...But I don't mind telling you that I don’t believe it. Not because I am an ignoramoose—at least not a full-blooded one. But because I have seen things.

Georgiana, Alabama—Kendall’s Barbecue joint is not just a barbecue joint. Inside this tin-roofed place is God’s own kitchen. The pulled pork here is nothing short of Biblical.

And today I need a little pork. I’m on my way to a memorial service.

I pull over for lunch. Large pulled pork. Extra pickles. I’m eating in my truck with windows down. It’s hot outside.

A young couple in a Taurus pulls in. Dirt on the fenders. The boy is tall and skinny. His pants are too big. She’s pregnant.

There are three kids with them—all redheads. God help those children.

The young man is covered in sweat and dust. They get their bag of food and head toward the car. He helps kids into carseats. He kisses each on the forehead.

The woman says to him, “Hurry, come quick! Feel him kick!”

He comes to her. He presses an ear to her swollen belly. His face lights up. He kisses her.

Then, they share a look.

After they leave, an older

man orders at the counter. He has white hair, overalls, sweat spots on his shirt.

When he gets his paper bag, he takes it and walks to his truck. There is a dog in his vehicle.

While the man eats in his driver’s seat, I see him through his window. His mouth is moving, and he’s smiling.

I’ll be dog if he isn’t talking to that pup.

When he finishes, he stuffs a tobacco pipe with his thumb, cracks the window, and lights it. The dog gives the man a lick on the cheek. This makes the man smile.

Which makes me smile.

Next: a heavyset man orders food. He has broad shoulders and thick arms. He is…

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

I played music and spoke to a room of white-haired women. It was a dark-lit bar, with decent onion rings and heavy burgers.

Ladies from all walks of life held glasses of beer and wine. A few had canes and walkers.

Eighty-two-year-old, Jo, approached me first. She wore a white blouse with houndstooth scarf. She asked if she could buy me a beer. I yes-ma’amed her.

“Don’t yes-ma’am me, boy,” she said. “I’m trying to hit on you. Ruins the excitement.”

We sat at the bar together. She lit a cigarette.

“Doctor says I shouldn’t smoke,” said Jo. “But I smoke two a day. One in the morning, one at night.”

Jo is an M-80 firecracker. She is from rural Alabama and she sounds like it. She is a writer, a poet, an artist, and a shameless flirt.

She told stories, of course.

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

By the time her cigarette was a stub, she was talking about her husband.

“I miss him so much,” she said. “He was a precious man, the best thing in my life. You look a little like he did.”

There was another woman. Ella.

She was eighty-nine. She asked if the band would play “Tennessee Waltz.” We played it at an easy tempo.

She slow-danced with her son. He was careful with her. When he dipped her, she was nineteen again.

Ella’s husband died when she was forty. She never remarried.

“Always had me a few boyfriends,” she said. “Seems like I went dancing almost every weekend. My sister would watch my kids, us girls would go out jukin’.”

So I’m doing a lot of thinking about Brian. I’ve never met him, and I have no idea how his daddy met his end. But I know this kid. In fact, I’ve lived with him all my life.

Whataburger is crowded with little boys in dusty baseball uniforms. The place is alive with laughing, happy voices, and cleats clicking on the floor.

They stand in line and pay with handfuls of sweaty cash.

When the herd gathers around tables, nobody is eating. Not yet. They are waiting for something.

One of the adults tells the boys to remove caps. Everyone bows heads.

“Dear Lord,” the man says. “Bless this food…”

All eyes close tight. All mouths clamp shut.

“And God,” he goes on. “Be with Brian and his family tomorrow, when they put his daddy to rest.”

One boy starts crying. The prayer stops.

The kid is becoming hysterical. A team-mother takes him outside. I can see them through a window. She lets him cry into her shirt.

Another boy follows outside. Then another. Soon, the team is huddled together on the sidewalk.

Brian.

So I’m doing a lot of thinking about Brian. I’ve never met him, and I have no idea how his

daddy met his end. But I know this kid.

In fact, I’ve lived with him all my life.

A little about him: he's a first baseman. He likes cowboy movies, he wants to learn guitar one day.

He likes biscuits and gravy—but only the kind his mama makes. He likes old and rusty things. He likes anything Ford. He has imagination, and sometimes this lands him in trouble.

He fishes, but isn’t very good at it. He climbs trees, but scares when he gets too high.

I also know that on the day after his father’s funeral, the kid will sit in his father’s work truck and talk to a ghost.

The truck smells like his daddy. There…

I don't know what's happening to the world. People are angry. TV personalities earn seven-digit incomes by getting peeved.

How I got invited to a corporate business convention isn’t the story here. But let's just say there are lots of people wearing nice suits and finishing sentences with: “Did I already give you a card?”

There is a guest speaker. He is famous. I don't care for him. His talent: complaining.

He complains about America, religion, the economy, pro-sports. About lukewarm fried eggs.

The people love him. They applaud after each purple-faced rant.

The woman next to me says, “Oh, I watch his show on TV all the time. Don't you just love him?”

I do not. If you ask me, he needs more fiber in his diet.

I leave the main event and make the long drive back home. The sun is setting. It is a stunning sky.

I don't know what's happening to the world. People are angry. TV personalities earn seven-digit incomes by getting peeved.

Well, maybe I am feeling particularly inspired by the guest speaker. Because I have a mind to make a list

of my own complaints.

My first complaint: sunsets.

Sunsets don't last long enough. They only give a few minutes of sky-painted glory, then it’s goodnight, Gracie.

I know. That's not a real complaint, but give me time, I'm new to this.

Complaint two: puppies. They grow up too fast. There is nothing half as marvelous as razor-sharp puppy teeth.

I'm also complaining that there aren't more barbecue joints.

I don't mean the fancy kind where waiters wear all-black and use iPads to email copies of your receipt. I'm talking concrete-block joints with ugly bathrooms, decent service, and food served in red plastic baskets.

Something else: I wish people gave more compliments for no reason.

Hardback hymnals. I’m…

“Mister Latham was what being an educator is all about,” said one coworker. “Shoot, he was what being a decent human is all about.”

Steve Latham died this morning. They tell me he slipped in the shower. His brother, Aubrey, was able to be with him during his final moments.

I still can't believe it.

Steve was a big man. He wore a Santa-Claus beard and had the jolly disposition back it up.

He was a writer. A teacher. A media specialist. A good man. And he liked Andy Griffith more than anyone I know.

We spoke a few days ago.

“Remember that one episode?” said Steve. “When Andy thinks about leaving town? And Barney tries to talk him out of it?”

Do I.

It’s a classic. Andy gets offered a job in Raleigh. He considers taking it. Barney tries to convince him to stay. It's TV magic.

“I truly understand how Andy felt,” Steve said. “Andy just wanted to start the next chapter of his life, that’s kinda how I feel.”

As it happens, Steve did just that. He retired earlier this year from the Shelby County school system. He

was going to start his own new chapter.

He was going to write.

“I've always been a writer,” Steve told me. “I just haven't taken the final leap to let myself BE a writer.”

He deserved that much. After thirty-two years of helping Shelby County’s youth achieve their dreams, it was Steve's turn to follow his.

I drove four hours to attend his retirement party. I stood in the high-school library with my shirt tucked in. A handful of his friends and family were there.

Folks told heartfelt stories. I watched Steve wipe his eyes when Patricia, Ann, Rose, and Aubrey took turns hugging his neck.

There were tears. Laughs. People took pictures with him.

One woman thanked him…

I searched the woods. I drove side streets with windows rolled down. I knocked on doors. I rattled a tin food bowl and used a high-pitched voice. I whistled. Clapped. Begged. No sign.

It all happened fast. Someone left our front door wide open after unloading groceries—someone who looks like me but shall remain nameless.

My coonhound, Ellie Mae, caught sight of our neighbor’s cat. Before I could grab her, she departed for parts unknown.

She ran away so fast her paws barely touched the ground.

And she was gone.

I searched the woods. I drove side streets with windows rolled down. I knocked on doors. I rattled a tin food bowl and used a high-pitched voice. I whistled. Clapped. Begged. No sign.

When I got home, I sat on my porch. I hoped I’d see a black-and-tan dot, trotting toward me. I waited two hours. Nothing.

The last time a dog escaped my care, things didn’t fare well.

My dog, Joe, dug beneath our fence and bolted for Birmingham. He was gone half the day. I got a phone call. An official voice told me a dog had been found on the side of the highway. Those were the exact words used.

“The side of the highway…”

Someone dropped Joe at a

veterinary hospital. The doctor shaved the back of his body and cut him twelve different ways. I borrowed money to pay for surgery.

I visited the clinic. Joe laid in a steel cage. He looked terrified.

“I’m not gonna candy coat this,” said the doc. “His chances are slim. You might wanna say your goodbyes.”

I held Joe. He rested his head on my lap. I told him it was going to be okay. I told him how much I loved him. I hummed—he always liked it when I hummed.

I asked God for a favor. God must’ve been on lunch break that day.

The next afternoon, Joe went limp. I cried so hard I had to take two days off work.

Anyway, I didn’t cry for Ellie. I would not. I held myself together. I sat in my den,…

There is an old man. He is skin and bones. He has an oxygen tank with him. The woman with him is old. Her hair is a bright white. She helps him walk toward an upright piano.

This fellowship hall is full of fried chicken and people. Men wear camouflage caps. Women wear blue jeans and T-shirts.

If you were to show up in, say, khakis, you'd be grossly overdressed. Take me, for instance, I am grossly overdressed.

There are enough deep-fried goods on the buffet table to short circuit the U.S. House of Representatives. Hot biscuits. Field peas. Sliced tomatoes. Hallelujah.

There is an old man. He is skin and bones. He has an oxygen tank with him.

The woman with him is old. Her hair is a bright white. She helps him walk toward an upright piano.

Their trip across the tiny room takes a fortnight. He holds her for balance. She keeps her hand on the small of his back. He shuffles.

Nobody is paying much attention to them. Most folks are doing what I’m doing—using a biscuit to shine my plate.

The old man sits on the piano bench and looks at the keys. He’s trying to catch his breath.

She rubs his back.

He starts to play, but he's rusty. He punches out more wrong notes than right.

She keeps her arm around his shoulder and smiles. He can’t find the energy to finish the song.

She touches his face. I wish I could hear what she's telling him.

He picks up where he left off. He plays to the end of the song—I don't recognize the tune. He has more strength this time. Whatever she told him worked.

He plays another.

“There’s Just Something About That Name,” is the title of the melody, they tell me. A few ladies at my table hum along.

Light applause.

The woman kisses the man on the cheek. It's just a…

The boys played Merle Haggard’s anthem, “Are the Good Times Really Over.” The young man singing was not yet thirty. He had a dark beard, his eyes were closed, and he was testifying.

It was late. The bar was overrun with good-timers who were out past their bedtimes. The night-crowd was dwindling.

Bartenders were ready to go home.

I’d just gotten off work, I stopped by to see the band.

The boys played Merle Haggard’s anthem, “Are the Good Times Really Over.” The young man singing was not yet thirty. He had a dark beard, his eyes were closed, and he was testifying.

The bar fell silent while he sang.

The old man next to me stared into his beer glass at his own reflection. “That boy’s the real deal, ain’t he?” he said.

Ain’t he though.

When he finished singing, he picked up a banjo and nearly tore off the strings. The whole establishment stomped its heels on one and three.

“God, he’s good,” said the man next to me. “That kid is something else.”

I ordered a beer, but forgot to drink it. I was too carried away watching the virtuoso fly through the Great American Songbook.

During a break, I introduced myself. He was standing outside, looking at the stars. I told him how

much I liked his music.

He smiled, but said nothing in return.

So, we stood for a few uncomfortable minutes, silent. I decided I must’ve said the wrong thing—as is often my custom.

Another man joined us. He was staggering, slurring his words. He lit a cigarette. He stood beside us, too.

"Damn son,” he said, slapping the kid's back. “You were fabu-lificent.”

Nobody talked.

The young man finally answered, “Thanks.” Then, he wandered inside and picked up a mandolin.

Later, the young man switched to guitar. Then electric guitar, then banjo, the list goes on. And I’ll bet if you handed him a Campbell’s soup can and a number-two pencil, he could’ve played Brahms’ Symphony Number 4.

Years later, I saw him again. He was a little older. He was even more accomplished than the…

The man behind the bar is gray-haired. Tall and lanky. He has been tending bar for forty-three years, he tells me.

I am in a bar. Not a nice one. A place that features low lighting, dirty beer glasses, and an unidentifiable odor.

The live music is allegedly country. But it sounds like a college kid sawing his guitar in half.

The man behind the bar is gray-haired. Tall and lanky. He has been tending bar for forty-three years, he tells me.

He has the easygoing personality every bartender should.

“Got my first bartending gig when I’s in my twenties,” he said. “Was either that or go to school to make Mama happy.”

Tending bar was an education in itself. The nightlife is no cakewalk. Bartending is a lot of hard work for mediocre tips.

He met a girl from a small Georgia town. A waitress.

“She and her boyfriend had just broke up,” he says. “Knew I loved her first moment I saw her.”

They hit it off. Things blossomed. They dated. He moved in. They married.

They lived outside Atlanta where he opened his own

place. A bar and grill with country music on weekends. She worked the kitchen, he served beer.

They had two kids. They did family vacations at Disney. Little League games. They owned a Labrador.

But nothing in life lasts.

“She came home early one day,” he says. “And stayed locked in our bathroom all afternoon.”

It was bad. The doctor found something in her breast.

What followed was hell. He sold their restaurant for a pittance. He took care of kids while she laid in bed. He made sack lunches, cleaned house. Prayed.

He drove his wife to treatments. He read aloud from magazines while she sat connected to plastic tubes.

Treatments didn’t work. Neither did surgery. She was forty-three…

I took classes when I could afford them. I attended night school after work. I ate suppers in my truck, going over homework under a dome-light. I wish I could tell you I was a fantastic student. I wasn’t.

DEAR SEAN:

Your writing sucks. What makes you think you’re so freaking special? LOL.

Regards,
I DON’T LIKE SEAN OF THE SOUTH

DEAR I DON’T LIKE:

It was evening. The ceremony was in the gymnasium. The room was filling up. My wife squeezed my hand. “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I wasn't. I was more ready than nervous.

My father killed himself when I was twelve. My mother wasn’t the same after it happened. She spent her days grieving in a bedroom. I did not attend high school.

My first construction job was as a teenager. I hung drywall. Drywall is the Devil's work.

I don’t know how it happened. But over time, I came to believe I was unintelligent. After all, smart folks drive nice cars, go to college, and tell Charles to saddle their horse.

Educational failures like me sanded drywall seams.

Embarrassment was my roommate. I did a lot of reading during those years. I read so much I developed headaches.

I did

this because I missed out on things like prom, football, and other various benchmarks. Books helped me feel less stupid.

The librarians knew me by name. I read Westerns, adventure novels, “The Unabridged Encyclopaedia on Cheesemaking,” “Innocents Abroad,” and the autobiography of Andy Griffith.

I admire writers. Always have. Especially those who write.

Anyway, getting into a community college was no small feat for someone like me. The truth is, I barely made it.

I took classes when I could afford them. I attended night school after work. I ate suppers in my truck, going over homework under a dome-light.

I wish I could tell you I was a fantastic student. I wasn’t. It took me nearly a decade…