A woman rolls her chair behind him. She is not old. She is a middle-aged, blonde, blue eyes. Her hands don’t work well, but her mind is a razor.

Hanceville, Alabama—this town is a wide spot in the road. Quaint downtown. Old houses with fading paint. Crowded barbecue joint. No bars.

The rehab center and nursing home is a cinder block building with keypad locks and alarm systems. White hallways. Fluorescent lights. Smells like Lysol.

I’m here today to play piano.

Christy is a therapist here. She’s been in this line of work for thirty-one years. She helps the elderly, the affected, and the injured find their seats.

“I love older folks. Always have. These people are everything to me.”

Here at the rehab there is plenty of love.

An older man in Auburn University colors arrives in the chapel. He drives a motorized wheelchair. He shakes my hand with his left hand—his right hand doesn’t work.

He speaks. His words are not clear. But his smile talks for him.

A woman rolls her chair behind him. She is not old. She is a middle-aged, blonde, blue eyes. Her hands don’t work well, but her mind is a razor.

She asks me to play “I’ll Fly Away.”

I play. She cries.

“My best

friend,” she says. “He died last week. They’re laying him in the ground today at two. I can't go to the funeral.”

She is grieving him hard today.

Another man introduces himself. An old man. His eyes become puddles when he stares at me.

“Oh my God,” he says. “I coulda swore you was my son. You look just like my boy.”

We shake hands. He has a firm grip.

Another woman arrives, riding in a reclining chair. A lady in scrubs positions her near the piano.

“I’m eighty-six,” she says. “Born in thirty-one, went through the Depression.”

We talk. I learn that she's endured more than a Depression. She endured it all.

Her father was murdered when she was twelve. Her sickly brother was bedridden. As a child she was a caregiver. A breadwinner. A…

Her husband died of a heart attack when he was thirty-six. She was only twenty-nine. She raised her child, living on minimum wage, long hours, and too many cigarettes.

It's late. She’s standing on a curb at the gas station, waiting. She’s wiry. Her neck is gaunt. She’s having a smoke.

When she finishes her cigarette, she touches the ember to a fresh one.

I’m filling my truck. It’s cold outside. She’s bundled. Whenever a gust blows, she pulls her jacket tight.

The weatherman is calling for snow.

I break the ice. “Cold, isn’t it?” I say.

She makes a familiar remark about a witch wearing a brass bra, and I love her.

She looks old, but is younger than she looks. She clocked off work an hour ago. Her daughter was supposed pick her up, but there’s a problem.

“Our car don’t work so good,” she says. “My girl’s gotta call her boyfriend and borrow his car.”

So she waits.

I wait with her for a few minutes. She’s cold and alone; I need something to write about.

So meet Karen. She raised her daughter on her own. It’s always been just the two of them. They’re best friends.

Her daughter is an honor student. A senior. The girl has been looking for colleges all over the U.S. She has scholarship opportunities.

There is sadness in Karen's voice.

“All them colleges she’s looking at,” she goes on, “they're outta state. That kid’s been my whole life for eighteen years. I can’t bear the thought.”

I offer her a ride. She refuses. I insist. She only laughs. Laughing leads to coughing. Coughing leads to hacking. Smoking hasn’t been kind.

Her daughter has taken a few road trips with her boyfriend to visit universities. One trip took them to Philadelphia.

“Fifteen hours away,” she says. “Might as well be Mars. Every time she leaves to visit a college, I see what it’s like without her. God, it's so quiet. Don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

To say life is hard doesn't even scratch the surface. Food is hard to come by. Money is a myth. Their parents are dead. No honest work can be found within five counties.

The Great Depression. The orphaned family is riding in a Model-T. The oldest boy is driving, the boys are in back with their sisters.

To say life is hard doesn't even scratch the surface. Food is hard to come by. Money is a myth. Their parents are dead. No honest work can be found within five counties.

Only last night, they stole gas and cigarettes from a filling station. Now they're thieves, too.

Sometimes, it feels like they’re breathing borrowed air. They run from town to town, digging ditches, framing barns, loading mill trucks for pennies.

Today, the boys have been hired as roofers. A jobsite is where they are now. The bossman will pay them forty cents for a workday.

Forty cents. It’s highway robbery. Welcome to 1935, nobody's getting rich in Alabama.

It's a hot day. They’re weak from malnutrition. The boys are wearing homemade tool belts their sisters made. They haven’t eaten in days.

They stand in the shade. The workers are passing around breakfast—a bottle of milk spiked with liquor. It goes straight to the

boys’ heads and makes them dizzy.

The three brothers crawl on a three-story roof, pounding hammers. They’re dehydrated. Clumsy. They are inexperienced. Especially the youngest boy. He's fourteen. He is awkward on his feet.

He slips. It all happens so fast.

Game over.

He hits the ground so hard he bounces. The workmen all see it. The boy is face-down. Blood trickles from his mouth. His chest quits moving. No pulse.

The bossman comes running. There’s no doubt. The kid is gone.

They cover him with a tarp. The world has stopped spinning. The oldest brother is white with shock. His sisters are screaming.

Life is hell, the oldest thinks to himself. Childbirth took their mother. Pneumonia took their father. The bank took their home. Now tragedy owns their youngest brother.

The workers place the child’s body into the rear of…

To call it child neglect would be too soft. The single-wide was falling apart. Snow blanketed the leaky roof. They could see their breath in the bathroom.

Two brothers. Ages ten and seven. They had no heat. No food. No nothing. 1973 was a cold year.

To call it child neglect would be too soft. The single-wide was falling apart. Snow blanketed the leaky roof. They could see their breath in the bathroom.

And that is where they slept that winter. The bathroom. They huddled close, covered with garbage bags and quilts.

Their uncle was supposed to be raising them, but he’d been gone for weeks. Nobody knew where he was. Probably, they thought, in some gutter, drinking away his money.

“I’m cold,” said the youngest, trying to fall asleep.

“I know,” said the oldest. “Just wait, something good will happen.”

“But, how?”

“Magic.”

“Magic?”

“It always happens when you need it most.”

“What kinda magic?”

“The real kind.”

“Like in movies?”

“Yeah.”

It was only brother-to-brother talk. The oldest wasn't even sure he believed it.

Before school, they split a candy bar found in a barren pantry for breakfast.

After lunch, they dug through the cafeteria garbage looking for leftover scraps.

A teacher saw them do it.

That same day, a teacher gave the oldest boy two heavy grocery bags full of canned

goods.

A feast for supper. It was canned spaghetti, beans, and Campbell’s soup by flashlight. It was the first real meal they’d eaten in weeks.

Their smiles lit the inside of the dark trailer.

“Where’d you get all this food?” asked the youngest.

“Magic,” said the oldest.

“I like magic.”

“Me too.”

They ate so much they were sick. They slept in the bathtub with the door shut—towels tucked under the door to trap escaping heat. They shivered.

“My toes are cold.” the youngest said.

“It’s gonna be okay.”

“What’s gonna happen to us?”

“I don’t know. But don’t worry, it’s going to be alright.”

They woke the next morning. For breakfast: canned soup, Saltines, Ovaltine.

The oldest found something on the steps…

They were married that same year in the court of Camelot. The Knights of the Round Table were in attendance. The royal ceremony took place behind the pumphouse. 

The bar is crowded and loud. A man on a small stage plays music, wearing a cowboy hat. His style is a cross between progressive electric rock and a short barrel Howitzer.

A silver-haired man sits next to me. He orders two beers. He sips the foam from one. He doesn’t touch the other.

“This beer’s for someone very special,” he remarks.

He’s worked up a healthy glow. He bobs his head in rhythm with the nuclear explosion that’s passing as music.

I introduce myself. He adjusts his hearing aid and says, “This band’s pretty good.”

Different strokes.

“Did you know,” he goes on. “My wife’n me were married when we were little kids?”

I discover that he’s telling the truth—sort of. They were nine-year-olds. She was a tomboy. He lived in town and built model airplanes. It was love at first sight.

“You know how you can remember stuff, like your first cigarette, or a first kiss? That’s how it was when I first saw her.”

“In fourth grade?” I point out.

“Yep, even in fourth grade. She was THAT special.”

When they were

nine, he kissed her on the cheek. She slugged him and threatened to tear his throat out. The next day, she kissed him.

They were married that same year in the court of Camelot. The Knights of the Round Table were in attendance. The royal ceremony took place behind the pumphouse.

They dated all through high school. He went away to college—living apart was misery.

One evening, he will never forget, he was on the steps of a fraternity house, missing her. A taxi rolled to his curb. The door opened. She was carrying packed suitcases.

“I can’t live without you,” were her first words.

He goes on, “Have you ever loved someone so much you can’t breathe when they’re not around?”

She lived with him through college—their parents never knew. Neither did their parents…

I visited Hank’s grave yesterday. A high-school choral group was there. They sang a rendition of “I Saw the Light” for a kid holding a cellphone.

It’s raining in Montgomery. The Hank Williams statue downtown is getting his picture taken by tourists.

Teens huddle at the statue and holler, “War Eagle!” for a camera.

I visited Hank’s grave yesterday. A high-school choral group was there. They sang a rendition of “I Saw the Light” for a kid holding a cellphone.

I met a boy at the grave, too. He had Down syndrome. He spoke with labored tongue.

The man who was with him was older, white-haired. He was friendly. He told me about the boy.

“His mama was a friend of my sister,” the man said. “She just up and got rid of him. I told that judge he needed to give me and my wife that baby, we wanted to love him.”

I should’ve asked more questions. But it was their day out together.

Good barbecue isn’t as easy to find as you’d think in this town. At least not according to Laquina, a hotel maid.

Laquina made suggestions for lunch.

"There's Dreamland barbecue, downtown, but it ain’t great, too dry. Go to K&J Rib Shack. They got good ribs.”

Laquina is

raising three kids with her mother’s help. The father of her children is in a correctional facility. Her oldest is going deaf.

Tonight, she’s got choir practice.

“I take my oldest to choir so he learn all them good songs before his hearing is gone.”

She’s right about K&J Rib Shack. The fare is fall-off-the-bone good.

Only three miles away—one hundred years ago—Nat King Cole was born. Today, Nat has a colorful painted mural on Maxwell Boulevard.

I visited the mural. I met a young couple there. College age. We endured the light rain together, admiring art.

They told me they're photographers.

“Mostly, we do weddings,” the girl said. “Which is funny, ‘cause we haven’t had an actual wedding of our own.”

There’s a story here. Last year, they planned their big day,…

“My daddy was the kinda man I wish I could be,” says John. “Getting him out there on the water that day, I just wanted to say, ‘Daddy, look at us, we’re the beautiful family YOU made.’”

He was every old man you’ve ever met. And he wanted to go fishing. Doctors said it was a bad idea, but his son disagreed.

“Doctors don’t know everything,” says his son John. “Daddy wanted to fish, so by God, we took him.”

You should’ve seen it. A sunny day. Four men escorting an old man down the dock. They lowered him into a 14-foot camouflage boat.

The old man held them for support. He mumbled something to them. Nobody understood. The strokes had slowed his mouth down.

The men used ratchet straps to make an improvised seatbelt for him. And away they went.

The old man had been fishing here ever since the invention of red mud.

“Feesing heah wuh mah bess gurl,” the old man said through a contorted mouth.

His daughter translated for her kids: “Granddaddy says he used to fish here with his best girl.”

Granny. His “best girl.” When she was alive, they came here. The old woman loved fishing as much as he did.

The old man wanted a beer. He demonstrated this by reaching

for the cooler. His daughter held a can to his mouth. Beer ran down his chin.

Everyone cheered.

“Don’t tell Daddy’s doctor about this,” John said.

The boat was in motion. The motor trolled. The old man was smiling. Familiar feelings were in the air.

“I remember when Daddy took my middle-school boyfriend out here,” his daughter said. “I knew how to bait my own hook, my boyfriend didn’t. Daddy got a kick outta that.”

She also remembers a senior who once came calling on her. He drove a muscle car and wore too much leather. Her father greeted the kid on the porch, polishing his iron.

“Reckon you’d better keep a’driving, son,” her father told the kid.

The old man was something else. He was funny. He was clever. He was the best our land had to offer.…

If you were to ask me what I am, I’d probably tell you I’m a drywall specialist, a flooring man, a trim carpenter, or an eleven-year community college student who studied hard to consistently maintain straight C’s.

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t get it. Are you a Christian writer or not? I just want to know once and for all.

I read what you write about God sometimes, but then you’ll turn around and cuss and it’s rather incongruous.

Sorry, but I’m just saying what everyone's thinking. And from all of us who feel this way, I just want to say to you, pick one side and stay there!

Please don’t be offended,
JUST-CONFUSED-IS-ALL

DEAR CONFUSED:

I’ll start by saying, “Thank you.”

Thanks for calling me a “writer.” You have no idea how much that means. It's taken me a long time to call myself that.

If you were to ask me what I am, I’d probably tell you I’m a drywall specialist, a flooring man, a trim carpenter, or an eleven-year community college student who studied hard to consistently maintain straight C’s.

But a writer? No.

Writers use big words, go to art exhibits, and wear facial expressions common to frustrating bathroom experiences.

Well, not me. The only big word I know is sesquipedalianism—which I believe is an island off the coast

of Tulsa. And, my mother warned me to never attend art exhibits because they don't have altar calls afterward.

Anyway, I grew up in a blue-collar household. My father had a blue-collar tongue. You should’ve heard HIS stories.

With a limited palette of only two cuss words and one Miller High Life, that man could paint the Sistine Chapel of tales.

And I miss him.

Now for the Christian thing:

After my father passed, we were messed-up people. Perhaps “flagellated” people would be a better way of saying it—I had to look that word up.

The details don’t matter, but during that period, I needed to feel like someone gave a damn about me. And nobody was applying for the job.

Pardon my use of a strong word, but if I’m going to tell…

The night after my father’s funeral visitation I was still wearing my Sunday best. She wore a black dress with lace collar.

She was small enough to fit in your pocket. Blonde hair. Big eyes. Button nose. On the day she was born, I was a child—still wearing cowboy hats and cap guns.

My mother handed her to me and said, “This is your sister. Be careful with her.”

I had never seen anything so pretty.

A few years later, we were at my aunt’s house. A big barbecue. I was eight, eating dangerous amounts of pulled pork.

I remember my father, standing near the grill. My mother was beside him. I was supposed to be watching the girl, but pulled pork has bewitching powers over my delicate mind.

There was a pool at the neighbor’s house. The girl wandered off to look at it, but I was too busy smearing pork all over my face to notice.

By pure chance, I spotted her from across the yard. But I was one moment too late.

She was staring downward into the pool. She fell in. Nobody saw it happen but me.

I dropped my paper plate. I ran so hard

my legs burned and my lungs hurt. I jumped in. She had already sunk by the time I reached her.

I placed her tiny body on the grass. She coughed up mouthfuls of water. The adults came running. Lots of hollering.

The girl looked at me with weary eyes. “Let’s do that again!” she said.

When she turned five, our world turned sour.

The night after my father’s funeral visitation I was still wearing my Sunday best. She wore a black dress with lace collar.

A crowd was in our den, eating funeral food, saying things to each other like, “He was a good man.”

She was outside, knees against her chest. Numb. I sat beside her.

We spent the rest of the night, sitting in a walk-in closet, playing Candyland by flashlight. I slept on the floor beside her bed for…

She was the light of his life. The voice of reason in a world of idiots wearing tool belts. The woman who married a snuff-dipping foul-mouth and turned him into a decent human.

I almost didn’t write this, but I changed my mind.

It all started when I dialed him by accident. His number is still in my phone. I haven’t spoken to him in years.

“Who’s this?” the voice said.

We laughed. We called each other by old nicknames. We spoke about his kid, his life.

I asked how his wife was.

Silence. The heavy kind.

“Don’t guess you’ve heard,” he said in a low voice. “She passed away, man.”

A gut punch.

She was the light of his life. The voice of reason in a world of idiots wearing tool belts. The woman who married a snuff-dipping foul-mouth and turned him into a decent human.

I was at their wedding reception, long ago. He was skinny. She was out of his league. They paid for the party themselves and held the shindig in a bowling alley.

Pitchers of beer, billiards, nachos. You should’ve seen the bride bowl in her wedding dress. I lost a lot of money betting playing pool that day.

We whip-creamed his truck and tied tin cans to his bumper.

They moved to Atlanta. He got a decent contracting job. They lived in a peach-colored house with a nice backyard and a porch swing.

He had a freezer in the garage, deer hunts on weekends. She had girls trips to New Orleans. Theirs was the all-American dream—complete with throw pillows from Target.

She got pregnant. They obsessed over names. Their baby was healthy. Their nursery was bright-colored. Their life was pure sunshine.

The company promoted him; more money. They moved to a nicer house; all hail square-footage. His daughter was learning the alphabet. On a whim, his wife went to the doctor for an exam.

Breast cancer.

The details don’t matter. But it spread fast. She was gone almost a year after diagnosis. Their life together was an afterthought. He was sleeping alone in a king bed. His…