She was a forty-seven-year-old, taking Algebra One. But she was no stranger to hard work. Schoolwork was nothing compared to pulling double-shifts and feeding hungry mouths.

Her husband left her with two kids and a Honda. She didn’t even have a place to stay. She moved in with her sister. She worked thankless jobs.

And she hardly ever smiled. Not because she wasn’t happy, but because she was missing teeth.

“Lost these two teeth in middle school,” she says. “My dad got in a car wreck. My brother and I were in his passenger seat.”

Teeth or not, the woman is tough. It's in her hillbilly blood. She raised three kids single-handed. She fought off rowdy teenage boys who dated her daughter. She taught her sons how to be men.

The day after her youngest left for the military, she marched into a local bank. She only had one hour before work.

“I had good credit,” she said. “I knew they couldn’t turn me down. Never had any debt.”

She borrowed a lot.

She could have used the loan money to buy a house. She could’ve invested in dental work. She could’ve replaced her rusted Honda.

She enrolled in community college.

She was a forty-seven-year-old, taking

Algebra One. But she was no stranger to hard work. Schoolwork was nothing compared to pulling double-shifts and feeding hungry mouths.

“I’m a good student,” she said. “Always been a quick learner.”

She was more than quick. She was a natural. She enjoyed each class, each lecture, each teacher, and each test. But more than anything, she liked carrying a backpack.

During her first summer semester, she met a woman. The woman had salt-and-pepper hair and wore white scrubs. She took nursing classes.

Sometimes, between classes they ate lunch together in the breezeway. The woman was nice. They both talked about life. About their families.

“I looked at her,” she said. “And I was like, 'Hell, this lady’s my age. If she can do it, so can I.'"

She enrolled in the nursing program. Seven years, she worked. Seven long…

We aren’t like other clans. We don’t have cookouts anymore. We don’t do three-legged races at barbecues. We don’t own real estate. We're less like a family, more like a support group.

This is the kind of place where tourists eat. It’s on the Gulf. The breeze is warm, the air is sticky.

Mama got here early. She’s drinking a Corona with a lime—as I live and breathe. Beer is something I hardly ever see her do.

Mike is with her. He is gray-haired, blue-eyed, all Alabama. He is family.

I hug Mama. She fits beneath my arm. Always has. She calls me "baby." Always will.

I order a beer. Budweiser. My wife orders something with lime.

Mike and I talk football. He’s an expert. He can name each equipment manager in the SEC since Wade Wallace.

My sister is late arriving. She’s walking onto the deck, carrying a baby. Her husband is with her.

The baby looks like just like her.

She lets me hold her. The kid is heavy—like a sack of Quickcrete. She looks me in the eyes and holds her stare. I make a funny face. I would’ve made an okay daddy.

“She has your eyes,” my sister remarks.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah, you’re the only person in the family with gray eyes.”


I’ll be dog. A baby with my peepers is an unfortunate soul. But then, I guess this means she’s one of us now.

Poor child. We’re not much of a family.

After Daddy died, Mama, my sister, and I slept in the same bedroom with the door locked. For four years I slept on the floor with our dog. And when my sister had bad dreams, she slept on the floor beside me.

Nobody tells you grief feels just like fear.

We aren’t like other clans. We don’t have cookouts anymore. We don’t do three-legged races at barbecues. We don’t own real estate. We're less like a family, more like a support group.

But we’ve done life together. Lots of life. The three of us worked menial jobs together. We threw newspapers at two…

He talked about creeks, mud cats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and Cahaba lilies.

Mister Vernon died last night. He went easy.

You never met him, but you knew him. He was every white-haired man you’ve ever seen.

He spoke with a drawl. He talked about the old days. He was opinionated. He was American. Lonely.

Miss Charyl, his caregiver, did CPR. She compressed his chest so hard his sternum cracked. She was sobbing when the EMT’s took him.

Caregiving is Charyl’s second job. She's been working nights at Mister Vernon’s for a while.

She arrived at his mobile-home one sunny day. Mister Vernon was fussy, cranky. A twenty-four carat heart.

She listened to his stories—since nobody else would. He had millions.

He talked about creeks, mud cats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and Cahaba lilies.

And he talked about Marilyn. Marilyn was the center of his life once. His companion. But she was not long for this world.

He talked politics, too. Charyl and he disagreed. Mister Vernon would holler his opinions loud enough to make the walls bow.

He was a man of his time. An oil-rig worker, a logger, a breadwinner,

a roughneck. He helped build a country. And a family.

Each day, he’d thumb through a collection of old photos. His favorite: the woman with the warm smile.

Marilyn. The woman who’d helped him make his family. Who’d turned his kids into adults. Adults who had successful lives and successful families. They live in successful cities, they do successful things.

“He sure missed his kids,” says Charyl. “They hardly came to see him. They were so busy.”


Last night, Vernon asked Charyl for a country supper. She lit the stove and tore up the kitchen. She cooked chicken-fried steak, creamed potatoes, string beans, milk gravy.

“Marilyn used to make milk gravy,” he remarked.

She served him peach cobbler. Handmade. The kind found at Baptist covered-dish suppers.

“Marilyn used to make peach cobbler,” he said.


But today is different. Today, I'm at a small-town soda fountain. I rest my elbows on cold marble. I eat. A woman named Miss Penny hugs my neck.

The sun is setting in Washington County, Alabama. The gnats are out. You can hear crickets downtown. This place is a fleck of ketchup on the map.

It’s something else.

I’m at the Courthouse Drugstore. This is a real soda fountain. Marble counters. Knee-high barstools, vinyl cushions. I’m eating a sandwich that tastes exactly like shaking hands with the Risen Savior. I forget which decade I’m in.

Miss Penny sits beside me. She’s got gray hair. Feisty. She smokes a vaporizing cigarette that smells like butterscotch and Lysol.

“Sixty years ago,” Penny says. “Folks used’a come here to drink Ko-Cola floats, they'd watch people get off at the train depot. It was something else.”

Not much has changed here—except there’s no train anymore. People are rural. Some folks drive seventy-five miles to Mobile for groceries.

“After the drugstore shut down,” says Miss Penny. “Only place to get a milkshake was your own kitchen. It was something else.”

The Courthouse Drugstore reopened last November. The town threw a party. Washington County showed up to christen it.

For nearly four decades, the

building sat vacant—complete with overgrown parking lot and plywood windows.

This restoration was no business venture. It was a resurrection.

“Chatom's in my blood,” says Holly, who restored the drugstore. “My ancestors founded this town, least I can do is try to keep it going for my kids.”

So, she reopened the landmark. Chatom’s soda fountain is a one-of-a-kind, even for the Old South.

Out-of-town visitors have already been coming to see it. Not long ago, tourists from Germany stopped by to experience the authentic American tradition. They ate chicken salad. It was something else.

Tiffany keeps the place running. She says, “I make chicken salad the old-fashioned way. The other day I tore apart seventy-five pounds of chicken by hand. Worked so hard, I strained a muscle in my neck.”

In the short time I visit, the place is…

They tell me her daddy is dead. A car wreck. Her mother does what she can to keep bill collectors at bay. Most days it’s not enough.

“Have a blessed day,” the little girl says to an old man at the counter.

He smiles.

Every customer at this thrift store gets the same blessing when they pay. A little brunette girl is the one who gives it.

Her smile is big enough to set the woods on fire. She wears pink shoes.

“We told her to greet customers, both coming and going,” says thrift store manager, Donna. “She's never missed a one.”

The girl is all kinds of friendly. But she is poor. Barefoot poor.

She volunteers here. In return, Donna lets her pick out whichever T-shirts she wants. Or toys. Or shoes.

I meet the little girl. She is sorting a pile of clothes at the counter.

“Are you having a good day?” is the first thing she asks me.

They've trained her well.

She’s tiny. She doesn't know a stranger. She’s wearing an “Eagles,” T-shirt—the band, not the team.

“Do you like the Eagles?” I ask.

“My dad does,” she says.

They tell me her daddy is dead. A car wreck. Her mother does what she can to keep bill

collectors at bay. Most days it’s not enough.

Donna says the church tried to help financially, but got rejected.

“You know,” says Donna. “Poverty don’t always want help. This is the Deep South, pride goes back several generations.”

And old times are not forgotten.

The thrift store sits facing a slow two-lane highway. Today, they get all sorts of shoppers. Mexican laborers, needing clothes. Young couples, looking for skinny jeans or vintage lamps. And poor folks.

Donna met the girl last summer. One afternoon, the girl’s half-barefoot family walked through the doors. They browsed the narrow aisles, quietly.

The little girl found a T-shirt with Princess Elsa on it.

“Put that back,” said her mama. “You got plenty of shirts. We’re buying school shoes for brother.”

That day, Donna was sorting clothes. She asked if…

One July day, she quit eating. Then came the moaning. Her eyes looked lazy. Lots of drool. Cancer. It happened so fast.

A farm in South Alabama. We’re visiting a friend. She has two Golden Retrievers. Cody and Piper. They sit on the porch, staring while I eat a sandwich.

Cody is my new best friend. He’s giving me sugar.

I ask my friend how old Cody is.

“Six,” she says. “And Piper’s seven.”

That’s middle-aged in dog-years. Just enough arthritis to make mornings tough; just enough youth to make one stupid.

Take, for instance, me. I am a six-year-old dog.

Cody is big, reddish, and runs faster than I can throw sticks. He has a wide neck, big paws. When he gets excited, he pants harder than The Little Engine that Stunk.

He gives good sugar.

Piper is small. She is Cody’s manager. She leads by example. Her virtues are: calmness, patience, loyalty, and gluttony. She has talents, too. Piper can sit for three full seconds.

I finish eating. I’m taking a walk. It’s seven. The sun has just set. Crickets make me deaf. It’s a big field.

Cody and Piper are following. They stay behind, noses near my hands.

“They must like you,” says my friend.


wish, but I'm afraid there's more to it than that. The truth is, they’re staying close because I have beef jerky in my pockets.

Old Indian trick.

I’m a pathetic dog admirer. I’ve never met a dog I didn't talk to. I've owned my share, and I’ve even tried training a few.

I'm hopeless at it. I never get past the basic command: “Nonononodammit!”

That is, except with Lady. That dog was smart enough to pass the Bar Exam.

I was young. Lady arrived in our open garage. Black, curly hair. Floppy ears. A gash on her backside. At first, she didn’t give affection, she was too clever for that.

So, I filled my pockets with jerky.

She kept her distance for days. Finally, she wandered near and (snap) I got my sugar.

“My grandkids are coming to town this week,” she says. “Wanna make sure they have enough food.”

The woman in the checkout aisle is small, white-haired. Her cart is full, mounding with Gatorade, Cheetos, and ice cream sandwiches.

I love ice cream sandwiches.

She is bent at the waist, her joints are as thin as number-two pencils. She is struggling to push her cart.

I offer to unload her buggy. She thanks me and says, “Aren’t you a sweet little Boy Scout?”

A comedian, this lady.

If I am lucky enough to see old age, I will be a comedian.

She’s out of breath, leaning on her basket. If I didn't know any better, I'd guess her back is killing her.

“My grandkids are coming to town this week,” she says. “Wanna make sure they have enough food.”

This explains the Mountain Dew, the Goldfish, and the ice cream sandwiches.

We talk. She is friendly. No. She is perfect. Dressed to the nines, hair fixed. It is nine in the morning, she is bearing pearls and ruby lipstick.

She is the American granny. Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine, frozen in time. The kind of woman whose lifelong occupation

is to keep stomachs full while wearing matching blouse and shoes.

When the cashier finishes scanning, the old woman thanks me. I offer to take her groceries to the car. She tries to pay me.

No ma'am. I’d rather sell my soul to Doctor Phil for thirty pieces of silver than take your money.

I roll her cart toward the parking lot. She holds the side. I suggest she grab my arm. She does, and for a moment, I am ten-foot tall and Kevlar.

She has an economy Ford. The trunk is tiny. I have an idea: I ask her to let me follow her home and unload her groceries.

It’s too much. Too personal, too fast. This embarrasses her.

“No thanks,” she says. “I’ll have my grandkids unload when they get here tomorrow. My grandkids, they’re visiting me tomorrow.”

In the backseat: Ellie chews on an empty plastic peanut butter jar. It’s the only thing she’ll chew inearnest. She doesn’t like bones.

It’s early. We’ve left town before sunrise. We’ve got a long way to go. My wife is driving. My coonhound, Ellie Mae, rides in the backseat.

On long trips, my wife always drives. She’s a natural leader—she could make room-temperature honey walk in a single-file line. And I'm a natural sleeper.

In the backseat: Ellie chews on an empty plastic peanut butter jar. It’s the only thing she’ll chew inearnest. She doesn’t like bones.

I don’t often use the word “beautiful”—it’s overdone. But if I did, I’d use it on Ellie.

We drive past Paxton. Florala. Lockhart. Towns about the size of walk-in closets. I’ve watched a baseball game in Paxton.

I fall asleep. No dreams worth recalling. I wake up. We’re passing the JCPenney in Andalusia. I bought a necktie there once.

It was an engagement party. I arrived with nothing but a golf shirt and jeans. No jacket, no tie. My wife went ballistic.

That day, we stopped at JCPenney. She picked out a crimson tie. I looked like a bloated Baptist usher.

Miles ahead: a sign advertising the Hank Williams Museum in Georgiana. I’ve

visited that museum. Miss Margaret—the white-haired tour guide—made Domino sugar seem unsweet.

Interstate 65: the views have changed considerably. Small communities get replaced with fast-rolling pavement. Everyone’s in a hurry. This world moves too fast.

Ellie Mae has destroyed her JIF jar. She paints my upholstery with peanut butter.

We pull over in Camelia City—commonly known as Greenville. Think: sprawling antebellum mansions and the historic Confederate Park. I could live in Greenville.

Here, I buy upholstery-cleaner to scrub peanut butter from my upholstery.

Back on the road.

We approach Priester’s Pecans. I tell Jamie to stop. I go inside, use the little cowboy’s room. I buy a bag of Pecan Fiddlesticks. If you don’t know what those are, don’t start.

More driving. My wife turns on the radio. She sings along. She knows…

Colton, Texas—they moved Holly’s mother to a nursing home. It was time.

Her mother couldn't recognize her friends or family. She'd forgotten names. Dates. Hygiene.

They placed her in a place they could afford—which wasn't much.

Holly asked her daughter’s boyfriend to visit the center with his guitar.

“I'd heard music could stimulate brain stuff,” she said.

It didn't work. What happened was a group of patients in wheelchairs gathered around the boy's singing. They made requests.

He played for several hours.

“He really got into it,” she said. “It meant so much to me.”

And when he played “You Are My Sunshine,” Holly’s mother wandered into the seating area.

The old woman sat in a chair. She sang along with the others, word for word.

When the music ended, she looked at her daughter and said, “Oh, there you are, Holly.”

“Hey Mama.”

Jacksonville, Florida—an at-risk school. He wasn’t a good high-school student. In fact, he was failing. But he liked food and cooking. His English teacher discovered this.

She bribed him.

“I told him, ‘If you study your butt off, I’ll teach you how to



She started an after-school culinary program in a local church. She got a restaurant chef to volunteer some of his time. Six local kids signed up for class.

“It was great,” she said. “Everyone had so much fun. It kinda gave us something to look forward to.”

It gave them more than that. Today, four of those students are working in commercial kitchens.

Arthurtown, South Carolina—Jason was single. Young. A CPA. He drove a quick car, he stayed out late. But standing at his brother-in-law’s graveside changed everything.

His sister’s husband died, leaving his sister with four kids. She was a mess.

“I had a job to do,” Jason said. “I just knew it. Those kids needed somebody. My sister needed me.”

He quit his job. He moved across the…

The night of Daddy’s first performance, he was a nervous wreck. His hands shook while he drove to church.

I'm at a small church. It's evening. The glowing sign by the highway reads: “Passion Play. Free to Public.”

The parking lot is full.

I have a thing for Easter plays. As a kid, my steelworking, hay-baling father took the role of Jesus in the church pageant.

“You want me to play WHO?” Daddy said into the telephone receiver one night. Then, he laughed until he was hoarse.

Of course, it was ridiculous. Sure, Daddy attended church. But he also had a scar on his hindparts from a glass flask, shattering in his back pocket.

He was no Bible character.

So I walk into the small church. I find a pew near the back. I sit beside a large family. The sanctuary is chock-full.

Beside me: a little girl wearing an Auburn T-shirt. Her name is Catherine. We shake hands.

Pleased to meet you, Catherine.

Anyway, when Daddy first agreed to play the part, he swore off beer and cussing. He bought a tape recorder. He sat in the barn, reading the red words into the microphone.

“What’re you doing?” I asked.

“Practicing,” he said.

“Is that Seven-Up?”

“Club soda.”


Catherine shushes her little brother. The lights dim in the chapel. Piano music.

Actors take the stage, dressed in bedsheets. These are salt-of-the-earth folks with Alabamian accents and Birkenstocks.

The night of Daddy’s first performance, he was a nervous wreck. His hands shook while he drove to church.

I asked if he was scared. He didn’t answer—he was busy practicing the Sermon on the Mount.

When they crucified him, they painted him with strawberry syrup. And during the final scene, Mister Rick fired a shotgun blank while the foam stone rolled away from the tomb.

The choir sang. People applauded. It was maybe the highest moment of Daddy’s life.

Months later, his funeral was held in the same chapel. Minus the choir.

That was ten lifetimes ago.