So, I let him talk. He handed me a flyer and recited a frightening speech about my eternal soul. He told me exactly where I was going, and how long I’d be there without cable television.

11:32 P.M.—he walked a crowded Palafox Street with a friend. I saw him a mile away. They were nineteen, maybe twenty.

They carried Bibles, they wore neckties. They passed flyers to innocent bystanders who lingered outside dim-lit establishments.

They zeroed in on me.

“Howdy, Tex,” said I.

This two-word salutation was my daddy’s greeting of choice. When I say it, it sounds like he’s inside my throat.

The kid asked if I were going to heaven when I died.

Instead of waiting for my answer, he spoke in a loud voice. It took ten seconds for him to explain that I was riding the southbound train to Fire-and-Brimstone City.

While he spoke, I noticed his hands trembled.

So, I let him talk. He handed me a flyer and recited a frightening speech about my eternal soul. He told me exactly where I was going, and how long I’d be there without cable television.

I asked the kid if he would pray for me—right then.

“You mean you wanna get

SAVED?” the kid asked.

“How about we just stick with a short prayer for now, Tex?”

His prayer was something to the melody of:

“God, help this sinner repent before he lands in Eternal Hellfire, where flames are hot enough to melt U.S. manufactured steel, where there are no vending machines, and the possum dieth not…”

When he finished, I thanked him. Then, I asked if I could pray for him in return.

He exchanged a look with his partner. I swore on Daddy’s grave that I’d be respectful. They agreed. We bowed heads.

The kid closed one eye.

“Dear Lord,” said I. “Thank you for these nice-looking, kind hearted young men. And let me…

Her name is Ellie Mae, and she has ruined the passenger seat of my pickup. Which is why I don’t take many guests in my vehicle—least of all my wife.

There is something sleeping on my feet while I write this. A she-something. Her snoring sounds like a diesel engine.

She has paws bigger than skillets, a bladder the size of a teacup.

Every morning, at approximately 5:13 A.M., she wakes me. And every morning, I walk the yard with her, saying, “Go tee-tee, dammit,” in my morning voice.

No dice. Instead, she digs holes, eats unidentified stinky objects, and trees various housecats.

Her name is Ellie Mae, and she has ruined the passenger seat of my pickup. Which is why I don’t take many guests in my vehicle—least of all my wife.

Not many appreciate black coonhound-hair on American-made Ford upholstery, and wet-nose marks on windows.

Today, Ellie sat in the passenger seat. We went into town.

I started my busy day by ordering breakfast at the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. The servers at the window made a fuss over Ellie.

We parked outside Winn Dixie to eat. I ate. She ate.

I keep cans of

dog food (beef tips with brown gravy, rice, and snap peas) in my glovebox. There’s a dog bowl on the seat between us.

I talk to her about things over breakfast. She listens. I read the paper. She watches people.

Then, I wipe her face with baby wipes. She licks my forehead. Her breath often smells like a substance plentiful in most barnyards and hog pens.

After our meal, I ran errands while she slept in the truck with the AC blasting, listening to the radio.

Ellie and I have the same taste in music. She likes Willie Nelson just as much as me—maybe more.

Funny. I’ve had many dogs in my life. Almost too many to count. But I have only had two who…

“Wish my kids lived closer,” he went on. “My house is always quiet. Take my advice. Don’t never get too busy to call your old man. We live for those phone calls.”

I met him outside a barbecue joint in Lynn Haven, Florida. His hair was so white it glowed.

There was a tattoo on his forearm—a crude looking image of a bull. He used to be a rodeo clown long ago. It was a hobby, but turned into something that paid well.

“Not a bad job,” he said. “You DO have occasional bad days, but it’s big fun.”

I asked why he got out of the business.

“My wife got pregnant.”

Once, I met an elderly woman. On Saturdays, she bakes several poundcakes, layer cakes, sugar cookies, and banana puddings. Her adult daughters help. So do her granddaughters.

Until this stage of life, she never had time to teach baking. She was a single mother, fighting to keep her head above water.

“Want my girls to learn my kitchen tricks,” she said. “If I don't teach them, all my mother’s recipes will disappear.”

Last year, her daughters and granddaughters were faced with a choice between summer softball, or cooking lessons with Granny.

They haven’t played softball since.

An elderly man from Crestview, Florida—he retired from driving semi trucks several years ago. He wore a large belt buckle and ostrich-skin boots.

“Driving was my life,” he said. “Retirement is killing me.”

He started driving after his wife left him, forty years ago. Since then, he’s seen America. Every part of it.

“Took my grandson on a trip once,” he said. “At first, he wasn’t happy to be away from home. But then I showed him the Grand Canyon.”

He handed me a photograph of his grandson, sitting behind the steering wheel of thirty-thousand horsepower.

“That boy’s everything to me,” the man said.

In an antique store, yesterday, I…

I can’t think of anything I like more than Slocomb tomatoes. I’m eating one right now, the same way I'd eat a Granny Smith.

It’s a lazy weekend. Mill’s Produce Stand is a shack on the edge of Dothan, Alabama, sitting behind miles of farmland.

I buy fifty pounds of Slocomb tomatoes.

I can’t think of anything I like more than Slocomb tomatoes. I’m eating one right now, the same way I'd eat a Granny Smith.

I’ve already ruined my shirt. I’m doing forty-five miles per hour, taking in sights.

A car speeds around me, Pennsylvania tags. He must be traveling eighty.

Sorry, pal. This is Wiregrass country. We own the copyright on laziness. And I am on a lazy drive home.

There has been a light rain, the sun is poking from the clouds. There are miles of peanut fields. Firework-stands. Condemned barns.

I pass Slocomb. If you’ve ever wanted to know where God’s summer house is, it’s in Slocomb. A town with not much more than grain silos, a Methodist church, Baptist church, First Assembly of God, and the best tomatoes you can shake a New American Standard Bible at.

I pass three girls on

horseback, riding the highway shoulder. They wear ten-gallon hats. The leader of the group tips her brim to me.

Howdy, ma’am.

Now I’m behind a truck with a bumper sticker that reads: “What a friend we have in Nick Saban.” He’s driving even slower than me.

Like I said, we invented lazy.

Esto is just over the Alabama-Florida line. There is a combination ice-cream shop and lottery-ticket store.

Lopsided shotgun houses, pretty enough for postcards. Cattle beneath live oaks in green pastures.

A creek bridge with bicycles parked at the railing. A rundown beer-joint named Sam’s Place—within spitting distance from Mount Olive Baptist Church.

I’ve reached Bonifay. Here, there are magnificent homes with feral cats…

Take a gander at the magazine racks in the Piggly Wiggly. Half-naked bodies on magazine covers. Pop-stars dressed like senators from Planet Krypton. Reality television hosts with plastic hindparts.

I’m sorry. That’s what I want to say to any woman reading this. I’m just flat-out sorry.

The world is trying to squash you like an albino cockroach, and you deserve an apology.

Today’s modern female is expected to be a walking-talking industrialized domestic machine.

If she’s not busy bathing toddlers, dropping kids at soccer, or changing her own transmission fluid, she’s supposed to be planning a three-course supper, scrubbing dirty underwear, learning a foreign language, or making her living room fit for HGTV.

She must be a certain size, weight, width, she must have a gym membership, a midsection stronger than most outboard motors, tight underarms, young-looking hands, perfect teeth, slender neck, soft-spoken voice, no gray hairs, no eye wrinkles, and the amiable disposition of Princess Grace of Monaco.

I’m even sorrier for young girls.

Not that it matters what I think, but I believe television and magazines are trying to ruin females.

Take a gander at the magazine racks in the Piggly Wiggly. Half-naked bodies on

magazine covers. Pop-stars dressed like senators from Planet Krypton. Reality television hosts with plastic hindparts.

Anyway, the reason I am writing this is because of my friend’s daughter. Her name is not important. But let's call her, Little Miss Alabama.

She is in seventh grade, top of her class. An athlete, a social butterfly, a horseback rider, fluent in Spanish, math wiz, funny, kindhearted, and well-loved.

Miss Alabama has dreams of attending Auburn University, she wants to study zoology, she is pretty, has brown hair, blue eyes, flawless health.

She has aided in the birth of exactly three colts. She can spit farther than any boy, and cook just as well as granny alive. I know this; I have eaten her biscuits.

And she hates herself.

The person who believes you aren’t quite enough. No matter what you do, the feeling is there, beneath the surface. It nags at you like the tag in a new pair of underpants.

To the kid with cancer of the bones. Who is up late tonight because his meds won’t let him sleep. To his mother, who is beside him, rubbing his tummy.

Mothers have been rubbing tummies since the dawn of the man.

To the man who raises palmettos in South Alabama, whose wife passed yesterday morning. The same man who is starting a pecan orchard because it’s what she always wanted.

To the woman who is the janitor for the Baptist church. Who clocks out of her other job to push her cart up and down the halls.

She cleans bathrooms, dust offices. Who doesn’t get home until eight at night, and still has time to cook her kids a full supper meal before bedtime.

To the nine-year-old girl whose father abused her. Whose life will forever be painted with the badness he left. She is now thirty-three. She got married this morning. Someone emailed me photos of the ordeal.

Once, that same girl said, “I didn’t trust anyone for a

long time, it was a big mistake. I’ve wasted a lot of years being scared of good people.”

And to the young man who fell off the roof of a construction site. He broke two ribs. The woman across the street took him to the hospital.

She carried him twelve hours to Texas to be in his mother’s house while he recovered.

“Sometimes,” said that neighbor woman. “A man needs his mother.”

I’m writing this to the Walmart employee who was on a smoke break ten minutes ago. She sat on the sidewalk.

She cried while talking on the cellphone. If I didn’t know any better, it sounded like her boyfriend was breaking up with her.

And to Jason, who just discovered he’s good…

I heard applause from the other side of the terminal. It was loud. There was cheering. Whistling. Hollering. I turned to look—so did everyone else. It sounded like the Second Coming of Elvis.

The airport. I wasn’t flying. I was filling out paperwork for a rental car. The woman behind the counter claimed she would upgrade me to a Super-Duper-Grade vehicle for only twenty-nine bucks.

I agreed.

So she pressed further. For another fifty big ones, she offered to upgrade me to the Ultra Super-Duper-Grade Platinum rental.

No can do. I’m allergic to platinum.

Then.

I heard applause from the other side of the terminal. It was loud. There was cheering. Whistling. Hollering. I turned to look—so did everyone else. It sounded like the Second Coming of Elvis.

On an escalator were men and women in camouflage and boots, carrying backpacks.

They waved to those hollering.

The first man off the stairs walked to a woman with a toddler on her hip. He dropped his bag and group-hugged them.

More young men and more young women in uniform rolled down the electric stairs.

A tall black woman in uniform. She set her bags down. Two boys came

running—no older than three or four. They sprinted, full force, and knocked her over.

Next: a man. Broad shoulders and a strong walk. He made a beeline for an older woman. He stooped to let her kiss his forehead. She did more than kiss him. She almost broke his neck.

The clapping started to fizzle. But each new pair of desert boots earned at least a few shouts.

Even some strangers in the airport joined the cheering. Take, for instance, this redheaded stranger.

The woman from the rental company came from behind her desk and stood with me. The rest of the airport had returned o business as usual.

Not me and my new platinum-rental friend. We watched the reunions. Some were tearful. Others…

They have roasted peanuts for sale at this kid's baseball game. Six bucks per bag. That’s highway robbery, I know, but the money goes to a good cause. Baseball camp for team-members whose parents can't afford it.

I eat peanuts when I watch baseball. Roasted, boiled, or otherwise. I don’t care which kind. It’s nostalgia, really. I don’t attend ball games without them.

They have roasted peanuts for sale at this kid's baseball game. Six bucks per bag. That’s highway robbery, I know, but the money goes to a good cause. Baseball camp for team-members whose parents can't afford it.

The boy sitting next to me is eating peanuts. Let’s call him Derrick.

Derrick’s younger brother is on the team, a magnificent athlete.

I ask Derrick if he plays ball. “Not really,” he says. “I got asthma, doctors said I shouldn’t.”

Derrick has more than asthma. He has severe diabetes, and a few other related health problems that make him different than your typical Sears-and-Roebuck twelve-year-old.

His mother overhears us talking. She interjects.

“Derrick’s good at ART,” she says. “Show him some of your art, honey.”

Derrick is thoroughly embarrassed.

She brings out a cellphone and thumbs through photos of landscapes, portraits, and colorful drawings.

“These are good,” I remark.

“Not THAT good,” says self-effacing Derrick, still recovering from the humiliation of his braggart mother.

The crack of a bat.

Derrick’s brother smacks one. Parents go wild. Derrick’s brother runs. The third-baseman makes an error. Derrick’s brother sprints for home. It’s going to be close.

Big slide.

Safe.

Derrick is cheering so hard that my ears will never be the same. He excuses himself and leaves for a refill on peanuts.

His mother tells me Derrick has gotten good at being supportive of the other kids. It hasn't always been easy. But then, it was Derrick who started the peanut-effort to raise money for baseball camp.

“Sometimes I’m mad…

The old man in the suspenders stands from the group of white-hairs. He walks to the kitchen. I see him through the window. He’s tying on an apron.

This place is a dive. Part trailer, part screen-porch. Plastic blinds. Window-unit air conditioner.

My waitress has a hoarse laugh and smells like morning cigarettes. She is middle-aged, wiry, she she wears high-school colors.

She asks what I want for breakfast. I order three eggs, a chicken-fried steak, hashbrowns, grits, and the tallest glass of OJ allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

She asks how I want my eggs.

“Over medium,” I say.

“Yellow runny, white done?” she clarifies.

This lady’s good. Some waitresses think “over medium” means: “cooked until the yellow is hard as billiard-cue chalk.”

After my order, she walks toward the kitchen. I can see through the food-delivery window. She’s cooking.

Funny. I thought there would be a cook here. But it looks like Sister is on her own today.

It takes her three trips to bring all my food. My glass of orange juice is level with the brim. She carries it like she is balancing the Emily Post encyclopedia on her head.

Doggone impressive.

She jots the order of the table beside me. Three white-haired men just made

themselves at home.

She calls them “honey” and “sugar.” The man in suspenders gives her a kiss on the cheek. She kisses back.

She warms up coffees, makes small-talk, then back to the kitchen to rustle up several more breakfasts.

While she’s cooking, the bell on the door jingles. A group of men. They are tall, round, and they look like they are hungry enough to eat a 1976 Pontiac.

She hollers, “Have a seat wherever!”

The door jingles again. Two older couples. Women in pearls. Men in ironed blue jeans. They look like someone’s grandparents.

“Sit anywhere!” she yells.

More people arrive. So many, in fact, they begin to back up. They're forming a line on the porch outside.

She’s jogging from table to kitchen. Cooking. Serving. Refilling. Bussing. Yes-sirring. Working up a sweat.

One man…

I remember the blue shirt he wore the last time I saw him. I remember him singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” while fishing the river. I remember the way he swallowed his tongue for the amusement of his boy.

The Choctawhatchee Bay is calm this morning. I’m fishing. I always fish on Father’s Day weekend.

There is a blue heron standing on the shore, looking at me. He doesn’t move. He only stares.

Strange bird.

Today has been an unproductive day. I caught exactly one catfish and an old Pepsi bottle.

I have eaten my weight in Conecuh Quick Freeze Sausage and Bunny bread.

Things were going fine until this bird showed up for a staring contest.

My wife believes people come back as birds after they die. I don’t know how she came up with this idea.

Once, outside Mobile, we stopped on a red dirt road so she could introduce herself to a flock of turkey buzzards in a hayfield.

An ugly bird stood a few yards away from the flock. It stared at my wife and would not move.

“Do you see that bird?” she said with a grin. “That’s gotta be my daddy!”

I threatened to carry her off to Searcy if she didn’t get

back into the truck. She ignored me.

But this heron is not ignoring me. He looks at me with sharp eyes. Maybe my wife is on to something. This bird could almost pass for my late father if you used your imagination. Long legs. Bone skinny. Quiet.

“Hey,” I yell to him.

He is unmoved.

“Don't you have anything to say to me?” I ask.

The bird doesn’t even blink.

So I cast my line into the water and pretend I can’t see him. He steps closer.

I miss my father. I’m ashamed to tell you that. Because it’s been too many years, I should be over him. I should be grown up. I’m…