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.

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 inside to pay cash.…

I’m warning you beforehand, what I’m about to say is going to seem utterly ridiculous:

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, 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 and made me feel about as useful as a white crayon.

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 my sixth grade success.

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 told, they weren’t even good pancakes—the blueberries tasted like freeze-dried goat pellets. IHOP, I’m looking at you.

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.…

It’s evening in Jackson, Tennessee. The sky looks like a Monet sunset. I am at the fairgrounds. About to deliver my one-man show from the mainstage.

Tonight’s event benefits local libraries in Madison County.

I have met many librarians today. Small, white-haired ones. Tall, middle-aged ones. Elderly librarians who smell like bath powder and wear Reeboks. Most of them are sipping white wine and giggling a lot.

And I love these people. Because I am a product of libraries. More specifically, I am a product of librarians.

I was 11 when my father’s suicide happened. I dropped out of school the next week.

It was simple, really. One day, I just quit going to school. At first it was pretty cool. I thought I was getting away with something outlandish. And I was. I was getting away with the destruction of my own future.

It was one of the stupidest decisions I ever made. Even worse than the time I was dared to eat a lizard.

My family’s personal life was in shambles. My mother was a mess. Everything was

upside down in our world. I just quit. And nobody even noticed.

Those were different times. We were different people. But I never quit reading.

It was a summer day when I first walked into a tiny library to remedy my own mistake. I was a teenager. The library was an old converted one-story house. White clapboards. Shutters. Tin roof. Hanging ferns. The whole deal.

The woman behind the counter looked like Aunt Bea, only more so. She said, “Why aren’t you in school today?”

“I don’t go.”

She just looked at me from over her glasses. This painfully ridiculous boy before her.

“You don’t go?” she said.

“No, ma’am. I dropped out.”

She removed her glasses and looked at me. It was maybe the first time anyone her age had really looked at me. Not just glanced.

Looking back,…

I hope you have a good day. The entire day. Start to finish. Not the Best Day Ever. No, that’s too much excitement crammed into twenty-four hours. I’m talking about a plain-old, ordinary, run-of-the-mill good day.

I hope you wake up to smells you love. Like donuts, bacon, coffee, or halitosis from a kitty-litter-eating bloodhound.

I hope you have nothing pressing to do. No schedule. No appointments.

We do too much, you know. Long ago, our ancestors practiced the noble art of being worthless. A lot of folks won't do that anymore. I’m doing my best to bring it back.

So today, I hope you’re as worthless as a waterproof dishrag.

I hope you remember your ancestors. Your grandparents, and their grandparents—even if you’ve never met them.

I hope you think about the simple things they passed down to us. A hamburger with pickles. Whittling. Hydrangeas. Will Rogers. Baseball games. Pajamas. Smacking ketchup bottles with the butt of your hand. Hank Williams music playing on kitchen radios.

Childhood porches. The smell of peach cobbler in the oven.

The faded family photo album. The ancient Betty Crocker cookbook that once belonged to your mother.

I hope you close your eyes and recall the best pieces of childhood. The days when you played hard, and the best games only happened in backyards.

I hope your smartphone quits working—just for a few hours. I hope the absence of a digital screen takes you outdoors. I hope you hear the sounds of the earth all at once. I hope you see lots of trees.

I hope you sit for hours with nothing but a cold drink and your best ideas.

I hope you meet someone who inspires you. A kid who’s had kidney cancer. A girl who got pregnant too young, who just finished nursing school. The single father who lost his wife to suicide, but is still raising his four kids.

A woman…

Welcome to Mississippi. It’s an overcast day in the Magnolia State. I’m at Waffle House, consuming my daily quota of grease.

I’ve been driving all morning. And Waffle House serves the best T-bone in the southeast. For $9, you can’t be beat that kind of deal with a Louisville Slugger

There is a man at the bar next to me. He is large. Towering. Thick limbed. His hands are as big as supermarket chickens.

“How tall are you?” I ask.

“Six eleven,” he says.

His voice is a muffled baritone, originating somewhere in his deep chest.

“Six eleven?” I remark.

He takes a sip. “Mmm hmm.”

“How’d you get to be so tall?”

Shrug. “Just prayed real hard.”

His name is Robert. He drives a truck. Born and raised in Mississippi. He’s been driving since the early ‘80s. He says he’s logged nearly 4 million miles on his old body.

He started driving because of his child. His daughter. She needed medical procedures for her legs. Without the operations she might not have walked. Trucking paid pretty good in the ‘80s.

So the

road became his home. He sent paychecks back to Mississippi. He lived on coffee.

“I’m a good driver. I’m aware of my surroundings. I work hard. That’s my secret.

“Ain’t never had a preventable crash. I been married for 48 years. I should be retired right now. All my friends are done with driving. But I’m still going. What else am I gonna do?”

I ask which truck in the parking lot is his. Because, deep in my heart, I am a little boy who likes big machines that go vroom.

He spins his stool. He points out the window. Red. Peterbilt. Tall exhaust pipes. Chrome fuel tanks. Four hundred horses.

“I seen the whole United States,” he says. “Front to back. Side to side. Up and down. Parts of Canada even.”

By now, our waitress is…

Some fool once called her, “white trash.” And that’s when she made up her mind. She wanted to better herself, and her family. So, that’s what she did.

“That GED test,” she said, while she checked my blood pressure. “That ain’t no joke, now. It’s tough.”

Her accent is so Alabamian it hurts. She’s missing a few teeth, but it doesn’t look bad on her. She’s old. Wiry. Strong.

Where she grew up, country folks didn’t go past the eighth grade—some still don’t. And according to her daddy, “Once a young’un can read, it’s time to get out and work.”

Saying this made her laugh. I’m not sure why. Maybe one’s own private memories are just humorous.

All six of her brothers dropped out, so did she. It wasn’t a big deal to drop out of school back then.

Take me. I dropped out of school in the seventh grade. Nobody said a word about it. I returned to school as an adult and got my high-school equivalency stuff. And to this day, I still have a hard time spelling “equivalency.”

She and I aren’t that different.

She met a man who worked in a lumber mill, they had two children before she was 20. She’s still with him. She calls him Beater. I don’t know why. But personally, it’s not a nickname I would want.

When she was 24, Beater suggested she apply for a job at the hospital. She thought this was ridiculous. Hospitals didn’t hire “poor white trash.” Hospitals were for learned people. People with letters behind their name. Not hillbillies.

“Which is exactly what I am,” she tells me as she checks my temperature with an ear thermometer.

Even so, she inquired with the hospital about getting a job there. The hospital told her she would need college. So she called a college. The college said she needed a high-school diploma. So she called a high…

This is a major religious holiday. August 15 is the Ascension of Mary.

Which might not mean much to you if you were raised Deepwater Baptist like me and thereby prohibited from keeping NyQuil in the house. But this holy day is a big deal for other denominations.

It’s the Feast of the Assumption. La Asunción de Santa Maria. The day Saint Mary’s body was lifted into heaven. It is the day of the year when many churches have giant potlucks and big to-dos.

It is also the day my mother-in-law died.

My mother-in-law happened to be named Mary. She was the quintessential mother of her family. The matriarch of her clan. We called her Mother Mary.

I was the one who began calling her by the nickname “Mother Mary.” I’m big on nicknames. I come from a long line of horse thieves and used car salesmen who gave everyone nicknames.

My cousin, for example, was nicknamed “Tater Log.” One of my uncles is named “Sugar Boo.” Another of my cousins—who is now a Primitive Baptist

minister and about as fun as elective surgery—is named “Doublewide.”

My aunts have a wide variety of nicknames, too. There was Aunt “Muffin,” Aunt “Shortie,” Aunt “Puddin’” and we affectionately call my Aunt Eulah “Joseph Stalin.”

So it just felt right calling my mother-in-law “Mother” Mary.

What I liked about the nickname most of all were the slightly religious overtones. It was a moniker that conveyed piety. Sanctity. Fervor. Holiness.

Which is why we sometimes also called Mary “Blessed Mother,” or “Mother of Sorrows,” “Our Lady of Perpetual Yard Work.”

It was especially fun whenever my mother-in-law had Catholics over to the house. They didn’t know what to think of her irreverent nickname. Often, one of us would yell out: “Would someone get the Blessed Mother some more bourbon and Coke?”

When someone would refresh Mary’s drink, Mother Mary would always smile and say…

Cracker Barrel, 8:17 P.M.—it's busy tonight. There’s a boy in a wheelchair at the table beside me. His father is spoon feeding him cooked apples and fried chicken.

When the boy's sister says something funny, the boy claps and laughs.

His father wipes his face with a rag and says, “You’re my special boy.” Then, he kisses his forehead.

A nearby girl wanders toward the boy. She is four, maybe. Her hair is in locks. She stares at him with her hand in her mouth.

“Is he okay?” she asks.

The boy leans and gives a big “HELLO!”

There are apple bits on his chin.

The girl gives a smile brighter than a Christmas tree. “HI THERE!” she says in return. Then, she skips off.

Three tables from the boy is an old man. He is wearing a ball cap, Velcro shoes. He’s sitting at a two-top. He orders chicken-fried steak and potatoes. He has no cellphone to occupy his attention. No reading material. He sits.

He and I share a waitress. Her name is Blanche—it’s embroidered on her apron.

Whenever he speaks to her, he holds her hand. Something you don't see much.

He has a voice that sounds beautifully genteel. It's a wonder he's all alone.

Behind him is a table of Mexican workers—men, women, and kids. They sit covered in paint and grit. They speak rapid Spanish. Lots of laughing.

One Mexican boy crawls into his mother's lap. She strokes his silk hair with her paint-spotted hand, saying, “Cariño mio,” over and over.

And though I don't know Spanish, I imagine this, more or less, means: “You're my special boy.”

To their left: a teenage couple. He weighs a buck ten, she is a foot taller than him. They hold hands when they walk out. They kiss. They look drunk on each other. What a feeling.

When I pay my tab, Laney is my cashier. She takes…

Houston. The boy was at a park. A sophomore. He was doing his homework, watching his 5-year-old little sister play on the monkey bars.

She yelled at her brother, “Hey! Look at me!”

She fell from the bars onto her head. Blood was everywhere She was unconscious. The young man panicked.

You’re supposed to be a dutiful big brother. You’re supposed to know what to do. But sometimes you panic.

A man in a janitor uniform came from out of nowhere. He saw the child on the ground. He saw the blood.

The custodian spoke limited English. He scooped up the girl in his arms.

“Don’t worry, leetle girl, it’s gonna be okay.”

Don’t worry? Who was this guy?

Well, whoever he was, he wandered into traffic, flagging for cars to pull over.

None did.

He tells the sophomore kid that he is a runner. A competitive runner. He runs every day. His father was a runner. His brothers are competitive runners. He has completed multiple marathons. A few ultras.

So takes the girl in his grasp. He runs to the

local hospital. With a 40-pound kid in his arms.

When he arrived in the ER, the nurses asked whether he was all right. He was covered in perspiration. Breathing heavily. All he could say was “Help this leetle girl, help this leetle girl.”

They did.

Birmingham. It was raining, and the college girl was stuck in traffic. She had to go to the bathroom, badly. And Highway 280 traffic is not accommodating bladders that are about to redline. It was a jam. Miles of bumpers. Standstill gridlock.

So the woman pulled off at the gas station. She jogged inside, clutching her urethral region.

There was an old man seated out front, he was asking for change. She avoided him on the way in, but couldn’t avoid him on the way out.

He hit her up for cash.

She had…

My friend’s mother, Miss Sylvia, is making cornbread. Her house is alive with the smell. The 72-year old woman cooks cornbread the old-fashioned way. An iron skillet in the oven. Lots of butter.

Sylvia tests the hot bread by poking it with a broom bristle. If the bristle is gummy, she licks the bristle then returns the skillet to the oven. If not, it’s Cornbread-Thirty.

I watch this bristle maneuver. She breaks a piece of straw from her broom. And I don’t want to ask, but I have to.

“Is that broom clean?” I say.

“Relax,” Sylvia says. “It’s just one bristle.”

“But is it clean?”

“Define clean.”

“Has it been used to sweep your floor?”

“This particular broom? Yes.”

“Your dusty, residential, hepatitis-C floor?”


So this cornbread is contaminated and will probably kill me. But then, I’m a dinner guest, I must eat it even though the old woman’s floors are frequently used by a family dog who is nicknamed “Egypt” because wherever he goes he makes little pyramids.

Still, I love cornbread. I was raised on the

stuff, just like everyone else in America.

My mother used to make cornbread a few times per week. Sometimes more. Primarily because it was cheap, and my family ate cheap food.

You always knew when it was cornbread night because my mother would make a fresh pot of boiling bacon grease with a few navy beans floating in it. She called it bean and ham soup, but I call it cardiac arrest stew.

Either way, you would use your bread to sop the sides of the bowl. Occasionally, while doing this you would get so giddy that you’d break into song and sing a number from “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man,” or in extreme cases “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

All my life, I considered cornbread to be the fingerprint of a good cook. No two cooks make it alike, and I love…