I've known some failures in my time. Laura's not one. Her hands might be rough and she might not descend from blue bloodlines, but she's not trash.

Waffle House—my waitress is named Laura. I know this because it's on her name-tag. She's worked three shifts, back-to-back. Her eyes are sagging.

Laura has four kids. Three boys, one girl. She shows me photos on her phone.

“That's my oldest,” she says, tapping the screen. “She's got a brain. I hope she makes more outta her life than I ever did. ”

She smiles. Her teeth are a wreck. She's gorgeous.

"What's so bad about your life?" I ask.

"Nothing, but I know I'm a failure, I'm okay with that."

Well, I'll be dog.

I've known some failures in my time. Laura's not one. Her hands might be rough and she might not descend from blue bloodlines, but she's not trash.

If she is, then I'm a club member.

After all, my family isn't exactly showroom material. My father wore denim. My mother lived in a trailer. I've owned four myself. Three leaked. One resides in the county dump.

And, my education is minimal. I went to college on my own dime and did miserably, working grunt labor

in the daytime.

When I passed my final, I walked outside and shouted in the parking lot—it seemed appropriate. A few classmates were outside smoking. A man with tattoo on his neck offered me a cigarette.

“I don't smoke,” I said.

“Neither do I,” he answered. “But we just graduated, that's a big deal for people like you'n me.”

You and me.

He was right. It was a big deal. As a boy, my mother sewed my clothes and shopped at thrift stores. Sometimes she even recycled teabags.

Then there was the time in eighth grade when a girl called me white trash. Her name was Beth. I'll never forget her.

“Your shirt has a hole,” she pointed out, then mumbled the ugly phrase.

It surprised me. Until that day, I'd never considered myself so lowly. I threw the shirt away…

He smoked like a fish and talked a purple streak. If you were lucky enough to catch him on smoke break, you'd see him do both.

He was a happy kid. He grew up with nothing, out in the sticks. His daddy was a turpentiner. His mother was a baby-machine. He had marvelous tales about the old days.

But they were nothing compared to his best story, about how he died—twice. He told that one often. Especially around redheaded freckle-faces.

It went like this:

While in his forties, on the operating table, he died. Three whole minutes. Doctors thought he was a goner. He came back. Then it happened again.

“Heaven is real," he told me once. "I seen it with my own eyes. And you know what I learnt? The secret.”

My eyes were the size of tractor rims.

He asked if I wanted to learn it. I didn't even have to think. You bet your cotton balls I did.

“Come here,” he said. “I'll show you.”

He wrapped his arms around me so hard I heard my ribs creak. He held me that way for two minutes. No words. He smelled like cigarettes and Old Spice.

“THAT'S the secret," he said. "And

that's how you change the world."


Despite his poverty-stricken upbringing, he was jolly enough to make Santa look like a jerk.

He knew funny songs, complicated jokes, and he was bad to cry when the spirit hit him. Like when he talked about his mother. Or: when he talked about how he met his wife as a teenager—at a rat killing party.

Later in life, he worked as a salesman to keep his family fed. He sold everything from life insurance, to turkeys and vacuums.

“Vacuums was the worst,” he once said. “Had to lug'em to doorsteps before you even knocked. It was something awful, but you'll do anything to feed your young'uns."

He smoked like a fish and talked a purple streak. If you were lucky enough to catch him on smoke break, you'd see him do both.

I got…

Yeah, well, I am blessed. Not because of what I own, but because of where I am. This country is part of me. It's where my great grandparents were born. Where I was baptized.

Once, I saw an old man stumble on the curb. It happened outside a Mexican restaurant. He fell hard and cut himself. A waitress ran to help. He was bleeding on the pavement.

"First-aid kit!" she yelled.

He had a gash. She stitched him up with a needle and thread.

"Where'd you learn to do that?" the man asked.

"I was an Army medic," she said. "Used to practice on tomatoes all the time."

When she finished, he embraced her and got blood all over her shirt. He cried. She didn't.

Army girls.

Listen, I don't care how many election signs pepper the landscape. I don't care how many horrid disagreements there are. I love this country. Every bit of it. The good, the bad, and the Army medics.

I also love single mothers. The young man who unloads trucks at Winn Dixie. The woman standing outside the hair salon, smoking. The kids holding bake-sales for breast cancer. And anyone strong enough to go down swinging.

Tracy—who got out of jail a few weeks ago. She saw her

kids for the first time in two long years.

Arnold, my pal who left his fancy marketing job to drive a semi. His wife goes with him. He sent me postcards from the Grand Canyon. They just found out his wife is pregnant.

I like Pat, who wants to be a welding teacher. The supermarket employee with Downs syndrome who told me, “You have a colorful face, sir.”

Nobody's ever told me that before.

I like Roger—wounded Afghanistan veteran with mangled hands. Who said, “My therapist says I need to start living my life. So, I'm learning guitar."

You beat all, Roger.

I love Minette, whose husband is in critical condition. I love the South American woman who dug through her purse for exact change.

I love the man who paid for my lunch. I don't know him, but he told me…

One day, a man in town stopped by the restaurant. She was on shift. He was taken with her. He tipped two fifty-dollar bills, leaving them under his plate.

His biological father beat his mother. But after eight years of busted cheekbones, she hit the road. In the middle of the night, she and her four kids left.

It took two days to drive from Tennessee to Alabama.

"Mama was from the old world," he said. "Didn't even know how to drive. So I drove the whole way."

He was thirteen. He sat atop suitcases and pressed the pedal with his tip-toes. When his younger siblings got fidgety, he pulled over so everyone could make water.

It was a new town. They were foreigners. They moved into a drafty farmhouse with cheap rent. She took a waitress job. He worked at a hardware store after school.

Once, he remembers not having enough to pay the power bill. They went without lightbulbs for six months. If you've ever wanted to hear about hard living, he's your man.

"Folks didn't like Mama," he goes on. "Especially other women. It was a different time. In a small town, a single pretty girl, with kids... People talked about her."


day, a man in town stopped by the restaurant. She was on shift. He was taken with her. He tipped two fifty-dollar bills, leaving them under his plate.

When she saw the money her temper flared. She stormed over to his house to give it back.

“I don't need no charity from nobody,” she insisted.

Skull of iron, that woman.

So, the man offered to pay her to clean his house on Saturdays. It made good sense. He was a bachelor, she'd been skipping suppers to save on groceries. She accepted.

He overpaid.

They became friends. One thing led to another. He asked her out to movies, picnics, church socials, lunch dates. People gossiped—said they were mismatched. Maybe they were.

Then it happened. The man didn't get down on his knee to ask—after all, they weren't kids anymore. She said yes.

"Mama went…

...we just elected the President. It was an ugly campaign. Both groups played dirty pool.

I'm watching the election results. The red and blue states look like a weather map—only more patriotic. The man on television points to the Southeast. He places his hand on top my house. He calls this the Bible Belt.

We're famous.

I guess he's right. When I was six, the preacher patted me on the back, saying, “Congratulations, son, you're born again.”

To celebrate, Mama took me out for ice cream. I ordered three scoops of vanilla with crushed peanuts. I went down for salvation the next three Sundays in a row.

My people have lived in The 'Belt a long damn time. We're feisty. And we share a particular fondness for certain man whose name we write on billboards, bumper stickers, neon signs, and barns.

But he's no politician.

Folks even use his name in fistfights. Once I saw a fight in a beer-joint. A fella landed his fist on the jaw of a young man. The kid went down like a sack of yams.

The boy crawled onto his feet. With a mouthful of blood,

he quoted the Red Words. Then, he offered the other side of his face.

The other man glared. Then he started crying.

So did I.

In rural Alabama, I once attended a revival service. It was a place where folks handled snakes. I didn't think places like that existed. They do.

A twelve-year-old yanked a snake out of an aquarium and held it. I nearly soaked my britches.

A woman beside me said, "Relax, honey. It ain't got poison fangs no more. Besides, God's bigger than snakes."


Just a few months ago, I attended the funeral of a friend. He was a hospital chaplain. Within his thirty-year career, he'd held thousands of dying hands.

A young girl cried over his open casket. She placed a leather-bound book inside. I introduced myself.

She was an ex-drug-addict. She'd almost died once. He'd sat beside…

“I moved to the beach to relax,” she said. “But I don't get to. Too busy working."

She took my vitals in the exam room. She was in her sixties. Rough skin, a laugh that sounded like unfiltered Camels.

She unstrapped my Velcro cuff and said my blood pressure was good.

Then she high-fived me.

“So," she said. "You got foot problems, huh? I got bad feet, too. You must work long hours."

Not really.

I've been lucky. Men like my daddy worked long hours. My grandfather: self-flagellated.

She's a lot like them. She's worked since she age ten. At this stage, she's supposed to be enjoying the easy life. It's not working out.

“I moved to the beach to relax,” she said. “But I don't get to. Too busy working."

Her daughter is in her mid-twenties. She was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. It made her slow. If that's not enough, the girl also has heart trouble—undergoing open heart surgery twice. She is also half deaf.

Life hasn't exactly been hopscotch.

“I've prayed a lot," she said, "When she was a baby, I'd say, 'God, if you want Rachel to live,

she will.' He must've known I needed her."

Must have.

Times were tight. She worked as a mail carrier in middle Georgia to make ends meet. Then, a friend suggested she get a job as a medical tech.

"I worked at Emory for years," she said. "Loved it. It helped us get ahead, moneywise."

And then, a vacation to the beach changed everything. Nowhere before had the two felt so at home.

"My daughter was like, 'Mom! I wanna live here, it's so beautiful!'"

So, she sent out resumes. She got a job half a mile from the Gulf. Life was still hard, but at least now it was pretty, too.

“High school was a challenge," she said. "College was worse. She has to work harder than you'n me. Sometimes I wanted to intervene. But, I knew she needed to learn…

If he would've lived long enough, he might've been one of those old timers who told the same stories over and over.

I watched the World Series with a ghost. He sat beside me cussing at the television. He threw his hands up. He degraded umpires.

And when the game went into rain-delay, he told me to get him a beer.

“But, you're a ghost,” said I.

“Then you'll have to drink it for me,” he said.

If he would've lived long enough, he might've been one of those old timers who told the same stories over and over.

“I ever tell you,” he'd begin, “the time I pitched sixteen innings against the Catholic team?”

Only a hundred and seventy times.

He'd go on, “There were nuns in the stands...”

I know. They trash-talked worse than sailors, and called you sugar-britches.

“Them nuns talked trash worse'n a bunch of sailors, they called me...”

Daddy auditioned for a double-A ball club, long ago. He made it. But he only lasted a hot minute. They cut him. His dreams were dashed. He said it was the best gift God ever gave him.

“Cocky folks don't get nowhere in life," he said. "I was young. I needed

to be humbled, never played another game after that.”

And as far as I know, he didn't.

Even so, he coached Little League. He'd chew Juicy Fruit in a dugout and praise fifteen uncoordinated, moderatlely pathetic boys.

He'd shout things like, “Good hustle!”

The highest praise a chubby boy can get.

We played catch nearly every night during summer. He threw light and easy.

When the sun would low, he'd say, “We'd better go inside or we'll be eating fastballs.”

I didn't think he could throw fastballs.

But before he died I saw him pitch to my uncles. He threw lightning. He stood in our alfalfa field firing the ball like I'd never seen a grown man do up close.

My uncle caught and remarked, “Hot almighty, I think that fool broke my damn hand.”

The only time…