way we want it. I’m sorry the clock runs out too quickly, and that our bodies don’t last longer.

One summer day, she stood at a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign. It was hot. She was dehydrated. Hungry.

She’s pretty. And young. But her face looks like she’s lived a hard life.

She was homeless for a year. Nearly four hundred days of skid-row poverty.

One summer day, she stood at a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign. It was hot. She was dehydrated. Hungry.

“Ain’t never begged before,” the girl said. “Holding a sign’ll make you feel stupid, man.”

Cars passed. No donations. A policeman finally told her to move along. Before she got far, a Cadillac pulled beside her and opened its door.

The old lady inside asked her, “You on drugs, honey?”

“No ma’am, not no more,” the girl said.

“Look me in the eye,” the old woman said. “Tell me the truth.”

“I’m clean.”

And it was true. The girl had quit using, four hundred days earlier. In fact, that’s why she was homeless.

Not long before, she’d been a good student from a broken home. But after high school, she moved in with a man of corrupt habits. When she quit using

his goods, he kicked her out.

She had no car. No home. No friends. She stole a tarp from someone’s pickup truck. She made camp behind a strip mall. She ate from a dumpster, and slept on a bed of plastic bags.

Until the woman in a Cadillac.

The old woman was a strong one. Solid, with cropped hair. She fixed up a spare room, gave the girl clothes, fresh sheets, feminine-smelling soaps.

“She fed me,” said the girl. “Treated me like her kid. Kinda scared me at first, didn’t know if she was some weirdo.”

The old woman was no weirdo. She cooked suppers, complete with frilly placemats and iced teas.

They ate with napkins in laps.…

Cats are fickle and skittish. I called the cat. Which was a bad move. To whistle for a cat is like trying to lasso a rabid squirrel.

They carried flyers made from a home printer. A girl and her mother. They stood on my porch, toting a whole stack of them.

“I’m looking for HIM,” the little girl said, pointing to the flyer.

On neon-colored paper was a photo of a cat—white with black spots.

“He’s been gone two days,” added her mother. “My daughter and I are looking all over.”

This isn’t my first lost-animal case. Cats seem to find my house. I have adopted three feral cats in the last year.

I told the lady I hadn’t seen any feline.

“Thank you,” she said. “Call me if you do. Because it was kinda my fault he escaped. I'm a terrible mother.”

The flyer sat on my kitchen table with a pile of junk-mail and bills. I didn’t think much about it. Not even when my dog, Ellie Mae, whined at the back door.

When I opened the door, I saw black-and-white fur, nosing around our bushes.

I called the number on the flyer.

“YOU

FOUND HIM?” were the first words of an excited mother. “I WAS SURE HE WAS DEAD!”

But cats are fickle and skittish. I called the cat. Which was a bad move. To whistle for a cat is like trying to lasso a rabid squirrel.

The animal got spooked. By the time the girl and her mother showed up, there was no cat.

The girl looked through the bushes, calling the animal’s name. She must’ve inspected every shrub, tree, and blade of grass.

The girl suggested leaving a bowl of tuna on the porch.

“He’ll be back,” assured the girl. “Trust me. I already talked to God about it.”

Right.

I woke up the next morning…