The world doesn't seem to care much for its elders. It's a shame. This was their world once—before we came along and put blinking lights in our tennis shoes.

His era is gone. He knows that. His barefoot childhood is just a memory. The soles of his young feet were like maple. He could walk five miles on those dogs. Today, children wear shoes with lights in them.

Something else about him:

He made fishing rods out of cane stalks. They weren't like store-bought varieties—they were better. In the afternoons, he'd steal corn from nearby fields, eat it raw, then puff a pipeful of fresh-picked rabbit tobacco.

If you ask me, it sounds like a shoeless fairytale. But it's not. It's lower Alabama.

He spent enough time on the Conecuh to be part catfish. In fact, it's where he took his wife for their honeymoon. She loves him. They get along.

He took up chewing twist tobacco. Nowadays, he has to special order it. Nobody sells twist anymore. It's a bad habit. At first chewing was something he did infrequently. Then it turned into routine. Now, he couldn't tell a story without it.

And stories. He spins good ones.

You want

comedies? He'll tell you about when he let a raccoon loose during a revival meeting—eons before they wrote country songs about it. You want mysteries? He'll tell you about the harlot found dead in a wealthy man's living room. Dramas? The one about his cousin—who fell in love with his own sister.

Anyway, the old fella has a television. A big one. His kids bought it for his birthday. But it's still wrapped in a box on the guest bed. He doesn't want it.

“He used to watch some TV,” his wife said. “Sunday movies, or football, he don't no more. Sometimes he listens to football on the radio.”

Ask him what's going on in the world. He'll tell you about the weather, where So-And-So's boy goes to college, about the deer the McWhoevers shot last weekend. He doesn't know what the Zika virus is, doesn't care who…

I don't know how to get things back to the way they were... But, I wish it could be done. Not because I'm not happy, but because the world doesn't seem happy.

I was going to write about something else, but then a stranger dropped homemade cookies onto my front porch. It was the same woman who said, “Don't trust a baker who looks good in a two-piece.”

It took me a few hours to understand that. By then, I'd finished the cookies.

There was a note attached. She wrote: “I make everything the right way."

Well, heaven bless the good woman who does not walk in the path of the unrighteous, nor practice the spiritual defamation of plastic-tubed biscuits and frozen breakfast burritos.

I'd like the record to show that I miss the days of real food . I miss country ham—the kind that comes from a hog in a nearby county. And real fried chicken—made with an iron skillet and slippery floor.

Last Christmas, a friend served ham from Walmart. It was an affront to decency. The meal tasted like undercooked linoleum. The package label on the ham read: China. I'd rather eat chicken feet than red ham.

Not only that.

I miss grits

that come from feed-sacks, that take more than two minutes to prepare. I miss French fries cut before frying. I miss popcorn made in a skillet, with enough butter to short circuit U.S. Congress.

A friend made microwave popcorn during a football game last weekend. When it finished popping, he opened a yellow packet of slime, labeled, “butter-flavored topping.” That gold-colored degradation ruined my favorite shirt.

And my mouth.

What happened to real butter? The kind that made your arm muscles sore. Or ice cream that turned into soup if you didn't eat it quick. Commercial ice cream wouldn't melt on my dashboard.

I'm just getting warmed up.

I miss how it was before people worried about deadly mosquito bites, dookie in our drinking water, whole milk, and deer ticks. As a boy, deer ticks were no cause for national alarm. Now they'll turn your brain…

“Everyone shot him down,” she went on. “Too many people offered him too much money to push bad ideas. So, one day, I think he just started playing their game.”

She almost wouldn't let me write about her. She finally agreed, but only after I vowed to cut her lawn. That's no joke.

First, I had to promise I wouldn't give away much information about her identity. Then, I had to edge her sidewalk.

Her lawn-man had bronchitis.

“Well," she said. "As a little girl I wanted to be famous. I wanted see something big, to get out of a small town and see stuff. I used clip out pictures of exotic places and hang them in my room.”

She's silver-haired now, her left hip is a wreck, but she has terrific posture. And she looks stately in her pearls.

As it happened, fame wasn't so hard to accomplish. She studied hard, attended college, then found a job selling makeup on television. There, she married a man. He wanted notoriety too. To be a politician.

Which is like fame, only filthier.

Before she knew it, she was traveling back and forth, shaking the right hands, kissing babies, mumbling inspiring things.

“He started off a good man,”

she said. “Wanted to change things. In the sixties, he had ideas for water-treatment that would've changed everything. He was, 'green,' before there was such a word. Fought for equality, too.”

But ideals don't last in politics. They're like candlesticks in a hurricane.

“Everyone shot him down,” she went on. “Too many people offered him too much money to push bad ideas. So, one day, I think he just started playing their game.”

They went to parties, she wore white gloves. They ate at fancy restaurants, she used the right forks. They rode convertibles in parades, she waved to crowds. They slept in separate bedrooms—sometimes his secretaries spent nights in his.

She faded inside.

“I don't think people know what goes on in that world. It's a crooked way to make a living. It's worse now. I remember when he and his buddy..."


He was one of the men you won't read about in history textbooks, even though their faces ought to be on the covers. A man who was above nothing, beneath no one.

“He was a dirt farmer, last of his kind,” she said. “Poor as a church mouse, we never had money.”

Back then, few Alabama farms did. After a Depression, a world war, and losing acres of cotton to the boll weevil, she says they were almost licked. Then he started growing tobacco.

“His daddy was a cripple,” she said. “Not only did we farm, we cared for my husband's daddy, fed him meals, bathed him."

When her husband wasn't doing that, he was supervising seven field workers. Or maybe it was ten. She can't remember.

"He was good to'em," she went on. "Remember once, this little old man came running and said, 'My wife's sick, boss. Think she's dying.' Right in the middle of a work day, they took her to the hospital. My husband paid for everything, even her funeral. It was sad."

But farming wasn't all sadness and poverty, there were high moments, too.

“Tobacco's gotten a bad name over the years, but we thanked God for the money. I used to string

leaves with the women all day, we sang work songs, you wanna hear one?”

Why not.

She hummed a somber melody, tapping her fingers to keep rhythm. Her voice was old, but if you listened close enough, you heard the entire South.

“When the crops got sold, we'd throw parties. Folks came from everywhere. Black, white, all kinds, didn't matter. We ate and drank until the sun came up.”

She laughed.

“Thing about farmers is, they work twice as hard for half as much. My kids're surprised when I tell'em how poor we were. 'Course everyone was poor then. But, we never got so down we lost our morals."

God forbid.

These were decent men, with good values. Men like her husband. Who paid workers before himself, who bought them new clothes and shoes. Who attended their baby dedications, hat in hand.

He was one…

The sharp pain lasts for a long time, until one day it feels like a bruise. One day, the time you spent sleeping in cattle pastures seems like faded memories.

The moment I first heard of my father's death, I wanted to run. I don't know why. It was a gut instinct. I wanted to dart out the door, past ponds, down dirt roads, into the creek-bed, and keep going until I hit Baton Rouge.

I flew toward the door, but didn't unbolt it fast enough. They caught me while I flailed like an idiot. A room of people watched while I cried.

It wasn't supposed to happen that way. I wasn't supposed to feel so naked, with so many gawkers. But that's the way it happens.

The following days were black. I cried myself to sleep. I couldn't eat. I looked in our kitchen and saw more casserole dishes than I'd seen in my cotton-picking life. I tried to eat chicken and dumplings, but couldn't keep them down. I ended up vomiting in the sink.

There was a live oak, at the edge of our pasture, behind the cattle fence. I went there to be alone, my Labrador followed me.

She and I passed entire days there, until I'd fall asleep with her on my lap. Sometimes I didn't get back until well after dark.

Once, I even fell asleep in the shower. The water turned ice-cold and I realized I'd been out for nearly thirty minutes.

Nobody tells you grief feels a lot like exhaustion. It's demoralizing, and reshapes your mind. During the nighttime, you feel afraid. In the days, you wonder why the sun seems so dim. You still want to run, but you don't know where to go, or why.

Food tastes bad. Conversations feel shallow. Your friends seem selfish and disinterested. And whenever you remember your loved one, you hope it will bring relief. It doesn't. It slices like sheet metal.

Why am I telling you this?

Because two out of two people die. One day, you're going to go through this—if you don't die…

The next day: I counted four hundred American flags hanging from every nook and cranny of our world. At our construction site, we hung a two-story flag. My friend even got a flag tattoo on his ankle.

The day the planes hit the towers in New York was my late father's birthday. I was at work. Ten of us stood on a job site, hands resting on toolbelts, sweating like hogs, listening to a radio the size of a rice box.

The commentator announced: "America is doomed, folks."


Five fellas cut work early. One foreman called his sister in Manhattan. The rest of us just looked for atomic mushroom clouds.

The next day: I counted four hundred American flags hanging from every nook and cranny of our world. At our construction site, we hung a two-story flag. My friend even got a flag tattoo on his ankle.

I'm not going to mince words. I love this land. You want to know why?

I thought you'd never ask.

The Everglades at sunrise, there's the first reason.

Alabama football. There's number two.

Furthermore: I've been fortunate enough to do a few patriotic things in my day. Like baling hay in middle Alabama. Or: shooting a coon in south Georgia—then eating the god-forsaken thing

with ketchup.

I've seen the Oak Ridge Boys sing “Elvira,” and Mel Tillis sing “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” I've changed a tire on an Oklahoma highway. I've raised leghorns, and wrung more red-rock necks than I can shake a wishbone at.

I've camped inside the Grand Canyon, and shaken hands with Mickey Mouse in Orlando. I've watched Steel Magnolias nearly seven thousand times.

I've eaten pozole prepared by a Mexican family who lived in the woods. I worked one summer on a cattle farm—and slept under the stars after a full day tagging heifer ears. I've fished in the Gulf of Mexico, seen two tornadoes, and washed my drawers in the Mississippi River.

I've worked in an ice cream shop—and gained fourteen pounds. I've staked heirlooms, boiled peanuts, eaten homemade biscuits, and drank bathtub moonshine. I can eat a full jar of peanut butter. I've pulled over…

He's had three wives already. He says all three heartaches were their fault because,—in his own words—“everyone is so frickin' selfish.”

We went to college together. He worked at a hardware store. His parents were illegal immigrants who didn't speak a lick of English. He was born in Prattville, but spoke with a Latino accent.

His high school counselor helped him choose a career path. He joined the Marines, got a few tattoos, served his country, then enrolled in college on the GI bill. Today, he has a wife, two children, and he's an engineer. He cares for both elderly parents.

He told me once, "My father come to this country so I have opportunities. Taking care of them is the least I can do."

She was pretty, but she always looked tired. You would too if you worked three jobs. Two waitress jobs. One cleaning hotel rooms.

Her sister was sick. Bedridden. When my friend wasn't cleaning rooms or bussing tables, she was swapping shifts with her mother to care for her.

When her sister finally passed, she told me, “I wish I could'a done more for her.”


His parents were drug

dealers. They were rough customers. As a five-year-old, he spent one year living in a tent before they got arrested. When they were hauled off to prison, his grandparents gained custody of him.

Suddenly, he had his own room. A television. He watched all the Westerns he could stand. When he got older, he decided to try his hand at junior calf riding, and team roping. He was awful. Anyway, he's a school teacher now.

He saw his father recently, he treated him to breakfast. His father told him, “After all I put you through, I want you to know I'm proud'a you.”

His father overdosed a few months thereafter.

She's been married forty-eight years now. Twelve years ago, her husband's tremors started. It was Parkinson's. Today, he can't get a spoon to his mouth, or walk without help. He's in diapers. She is his caregiver.