The men are from different walks of life. They meet here, swapping stories, remembering what this world was like before cell phones ruled the solar system.

Dothan, Alabama—Ray’s Restaurant. This place is nothing fancy. A plain building with fluorescent lighting, decent coffee, and Bear Bryant photos on the wall.

Inside, it smells like bacon.

There is a table of white-haired men. They wear camouflage caps, jeans, suspenders.

A placard on their table reads: “Table of Knowledge.”

I overhear their discussion. They’re chatting about politics. They laugh while they do it.

You don’t see folks laugh about politics much anymore.

The men are from different walks of life. They meet here, swapping stories, remembering what this world was like before cell phones ruled the solar system.

They solve problems. Talk philosophy. They flirt with waitresses.

In my booth: a police department chaplain, and two South Alabamian belles. It’s early. Our conversation is a tired one.

I order grits, eggs, bacon. The waitress brings coffee. She looks as tired as she is skinny. Her accent is pure Wiregrass.

I ask her which booth Bear Bryant sat in when he visited long ago—I bet all out-of-towners ask

her this.

She points across the room. “He sat over there,” she says. “All the out-of-towners ask me that.”

Welcome to Circle City. They say that the peanuts in your American supermarket come from this local soil. And that's what this place is known for.

But it's more than just a peanut capital. It's rural communities that surround the city.

Places like Slocomb, Wicksburg, Malvern, Rehobeth, Taylor, Cowarts, and Hartford.

Towns where tractors outnumber steeples. Where men still wear neckties to church and use twist tobacco recreationally.

The waitress brings our food. The chaplain says grace.

His prayer is poetry. He’s an Episcopal priest, he knows how to recite a blessing sweet enough to knock paint…

My mother was a shell. Once upon a time, she’d crocheted, quilted, gardened, she even fished. After Daddy, all she had left were overgrown flower beds and two kids.

The interstate is quiet this time of morning. A cattle truck just passed me.

“You Are My Sunshine” is on the radio. Johnny Cash is singing it. I cannot listen to this song without thinking of my mother—who used to sing it to me while I made mud pies in the backyard.

My daddy ended his life in September. By October Mama was so lonely you could hear her cry herself to sleep through the walls.

I’d knock on her bedroom door around suppertime. There would be no answer.

Thus, I would fire up the kitchen to prepare my world-famous culinary masterpiece: tres bowls de vanilla ice cream.

My mother was a shell. Once upon a time, she’d crocheted, quilted, gardened, she even fished. After Daddy, all she had left were overgrown flower beds and two kids.

She worked. Like a dog. To make ends meet, she cleaned condos, ran the deep-fryer at Chick-Fil-A, mopped floors, she threw the newspaper, volunteered at church. She raised kids.

When she got sick, the

world fell apart.

Doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Whatever it was, it was killing her.

She moved in with my aunt and uncle in Atlanta. They took care of her. I visited when I could—which wasn't enough.

One night, I made an all-night drive to Georgia. I arrived at my aunt’s at three in the morning. In the driveway: a frail woman in a nightgown stood in my headlights, waiting. I hardly recognized her.

We hugged and I almost broke her.

“Are you hungry?” was the first thing Mama asked.

“No ma’am.”

She made a full breakfast anyway.

A plastic implanted port poked from her collarbone. Her face was gaunt. Her hair was short. She'd been…

She was no woman. She was a girl who’d learned to say her alphabet on the front porch. Who played so hard her cheeks turned red. Who named puppies.

Miss Ann drove me to the hospital in her Buick. She walked me through the parking lot, holding my hand.

We took the elevator. My father was pacing the hallway by the window.

“It’s a girl,” Daddy said. “A girl, can you believe it?”

He was wearing blue scrubs over sooty work clothes. A blue surgical cap. He looked ridiculous.

We wandered into a hospital room that was white and sterile.

Mama was sleeping hard. They handed the girl to Daddy first.

He stared the baby in the face. He examined her hands and feet, counted fingers and toes. He smelled her.

He smiled. “A girl,” he said.

When he pressed her against his chest, he wore the same look some drunk people wear. A sort of loose smile.

“A little girl,” he said again.

They let me hold her. She didn’t weigh much more than an unripened squash. Her eyes were closed tight. She smelled funny.

A girl.

Daddy died a few

years later. It didn't take long before the girl could hardly remember his face.

The boy did his best to teach the girl important life lessons. Such as: how to fry bacon, how to scoop ice cream, how to spin a quarter, shoot bottle-rockets, and spit for distance.

And when the family dog gave birth to nine puppies in the garage, it was the boy who taught the girl to hold the newborn things.

“Is she a mama-dog now?” asked the girl.

“She is,” said the boy.

We stayed up for half the night, holding pups, giving them names like: Fred, Ginger, Waylon, Loretta, and Bill Gaither.

The girl got older. Prettier. Smarter. She played sports. She competed on…

And when doctors told us they found something irregular in her breast, we sat in a UAB waiting room. I quit eating, skipped suppers. I stared at ceilings, whispering things to God.

There is a photo on my dresser. It’s an old photograph. My wife sits at a table. Her arms are crossed. There’s a birthday cake in front of her.

The cake is seven-layer. Caramel. I drove all the way to Dean’s Cake House in Andalusia to buy that thing. Candles poke from the top. My wife wears a warm smile.

That was quite a day.

As a rule, photographs don't do my wife justice. Her personality is too colorful for rolls of film.

Snapping a shot of her is a lot like trying to capture the Sistine Chapel on a cocktail napkin with a Bic pen.

Even so, that night I held a disposable camera while we sang “Happy Birthday,” using voices loud enough to affect weather conditions.

My wife's mother placed the seven-layer cake before her. Her father and I kept singing like a duet of Labradors with chest colds.

My wife’s cheeks turned red. She showed a smile. I pointed the camera.

Click.

And for a

hundred years, that photo has made me feel less alone.

Maybe it’s her smile. After all, people like us aren't supposed to smile. At least not like she smiles.

We haven't had exceptional careers—she worked food service, I stood on ladders.

Our bank account was decidedly shallow. Money wasn’t exactly growing on rose bushes. For suppers, we’d visit Kentucky Fried Chicken to lick other people's fingers.

But we smiled a lot. She taught me to do that.

We bought cones of ice cream, using quarters from dashboard ashtrays. We sat in parking lots, listening to car radios. We talked until the wee hours. We chatted about life. About kids.

“How about Rose?” she said. “We ever have a daughter, I…

I don’t mind telling you I wish the fairer sex were more appreciated. And I’ll admit that I don’t care for swimsuit magazines in the check-out aisles of Winn Dixie.

I’m supposed to be eating complimentary hotel-breakfast, but I’m in line behind a girl’s softball team.

The dining room is nothing but long-hair, red ribbons, glitter makeup, and striped softball socks.

“They're here for softball camp,” says one mother. “And they're having TOO much fun.”

They are breathtaking, these girls.

One girl is nearly six-two. Her mother is braiding her hair while she eats eggs and plays with her phone.

“Hold still,” her mother says.

“Gah, Mom,” the girl points out.

I had a friend who played softball. I won’t use her real name—she knows who she is.

Most of her life, boys poked fun at her because she was taller than they were.

She was one hell of an athlete. A catcher. To watch her handle a second-base steal attempt was poetry.

Her right arm was a shotgun. Her bat was the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The boys called her Fat Ass. She cried for two decades.

I wish she wouldn’t have. Because she is one

of the prettiest girls I ever met.

Today, she's married to a high-school football coach. Sometimes she helps him on the field. She and her husband have three daughters.

They are the all-American family. They go to Disney World twice per year.

They are happy.

Well, I don’t mind telling you that I like women. Real women. Every single one.

I like the shy, the outspoken, the well-behaved. I like the kind who can cuss the hair off your neck.

I like those who admire what they see in a mirror. And I have a softspot for the sort who don’t think much of themselves.

I like those who make poundcakes by…

He was a Rotary member in North Alabama once. He claims that Rotary Club is more than a tin plaque on the welcome-to-our-small-town sign. He says Rotary is changing the world.

A crawfish boil. A big party. This is the kind of deal where you stand in an hour-long line for a box of mudbugs and corncobs spicy enough to require an EpiPen.

The band is loud. They have a washboard, an accordion. They holler in French.

The Rotary Club is putting this on. The tents, the boilers, propane burners, the whole nine-yards.

Rotarians wander through the crowd with yellow wagon-wheels on their shirts. They’re collecting plates, emptying trash, conversing.

The money Rotary Club raises goes toward real charities. Not CEO salaries. Not televangelists with Malibu mansions and saltwater swimming pools. Ninety-one percent of Rotary money goes out the door into the world.

Ninety-one.

This, I learn this from an old man, standing in the crawfish line. He has a tube running from an oxygen tank to his nostrils.

He was a Rotary member in North Alabama once. He claims that Rotary Club is more than a tin plaque on the welcome-to-our-small-town sign. He says Rotary is changing the world.

It's a bold statement.

“We’re teaching illiterate folks," he says. "Donating to

small-town farmers, giving clean water to third-world countries.”

He’s as passionate as any Holiness preacher.

“Joined when my wife died,” he goes on. “Was lonely as hell, I needed friends, and they ALWAYS have food at meetings.”

When he first joined, he attended a few gatherings, then missed three weekly meetings.

Depression claims many a man.

One Saturday, three Rotary men came to his house unannounced with six-packs and fried chicken.

“Wouldn’t get off my doorstep,” he says. “We watched a game, had a few laughs. They were really concerned about me. I'm telling you, this ain't just a club.”

He and I find a seat beneath a white tent and listen to the band play, “Jambalaya.”

The crawfish makes my nose run.

He is chatty. He talks about life. About his daughter. He says he has stage-four cancer.

And the party’s over. Kids say goodbyes. There are hugs, handshakes, even forehead-kisses. Miss Tia and her parent-assistants gather kids like a herd of caffeinated goats.

Miss Tia’s first-grade class is visiting the nursing home. It’s a big day. Some of the residents here are wearing their Sunday best.

Andy Griffith is on TV. The woman sitting in front of the screen is elderly. Slumped. She's wearing a red blouse, gold shoes, and too much makeup. She’s not moving.

Behind her: a man eats from a plastic tray. His cap reads: “Kubota” on front. He’s stabbing meatloaf.

Two first-graders are the first to introduce themselves. They are happy kids. They talk loud.

The old man turns an ear toward them. He has to adjust his hearing aid. By the time he does, they've already found a new victim.

This makes him laugh.

A nurse pushes a wheelchair. Sitting in the seat: a white-headed woman with coal-black skin. They say she sang in a choir as a young woman.

She warms up with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” to prove it.

“No,” says her nurse. “YOU aren’t the one singing today, it’s the KIDS who’re singing.”

And

the kids certainly do.

They line up before a piano. A fourteen-year-old girl, named Briana, provides keyboard accompaniment. Miss Tia’s children sing their lungs out.

There isn’t a person in the white-headed audience who isn’t smiling.

A woman interrupts the song. She is gray, wearing a nightgown. She’s yelling. She calls for Benjamin. She's frantic.

She asks anyone within earshot if they’ve seen Benjamin.

One of the nurses tries to calm her by taking her to the other room. The old woman doesn't want to go, she gets fussy. She begins sobbing.

The other residents don't notice her.

When the music's over, kids visit with their audience—just like Miss Tia told them to.

He’s young. He shook my hand like a kid twice his age. A sixth-grader with dark hair, long legs, and hunting boots. And even though he didn’t say it, I’ll bet he likes fishing.

It was going to be quite a year. Mama bought me new shoes and new jeans. After one week of school, I was a beloved comedian.

I’d sit in the corner of the lunchroom, telling well-prepared jokes with devastating punchlines. I got invited to a pool party. The girl who invited me called me adorable. Adorable.

It was a decidedly good year.

Until he died.

When they broke the news of Daddy’s death, I wanted to run so hard my legs might fracture. I tried. But they wouldn’t let me out the door.

The funeral home called a few days later. I answered the phone and eavesdropped while Mama talked to the man.

“Courtesy call,” the voice said. “He’s been cremated. Come and get him when you’re ready.”

Come and get him.

The strongest human I’d ever known; the man who taught me to walk upright, to throw baseballs, to tackle low, was ready for curbside pickup.

I didn’t eat supper for weeks. I laid in bed and looked at the

ceiling. I held one of Daddy’s dirty shirts against my face.

For the first few nights, I cried myself to sleep until my eyes went numb. After that, all I did was sleep. In fact, once I slept sixteen hours.

What a year.

I’m an adult now. I have mediocre insurance, and a dog who eats better than I do. I don’t sleep nearly as well as I used to. But I’m happy—more or less.

Then, I met him.

He’s young. He shook my hand like a kid twice his age. A sixth-grader with dark hair, long legs, and hunting boots. And even though he didn’t say it, I’ll bet he likes fishing.

His father died last…

My family. There wasn’t much to tell. We were sad and poor. And I had no daddy—he ended his life with a hunting rifle. It wasn’t exactly uplifting dinner conversation.

I watched the sunrise over Brewton, Alabama. I was the only vehicle on the road when the sun started to peek above the the trees.

The sunlight hit Brewton just right. It looked golden. It was quite a sight.

Sometimes I get to feeling low. Brewton makes me high. Always has. I have good thoughts here. This is where I got a second crack at life.

Right after I was married, I visited Catawba Springs Baptist church with my wife’s family. I had much younger skin then, and a supple lower back.

The preacher mentioned us from his pulpit. Folks I’d never met clapped for us. Strangers hugged my neck. Old women kissed my cheeks. Three different men invited me hunting.

If I've ever felt more loved, I don't remember it.

We ate a big Sunday meal. My wife's father roasted a Boston Butt. He made squash casserole, butter beans, and creamed corn with too much black pepper.

I love creamed corn with too much black pepper.

“Tell me

about your daddy,” said my father-in-law. “Tell me all about your family.”

My family. There wasn’t much to tell. We were sad and poor. And I had no daddy—he ended his life with a hunting rifle. It wasn’t exactly uplifting dinner conversation.

Her father’s blue eyes turned pink when I finished talking.

“That does it,” he said. “I’m adopting you, right here and now. Understand me? This means WE are your kin. And THIS is your home.”

It was ridiculous. And it seemed like an idle promise.

I’d heard people say things like that before. They were only words. Lots of folks enjoy saying charitable things, even when they don’t mean them.

Not him. This man was different. And so was…

This morning, a small service will be held. It won't be much, but handfuls of South Alabamians will pay respects to a baby they never got to know.

Enterprise, Alabama—they’re laying Addy Kate to rest today. It’s a small service. Her father will say a few words before folks give final goodbyes.

Only a year ago, Enterprise High School's math teacher and JV volleyball coach, Callie White, bought a pregnancy test on her way to school.

“I texted my husband the news,” says Callie. “We were so excited.”

Callie White’s pregnancy was your all-American birth. Baby showers, swollen feet, strange food cravings. She delivered a magnificent seven-pound-eleven-ounce Addy Kate.

Life couldn’t get any better. The young family was all smiles.

But smiles didn't last. Doctors found a tumor in Addy’s brain. The disease was moving fast.

The young family traded in its baby toys for oncologists. The diagnosis was worse than bad. It was terminal.

The tumor had already spread through her brain. Doctors said there was nothing they could do.

“Last thing any mother wants to hear,” says Callie. “Is that there’s NOTHING she can do.”

Nothing.

The Whites did their best to keep living,

but it was nearly impossible. Addy’s condition was behind every thought, word, and sentence.

On Easter Sunday, the Whites organized a family supper. There were Easter baskets, colored eggs. It was supposed to be a good day, but something was wrong with Addy.

They rushed her to the emergency room. Doctors did tests and found her tumor was growing. They said it wouldn’t be long before she passed.

What an Easter.

One of the first things the Whites did was hire a photographer.

“We wanted photos,” says Callie. “We didn’t have pictures of the three of us yet.”

A photographer snapped the first and only family photos the Whites have together. And while they posed, the family enjoyed…