She is in good shape, she doesn’t talk much. Sometimes she is clear, other times not. But her eyes sparkle like they’re sixty years younger. Her name is Irene.

I wasn’t going to come tonight. I don’t usually attend birthday parties for folks I don’t know. But then, it’s not every day you get to sing “Happy Birthday” to a brand new ninety-nine-year-old.

She is in good shape, she doesn’t talk much. Sometimes she is clear, other times not. But her eyes sparkle like they’re sixty years younger. Her name is Irene.

She grips my hand and smiles. She is like looking at American History. “Oh, it’s good to see you, Sam,” she tells me.

I explain that my name’s not Sam.

She rubs my shoulder. “Don’t be fussy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

If you can’t beat them, join them, I say.

Earlier, her sons and nephews picked her up from the assisted living home. It was the first time she’d ridden in a car since Easter Sunday.

Her boys moved a high-back recliner into the kitchen.

Irene sits in the same kitchen she raised her family in. She sits with women who prepare supper. Women like her grew up in kitchens.

She sits, watching her redheaded daughter and granddaughters prepare potato salad.

She speaks. Maybe she’s offering words of advice. Nobody is sure because she’s not

using complete sentences.

“Pick’em taters, Sam,” she says to me.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Pick’em, I say.”

“I’m a pickin’ ma’am.”

“Oh, Sam.”

Her son smokes the pork. We stand beside a grill and sip. He talks.

He says, “My mama’s strong. I remember when Daddy died, she was going through medical problems of her own at the time. We didn’t think she’d last much longer.”

She certainly showed them. That was forty years ago.

“Mama’s tough,” he said. “Not in-your-face tough, but quiet-tough. Remember once, she chased me for a half-mile up the road, when I’s fourteen, just to give me a whippin’.”

Quiet-tough.

When the patio table is set, we sing “Happy Birthday.” It sounds like any rendition you’ve ever heard. Off-key, and sincere.

I have known love. Real love. The granite-busting kind. And it never came from where I thought it would. It came from strangers. People of no blood relation. 

I’m watching a sunrise through tall Southern pines. It’s making its heavenly climb, and I’m looking right at it, sitting on the hood of my truck.

Last night, I was almost killed. I’m not joking. I was nearly hit head-on by a red truck that was driving in the wrong lane.

It was dark. I was the only one on the road. I saw headlights speeding toward me. And I mean speeding.

I expected the vehicle would get out of my way. It didn’t. I almost swerved for the ditch.

I closed my eyes. I expected a loud sound, followed by pain, maybe the voice of Charlton Heston.

What I heard was a vehicle scream by fast enough to suck the rust off my hitch.

I pulled over. My heart beat hard enough to crack my sternum. And I cried.

It’s funny, what you think about in your final moments.

I thought about the old woman from my childhood church. She was white-haired, and balding. She claimed that on the night my father died, she had a vision. She said she

saw him laughing in heaven.

For years, I was not happy about her unsolicited remarks. I don't know why.

I don't feel that way anymore. I'm glad she told me.

During my brief encounter, I also wondered if I’d wake up to abelone gates. Would I see Granny? My uncles, my aunts? My father?

Or: would I wake up as a baby squirrel, high up in a longleaf pine. A mockingbird, tweeting in a nest. A newborn hound, in someone’s barn. A hungry raccoon, nosing through garbage for loaded diapers.

I thought about my wife.

When we first married, I once told her I didn’t want her to remarry if I died. I joked, saying I wanted her to grieve me as a lonely widow. We’d laugh about that.

But last night, I was sorry I ever joked like…

...She got married to a man with a drug problem. His problem got worse. One night, she took her teenage kids and left.

7:18 P.M.—I’m leaving a beer and oyster joint. It’s dark. I’m strolling through a parking lot. It is a soft rain. The blacktop is shiny from streetlights.

I see her sitting on the curb, in the drizzle. She’s dressed in a server’s uniform. She has weathered skin, hard features, but she is younger than she looks.

I know a hardworking woman when I see one.

“You need a ride?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Nah, I’ll be okay.”

She’s not okay. She’s stranded. I know polite lying when I hear it.

“I don't mind giving you a lift.”

“Really?”

Really.

I sound like my father. He gave rides to anyone who could fog up a mirror.

He once gave a ride to a young hitchhiker—a cocky Hispanic kid covered in tattoos. My father carried him to church for a free supper. He carried him to church every week thereafter, too.

The kid was at my father’s funeral.

The waitress crawls into my truck. It’s raining hard now.

I apologize for my vehicle interior. It’s disgusting. Food wrappers, bottle caps, coffee-stains, dog hair, empty peanut butter jars.

“It’s alright,” she says. “My

daddy and brothers are good ole boys, I’m used to filthy trucks.”

I'm touched.

A little about her: she got married to a man with a drug problem. His problem got worse. One night, she took her teenage kids and left.

“Hardest thing I ever done,” she says. “Uprooting and leaving. We came here to make a fresh start. I'd do anything for my kids.”

When she speaks, she stares out the window.

“We're getting by,” she says. “Got me this job, we’re makin’ it.”

Sort of.

A few months ago, her car tags were long expired. She didn’t know it because her life has been a whirlwind. She got pulled over. They impounded her car.

“Can’t seem to get ahead,” she goes on. “Sometimes, it’s like, no…

Of course, I didn’t mean to die this way—alone in the woods, trapped in a Tuna can. I had dreams.

Hurricane Nate is about to make landfall. I’m in a trailer which is about the size of a Skoal can. I'm camping.

A stinky coonhound is on my lap. I have limited cellphone reception in the woods. The trailer is rocking from gale-force winds.

This was supposed to be a fishing trip. Instead I'm going to wake up as SPAM.

It’s raining hard. Thunder.

Of course, I didn’t mean to die this way—alone in the woods, trapped in a Tuna can. I had dreams.

For example: I wanted to take a trip to Mexico with my wife.

A friend of mine once visited Oaxaca. He raved about his first night in the city. The locals prepared him chicken—battered and fried. And puré de papas—which is like mashed potatoes.

I asked where he found such exquisite fare. He said the KFC downtown was fantástico.

I want to pick wildflowers one more time before I go. A whole handful of daisies, yellow-eyed grass, Indian paintbrushes, and cahaba lilies. I'd pick them for my wife.

Corny. I know, but she prefers wildflowers to store-bought.

Before I got

sucked off the map, I wanted to see a few more NASCAR races. It’s been years since my last Talladega trip.

Once, at Talladega Campground, I saw a teenage girl—I’m not making this up—marinate possum meat in mustard, then cook it over a grill.

I want to see the sun go down over the Escambia River. I went canoeing on the river a few months ago. At sunset, I told myself, “If God’s in this world, he’s on the Escambia.”

And I want to be kissed by a litter of bloodhound puppies.

If there aren't bloodhounds in heaven, someone else can have my ticket.

I wanted to eat at Lambert’s, in Foley, Alabama, one last time. I’ve been there more than I can count.

I want the waiter to toss me a yeast roll. I want…

There is a little girl. A grandbaby. She's sitting on an old man’s lap. The man across from her wears a cowboy hat. He's showing her magic tricks.

I’m at a restaurant which is a double-wide trailer. I have spent a morning, riding past scalped fields and condemned barns.

A table of old men is behind me. They meet here for coffee regularly—that's what the waitress says. Same table. Same men. Every morning except Sundays.

She tells me they are Methodist men.

The eldest is eighty-six. He sits by the window in the sunlight.

If I'm fortunate enough see old age, I will sit by a sunny window, sipping coffee.

There is a little girl. A grandbaby. She's sitting on an old man’s lap. The man across from her wears a cowboy hat. He's showing her magic tricks.

When I am old, I will wear cowboy hats and do magic tricks for grandbabies.

The television in the corner plays footage from the Las Vegas mass shooting. Gruesome images fill the screen.

The conversation comes to a pause. They watch.

“What’s this world coming to?”

“Those poor folks,” says Cowboy Hat.

“What happened, Granddaddy?” asks the little girl.

“Folks is being mean to each other,” says Grandaddy. “That's what happened.”

Next, the television shows NFL football players

on knees, hooking arms. People on TV shout at each other.

One man clears his throat loudly. He says, “I ever tell you my grandson is JV quarterback?”

When I’m old, I will clear my throat loudly to change the subject.

“QB?” answers one man. “You must be proud.”

The men erupt in smiles. There are congratulations. You would’ve thought someone won the Florida Powerball.

“My grandson got his talent from me,” the man goes on. “I was pretty good, you know.”

Humility is not a necessary attribute among Methodists.

The television plays video of an oncoming hurricane. The white cyclone rolls on the map. Palm trees bend sideways.

“They say this is gonna be a bad storm,” Cowboy Hat remarks.

“They always say that.”

“Well, sometimes they're right.”

“Hell, even a…

She told me she’d always believed she was a healer. Though sometimes she doubted herself because she'd never seen a single healing or miracle.

She was a different woman. I didn't know her well. She dressed unusually, she wore cropped silver hair, gaudy jewelry, and carried a quilted Bible cover.

She claimed she was a healer.

Once, I saw her try to heal my friend’s leg in her kitchen—my friend’s leg was a few inches shorter than the other.

The old woman tried to lengthen it. She rubbed her hands together and said, “The power of the Holy Spirit…”

My buddy sat in a chair, closing his eyes like he was getting a tetanus shot.

“Do you believe?” asked the old woman.

He nodded.

She gripped his ankle and hummed. I didn’t see anything happen. But my friend claimed his limp was less pronounced for a few hours.

My other encounter with her was not long after my father died. The old woman visited our house to babysit me.

That night, she took me to her church. I rode shotgun in her Chevette. We arrived at a small sheet-metal building with dozens of cars parked around it.

A sweaty man paced a church stage, screaming and hollering. At

the end of service, he shed his jacket. He rolled his sleeves. He touched people’s foreheads; they fell down and giggled.

She told me, “You oughta go get a blessing.”

“No thanks,” I said.

Before I knew it, she had me by the hand, walking down the aisle. The man laid a meaty hand on me. He yelled at God.

Nothing happened. So, he hollered louder.

No cigar.

On the way home, she took me to Dairy Queen. I'll never forget it. She bought me a hamburger and a milkshake.

She told me stories about herself. Personal stories. About her daughter—who'd gotten pregnant as a teenager. About her son—who was addicted to drugs.

She talked about her father, who died when she was a girl. And an ex-husband who once abused her.

She told me she’d…

I can still see those blue eyes in my mind. You can tell a lot about a person by their eyes. His were large, expressive. They became squints when he smiled. He's a good kid. I can tell.

Walmart. The cereal aisle. I’m browsing a wall of colorful boxes.

I’m interrupted by the voice of a child. A kid is riding on the front of a buggy like Captain Ahab. His mother is driving. His father is following.

The kid is making airplane noises.

The child is small. His joints are bony. His skin is pale. He is bald. There is a half-moon-shaped scar on his scalp. Another scar travels down the back of his neck.

He jumps off the cart. His tennis shoes hit the floor hard.

“Can I buy EVERY kinda cereal?" he asks.

“You’re not going to feel like cereal after surgery,” his father says.

“Let’s wait until surgery’s over,” adds his mother. “Once you’re better, then you can have as many boxes as you want.”

The boy is younger than young. Barely out of toddlerhood. He looks sick. He stares at them and says:

“What if I’m dead after surgery?”

His remark is as sincere as April rain. And it brings hot water to my eyes.

His mother and father scoop him into their arms. I have to leave the aisle.

All of a sudden, I

am in the produce section. I see a Mexican family. They are standing in a huddle, speaking rapid-fire.

The youngest girl—ten years old maybe—is teaching two adult women to speak English.

The girl holds an onion toward them.

“UN-yun,” she says.

They adults say, “OWN-YOAN.”

“UNNN-yunnnn.”

“OWN-EEE-OWN.”

The girl laughs. The women laugh.

I'm still thinking about the kid.

The checkout line is long. There are only two cashiers open.

As it happens, I am a few shopping buggies behind the boy with the scar.

And the people of Walmart become invisible. So do the boy’s parents, the cashier, and the folks in line. I can’t see any.

I only see him.

The boy and I make eye-contact for a brief moment. It’s not long, but just enough…

He told her more than he’d told anyone. He talked about old days. About a war he fought. About jobs he worked. About his late wife. About losing his only son. 

She was hired to help him. He was elderly, house-bound, stuck in a recliner.

She was young, a single mother, poor.

She and her son lived in a poor, rundown apartment with rodent issues. She worked two jobs to keep the refrigerator stocked.

On her first day, she rolled into the old man’s driveway on fumes. Her car had rust on the fenders, an axle that made noise.

The old man fell in love with her—it would've been hard not to.

Maybe it was her midnight skin, or the way she hummed when she worked. Maybe it was how she wrapped her woven hair in colorful homemade scarves.

She was a hard worker. She changed sheets, shopped for groceries, made breakfasts, lunches, and suppers.

She helped him use the bathroom. She eased him into showers. She scrubbed his backside. She combed his hair. She did his laundry. She folded his clothes while daytime TV gameshows ran in the background.

He talked.

He told her more than he’d told anyone. He talked about old days. About a war he fought. About jobs he

worked. About his late wife. About losing his only son.

She listened to him. No. She did more than listen. She heard him.

And when he’d cry—which happened often—she held him the same way she would’ve held her son.

He enjoyed her son. Jemiah was the boy’s name. Jemiah wore poor-boy clothes, his shoes had holes in them.

The child liked to read, and write make-believe stories on construction paper. He wrote a story about the old man. It had illustrations of a white-haired man in a magical recliner that could fly.

Jemiah titled it: “My Friend Anthony.”

The old man kept it on his nightstand. It had been a long time since anyone called him friend. He read through it time and again.

His end came early one evening.

She was leaving his house for her night-shift…

I’m drinking from the cup everyone sipped from. It’s real wine. It burns going down. I wipe my face with my sleeve. The priest smiles.

Fairhope, Alabama—a secluded chapel in the woods. There’s a grand picture window behind the pulpit. Through it, I see live oaks hanging over the windy waters of Weeks Bay.

I am standing in a single-file line of Episcopalians about to take Communion.

I don’t know these people. They wear large smiles on their faces, and they’re singing. They've either lost their cotton-picking minds, or I have.

In line ahead of me: the salt of the earth. Adults. Teenagers. Children. The elderly.

I meet two older women who were married a few months ago. A retired commercial fisherman who smells like the night before. Three attorneys, a few construction workers, a banker. A woman with breast cancer.

The bishop is white-haired, wearing a robe. He stands barefoot at the altar. He smiles at an elderly woman, then hands her what looks like a Ritz cracker.

The woman eats, and sips from a cup the size of a fishbowl Margarita. People embrace her. Everyone singing, everyone swaying back and forth.

These people might truly be nuts.

It’s my turn at bat.

The bishop hands me a cracker. “The

Body of Christ,” he says.

I haven’t taken communion in years. Besides, my people do things different. We call it the Lord’s Supper—though it’s no supper. We have Tic Tacs and shot glasses of Southern-Baptist-approved Welch’s.

I’m drinking from the cup everyone sipped from. It’s real wine. It burns going down. I wipe my face with my sleeve. The priest smiles.

I don't feel any different.

Then. I am side-tackled by an old woman. She kisses my forehead. I’ve never met her. She has cropped hair and wears cowboy boots. She says she loves me.

Another man slaps my shoulder. He calls me "brother." A teenage girl shakes my hand and prays for me.

And I’m feeling something—whether I want to or not. It’s a warm sensation. Maybe it’s the wine.

Or, maybe I’m…

The city of Mobile and I have a history together. When I was younger, five of my friends took off work to attend Mardi Gras here.

Mobile, Alabama—the Malaga Inn. This is an old French-inspired building with iron balconies and hanging ferns. I’m sleeping in the same bed Elvis slept in.

That’s right.

THEE Elvis the Pelvis, in this SAME room. Even the bathroom feels holy.

I can hardly hold my bladder.

The man who carried our luggage said, “Elvis used’a vacation here to hide from crowds, long time ago.”

Room 220 is nice digs, with high ceilings, wood floors, and tall windows. The balcony overlooks a narrow Church Street.

I am singing “Love Me Tender,” to myself.

The city of Mobile and I have a history together. When I was younger, five of my friends took off work to attend Mardi Gras here.

It was a half-brained idea. We couldn’t all fit in the truck that brought us.

Four boys squeezed into a single cab, one rode in the bed. We’d drawn straws over who would endure the interstate from the pickup bed.

Me.

By the time we hit Mobile, I was deaf, blind, and eyebrow-less.

That night, we boys piled into an economy hotel room which smelled like a

pot of collards. There were two beds. We drew straws again for beds.

I guess I'm naturally unlucky.

The next day, we watched a parade. After that, the boys cracked open six-packs and played poker by the hotel swimming pool.

My friend and I went for a walk to get some air.

That's when it happened. We saw a woman. She was tall, black, shoeless. Her clothes were tattered.

She asked us for a cigarette.

My friend gave her his entire pack. She lit one. So did my friend.

We stood with her. She pointed at me, “You look like my son, you know?”

My friend and I gave her all the money we had. It wasn’t more than a couple of fives and tens.

She smiled her four teeth at us. She wiped her…