Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards.

You’re a single mother. Your name is Deidra. Your wallet has three bucks in it. You have an old Visa gift card with twelve dollars left on it.

Something bad happened today.

It wasn’t because of anything you did. It’s because you’re in your late-thirties, and teenagers can do your job cheaper. They cut your hours. Management’s way of firing you.

You reacted. You let your manager have it. You called him an awful name. You wish you could take it back.

You cry in your car. You wipe your face. Then cry again. You wait for your kids to exit the free daycare.

And here you are, sorting mail while you wait. Power bill. Water bill. Cellphone bill. Cable. Insurance. It never ends.

Your kids run toward you. There are kisses, hugs. You notice how tall your oldest is. Your nine-year-old colored a picture.

They talk loud and happy.

You’re thinking about what’s inside your refrigerator for supper. A few slices of bologna, half a liter of Coke, old carrots, two eggs.

You look in your purse. The gift card.

You drive to a pizza buffet. It’s six

bucks for your oldest, four bucks for the youngest—not counting soda.

You slide your card and hold your breath.

Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards.

You’re young, pretty, healthy. You’re supposed to be happy. Instead, you’re a few dimes shy of homelessness.

After the meal, you leave eighty-four cents for a tip. That’s all the loose change you have—you’re saving your last three dollars.

You drive. Your gas gauge is on E.

You’re humiliated. That’s how poverty works. It embarrasses a person, until they think so little of themselves, they don’t like their reflection.

You pull into a gas station. You’re going to put three dollars into your old Ford Contour. Not a penny more.

You walk…

She greets each customer with sugary words and a cheek-crippling grin.

Calera, Alabama—the Cracker Barrel off I-65 is busy this morning. There are people in the dining room from every walk of life. Lots of noise.

An elderly man with military patches on his ball cap. A young couple with loud children who test the limits of the known sound barrier. An old man in a cowboy hat, sitting with his grandkids.

My waitress is Tamba. She is pretty, middle-aged, with cropped black hair, and a smile that sets the room on fire.

“How y’all today?” she says.

Her smile makes me smile. Which makes my wife smile. Which makes Tamba smile. Which makes me grin so hard my cheeks are sore.

She fills my coffee mug. She takes my order. And there’s that smile again.

My cheek muscles will never recover.

I watch her weave through the chaotic dining room like a ballerina. She takes orders from grumpy parents, over-caffeinated children, and flat-faced out-of-towners who woke up on the wrong side of the hotel bed.

She greets each customer with sugary words and a cheek-crippling grin.

She takes orders by memory. She listens when picky eaters specify exactly how they want their eggs. Before she leaves tables, she recites orders to her customers without flaw.

And I sincerely hope that John Q. Customer notices how remarkable she is. Her personality is brilliant, her sense of humor is refreshing, and her memory is the Eighth Wonder of the World.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet she could memorize the Jefferson County phonebook in one sitting and recite it with her eyes closed.

On her way to the kitchen, people flag her down.

“I need mayo!” hollers a man.

She’s got it covered.

“Ma’am!” says an impatient woman from the back. “I NEED some pepper sauce.”

Pepper sauce. Check.

“Ma’am, can I get some…

Those boyhood feelings never leave you. No matter how old you get. No matter what your station in life. Those feelings are like handprints embedded in a cement sidewalk.

Enterprise, Alabama—I stood before a small auditorium of people. Guitar strapped to my chest. I told a story about my cousin falling off a chicken house and breaking his big toe. People laughed at the punchline. I sang a song to go with it. I told another story. Another song.

And I was thinking to myself.

“I’m not qualified to be here,” that’s what I was thinking in the moment. “I’m not supposed to be doing this.”

After the show, I went to the back. I hugged necks. I shook hands with people who were kind enough to attend. One woman told me her son died this past month. Another man embraced me and said: “I’m eighty tonight, thanks for making my birthday good.”

And a nine-year-old named Emily gave me a handwritten letter. As it happens, I’ve written about Emily once before. Months ago, I mistakenly wrote that she was seven years old.

“I’m actually nine,” Emily clarified. “But you’re okay.”

Sometimes I feel like an impostor

doing what I do for a living. I mean it. I have no idea what I’m doing. Furthermore, why would anyone read my words? Why would anyone care to hear to my stories?

I’m so painfully ordinary it hurts. I grew up among lots of grass, and plain people, and tiny post offices. I was not a good athlete, a terrible student, and I was chubby. With freckles. And a big nose. And ugly hair.

I remember when Mother used to take family photographs. She would position us just right. “Say cheese!” she’d yell. She’d send me to the drugstore to pick up the photos after a few weeks.

I would open the Kodak envelope and thumb through glossy photographs. When I’d see my own picture, I wanted to crawl under a flat rock.

Nothing was “okay” with the way I was put…

Well, I’m a painfully mediocre man. I drive a rundown truck that leaks oil. I have no achievements, and no credibility to my hillbilly name. You don’t know me, and you have no reason to keep reading my ten-cent words.

Hi. We hardly know each other. And I know this won’t mean much coming from a stranger like me, but I have to say it:

I’m sorry.

I mean it. I am sorry. I’m sorry about the big and the little things that happen to you.

I’m sorry you didn’t sleep last night. I’m sorry your back hurts. And I’m sorry about the long-term repercussions of fiscal American inflation.

Also: I’m sorry you don’t laugh as often as you used to. I’m sorry money doesn’t grow in the backyard—God help me, I am.

I know what it means to work long hours and get nothing but a bloody lip in return.

I’m sorry your car won’t start. I’m sorry alternators cost more than booze-cruises to Barbados.

I’m sorry that every time you get some money saved, your roof begins leaking, your water-heater goes out, your toilet backs up, or you need a root canal.

I’m double-sorry about the root canal.

I’m sorry your dog died. And for the sour feelings you get when you see the empty food-bowl on your kitchen floor.

I miss every good dog I’ve ever owned.

I’m sorry your loved one

died recently. I’m sorry grief has become a permanent part of you, and that your heart has been polished with a cheese grater.

I’m sorry the doctor said you need surgery. I’m sorry you’re diabetic. I’m sorry your entire world caved in when they said, “Ma’am, you have cancer.”

I’m sorry you have felt sick and rundown for so long that you don’t remember what the old you felt like.

I’m sorry life doesn’t go the way we want it. I’m sorry the clock runs out too quickly, and that our bodies don’t last longer.

I’m extra-sorry for anyone who feels unimportant.

I know what it’s like to lose your confidence. Confidence is a funny thing. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back.

“I learn from people,” he tells. “And maybe I can even encourage them, you know?

The filling station sits on a rural highway, across from a kajillion acres of peanuts. A kajillion, you will note, is more than a bazillion, less than a zillion.

He is outside the filling station, sitting in a wheelchair. He wears a camouflage cap, hunting T-shirt, tattoos everywhere. He is drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He is young.

“Nice weather,” he says when he sees me pumping gas.

And no matter how old I get, I love to cuss the weather. I come from a long line of men who cussed the weather. It’s something humans have in common. We can all talk about the weather with complete authority even though we don’t know much about what it will do.

“Yeah,” I say. “Great weather. But a little hot.”

“I know,” he says. “But I like the heat. It’s better than being stuck in a dark house.”

He seems to know what he’s talking about.

He parks his motorized wheelchair here at this station almost every day except

Sundays. He does it because he is Chatty Cathy. Here, he meets people. And he likes people.

“I get all cooped up in my house,” he says. “I need to be around people, and feel like I’m really here.”

After his accident—which he tells me nothing about—he’s been isolated from life. His friends have all have jobs, and girlfriends, and he’s been fighting to recover.

“Man,” he says. “I used to do so much cool stuff, four-wheeling, and hunting, and fishing, and you know, everything. It’s tough not being able to do that no more.”

He doesn’t say it, but I can see it. He’s lonely. He just wants someone to talk to. Someone to do things with. His friends used to go fishing with him, and go riding.

Even so, this isn’t getting him down. Not when the weather is…

You will meet a dog named Ellie Mae, who will change you. She will look at you and see perfection. No human will ever see this in you. Because it’s not actually there. But this dog will give you the holy gift that only canines can give.

Dear Young Me,

I hope you are well. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, I forgot what a kid you are. You are eighteen. And even though you don’t know this, you are very, very stupid.

But that’s okay. Stupidity isn’t all bad.

You have big ideas. I’m tempted to call them dreams. But then, they aren’t dreams. Dreams are ambitious things. You aren’t ambitious. You start a project, then peter out.

You’ve been told you’re lazy, and slow, and not good at things you do. But I’m writing to say that you are good enough.

If you remember nothing else I write, please remember that last sentence.

You once had a girlfriend tell you—and in one case, even her mother told you—that you were going nowhere. You believed them.

You’re watching friends get accepted into good colleges. They’ve set compasses for their lives. They are doing well for themselves. Everyone seems to be succeeding. Except you.

Take heart, Young Me. Your life is going to be full

of surprises. You don’t know it yet. You have no idea what’s around the corner. None. I get excited just thinking about it.

For example: you will meet a beautiful woman who knows how to make beautiful biscuits. You will marry, and you will be beautifully poor. So, so poor. And it will only make you happier.

Let’s see. What else? You’ll total a few trucks. You will have back surgery. And on one occasion, you will be lost in Toledo, Ohio, without a car.

And brace yourself for what I am about to say:

The Chicago Cubs will win a World Series.

I am dead serious about this. When this happens, you will shout at your television—even though you aren’t a Cubs fan. Even though your wife is asleep in the other room.

You will…

Sister Jean takes the pulpit. She is ninety-one. She was the first ordained female in the Alabama-West Florida Methodist Conference. This woman is a history book wearing pearls and pumps.

Hartford First United Methodist Church. Small church. Small town. One barbershop on the square. One insurance place. A Chinese restaurant.

In the church entrance, I am greeted by eight white-haired men who all take the time to learn my name. Then, we males dispense with playing nice and start talking about last night’s game.

These are old men who wear University of Alabama belts, War Eagle shirts, or Troy University lapel pins, with khakis. These are Methodists.

Something I know about Methodists: they don’t pronounce “amens” the same way Southern Baptists do.

A Methodist says “AH-men.” You can hear this at the end of their hymns. There is a long “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh-meennnnnnnnn” in the final measure.

A deepwater Baptist, wouldn’t “AH-men” if our piano was on fire. We are of the “AY-men” persuasion. Long “A.” We shout our “AY-mens.” Sometimes right at the preacher.

I sit in the center of the small sanctuary. The pews are oak, with history in them. This building was built in 1921, and feels it. Tall

windows adorn pure white walls. Sun shoots through colored glass and falls upon churchgoers like halos.

The service is straightforward:

A hymn. A scripture. “AH-men.” Another hymn. A few more words. Another “AH-men.”

“Our town is shrinking,” one man told me before service. “With every funeral, another little piece goes away, but we love our town. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it just wonderful?”


Next: organ music. An older woman plays. She moves her feet, hands, and eyeballs at the same time. Modern people forget how hard it is to play the organ. It’s a dying art.

I am sitting next to Mister Frank. He is aged, with liver spots, and hearing aids. I can hear Mister Frank’s weak voice sing “The Doxology” and recite the Apostle’s Creed. He says the Lord’s Prayer with his eyes closed.

We sit.

Sister Jean…