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…

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…