Here, men know how field dress squirrels, women glide when they walk.

“I hate the South,” he shouts to the bar. “I miss living in Philly.”

He's an obnoxious fella, ten-times my size, drunk as Cooter Brown.

“Rednecks,” he goes on, ordering a whiskey sour. “Everyone's racist, they don't know jack $#!+ about the world, prolly can't even SPELL Philadelphia.”

This is an affront.

Willa, the bartender, accepts his challenge. She concentrates, then scribbles the word on a napkin.

He cackles. “Oh my GOD! There's no F in Philadelphia!”

He celebrates with another whiskey.

Willa's embarrassed. She's from Oxford—a city once named Lick Skillet before the Union Army came along.

"You ignorant girl," he says. "Didn't you even go to SCHOOL?"

Now wait just a hot minute.

Look, say what you want about the South. Heckle all day. But when you insult a woman's intelligence, it's time to have a little talk with Jesus.

The idea that those below the Mason Dixon are racist bumpkins—ridden with poor dental genetics—lacking enough smarts to spell Poughkeepsie, is loathsome.

First off: I just spelled it.

Second: spell Czechoslovakia.

We aren't Philadelphians. We don't eat much cream cheese. And we

don't drink whiskey sours—putting eggs in your bourbon would get you shot in some parts.

But we're not so different. We're humans, same as Yankees, Canadians, East Europeans, and good spellers. Sure, we have gross racists. So does Boston.

We also have exceptional people.

Such as, Caroline—a white-haired woman with fourteen black boys living in her house. They're college baseball players. In exchange for room and meals, they maintain her antique home. They're well-behaved, straight-A students.

Daryl—from a town no bigger than a postage stamp. His teachers noticed how smart he was when he practiced math on the sidewalk in chalk. Today, he works for the Pentagon.

Michelle—a six-foot-five, black, lesbian who found a toddler underneath a bridge, then adopted him. I dare you to stereotype her.

Don—a Georgia man who gave a minivan to a…

“God gave me a gift,” he said. “Letting me get this sick.”

The doctors gave him a few years, tops. He says he's not afraid.

He spends a lot of time in the woods. He's been this way since childhood. Chances are, if you don't find him in the forest, you probably won't find him.

A few weeks ago, I visited. We went for a walk near his house. 

He looks good. He's bald. His hair is growing back in patches. He covers it with an Ole' Miss cap. Once upon a time, I would've given him hell about Alabama's recent victory against the Rebels. Not now.

They first discovered his cancer when he was young. They operated; he thought he was cured. For a long time, he seemed all right. Then he started going downhill. He's forty-three now—and a ways down the hill.

“My body hates me,” he said. “I've come to terms with that. But I'm not my body. I just live in it, lotta people don't get that.”

Well, to tell you the truth, I don't get it, either. But then, I never claimed

to be smart.

“I ain't worried about dying," he went on. "I mean, it's sad, but this life ain't all there is.”

Well, I've thumbed through afterlife theories before. I've had a hard time making heads or tails. I've heard enough to confuse me.

A college professor once told me there was no hereafter—he emphasized that everything either becomes worm poop or limestone. My mother believes in streets of gold. My deranged uncle believes we come back as possums. My wife believes her father is a turkey buzzard.

"Oh, I believe there's a Heaven," he said. "I have to.”

We stopped to look at the pine trees. He still loves them. When he was younger and more agile, he could scale them like a monkey. Now, he just looks upward.

“God gave me a gift,” he said. “Letting me get this sick.”

Yeah? Well, I…

And thats how she came to show interest in Auburn football. The couple worshiped the SEC calendar. She started pulling for the Tigers to tease her husband—a committed Alabama fan.

For a funeral, it was a nice one. They say she looked good. She represented Auburn to the end, wearing orange and blue—and eagle broach. I understand her artificial smile set off her outfit.

Her kids weren't enthusiastic about her get-up, but before she died she'd made her wishes were clear.

“The funny thing,” her son says. “She didn't go to Auburn. None of us did. Actually, I don't even know if my mother finished high school.”

Truth told, her kids don't know much about her early days. What they do know, they cherish. Now that she's gone, they wish they'd asked more questions.


She was the eldest of five. Her mother died young. After her mother passed, she raised them. She changed diapers, prepared suppers, and they say her father was too familiar with her.

“When she married my dad,” he says. “She was twenty-five. She'd already reared a family at that age. My uncles and aunts all treated her like their mother.”

She had a good adult life. She bore

three kids, made sack lunches, and knew her way around an oven roast. To her children she's a saint.

“My mother never got mad,” he says. “Like when I got arrested for driving drunk. Mother came to pick me up. She never even addressed it. I'm sure she was was upset, but she just told me, 'Son, I forgive you.'”

She forgave him so intensively, she made him paint their entire two-story home using a paintbrush and Campbell's soup can.

“She adored my dad,” he adds. “He was like her second shot at a normal life. To make up for her childhood, Dad was so good to her. He let her be herself.”

And thats how she came to show interest in Auburn football. The couple worshiped the SEC calendar. She started pulling for the Tigers to tease her husband—a committed Alabama fan. On the weekends, she'd…

“I've always wanted to live in the South,” she said. “Always felt I should'a been born here. Something about it.”

She's been living in the South four years, but can't seem to get Chicago out of her accent. She waits tables in Mobile. All her customers notice the way she talks. Her regulars kid her about it.

“I try saying, 'y'all' sometimes,” she said. “But it never comes out right.”

It's okay. Truth told, I hear more Southern teenagers using Yankee birdcalls such as: “you guys.” They say it with a drawl. It comes out sounding like, “You gahz,”

I blame the Internet.

“I've always wanted to live in the South,” she said. “Always felt I should'a been born here. Something about it.”

She's no spring chick. She has lines around her eyes, a wiry frame, and her hands look strong. I asked how she came to the area.

“Moved here after my husband tried to kill me.”

I could tell she wasn't being funny. So, I quit asking questions and made a remark about the weather.

She kept on, “Since he couldn't kill me, my husband ended up killing himself, and our son. Ran the car right off

the road, hit a tree. Looked like an accident, but I know it wasn't.”


“I went from being a wife and a mother to being nothing. It was hard.”

After they passed, she quit taking care of herself. Her days consisted of Hamburger Helper, Marlboro Reds, and long bouts of crying.

A friend suggested she see a therapist. So, she looked one up in the phonebook.

“Didn't even know what I was looking for,” she said. “Just stuck my finger on a name and made an appointment.”

And as fate would have it—if you believe in that sort of thing—the therapist was a widow who'd lost her child, too.

“When my therapist opened her mouth," she went on. "She had a Southern accent, sounded so warm and friendly... I just really bonded with her.”

The Georgia-born therapist suggested traveling. But life…

Look, I don't have anything against politicians—red, blue, or polka-dot. My problem is with the human race. People are selfish and mean. And I'm not talking about candidates. I'm talking about us.

8:01 P.M., Panama City, Florida—Donald Trump is in town. My wife and I are in a nearby barbecue joint. There are so many cars in this city, my pork tastes like exhaust.

Twenty-one thousand folks of every shape and size are here. Old ladies in red caps, dogs in flag-sweaters, elderly men with patriotic koozies. Cops, teachers, Girl Scouts.

The woman in the booth next to us asks, "Y'all going to the rally?"

"No ma'am," I say. "We prefer NASCAR to dirt tracks."

The truth is, you won't meet anyone less political than me. I did not grow up playing the sport.

The most political event I've attended was a livestock auction. Bill Branner was running for reelection. He passed out paper fans with the words: “Be a fan for Brann'” printed on them.

That night, every cow pie in three counties had fans poking from the tops.

Look, I don't have anything against politicians—red, blue, or polka-dot. My problem is with the human race. People are selfish and mean. And I'm not talking about candidates. I'm talking

about us.

Consider Tyler, whose mother just died, whose father just went to jail for child pornography. Where's Tyler going to spend Christmas? Doesn't anyone care about him?

What about Anne? Her daughter got raped, killed, and stuffed in a trunk. Or: Rena—going through chemo, ashamed of how puffy and bald she looks. These are the ones I'm interested in.

Life is no picnic. We have terrorists, cyber-wars, mutating bacteria, and deadly mosquitoes. And if they don't get you, teenagers who dress up like killer clowns from Hell will.

As it happens, my grandaddy often told a story about Hell.

"Hell ain't what you think," he'd say. "Ain't no flames, dragons, or pitchforks. Hell is one big feast—with biscuits, ribs, creamed corn, butter beans, cheese grits, pulled pork..."

Bear with me here.

"Thing is," he'd go on. "People in Hell can't eat because…

“My dad left us while Todd was still a baby, he called him an ugly freak. He was too stupid to see how great Todd is. Why, he's the thing I love most in this world."

Whenever Randy was happy, so was his kid brother, Todd. And even though Todd had Down's syndrome, it didn't stop him from being the mirror-image of his idol.

In fact, Todd never knew he was any different than the rest of us. His brother didn't permit such ideas. If anyone even looked at Todd sideways, Randy would tighten his fists.

Sometimes, the two seemed less like brothers and more like one person.

We'd take Randy fishing; Todd came along. We'd go camping; they'd share a tent.

Consequently, one night I felt splattering against the side of my tent, and heard Todd whistling Dixie.

The next morning, Todd said, “Sorry, I thought you were a tree last night.”

Still, it was impossible not to like Todd. He laughed hard at jokes, sang loud at campfires, and made simple things seem like privileges.

One summer, Todd got a job on the same construction site his brother worked. He wandered around picking up nails and screws for pocket change. He lost the job when he started playing

with a high-powered nail gun—accidentally making pin-cushions out of Randy's truck tires.

Another time: Todd drove his brother to the doctor when he came down with the stomach bug. He piled Randy into the vehicle, fired the engine, and broke the sound barrier.

When the cop pulled him over, Todd instructed the deputy to write him two tickets to save time. The officer was more interested in why Todd was driving without a license—and why he was driving on the median.

But that was long ago. Todd and his brother moved to Tennessee when work slowed down. They grew up, sprouted facial hair. We lost touch. But I still remember the younger versions of them, and how they did everything together.

And I recall the time Todd fell prey to a fistfight because someone called him, "retard." Randy stepped in and ended the rumble in a few…

“I've never seen'em so alive,” remarks one nurse. "I had no idea it would mean so much.”

They just donated a new piano to the nursing home and rehab where Wanda lives. This is big news for a small place like this. There's a buzz in the air.

Old folks love pianos. They can't help but gather around them. It's instinct.

Wanda says, “A hundred years ago, the only entertainment anyone had was pianos. Mama tried to get me to learn to play, I was too busy running 'round barefoot.”

“Me too,” said one man. "Spent all my time in the woods, wish I'd learned."

A lady in a wheelchair with Parkinson's adds, “My grandmother was full-blood Cherokee, she hated pianos. A white-man's instrument. Wouldn't let us touch them.”

The nurses here know the residents by name, and all day-to-day routines. This is not an easy place to work. One nurse tells me the first time she helped Sister So-And-So use the restroom, it took two hours—she almost resigned. She called it a, “traumatic experience.”

“My Paw Paw was a druggist,” Wanda went on. “Used to have a piano in

his drug store. There was one kid who could flat play. He'd come in and stay all day. All us girls liked him.”

The remark is barely noticed by the crowd. They're too zeroed-in on Rodney—a middle-aged man at the piano. He's the music minister from the Methodist church. Today, he's here to demonstrate the new piano and roll through songs like, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” or, “Amazing Grace.”

Wanda and company are waiting.

The nurse comes around and tops everyone's coffee off. She has two pitchers. One with caffeine, the other with brown stink water. How she remembers who gets decaf is beyond me. I ask her how she knows such things.

“It's my job,” she tells me. “Been doing it forever. I've known several these residents since I's a kid. Like Miss Amy, she was my kindergarten teacher.”

When Rodney begins playing, the world…

...that America disappeared along with manual stick-shifts and argyle. Flip on the news, thumb through the paper. This world hates each other.

This place is lousy. The food is awful, the beer comes in plastic cups and tastes like toilet water.

The man beside me at the bar weighs a buck-ten, sopping wet. He has a white handle-bar mustache and old skin that looks like rawhide. If I had to guess his age: one hundred and twelve.

I shouldn't be drinking tonight. I have bronchitis. But I'm a hick, and Alabama's playing Arkansas. I can't do barbecue and football without Budweiser.

“I ain't never seen nothing like it,” Mustache says. “Y'all're the luckiest generation, but the MOST miserable.”

Miserable. That about describes me right now. I can't quit hacking. My wife had to sleep in the spare bedroom with a pillow over her head last night.

The man goes on, “We got hurricanes, diseases, and people dying, but all we do is fight about politics...”

While he's jawing, I realize can't taste my food—or my beer. My tastebuds are collecting unemployment.

Mustache says, "There's so damn much to be grateful for, but folks walk around looking

like they been drinking castor oil. You know. Hateful.”

I push my sandwich away. The mention of castor oil has ruined my evening. Mama gave me spoonfuls of the stuff to treat everything from constipation to C-minuses.

“It breaks my heart,” Mustache says. “Americans love complaining. It's like they're angry. REALLY angry. Don't know what's happening anymore, we're falling apart from the inside out.”

I signal the bartender for my bill, but he's too engrossed with the old man to notice.

The old timer says, “There was a time people were kind. Boys opened doors for girls, folks pulled cars over to help change strangers' tires. If travelers needed shelter, people put them up.”

Well, those are sweet thoughts, sir. But that America disappeared along with manual stick-shifts and argyle. Flip on the news, thumb through the paper. This world hates each other.

"What do you…

Because one day—and you're just going to have to trust me on this—you're going to be a new man. It'll be like God replaced your head with a factory-new model.

I met a boy in the supermarket parking lot. I saw him loading groceries into a rusty car. His young mother sat up front with a baby.

He was a serious kid. Thirteen maybe. His daddy had just died. Brain tumor. It screwed him up.

I helped him load a large bag of dog food. When we finished, he shook my hand like a thirty-year-old.

And for a second, I was thirteen.

In my memory, I'm standing in the gravel parking lot of a rural supermarket. I can hear my kid sister screaming in the truck. Mama soft-talking her.

Behind me: Mister Stew, stepping out of his vehicle. Nosy. He's just learned the news about Daddy. I can see it on his face.

I remember that only a few days earlier, I'd overheard a conversation between two adults—at church. They'd talked about me.

“You hear about his daddy?” one man had remarked.

“No,” said the other. “What happened?”

"Kilt his self."

“Oh my God, that kid's gonna be screwed up.”

It occurred to me then, that this

was my new lot in life. And I would learn this fully when I showed up for ball practice. When all the boys scooted toward the other end of the dugout, avoiding eye-contact.

That day, on the walk home, I tossed my glove into a ditch and never went back.

Even my sleep was cursed. I'd lay awake, unable to shut my eyes for more than a minute. One night, I wandered into our pasture to watch stars. The next morning, Mama found me asleep near the goat pen.

Money got tight. Childhood ended. I learned to do laundry, change lightbulbs, fix sinks. I took thankless jobs. Mama and I pooled our paychecks together for rent. We wore second-hand clothes.

That all seems like a hundred years ago now.

Anyway kid, I don't know what you're feeling. It wouldn't matter if I did.…

Onslaughts of laughter. Pandemonium breaks out. These kids have lost their cotton-picking minds.

I don't fit in at grade schools. Truth told, I never have. There's good reason for this:

1. I'm bad at math.

2. That's enough counting.

So here I am, in Mrs. Sylvia's second-grade classroom. I have forty-five minutes with her students. I'm supposed to talk about writing. And Mrs. Sylvia hopes I'll be able to teach them something.

I doubt it.

I don't teach. Once, I trained a Labrador to fetch newspapers. It was a mistake. He spent the rest of his natural life making steaming headlines in our backyard. I told Mrs. Sylvia as much.

Her response: “Look, I don't care WHAT you talk about, just don't let the kids set the building on fire while I'm down the hall.”

Thus, we begin class with a simple writing exercise. I give them a fill-in-the-blank sentence, such as: "My mother says I..."

“Stink!” one kid hollers.

“TALK TOO LOUD!” another child adds.

“Hey," says a boy. "I really gotta poop!”

Creative juices are churning, we try another. My next class directive: “Tell me what's most important in your life.”

The class runs quiet. Twenty-six towheads reflecting on life-importance, chewing on pencils.

“My most important thing,” one kid explains. “Is my brother. He makes me mad, but I love him, he's my BFF.”

A girl adds, "People are important."

A redheaded boy chimes in, “I think being happy is most important.”

Okay. Happiness. Now you're talking about the Holy Grail of adulthood, kid. Misery is in our drinking water, staying cheery is about as easy as licking a hot skillet.

The truth is, this is a mean world. Every day, mankind thinks up new ways of killing itself. And if it can't succeed, it just taxes people to death. I don't even watch the news without popping Alka-Seltzer.

Opie goes on, “Yeah, but everyone CAN be happy if they love.”

"LOVE!" another girl shouts.

Then: a violent bodily noise originating…