Dothan, Alabama—the pollen is bad this time of year. I am stuffed up. My eyes are puffy.
He’s waiting for me in a parking lot. He’s traveling light. An overnight bag and an art kit. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. He needs a ride to Northwest Florida, for a family reunion.
I happen to be on my way to Northwest Florida.
I’m going to call him Willie Merle, even though that’s not his name—those happen to be two names I like.
Willie is easy to talk to. He’s wiry, gray-headed, smokes Marlboros, and has a happy smile.
His biological mother was negligent. When he was nine days old, she bathed him in turpentine. His aunt saw this happen. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and took him home.
His aunt adopted him and he never called her anything but “Mama” thereafter.
“She was my angel,” Willie said.
His biological parents didn’t want anything to do with him. And this might’ve made him bitter, or angry, but his mama taught him otherwise.
He tells me he’s not perfect. He’s made mistakes—show me a man who hasn’t—but I’m not at liberty to talk about them here.
“I’m on probation,” he said. “That’s how come I ain’t got no license. Spent three weeks in county jail, wasn’t no fun. Had to wear orange and everything.
“I’ve hurt my friends and my family. Hell, I don’t feel like I deserve love from nobody.”
We passed through the miles of pasture between Dothan and the Panhandle. The sky was blue. The air was full of spring pollen.
He talked. I listened.
“Haven’t seen my brother and sisters in years,” he said with wet eyes. “My biggest regret is disappointing them. I want to make things right.”
He covers his eyes and sniffs.
Anyway, this weekend is not going to be a sad weekend. Willie is hoping to be part of his family again. It’s been so long since he’s seen them, he’s almost forgotten what they look like.
But he’s ready.
“Know exactly what I’m gonna do,” he said. “I’m gonna sit’em down and beg forgiveness. And, I’ll understand if they don’t want nothing to do with me.
“It’s all good. I’ll just go back to waiting tables, living my own life, I won’t bother them no more.”
Waiting tables is his life. He’s done it for decades. He’s a double-shifter, an over-timer, and he never lets sweet tea fall below the rim.
He earns two bucks and thirteen cents an hour. He survives on tips. But Willie is more than a waiter to those he serves.
Case in point: when his mother died, carloads of his regular customers drove two hours to attended her funeral in Georgia.
“When I saw all my customers standing in that funeral line, I just lost it. I couldn’t believe they’d done that for me, I mean look at me. I’m just a ugly, skinny WAITER.”
He’s the furthest thing from it.
We arrive in the Walmart parking lot. We are waiting for his sisters to arrive.
Wille says, “God, I’m so nervous, man. I just don’t know about this…”
A white car pulls behind us. His breathing gets faster. His hands are trembling. He closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. He’s wondering how his sisters will react when they see him.
Willie steps out. His legs are long and skinny. He grabs his overnight bag and his art kit.
“I’m kinda scared,” he says.
Then. His sisters see him. They rush toward him. He drops his bag and art kit.
And I wish I could tell you what happened next. But I couldn’t see through these eyes of mine.
Like I said. The pollen is bad this time of year.
Family is everything.