She is powerful and gentle. She is a classroom hero. A doctor, a nurse, a waitress, a teacher, a custodian, an artist, writer, singer, or poet. She is a mother, a granny, an advice giver.

“You’re fat.” That’s what a classmate told freshman, Cassidy Torres, in P.E. class. A boy said it. And it’s too bad he didn’t get his hindparts worn out.

It all happened in a gymnasium. Students were standing in a single-file line. They were doing body-mass-index calculations with calipers and measuring tapes.

Cassidy’s numbers were higher than the recommended baseline. You can only imagine the laughs and animal sounds that followed.

The aforementioned boy made a comment. Cassidy was in tears.

Amd you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking. Which is: “Great, just what every insecure freshman needs. Calipers.”

Well, not that it matters what I think—because it doesn’t—but I don’t think measuring the bellies of high-schoolers qualifies as gym class.

What ever happened to good old-fashioned P.E.? I’m talking sadistic American games like dodgeball, unsupervised rope-climbing, and of course, lawn darts.

But measuring body fat in public? I wouldn’t wish that experience on even the worst IRS agent—let alone a shy freshman.

Anyway, to dig up more answers on this matter, I interviewed noted expert, and acclaimed commentator on

adolescent issues—my friend’s daughter, Kayleigh.

Kayleigh is your typical sophomore. She’s in chorus, math club, and on a volleyball team. She likes Dr. Pepper, Cheese Nips, rap, Labradors, and she thinks she’s fat.

I asked Kayleigh why she thought this. She had a lot to say on the matter. Her answer:

“‘Cause.”

My guest today has been Kayleigh Williamson.

The thing is, Kayleigh is as lean as they come. And she can bench press her bodyweight. Her mother has a theory.

Her mother points to the magazines on Kayleigh’s nightstand and says, “Those dumb magazines are messing with her mind.”

Kayleigh shows me one such beauty magazine. The cover model features a young woman who weighs less than a rice cake in a water shortage, with abs sharp enough to grate parmesan.

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

His real name doesn’t matter. So let’s call him Steve.

Steve made a mistake. He went to prison. The details aren’t important.

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

Steve made friends with the chaplain—who discovered that Steve couldn’t read or write.

The chaplain taught Steve the basics. ABC’s, cursive, grammar. In a few years, Steve went from reading Doctor Seuss to Walt Whitman.

He enrolled in a GED correspondence course. After that: onward and upward. It took years to earn college credits through the US Mail.

He graduated with an associate’s degree.

And when the chaplain baptized Steve in a feed-trough, Steve rose from the water and hugged the chaplain.

Steve told him, “I wish I was hugging my mama right now.”

“This hug is from her and me both,” said the chaplain.

Steve’s mother passed while he was inside.

Years later, our hero joined civilian life as an older man. The world

felt like a foreign place. He found a job on a concrete crew. He grew his hair long because he could.

At work, Steve made friends with a twenty-six-year-old man who we’ll call DeRonn.

DeRonn and Steve grew close. They had deep conversations at work. DeRonn admitted that he’d once wanted to study art, but never did.

“Why not?” asked Steve.

“Because,” said DeRonn. “I dropped out at sixteen when my girlfriend got pregnant.”

A few days later, an envelope appeared in the front seat of DeRonn’s car. Inside was a little cash, wrapped with a rubber band, and a note which read:

“That’s to help pay for art school.”

That was two lifetimes ago. DeRonn is not a kid anymore. And he’s not sad, either. And as it happens, he did finish school. His degree…

She offered him a smoke. He thanked her. He tinkered beneath her car with a ratchet—cigarette wedged in his lips. She held the flashlight steady.

She reads the Bible every morning. She also smokes off-brand cigarettes. To a lifelong Methodist like her, the two go hand in hand.

She’s eighty-four and frail. She digs a cigarette from a carton, her daughter lights it. The doctor says she shouldn’t smoke, but the Good Lord understands.

She tells a story.

“After my husband left us,” she begins, “I was raising my kids, doing all I could to survive. He left me with eighteen bucks in our bank account—no lie.”

Then, the worst. One day, she walked into work and her boss fired her.

Instead of crying, she lost her temper. She attacked him. She threw a lunch bucket at him. She landed several good slaps to his face. Her friends pulled her away.

This woman is a regular barrel of gunpowder.

That night, she loaded her children into a station wagon and drove straight for her sister’s in South Carolina. Radio blasting. Cigarettes burning.

“I was crying,” she says. “And worried about everything, I was sick.”

Her car broke down somewhere outside Athens, Georgia. Two in the morning. An empty highway. Not a soul for miles.

Her station wagon sat in a ditch. Her children were in the backseat, asleep. She leaned against her steering wheel and the tears came.

This was rock bottom.

Her sobbing was interrupted by the sound of transfer truck brakes. A big rig pulled behind her. Earth-shaking engine. Headlights blaring.

A man stepped out of the cab and walked toward her.

“I was scared,” she says. “Here I was, a young woman, middle of nowhere, and this man comes walking up.”

He was tall. She remembers this very clearly. And older.

He asked if she needed help. She told him what had happened, using a nervous voice.

His smile put her at ease. He said, “Pop the hood, ma’am. Lemme…

The national news called the rural lawman a hero, but Joe didn’t see it that way. While they wheeled him to the hospital, someone asked the sheriff how he felt.

Sunset in Alabama. The woods of Butler County are something else tonight. The crickets are out.

I’m chewing the fat with men who know a thing or two about these woods. They’re sipping beer, eating pulled pork, swatting gnats.

These men are peace officers. This party is being thrown in honor of Sheriff Joe Sanders. The sheriff has been dead a long time.

But he’s not dead tonight. At least, not when they retell his stories.

People form a semi-circle. Former deputies, family, in-laws, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. They tell tales they’ve been retelling for decades. Good stories about an even-tempered man who once watched over Butler County.

There’s the story about the sheriff handling an armadillo problem for a local farmer. Or the time he bought snuff for a woman he was carrying to jail.

They talk about how he used to sleepwalk in his skivvies; how he’d been married for fifty-three years; or how he always ate lunch at the Chicken Shack.

But those stories are only warm-ups. Everybody

here knows the best story. It’s about when the sheriff was held hostage.

I’ll hit the highlights:

Thirty years ago. A Monday. A gunman walks into Butler County courthouse and takes a courtroom hostage. The sheriff uses his natural charm to negotiate.

“If you let these folks go,” says the sheriff, “you can hold ME hostage.”

It’s a gutsy move. The gunman lets the people free. The sheriff is his bargaining chip. Things are going fine until a struggle erupts and shots are fired by the gunman. Sheriff Joe takes a bullet.

Things go from bad to worse. The gunman holds the sheriff at gunpoint. The sheriff is losing blood. A six-hour standoff ensues.

We’re talking FBI, out-of-town cops, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, snipers, and national-news choppers.

Greenville is the epicenter of the world.

One former deputy remembers: “It…

I’ve been writing you every day for four years. You’ve brought me back to life, whether you know it or not.

The first thing I ever wanted to do was be on the radio. I decided this when I was seven. I went to see the Grand Ole Opry with my father. The lights. The steel guitars. The cowboy hats.

I didn’t want to sing on the radio. I wanted to introduce the bands, shake hands with folks in rhinestones. I wanted to hug Minnie Pearl’s neck.

My father said it was a good dream, especially the part about Minnie Pearl.

“Anything’s possible,” Daddy once told me.

Anything.

By fifth grade, I’d expanded career interests, since ANYTHING was possible. I wanted to be a writer. Maybe even a journalist.

But fifth grade was when life fell apart. I flunked school, which did a number on my mind.

Kids who flunked were doomed to live in vans and visit KFC’s just to lick other people’s fingers.

In seventh grade, things got worse. My father died. I dropped out of school altogether. I never attended high school. It’s not something I’m

proud of.

I played a lot of music during that period. By fifteen, I was playing weddings, church socials, feed-store openings, and shoe-store clearances. I played a lot of funerals, too.

Once, I played a Pentecostal funeral. A woman spoke in tongues while I picked “Peace in the Valley.”

I’d never heard such.

The preacher told me to nod and shout “Thank you JEE-ZUSSSSS” when I heard the thus-saith-the-Lords.

In my twenties, I worked construction and played music in the evenings. I played in establishments my mother would have preferred I hadn’t.

I also played piano for a Baptist church on Sundays. That didn’t last long. But that’s a long story I don’t have room for. I will, however, simply say that some Baptists object to playing in beer joints.

Which is no surprise. The Baptists I grew up…

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

Birmingham, Alabama—A Friday. Chadley was in a good mood. He would be twenty-one in a few days. To celebrate, he would be leaving for Orange Beach with his friends after work.

His job was in a shoe store. It was the sort of place that sold everything. His daily tasks included: stocking, manning a register, and cramming shoes on the stinky feet of bratty kids.

He couldn’t wait to clock out.

Earlier that morning, his father had given him two hundred dollars as a birthday gift. It was going to be the weekend of a lifetime.

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

The fella had crumpled dollars his hand. “Some lady gave me this money,” the old timer said. “I’d like to buy me some shoes.”

It wasn’t enough to buy a pair of flip flops.

Young Chadley looked at the man’s feet. They were bloody.

He bought

the man two pairs of shoes—expensive ones. Then, he bought the man’s lunch. Chadley spent nearly all his birthday money. Then, he tucked his remaining six dollars into the man’s hand.

Our hero never made it to the beach that year.

Panama City, Florida—a man saw a woman in a Home Depot parking lot.

The lady was silver-haired and frail, loading fifty-pound bags of fertilizer into her trunk.

He offered to help. He placed them into her car and nearly ruptured L4, L5, and S1. Then, he followed her home to unload them.

Hers was a rundown single-wide in a mobile home park. She had an overgrown lawn and moldy siding. Her porch was full of flowers that needed planting.

“Who’s gonna plant all those?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Me, I guess. My husband used to help me…

“So I fought,” he said. “You know, you just tell your body, ‘Fight, man.’ Maybe you win, maybe you lose. But all you can do is fight.”

The band was all right. They played to a crowded joint of people who’d clocked out for the weekend. Folks who needed something greasy to eat and cold to drink.

Band members had gray hair, Western-style shirts, hats, boots. The whole nine yards.

“They’re here every Friday,” said the bartender. “Aren’t they awesome?”

The jury’s still out on “awesome.” But their hearts were in the right places.

“At least they play REAL country,” the bartender went on.

We can agree on that much. They played classics. And classic country is a dying art. You can’t look at a superstar who wears $1400 boots and eyeliner and call him country.

The men on this stage looked like they knew how to operate nail guns.

A kid was bussing tables. He was early twenties. He set his tub beside me and watched the band.

I introduced myself.

He said he likes old-fashioned country music. His brother is the one who taught him to like antique songs about cheating hearts, boys named Sue, and wooden Indians.

He tells me

he started listening to records a lot when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“That’s why I got this puffy face,” he explains. “All the pills I’ve taken make me like this.”

The chemo hasn’t helped either.

He was in the hospital for a month, once. He was fighting infection upon infection. His brother bought a portable record player. Together, they listened to classics.

Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard. Music.

“I dunno,” he told me. “Those songs just make me feel good all over.”

In the hospital, he started taking guitar lessons from his brother. He liked guitar better than playing games on his phone, or watching daytime TV.

“Plus, I didn’t know if I was gonna die or not,” he added. “I was doing bucket-list stuff, I guess.”

I guess.

His parents…

I’m talking shindigs of Biblical proportions. Barns with long tables. Fried chicken, barbecued pork, potato salad, and biscuits rich enough to violate federal trade regulations.

I stopped to buy a lottery ticket at a joint on the Florida-Alabama line.

Yeah, I know the lottery is a fool’s game, but I have a longstanding tradition of doing foolish things.

The man at the counter was sipping from a red SOLO cup, chewing ice. On the radio, Loretta Lynn sang. I bought three Powerball tickets and a Coke.

The man said, “Powerball’s up to three forty-eight.”

That’s 348 million bucks. And even though I’m no mathematician, I’ve been thinking about what I’d do if the universe ever gave me that much money.

That’s what writers do, you see. We stare into space, thinking long and hard about things that will never happen just in case they do. If you do it right, people think you’re working.

First: I would buy a farm. A big one. Not for livestock. This would be sprawling countryside, live oaks, and ponds.

Then, I would build hundreds—no thousands of cabins. Little ones, with porch swings, and scenic views. I would call

this operation, “Ellie Mae Farms,” since it will need a name, and my coonhound, Ellie Mae, is sleeping on my feet while I write this.

Yes, here at Ellie Mae Farms, we believe in three things. Foster kids, foster dogs, and saturated fat. Every summer, we’ll welcome kids without parents, who don’t think anyone gives a cuss about them.

We give lots of cusses at Ellie Mae Farms.

We’ll have colossal breakfasts. Any dish you can think of. Bacon, eggs, Conecuh sausage, omelettes, ten-foot-tall glasses of orange juice.

They will send out the local news choppers just to cover our breakfasts.

Our staff will be school teachers. We’ll pay them triple—no ten-times what teachers get paid today. Not only will they teach, they’ll receive five months paid vacations, benefits, complimentary massages, and monthly beer allowances.

And don’t forget our…

On the day we got Daddy from the funeral home, he came packaged in a cardboard box. He didn’t believe in urns. He was a tight-wad, even for his own funeral.

It was nice weather. I was on a boat with a friend, hoping to catch a few bream. The fish, of course, knew this and conspired to avoid me.

My friend was sipping beer. Willie Nelson serenaded us from a battery-powered pocket radio. We saw a bass boat in the distance.

It was a nice boat. The kind that costs an arm and a liver.

Four people were onboard. Two men, one boy, and a woman. They were dressed in Sunday clothes. The woman held what looked like a vase. She emptied it overboard. Dust fell into the water.

The boy’s face was in his hands. I’ll never forget him.

My friend bowed his head. I turned off the pocket radio. We were quiet. And I was decades backward in a memory.

In this particular memory, I’m thirteen. I’m in the mountains. The air is thin. My mouth is dry. I am cold.

I’m not my normal happy boyish self. But then, I hadn’t been happy since my father

died.

Dead. He was dead, I kept telling myself. I couldn’t believe it.

On the day we got Daddy from the funeral home, he came packaged in a cardboard box. He didn’t believe in urns. He was a tight-wad, even for his own funeral.

His brown box sat on a counter. The funeral director had my mother sign a dotted line. And that was that.

A man’s entire life, stuffed into a box. Once, he was a tall, slender man who taught me how to gut fish.

Now he was UPS parcel.

We kept his ashes in the shed since nobody wanted his remains indoors. My mother said his spirit needed to escape. I sat with him a lot.

One year later, we found ourselves on the mountain I told you about. We overlooked the whole world. My uncle sliced…

“But I was tired of feeling beneath everyone else,” she said. “I had no confidence, and I had no idea how to make things better.”

She’s older. Her skin is weathered, but her eyes are still sharp. She says that for most of her life she thought she was trash.

“Growing up, I never thought much of myself,” she said. “Guess when your daddy says you ain’t nothing, you believe it.”

Yeah.

Her parents were poor. Her father was bad to drink. Her mother was bitter. Life was no cakewalk.

She had her first boyfriend as a sophomore. He was a real winner. He degraded her, called her names. She got pregnant as a junior. He disappeared. She dropped out.

By nineteen, she was pregnant again by another man who treated her even worse—who also left her.

But her life didn’t stay as sad as it sounds. No sir. In fact, that’s why I’m writing this.

During her mid-twenties, fate smiled on her. She got married to a good man who thought she hung the moon. He had two kids; she had two kids. They shoved their families together and manufactured happiness

by the bucketful.

He laid concrete. She worked in a restaurant.

They were barely making enough to survive, but money’s not everything. Some things are more important. Like happiness, family, and whether you like your own reflection.

“But I was tired of feeling beneath everyone else,” she said. “I had no confidence, and I had no idea how to make things better.”

One day after work, she got her answer. She was picking up her children from the Methodist church’s after-school program.

In the parking lot, she met a woman who was like her. Same callused hands. Same smoking habit. They hit it off. They talked about things, about their kids, their husbands, about everything.

The woman said she was graduating college that same week.

“It’s taken me ten years to graduate,” the woman admitted. “Had to take classes little by little.…