I came to a four-way stop in the middle of pasture. It looked like God had hand-drawn a dirt cross in a cotton field. I pulled over. Cranked the windows.

I took a long drive yesterday. It was accidental. I was only supposed to visit Geneva, Alabama on business. But I got distracted.

Sunshine does that to me.

I practically grew up in a truck bench-seat, taking drives. Daddy and I would pile in and run the roads for no reason. He'd say, "God, calling this weather perfect would be a grave understatement."

Then we'd head for nowhere. We'd chew black licorice, he'd sip a beer can.

Anyway, since I didn't have anything pressing to do, I pointed my truck in whichever direction felt easiest. Ellie Mae laid in the seat beside me—sawing logs.

The scenery: fields, corn rows, pine forests. Bass ponds with cattails on the edges. Pastures green enough to kill.

I stopped at a gas station where I found black licorice. I bought three packs.

One for me, two for Daddy.

More driving. I went for a few hours. It's funny, sometimes the older I get, the more like a child I feel. If you were to call me a responsible adult, you'd be

making a grave overstatement.

I passed places like Bellwood, and Clayhatchee. I'll bet they don't get too worked up in Bellwood.

I ran over the gentle Choctaw. I cruised by an old woman reclining on her porch-sofa, spitting. She waved.

You haven't lived until you've sat on a porch-sofa, swatting the back of your neck.

I drove past junky areas. Clapboard houses, moldy—prettier than new siding could ever be. And overgrown lawns.

Manicured yards make me nervous. Boys can't chase lizards in short grass. And even if they could, why would they?

I zipped past trees as big around as wagon wheels. Rusted trailers. Dilapidated satellite dishes. A broke-down service garage that went belly-up fifty years ago. A church missing its front door.

I came to a four-way stop in the middle of pasture. It looked like God had hand-drawn a dirt cross…

“When I got pregnant,” Patricia says. “I thought my life was over, you know? Like, I couldn't believe I was having baby at sixteen. And what was I gonna do with my life?”

I can't tell you her name. She swore me to secrecy. So, I'm going to call her Patricia. She's an Alabama-born girl, with more brains than a dog has ticks.

Patricia is twenty-three, works full time, goes to college, and she has a seven-year-old son.

“When I got pregnant,” Patricia says. “I thought my life was over, you know? Like, I couldn't believe I was having baby at sixteen. And what was I gonna do with my life?”

It was an adolescent mistake. She tried to hide her growing belly from her mother, but it didn't work. Her mother was no fool. Finally, she sat Patricia down and gave her the third-degree. Patricia hung her head in shame.

“I expected my mom to be disappointed in me, but she wasn't. She was all excited. I was like, 'But Mom, I'm only sixteen.' She just told me, 'Everything's gonna be okay, Patricia. A baby is always a blessing.'"

A blessing.

But as it happened, life's blessings were beginning to run thin. Before Patricia's son was

born, her mother died in a head-on collision on the interstate.

“I was messed up,” says Patricia. "And it was really scary being by myself at night, thinking I'm gonna have a baby like—alone. I didn't know who to ask for help, so I called my teacher.”

Enter Mrs. Murphy: a churchgoing teacher who is as active in her youth group as she is in her classroom. A woman who's as determined as she is smart.

Murphy's first move was to take Patricia to church. The small assembly welcomed the girl with wide-open casserole dishes.

They threw baby showers, took Patricia shopping for new clothes, and if that wasn't enough, Mrs. Murphy scheduled a rotation of women to stay with her at home—nightshift, and dayshift.

“I was never alone,” Patricia says. “And when I had my baby, I had like, five or six women in the…

His name is Chris. He's skinny, black, and about as tall as a possum standing on its hind legs.

This kid is a busy fella. He's pacing the doctor's waiting room, straightening magazines. I can't figure out why, but he's arranging them into neat stacks, adjusting chairs, too.

He and I are the only ones here. I wish he'd quit fidgeting, he's making me nervous.

He walks up to me. “Can you scoot your chair back a few inches?” he asks.

"My chair?" The truth is, I'm not in the mood to be scooting. My head is about to pop, my chest feels like it's been pumped full of industrial-grade hog snot.

“I'm trying to make this row of chairs STRAIGHT,” he says.

"What are you, the janitor?"

No, he's not. His name is Chris. He's skinny, black, and about as tall as a possum standing on its hind legs. I scoot my chair backward and he thanks me.

“I like things to be neat,” he's saying.

This kid would have a field day with my office.

While we're talking, I can't hold a cough in any longer. I take a moment to hack up a lung,

a rib, and one rusted license plate.

“You're sick,” Chris says.

“Yep, bronchitis, here to get a shot and some antibiotics.”

"A shot? I HATE shots."

Wait until you get my age. One day, they quit sticking you in the shoulder and move south.

It turns out, Chris is here with his mother. Her kidneys don't work. She's been withering away the past few years. He says she's lost forty pounds. Treatments aren't helping. And since you can't exactly buy kidneys at Winn Dixie, she's on a long waiting list for a transplant.

According to him, specialists gave her bad news. If they don't get the organ soon, the worst could happen. Chris says people in their church are praying.

“God can do anything,” he adds—because Chris is too young to be cynical. "God can probably even make YOU feel better."


God help us. I'm no psychologist, but we don't need any more carb-counting. We need women unafraid.

I just saw a television commercial that made me blush. The starved-looking swimsuit model on the screen wasn't wearing enough to floss her teeth with. I don't even know what the ad was selling—nor do I give a flannel.

Look, I'm not complaining. God help me, I'm not.

Yes I am.

What happened to women? I'm talking real figures and Grecian curvature? Once upon a time, girls had meat on their bones and weren't afraid to finish off a fried chicken drumstick? There wasn't a thing wrong with them.

My grandaddy once said, “Boy, the best advice I can give you: marry a woman who wears cotton panties and eats until she's good and full.”

I gave a confused look.

He went on, "The sort of lady who wears expensive, satin britches and eats like a bird, she's trouble.”


I've thought about that my whole life. Subsequently, I also learned Grandaddy's advice isn't something you bring up at your mama's Bible study—unless you want the Jesus slapped out of you with a hairbrush.

Admittedly, I'm

inclined to agree with Grandaddy. But then, I come from a long line of redneck women. Strong and firm ladies, who could clean a chicken carcass, sweep the porch, hang laundry, and kiss your skinned knees during the same afternoon.

We've done modern girls wrong.

My friend's teenage daughter claims she's afraid to eat in front of boys. She's a brunette beauty whose PE teacher told her she was overweight. The entire class calculated body-fat percentages on computers.

This played havoc on the girl's mind. She quit eating suppers, started living at the gym. She even began vomiting after meals. One day, she passed out at school. They sent her to a shrink.

The doc suggested putting her on a diet.

God help us. I'm no psychologist, but we don't need any more carb-counting. We need women unafraid. We need less size-zeroes, less two-pieces,…

You're probably wondering why I'm writing something so depressing. Because. Life beats the spit out of you without mercy. And I do believe there's a reason behind it.

It was my worst week ever. I had an apartment located smack-dab on the university campus. It smelled like moldy goat cheese. I felt like the oldest student God ever created. Maybe I was.

College kids would point and say things like, “Hey, Grandpa, the morgue's that way.”

Then skateboard off.

Anyway, I applied to a school program. The professor said my work stunk. So, I applied to another. I failed the interview. I called my wife.

“What am I doing here?” I said. “The professors treat me like a dumb redneck, students act like I belong in a nursing home.”

“You aren't dumb,” she said. “But you are kinda redneck."

I persevered—though I was about as uncomfortable as a cricket in a honey puddle. Then, one day, a campus official approached me.

“I don't know how to tell you this," she said. "A computer glitch deleted your name from our system. Sorry, but we have to drop you for several semesters.”

"You're kicking me out?" I asked.

"Well, yes."

In a few hours, I was driving

back home. I cried in the truck. I stopped at a gas station, ate three honey buns, and counted the pennies in my pocket to make myself feel worse. My cellphone vibrated. It was my wife.

“It's Daddy," she said, sobbing. “He's fallen. There's a lot of blood. He's in ICU.”

When I got home, I forgot all about school. While my wife held vigil at the hospital, I loped into rush-hour traffic for coffee. I considered my future career options, which were less-than plentiful. I was leaning toward taxidermy.

Just then, the vehicle ahead slammed its brakes. I rear-ended it hard. The airbag busted my cheekbone, I went unconscious.

When I awoke in an ambulance, the paramedic wore a grave face. He said, “Good thing you didn't pee your pants, lotta folks mess themselves during car wrecks."

Thank God for small blessings.

She makes chicken soup when I'm sick. I'm talking the real stuff—fresh poultry, plucked clean. Like Mama's. And she can toss together food fit for company using nothing but hominy, butter, and cheese.

She drinks beer with me. That might seem like a little thing to you. It's not. During football season, it's everything. I need a beer-sipping partner when watching games. One who doesn't smell bad or put his feet on my coffee table.

She's smart. I once saw her worm her way out of a traffic violation. She turned on her charm, giggling for the deputy. I sat in the passenger seat, innocent as Helen Keller. The officer kept giving me sideways glances, as though he wanted to say, “C'mon honey, let's ditch the stiff.”

She's a Scorpio. Admittedly, I don't know much about zodiacs. But, we get scorpions in our house. And, from what I know about them: (a) you can't kill them, (b) not even with a twelve-gauge.

She's strong. I've seen my wife move a refrigerator by herself. After I had surgery, she muscled the new appliance inside. Then, she cracked open a beer with her teeth, and powdered her nose.

We've traveled the World's Longest Yard Sale

a few times—three thousand miles of Southern rust and garbage. I watched her whittle the price on a pair of red cowgirl boots using nothing but her sugary accent. The boots were twenty bucks; she paid a nickel. The man asked for her number. So, she winked and said, "On a scale of one to ten, I'm an eleven."

She can outfish me, outrun me, out-talk, out-argue, and outsmart me. She's slugged me with a baseball bat once—it was an accident. She landed me in the emergency room twice—also accidental. And she has beaten me so hard at Texas Hold'em that I still owe her nearly eight hundred thousand dollars.

She makes chicken soup when I'm sick. I'm talking the real stuff—fresh poultry, plucked clean. Like Mama's. And she can toss together food fit for company using nothing but hominy, butter, and cheese.

And when the doctors told us they…

Her mind moves faster than her mouth. She tells me slowly: "I want anyone who meets me to know they can make it through anything..."

I'm a survivor is what I am,” she says. “I want you to write that in your little article about me.”

She's in a chair by the window—a soft recliner. On the table beside her: porcelain figurines of Georgia bulldogs, a few Jesus statues.

“When I's a girl," she says. "I fell off a mule, my hair got caught in the stirrups, thing drug me for half a mile. My daddy said he ain't never seen a tougher girl. Finally ripped my hair clean out.”

She's too old to live on her own now, but she still has independence at her retirement facility. Athena comes to help straighten her room now and then. Athena is large, black, kindhearted, and I wish she would consider adopting me.

Athena says, “She don't like to say it, but we think she older than she knows. That's why I thought you'd like writing about her. Think she almost hundred years old, but ain't nobody really sure.”

Nobody's sure because she doesn't have a birth certificate.

“I's born

in a two-room cabin," the old woman says. "Daddy put me to work plowing the very next day.”

Athena laughs at this. She has a beautiful laugh. I wish Athena would let me sit in her lap for a little while.

“Daddy wanted all boys,” she goes on. “What he GOT was two girls and two boys. And we were all fine-looking, too.”

The girls worked as hard as their brothers, doing chores meant for kids with tough hands and testosterone. By her teenage years, she could plow straight lines and shell peas with her arms tied behind her back. She believes this grit is what helped her survive cancer.

“When I's in my forties,” she says. “Doctors found cancer in my breasts, back then all they knew was to cut'em off. They told me I'd probably die anyway.”

Athena shakes her head and whispers, “Jesus."


Their small community has changed. It's grown. They have an Arby's, a Lowe's, a Cracker Barrel. The old haints are gone.

Crestview, Florida—the class of 1966. The tiny group held their fiftieth reunion next door to the police station, at Warrior Hall.

On the front steps, men took swigs from red SOLO cups while smoking cigarettes. Deputies next door, watched and grinned.

I met a woman with white hair. “Know why my hair turned white?” she asked.

Because you love the Lord?

“During senior year,” she explained. “We painted, 'seniors of sixty-six' on every surface of this town. By accident, a can of paint spilled on my hair. My friends soaked me in gasoline to get it out. Been gas-blonde ever since.”

Looks nice.

That night, I met military vets, lumber salesmen, turkey hunters, tobacco spitters, and lots of other men who like boots better than sneakers. I met a funeral director, a New-York singer, a few drunks, a minister, and a used car salesman.

One man said, “I shouldn't have graduated in sixty-six."

I asked why.

"When I's in third grade, I got held back, 'cause of a yankee teacher. Couldn't understand nary a word she said. Otherwise, I'd'a graduated in sixty-five.”


The catering company rolled out food fit for royalty. Cocktail weenies, tuna salad sandwiches, and congealed salad. People seated themselves at tables and filled the auditorium with laughing.

One man spiked his drink with something from a jelly jar.

“Is that moonshine?” I asked.

“You damn right,” he said. “Want some?"

Just two fingers, please.

After supper, they passed around a microphone. Folks told stories. There was the story about when the cheerleaders snuck into the boy's hideout—replacing scandalous magazines with Bibles.

Or: how the seniors used old outhouses as kindling for class bonfires.

There was the time when Sister So-And-So whacked Brother What's-His-Name with a hammer as children—they'll be married fifty years in July.

One fella remembers sneaking out, stealing kisses from his sweetheart before shipping off for Vietnam.

A woman recalls how school buses used…

After supper, all the boys stood out front, filling the night air with blue smoke. Nobody said a word to each other, we just exchanged sappy grins—like we were up to no good.

He was tough. And poor. I suppose the two go hand in hand sometimes. He grew up fast, without any choice in the matter. Not having money can do that to a child.

We worked together. I didn't know him well—he was too hardened to have any friends. Each morning, he'd show up to my house on a bicycle, I'd give him a ride to the job-site.

When his little brother needed eyeglasses, he took a second job stocking UPS trucks at night. Because of this, he'd show up most days with baggy eyes, sipping a two-liter bottle of Mountain-Dew. During lunch, he'd sleep in someone's car until they woke him.

Sometimes, we'd just let him sleep.

He rarely smiled. I don't think anyone ever heard him laugh. And I can't say I blamed him. His mother was a custodian, his sister was a middle-schooler, his father was an inmate, his brothers called him, Daddy.

On his twenty-first birthday, several of us forced him into a Mexican restaurant. It was a miracle he even

agreed to come.

But it was a good night. At first, he was uncomfortable. After a few drinks, he loosened up. We laughed, got loud. The waiters put a sombrero on him, they sang happy birthday in broken English. He blushed.

We howled until we went into oxygen debt.

After supper, all the boys stood out front, filling the night air with blue smoke. Nobody said a word to each other, we just exchanged sappy grins—like we were up to no good.

He didn't like our looks. “What's going on, guys?” he finally said.

Nobody moved a muscle.

Then, a dinged up truck came rolling from behind the building, honking its horn. It was junk, but it had a fresh Kelly Green paint-job—the kind done with roller brushes. The front bumper was a bolted-on four-by-four. No tailgate. Broken taillights. The tires were brand new.

He didn't…

Anyway, I paid my tab and left before the debates ended. They were about as educational as chewing on Energizer batteries.

I watched the presidential debates in a Pensacola, Florida bar. The man next to me kept shouting at the television, saying, "Oh, for the love of Jeezus!"


The first time I remember hearing that name was when Mrs. Gelding swatted my five-year-old hindparts for telling a certain joke—with a less-than-reputable punchline.

While she beat the whiteness out of my hindcheeks, she hollered, “A little more Jesus never hurt anybody!”

I didn't know who Jesus was. But later, I would learn how fondly Mrs. Gelding felt for him. Rumors claimed she cross-stitched his face onto her cotton britches.

She called him Savior. And this was a revelation. Because until then, I'd understood Roy Rogers held this title.

Over time, I grew to admire Jesus—even though he didn't ride a well-trained horse. You couldn't help but like him, he's famous. Here in the South, you hear about him everywhere. In Tom Thumbs, beauty pageants, billboards, bingo-houses, and beer-joints.

A few nights ago, I drove past a billboard reading: “Jesus will scare the hell out of you.”

Then, I turned on the radio and caught the tail end of a preacher's prayer, which closed with, "...in Jesus' name, amen."

I've even known a man named Jesus. He was Mexican. We worked construction together. On the job-site, we nicknamed him, Lordy. He was a good sport about it. Sometimes, he'd pretend he could change water into beer.

We'd roll on the floor when he did that.

Jesus once said that his mother gave him the most holy name she could think of. She wanted him to have every chance he could get, since he was born into base poverty. Jesus didn't own shoes until thirteen. At fifteen, he hopped a train for the U.S.

During his time here, he was not treated kindly. If you've ever wanted to know what real hate is, ask Jesus.

Jesus said, “When I was little, my father…