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 for what you’re going through.

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 for the undiagnosed illness that no medical people can seem to figure out.

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…

Years ago. Reeltown, Alabama. I don’t know how old the man running the vegetable stand is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it's hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world. Homegrown summer tomatoes are almost a myth.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.


a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fires and lived without electricity. When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people and to sell vegetables.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he's helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know we loves’em,” he said. “Want my whole life to belong to people who…

It was summer. I remember because my truck was covered in yellow powder. And if you don’t know the yellow powder I speak of, you might be from Ohio.

A lot of people who move to the South from other places think our biggest problems are humidity, mosquitoes, or evangelical fundamentalists. But those are nothing. We have dehumidifiers for humidity, citronella for bugs, and fundamentalists won’t bother you if you play dead or talk about beer.

No, one of our biggest pests in these parts is the Satanic tree dust that kills innocent woodland creatures and ushers in Armageddon. Pine pollen.

Long ago, I tried to start a landscaping company. It was a bad idea and a colossal failure. I bought a utility trailer and some equipment. And when pollen season hit, I put a few fliers in mailboxes.

“FIRST LAWN-CUTTING IS FREE!!!!” I advertised, and I used four exclamation points, since four is better than three.

One of my first customers was an old man. He hired me to re-sod his entire front yard during

the height of pollen season. I paid my friend Adam to help me.

Adam and I worked like rented mules. We replaced almost half an acre of centipede grass until our noses were running and our eyes were totally swollen shut.

“This pollen’s killing me,” I said to Adam.

“Who said that?” Adam answered.

While we worked, an old woman came walking out of the house. She wore a nightgown, her hair was white and messy. She wandered through the yard like she were in a daze, letting the sun hit her face. She smiled. She sneezed.

"Oh, Carl!" she shouted. "There are boys out here!"

She sneezed again.

"Boys!" she said. “Two boys!”

I was afraid this woman was going to boil us in a kettle with some toe of frog and the eye of newt.

Finally, the woman announced that she wanted…

She is a waitress here. She has white hair, and a habit of winking when she smiles. Her name is Mary. I know this because it’s on her name tag. I don’t know Mary—today’s the first time we’ve met—but I want to be her forever-grandson.

I just watched Mary get cussed out. It happened when she swiped a young man’s credit card at the register. It was denied. She was quiet and discreet with him, but he wasn’t thrilled.

He shouted at her, “Run it again!”

This made everyone’s ears perk up. It’s not every day you see some punk yelling at Gram Gram.

She swiped the card.


Swiped again.


“Do you have another card?” she asked in a soft voice.

The man shouted, “Another card? Don’t treat me like I’m [bleeping] stupid, lady!”

Her mouth fell open. So did everyone’s. The young man didn’t stop there. He went on to say things which I can’t repeat since my mother reads these things.

The air in the restaurant went stale, like in old Westerns, just before John Wayne sends some desperate bandito into the

everlasting abyss. The customers in the restaurant looked around at each other. The man in the booth beside me stood. So did I. We were walking toward the register, but another man beat us to it.

He was tall, white-haired. He wore a tattered cap. He was mid-seventies, with shoulders broader than an intercostal barge and food stains on his plaid shirt.

The old man said, “What seems to be the problem here?”

The angry kid spat. “It’s nothing. My card won’t work.”

The old man let his eyes do his talking. They were hard eyes. The same eyes I’ve seen in a hundred episodes of “Gunsmoke,” just before the hero gets the girl.

The old man was calm. He reached for his wallet. He said in a syrupy voice, “Mary, I’d like to…

The nursing home had rules. Lots of rules. The powers that be made me jump through all the pandemic-era hoops before visiting. By the time I was finished suiting up in protective gear, I looked like I was dressed for a leisurely stroll on Mars.

A nurse led me past the cafeteria, past the chair yoga class, and into the recreation room where a group of folks played pinochle. I wore a face shield, double masks, rubber gloves, and a full-length PPE gown. I felt like Darth Vader after a wild night.

In a few moments, they wheeled my first interviewee in. Her name was Miss Baker. She was small, wiry, and sipping a Coke from a can.

“So,” she said, “you’re the guy doing interviews?”

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”


“Well, I’m a writer.”

“Oh, brother. Why on earth are you interviewing a bunch of old people?”

“Well, I was hoping for some good old-fashioned folksy advice for a column I’m writing.”

“Gee. You must be hard up for material.”

“You have no idea.”

And that was all it took. She opened up like

a refrigerator.

“Well, the first bit of advice I have, young man, is drink lots of water.”

Hydration. Check. I made a note on my legal pad.

“And make sure you always keep moving. Doesn’t matter what you do, just don’t quit moving.”

Got it.

I made a few more notes.

Next, we were joined by Watty, a 93-year-old man using a walker, wearing double hearing aids and a Hawaiian shirt.

“You the gentleman interviewing people?” said Watty.

“I’m no gentleman,” said I. Then I asked for his best spoonful of advice.

“My advice is: You know how they say that youth is wasted on the young? Well, look, I think it’s the opposite. The truth is, wisdom is wasted on the old. In my life I’ve gathered all this experience and knowledge, and you…

The picture of her son was a wallet-sized, high-school portrait from the late sixties. The boy’s hair was painfully dated. His smile was easy. He was a good kid. That’s what they tell me.

He and his mother were close. Best friends, even. She was a single mother; he was a mama’s boy.

They were driving home from Atlanta one afternoon. They saw a car stalled on the side of the road.

“Don’t pull over,” she told her teenage son. “We don’t have time. Don’t wanna be late for kickoff.”

In those days, high-school kickoffs ruled the world. Her son was a good fullback. There was even talk about recruitment. Not serious talk, but talk.

Either way, he was a poster child for the American athlete. He had high cheekbones, mucho promise, a sweet girlfriend, good grades, and no limits.

“I gotta pull over, Mama,” he said. “That person needs help.”

He veered to the shoulder. He stepped out to help an old man change a tire.

She didn’t actually see it happen. But she heard the old man shout, “Move!”

And out

of the corner of her eye, she saw the old man jump. Then: a crash. Followed by skidding.

And her boy was gone.

The days that followed were the worst of her life. Not only because he was gone, but because a piece of her had been buried, too.

Someone once heard her say, “I asked God to take me on the day of his funeral. I wanted to give up living. I couldn’t see the point.”

But God didn’t take her.

Something different happened. One sunny day, a knock at her door. Her son’s girlfriend. They sat at a table together. They cried peach-sized tears. They looked at photos. They held one another.

The girl told her she was pregnant.

And I understand that his mother’s happiness outweighed sadness.

The pregnancy was a normal, joyful one.…

I’m warning you beforehand, what I’m about to say is going to seem utterly ridiculous. But my mother once told me that I could conquer the world if I ate a decent breakfast. The whole world. All because of breakfast.

See? I tried to warn you.

Anyway, to this very day I’m still not sure how this meal can make conquering the world possible, but my mother never lies.

I remember the day she told me this, I was having a devastating morning. I was about to take an entrance exam into the sixth grade. And this was a big deal because earlier that year, I’d failed fifth-grade—which drained my confidence.

But getting back to breakfast. Mama made the greasiest meal. Three eggs, cooked in fat from a Maxwell House can, bacon, potatoes, grits, and toast hearty enough to sand the hull of a battleship.

I passed my test. I made it to the next grade. And eventually, my confidence began to improve. Thusly—and I’ve always wanted to use that word—I can only assume that breakfast played an important

role in life.

Since then, I’ve always believed in the first daily meal. I ate a good breakfast the day I got married. A big one. That day, the waitress kept bringing me plates of pancakes.

“You must be starving, honey,” she said.

I smiled. “Thusly,” said I.

But I was only nervous-eating. Truth be told, they weren’t even good pancakes—the blueberries tasted like freeze-dried goat pellets.

I also ate a big breakfast the day I got fired. My boss called me into his office and chewed me a new nose-hole. He said things so hateful I can still remember them. I quietly walked out of his office before he finished speaking.

I went to eat breakfast. I read the paper, I watched the sunrise. I had one of the best mornings I’ve had in years.

So I don’t know why…