The old man doesn’t move. He is showing full salute. His hand touches his brow. There is something rolling down his cheek.

I'm looking at an old man standing by a casket. He is tall—so tall, in fact, he leans forward at the neck. He wears a side cap, trimmed in gold. He uses a cane.

The preacher says words over the mahogany box—which has an American flag draped over it.

My friend’s uncle died of congestive heart failure. My friend insisted that this funeral would be one worth writing about.

He even loaned me a black sport coat.

I won’t lie, I didn’t want to come. The deceased is of no relation, I’m among grieving people I don't know.

I feel like an imposter.

The old man standing nearby is the picture of a world that came before me.

He is old Buicks, Chevy Impalas. He’s river-cane fishing poles, high-waisted trousers, the Ed Sullivan Show, and holding doors open for girls just because they're female.

And he's standing with a kind of antique pride. You see it in the stiffness of his neck.

After the scripture reading, the real service begins.

Seven uniforms form a line. They hold rifles. Three shots in unison. The rounds scare

local birds for miles.

The man with the trumpet wets his lips.

I met the trumpet player earlier. He is mid-thirties, born in Little Rock. He joined when he was nineteen. He’s never lived anywhere for more than a few years.

I asked where he calls home. “Wherever they send me,” he said.

He blows the horn and makes “Taps” come out the other end.

We who listen are powerless against it. The dam breaks. There is a choir of sniffles. My friend’s mother loses it.

The old man doesn’t move. He is showing full salute. His hand touches his brow. There is something rolling down his cheek.

Men in white gloves fold the flag into a triangle.

And it is done.

People disperse, they hike toward cars. Kids loosen neckties. I see the old…

She’s done letting her boyfriend smack her around. It wasn't just abuse, he ran around. He was bad to drink. She didn't want to raise her child that way. 

She is scared. She is stranded. She is pregnant.

Her car is broke down on the shoulder of the interstate. And she’s having contractions.

She left home in a hurry. That’s why her clothes are in the backseat. She didn’t have time to pack, so she stuffed things into paper grocery bags and lit out for God-knows-where. 

She’s done letting her boyfriend smack her around. It wasn't just abuse, he ran around. He was bad to drink. She didn't want to raise her child that way.

It took six months to find the courage to leave him. She left in her old Subaru. After an eight-hour drive, she watched the sunset. She was free.

Things were going fine, until her car made grinding noises. It stalled. Then smoke. Then, a dead stop.

So, here she is.

She cries. She’s afraid. She’s angry. The contractions are getting worse. It feels like her lower back and stomach are going to snap. She wants to call someone, but there's nobody.

This is the loneliest she’s ever felt.

Vehicles pass by the dozen. None of them stop. They don't even

slow. People.

She says a prayer. But she’s not sure who or what she’s praying to.

After all, she doesn’t believe in God. The outdated idea is something that her late mother believed, and look where it landed her. A cancer ward. A casket.

Even so, she is asking, the best she knows how. She repeats one word under her breath.

“Help.”

Then, headlights.

They shine through her window. A truck, towing a horse trailer.

An old man approaches the driver’s side. He is gray-haired, brown-skinned, bowlegged. He wears a gold belt buckle. He raps on her window.

“Help!”

The old man is small. He has dark eyes. He speaks soft words in another language. He kneels beside her. He gets to business.

“Benga,” the old man says. “Sí, se puede.”

“Huh?” the girl…

“This is our theme song,” says one coach. “We let ANY girl on our team, we’ll teach any girl to be confident, even if she feels fat, or not pretty enough. We want girls to shine.” 

I am in a hotel lobby—I've been living in lobbies lately—and I’m surrounded by women right now. All kinds.

Some are middle-aged, some are old. Most are teenage girls.

The girls are tall. Some tower over their mothers and grandmothers by a whole foot. The girls wear long-sleeved jerseys with numbers. One carries a volleyball. 

They laugh teenage-sounding laughs. Unrestrained, face-wrinkling laughter.

The world could learn a lot from teenagers.

They are horseplaying. Their mothers are fussing. One girl trips. She nearly face-plants into where I’m sitting. My life flashes before my eyes. She almost breaks my nose. She spills my coffee.

It's a minor disaster, but if she would’ve landed a few inches closer, my nose would be bleeding all over the sports page.

“OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD,” says the girl. “I’MSOSORRY.”

“Don’t be,” I say. “It was lousy coffee.”

The girls eventually calm down. After a few moments, they sit on gym bags and start singing.

The lobby fills with voices. Everyone nearby stops to listen. People on the third, fourth, and fifth-level balconies lean over railings.

One woman says to me, “These girls

love to sing on the bus, it keeps’em entertained.”

Another woman adds, “It's a lot better than when they hock spit on cars during traffic.”

The song finishes. A mother instructs them to sing “This Little Light of Mine.”

The girls do a slow rendition. It’s touching music. They sound like cherubs. Very, very tall, aggressive, undefeated cherubs.

Their voices rise upward toward the ceiling. These are America’s girls. They come in all shapes, sizes, heights, body-fat-percentages, and colors.

“This is our theme song,” says one coach. “We let ANY girl on our team, we’ll teach any girl to be confident, even if she feels fat, or not pretty enough. We want girls to shine.”

Shining is easier said than done. This world is one big advertisement. Everywhere you look is another glowing billboard with perfect abdominals.

Her body is failing. Her daughter says that the last bout with pneumonia nearly killed her. Doctors say another sickness could be her last.

She is in a hospital bed, wearing a nightgown. She has thin white hair, and she’s not well. But you’d never know it by the way she smiles.

“I’m not worth writing about,” she tells me, coughing. “Don’t know why my daughter even brought you.”

Maybe because this woman was a piano virtuoso. Or, because she used to make ceramics in her garage. 

Maybe it’s because she’s a woman who speaks French and Spanish—though she’s hasn't journeyed far from Alabama. Maybe because she has pneumonia, and it's not looking good.

Maybe because she’s a teacher.

She was twenty. Petite. Her first job was at a small school—and I mean one-room-furnace small. She taught general education. Grades one through twelve.

Some of her students didn’t wear shoes. Fewer could read or write.

The first day of class, a parent approached her and said, “Can you make my girl talk like you? I want my girl to be sophisticated.”

So that’s what she did. She taught English. She taught etiquette. She taught herself Spanish and French, then taught it to children. She taught literature, song,

history, science, and morals.

She tells good tales. There’s the one about the eleven-year-old in town with a speech impediment. A black boy who’d never attended school. His parents refused such things.

She paid him to do odd-jobs in her yard. His yard work turned into reading and writing lessons at her kitchen table, over poundcake and ice-cold lemonade.

“He was real interested in poetry,” she said. “So I taught him to memorize and recite.”

And that child is a retired journalist today.

Then, there was the boy who lived in an abusive home. He came to school with bruises on his face. She notified police. The boy lived with her for six months before leaving to live with relatives.

He still keeps in touch.

And, of course, there was the sophomore girl who got pregnant. People…

And the workmen fantasize of home. One man tells the table that he’s going to take his son fishing when he gets back home. Another says he’s going to put in a swimming pool for his kids. Another will treat his wife to a Carnival cruise.

Athens, Alabama, 6:08 A.M.—there is a complimentary breakfast in the hotel lobby. At a table near me are men in neon reflective vests, work boots, and dusty jeans.

The menu: rubber eggs, plastic cheese, and sausage patties which taste like used Dr. Scholl’s orthotics.

A large television is tuned to sports news. The TV rolls footage of NFL football players, kneeling on sidelines during the national anthem.

The suits on TV are speaking in loud voices, waving hands at each other.

“THIS IS THE GREATEST CIVIL DISPUTE OF OUR TIME!” says one reporter.

The youngest workman—fortyish—isn't watching TV. His black arm is wrapped in white bandages. The side of his face is scraped purple, and scabbed. He stares at his cellphone.

“Yesterday was my son’s birthday,” the young man announces to the table.

He holds up his cellphone.

“He’s eight,” the young man goes on. “My wife took him out for pizza, my boy loves pizza.”

A man with a long white beard and tattooed forearms removes his reading glasses. He stares at the phone.

“Cute kid,” Long Beard says. “I’ve missed ALL my kid’s

birthdays working this job.”

“Me too,” says another. “I’s in Pennsylvania on an interstate overpass when my son graduated high school.”

The television is blaring. A commentator in a silk suit shouts at a pinstripe.

An older Mexican woman approaches the table. She is wearing a hotel uniform. She tops off coffees.

And the workmen fantasize of home. One man tells the table that he’s going to take his son fishing when he gets back home. Another says he’s going to put in a swimming pool for his kids. Another will treat his wife to a Carnival cruise.

The young man says, “What do I buy an eight-year-old for a birthday?”

Nobody answers.

The television is rolling footage of NFL players, politicians, insurance commercials, and pharmaceutical ads.

The young man says, “Man, missing my boy’s…

Black-and-white images of a young man line the walls. The photogenic young man is strong, a guitarist, a mechanic, a soldier, a laborer, a father of seven.

La Vergne, Tennessee—the inside of 87-year-old Stuart’s home is covered in faded photographs and country music albums.

Black-and-white images of a young man line the walls. The photogenic young man is strong, a guitarist, a mechanic, a soldier, a laborer, a father of seven.

His best girl is a living saint.

“When we met,” his wife says, tapping a picture frame. “I’s seventeen, Stuart was nineteen. We were babies.”

Stuart Woods is my good friend. I wasn’t far past twenty when I met him.

He was a silver-haired man living in a double-wide trailer off Musset Bayou Road—only steps from my house. I was a skinny young fool.

He used to smack my shoulders and say, “This here's my BOY.”

I never got tired of hearing that.

His wife would serve us beer on coasters. Stuart would tell war stories. Then, he’d flatpick a red Gretsch guitar for my entertainment.

I would watch his quick fingers play “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” or “San Antonio Rose,” or “Peanut Vendor.”

I wanted to be Stuart.

Sometimes, I’d stay for supper. After a meal, we’d walk to Stuart’s garage. He’d light a cigarette,

we’d talk about cars. The oil cans on his shelves were older than I was.

We’d sit on swivel stools—the kind in body shops—and make easy conversation.

And that’s what we’re doing now. Stuart is in his recliner, telling stories about a bygone era.

The Alzheimer's makes him forgetful, the diabetes makes his feet numb. He just lost his driver’s license.

That hurt.

But nothing has changed his sunny disposition. He’s still Mister Happy. He still piddles on his Cadillac.

He hasn’t tasted beer in months, but he wants one today. So do I.

We sit together, holding longneck bottles. He retells his top-40 greatest memories. I could listen to him talk until the second coming of Roger Miller.

The more he speaks, the younger I get, and the younger…

My father once took me to the Grand Ole Opry. There, I saw Mel Tillis perform “Coca-Cola Cowboy” and I can still remember it. 

Hendersonville, Tennessee—I'm on stage playing music within spitting distance from Nashville.

Nashville.

Before today, I’ve only been here once in my entire life. I was a redheaded seven-year-old at the time. My father worked a few years in Spring Hill, welding column splices that would one day become a General Motors plant. 

I visited the GM plant today. A non-descript iron continent. My father called it his greatest achievement.

My father once took me to the Grand Ole Opry. There, I saw Mel Tillis perform “Coca-Cola Cowboy” and I can still remember it.

The stage lights, the barn-themed set, men with white hair and cowboy hats, playing two-step rhythms.

Afterward, we bought ice cream. We sat on a bench looking at neon lights.

My father said, “All my life, I've only heard the Opry on a radio. I think I like it better on a radio.”

I hardly remember the rest of that night. But I do remember fiddles, pedal steels, corny jokes. And I remember feeling happy.

So, I'm here. I'm thinking about life, and how short it is. For Joe Six-Pack

like me, this is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.

My father died when I was twelve. I hung drywall and laid tile at seventeen. I cut lawns, threw sod, and planted shrubs at eighteen.

At twenty, I played guitar in a small Baptist church. At twenty-one: I played in beer joints and all-you-can-eat catfish buffets.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m happy. I mean really happy.

Today, I’m on a stage with my friends, playing guitar not far from my father’s greatest monument.

In the audience, I see a little redheaded girl with pigtails.

She looks so happy.

I'm singing with my friends. The same friends I’ve played music with for many years. They’ve seen me grow up. They’ve helped me become me.

Fred, on the drums. He knew me when…

The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a voice that’s sweet enough to spread on toast.

Cracker Barrel—I’m eating bacon and eggs. In the background: Ernest Tubb is singing about waltzing across Texas. I've been on an interstate all morning.

There is an old woman at a table near ours. She was here before my wife and I arrived. Her white hair is fixed up. She is wiry, wearing a nice zebra-striped Sunday blouse.

She smiles at me.

She is alone, sipping coffee. It doesn't take long to strike up chit-chat.

She has lines on her face, and a husky voice. She is from the old world. She calls me “sweetheart” twice in the same sentence.

And even though I don’t know her, I know her type. I'll bet she prepares chicken and dumplings that would make clergymen use the Lord’s name in vain.

She tells me that for most of her life, she’s been a mother and a wife.

Her husband died many years ago. She has two kids. A son, a daughter. She hardly sees either.

“My daughter and I are supposed to be having lunch today,” she tells me, looking at her watch.

“My grandbabies should be here any second. I can't WAIT to kiss them all.”

Those lucky grandbabies.

From what I learn, the aforementioned daughter and grandchildren lead busy lives. The grandkids stay occupied with soccer, baseball, ballet, mission trips, and various special activities that require special T-shirts.

The old girl tries to get together with them as often as she can. But schedules get in the way.

Last week, she decided to drive a few hours to attend her grandson’s soccer game. She packed her folding chair, her snacks, and arrived early.

She waited for one hour on the sidelines of an empty field. A maintenance man told her the game had been cancelled.

Nobody had told Granny.

The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a voice…

The days that followed were the worst of her life. Not only because he was gone, but because a piece of her had been buried, too.

The picture of her son was a wallet-sized, high-school portrait from the late sixties. The boy’s hair was painfully dated. His smile was easy.

He was a good kid. That’s what they say.

He and his mother were close. Best friends, even. She was a single mother; he was a mama’s boy.

They were driving home from Atlanta one afternoon. They saw a car stalled on the side of the road.

“Don’t pull over,” she told her teenage son. “We don’t have time. Don’t wanna be late for kickoff.”

In those days, high-school kickoffs ruled the world. Her son was a good fullback. There was even talk about recruitment. Not serious talk, but talk.

Either way, he was a poster child. He had high cheekbones, promise, a sweet girlfriend, good grades.

“I gotta pull over, Mama,” he said.

He veered to the shoulder. He stepped out to help an old man change a tire.

She didn’t actually see it happen. But she heard the old man shout, “Move!”

And out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man jump. Then, a crash. Skidding.

And her boy was gone.

The days that followed were the worst of her life. Not only because he was gone, but because a piece of her had been buried, too.

Someone once heard her say, “I asked God to take me on the day of his funeral. I wanted to give up living.”

But God didn’t take her.

One sunny day, a knock at her door. Her son’s girlfriend. They sat at a table together. They cried big tears. They looked at photos. They held one another.

The girl told her she was pregnant.

And I understand that his mother’s happiness outweighed sadness.

The pregnancy was a normal, joyful one. Still, for each “congratulations" someone offered, an “I’m so sorry" followed.

But babies are immune to sadness. They make people feel warm, no matter…

My father once wanted to be Navy pilot. He failed the physical exam into flight school. He was deaf on his left side. He’d spent a childhood wanting to see the world from the top, but he had to settle for posters.

Hank Williams music is playing on an old radio, sitting on a workbench. I’m nine. Hank’s voice bounces off the garage.

The room smells like gasoline and dirt. The walls are covered—and I mean covered—in posters of jet planes.

My father once wanted to be Navy pilot. He failed the physical exam into flight school. He was deaf on his left side. He’d spent a childhood wanting to see the world from the top, but he had to settle for posters.

“Toss me that wrench,” says Daddy.

He slides from beneath the Ford. There is a longneck bottle in his hand. Daddy sings along with the radio. He sounds like a dog with a chest infection.

“Daddy, will you ever fly a plane?”

“Nah, too deaf and stupid. Pilots ain’t deaf or stupid.”

“YOU’RE stupid?”

“Compared to a pilot. They got big IQ’s, they can practically move inanimate objects with their minds.”

“What’s inanimate?”

“It means UN-animate-like.”

My father walks to a white Philco refrigerator. He removes a bottle. He pops the cap with a box-wrench.

“You know,” he says. “I didn’t WANNA be a steelworker. I was kinda

backed into it. Always WANTED to be a pilot. Wanted to see the world from up top.”

I look at him. He's bone skinny. He has grease on his face and hands. There are scrapes on his veiny forearms. My father always had cuts and scrapes. It was the price of blue-collar workaholism.

“But Daddy,” I suggest. “You can STILL be a pilot. Billy’s daddy knows a man who gives flying lessons.”

My father takes a pull on the bottle. He smiles. He is all stubble and crow’s feet.

“Gotta be rich to take flying lessons,” he says.

“We could save up.”

“Take a lotta saving.”

“I’ll save ALL my money.”

He rubs his chin. It makes a sandpaper sound. “Guess I could take up flying during retirement,” he says.

“What’s…