I wanted to be one of them—the old men, not the nurses. I still want to be one of them. I can’t wait until my hair turns white and my skin looks like aged paper. My highest ambition in life is to be elderly.

I am driving five hundred miles south. I’m going home. But my trip gets off to a rough start because the woman inside my GPS is a Godless heathen who refuses to talk to me.

I’m driving blind through South Carolina—eating crackers and pimento cheese.

The cheese was a gift from a woman at a country church I visited this morning. I sat in the back row in a room of mostly white-hairs.

After service, Miss Nelle sent me on my way with pimento cheese, a jar of homemade peanut butter, and a SOLO cup of banana pudding. Leftovers from the church refrigerator.

I have never met Miss Nelle before today.

So I’m rolling through the Carolinas and the scenery takes my breath away. Tall trees, swallowed in green. Sprawling farmland, framed with sky.

And suddenly, I realize that I’m lost without the help of the devil-woman in my GPS.

I stop at a filling station outside Ridge Spring. I’m here to buy a map. The clerk has tattoos and a bushy beard.

“Sorry, dude,” he says. “We don’t sell

maps, but I can get you to Georgia, easy.”

He guides me to Augusta using the ancient, but widely practiced art of hand gestures.

Augusta—I’m in a bookstore. I ask the cashier to show me the atlases. She hands me a Rand McNally paper map. The kind of maps I was raised on.

This was the same kind of map Chad Williams’ daddy taught us how to read in Boy Scouts, when he took us white water rafting in Tennessee. It was the same camping trip that Elliot Stevens got so constipated he had to go to the emergency room.

The bookstore woman has greenish hair. She is pregnant with twins. She also tells me she is an amateur poet. I ask her to recite a poem.

She doesn’t even pause. She rattles off a magnificent verse about twins.

Heaven…

So I wait outside. That’s when I see her. She is on the sidewalk. A small woman with white hair and rough skin. She wears a red T-shirt with the words: “Y’all Hush” on the front. She is smoking.

Columbia, South Carolina—I stopped in the Capital City for food. I find a simple, no-frills chain-restaurant that is filled with cars.

I’ve been driving since morning. I’m not picky. A cold beer would be nice. Maybe a burger.

There’s a ten-minute wait. Even the bar is full.

So I wait outside. That’s when I see her. She is on the sidewalk. A small woman with white hair and rough skin. She wears a red T-shirt with the words: “Y’all Hush” on the front. She is smoking.

She tells me she’s waiting for the rest of her dinner party. But there’s a problem.

“My son had a flat tire,” she tells me. “God, I’m so worried. He is coming from Augusta.”

I can tell she’s nervous. She tries him on the phone, but he doesn’t answer.

“Oh,” she says. “I hope he’s okay. I’m worried ‘bout him.”

She lights another worrisome cigarette.

So I keep her company.

She tells me about her son and his two daughters—her beloved grandbabies. This brings a temporary

smile. For a moment, she’s not worried, but a granny.

Our conversation doesn’t go far. I ask basic questions. I’m just trying to keep her talking. Talking fights off worry, my mother always said. I’m not sure if this actually works, but it’s worth a shot.

I learn about her. She’s from Waynesboro, Georgia, originally. She got married when she was eighteen. Her boyfriend did the honorable thing and married her. But his honor only lasted three years.

He left her with one kid and a second on the way. She was a baby herself when he ran. She was young and scared. It was the classic sink-or-swim scenario.

She dog paddled.

“I worked hard all my life,” she says. “Didn’t never ask NOBODY for help. Taught my kids work hard too, and to be respectful…

So, by God, here I am. Waiting. I’m standing in a long line outside the Snappy Lunch. The single-file line winds past three storefronts, and it’s growing.

Mount Airy, North Carolina—blue mountains in the distance. Rolling farmland. Picture-perfect downtown. The home of Andy Griffith is just like it always was. Small. Sweet.

I’m on a park bench, holding a bouquet of roses. I’m waiting for my one-on-one interview with the oldest surviving Andy Griffith Show cast member, Betty Lynn—better known as Barney’s girl, Thelma Lou.

An elderly woman is gardening beside me while I wait. Her hands are covered in soil. Her husband is with her. Shirley and Bob Perkins are in their eighties. They’ve lived here since the earth cooled.

I ask if they ever met Andy Griffith.

“Met him?” Shirley elbows her husband. “Why, Bob’s distant kin to Old Andy.”

I ask what “Old Andy” was like.

“Oh, he was exactly like on TV. Don’t listen to nobody who says otherwise.”

When our conversation ends, Shirley says, “Before you leave town, get a pork chop sandwich from Snappy Lunch, there’s always a long line, but it’s worth the wait.”

I’m escorted into the museum.

Ninety-one-year-old Betty Lynn rolls into the room in a wheelchair. Her hair is red, she sports a yellow blouse and yellow pocketbook. My heart sings.

I hand her the bouquet. She kisses my cheek. Yes. My cheek. My very own cheek. She kisses this. With her lips. I’ve had a crush on Thelma Lou since boyhood. Now that I’m with her, it’s gotten worse.

“Tell me about Andy,” I ask.

“Old Andy?” she says. “Those were the best years of my life. I still watch the show and laugh.”

Her personal story is a good one. She tells it, using a trademarked cheerful voice that is unaffected by age.

“Who woulda ever thought?” she goes on. “Little old me, the new face of Mayberry.”

She lets me ask a million questions until our interview ends. She kisses me again. I…

He started writing months after a horrific car accident. He doesn’t fill me in on details, but I learn that he was lucky to survive.

Spartanburg, South Carolina—morning. A hotel lobby. I am drinking complimentary coffee, eating a complimentary breakfast.

I have spent the past days on two-lane highways. I like small highways. I can’t do interstates because they are filled with amateur NASCAR drivers with deathwishes.

Interstate folks travel at lightning speeds. People like me weren’t built to do anything fast. We move slow.

For example: those last two paragraphs took me approximately nine days to write.

A woman walks into the hotel lobby. She’s wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Clemson University.” Her teenage son is with her. He wears cargo shorts, an orange hat, he has a prosthetic leg.

Soon, he and his mother are eating breakfast beside me. I’m typing on my laptop about interstates.

He initiates contact.

“What’re you writing?” he asks.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I answer. “I’m kinda hoping something will just come to me.”

“Do you think it’ll work?”

“Maybe.”

“So you must be a writer and stuff?”

I shrug. The truth is, I’ve never been sure about what I

am. I’ve worn different hats, and called myself different things.

I hung drywall with a Mexican man named Jesús, I ran a deep-fryer in a kitchen, I mopped floors in a food court, I played piano in pathetic barrooms. And once when I was twenty-two, after a wild night in Southaven, I got ordained in Mississippi.

It was never meant to last.

“Well,” the boy says. “I’m a writer, too.”

I ask what he writes.

“Oh, stories about superheroes and stuff. Sometimes I write about hot girls.”

Here is a man who knows what he likes.

“Yeah,” he goes on. “I pretty much write about everything. I also write music. But mostly about superheroes and stuff.”

And stuff.

He started writing months after a horrific car accident. He doesn’t fill me in…

Last night, I stopped to speak to a room full of Baptists. They were a tough crowd. They didn’t laugh, and they wouldn’t even clap when I sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Athens, Georgia—I’m at a dive restaurant. The food isn’t fancy, but the beer is cold. I am starving. I’ve been on the road for two days, bound for North Carolina, I am depleted.

This place is slammed. I head to the bar.

Last night, I stopped to speak to a room full of Baptists. They were a tough crowd. They didn’t laugh, and they wouldn’t even clap when I sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

After the show, I was feeling low. To tell stories to a dead audience is like being buried alive in cat-litter-flavored Jell-O.

After the show, a boy approached me. He handed me a note that was folded like a paper football. He darted away without saying a word. I shoved it into my pocket and forgot all about it.

So, I’m sitting at the bar, twenty-four hours later, and I discover the paper in my pocket.

The kid had a lot to say in his note.

I won’t read you his letter, but

I will tell you that the kid is eleven. His mother is a waitress, a house painter, she runs the sound equipment at church, and cleans the sanctuary. Times are hard.

But he wanted me to know that he enjoyed my show—even though nobody at the First Church of the Frozen Chosen even cracked a smile.

He closed his letter by saying:

“...You did really good tonight, Mister Sean. You are loved.”

I folded the note and choked back alligator tears. It’s not every day a stranger says they love you.

Anyway, my bartender is an older woman. She is rushing to keep up with her workload. The men at the bar are impatient.

“Another, beer, honey,” one man says.

“I need mayo on this burger,” says another.

“Silverware? I need silverware!”

“Sweetie, I ordered an Ultra, not…

As a boy, we lived in North Carolina, for a hot minute. The town was Mamers—if you can call it a town—and we lived with my aunt.

Early morning. I’m driving to North Carolina, to meet the oldest surviving cast member of the Andy Griffith Show, Miss Betty Lynn.

I’m so excited, my bladder is trembling.

As a boy, we lived in North Carolina, for a hot minute. The town was Mamers—if you can call it a town—and we lived with my aunt.

I don’t remember much about that period except that I watched so many Andy Griffith episodes I started seeing in black-and-white and using phrases from the show.

My favorite phrase: “You beat everything, Barney, you know that?”

Andy says this whenever he gets upset with Barn. This line is always followed by a mushroom cloud of laughter.

Once, my aunt and mother were sitting on the porch, counting cars, while I watched TV inside.

“Turn that television DOWN!” my aunt shouted.

So I hollered back, “Aw, you beat everything, you know that?”

Bad move.

My aunt has a statewide reputation for ripping the ear lobes off of boys who sass. When she swatted

my hindparts she yelled, “I’ll show you who beats everything, mister!”

I have other North Carolina stories. Once, my mother announced that she would be taking me to Mount Airy—the hometown of Andy Griffith. I was white-hot with excitement. I became so giddy, I started ice skating on my aunt’s linoleum kitchen floor.

Just when I was about to attempt a triple Axel jump, my socks slipped on the floor, and I slid into a gas heater. I ripped my calf muscle on jagged rusty metal.

A mess ensued. I’m talking blood everywhere. Carnage. Gore. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Members of the clergy, fainting.

When I saw my own blood, I screamed loud enough to lift the roof. Twenty stitches later, I never saw Andy Griffith’s hometown.

That’s all about to change this week.

I am plowing through…

I have a thing for tomatoes—magic or otherwise. My mother used to grow them in the summers of my youth. If I close my eyes I can still smell the greenery in her garden. Her small patches of tilled earth were surrounded by chicken wire, and hair clippings.

This morning, there were two dozen homegrown tomatoes on my doorstep. I arrived home to see Winn-Dixie bags hanging from my door, and I almost lost control of my lower extremities.

I come from country people. And country people regard tomatoes as holy things.

Country people get excited about things like tomatoes. We are also the kind of people who show our love in strange ways, using things like vegetables, casserole dishes, love-notes, or saturated fat. Sometimes we use all four.

There was no note attached to these tomatoes, which struck me as odd. A secret tomato-admirer, perhaps.

I brought the bags inside. I opened them. There were tomatoes of every shape and color. Yellows, greens, reds, and even purples.

Purple tomatoes, my mother once told me, were magic tomatoes. “You’ve hit the tomato jackpot,” my mother would say, “if you come across a tomato so full of magic that it’s turning purple.”

I have a thing for tomatoes—magic or otherwise. My mother used

to grow them in the summers of my youth. If I close my eyes I can still smell the greenery in her garden. Her small patches of tilled earth were surrounded by chicken wire, and hair clippings.

The clippings were mine. Back in those days, my mother used to cut my hair with dull scissors on our back porch.

In fact, this was the primary reason for my traumatic childhood. My haircuts were a cross between Bozo the Clown and an International Billiards Federation regulation cue ball.

Often, people at school would say things like, “Hey, who cuts your hair? Ronnie Milsap?”

Directly after my weedwacker haircuts, my mother would gather hair clippings into a dustpan and scatter them in her garden. The idea was that the human scent scares away vermin like raccoons, rabbits, and various civic-level politicians.

And it worked like a charm. Her tomatoes…

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.

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 in the matter. 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, that was it.”

For two months, Jacob cared. He fed the dog from a distance seven nights per week—even when he wasn’t working.

And on one fateful night, the old dog walked straight toward Jacob and had a seat.

“You shoulda seen how he…

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

Miss Lola places casserole dishes on the table. She forms neat rows. The table is full. There is enough Southern fare here to sink the U.S.S. Humdinger.

Close your eyes and imagine heaven’s own Golden Corral franchise. That’s what this fellowship hall is.

There are old women everywhere. They are buzzing through the room making sure things happen.

Miss Lola walks with a hunched back and resembles the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. She makes coffee in the Baptist Bunn machine.

The church roof has just been replaced. The fellowship hall was supposed to be renovated, but they ran out of money.

“New roof is expensive,” remarks Miss Lola. “The other ladies wanted new appliances and new floors, but all we could afford was the new roof and refrigerator.”

For supper, Miss Lola sits beside me. She eats slower than it takes to read the unabridged version of Gone With the Wind.

“Who fried this chicken?” someone asks.

“Ruth,” Miss Lola says. “But hers ain’t as good as mine.”

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her

from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

“This chicken’s too soggy,” she adds. “Mine was never soggy.”

The macaroni and cheese is equally as magnificent. It comes from Miss Lola’s niece, who just turned fifteen.

The kid used her grandmama’s recipe.

When Miss Lola finishes eating, she hobbles between tables. She wears a blue apron. She gathers used paper plates and silverware. Some servants never quit.

After supper, the room empties. People leave for the sanctuary. Save for a few women. Those who stay behind are mostly gray and white.

I stay, too. I collect trash and fold chairs. Miss Lola and I fold tables and nearly amputate my fingers. This makes her laugh very hard.

Later, she stands at at the three-compartment sink, scrubbing. Well,…

There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her. She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s wearing an oxygen facemask and a hospital bracelet. There’s a story here, I just don’t know what it is.

Cracker Barrel is quiet this time of night. There are few cars in the parking lot. My wife is with me. We’ve been traveling all day.

On the way into the restaurant, I see a few kids sitting on rockers outside. They’re playing checkers.

“HEY!” shouts a little girl. “YOU CAN’T JUMP BACKWARDS!”

“YUH HUH!” shouts a little boy.

“NO YOU CAN’T!”

I don’t like to butt in, but this situation calls for some well-tempered adult advice. And since there aren’t any well-tempered adults around, my advice will have to do.

“She’s right,” I tell the boy. “You can’t jump backwards unless you’ve been kinged.”

“I can’t?” he says.

“Nope. Besides, even if you COULD, it wouldn’t matter, because your girlfriend says you can’t, and girls are ALWAYS right.”

“GROSS!” he shouts. “SHE’S NOT MY GIRLFRIEND, SHE’S MY SISTER!”

His sister laughs until the vein in her forehead shows.

We get a table. Our waitress has long hair and tired eyes. We still have miles to drive, I order coffee. Black.

The waitress tells me about her son. He’s

about to start first grade when summer is over. She hasn’t seen much of him this summer. This isn’t her only job. She has two more.

She shows me photos of her son. He’s skinny. Thick eyeglasses. Freckles.

“He’s doing Vacation Bible School this summer,” she says. “He loves it.”

As it happens, I have passed many years in Vacation Bible School—both as an inmate, and as a warden. I consider the hours spent judging heated three-legged races to be golden.

I order my usual. Three eggs, bacon, biscuits.

There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her.

She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s…