"I can think of worse things than a house scented with boiling peanut oil.

"Mama made the best banana pudding in Alabama,” she said flatly. "She was such a good cook, one of her friends nicknamed her Betty—short for Betty Crocker.”

Well, since Betty is as good of a name as any, that's what I'll call her mother.

I have it on good authority that Betty was more than the miracle-worker of banana pudding. She was also a kitchen queen, with a knack for bread pudding, chicken and dumplings, Coca-Cola cake, and squash casserole.

“As kids," Betty's daughter went on. "We just loved it when folks had showers or parties, Mama'd start whipping up pimento cheese..."

She leaned in and got quiet.

"But we liked funerals

even better, because Mama was head of the funeral committee. Which meant she made fried chicken—she always made extra.”

If you've never lived in a small town, maybe you don't know about things like funeral committees. Imagine: twenty white-haired ladies, with sun hats and skirt-suits, who can cook circles around a chicken.

That's a funeral food committee.

Often, these ladies have enough sugar flowing in their veins, they practically bleed sweet tea.

The funeral committee's job is to help families of the deceased go up two pant-sizes.


"I didn't need another adult patronizing me, talking about kiddy things, like comic books, cowboys, or grizzly bears."

Right now, the sky looks like a blue bunch of nothingness. The same way it looked when I was twelve. Back then, I'd lay on top round bales of fescue, looking upward. If I held my head right, I could see all blue—even in the corners of my eyes.

It was enough to disorient you, and make you forget about solid ground.

Daddy died in September. A few days before he passed, I'd spent the day trying to catch crawfish in the creek. And it was during this mundane afternoon that I felt as happy as I've ever been. It took forty-eight hours for the whole world to go to hell.

Anyway, so there I was on a hay bale, looking at the sky, still in my funeral clothes. I wore Daddy's glasses—even though I had no eye trouble. I also wore his oversized sport coat.

My uncle found me laying there.

“What're you thinking about?” he asked.

I gave no response.

“Hey," he went on. "You wouldn't happen to like bears, would'ya?”

"No," I said, hoping he'd leave. I didn't need another adult patronizing me, talking about kiddy things, like comic books, cowboys, or grizzly bears.

He dug something…

"...it takes someone special to teach you how to throw fish back.."

It's hotter than Hades right now. You should feel it. It's one of those weekend mornings when the crickets are awake before nine. Even they know it's hot, and they like it.

The birds, too. There must be a gazillion different kinds, singing songs about the weekend. Bluebirds, catbirds, yellow hammers, chickadees, and whichever others live in my front yard. It's like a church choir out there—minus the organ and collection plates.

The moisture in the air has turned into steam. I can taste it. It tastes like toilet water and Floridian pine needles. I feel like I'm suffocating in a big sweaty puddle.

It's magnificent.

My fishing gear sits on the porch behind me. My wife hates seeing it by the door, but I leave it out here for reason. I want to remind myself that there are more important things I could be doing.

Then again, it could be I'm too lazy to put it away.

As it happens, I caught a several fish this weekend. Pretty ones. But I threw them all back. To tell you the truth, I don't know why I did that. That's not like me, going around liberating fish. But the older I…

“'Course at nineteen," he went on. "I didn't have no choice but to work. My girl got pregnant, and back in them days, the right thing to do was marry her.

“Both my knees are shot,” he said. “I been laying floor since I was nineteen.”

Well, nineteen was a long time ago. He's anything but a teenager now. He's got gray hair, bony shoulders, and a smoker's cough that comes out whenever he laughs.

Ask him about the flooring he's laid. He's more than happy to let you see pictures on his cellphone. Sprawling wood entryways, ceramic tile, cork, travertine, carpet, and even mosaics.

He showed me a tiled mosaic of a

sailboat in someone's kitchen. He said it took ten days to finish. The next photo: himself, smiling, on a pontoon boat.

And then, a picture of his son, holding a baby.

“That's my son and grandson," he said. "I wouldn't let my boy go into construction, like a lotta roughneck daddies do. Ain't the life I wanted for him, breaks your body down.”

As it happens, I know…

"...you deserve a medal for making it this far."

The truth is, you deserve a medal for making it this far—so does Johnny. But, all anyone gets is acid reflux and enough anxiety to stop the atomic clock. Life takes all your money, then bills you ten bucks for it.

Which is why I wish you could see the bay water right now. It’s crystal clear. Beneath the surface are millions—no billions—of trout and catfish. Each one, fearfully and wonderfully uninterested in my forty-dollar lure.

These creatures are something else. They don’t do

a blessed thing all day, but eat.

I wish you could see these trees, too. How tall they are. These things are alive.

I’m staring at an old oak right now. This tree must’ve been born around the same time as Florida itself. Its trunk is the size of a wagon wheel.

A park ranger told me once, these old oaks have survived over fifty-thousand hurricanes…

"In the tenth grade, he was nearly six-foot-two, and weighed a buck ten."

If you've ever known someone poor, there's a personality that comes with the territory. That's because not having a pot to you-know-what in changes a soul.

Arnold was poor. In the tenth grade, he was nearly six-foot-two, and weighed a buck ten. Somebody's mama had to make baseball britches special for his flamingo legs. Arnold was soft spoken, and his fastball made grown men pause their conversations.

Arnold's little brother had polio. The boy's two skinny legs didn't quite work. And

even though the boy could walk, he staggered funny. This earned him the nickname, Duck. Which wasn't an insult, but an adolescent observation.


Duck never missed a practice. He didn't play ball. But during warm-ups, when boys fielded grounders, and the coach shouted things like, “Soft hands, boys, soft hands!” Duck was there. He'd repeat whatever the coach said, word for word, only louder.

Still, Duck's primary role…

"Today, you can find the last of the old-man-people-watchers, but you have to make a long drive into the sticks. "

“This is bad traffic," said my mother-in-law, Mary. "But, I don't mind sitting. I like watching things."

"Watching?" I asked.

"Yep, like old men used to do in Brewton, they'd sit down on benches by the department store and just people-watch, tell jokes, and cuss.”

What I would've given to be people-watching. Instead, Mary and I sat in stand-still-traffic. Car bumpers touching, exhaust vapors potent enough to make you see pink elephants.

The Land Rover behind me wouldn't quit riding my tail. If he crept any closer, he would've been in my lap.

Mary went on,

“Back then, all the farmers would do their shopping on Saturdays. Daddy kept the store open late. The country ladies would drop by, bringing jams, vegetables, berries. Mama called them Daddy's lady-friends.”

She laughed.

“Sometimes, we'd spend whole evenings just eating one bowl of ice cream until it turned to soup.”

Mister Land Rover laid on his horn. He was trying to get around me. I don't know where he was going, but if he didn't get there fast,…

"Imagine you haven't slept in ten years, your washing machine explodes, your car breaks down, and now you have coleslaw running down your neck."

I'm watching a single mother right now. She's young. Her rebellious toddler is refusing to eat coleslaw. He screams. Everyone in the barbecue joint watches while the boy flings a spoonful onto her blouse. She's embarrassed.

And I can tell, just by her face, this child will never walk on two legs again.

I have a soft spot for single mothers.

If you want to know what it's like to be one, try this: imagine you haven't slept in ten years, your washing machine explodes, your car breaks down, and now you have coleslaw running down your neck.

That's a good day.

On a bad day, it's frozen pizza.

Listen, it's hard as hell in this world. I can't think of anything more difficult than navigating through it. But for a single mother, it's like trying to balance the Titanic on your nose.

These ladies survive on coffee and bad habits. They work until their fingerprints wear off. They spin and grind until they can't do anymore—and then they do more. And right around five in the afternoon, they cry in the bathroom with…

"I know it's hard to imagine, but in those days we had complete conversations. And we looked each other in the eyes. "

I wish today's children could spend one summer like we did—before smartphones. Back when life was about bikes, fishing, and honeysuckles. When we did daring things kids wouldn't dream of doing today.

Take, for instance, the tire-swing down by the creek, that thing was a death trap. Or: piling four kids onto a bicycle, and rolling down a steep hill. Or: building the world's largest paper airplane, then riding it off a shed roof like a bobsled team.

That was summer.

Maybe this seems pathetic to you. After all, you have handheld devices capable of actuating nuclear weapons using your thumbprints.

The only devices some of us had,

were phones in the kitchen with cords long enough to reach Russia. To chat with friends, we had to stop by their houses on bicycles. Often, their mamas would invite us for lunch—usually a sandwich and sweet tea. If you played your cards right, you could hit two houses in one day and get two lunches.

Which was the greatest summer blessing of all.

Years ago, I met a man in a bar who'd consumed enough liquor to fill a goldfish bowl. He wore a Rolex as big around as my head,…

Also in the congregation were field workers, house painters, roofers, landscapers, and farm hands. The pastor, for instance, worked on a tomato farm.

Nine o'clock at night. I stood in a double-wide with one hundred Mexicans. They sang at the tops of their lungs. I recognized the tune, "Blessed Assurance." I did not recognize the words.

The first thing you should know: these people are workers. One woman told me she had two jobs—a dishwasher in a small Alabamian cafe, and a maid at Best Western.

“Don't you ever sleep?” I asked.

She laughed.

Also in the congregation were field workers, house painters, roofers, landscapers, and

farm hands. The pastor, for instance, worked on a tomato farm. When he preached the people shouted, "Gloria Dios!"

I hollered an "Amen!" Which made my buddy laugh until he almost peed himself.

Well, It bears mentioning: I'm not familiar with other cultures. In fact, the most ethnic experience I'd ever undergone was JB's Chinese Buffet in Freeport.

The churches of my childhood weren't like this place.…