I showed up for the wedding. There were maybe five people attending. His mother, brother, and a few others who looked like they'd just gotten off work.

Cheeseburgers are God's gift to humanity. You can quote me on that. Once, I traveled to Montgomery, to try what some call Alabama's best burger—at a hole-in-the-wall place called Vicki's Lunch Van.

As it happens, Vicki's is not a van. It's an old building. Furthermore, I can assure you, the rumors are false. This is not Alabama's best. This is the best in the cotton-picking United States.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Long ago, when I worked as a house framer, I ate burgers every lunch. This went on for years. I ordered them with extra cheese and pickles.

My friend ate with me. He had a curly black afro and stuttered badly. Because of this, he usually wanted me to order for him. So, each day at lunchtime, I'd tell the girl at the counter, “Two burgers, fixed pretty.” She knew what to do.

We'd eat on the tailgate. My buddy would often say something like, “Y-y-you think you could g-g-get me more C-C-Coke?”

“What am I, your butler?” I'd say, then

I'd get him a refill.

I remember the day he told me about a girl.

He said they'd gone bowling. And then, with great enthusiasm, he explained how she was a special girl. She had a young son, with cystic fibrosis. She lived with her friend in a bad part of town. Their relationship was, for all practical purposes, fiscal failure. Between them, all they had were a few nickels and a car payment.

He married her.

I showed up for the wedding. There were maybe five people attending. His mother, brother, and a few others who looked like they'd just gotten off work. His tux was cheap, so was her dress. Her son sat in the front row, crutches on his lap.

When my friend said his vows, he stammered so hard the preacher winced. His bride never quit smiling.

They moved out of town—she…

“If our school doesn't bring math grades up,” my friend says. “It affects our funding. These kids have an hour of homework every night. It's crazy. There's no time for kids to go outside and play anymore.”

There's a portrait in my friend's office. An eight-year-old drew it. My friend's ears look like wide-open car doors, but otherwise I'd say it's an undoubtedly accurate depiction.

My friend teaches art. Well, sort of. He teaches it once every two months, since Alabama schools have deemphasized arts and music. He tells me his students didn't even know how to operate scissors or draw basic happy faces.

“It's sad,” he says. “Technology has changed everything. And so has the school system, we've just kinda let art dry up.”

Most of his students spend school hours doing math homework.

“If our school doesn't bring math grades up,” my friend says. “It affects our funding. These kids have an hour of homework every night. It's crazy. There's no time for kids to go outside and play anymore.”

God help me.

I don't have many bones to pick with the society. In fact, I believe American kids are quite privileged. Furthermore, my wife is a math teacher, so I need to be careful or I'll be sleeping in

the barn. But it burdens me to think children don't have time to practice shooting cap guns.

My friend decided to fix this by holding after-school art classes.

“It was just me and a few other dads,” he said. “The first class, we taught'em to draw turtle shells. Which is just a bunch of equilateral octagons.”

For the love of Crayola, refrain from the math jargon.

“Kids got into it,” he went on. “Then, we taught'em faces. Everyone took turns drawing portraits of their partners.”

His art class grew.

Soon, several kids and parents stayed after school to get messy with paint and clay. Once, they even made guitars out of cigar boxes.

And then the county got involved. Someone didn't like the idea of folks on school property without sufficient staff. After all, someone could get injured with a paintbrush on school grounds.

One…

You should've heard his storytelling. Sometimes, he'd talk until one in the morning—I'd laugh so hard I peed. Or: he'd play guitar for his nephew, who didn't want to go to bed because he missed his father.

My uncle was always broke. After my father died, he'd take me into town and say, “I forgot my money-clip, how much you got?”

I'd reach in my pocket and give him what pittance I had. He'd smile. “Thank God, I was afraid we wouldn't have gas to get home."

He sunk his little bit of savings into a rusted Dodge RV that was hardly bolted together. Whenever the thing came bounding down our road, it sounded like a shopping cart.

The door was loose, one window was covered with cardboard. Inside: a couch he'd found on the side of the road which used to smell like cat urine.

He parked in our cattle pasture. The cows took to him quicker than they ever took to me. They wandered around his vehicle and looked through his windows.

Often, I'd find him in a lawn chair outside, with two Aberdeens underneath his awning. He'd named the red one, Barbara. Whenever he'd see me coming to visit, he'd slap her hindparts, saying, “Get outta here old

girl, make room for my nephew.”

Barbara complained.

I'd sit with him half the day sometimes. He was lonely, I was fatherless. Some friendships are meant to be.

He told stories—he has millions. I could pass entire afternoons listening to one after another. Whenever he'd tell a blatant false one, he'd raise his hand and say, “Hundred and twenty percent true. Ain't that right, Barbara?”

Barbara didn't like being brought into disputes.

My uncle was, by all means, a decided failure. Not the kind of example many people aspire to become. He worked in a lowly fertilizer plant, smelled bad, and couldn't afford supper. And, he was the only living member of my family lazy enough to pick guitar, or memorize dirty jokes.

To me, he was a genius.

You should've heard his knockout storytelling. Sometimes, he'd talk until one in the morning—until I'd laugh so…

And studies prove 2016 was the most homicidal year since Thomas Edison invented the drive-up ATM.

The honey bees are dead. They keep disappearing. Because of this, scientists predict one day mankind will no longer have peaches, tomatoes, magnolias, coffee, Home Depots, the NFL, the Atlantic Ocean, or mothers.

In other breaking news: the political candidates ate breakfast. Sorry. You probably expected something more exciting than that. But it's all we got.

More headlines: a wealthy athlete remained seated during the National Anthem. Mosquitoes continue to spread a virus which turns people into cream-cheese-colored puss. Toxic algae grows in Florida. Cellphones cause thumb numbness.

And studies prove 2016 was the most homicidal year since Thomas Edison invented the drive-up ATM.

Florida Fish and Wildlife developed new taxes on deer hunting. Deer hunters fight back by not giving a damn.

Coffee will kill you. So will smiling.

Apple unveils new iPhone—recent reports find older iPhones are unexplainably malfunctioning.

The presidential candidates ate pastrami for lunch—stay tuned for further updates.

Hurricane Hermine brews in Gulf of Mexico, threatening the slaughter of millions of babies and unadopted kittens. Evacuation rumors reverberate throughout Gulf Coast.

Weather Channel's

Jim Cantore tells ABC news affiliates, “I've seen a lot of freaky $#*@, man, I don't think the human race will survive this.”

Sports and health headlines:

SEC coach, Nick Saban, instructs Alabama players to stand for anthem unless they want the door to hit them where the Good Lord split them.

Also: gluten makes you live longer. Beer does too. Never mind. We're wrong. They both kill you. Wait. No, they extend lifespans. Scratch that. It's kale. Definitely kale. If you want to make it past forty-five, you'd better eat kale.

In other updates:

Teacher finds syringe in child's lunchbox. Child expelled from kindergarten due to zero-tolerance drug policies. Mother of kindergartener sues teacher for theft of six-thousand-dollar epi-pen.

Drinking water in lower Alabama infected with dangerous levels of politics.

In the continuing war on America's drug crisis, Congress outlaws Willie Nelson…

Look, I'm no dummy. I know one day the one who sleeps beside me will kick the oxygen habit. Or maybe it'll be me who goes first. God. I don't want to think about it.

I'd give my left kidney for a piece of bacon right now. My wife is making breakfast as we speak, I can smell it in the other room—and hear it, too.

Long ago, I didn't think our morning meals were anything fancy—now I know they are. Though it's no thanks to me. She makes everything from scratch: biscuits, sausage gravy, hash browns, even jam. I do my part to help. I watch television for us both.

To be fair, I do buy our eggs. I get them from my pal who raises chickens. I can't eat Winn Dixie eggs—if you grew up like some of us did, then you'll know supermarket eggs taste a lot like toddler snot.

She's off work the next few days, it feels like a long weekend. She'll stay in her pajamas, and I'll putter around. We don't say much around the house.

“You hear about Sister So-And-So getting married?” I might say.

“Yep,” she'll remark. “Her new husband is a real piece of...”

You get the

idea.

She might watch murder mysteries on the sofa. Or: wander into my office while I'm working. She'll tell me she's unsure of what we're having for supper. And we will discuss this subject at least forty times per day.

“You want pizza tonight?” I'll ask.

“No, I wanna eat at home,” she'll say.

“Fine, but I don't want beans again, I'm sick of beans.”

And then I get a black eye.

My friend died last week. It happened in his car, in a parking lot. They found him sitting in the front seat with a to-go box on his lap. Nobody saw it coming. A heart attack.

He sat there a full day until his car idled itself out of gas. He was a good man with a nice wife. No kids. We drank together some. I called him my cousin, he called me, Red.

It's political season in Palatka. Posters everywhere. One reads: “Elect Gator for sheriff.” The sign beside it: “Crickets, red wigglers, ammunition, and boiled peanuts."

Last Saturday, I rode east on Florida Highway 100 until I ran smack-dab into a sign reading: "Welcome to Palatka."

Palatka is a faded town on the Saint Johns River, with so many mossy oaks it'll catch your breath. There's a downtown small enough to pitch a baseball through, and a diner named, Bradley's—which boasts the most mounted deer in the tri-county area.

It's political season in Palatka. Posters everywhere. One reads: “Elect Gator for sheriff.” The sign beside it: “Crickets, red wigglers, ammunition, and boiled peanuts."

We stayed at a friend's house. Miss Leslie rolled out a spread. Her husband, Tank,—a goodhearted man who resembles a piece of military defense machinery—operated the deep-fryer.

And by dog, we had a party.

The buffet line had all the trimmings you'd expect in the deep South. Field peas with enough ham to make a cardiologist nervous. Venison, casseroles, deep-fried everything.

The conversation didn't follow any ground rules. One woman talked about the health benefits of cow pies. Miss Jane—distinguished English teacher and highly-decorated hell-raiser—recited a toast which made

someone laugh so hard he swallowed his cigarette.

A group of fellas in the corner talked about the finer points of sausage. John told a story about when a hog bit off his buddy's finger.

Then, there's white-headed Nana, whose candy-apple red blouse and earrings matched her pocket book. She looks like the cover of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine—only sassier.

Nana said, “I feel lucky to have lived in Palatka all these years, it was a perfect place to raise children. And even though we don't have many shoe stores, we get by."

They do more than get by.

They live easy. Sure, they have problems, this isn't heaven. But it's pretty stinking close. If you don't believe me, you ought to visit the curbside stand that still sells raw honey using the honor system.

No thefts since 1947.

Well. Except for…

This is my home, I'm standing. Not just for my flag. For my grandaddy, who wore a purple heart, and still does—six feet beneath the soil.

I'm in an interstate truckstop drinking lukewarm coffee that tastes like bathwater. There are antlers on the wall near the Coke machine. My eggs are overdone, my bacon tastes like rubber, my vinyl seat has a tear in it.

This is heaven.

I'm watching television. On the screen: a gentleman in a suit complains about America.

"Sometimes, I hate America," the talking head says. "I don't even like our flag..."

The waitress slaps off the television.

A man at the counter shakes his head and cusses at the TV. I know what he's thinking because I'm thinking the same thing.

This talk-show host has the IQ of coleslaw.

Furthermore, I don't hate my homeland. I love everything from Spanish moss to the Roy Rogers. From swamps to double-wide trailers, to homemade moonshine.

Consequently, once in north Florida, someone gave me a jar of strawberry moonshine. The next morning, I awoke in south Alabama with a toothache.

I also like bass ponds, railroads, hog farms, vegetable stands, and flatbed Fords—I've owned six.

I like Bob Feller, Hank

Aaron, and Ken Griffey Jr. I like pigskin footballs, and coaches who make boys into men. I prefer cheap beer, and though I don't smoke, I love the smell of Virginian tobacco in grandaddy's corncob pipe.

And if that's not patriotic enough, I love Hank, Merle, George, and Willie. I like Will Rogers, Bugs Bunny, Hee Haw, and Louis Armstrong. And whenever I hear a preacher deliver a Baptist-style message, I'm liable to stand and holler.

I'm not finished.

I love Savannah, Charleston, Milton, Jay, Pollard, Defuniak Springs, Valdosta, Grand Ridge, Palatka, Keithville, Greenwood, Lake City, Eastpoint, Wewahitchka, Brewton, Tuscaloosa, Dixonville, and Andalusia.

I like Martin guitars, Stetson hats, Buck knives, Winchester 1873's, and anyone who says, “y'all.”

And when I hear the National Anthem, I don't give a damn which NFL football players throw tantrums about it. This is my home, I'm standing.…

“My daughter treats him like he ain't right, and I can't stand it. Ain't nothing wrong with that child. He's SMARTER than you'n me. Who cares if he don't talk? Hell, I wish more people were like that.”

This child had the reddest hair you've ever seen. He's scooping water out of the river, preparing for a long day of fishing on his granddaddy's boat.

His grandaddy is a smallish man, with few teeth, who wears a Kubota tractor cap. And since I have a soft spot for men who rack up hours beneath the roll-bar, I pray this man catches God's biggest fish.

And I told him as much.

“Thank ya, sir,” he answered. “But really, I hope my grandson has good fishing luck. He's a nut, when it comes to this stuff.”

The boy puttered back and forth, busy. He never looked me in the

eye, but kept himself on a tight checklist, inspecting live-bait, topping gasoline levels, opening coolers, throwing bags of ice against the concrete—to break up the clumps.

As a child, I had no idea why anyone hurled ice bags against the concrete. Males do this all over the world. It wasn't until my late twenties that I realized the reason behind such a thing.

Because it makes us feel like men.

I hollered to the boy, “Good luck fishing!”

But it was as though he didn't hear me. He just bent over…

Sometimes I lay in bed and feel sad about such things. I guess I'm only human. I'm curious to know what it would be like to have something small need you.

Yeah, she's a bad dog. I know this much. There's no way anyone could miss it.

Once, in Oak Mountain State Park, she stole a pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon and toothpicks. She snatched it right off a camper's grill. I didn't even know she'd escaped until I saw a man running through the park with a spatula over his head.

He shouted something I won't repeat—my mother reads these things.

The campground security guard caught her, though I don't know how—I've chased this coonhound across state lines before. Once she was captured, he tried to locate her owner.

No luck. The real owner never came forward.

Ellie Mae spent one night in campground prison, where I understand security guards became hypnotized by her brown eyes. They fed her two Hardee's hamburgers, and marveled at how much she seemed to enjoy the taste of Budweiser.

The next morning: nobody had ever seen toothpicks exit a dog like that before.

And that's nothing.

Once, I left her in the truck while I

ran into Winn Dixie. I kept the AC running, and Willie Nelson playing. Inside, when I rounded the dairy aisle, I saw a familiar lump of black fur wandering down the frozen-food lane, carefree and light on her feet. I followed her all the way to the fresh produce, where I found her gnawing on a bottle of ketchup. It looked like a homicide.

The staff thought she was adorable.

Most people do. But she's not. She's trouble. I've seen her eat twenty-two jars of peanut butter, half a guitar, a laptop charger, and that was just lunch. For supper: a raincoat, a pair of underpants, and three bills. If there's a worse dog out there, I'm hard-pressed to believe it.

But right now, the terrorist coonhound sleeps beneath my feet as we speak. She snores bad. Her head is resting on my foot. She's warm. And I…

Lula Bell is above these thoughts. She has a food bowl, that's enough for her.

Lula Bell is in my lap right now. She's asleep, because it's still early. This cat loves a sunrise, it's the strangest thing you ever saw. She looks straight at it.

When we first got Lula, she had a broken leg and didn't trust humans. If you made any sudden moves, she'd be halfway to Chattanooga in a few seconds.

Before us, she lived in a dumpster behind Winn Dixie. And I have it on good authority her best friend was a long-bearded, soft-spoken man who kept her well fed—which must be true. She's got the plumpest belly in the county.

Store employees said Lula wouldn't let anyone touch

her but this man.

"He had a way with her," one employee said. "He'd just hold her and whisper."

The same employee recalls once seeing the man waiting outside the back door during store hours. He asked if the bakery would be getting rid of any pastries that day.

The employee said he didn't know, then asked why.

"It's my anniversary," said the man. "My wife died a long time ago, but I still celebrate however I can."

“I didn't know if it was true or not," the employee went on.…