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 sorry for what’s happening in the world. I’m sorry hatred gets so much camera-time. 

Newnan, Georgia—two sisters, swimming the Chattahoochee. It’s a pretty day. Alyssa Calhoun and her five-year-old sister, Kendall. They are best friends, joined at the hip.

The five-year-old drifts from shore. She can not swim against the mighty Chattahoochee. She screams.

Alyssa swims after her. They get pulled downriver. Alyssa dives beneath her sister, digs her feet in, and lifts her above her head.

When authorities find them, they are facedown in water. The youngest is alive. Alyssa Calhoun dies a hero.

She was fourteen.

Montgomery, Alabama—a teenage girl in a gas station. She places two bucks on the counter, and she is sobbing.

“I’m outta gas,” she says. “How am I gonna get home?”

The woman behind the counter comes to her. They hug. The girl presses her face into the woman’s chest.

The woman says, “Oh, honey.”

People in line pool their money to buy the girl a full tank—with change left over.

Charlotte, North Carolina—Debbie lives alone. She has no children. She is legally blind and wears thick glasses she calls “Coke-bottle lenses.”

After getting diagnosed with breast cancer, her world falls

apart. Neighbors see her come and go to treatments, riding a taxi.

She’s skin and bones.

One day, a group of neighborhood kids arrives on her porch. Boys and girls, holding platters of baked goods.

They tell her they want to do her grocery shopping, cooking, cut her lawn, dust her furniture. She agrees. They work for her. They watch television with her. They even play games and eat pizzas in her den.

One boy recalls: “We turned Miss Debbie’s into a hangout, so there’d always be people around her, keeping her smiling.”

The kids stay with her until the end.

Before Debbie passes, she remarks, “Always wanted to be a mother, those children let me kinda pretend I was.”

This morning. The first thing I see on television news is mass murder in Las Vegas.…

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…

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.