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…


I don’t even know how to begin. My ex-husband killed himself last week. We were good friends after our divorce. I keep asking myself the same question. I just want to know why. I am going insane trying to figure out why. His note gave me no explanation.

I am broken,


The first thing that I can tell you about suicide is that there is no “why.” Nothing about suicide makes sense.

Most everything people do in life has some sense behind it. This sentence—hopefully—makes sense. Your daily routine makes sense.

You go to the store. You eat healthy. You exercise. You pay your taxes so the IRS employees can take paid family vacations to the British Virgin Islands. Things make sense.

But suicide isn’t about sense.

I was 11 years old when my father swallowed the barrel of a rifle. I was a hapless redhead with a perpetual smile. Life was pretty good.

Then, one summer day, my dad died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

His decision was one

that defied logic. Nobody understood his choice. Sense? His final act was nonsensical. Logic? There was none.

Over the years, I have thought about what he did. Examined it. Pondered it. Tried to make sense of it. But it’s a fool’s puzzle. It’s like trying to make four dollars out of nine nickels.

It’ll never happen, sister. And yet I keep trying to do it. I keep trying to see things from his point of view.

He was depressed. Maybe that was why he did it.

After all, depression is not like other diseases. It kills from the inside out. First it kills your social circle. Then it ruins your family. Then it steals your personality so that nothing excites you.

After a while, nothing even aggravates you anymore. Because in order to get aggravated, you have to have some ambition…

A back porch. Rural Alabama. I’m with an elderly woman named Jenny. She’s sitting on a genuine rocking chair.

“Wish I were shelling peas,” says Miss Jenny. “I tell better stories when I’m shelling.”

This is how you know you’ve made it in life. When you find yourself on a porch—shelling, peeling, shucking, or listening to someone over eighty tell a story.

Miss Jenny has cotton-white hair, blue eyes. She lives in a house which her husband built after the Korean War.

Everyone loves her stories. Especially children. Those in her family recall sitting on this porch, listening to her gentle voice—like I’m doing. Here, they shucked corn, or shelled white acre peas. Field peas. An Alabamian pastime.

“Daddy was a part-time preacher,” she tells me. “He told stories, always had him a good one.”

Long ago, people visited her father for advice. Folks with drinking problems, people with marriages on the rocks.

Her father didn’t provide “help.” Instead, he took them fishing. On the water, he’d tell stories.

“Daddy used to say, ‘Going fishing can help a man more than a bellywash of cheap


Bellywash. God, I miss words like that.

Miss Jenny’s breathing is labored, her voice is frail. But she spins a fine yarn.

She’s the real thing. Her stories are about olden days, clapboard churches, and a childhood with skinned knees.

She even tells stories about her cat.

“Kitty Brown was chasing Blue Bird one day,” she begins. “Blue Bird lured Kitty high into a tree, then flew away. Poor Kitty was stuck up there for two days before anyone knew he was up there.”

She laughs to herself.

She goes on, “Moral of my cat story is: all kitties should be happy on the ground instead of chasing things they shouldn’t.”

And I’m five years old again. Someone get me a sucker.

Then there’s the tale of her grandfather and the escaped fugitive. Instead…

The Vulcan is in a good mood tonight. He stands watch over Birmingham. The largest cast-iron statue in the world.

He is suspended 124 feet above the world. His right arm is outstretched, holding a spear. He wears a blacksmith’s apron. Roman sandals. And his butt is showing.

My wife and I showed up at Vulcan Park and Museum a few minutes before sundown. I bought a few tickets from the ticket booth. The cashier was a girl in a Troy University sweatshirt.

“Y’all new in town?” she asked.

“Moved here five months ago,” said I.

She gave me the tickets.

“Well, it’s nice to have you to Birmingham.”

My wife and I ascended the stone staircase toward the enormous tower. Atop the tower stands the statue. The Vulcan was built in 1904 by an Italian sculptor Giussepe Moretti. It’s a work of high art.

Every day I drive on the freeway I see the Vulcan, perched high in the distance, standing above the earth. He reminds me that I live in Birmingham now.

This town is my new home.

Which I keep forgetting. Namely, because I am a Florida man. I did my growing up two miles from the Gulf of Mexico, one mile from the Choctawhatchee Bay. My people ate raw oysters non-ironically. We had no basements. No fireplaces. Only sand spurs, yellow flies and doublewides.

But now I live here. A city of 210,000 with a metro area that brings it to roughly 1.2 million people. This town has it all. The Appalachians, museums, blues, jazz, soul, barbecue, unlimited breweries, and the unique transcendental torment that is Highway 280.

Before we ascended the tower, I showed the guard my ticket. He glanced at it and said, “New in town?”

I told him I was.

He tipped his hat. “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham.”

There are 159 steps leading to the top of the Vulcan tower.…

She lost her best friend. It happened yesterday.

He was a good boy. Fourteen years old. He was always beside her. When she ate supper. When she watched television. When she used the restroom. He even slept on the floor near her bed.

He was a Labrador, and then some. The biggest in his litter of 12. His shoulders were wide, his neck was a column of muscle.

He wasn’t a playful dog, but he was happy. He was gentle. He liked children, chewing, lying in the sun, he loved tomatoes. He enjoyed walks, but only short ones. He seemed to go crazy over “Downton Abbey.”

He could eat more than any dog she’d ever seen. He was a garbage disposal with a tail.

When she worked nights in a commercial kitchen, he waited for her to get home. She’d arrive after work, he would be seated at the front door, squealing.

She would bring him things from work. The spoils of her occupation. Fish guts, lamb fat, chicken gristle, and sacred ground beef.

And he

loved her for it.

But she owed it to him—and then some. He’d seen her through hard times. He knew her emotions like a roadmap. He knew when she was sad, happy, or angry, before anyone else did.

When her father died, he crawled on a sofa and placed his hundred-pound body in her lap. It almost crushed her.

“I love you,” is what he was actually saying. Which is the only thing dogs know how to say—except: “Feed me right now or I’ll poop in the kitchen.”

He was with her when she lost her job. He was with her when she moved houses. He was with her when she passed a class, certifying her as a teacher. He was with her when her mother was ill.

Yesterday, she took him to the vet. She sat beside him for a few minutes before…