The tables sit loaded with church food. Casserole dishes. The kind of fare that requires a visit to the confessional after eating.

Chelsea, Alabama—this church is small with a capital “S”. The fellowship hall is a basement with ceilings low enough to graze my hair. The walls are painted rocks.

“Dug out this basement my ownself,” says the eighty-four-year-old man. “When I’s younger. Lotta sweat.”

He’s attended this church all his life. Long before the town was called Chelsea.

The tables sit loaded with church food. Casserole dishes. The kind of fare that requires a visit to the confessional after eating.

I’m standing in line, trying to decide between six different kinds of potato casserole.

At my table, I meet Doctor Brent. “Used’a practice country medicine,” he says. “Mostly, we delivered babies out in the sticks. You ever deliver a baby?”

No sir.

“It’s rock and roll, buddy,” he says. “The room looked like a hog-killing took place when we were done.”

One older woman adds, “My sister was born on our kitchen table.”

A few people nod.

I meet a man and woman in their mid-fifties. A nice-looking couple. He’s wearing a chef’s jacket, she’s in her Sunday best. They have a young daughter.

“I was in my fifties

when I got pregnant,” says his wife. “We were in total shock. Didn’t think I could ever have a baby.”

Her husband says, “Some of my friends were like, ‘A baby? At your age? Oh no, what’re you gonna do?’

“But my buddies in the kitchen were high-fiving me, saying, ‘You da MAN!’”

I high-fived him.

Because he’s the man.

I sit a few chairs down from Father Eric. He’s tall. Soft-spoken. He used to be a teacher in a previous life. We have things in common. Once, he was a hardworking man with bills. Today, he’s a hardworking man with bills who wears a collar.

He’s been here since last January.

“This place is like nowhere I’ve been,” he says. “These people are a family. I mean a REAL family.”

Before…

The Peanut Festival. We listened to music that makes grown men thirsty for Budweiser products. We spent our money on junk we’ll never use. We rode rides we were too old for.

It was a good year for a Peanut Festival. Sunny. Blue skies. A little chilly.

My wife and I walked rows of arts and crafts. We ate the kinds of food that give cardiologists panic attacks.

We listened to music that makes grown men thirsty for Budweiser products. We spent our money on junk we’ll never use. We rode rides we were too old for.

And I saw a girl.

Eight or nine years old, maybe. She was wandering. She had no adult with her. Her face looked worried.

I approached the girl and asked if she needed help.

She did not answer. She only took a step backward and started to run.

My wife squatted low and asked, “Honey, are you lost?”

She said, “I can't find my mom.”

No sooner had the girl gotten words out than her face busted open. She soaked my wife’s shoulder.

It was enough to break a stainless steel heart.

My wife asked if the girl was hungry. She yes-ma'amed.

So, I offered the girl my bag of deep-fried peanuts.

The little girl made a face

and said she didn't care for peanuts. I informed her she was at the wrong festival. Then, I bought her a nine-dollar deep-fried Snickers bar.

Nine dollars.

My wife took the girl to get her face painted while I went to find an official-looking person for help.

I found a man in uniform and brought him to the girl.

The uniform asked the girl where she’d last seen her mother.

Then, we walked in circles, trying to find the places she remembered.

She held hands with my wife.

I had heard the girl say: “Can you hold my hand? I don't wanna get lost again.”

We saw many things on our jaunt across the fairgrounds. Things you'd see at Anytown Festival USA. We saw young couples carrying oversized Panda bears. We saw families pushing strollers. Men in…

“You’re gonna be okay,” my mother said. “One day, you’ll look back and feel silly about this.”

DEAR SEAN:

My first day of school is tomorrow. I'm at a new school and don't know people and I’m scared. Mom says don't be because everyone always likes me.

FIRST-GRADE ‘FRAIDY CAT

DEAR ‘FRAIDY CAT:

My first day of kindergarten scared me. I thought it would be an awful lot like going to kiddy prison.

Namely, because they had schedules for everything. Schedules for eating. Schedules for recess. Schedules for the commode.

I cried when my mother walked me to the door.

“Please don’t make me go,” said I.

“You’re gonna be fine,” she said. “And when you look back on this day, you’ll feel silly.”

She was right. I feel silly.

School was big fun. Our teacher played piano and sang. She read stories. She taught us to use the john on command. I made my first paper Valentine. I tasted my first swig of Elmer’s.

Try not to worry because you'll have a lot of scary firsts in life, just like me.

For example: many years later,

Mama drove me to my first date—sort of. I was twelve.

Her name was Anne. She had naturally curly hair, and I liked her more than hand-cut onion rings.

I rode in Mother’s car, nervous. I wore my Sunday best, and I’d used so much Alberto V05 I resembled a Cupie doll whose hair had been dipped in mayhaw jelly and lit on fire.

I was trembling when we arrived at Anne's birthday party.

“You’re gonna be okay,” my mother said. “One day, you’ll look back and feel silly about this.”

Mama.

Then, I hit adulthood. I lived on my own. My mother got sick. Very sick. Doctors gave her some bleak…

She managed to hide her pregnancy from her parents that summer—she left town to live with a friend and worked a summer job.

She wasn’t a bad kid. She was seventeen, an all-American girl, pretty, the daughter of a Baptist pastor.

She got pregnant.

It happened so fast that it confused her. She thought she was in love. She wanted to marry him. She envisioned a small house, a decent neighborhood, shutters, hanging ferns, and a swing set in the backyard.

He told her he wanted to to have the pregnancy “taken care of.”

It broke her heart. She wanted to keep it. He pleaded with her to end it. She refused. He pushed.

He drove her to the clinic in a bad part of town. They sat in the car. She cried.

“I can’t do it,” she said.

“You HAVE to do it,” he said.

And so it went.

A big argument erupted. She jumped out of his car. He sped off.

She never told a soul about the baby.

In fact, she even managed to hide her pregnancy from her parents that summer—she left town to live

with a friend and worked a summer job.

She went into labor one July night. She remembers it like yesterday. She drove herself to the hospital.

It was a boy.

“Soon as I had him,” she said. “I wanted so bad to touch his face. That was an instinct, I think.”

But she wouldn't. She told nurses to take him away, or else she'd never say goodbye.

She called an adoption agency. She signed papers. They took the baby. She left the hospital the same way she came. Alone.

It was the hardest thing she ever did.

She grew up. She went to college, she pleased her parents. She got married to a man who loved…

I’m not supposed to be here. People like me are supposed to be other places. Maybe installing tile, hanging sheetrock, or swinging hammers. Instead, I’m riding Highway 274, behind a log truck at eight in the morning, writing this.

Mid-morning—my wife is driving us across the Old South. I am writing from the passenger seat. We do this a lot. She drives. I write.

There are log trucks ahead of us. Red flags, flying from the tips of fresh-cut pines, traveling fifty-one miles per hour.

I’m on my way to speak to a roomful of teachers in Altha, Florida—a community of five hundred folks.

Me. A child who grew up quick, who lost a father, who didn’t attend high school, who went to community college late in life. Speaking, as though I have anything to say.

It’s hard to believe. No. It’s humbling.

Last week, I spoke to an auditorium of folks. The stagelights made me sweat. I was there to tell stories, and that’s what I did.

My whole life, I believed I was below others. My father’s death did that to me. It made me different. Hard upbringings make different boys.

Anyway, I’m not supposed to be here. People like me are supposed to be other places.

Maybe installing tile, hanging sheetrock, or swinging hammers.

Instead, I’m riding Highway 274, behind a log truck at eight in the morning, writing this.

I get to meet people.

In North Georgia, for instance, I met a baby who was born without eyesight. I held that child and felt her breath on my neck.

I met a ninety-year-old who told me about gutting lizards and crows for supper during the Depression.

And in Atlanta, I talked to a group of children whose loved ones have killed themselves—like mine did.

An abused women’s shelter. A handful of coffee shops. Rotary Clubs. Kiwanis. A beer-and-billiard joint. O-Town Ice Cream Shoppe. A tiny church here. A small-town library there. A barbecue dive. A classroom. A…

He tells me he needs to look sharp for a wedding. His first wife is getting remarried. He’s a nervous wreck. He wants her to see him at his absolute best.

I’m trying on pants. It’s a department store, and I need something for a party.

The dressing room isn’t big enough to see my reflection. I step outside to look at myself in the three-way mirror.

I hear voices. A conversation. A father and a child are in the stall next to me.

“Do these pants look okay?” the adult voice says.

“They look good, Dad,” the boy says.

“You sure? I really want your mom to like’em, they feel kinda big.”
“They're good.”

“You don’t think they're saggy? They seem saggy. You know what, I’ll look at them in the full mirror.”

He leaves the stall and I see the man behind the voice.

He’s bone skinny. And bald. I step aside so he can look into the mirror. He is inspecting the fit of his slacks.

“They do look a little big,” I offer.

“Really?” he says. “I KNEW it.”
He tries on another pair. They fit much better.

He tells me he needs to

look sharp for a wedding. His first wife is getting remarried. He’s a nervous wreck. He wants her to see him at his absolute best.

And he doesn't feel his best.

“I’ve lost twenty-three pounds, man,” he says. “All my friends say I look sick.”

That's because he is sick. Colon cancer. He’s had two surgeries. He just finished chemo. He doesn’t want to talk about what he's gone through, and it's none of my business.

But he does say: “They tell you the nausea’s bad. Man, it’s worse than anything you’ll ever experience.”

Doctors just ran tests to see if treatments have gotten rid of it. He's got an appointment on Monday to get the results.

They flew into New York City first. They rented a car and set off for the Yellowhammer State—home of Spanish moss, live oaks, boiled-peanut stands, cotton fields, and mosquitoes big enough to kill most medium-sized house cats.

Mobile, Alabama—a bed and breakfast. It’s early morning. I am not a morning person. On a good day, it takes me a full sixteen hours to wake up.

There are two girls at the breakfast table. They are from France. Sisters.

They are young. Talkative. They speak English, with accents. They are eating triple the food I eat.

This is their first visit to Alabama.

“We NEVER visit this Deep South before,” says the girl who wears a camellia in her hair. “There is so much beauty. But it is SO hot.”

Hot. It’s only eighty-six outside. I could wear a wool sweater and jump rope in the attic without breaking a sweat.

They tell me their mother passed away a month ago. The girls are taking this trip—which their mother always wanted to take.

They’re here to honor her memory.

They flew into New York City first. They rented a car and set off for the Yellowhammer State—home of Spanish moss, live oaks, boiled-peanut stands, cotton fields, and mosquitoes big enough to kill most medium-sized house cats.

Yesterday, they hired a

guide to take them fishing in Mobile Bay. It was everything they’d hoped it would be.

“I catch my FIRST fish!” she says. “A beeg, beeg one! It was THIS beeg.”

She holds her hands out as far as she can.

“We even eat GRITS!” says her sister. “With cheese, they are so weird, these grits.”

If they were weird, they were instant, sister.

The girls traveled to Tuscumbia, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuskeegee, Selma, and Mobile.

They got their first American sunburns, they drank Ko-Kolas from glass bottles. They ate tomato sandwiches.

They just left Birmingham recently, where they spent two days. They were nervous in the big city.

“Our friends in France warn us that Birmingham is dangerous city,” she says. “That we must be VERY careful, or we get shot.”

I inform her that her friends…

This world is trying to break you. And I don’t care how much money advertisers spend to make you feel bad about you. It’s horse manure.

This is one exceptional girl. A senior. She makes good grades, she is lightning sharp, and kindhearted.

A little about her: she can throw a baseball, pick guitar, make jewelry, drive a stick shift, and sew her own clothes.

She is pretty, humble, studious, loyal. She has a future so bright she needs sunscreen.

And a few days ago, her parents checked her into a clinic for eating disorders.

I'm not at liberty to tell her story, so I'll stop here.

But I don’t mind telling you that I’m not happy about what’s happening to women.

I don't like what television is doing to them. And I don’t care for what fashion magazines, underwear ads, music producers, and Hollywood stylists are up to, either.

Turn on a TV. The commercials all shout the same message:

“You’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too hippy, too flat, too broad-faced, too big-nosed, too gray. Your complexion is bad, you have a turkey neck, ugly ankles, you need a facelift, your hindparts need augmentation.”

Also:

Your house is a wreck, your kids dress like chimney sweeps, your

old vacuum sucks, your husband is a minimum-wage loser, and your abs will never resemble the midsection of a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian gymnast.

So, I’m writing to the opposite sex. Every last girl, woman, and granny.

To Bobbi—who feels like the fattest, ugliest girl in her middle-school. Who gets made fun of.

To Catherine—whose husband of fifteen years left her for someone younger.

To Angelica—who’s been clinically depressed, struggling with self-esteem.

I’m writing Cassidy—the thirty-two-year-old with diabetes, who can’t seem to gain weight.

And to Michelle—single mother and nurse, who just had back surgery. Michelle is lying in bed while her sister takes care of her kids.

Katelyn—a girl once abused by her stepdad. Who can sing the yellow lines off a highway. Who's getting married this month.

To sixteen-year-old Mila, whose family migrated here…

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class.

She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in…

Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards. You’re young, pretty, healthy. You’re supposed to be happy. Instead, you’re a few dimes shy of homelessness.

You’re a single mother. Your name is Deidra. Your wallet has three bucks in it. You have an old Visa gift card with twelve dollars left on it.

Something bad happened today.

It wasn’t because of anything you did. It’s because you’re in your late-thirties, and teenagers can do your job cheaper. They cut your hours. Management’s way of firing you.

You reacted. You let your manager have it. You called him an awful name. You wish you could take it back.

You cry in your car. You wipe your face. Then cry again. You wait for your kids to exit the free daycare.

And here you are, sorting mail while you wait. Power bill. Water bill. Cellphone bill. Cable. Insurance. It never ends.

Your kids run toward you. There are kisses, hugs. You notice how tall your oldest is. Your nine-year-old colored a picture.

They talk loud and happy.

You're thinking about what’s inside your refrigerator for supper. A few slices of bologna, half a liter of Coke, old carrots, two eggs.

You

look in your purse. The gift card.

You drive to a pizza buffet. It’s six bucks for your oldest, four bucks for the youngest—not counting soda.

You slide your card and hold your breath.

Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards.

You’re young, pretty, healthy. You’re supposed to be happy. Instead, you’re a few dimes shy of homelessness.

After the meal, you leave eighty-four cents for a tip. That’s all the loose change you have—you're saving your last three dollars.

You drive. Your gas gauge is on E.

You’re humiliated. That’s how poverty works. It embarrasses a person, until…