She's a little girl with an uncle who looks like me. An uncle who once cried at a Willie Nelson concert when he discovered he had a new niece.

One year ago—Atlanta, Georgia. Willie Nelson stood on stage and sang my childhood. He sang: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

I rose to my feet in honor of Mama—who expressly failed in this regard.

While Willie played for thousands, my wife handed me her glowing cellphone. There were photos of a pink newborn baby on it.

“That’s your niece!” yelled my wife.

I cried, then smiled for three hundred days.

Though it bears mentioning, life hasn’t always been worth smiling about. Take, for instance, the day we scattered my father’s ashes. That was a particularly bad day.

I had hoped his remains would catch the wind and fly away like angel dust. They dropped like a brick.

That following year, I wore out Daddy’s vinyl record collection, trying to remember him.

One of my favorite records: an album bearing portraits of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings on the cover.

I listened to “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” until I half-hated the melody.

But, of course, I never could hate that song. I sang it on my very first gig.

And I was god-awful.

At the end of the night, the owner paid me fifteen bucks and said, “Learn some new songs, kid. If I hear that damn Willie song one more time, I’m gonna go crazy.”

I tried to learn as many new songs as I could. After swinging a hammer during the afternoons, I’d practice music until the wee hours.

I peddled my unimpressive songs to rundown places and earned next-to-nothing for my mediocre performances.

They were joints Mama would’ve been ashamed of, with neon signs in windows and sad people at tables.

In one such…

For a woman who has spent her life working her fingers into nubs, Miss Liza has the disposition of a ten-dollar Hallmark card.

Not far from the water tower in Grove Hill, Alabama, sits Bertile’s. It's an old burger joint with hand-patted burgers and homemade biscuits.

Miss Liza stands behind the counter. She looks much younger than she is. There is gray in her hair.

She’s worked at this fast-food hole-in-the-wall for thirty years.


“She needs a day off,” one young employee tells me. “Miss Liza, she works EVERY day.”

Even Sundays.

“But I only work AFTER church,” Miss Liza says. “My husband is a preacher, we can't skip church.”

Miss Liza and her husband have managed to muscle through thirty-five years of marriage, raising two boys—working overtime. He's an electrician and preacher. She manages this burger joint.

She is a faceless working-class woman you'll probably never hear about—there's no reason you would, unless some fool were to write about her.

She's having a rough time. Her mother is dying. She has dementia. Liza makes the long drive to Meridian as often as she can to visit, but there's not much

time left.

“Visited last week,” she says. “When Mama saw me, she throwed her arms out and say, ‘Come here, Liza.’ My mama don't always remember me, so that was a blessing.”

Liza wipes her eye.

So do I.

“But, I ain't complaining,” she says. “We poor, but my children turned out to be good adults, God blessed me.”

Blessed. For a woman who has spent her life working her fingers into nubs, Miss Liza has the disposition of a ten-dollar Hallmark card.

I ask when she took her last vacation.

She laughs. “My last WHAT? No sir. Ain’t got time. My husband, he got the asthma, and health problems. I don't do vacations.”


They ate fried chicken and potatoes, and afterward they did dishes. He went to Wednesday night church. He sat in a pew. He sang. It meant a lot to Granny.

Granny had family supper in her dining room last week. It was her first family supper in two decades.

She has a small family. Her nine-year-old granddaughter sat beside her. Her forty-three-year-old son sat across.

Hers is an old trailer. A double-wide. Linoleum floors, shallow ceilings. She bought it with her husband before he died. She's been poor her whole life.

This is the nicest home she’s ever had.

So supper. Her son wore a necktie and dress shirt. The little girl: long braids and a dress.

Granny said a prayer. She thanked God for second chances, little girls, and sons.

“My son’s an addict,” Granny tells me. “In and out of rehab. Learned a long time ago, an addict only thinks about themselves, it's how they are.”

Her son's little girl was born in a bad neighborhood—the kind where questionable transactions take place on the front porches.

The day his girlfriend announced she was pregnant, Granny redecorated the spare bedroom in her own home. She fixed the room just

like on HGTV. Pink drapes, frilly pillows.

One Sunday, when the baby was only a few months old, Granny parked herself on her son’s doorstep. The intoxicated girlfriend told her to get lost.

Granny would not.

“I’s gonna take my grandbaby to church,” she told me. “Wasn't leaving without her.”

The girlfriend lost it. She cussed, threw things.

Granny demanded the baby. Girlfriend refused. Granny called the law; a mess followed.

Police handcuffed her son and his girlfriend. He screamed at his mother. He told her he hated her.

Granny said, “'Course it hurt, but I just thought: 'Fine, he's just gonna have to hate me. ‘Cause I'm worried about this little girl.’”

Her son spent…

I had a burger and a beer for supper, outside Frisco City. I rode past water towers, cattle, and rusty mobile homes. I pulled into an overgrown hay patch and looked at the stars.

It’s late in Grove Hill, Alabama. There are dirt rows stretching from here to the tree line. The sky is starry.

I miss my father. No. I miss having a father. At this age, I can hardly remember what it was like.

When I was a boy, my friends and I once climbed a water tower. It was midnight. We were colossal fools. We could've fallen and ended up as teenage pancakes.

We leaned over the railing, looking at the farmland. Our boyish conversation drifted toward fathers.

“Daddy took me hunting last weekend,” said one boy.

“Oh yeah,” said another. “My daddy’s teaching me to throw a fastball.”

Daddy this, Daddy that. Give me a break.

We rode home on bikes. My friends snuck back into their own beds. Picture-perfect homes, with two parents sleeping in master bedrooms.

That night, I sat on a bicycle seat, looking at the sky. I asked how Daddy was doing up there. I needed something. A voice. A bright light. A gust of wind.

No response.

So I answered myself.

“Oh, I’m doing fine, son,” I

said to myself. “How about you?”

A colossal fool.

Anyway, I grew up trying to father myself. I’ve been doing that for a long time. Truth be told, it’s not very hard. You learn how to take yourself fishing, how to carve a Thanksgiving turkey, how to give yourself advice.

On my wedding day, I talked to my reflection in the bathroom mirror.

“You’re a good kid,” I told myself. “You make me so, so, so proud, son.”


The day I finally graduated college, I sat in my truck for nearly an hour feeling like I should celebrate. I needed someone. Anyone.

So, I drove. I rode upward through three counties. I stopped at a joint where cars were parked. I sat at the bar. A little girl sat beside me on a stool, eating a hamburger…

I met him when I was a young man. He owned a truck camper—sometimes he lived in it. He rooted for Alabama football. He had false teeth, though he never admitted it.

He was a good man. He worked construction. He was tall, bone-skinny, had cropped silver hair. He kept spare cigarettes behind his ear—I'll never forget that.

I didn't know him long, and there's a lot I don’t know about him. But I can tell you the things I know.

I met him when I was a young man. He owned a truck camper—sometimes he lived in it. He rooted for Alabama football. He had false teeth, though he never admitted it.

He smoked like a paper mill.

The first day I worked with him, my truck was blocking the driveway of a construction site. He needed to unload a trailer.

“Hey man,” he said, “Gimme your keys, I’ll move your truck for you.”

I tossed him my keyring. He was gone a long time. I never thought twice about it.

That night, I drove home and noticed my gas tank was full.

My gas tank was never full.

Something else I remember: once, on a lunch-break, we stopped at

a Tom Thumb. There was a man, sitting on a bench. He had reddish-tan skin, a long beard, and a backpack. He held a cardboard sign.

“Where you headed?” asked my friend.

“My daughter’s in Miami,” he said. “I don’t have money for a bus ticket.”

The next morning my pal wasn't at work. People asked where he was.

He called in at lunchtime.

“Tell everyone I'm sorry,” said my friend. “I got nine hours of driving left. I’m on my way back from Miami.”

Once, in the dead of summer, July I think it was, we stood in line at a fast-food joint. A Mexican woman and her child waited ahead of us.

My pal made…

When they stand to leave, he holds her arm. They shuffle outside. I see them through the window. It’s an ordeal fitting Old Blue Eyes into the front seat. She buckles him in.

It’s early evening. We are waiting for a table. My wife and I are standing in a long line of people who all had the same brilliant idea—to take the interstate exit and visit Cracker Barrel.

Behind me is a Baptist youth group. Mostly boys. I saw their vans in the parking lot. There must be fifty of them, and they all smell like hormones.

Ahead of me: an elderly couple. She’s pretty, wearing a floral shirt. He is two feet higher than she is, with wide bony shoulders. He is wearing a ball cap and holding her arm.

His hands are trembling. His head bobs back and forth. He doesn’t seem to have any control over his movements.

The hostess calls them.

The woman says into the man’s hearing aid, “Table’s ready.”

He smiles. It’s a nice smile. I wish my smile was half as inviting as Old Blue Eyes.

I see them in the dining room. The man keeps his shaky hands in his lap, but it doesn't

stop him from moving. He looks uncomfortable in his own body.

She is playing the wood triangle game. I’ve never been very good at this novelty test. And apparently, neither has she.

No sooner has the waitress delivered their plates of food than the old woman takes a seat beside Old Blue Eyes. She tucks a napkin into his collar. She spoon-feeds him.

His shoulders start to toss violently. His head jerks to the side. He’s a making a mess.

She stops feeding and waits.

The shaking gets so bad that he starts rocking in different directions. It’s hard to watch.

But not for her. She talks to him like nothing is wrong. And even though he flails, even though the eyes…

The men are from different walks of life. They meet here, swapping stories, remembering what this world was like before cell phones ruled the solar system.

Dothan, Alabama—Ray’s Restaurant. This place is nothing fancy. A plain building with fluorescent lighting, decent coffee, and Bear Bryant photos on the wall.

Inside, it smells like bacon.

There is a table of white-haired men. They wear camouflage caps, jeans, suspenders.

A placard on their table reads: “Table of Knowledge.”

I overhear their discussion. They’re chatting about politics. They laugh while they do it.

You don’t see folks laugh about politics much anymore.

The men are from different walks of life. They meet here, swapping stories, remembering what this world was like before cell phones ruled the solar system.

They solve problems. Talk philosophy. They flirt with waitresses.

In my booth: a police department chaplain, and two South Alabamian belles. It’s early. Our conversation is a tired one.

I order grits, eggs, bacon. The waitress brings coffee. She looks as tired as she is skinny. Her accent is pure Wiregrass.

I ask her which booth Bear Bryant sat in when he visited long ago—I bet all out-of-towners ask

her this.

She points across the room. “He sat over there,” she says. “All the out-of-towners ask me that.”

Welcome to Circle City. They say that the peanuts in your American supermarket come from this local soil. And that's what this place is known for.

But it's more than just a peanut capital. It's rural communities that surround the city.

Places like Slocomb, Wicksburg, Malvern, Rehobeth, Taylor, Cowarts, and Hartford.

Towns where tractors outnumber steeples. Where men still wear neckties to church and use twist tobacco recreationally.

The waitress brings our food. The chaplain says grace.

His prayer is poetry. He’s an Episcopal priest, he knows how to recite a blessing sweet enough to knock paint…

My mother was a shell. Once upon a time, she’d crocheted, quilted, gardened, she even fished. After Daddy, all she had left were overgrown flower beds and two kids.

The interstate is quiet this time of morning. A cattle truck just passed me.

“You Are My Sunshine” is on the radio. Johnny Cash is singing it. I cannot listen to this song without thinking of my mother—who used to sing it to me while I made mud pies in the backyard.

My daddy ended his life in September. By October Mama was so lonely you could hear her cry herself to sleep through the walls.

I’d knock on her bedroom door around suppertime. There would be no answer.

Thus, I would fire up the kitchen to prepare my world-famous culinary masterpiece: tres bowls de vanilla ice cream.

My mother was a shell. Once upon a time, she’d crocheted, quilted, gardened, she even fished. After Daddy, all she had left were overgrown flower beds and two kids.

She worked. Like a dog. To make ends meet, she cleaned condos, ran the deep-fryer at Chick-Fil-A, mopped floors, she threw the newspaper, volunteered at church. She raised kids.

When she got sick, the

world fell apart.

Doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Whatever it was, it was killing her.

She moved in with my aunt and uncle in Atlanta. They took care of her. I visited when I could—which wasn't enough.

One night, I made an all-night drive to Georgia. I arrived at my aunt’s at three in the morning. In the driveway: a frail woman in a nightgown stood in my headlights, waiting. I hardly recognized her.

We hugged and I almost broke her.

“Are you hungry?” was the first thing Mama asked.

“No ma’am.”

She made a full breakfast anyway.

A plastic implanted port poked from her collarbone. Her face was gaunt. Her hair was short. She'd been…

She was no woman. She was a girl who’d learned to say her alphabet on the front porch. Who played so hard her cheeks turned red. Who named puppies.

Miss Ann drove me to the hospital in her Buick. She walked me through the parking lot, holding my hand.

We took the elevator. My father was pacing the hallway by the window.

“It’s a girl,” Daddy said. “A girl, can you believe it?”

He was wearing blue scrubs over sooty work clothes. A blue surgical cap. He looked ridiculous.

We wandered into a hospital room that was white and sterile.

Mama was sleeping hard. They handed the girl to Daddy first.

He stared the baby in the face. He examined her hands and feet, counted fingers and toes. He smelled her.

He smiled. “A girl,” he said.

When he pressed her against his chest, he wore the same look some drunk people wear. A sort of loose smile.

“A little girl,” he said again.

They let me hold her. She didn’t weigh much more than an unripened squash. Her eyes were closed tight. She smelled funny.

A girl.

Daddy died a few

years later. It didn't take long before the girl could hardly remember his face.

The boy did his best to teach the girl important life lessons. Such as: how to fry bacon, how to scoop ice cream, how to spin a quarter, shoot bottle-rockets, and spit for distance.

And when the family dog gave birth to nine puppies in the garage, it was the boy who taught the girl to hold the newborn things.

“Is she a mama-dog now?” asked the girl.

“She is,” said the boy.

We stayed up for half the night, holding pups, giving them names like: Fred, Ginger, Waylon, Loretta, and Bill Gaither.

The girl got older. Prettier. Smarter. She played sports. She competed on…

And when doctors told us they found something irregular in her breast, we sat in a UAB waiting room. I quit eating, skipped suppers. I stared at ceilings, whispering things to God.

There is a photo on my dresser. It’s an old photograph. My wife sits at a table. Her arms are crossed. There’s a birthday cake in front of her.

The cake is seven-layer. Caramel. I drove all the way to Dean’s Cake House in Andalusia to buy that thing. Candles poke from the top. My wife wears a warm smile.

That was quite a day.

As a rule, photographs don't do my wife justice. Her personality is too colorful for rolls of film.

Snapping a shot of her is a lot like trying to capture the Sistine Chapel on a cocktail napkin with a Bic pen.

Even so, that night I held a disposable camera while we sang “Happy Birthday,” using voices loud enough to affect weather conditions.

My wife's mother placed the seven-layer cake before her. Her father and I kept singing like a duet of Labradors with chest colds.

My wife’s cheeks turned red. She showed a smile. I pointed the camera.


And for a

hundred years, that photo has made me feel less alone.

Maybe it’s her smile. After all, people like us aren't supposed to smile. At least not like she smiles.

We haven't had exceptional careers—she worked food service, I stood on ladders.

Our bank account was decidedly shallow. Money wasn’t exactly growing on rose bushes. For suppers, we’d visit Kentucky Fried Chicken to lick other people's fingers.

But we smiled a lot. She taught me to do that.

We bought cones of ice cream, using quarters from dashboard ashtrays. We sat in parking lots, listening to car radios. We talked until the wee hours. We chatted about life. About kids.

“How about Rose?” she said. “We ever have a daughter, I…