She refilled my glass, then leaned leaned onto her elbows. She looked like a sweet woman. She placed a poker chip on the counter beside my plate. It was red.

Mama was leaving him. She said she was going to leave my father for real this time.

We drove toward North Carolina, I sat in the passenger seat. My baby sister was in back. We were going to live with my aunt and uncle—at least that was the plan.

It was night. There were no lights on the highways. I was Mama’s navigator. I held a map in my lap and translated highway routes for her. I had no idea what I was doing.

We stopped at a truck stop diner. The kind with linoleum floors and Willie Nelson on the radio.

My mother used a payphone, bouncing my sister on her hip. I sat at a counter, eating a burger. I could hear Mama talking to my aunt in an anxious voice. I was sick to my stomach.

“He’s lost his mind,” I heard my mother say. “I’m afraid he’s gonna try something stupid...”

My father had not been himself for a long time.

Mama didn’t want me to hear her conversation,

so she faced her backside toward me.

My waitress was a woman with phony red hair, big glasses, and colorful pins on her apron. The buttons she wore were spectacular.

The waitress said to me, “Why aren’t you eating your food? You feeling okay?”

She refilled my glass, then leaned onto her elbows. She looked like a sweet woman. She placed a poker chip on the counter beside my plate. It was red.

“If you promise to eat,” she said, “you can have this poker chip.”

I stared at it.

“This is no ordinary poker chip,” she went on. “Why, this thing’s magic. Brought me a lotta luck when I needed it most.”

“It did?”

“You betcha.”

It didn’t look like anything special to me. I reached for the chip and she swatted my hand.

“Not…

Anyway, years later I started writing. I wasn’t thinking much about miracles anymore. Then I met an old man at a nursing home. His name was Ben.

I was in Winn-Dixie on important business—buying Chili Cheese Fritos, a Superman comic, and a jar of Skippy for my dog. I met a man who recognized me.

The man shook my hand and said: “Hey, I like your angel stories.”

His name was Allen, and he told me an angel story of his own. And I promise to tell it to you. But first, I owe you a brief history on myself.

When my father died, I was twelve. I was a lonely kid, moderately chubby, uncoordinated, duck-footed. I had a nose the size of Mount Rushmore, and a deep affection for Chili Cheese Fritos. I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a boy, my mother’s friend gave me a paperback book with a worn cover. The book was titled: “Angels: God’s Secret Agents.”

I was thinking to myself, “Gee thanks, lady. Why would any red-blooded boy want a sissy book on angels?”

Today, it’s books on cherubs. Tomorrow, it’s pedicures and swapping lemon bar recipes at bridge club.

I read the book

three times through. Cover to cover.

And I hoped I would see an angel someday. In fact, I wanted it so bad it almost hurt. But I never saw a single feather. And somewhere along the way, I just gave up hoping.

Anyway, years later I started writing. I wasn’t thinking much about miracles anymore. Then I met an old man at a nursing home. His name was Ben.

“I was a boy,” said Ben. “I’s riding in the bed of my daddy’s truck, my brother was following behind in another car...”

The truck hit a bump. Ben bounced out and hit the dirt. His brother couldn’t stop in time and ran straight over Ben.

Ben’s rib cage was crushed. His lips turned blue. His father cried.

Then, a man appeared. A drifter, wearing a fedora, carrying a duffle bag.…

My wife orders grouper. I order turkey and dressing. My sides are zipper peas and coleslaw. It’s been a lifetime since I had a zipper pea.

The sun has set. The night sky is blueish. Hartford, Alabama.

It’s suppertime. Highway 167 is getting to me. My wife and I have been on the road for days. My hindparts are sore. We’ve slept in hotels, skipped breakfasts, and today we skipped lunch because we were in a hurry.

Hunger has fallen upon us like General Sherman fighting the Battle of Chik-fil-A.

Hark. A restaurant ahead.

A tiny place. A gravel parking lot full of pickups. A Pepsi sign in front. It reads: “Home Cooking, 7 Days a Week.”

Mom’s Kitchen is your all-American meat-and-three joint. We are greeted by the smell of real food, happy faces, and a few pie coolers.

The waitress is young. She says, “Sit wherever y’all can find room.”

This place is buzzing. There are only a few free tables—a good sign. It’s full of something I can’t put my finger on, but it transcends food.

An old man behind me is eating alone. He’s having a tough time feeding himself. His hands don’t

seem to work. Early Parkinson’s maybe. He’s trying hard.

The waitress takes good care of him. Whenever he sees her, he smiles big enough to beat the band.

Hold it. I owe you an apology for that last phrase. It’s corny, and a low-class habit for a writer to indulge in. And it’s proof that I’m my father’s son. Before he died, he used to end every sentence with: “to beat the band.”

A lot of innocent bands were beaten during my childhood.

I will always miss him.

Anyway, seated beside our table is a redhead boy with his family. His food arrives. He’s eating so fast he’s in danger of passing out.

I was a redhead like him once. I was a big eater, too. Once, my father took me to a country eatery and I ordered…

Anyway, I have my share of memories. The memory of being at the county courthouse on lunch break, watching my sister become a married woman. I remember Mama was there. I remember we were crying. I remember a lot.

A crowded restaurant. I’m eating breakfast with my mother and sister.

The newest addition to our family is here, too. My niece. She’s a toddler with reddish hair and the face of a renaissance cherub. Right now, she’s in a highchair, eating crayons, pooping her britches.

She’s a happy little thing.

The waitress comes to take our order, but we’re not ready. We just got here, and we’ve got a lot of talking to do.

“Three coffees, please,” Mama says.

It’s been so long since we ate breakfast together, I almost forgot how to do it. But it all comes back to me.

Mama looks better than she’s ever looked. She’s five-foot-one. All my life, she was five-foot-two, but age has claimed an inch.

She’s tough. She started waiting tables at twelve. During her twenties my father paid for her school by crawling on iron buildings. He worked double shifts; she studied all night to earn her degree.

My father put her through hell, then he left this world unannounced. She worked whatever

jobs she could find.

I remember wandering into Chick-fil-A to see Mama behind the counter. I had just gotten off work. She handed me two sandwiches wrapped in foil, and a double-order of fries.

“You’re looking scrawny,” she said—that’s what mothers say.

I reached for my wallet.

“No,” she said. “This meal’s on the house.”

Then, I saw her dig money from her purse and place dollars into the register.

My sister is sitting beside my mother. She is magnificent. She’s a living rendition of my mother’s high-school senior portrait.

I remember when Sarah was born. I can still remember holding the gangly baby. I remember her sticky cheeks. I remember when she ate crayons.

I remember when she sat in the dugout at my Little League games. I remember when she stood beside me…

One night after work, they went for a long walk. She took his arm—a girl had never done that to him before. She looked him in the eyes.

He had a stutter. Whenever he opened his mouth, it took effort to get words out. Just one sentence would exhaust him.

As a boy, his sisters spoke for him. They’d been doing it since he was old enough to make noise. They were his guardians. They used fists when necessary.

On more than one occasion, they’d beat the stuffing out of local boys who called him names.

His oldest sister bought a mail-order book about curing speech impediments. For hours, she’d help him recite sentences, enunciating consonants, repeating exercises.

He tried. In fact, he concentrated so hard it made his brain ache. It didn’t work.

When he was nineteen, he attended a speech therapy class in Birmingham. It cost a small fortune. He’d saved his pennies and dimes for three years to pay tuition.

The school term lasted a few weeks, but did him no good. He returned home with a stutter even worse than before.

One of his sisters recalls: “It used to hurt us

to watch him talk. He’d try so hard, but his mouth wouldn’t work with him.”

Until.

A July night, he was washing dishes in the service station in town—the kind that served hamburgers and Cokes. He was standing over a sink when he met her.

She introduced herself as the new waitress.

He couldn’t even get his name past his lips.

So, he shook her hand instead. She rolled her sleeves and washed dishes alongside him. She talked extra so he wouldn’t have to. Her accent was country, her eyes were blue.

He was smitten.

She was pretty, funny, talkative. She could jaw for eight minutes on end without even coming up for air.

Over the next days, he tried to talk to her, but his words kept coming out like bricks. But she didn’t seem put off by…

His biological parents didn’t want anything to do with him. And this might’ve made him bitter, or angry, but his mama taught him otherwise.

Dothan, Alabama—the pollen is bad this time of year. I am stuffed up. My eyes are puffy.

He’s waiting for me in a parking lot. He’s traveling light. An overnight bag and an art kit. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. He needs a ride to Northwest Florida, for a family reunion.

I happen to be on my way to Northwest Florida.

Road trip.

I’m going to call him Willie Merle, even though that’s not his name—those happen to be two names I like.

Willie is easy to talk to. He’s wiry, gray-headed, smokes Marlboros, and has a happy smile.

His biological mother was negligent. When he was nine days old, she bathed him in turpentine. His aunt saw this happen. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and took him home.

His aunt adopted him and he never called her anything but “Mama” thereafter.

“She was my angel,” Willie said.

His biological parents didn’t want anything to do with him. And this might’ve made him bitter, or angry, but his mama taught him otherwise.

He tells me he’s

not perfect. He’s made mistakes—show me a man who hasn’t—but I’m not at liberty to talk about them here.

“I’m on probation,” he said. “That’s how come I ain’t got no license. Spent three weeks in county jail, wasn’t no fun. Had to wear orange and everything.

“I’ve hurt my friends and my family. Hell, I don’t feel like I deserve love from nobody.”

We passed through the miles of pasture between Dothan and the Panhandle. The sky was blue. The air was full of spring pollen.

He talked. I listened.

“Haven’t seen my brother and sisters in years,” he said with wet eyes. “My biggest regret is disappointing them. I want to make things right.”

He covers his eyes and sniffs.

Anyway, this weekend is not going to be a…

It was the worst day ever. And I’d just come off the heels of what had been the worst month ever.

I rear ended a Toyota. Six years ago. I was driving the highway, John Conlee was on the radio singing “Rose Colored Glasses.”

I can close my eyes and recall the whole scene. It had been a bad week. A bad year. And it got worse.

A car ahead of me slammed its brakes. The tailpipe came toward me so fast I didn’t have time to say: “Holy Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!”

The crash was loud. I blacked out.

When I awoke, I was lying in the median. Paramedics were around me. I couldn’t remember my name. I was out of it.

“You’re gonna be okay,” the EMT said. “You’re just in shock. And look on the bright side, kid, at least you didn’t poop your pants.”

Thank God for small blessings.

They rushed me to the ER. No broken bones. Only bruises. A doctor shined a light in my eyes and inspected my neurological reactions.

He was a white-haired man who said, “Say your ABC’s backward

for me, son.”

I closed my eyes and said, “‘Your ABC’s backward, son.’”

A good laugh was had by all—except the doctor, who charged an extra fourteen hundred bucks for laughter.

That night, I sat on the sofa with bruised ribs. The medication my wife had given me made me loopy, I was starting to see things. Julia Child, for instance, was on television, descaling a fish with a acetylene blowtorch.

I thought she was the loveliest woman I’d ever seen.

So my truck was totalled. My face was beat-up. My collarbone and ribs hurt.

It was the worst day ever. And I’d just come off the heels of what had been the worst month ever.

Weeks earlier, my longtime dream of becoming a writer had been squashed—I’d been rejected from an academic writing program.

AND: I had…

I would’ve told you that I believe in good things. Big things. Love, kindness, charity, compassion, and the Lonesome Dove miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

I was walking a sidewalk on Palafox Street. It was dusk. I saw the kid walking toward me with a buddy. He wore a necktie, khakis, and backpack.

They were passing out flyers. I noticed him from a mile away. I tried to avoid him. But he nailed me.

The red letters on his paper flyer read: “Heaven or Hell?”

Then the kid said, “Do you know where you’re spending eternity, sir?” Then he told me all about the hot place where I would probably be going.

A fine howdy-do.

Things got quiet. I thought it was wise to keep my mouth shut, since no particularly sweet words were coming to mind.

The truth is, I can’t recall ever being told that I’m bound for Hell. In times past, however, certain people have suggested that I visit.

I wish I would’ve answered the kid, but he left before I had a chance to respond. So, on the off chance he’s reading this, I’m answering you now, friend.

For starters: I wish you would’ve asked me what I believed instead of where I’ll be staying after I kick the oxygen habit.

I would’ve enjoyed a question like that.

I would’ve told you that I believe in good things. Big things. Love, kindness, charity, compassion, and the Lonesome Dove miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

And:

I would’ve also told you about a bar fight I once saw as a young man. It happened in a beer joint in the sticks of South Alabama

A skinny kid and a large man resembling a gorilla were about to rip each other’s eyeballs out. A crowd circled around them, holding beer bottles, hollering.

I bet ten bucks on the big fella.

Before the fight began, an old man stepped between the boxers. He took one blow to the jaw.…

Years ago, I wrote my first book. I wondered why I’d done such a silly thing. After all, I was thinking to myself, who really cares if I write a book?

Brewton, Alabama—the Huddle House restaurant is busy tonight. There are teenagers all over. A few wear formal clothes and styled hair.

Brewton’s prom was a few hours ago.

One girl wears white satin. The boy next to her wears a tux. Their smiles could be used in Colgate advertisements.

If there’s anything happier than youth, I wish I knew what it was.

So this is Brewton. Some visitors might drive through town and remark: “What a cute town.” Or they might say: “Those old houses are pretty.”

And even though the antebellum homes on Belleville Avenue are worth slowing down for, this place is more than houses.

This place means something to me. I’ll tell you why:

For starters, look at the railroad, cutting through the center of the downtown. Listen to the train whistle. I’m a sucker for trains.

The old storefronts on Saint Joseph Avenue. They haven’t changed in a million years. The flatiron building that was once Holman’s Pharmacy—which later became Old Willie’s.

Go have a look

at the new middle school. You’ll meet teachers with thick accents. And Miss Leola—the lunch lady whose tea is sweet enough to power chainsaws.

The redhead principal. A woman who has memorized a list of names longer than the Lamb’s Scroll of Life.

Visit the high school. It will make you believe in society again. Go to a football game on a Friday night during the height of the season. When the T.R. Miller Tigers take the field, you’ll go deaf.

I wish I would’ve grown up here, but I didn’t—I’ve wished for a lot of things that never came true. But this place has a way of making up for ungranted wishes.

Years ago, I wrote my first book. I wondered why I’d done such a silly thing. After all, I was thinking to myself, who really cares…

Everyone loves her stories. Especially children. Those in her family recall sitting on this porch, listening to her gentle voice—like I’m doing. Here, they shucked corn, or shelled white acre peas.

A back porch. I’m with an elderly woman named Jenny. She’s sitting on a genuine rocking chair.

“Wish I were shelling peas,” says Miss Jenny. “I tell better stories when I’m shelling.”

This is how you know you’ve made it in life. When you find yourself on a porch—shelling, peeling, shucking, or listening to someone over eighty tell a story.

Miss Jenny has cotton-white hair, blue eyes. She lives in a house which her husband built after the Korean War.

Everyone loves her stories. Especially children. Those in her family recall sitting on this porch, listening to her gentle voice—like I’m doing. Here, they shucked corn, or shelled white acre peas.

“Daddy was a part-time preacher,” she tells me. “He told stories, always had him a good one.”

Long ago, people visited her father for advice. Folks with drinking problems, people with marriages on the rocks.

Her father didn’t provide “help.” Instead, he took them fishing. On the water, he’d tell stories.

“Daddy used to say, ‘Going fishing can help a man more than

a bellywash of cheap medicine.’”

Bellywash. I miss words like that.

Miss Jenny’s breathing is labored, her voice is frail. But she spins a fine yarn.

She’s the real thing. Her stories are about olden days, clapboard churches, and a childhood with skinned knees.

She even tells stories about her cat.

“Kitty Brown was chasing Blue Bird one day,” she begins. “Blue Bird lured Kitty high into a tree, then flew away. Poor Kitty was stuck up there for two days before anyone knew he was up there.”

She laughs to herself.

She goes on, “Moral of my cat story is: all kitties should be happy on the ground instead of chasing things they shouldn’t.”

And I’m five years old again. Someone get me a sucker.

Then there’s the tale of her grandfather and the…