My waitress has a weathered face. At first glance, I’d guess she’s old. But she’s not old. Just weathered.

Waffle House is quiet this time of evening. The sun has set. I’m on my way back home from Montgomery.

There are eighteen-wheelers in the abandoned parking lot next door. Most of the world is winding down for the night.

My waitress has a weathered face. At first glance, I’d guess she’s old. But she’s not old. Just weathered.

She asks what I want. I order three eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, toast.

“White or wheat?” she asks.

“Surprise me.”

She reads my order to the cook. I never get tired of hearing them do that.

A kid is mopping the floor. He’s tall, skinny, tattoos on his neck. He looks like he just graduated.

“You mean he KICKED you OUT?” the kid asks the waitress.

“No,” she says. “I left."

"Really?"

"And I ain't going back to him. I’ll sleep in my car if I have to.”

The kid leans on his mop. He has a young face.

He says, “You could stay with me and my brother. I can sleep on

the couch.”

She smiles. Her teeth are stained, she has lines on her face, but she is handsome.

“That’s real sweet, E.J.,” she says. “But I can’t.”

“Well, you CAN'T sleep in your car.”

“I'll be fine.”

“C’mon,” he says. “We got Netflix and everything.”

My food’s ready. She hands me my plate and asks if I need anything. And because I’ve eaten enough Waffle House food to own stock in the corporation, I know exactly what I need.

“Ranch, please,” I say.

The kid goes on, “My stepdad used to cheat on my mom, too. She SHOULDA left him, but every time we’d leave,…

The boy holds his fish as high as he can. His father hugs him and kisses his hair. They make a fine picture together.

I'm watching a father and son fish in a state park. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

After a few minutes, the boy’s rod starts to bend.

He screams, “I GOT ONE DAD!” His voice carries on the water all the way to Birmingham.

And I am a nine-year-old again.

In fact, if I were to shut my eyes right now, I would see my father, shirtless, standing on a sandy teshore, smiling. A beer can by his feet.

“Quit messing with your reel so much,” he’d say. “You’ll scare fish away if you don’t relax.”

On one particular day, my father caught three bass and a shellcracker. Mister Unrelaxed had not been so fortunate—I’d caught one Penzoil can and a medium-sized turtle.

But my luck changed. My rod nearly jerked out of my hands. I tugged and cranked.

And it happened. I caught a bass bigger than most residential water heaters. Daddy whooped and hollered.

He let me take a sip of his lukewarm beer. He discussed how to clean a fish.

He handed me a Buck knife to cut off the head. He made me swear to keep both hands on the handle.

The next thing I remember is a puddle of my own blood. I nearly fainted.

Daddy wasted no time. He tossed my flopping fish into the truck bed. He pressed a wadded T-shirt against my cut hand. We sped to the Emergency room.

I glanced through the back window and saw my fish flopping in the pickup bed.

“Your mama’s gonna kill me,” said Daddy.

The doctor was an old man. He looked at my hand and said, “What kinda fish you catch, old timer?”

Old timer.

I told him. He smiled,…

Jacob found his first dog after work one night. It was late. A stray black Lab was sniffing trash cans behind a restaurant.

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. 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.”

For two months, Jacob cared. He fed the dog from a distance seven nights…

There wasn’t much breeze. They tell me most of the dust fell like sand. But it was a beautiful ceremony, nonetheless.

She and her daughter visited the beach. She's up in age—walking through sand can be an ordeal. She carried a Foldger’s coffee can. The old metal kind people keep roofing nails in.

They walked toward the Gulf of Mexico and removed the lid. They scattered brownish powder into the water.

There wasn’t much breeze. They tell me most of the dust fell like sand. But it was a beautiful ceremony, nonetheless.

“My husband and I kinda grew up coming here,” said the old woman. “Before all the big condos and high-rises. His family had a place down that’a way.”

She was nineteen when she met him. After a few dates with the skinny boy, he invited her along on an annual family beach vacation.

The family stayed in a big camp-house cabin. They went fishing. They sat on swings, stayed up late, talked, watched the moon above the bay.

He was almost three years younger than her. He called her an old lady, it infuriated her.

They

made a nice family. Two girls, they adopted a son. They took walks after supper. They played cards. They traveled.

He inherited his family’s service station. He could fix anything with wheels. It was a lifelong obsession, tinkering beneath hoods. They weren’t rich, but in many ways they were.

A drunk driver killed him.

It was a twenty-year-old girl with friends in her car. Nobody knows what happened exactly. The theory is: he was doing sixty-five and the girl was doing ninety. She tried to pass him. He switched lanes to let her over. She was going too fast. Four people died.

It happened almost sixteen years ago, her wounds have turned into scars.

Ever since his funeral, he’s been sitting on her closet shelf, in a…

To him, she is more mother than sister. She raised him. She did all things mothers do: diaper changing, wiping hindparts, and she’s washed enough laundry to populate the county landfill.

She lives in a forty-foot single-wide trailer with her brother. She’s in her early thirties, but seems older. And wiser.

It’s a nice place. Decorated. Frilly curtains. Laundry hangs in the backyard. Photographs on the coffee table. A few scented candles.

Her younger brother is making a sandwich in the kitchen. He’s skinny, tattoos cover his arms. He walks into the living room.

He hugs her before leaving and says, “Love you, Sissy, I’m working late tonight.”

To him, she is more mother than sister. She raised him. She did all things mothers do: diaper changing, wiping hindparts, and she’s washed enough laundry to populate the county landfill.

Her mother died when she was nine. She and her brother lived with their grandfather in this single-wide.

“I remember when I was thirteen,” she says. “I realized it was up to ME to be a mom.”

On the wall is a photograph of her grandfather. She’s in the photo, too. She is young, blonde. She stands behind the old man—arms wrapped around his neck.

“Cancer,” she tells me. “He was seventy.”

He was diagnosed when she

was a sophomore. She cared for him during the last few years of his life.

On his final day, she drove him to the emergency room because he couldn’t catch his breath.

In a hospital bed, he told her, “I’m so sorry, baby. First your mama left you, now I’m leaving you.”

Those were his last lucid words.

But.

I’m not here to write something that makes you feel sorry for her. She's too exceptional of a person for pity. I’m writing about something else.

She met someone.

He is a fireman-paramedic. When they were first introduced, he asked her on a date. She refused.

“I’d never BEEN on a date,” she says. “I was so awkward and just so nervous that he would even ask me.”

He persisted. She gave in. He took her…

The first time he used serious medication for motion-sickness was on a cruise a few years ago. He went on the cruise for his wife.

The geniuses at the airline screwed up. They overbooked my plane. A woman with chopsticks in her hair approached me.

“Sir?” she said in a the-principal-will-see-you-now voice, “We overbooked your flight.”

I congratulated her.

Thus, she offered to compensate me and my wife:

We could either (a) stay in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for four hours, or (b) ride home with a herd of USDA registered scrub cattle on the next Norfolk Southern livestock car.

“Can we at least get food vouchers?” I countered.

“How about bottled waters?” she said.

These people don’t even try.

I had a seat. The elderly man next to me had dandelion-fuzz for hair. He laughed at me. I suppose he knew what I’m too young to know. Life doesn't give food vouchers.

He was talkative. He rolled up one of his shirtsleeves and showed me a medicated patch on his arm.

“It’s for motion-sickness,” he said. "I'm flying to Texas to see my kids."

He gets nausea so bad

he can’t ride in the backseat of a car without chanting Psalms. Because of this, he hasn’t boarded a plane since the sixties.

“I am deathly afraid of planes,” he explained. “I get sick anytime the floor moves.”

The first time he used serious medication for motion-sickness was on a cruise a few years ago. He went on the cruise for his wife.

Because for his entire marriage, he’d refused nautical activities—since nausea is its own kind of Purgatory.

The couple lived slow-paced lives. They hardly traveled. They raised two kids and led a quiet existence outside Atlanta.

Until her diagnosis.

It was bad. A mastectomy. Chemo. She wasted away. Treatment bought her little time. That's when something…

But when those fireworks go off tonight, I'll be watching. And thinking. Thinking about single mothers, mechanics, dental students, pain-pill addicts, homeless drunks, county prisoners, veteran amputees, immigrant students, preachers, burnt-out bartenders, football coaches, nurses, electricians, factory workers, janitors, writers. You.

DEAR SEAN:

The nation is going down the toilet, bro, and it is people like you (no offense) who are inadvertently doing more harm than good.

I don’t mean to be a hater, but Americans suck right now, dude. I know you mean well, but nothing's going to change if you keep writing little candy-coated vignettes and ignore our problems.

Thanks,
NOT FEELING VERY PATRIOTIC THIS YEAR BRO

DEAR UNPATRIOTIC:

A few candy-coated vignettes for you:

Meet Mary—single mother with three kids. Her husband shot himself with a hunting rifle after serving in Iraq.

She goes to baseball games, soccer games, piano recitals, 4H Club, Girl Scouts, and still finds time to make supper.

She works as a receptionist, and helps her brother-in-law landscape on weekends.

“Some days I don’t know if I’m gonna cry or scream,” she told me. “I keep telling myself, God’s gonna gimme strength.”

Here’s some more candy-coating:

John. Guitarist and singer. He’s played in small bars since high school. His father called John a “loser,” and “lazy.”

Not true.

John met a girl. A dental assistant, attending school to become a dentist. Her parents are

immigrants, she doesn't have much money.

They got married. John gave up music to work three jobs and fund her tuition.

“I spend my days on scaffolding,” said John. “Painting commercial buildings, and part-time with an electrician, man I’m hauling ass, but I love her.”

God bless love.

Another: I’ll call her Candy —that seems appropriate. She met a man. She was a hairdresser, he was military.

He got deployed. There was an incident. Now he has a prosthetic leg.

She had children with him. They’ve gone through hell.

Today, be stays at home, caring for kids, packing lunches, kissing scraped knees. She cuts hair.

“You wouldn’t believe our cool life,” says Candy. “Having kids has actually healed my husband's heart.”

Her oldest brought her husband to classroom career…

My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

The sun was coming up. We rode toward Charleston, doing sixty-five miles per hour in a two-seat truck.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” said my new wife.

“Me neither.”

In my wallet: two hundred dollars cash. It was all I had. I earned it by selling my guitar, one week earlier.

My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

Well, she must not have cared because I had none. I was a blue-collar nothing with a nothing-future ahead of me. I had no high-school education. No achievements. No pot to you-know-what in, and no plant to pour it on. And not much confidence.

Until her.

She unfolded a roadmap on the dashboard. My truck radio played a Willie Nelson cassette. I was married.

Married. Things were looking up.

We arrived at a cheap motor-inn. She took a shower while I watched the idiot box. Andy Griffith was on.

I’d seen the

episode a hundred times. Barney makes Otis jump rope to prove he’s sober. You know the rest. Crisis. Cliffhanger. Andy saves the day. Roll credits.

I made reservations at an upscale restaurant where the waiter pulls the chairs out for you. I wore the only necktie I owned.

We ate food I could not afford. I paid a hundred bucks—plus tip. We walked the streets, arm in arm.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” she said.

Then: the sound of horse hooves. A carriage. A man stepped out and groomed his animals on the sidewalk.

My wife remarked how pretty the horses were.

I asked how much he charged for rides.

“Hundred bucks,” he said.

Many of the hotel guests are young. Several use wheelchairs, or walking canes. Some are communicating in American Sign Language.

Mobile, Alabama—I’m in a large hotel lobby. There are hundreds of people here. I'm people-watching.

Many of the hotel guests are young. Several use wheelchairs, or walking canes. Some are communicating in American Sign Language.

A boy sits next to me. A teenager. He’s got hearing aids in both ears and thick glasses.

“IS THIS SEAT TAKEN?” he asks.

“No sir," I say.

“GOOD! I’M WAITING FOR MY MOM!”

Congratulations.

It doesn’t take long for him to learn my name. And soon, every other word he uses is my name.

Talking come easy for this kid. He has the personality of an azalea blossom and the smile of a professional conversationalist.

He’s here attending a conference for people with disabilities. This is his first year, and he’s excited. Not only about the conference, but about his hotel room, located on the top floors.

“I CAN SEE EVERYTHING FROM MY ROOM, SEAN!” he points out. “EVEN BIRDS AND CLOUDS!”

My, my.

“ARE YOU WAITING FOR YOUR MOM, TOO, SEAN?”

“No,” I point out. “And you don’t have to keep using my name.”

While we talk, he removes a notepad

from his pocket and takes notes. He asks me about myself. He reminds me to talk slow while he scribbles.

“You a writer?” I ask.

“YES,” he says. “MY MOM TOLD ME TO ALWAYS WRITE STUFF DOWN SO I DON’T FORGET, SEAN!”

Smart lady.

He flips through pages and and shares some of his previous notes. His whole life is in that notebook. He writes about insulin-pump maintenance, doctor-appointments, birthday parties, cleaning his bedroom, meetings with speech therapists, driving lessons, lunch with his daddy.

“THIS MONDAY IS LUNCH WITH MY DAD!”

I ask about his father. And from what I learn, his daddy left home when he discovered his son had struggles.

The kid just got reintroduced to his father for the first time last year.

“I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I HAD…

When my father died, adults planned a funeral. There were photographs scattered on the kitchen table. A few of his personal items. His eyeglasses. I stole his glasses when nobody was looking.

Somewhere outside Mobile, Alabama—a string of car headlights. There must be one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles behind us, stretching from here to Ardmore.

I pull over.

So does every car on the road.

First, the blue lights pass. Then, a long black car. This, followed by a mile-long chain of high beams.

When my father died, adults planned a funeral. There were photographs scattered on the kitchen table. A few of his personal items. His eyeglasses.

I stole his glasses when nobody was looking.

My father once found those glasses in the dirt, outside a supermarket. He dusted them and said, “These look expensive, don’t they?”

He put them on.

I laughed. The wire frames looked out-of-place on his face. He stared into the rearview mirror. He grinned at himself, then tucked them into his pocket.

He visited an eye doctor for an exam. The doctor said Daddy had perfect vision.

“You don’t need glasses, sir,” said the doc.

“Not even a little?”

“Nope, you're twenty-twenty.”

Daddy insisted he replace the lenses with fake ones.

Thus, he wore phony glasses. He didn't wear them all the time, but he wore them often. For family photographs. For Sundays. For trips into town.

“These things make me look smart,” he once remarked.

Smart.

After he died, I locked myself in the bathroom and tried on those glasses. I inspected my reflection for nearly ten minutes until the floor was wet.

That night, I fell asleep wearing them. During sleep, the wire frames cut me on the temple. I woke up to dried blood on my pillow.

The morning of his funeral, I wore his tweed jacket—which hung off my adolescent body. And…