Folks don't mean to use such ridiculous sentences at funerals. It's accidental. But they fire off corny phrases like buckshot just the same.

I got to the funeral home early. I was there to pay respects to a man whose wife I once worked with. He died in a nursing home, God rest his soul.

As it happens, there were two visitations going on that day. And since I have the intelligence of a ripe summer squash, I found myself in the wrong place.

I knew this because the service was poorly attended. Which is also why I stayed.

The widow was mid-forties. She had tough skin, like someone had left her in the weather too long. Her kids were with her—one girl, one boy. Her face was waterlogged.

There was no casket. Only a table with photographs.

People in line said things like, “Time heals all wounds, honey.”

And this irks me.

Folks don't mean to use such ridiculous sentences at funerals. It's accidental. But they fire off corny phrases like buckshot just the same.

As a boy, my mama and I received a line of visitors just like this one. It was a morbid ordeal that

lasted for hours, days, years. It never seemed to end.

In fact, sometimes I wonder if my adult life is nothing but a daydream some twelve-year-old boy's having in a funeral parlor. I wonder if maybe one day I'll awake, shaking hands with some fella pointing out how time can heal all wounds.

Anyway, I finally made it to the widow. She smiled, but not with her eyes, then she thanked me for coming. I smelled cigarettes on her breath. She didn't know me from Adam's beer-fridge, but she pretended to.

I hugged her scrawny body. Then, I told her something I've been waiting to say to a woman in her situation for a long time.

“You're stronger than you think you are, ma'am."

I didn't mean to tear up. But mid-sentence, I realized I was saying something just as ridiculous as the others.


You might think this sounds like a fairytale. Only this is no bedtime story. This was South Alabama.

She tells me her father was a hard man. And he'd earned the right to be. He'd survived one Depression, one World War, and he was a dirt farmer. He'd forgotten how to cry.

And when it came to the subject of God, he once told his daughter, "If God's real, he's a heartless sumbitch, honey."

His words, not mine.

Anyway, it happened one sunny day, while she and her brothers were in the woods. She saw smoke in the distance. Black smoke. The bad kind. They ran home.

Only, there was no home. Just flames.

Her mother stood covered in soot. Her baby sister screamed. Her daddy was coughing in the yard.

They salvaged what they could from the dust. A few skillets. A potbelly stove. Their clothes were gone, photo albums, beds, food.

That night, the family slept in the barn. She said it was the first time she'd seen her daddy look rattled. She expected him to cry.

He didn't. He only cussed the sky.

The next morning, a man came to visit. He was

dressed in his Sunday best. He placed a handful of cash in her father's hand.

"We talked about you in church today," the man said. "And I wanna help."

Not long after, another couple came. It was the neighbors, with a wagon full of lumber.

Next, she remembers her mother hollering, "They took up an offering at church! Look! Six hundred dollars!"

Before the day ended, one hundred thirty-two people had visited the rural plot, each offering help.

One hundred thirty-two.

Over the following days, she says men showed up to frame the home. Even local clergy swung hammers. Sunup to sundown, they worked.

You might think this sounds like a fairytale. Only this is no bedtime story. This was South Alabama.

She tells me they ran out of lumber. But it didn't slow them. Men took apart their own barns and…

The little lady hugged me so hard I felt her tremble. She delivered a whispered message. Then, she planted a shaky kiss on me.

I'm in Dothan, Alabama, eating at Annie Pearl's Home Cooking Restaurant. They tell me this is the only spot in town where you can get a decent liver covered in respectable gravy.

They were right.

I'm in a good mood. Not just because of the liver. But because earlier today, an eighty-six-year-old woman with Parkinson's hugged my neck. She said in a weak voice, "Your daddy sure is proud of you, young man."

It unsettled me.

Daddy's been dead for two thirds of my life. Nobody's ever told me that.

Let alone a stranger.

So we went out for smother-fried liver. I've already eaten fifty pounds of the stuff. Also: butter beans, turnip greens, and enough biscuits to qualify as a misdemeanor.

This restaurant is empty, except for a few camouflage hats and their wives.

Our waitress is Kendall. She's a breath of fresh air. She visits every table, speaking to customers as friendly you'd talk to your cousins.

I overhear her say things like: "How's your sister doin' after her divorce?” Or: “Lordy, girl, did you see

So-And-So's engagement ring?”

Or: “Congratulations, Dalene, I heard your nephew made bail last week.”

People say sweet things in this town.

It's not a small place—this is the New York City of lower Alabama. But it's rural.

There's a Feed and Seed next to the Piggly Wiggly, muddy trucks in the movie-theater parking lot. At gas stations: old men in ten-gallon hats who can't figure out pump card-readers.

I spoke at the Houston County Library today. It was a small crowd. I met good people. Men like Fletcher Moore—an old man who talks so loud it makes you grin.

I got introduced to white-haired women who grew up barefoot, who still remember handpumps on kitchen sinks. I met ladies with antique names like Delphinia, Eugenia, Thomisina, Betty Sue, and Viola Ann.

I shook hands with a man in a neon orange cap…

Listen, you have no reason to trust someone like me—I'm an average fool with a mortgage and a high-mileage truck. But so help me, this place is more than sex, drugs, and politicians.

Pensacola, Florida—downtown, early evening. He had a long beard and smelled awful. He sat on the sidewalk strumming a broken guitar.

A young girl stopped and asked, “Can I sing with you?”

The homeless man said, “What'cha got, honey?”

Without hesitation, the girl sang “This Little Light of Mine."

This drew a crowd. A big one.

Afterward, the man hugged the girl, and her parents. He told her she reminded him of his own daughter.

Then he cried.

Folks filled his guitar case to the brim.

Forest Park, Georgia—a Burger King, a bad part of town. She wore a gray hotel-maid uniform, standing in line with her toddlers. She counted quarters and dimes on the counter.

Later, when she found a seat, a few teenagers asked the cashier. “Do y'all sell gift cards?”

“Yes," the cashier said, "We have Crown Cards."

They placed wads of twenties on the counter. “We'd like to buy a card for that woman, would you give it to her?”

Then, they left.

Mobile, Alabama—a man at the bar next to me had his face in his hands. His clothes

were covered in paint. The bartender asked him what was wrong.

He said, “My wife's car broke down. It's our ONLY car, and my phone JUST DIED!”

His face busted wide open.

The bartender asked if he knew where the car had broken down.

"Yeah,” he said. "At my wife's school, she's a teacher. I just need someone to give me a ride."

The bartender said, "I can do better than a ride, honey. My brother owns a towing company."

She clocked out early.

This morning, I turned on my television. And I'm sorry I did. Because the America on my screen was not the place I know. On TV: rapes, suicides, stabbings, mushroom clouds, sex scandals, and senseless acts of politics.

Reporters in eight-hundred-dollar outfits talk about mass-murders while wearing half-smiles.

Listen, you have no…

Listen, one day your world won't be this dark, darling. It might happen when a worthy person comes along. It will be someone smart enough to look in your eyes and see more than your eyes.

She wrote a letter to me.

She started by saying, "I know you're probably too busy to answer..."

Then, she explained that her parents are getting divorced, that her father's been cheating. Before he walked out, he got mad.

He called her and her mother "a couple'a fat pigs."

She closed her note, saying:

"You wrote once about losing your confidence, and I think I'm losing mine, too... I'm sixteen, and I really do feel fat and ugly. And I just needed to tell somebody...

"...And you actually seemed cool. I feel like I can trust you. If you share this, please keep my identity secret."


Firstly, I am NOT cool. Case and point: I once tried to eat so much peanut butter that my wife had to get paramedics involved.

Secondly, I might not know you, but I knew someone like you. He looked like you, talked like you. It was hard for him to feel cocky after his father's funeral.

His confidence dried up. He felt like the ugliest, most intellectually challenged dunce God ever had the misfortune of


But this isn't about him.

Okay. So your father—let's call things what they are—is a lost soul. I'm sorry, but you asked for my ten-cent opinion.

You, darling, are nothing like the world's lost princes and princesses—who have bucketfuls of self-assurance.

People like you and I are bullfrogs.

Try to stay with me.

I believe this big fairytale is full of people who consider themselves royalty. They've got royal confidence, too. Plenty of it.

We're not like them. We have gangly legs and big eyes. We don't think much of ourselves, we walk with bad posture. Big deal.

So you're feeling bad. Don't fight it. Look in the mirror and let those feelings happen. Cry. Cuss. Feel lousy. Let it wash over you.

And once you're finished, don't ever do it again.

Because there's too much living…

She's not in the mood to talk, which is unlike her. This girl could chat the bark off a tree. But, not today. She's had a busy afternoon.

You find her hiding in a closet. She's crying, behind the hanging clothes. She's still wearing her black velvet dress. A hair ribbon. Shiny shoes.

You don't blame her for hiding. After all, your house is full of visitors dressed in the same shade of funeral-black. They congregate around food, talking in quiet voices.

Hiding doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

“What're you doing in the closet?” you ask.


"Are you crying?"


So, you step inside. You sit beside her. Without saying anything, she crawls into your lap and rests her head against your chest.

"Is Daddy really dead?" she asks.

"He is."

She's not in the mood to talk, which is unlike her. This girl could chat the bark off a tree. But, not today. She's had a busy afternoon.

Funeral visitations are endurance sports. She stood beside you while you pumped nine hundred hands. Folks who cried so hard they couldn't keep their eyes open.

You heard things like, “Your daddy's in a better place, son." You got embraces. Kisses. Preachers reminded you that suicide

is not an unforgivable sin.

When it's over, it feels like someone beat you with a rolling pin.

And now your sister is asleep, drooling on your shirt, and you start wondering. You wonder who will braid her hair, tie her shoes, or help her navigate grade-school. You wonder who will teach her to drive.

So, you talk to God. Man to boy. You tell him that even though you're an inadequate little cuss, you're volunteering for the job.

You make promises to fix breakfasts, do laundry, tell bedtime stories. You swear to attend swim-meets, to cheer so hard your voice breaks. To treat her friends to ice cream.

And when she gets her first job, it will be you who visits Chick-Fil-A, unannounced, to snap a photo.

It will be you who walks her down the aisle.

And when…

The fact is, folks from my side of the tracks have entertained themselves by watching bird-dogs since the earth cooled. All my best friends have had fleas.

I'm parked near the bay, eating salted peanuts, watching a hound dog swim.

I shouldn't be here. I'm an adult. I have a busy schedule to maintain. I have errands, a grocery list, a dentist appointment this afternoon. I also have a coonhound who likes water.

So, I called the dentist to cancel. “Cancel?” the lady on the phone asked. "Is everything okay?"

“Yes ma'am, it's just that my dog wanted to go swimming.”

No answer.

Yeah, I know I'm batty. But Ellie Mae lives for this bay, and it's been a while since I took her swimming. Which isn't fair. God gave her webbed paws the size of basketballs. Swimming is her birthright.

Today, when she saw the bay water through my truck windows, she howled until I stopped the truck.

I'm a softy.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this. The fact is, folks from my side of the tracks have entertained themselves by watching bird-dogs since the earth cooled. All my best friends have had fleas.

When she crawls out of the

water, she shakes. I toss the duck again.

She lights out after it.

I like wet dogs. I keep beach towels in my truck for such occasions. And treats. And leashes.

We're joined at the hip. It's no exaggeration to say she likes to keep me within sniffing distance.

Once, while I was repairing our roof, Ellie Mae attempted to crawl the ladder behind me. She got stuck. It took an hour to get her down.

Another story: once, I found Ellie chewing something in our driveway. In her paws was an open packet of Beech-Nut tobacco.

I hollered at her.

She paid me no mind.

I let her alone. Because the first rule of dog ownership: never touch a hound while she's chewing tobacco.

She's part of my life. In evenings, when I pull in our driveway to see a…

In the years I've known her, I've watched her give that welcome to anyone she meets. Everyone from cashiers at Piggly Wiggly, to chatty redheads dating her daughter.

It's suppertime. My wife is teaching school late tonight and I don't like eating alone. So, I picked up barbecue from a place my mother-in-law likes.

I appeared on her doorstep, unannounced, holding a fresh bouquet—fresh from the supermarket.


She's independent, my mother-in-law. She lives alone—not counting her cats.

She fell recently. A few times. Once in the garage. Again this morning, in the bathtub. She has a bruised tailbone. I can tell she's in pain. I wish there were something I could do.

Sandwiches and flowers are the best I could come up with.

“I brought supper," I say. "Hope you're hungry.”

I'm in luck. She is.

Mother Mary uses a walker. It's candy-apple red. The same contraption that took me four tedious hours to assemble. We call it the General Lee.

When she finishes arranging flowers, she tells me she'd like to eat supper in the den, on her recliner. So I get her situated.

The Weather Channel is blaring at a volume loud enough to interfere with air-traffic transmissions.

I start to turn it off.

"No," she says. "Leave it

on, I wanna see tomorrow's weather."

Yes ma'am.

And so we eat pulled pork while Jim Cantore demonstrates the impact of high-pressure systems on the greater southeastern region.

"How's Ellie Mae?" my mother-in-law shouts.

She's being polite. I don't have kids, so she's asking about my coonhound.

"She's good," I holler.

She adds with a wink, "I like it when you write about your dog, but I like it better when you write about me."


I know Mother Mary's not feeling well. I can see it on her face. But she's sophisticated to a fault. She comes from a world that's peppered with Antebellum columns and parlors with high ceilings.

She's learned how to smile through pain and make dinner guests welcome.

In the years I've known her, I've watched her give that welcome to…

And this is us. These faceless roughnecks, whose names you'll never know. These wives and husbands who come from double-wides. Who eat hog suppers cooked over glorified holes.

I'm at a barbecue. At least that's what they call it.

The man who threw this party is a doctor. He's the friend of a friend, and his house deserves its own zip-code. The propane grill looks nicer than most Japanese SUV's.

Someone offers me a beer. It's a European brand. Never heard of it.

I shake a man's hand. He's an attorney in Atlanta. He just bought a summer home on the Gulf. He shows photos of it to anyone within eyesight.

I meet a woman, she's the owner of a big-city PR firm. She cannot begin a sentence without saying, "I have to be completely honest with you."

I don't belong here.

I have to be completely honest with you, this doesn't feel like any barbecue I've ever been to.

The cookouts of my childhood were pitiful affairs. We had smoke pits. Not the kind from Sears, but the kind your granddaddy makes with cinderblocks and chain-link fencing.

If I close my eyes, I can see the whole thing.

On the grill—if you can call chain-link

a grill—sits a recently skinned pig. Men sit on stumps. They wear work-shirts with snap buttons. They have coolers of cheap beer. And clear stuff.

Behind the pit: a structure called the “hut.” It's not a barn, nor a shed, but a half-building, rusted to hell. It houses a broken tractor, a Ford, and an orange sofa.

From time to time, men lift the pit cover. They shovel glowing red pecan embers into the smoking hole. Some talk about baseball, hateful boss-men, or their war-hero daddies.

While they jaw, I notice a white-haired man missing his pinky.

“Lost this finger in the gear-drive of a stock-roller,” he tells me.

“Did it hurt?”

“What do you think, boy?”

Somebody's wife exits the house. Men notice her. Everyone stands when she nears because she's female. One man removes his hat—a practice I hope never…

I know you're confused about the current state of our world. I am, too. There is a lot of uneasiness right now. Try not to worry about it. Mankind has been fussing like this since the dawn of Duke's Mayonnaise.


I'm having doubtful thoughts with everything going on. I'm confused and disappointed. I want to ask you a question. Is God real?



My God, darling. Why couldn't you have asked me about my favorite brand of mayonnaise instead? I'm an expert in the field of egg-based dressings.

I am not, however, the fella to ask about God. I have few answers on such high-minded matters. I can't even figure out which eleven herbs and spices go into KFC's Original Recipe.

And believe me, I've tried.

Yeah, I know you're confused about the current state of our world. I am, too. There is a lot of uneasiness right now. Try not to worry about it. Mankind has been fussing like this since the dawn of Duke's Mayonnaise.

Once, I saw a fight break out in a Pelham, Alabama, beer-joint. The subject of tension: God.

A loud-talking man claimed that God was nothing but barnyard fertilizer. It offended my friend, whose mother sang in the church choir. Thus, he challenged this man—who was six-times his

size—to a fistfight.

Before we knew it, my buddy went down under the power.

On the ride home, we four teenagers discussed mysteries of the eternal, using our serious voices.

Finally, someone asked, "You think God's real?"

I answered without thinking. And in a sentence, nine-hundred-year's worth of Bible-Belt heritage came out.

I said, "You damn right he's real."

And I sounded like a boy who needed help spelling his name.

The fact is, when some folks talk about God, they're not talking about God at all. They're speaking about miracles, greasy televangelists, faith healers, or a celestial Santa Claus with a white beard. I may be uneducated, but those aren't God.

Nevertheless, you asked me a straight question, so here's my answer: Cassidy.

She's my answer.

Cassidy was nineteen. Beautiful. Her parents died. Her grandmother raised…