The rural South looks good at six in the evening. The sun is low. The peanut fields are so green they’re blue. The grain silos are rusty.
We drive through Slocomb, home of the Tomato Festival. We pass through Tabernacle. I’ll bet they don’t get too worked up in Tabernacle.
And we arrive in Hartford. They tell me this is quite a town. The small community sits in the middle of the Fruited Plains, and it is quintessential Little America.
Nice-looking homes. Old churches. A boy walks on a sidewalk. His dog follows, off-leash.
The public library is a brick building which also serves as courthouse, community center, historical museum, and a reception hall for wedding parties.
I’m in town tonight to speak. I play guitar in a room that’s roughly the size of a baptismal tank. I tell a few stories on a microphone.
I have no earthly idea what I’m doing.
Afterward, I am fortunate enough to shake hands with God’s finest people. They are walking-talking masterpieces from Ozark, Wicksburg, Clayhatchee, High Bluff, Bellwood, Earlytown, Dundee, Malvern, Taylor, Circle City, Slocomb, and Fadette.
I meet a tomato farmer, a cotton farmer, a watermelon farmer, a corn farmer, a goat farmer, an ostrich farmer, a cattle farmer, a tractor mechanic, an twelve-year-old girl who raises show hogs and is strong enough to arm wrestle an adult male.
There is a woman with a walker. She is ninety, with flour-white hair. Martha Green is her name. She has large eyes that sparkle. She eats a cookie and tells me what FSU was like before it turned co-ed.
J.C. shakes my hand. He is a big man with mitts like frying pans, who shares my affection for poundcake.
There is Mandie: five-foot-tall, sweet, gives good hugs, doesn’t know strangers. And former Miss Slocomb gives me a full basket of tomatoes.
If I can find a saltshaker, these tomatoes won’t last ten minutes.
Austin shows me cellphone photos of his magnificent little girl. His mother beams. Heaven hath no greater blessing than grannies.
I meet Don, who works in concrete. Billy, who repairs small engines. Steve, who is still looking for work since he quit truck driving. Cassie, who studies stage-acting in Atlanta and works for local newspapers.
Allison and her husband brought their boys tonight. They’re nice-looking boys who shake hands like grown men.
A Methodist minister pumps my hand, too. We discover we have some of the same friends. Small world. His wife—who is recovering from an allergic reaction to antibiotics—is with him. She’s as sweet as high fructose corn syrup.
Then, I meet a short older woman.
She stands by herself. We’ve never met before. She is quiet. She is thin, with serious eyes. She hugs like a professional. She doesn’t let me go. She says something into my ear.
“Your father is proud of you,” she tells me. “And I also want you to know that I love you.”
Her eyes are wet. And so are mine. She says nothing more. Because she’s already said enough.
Hartford is quite a town.