Mother Mary also talks about a period in history which is only remembered in black-and-white photos now. A time before her rheumatism slowed her. When she was slender as a bird, with dark hair, and sharp eyes.

The Alabama-Florida State game is on television. My mother-in-law is watching with me. She’s sitting in her recliner, Velcro shoes propped in the air.

She just had surgery, she’s too weak to cheer. She’s been in the hospital for two days. Doctors discharged her only a few hours ago.

When she arrived home, my wife and brother-in-law helped her limp into the house on weak knees. I carried purses and offered verbal assistance.

They ushered Scarlett O'Hara over the brick steps, through the hall, into the living-room—where she sits now.

On the wall behind her are graduation photos of her children—framed in gold.

On her sidetable: a magazine, with her redheaded son-in-law's article in it. She shows this to visitors.

“You can’t write about me tonight,” says my mother-in-law. “I’m not wearing my pearls. You’re only allowed to write about me if I have pearls on.”

My wife disappears, then returns with a strand of pearls. She fastens them around the sophisticated belle's neck.

“There,” my wife says. “Now he

can write about you.”

My mother-in-law knows, of course, I’ll write about her. This is why she starts telling detailed childhood stories during the most pivotal moments of the SEC football game of the century.

She knows I like her stories.

There’s the story, for instance, of when she lost her pet duck. The duck escaped and flew over Brewton, Alabama's downtown during hunting season.

The fellas sitting in front of the hardware store shot the bird dead. The duck made the front page of the paper.

Then there’s the one about her pet baby alligator. She loved her alligator. She dressed it in girly clothes, took it to tea parties, and let it sleep beside her.

One autumn morning,…

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

I’m in a Mexican restaurant. I’ve been driving. I’m tired. I’m here to enjoy cold beer and something salty.

Earlier, I tried visiting the joint up the road. The place has allegedly good barbecue. I left after three seconds. They had a band that only knew two volume levels: loud, and nuclear holocaust.

So I’m here.

Behind my booth are children. It’s a birthday party. There are at least fifteen. They sit around a long table which is mounding with gifts. They holler and laugh.

A few wear pointy hats. I didn’t know kids wore pointy hats anymore.

My waitress brings my beer, and I overhear all the Top-40 hits of childhood happening behind me.

“Gross, you eat boogers?”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

“My dad could beat up your dad.”

“COOTIES!”

How have we come this far as a civilization, and still not eradicated cooties?

Then, parents hush kids. Children's voices run quiet. A mother walks to the door and looks through the glass.

"Here

she comes,” the woman says to her group. “Get ready.”

There is a pregnant pause. I am holding my beer with both hands, watching the door.

The door opens.

Children scream “Happy Birthday!” loud enough to break stained glass. Then, applause.

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

Her father helps her to the table, holding her arms. The girl sits and covers her face. She’s blushing.

“YOU GUYS!” she says.

Her smile is bright enough to tear the cotton-picking world in half.

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents…

Her voice is the Great American South. It’s tiny meeting houses, hardware stores with live-bait wells, fiddles playing on porches, and raw tomatoes with salt.

She’s almost ninety-six. And when she talks, it sounds like lightning bugs, swarming over a mossy pond.

She admits, most days she doesn’t do much talking. She sits beside her window, reading, or sleeping. But she has good eyes, she has her mind, and she still has a voice.

“Started making up songs when I’s a girl,” she says. “They helped me through some very hard times.”

The hardest of times, you might say. She asks me not to dwell on this part of her story—so I won’t. But when she was ten, her father killed her mother, then himself.

Her brother and sister raised her. Her childhood was spent in a plain, plank house beside a creek. She led a lonely life—kids her age rejected her.

Her first made-up song was meant to help her sleep.

“Got so dark in my bedroom,” she says. “Thought I’s seeing ghosts and spirits, it was terrible.”

She sings:

“Don't wanna be afraid,
So I won't be, I won’t be,
Not gonna

be afraid, no, no,
Nobody here but me…”

Her voice is cracked and old. Sweet, but sad.

I wish she'd hold me.

After the War, she fell in love. They settled and had two kids. She helped him forget a battlefield. He helped her forget childhood trauma. He played guitar. She sang.

She made many songs with him. Like the one for her son, when he fell from a tree.

“Oh, John, don’t you frown,
It ain’t right to get so down,
Dosey-doh, and don’t you know,
There’s always someone sadder…”

Her voice is the Great American South. It’s tiny meeting houses, hardware stores with live-bait wells, fiddles playing on porches, and raw tomatoes with…

Maybe you can’t remember the last time anyone listened to you—and I mean, REALLY listened.

Hi. We hardly know each other. And I know this won’t mean much coming from a stranger like me, but I have to say it:

I’m sorry.

I mean it. I am sorry. I’m sorry about the big and the little things that happen to you.

I’m sorry you didn’t sleep last night. I’m sorry your back hurts. And I’m sorry about the long-term repercussions of fiscal American inflation.

Also: I’m sorry you don’t laugh as often as you used to. I’m sorry money doesn’t grow in the backyard—God help me, I am.

I know what it means to work long hours and get nothing but a bloody lip in return.

I’m sorry your car won’t start. I’m sorry alternators cost more than booze-cruises to Barbados.

I’m sorry that every time you get some money saved, your roof begins leaking, your water-heater goes out, your toilet backs up, or you need a root canal.

I’m double-sorry about the root canal.

I’m sorry your dog died. And for the sour feelings you get when you see the empty food-bowl

on your kitchen floor.

I miss every good dog I’ve ever owned.

I’m sorry your loved one died recently. I’m sorry grief has become a permanent part of you, and that your heart has been polished with a cheese grater.

I’m sorry the doctor said you need surgery. I’m sorry you’re diabetic. I’m sorry your entire world caved in when they said, “Ma'am, you have cancer.”

I’m sorry you have felt sick and rundown for so long that you don’t remember what the old you felt like.

I’m sorry life doesn’t go the way we want it. I’m sorry the clock runs out too quickly, and that our bodies don’t last longer.

One summer day, she stood at a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign. It was hot. She was dehydrated. Hungry.

She’s pretty. And young. But her face looks like she’s lived a hard life.

She was homeless for a year. Nearly four hundred days of skid-row poverty.

One summer day, she stood at a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign. It was hot. She was dehydrated. Hungry.

“Ain’t never begged before,” the girl said. “Holding a sign’ll make you feel stupid, man.”

Cars passed. No donations. A policeman finally told her to move along. Before she got far, a Cadillac pulled beside her and opened its door.

The old lady inside asked her, “You on drugs, honey?”

“No ma’am, not no more,” the girl said.

“Look me in the eye,” the old woman said. “Tell me the truth.”

“I’m clean.”

And it was true. The girl had quit using, four hundred days earlier. In fact, that’s why she was homeless.

Not long before, she’d been a good student from a broken home. But after high school, she moved in with a man of corrupt habits. When she quit using

his goods, he kicked her out.

She had no car. No home. No friends. She stole a tarp from someone’s pickup truck. She made camp behind a strip mall. She ate from a dumpster, and slept on a bed of plastic bags.

Until the woman in a Cadillac.

The old woman was a strong one. Solid, with cropped hair. She fixed up a spare room, gave the girl clothes, fresh sheets, feminine-smelling soaps.

“She fed me,” said the girl. “Treated me like her kid. Kinda scared me at first, didn’t know if she was some weirdo.”

The old woman was no weirdo. She cooked suppers, complete with frilly placemats and iced teas.

They ate with napkins in laps.…

Cats are fickle and skittish. I called the cat. Which was a bad move. To whistle for a cat is like trying to lasso a rabid squirrel.

They carried flyers made from a home printer. A girl and her mother. They stood on my porch, toting a whole stack of them.

“I’m looking for HIM,” the little girl said, pointing to the flyer.

On neon-colored paper was a photo of a cat—white with black spots.

“He’s been gone two days,” added her mother. “My daughter and I are looking all over.”

This isn’t my first lost-animal case. Cats seem to find my house. I have adopted three feral cats in the last year.

I told the lady I hadn’t seen any feline.

“Thank you,” she said. “Call me if you do. Because it was kinda my fault he escaped. I'm a terrible mother.”

The flyer sat on my kitchen table with a pile of junk-mail and bills. I didn’t think much about it. Not even when my dog, Ellie Mae, whined at the back door.

When I opened the door, I saw black-and-white fur, nosing around our bushes.

I called the number on the flyer.

“YOU

FOUND HIM?” were the first words of an excited mother. “I WAS SURE HE WAS DEAD!”

But cats are fickle and skittish. I called the cat. Which was a bad move. To whistle for a cat is like trying to lasso a rabid squirrel.

The animal got spooked. By the time the girl and her mother showed up, there was no cat.

The girl looked through the bushes, calling the animal’s name. She must’ve inspected every shrub, tree, and blade of grass.

The girl suggested leaving a bowl of tuna on the porch.

“He’ll be back,” assured the girl. “Trust me. I already talked to God about it.”

Right.

I woke up the next morning…

I've been coming to this place for many years. And every time I visit, it makes me high. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the paper mill.

Brewton, Alabama, 6:02 A.M.—I’m sitting in Aunt Cat’s kitchen, sipping coffee.

She's not my blood aunt. She is my wife’s aunt. Even so, I have called this woman “Aunt Cat” for a long time now. Referring to her as otherwise would be an affront to aunts worldwide.

Aunt Cat and I are talking. She's in pajamas, I have bed-head hair. We’re at her kitchen table, using quiet morning-voices. The early sun is coming through the windows.

It’s nice weather. There’s a train whistle in the distance. Bird sounds outside. There is a calico kitten in Aunt Cat’s lap.

I am happy. My surrogate aunt and I chat about everything and nothing. About family. About jelly jars. About mothers-in-law. About last night’s small concert downtown.

Last night, my band played in Brewton. It was big fun. Mister David hauled giant speakers downtown. He strung miles of cable, and set up colored lights.

Some folks sold boiled peanuts. Suzy had baked goods for sale—her handmade bread is good enough to make a grown

man fan himself with a church bulletin.

There were local vendors with tents. Not the trendy sort of merchants—like you'd find at hippy suburban farmers markets. No. These were men who would wear jeans and red suspenders to their own funerals.

Aunt Cat put out a spread, of course, at her house. Ham sandwiches, cheese trays, caramel poundcakes, cookies, you name it.

After the informal concert, I hugged necks. Old friends asked how my mama was doing. One woman brought me a poundcake. Miss Connie brought a cooler of beer for the band.

I received three Baptist church invitations, two Methodist, one Presbyterian.

At the end of the night, Miss Connie sat beside me on my vehicle bumper.

We watched families carry lawn…

I don’t do well with dares. In the fourth grade, I was double-dog dared to stand on a ladder and pee over the hood of my friend’s daddy’s Oldsmobile.

DEAR SEAN:

I just can’t read you anymore. At first you were cool, but now you’re a @!#$% dork. There have been tons of national events in the news... And you just ignore them… You're all busy writing about your stupid dog and @#$%.

Sometimes I just want to say, “Nobody cares about your dumb dog!”

I dare you to write me back,
AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR SEAN OF THE SOUTH

DEAR AIN’T NOBODY:

I don’t do well with dares. In the fourth grade, I was double-dog dared to stand on a ladder and pee over the hood of my friend’s daddy’s Oldsmobile.

I didn’t have enough back-pressure in my nine-year-old bladder to clear the hood. My friend’s daddy nearly had a heart attack.

My mama made me peel potatoes until I was thirty.

Anyway, I just read your letter aloud to Ellie Mae. I wish you could've seen her face. She’s crushed. She wears her feelings on her collar, you know.

Today, Ellie Mae woke earlier than normal.

Most often, she rises at the crack of noon. This morning, she woke at 5 A.M. because of a persistent ear infection.

I’ve taken her to the vet six times in the last five months. I took her yesterday.

You’ll be thrilled to know the vet says her ears are getting better. He also says that her problem is just part of having long, floppy, magnificent, voluptuous, comely, silken, ears.

Then, he rubbed her belly and said, “I think Ellie is one of my favorite patients.”

His favorite.

A remark like that deserves celebration. I took Ellie to Pet Smart as a reward. She sniffed a few employee hindparts, then made friends with a Corgie named Jim.

[READ MORE...]

We tour the sleepy community. I see old cotton gins, peanut processing plants, chicken houses, soybeans, cattle, live oaks suffocated in Spanish moss.

Goshen, Alabama—I am on a dirt road. Above me is a canopy of shade oaks, stretching to Beulah Land. I am surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland.

With me is Darren.

Darren is mayor of Goshen. He is young, but he has gray in his sideburns. He is a paramedic, a captain for Troy Fire Department, a volunteer firefighter for Pike County, and he cuts grass for a living.

“This is a tiny town,” says Darren. “You gotta do lotta jobs to make ends meet.”

Town Hall sits off the highway. It’s a brick building—small as a Waffle House. The place doubles as a senior center and cafeteria.

On weekdays, the kitchen serves complimentary country fare: fried chicken, okra, collards, and potato salad.

“Lotta our residents are old,” says Darren. “It’s important for us to take care of our own.”

I meet one such elder. Mister Jimmy—a man with hair like snow and a voice like ribbon cane syrup. He shows me black-and-white photos from Goshen’s glory days. He tells stories.

“Did Darren tell you about Goshen’s claim to fame?”

No sir, not

yet.

They show me a ledger book with yellowed pages and loose binding. It contains jail records, dating to the nineteen-hundreds. If anyone ever spent a night in Goshen’s one-room drunk tank, it’s written here.

Darren points to a page. The cursive handwriting reads: “Hank Williams, 1943.”

“Public drunkenness,” remarks Mister Jimmy. “Hank used’a travel with a medicine show, playing music. He was known to have a wild time.”

When Mister Jimmy was freckled and barefoot, he saw Hank several times. The string band would play atop a flatbed trailer. The whole town would turn out.

“Goshen’s always been close-knit,” says Mister Jimmy. “Used’a have street parties. We’d rope off roads, have covered-dish deals, country dances.”

Country dances. Potlucks. Traditions which have faded in parts of the Southeast.

But not here.

Darren takes me for a…

“After all these years,” she said. “I’ve learned to never give up hope. Even when there ain’t nothing left to hope in. Hoping is how a body stays alive, I think.”

Small-town Alabama in the early sixties. A period of horn-rimmed glasses, Coke fountains, and Johnny Cash on the radio waves.

She married her high-school sweetheart. They did the things adolescent couples do. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder at drugstore counters. They argued loud enough to wake neighbors.

They tried to make a family. But couldn’t.

“Oh, did we try,” the old woman says. “Doctor told me I could take a brand-new ovulation kinda pill, but I never did, I didn't trust doctors.”

Years went by. They kept trying. No luck.

She goes on, “Finally, doctor just come out and tell me, ‘You just CAN’T have children, honey.’ That was pretty hard to deal with.”

They gave up on the idea of family. They grew apart.

“We were fighting a lot,” she says. “We were just kids our ownselves.”

And things got worse. Their relationship went south. He slept in the guest bedroom. They ate suppers alone. They separated.

After a quiet divorce, they went their own ways. He left

town for Montgomery, she stayed.

“We parted friends,” she says. “But secretly, I's hoping he'd come back.”

But he didn't. And the hits kept coming.

Six years later, she lost her mother to kidney problems. Only one year thereafter, her father developed pneumonia. He spiraled downward. She admitted him to a hospital. He died there.

They buried him next to her mother.

“I lost both parents in almost four hundred days,” she said. “It felt like a big joke God was playing on me. I gave up hope.”

Her ex-husband attended her father’s funeral. It had been a long time since she’d seen him. They embraced. She nearly ruined his shirt with tears.

She asked him to stay. He…