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.

DEAR MISTER SEAN:

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

Sincerely, REGULAR TEENAGE GIRL

DEAR REGULAR GIRL:

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…

And I still don't. But sometimes I wonder at the meanness in the world, and I wonder at the lost folks who keep feeding it. I won't lie, it makes me sad. Because such things are a waste of precious calendar days.

I wrecked my truck one mile outside Georgiana, Alabama. Long ago. The only thing I remember is the smack of metal. My driver's window busted into ice.

I thought I was dead.

I had the life-flashing-before-my-eyes experience. I saw myself in diapers. Middle school. I saw my wife, Jamie, in the passenger seat.

She screamed, "I love you, Sean!" while my truck rolled.

They would've been her final words.

I was too shell-shocked to repeat those words back to her with what might've been my last lungful. I regret that.

She helped me climb out of the vehicle. We sat on the side of the highway. Jamie tore a piece from her shirt and dabbed blood from my face. She cried so hard she gagged.

I tried to say something, but my voice didn't work.

The paramedics arrived.

“Sir, can you tell me your name?” asked a large blue uniform.

I couldn't.

“Your NAME, sir.”

I was too confused. All I said was, "My truck."

"Yeah," he said. "That ain't a truck anymore. You're one lucky sumbitch, sir."

It was an understatement.

After

I regained my senses, the EMT's told me that earlier the same morning—only miles up the interstate—another accident had happened.

A semi truck jack-knifed. An economy car skidded beneath the trailer. The top of the car got ripped off—the family inside was ruined.

“It was a traveling gospel group,” said the paramedic. “They were leaving a church gig. They were high-schoolers.”

I'll never forget hearing about those kids. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I've seen my share of old-fashioned gospel groups.

Take, for instance, the time I drove six hours to North Alabama, just to watch three brothers sing. I used to lay concrete with them before they started traveling the circuit. The eldest, Aaron, was a good man—built like a Philco refrigerator.

I remember when a contractor tried to cheat Aaron and his brothers…

...On the morning of my father's death, my aunt opened the windows—she was a superstitious bird. Just then, a stiff breeze kicked up. It was a chilly wind that felt like good music.

7:32 P.M.—I'm looking at heaven. My truck is parked in a peanut field right now. My coonhound, Ellie Mae, is in the passenger seat, eating my barbecue sandwich.

I just left a wedding. It was in an old clapboard church. I waited in line to shake the groom's hand.

He hugged me and said, "God, I wish my daddy were here."

Yeah.

His father's been dead a while. I remember the day his father fell off that roof. That year, my friend wore his daddy's jacket all the time—even in summer.

Just before I congratulated his bride, he whispered, “You think people in heaven can see us?”

All I could say was, "I hope so."

I wish I would've thought to say something more poetic.

Anyway, I had to leave the reception early because Ellie Mae was waiting in my truck.

On the drive back, we stopped for barbecue. I ordered one sandwich for myself, one for Ellie.

And now I'm in a field, wondering if this isn't what heaven's like. Quiet. I hope heaven isn't too loud and

obnoxious like some preachers claim.

I once attended an Iron-Bowl tailgate party in Birmingham. It was so noisy I had a headache for three days. If eternity is anything like that, I'd rather raise peanuts with my fellow sinners here below.

I also hope my friend Tyler is up yonder—wherever yonder is. He overdosed on Methadone. That was a shock. None of us thought he touched anything harder than Budweiser.

One afternoon, I showed up at his apartment. A woman in a maid's uniform answered the door. She told me the former tenant had passed.

Former tenant.

Tyler said once that he believed dead people turned into music. And I've thought about that a lot since he died.

“You know how music gives you chills?” he explained, killing a Budweiser. “And everything makes sense? That's where we go. Like music.”

Tight…

After my first semester with her, I signed up for her English II course. After I graduated, I took two more of her classes, just because I liked her.

I saw her in the Winn-Dixie parking lot. I was walking in. She was coming out. I recognized her right off.

I've changed a lot over the years. She hasn't. She looks like she did when I sat in her English class long ago. White hair, pearls, dressed to the nines.

She taught night classes.

Back then, I'd arrive at campus early. I'd eat supper in my truck—a pimento cheese sandwich—while doing homework. Then, I'd change my work-shirt and go inside.

Hers was the only class I didn't hate.

She wasn't an overly friendly woman. And because of this, several students didn't care for her. But she was kind to me during a time when I felt lost.

And in my book that's a good teacher.

Though as it happens, I'm not exactly what you'd call a good pupil. I never have been. In my school career, I've spent most of my accredited hours trying to figure out whether the professors were speaking graduate-level Pig-Latin.

After my first semester with her, I signed up for her English II course.

After I graduated, I took two more of her classes, just because I liked her.

My mama asked why on earth I'd go to the trouble, taking classes I didn't need.

I hate goodbyes, I guess.

I remember when her husband passed. She didn't come to school for a week. The entire night-class-full of construction grunts and cocktail waitresses buried her desk in sympathy cards.

I went to the funeral with another student. We both wore neckties. She cried when she saw us.

We returned the favor.

The night of our last class, I remember her saying, “I've enjoyed having you, you're a smart boy.”

Smart.

That might seem like a small word. But she's one of the only teachers who's ever gone and said that. That single kindhearted sentence has done me a lot of good over the years.

That…

The truck was ugly, painted gray to hide rust. The bumpers were missing, the interior smelled like oyster stew.

It was a classified ad in one of those nickel newspapers. It read:

"Gray Ford. Half-ton. Stick-shift. Some rust. Needs TLC. Sneads, Florida. $800."

My pal called about it. He needed a truck in a bad way. His old one had gone to be with Jesus, his wife was pregnant, and he'd just lost his job.

And in the days before texting, the only way to do business was to use the interstate.

Before we left, he went to the bank. He liquidated his account into a wallet-full of eight hundred dollars.

I gave him a ride. We stopped at a gas station outside Cottondale. He filled my tank, then paid inside. He bought two sticks of beef jerky, two scratch-off lottos.

Thoughtful.

After a two-hour ride we hit a dirt road leading to a farmhouse that sat on several acres of green. Out front: an old man, smoking. He was bony, friendly-faced, tall.

The truck was ugly, painted gray to hide rust. The bumpers were missing, the interior smelled like oyster stew.

“Runs good,” the man said.

“I'll take it,” my buddy answered.

He reached for his wallet. And that's when it happened.

His pocket was empty.

My friend went nuts. He retraced his steps. We tore apart my truck, dug through seats, and cussed. When he finally gave up, he sat cross-legged on the ground. He cried until his face looked raw.

The elderly man sat beside him. He wrapped his arms around him. It had been a long time since a man had done that sort of thing to my pal. He was a fatherless orphan, like me.

When things calmed down, the man's eyes were red and puffy. He wiped his face and said, "C'mon, son, nothin's THAT bad."

My pal didn't answer.

The elderly man removed keys from his pocket and placed them in my friend's hand.

He said, "Listen, that thing's gonna need an…

As it happens, I've spent a long time not belonging to much family. My daddy was a union man, Mama worked at Chick-Fil-A.

Early morning. Belleville Avenue. That's me in the kitchen, eating bacon by the handful, wearing a coat and tie.

I just got engaged. My future in-laws are throwing a brunch. My soon-to-be aunt, Catherine, cooked nearly fifty pounds of bacon for this shindig.

I even bought a new shirt for this brunch. Also: a coat, necktie, and new belt—one without a buckle.

“You can't wear a BELT BUCKLE to an engagement party," proclaimed my future-spouse. "People will think you're a 'neck. You need a DRESS belt.”

What could be dressier than a fella waltzing around, sporting a Beechnut buckle the size of a pie-plate?

It would never do.

Earlier that week, my wife carried me to JC Penny's in Andalusia. She selected a skinny belt not fit for stroping a razor. And a fifty-dollar button-down with a shirt-tag reading: “wrinkle-free.”

I want my money back.

The doorbell rings. Folks in their Sunday best begin to arrive. I've never met these people before, I'm not sure they'll like me. I am sick-to-my-stomach nervous about it because I have

about as much sophistication as an empty mayonnaise jar.

Many guests are elderly. Lots of pastel colors. Strings of pearls. Floral hats.

An old woman hugs me. Then another. Then another. And I smell like lady's perfume in a matter of milliseconds.

Someone invites me to church. Another invites me drinking. One fella invites me to do both.

Next: my future uncle. He's a small Baptist man, with eyes that shine. He shakes my hand, tells me he loves me.

Then, I meet a fella with a prosthetic arm and a warm face. He hands me a silver dollar and winks. I still have that coin.

I meet ten Flossies, five Roberts, one Mary, two aunt Catherines, a Mary-Catherine, eleven Jims, nine hundred Jameses, the West Boys, a Ben, a Bob, a Bill, a Blake.

And one Bentley.

I meet aunts, cousins, childhood…

Today we wrapped Rascal in a blanket and took her to the vet. She laid in my wife's arms while she whispered, "You're a good girl."

Rascal's old. Too old to purr, she sleeps all day, she can't jump anymore. She's twenty years old.

Her back legs quit working months ago—arthritis. And she only eats soft food.

She came into this marriage as Jamie's illegitimate feline. Back then, Rascal was piss and vinegar, wrapped in fur, with a preference for squatting on expensive items.

I don't mind telling you: she used to hate me.

As a young cat, she'd glare at me like Rosemary's Baby. Once, she hid beneath our mattress to avoid a veterinary visit. I tried to remove her; she tried to sever a major artery.

Another time: she vomited in my dress-shoes. And once, on Christmas Eve night, she deposited a holiday miracle on my pillow.

But that's ancient history.

I'm not sure when it happened, but we fell in love. She quit despising me and started waiting in our windowsill for me to arrive home from work.

I even took her fishing once. I gave her a few baitfish. She tortured them, then licked their guts clean.

During football games, she'd

sit on our coffee table—beside my beer—watching TV. So help me, the cat watched television.

When I'd holler, “C'mon, dammit!” at Alabama's offense, she'd flick her tail.

And she's a daddy's girl. While I write stories, she sleeps on my desk, between my typewriter and computer. Or in my lap.

I went to pet her last night. A clump of twenty-year-old hair came off in my hand. Her skin is paper. She's been losing weight. Her bones are porcelain

God.

Time is running away. I've changed a lot in twenty years. You wouldn't even recognize the person I used to be, either.

I used to be stupid, impulsive, short-sighted. Long ago, I skipped a college English final to go on a fishing trip. I earned an F.

What was I thinking?

Some days, I look in the mirror and wonder at…

...This is Old Florida, a place where everybody knows everybody. Where the school principal graduated with your daddy's fishing-buddy's cousin. Where gossip flies across Facebook faster than a greased hog.

Calhoun County, Florida—a small world bordered by the mighty Apalachicola. A rural community, forty minutes south of the Georgia line. A place where you can get live crickets at supermarkets. Where you can still buy plug tobacco.

It's a progressive area.

Here, for instance, they observe Goat Day—a holiday honoring goat-milking, banjos, hell-fire preaching, and greased pig chases.

It bears mention: I've chased a greased pig once—at a Baptist fair. I broke two ribs.

So welcome to Blountstown. It's more than a small town. It's Tonya Lawrence's life. She grew up in these schools, played softball on this dirt, shopped at The Pig, birthed Calhoun-County babies.

One day, she went to the doctor for a routine visit. The doctor ordered lab work. The results were a punch to the face. Her kidneys were shutting down.

Tonya says, “It was devastating, I always considered myself a strong person, but once I started dialysis...”

Yeah.

Seven nights a week, she hooked to a machine, watching her strength run through little tubes.

Her condition isn't just the kind that kills. It's

the sort that ruins your life first.

And there's a problem: kidney-donor lists are more exclusive than US congressional barbecues. It takes a long time to locate an organ. Best case scenario: seven to fourteen years.

Tonya's children will be filing for AARP by then.

Still, this is Old Florida, a place where everybody knows everybody. Where the school principal graduated with your daddy's fishing-buddy's cousin. Where gossip flies across Facebook faster than a greased hog.

Tonya's friends put the word out for donors.

But sadly, this isn't a fairytale. And drumming up vital organs isn't as easy as holding canned-food drives at the sheriff's station. Tonya waited.

In the meantime, she's received affection. Lots of it.

She's been fielding billions of phone calls, responding to texts, tapping out Facebook thank-yous. And I'm willing to bet she received enough gift baskets to…

Her first marriage ended when her husband got hooked on painkillers. One day, she found him unconscious. He almost overdosed. That's when her life changed.

She's had a hard life. I can tell. Her skin is rough, she's got wiry brown hair, and if I'm not mistaken, false teeth.

She's on class break, standing on the sidewalk. She offers me a smoke. I decline.

The closest I've ever come to being a smoker was sitting with my grandaddy while he lit his pipe.

I ask her why she's here.

She flicks her lighter and tells me, "Because I'm a flunky."

Her first marriage ended when her husband got hooked on painkillers. One day, she found him unconscious. He almost overdosed. That's when her life changed.

She took her kids and left.

“I tried to find a good job,” she says. “But there ain't good jobs out there for flunky losers, that's something I learned real fast.”

The first thing you should know: she's no flunky. In fact, she's the opposite. I don't know her, but I know her sort. She descends from a long line of South Alabamians who work like mutts.

"Two days after I left him," she says. "I signed up to take

GED prep classes."

School was hard. Hours were late. She was no spring chicken, and working a day-job makes a body tired. To make matters worse, she had a bad instructor.

“He was a jerk,” she remarks. “He talked too fast, and didn't care if we understood things.”

So, she took charge. She self-taught. Once she'd learned the material, she wandered from desk to desk, helping others diagram sentences, memorize multiplication, and solve for X.

Flunkies.

"Listen," she says "That test is tough, took eight hours to finish."

Eight.

"Had to break mine up into two days. I thought for sure I'd failed. I flat-out cried when they gave me my graduation slip.”

Her eyes glaze.

So do mine. All that smoke.

"I didn't think paper would matter so much," she says. "But it was like, I mean, when you…