Wanda did the honors. She introduced Barbara to Our Savior, then cleaned the carcass on a plastic table.

North Carolina—I'm looking at Purple Mountains Majesty. The autumn here is so colorful it's heart-stopping.

Today, I drove through the Smokies. My wife wanted a live chicken for our Thanksgiving vacation. She's hellbent on it. She found a farm on Craigslist, located an hour's drive from our cabin.

And since I have nothing better to do than fish, she sent me across state lines.

After a scenic drive on Highway 74, I found myself in a small community where locals pronounce the word tire as "tar," and have brown spit.

My wife arranged for me to meet a chicken farmer at the Chevron station.

Her name was Wanda, and she is pure mountain. I couldn't tell how old she was. Her skin is rawhide, her hair is snow.

I followed her Jeep through ten miles of dirt. Her homestead consisted of two shacks and a barn, which sat on a sprawling automobile graveyard. This is a place where Chevys, Fords, and pickups go to die.

"What's with the cars?" I asked.

"My paw used to be

in the scrapyard business."

Then, Wanda led me to a series of coops where I selected a plump-looking red bird. She told me the hen's name was Barbara. She charged me thirty bucks for Barbara—which is highway robbery—then handed me an axe.

"You wanna do it?" she said. "Or you want me?"

I'm no stranger to poultry sacrifice. As a boy, we raised chickens. Once, a catering company called us for fifty-four birds. It took me two hours to kill them all, four hours to prep them, a day to clean the aftermath.

Wanda did the honors. She introduced Barbara to Our Savior, then cleaned the carcass on a plastic table.

"You like music?" Wanda asked.


"Well, you oughta come eat at my church, Thanksgiving. It's free, we got music."

Wanda explained that her church opens its doors for all God's children…

Truth told, that's hard for me to imagine—Daddy with such youthful ambition. The only man I ever knew was a steelworker who sweat buckets for a pittance and rode tractors after work.

I know. It's only a wristwatch. Even the jeweler says it's worthless. I've sent it off, paid four hundred bucks. They took it apart, replaced gears.


I don't know why I wear it. My father's watch is dead weight.

You have no reason to care about this, but my daddy wanted to be a pilot since childhood. When folks asked the redhead what he wanted to be, he gave the same four-word answer.

“I wanna fly airplanes.”

By high school it was a five-word answer. "I'm gonna fly Navy planes.”

Truth told, that's hard for me to imagine—Daddy with such youthful ambition. The only man I ever knew was a steelworker who sweat buckets for a pittance and rode tractors after work.

He could make dead trucks run, hum every hymn, and strike an arc with the best stick-welder.

He was no pilot.

As a young man, Daddy signed up to take the Navy aviation physical exam. The smooth-faced version of my father sat in the waiting room, knees bouncing.

I'll bet he glanced at this very

wristwatch every couple seconds. Because on that day, this thing would've been brand new. He paid a lot for it. It's an aviator's timepiece.

The Navy doctor checked his vision. Daddy had hawk eyes.

The next exam: his ears. My father was deaf on his left side. It took ninety seconds for the doc to show him the door.

He stood outside on the sidewalk. I don't know whether he cried, but I do know he threw his new watch on the pavement.

And that was the end. My father was landlocked. No one would ever know him as anything but a dirty-faced welder. Including his own boy.

I remember a family get-together. My cousin brought a young man she was dating. Blonde kid.

A Navy pilot.

He and Daddy talked until the wee hours. They sat on the back porch. He…

Theirs was an ordinary love. The kind easily missed by the restless. Some folks are so busy looking for nuclear explosions, they miss out on a good campfire.

Betty met her husband when she was eighteen. He was playing the guitar at a party. It was the kind of shindig your grandparents went to. Girls in cotton dresses, rough-handed boys, and sawdust floors.

“He was scrawny as you please,” she said. "Could sing like a bird."

She had to have him.

When he put the instrument down, she made a beeline for him. He was nervous. He avoided her. It boiled her blood. Betty wasn't about to let Bean-Pole get away.

During their first conversation, she found that he stammered. Badly.

It was his lifelong affliction. He'd tried joining the military, they rejected him. School was even worse. He could hardly spell his own name. Uttering a sentence was like delivering puppies.

But when he sang, words came easy.

They dated. He sang to her. She helped him learn to read. They studied late nights in his mother's kitchen, burning cigarettes, reading grade-school textbooks.

He wanted to lose his impediment. For her.

"He went to the preacher for prayer," she said. "But it didn't

work. He finally gave up. I just told him, it doesn't matter, John. I'd love you even if you were deaf and dumb."

Love him she did.

At nineteen, they got married at the Justice of the Peace's house. It was Christmas Eve night. He had a few days off from the pulp mill. They did what they could.

"He borrowed his brother's dress suit," she went on. "It was too big, he was so handsome."

She wore her nicest dress—white with yellow flowers. Their knees shook when they said their vows. For a gift, he bought her chocolate. As it turned out, she bought him the same thing.

Theirs was an ordinary love. The kind easily missed by the restless. Some folks are so busy looking for nuclear explosions, they miss out on a good campfire.

She says he kissed her often. He…

“I believe that man and his son were angels. If it wasn't for them, I'd never have realized my purpose. I'd still be a lonely old widow.”

Her husband died of prostate cancer. She grieved long and hard. People worried she'd never get over it. She told my aunt she didn't want to get over it.

So she didn't.

Not until the fateful day she went grocery shopping and noticed the homeless folks begging at a busy Atlanta intersection—a popular corner among people looking for handouts.

She'd ignored them in times past, like most do. But something touched her. It was an ordinary-looking man and his son.

He held a cardboard sign, reading: “Son is hungry.”

She drove by. Then, regret overwhelmed her. She turned around and put twenty bucks in his hand. If she would've had more, she would've given it.

“I couldn't bear to think that boy was going hungry,” she said.

She saw him a few days later. She gave more. And that's when the Mama Bear in her awakened. They were feelings she hadn't felt since her husband died.

“I'm a feeder,” she told me. “And I knew they weren't eating real, hot food.”

This would never do.

She went home and rediscovered

her apron. She cooked things like casseroles in foil dishes—and cornbread. It was the first time she'd used her kitchen since her husband.

The next day, she went to the intersection but didn't see the man nor his son. Instead, it was a young woman asking for cash.

"The food was still hot," she said. "So I gave it to her. You should'a seen her face. Was like I gave her gold.”


She returned to her kitchen. Twice as many foil dishes. Twice the cornbread.

Again she visited. No man. No son. This time, it was an older gentleman with girlfriend and a Labrador. She gave them paper bags. They God-blessed her.

She God-blessed back.

It wasn't long before her church friends got in on the action. A handful of ladies cooked every Wednesday.

Soon, they were opening the…

I like sunny days so bright they make you tired. Black and white movies. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and John Wayne.

I am on my porch, sitting. The sun is setting. Linus, former feral cat and rodent security patrol, is toying with a mouse. He's holding it by the tail.

Poor rat.

Two neighbor kids ride bikes down my gravel road. They see me. And since childhood knows no privacy, they march up my steps, uninvited. Heavy breathing.

The conversation drifts toward Thanksgiving. Their teacher has assigned writing homework. They're supposed to list things they're thankful for. They're stuck.

"You're over thinking it," I suggest. "Try starting with little things. Like GI Joe dolls."

“What's GI Joe?” one asks.

God help us.

“What are YOU thankful for, Mister Sean?”

Well, it bears mentioning, I am thankful for lots. Namely: biscuits. The kind cooked in skillets. Sometimes, I think I write too much about biscuits.

I'm also grateful for baskets of pine cones. The cones on our cofee table smell like cinnamon. My wife bought them at Walmart for a buck.

A buck.

I'm grateful for the fish I caught. After an unsuccessful day, I tried one last cast. I

snagged a trout the size of a baby cucumber. Not large enough to eat. Big enough to lie about.

Feather pillows, I'm grateful for those. Synthetic foam is a joke.

I like sunny days so bright they make you tired. Black and white movies. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and John Wayne.

"Who're they?" the kids ask.

Somebody, please save America's youth.

I'm grateful for Baptist hymnals. I have one dated, 1928. Sometimes I thumb through it. And for Daddy's old guitar. The finish has worn off, it looks like hell, but old hymns sound nice on it.

For the mountains in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and North Alabama. God lives up there. For our soggy marshes in North Florida—his summer cottage is here.

For the creek behind my house. For the fort I found while walking through the woods—it was made…

He was good with a joke. Real good.

Each Thanksgiving or Christmas, he had a pocketful of zingers. All the men in the family would gather in the den after supper just to hear the racy ones.

The boys did, too.

“It was his thing,” says the grandson. “Sometimes, his jokes were so good, we didn't know whether to laugh or clap.”

His sense of humor came from a childhood spent during the darkest days of American history. When the boll weevil, the stock market, and war ruined the world.

One Thanksgiving, the grandson tells me the old man surprised everyone.

"He had no jokes," the grandson says. "He had a story about his life. We didn't expect it from a jokester like him. But you could tell he thought it was important.”

It was. After all, the man came from an era when things like storytelling and guitar picking were thought to be important. When front porches and living rooms were more valuable than, say, twenty-four-hour news networks.

That holiday, the old man sat,

feet propped up, sipping corn liquor—which the doctor expressly warned against. The redder his cheeks got, the easier his memory ran.

He described a lonely childhood after his father's death. About how his daddy died from bee stings—they swarmed him in the woods. It was a freak accident.

He talked about being so poor he shoveled manure for pennies. How suppers consisted of ketchup and water—they called it tomato soup. About stealing chickens from nearby farms to keep from starving. About singing in the living room to keep from complaining.

"It was sobering," the grandson recounts. "None of us knew these things about him. Nobody dared interrupt him.”

The old man spoke of pumping gas when fuel was cheaper than Coke. He talked about country dances, where boys behaved like men. And girls expected them to. About the magic of a fiddle.

He talked about…

“My kids and I are driving to Texas. My girlfriend has a huge family, it's gonna be our first time meeting them."

Pensacola, Florida—a sports bar. I'm eating a burger that tastes like five-day-old meatloaf. My fries are cold. On a gigantic television over the bar: Alabama dominates the football field.

This place is a nut house.

The bartender is chatty. He's a husky man, thick hands, early forties. He asks what I'm doing for Thanksgiving. It's only polite conversation. He can't hear me over the noise.

Alabama scores. The bar goes wild.

He asks how I like my burger. I tell him it's magnificent.

He winks and says, "You're a liar. Our burgers are awful."

Clever fella.

I ask him what he's doing Thanksgiving.

He says, “My kids and I are driving to Texas. My girlfriend has a huge family, it's gonna be our first time meeting them."

As it happens, the girl comes from a Mexican family. And in preparation for the big day, she's been teaching him and his two boys Spanish. But, he explains, he can't roll his R's.

Perhaps it's because he's from Geneva County. R's don't roll in Geneva.

Another touchdown. Screaming.

He goes on, “My boys're

more excited than I am, we usually just eat Cracker Barrel on Thanksgiving.”

He was married once. But a few years ago, she died. It was sudden. She was young. His oldest boy was two. The other boy, a newborn. One morning, he found her body on the sofa.

“Heart defect," he says. "Doctors didn't even know she had it, I thought I'd never make it. Until I met my girlfriend.”

Field goal kick. It's good.

He digs into his pocket and removes his phone. “You wanna see a picture?”


He shows me his boys. Then, an image of an engagement ring.

"Just bought this," he says. My boys and I are gonna ask her to marry us all at once, on Thanksgiving morning.

"My boys wanna get down on their knees and surprise her, do the whole…

"Lotta these boys ain't bad, just mixed up.”

“I won't have you turning my son into a preacher,” his father once shouted to his mother, during an argument.

To men like his father, there was nothing worse than a soft-handed Bible-man, stuck in an office. He wanted his boy to do what men have done since the dawn of testosterone—spit, cuss, grow callouses.

His mother wanted him to memorize the Sermon on the Mount.

So, the kid tried to do both. He attended Sunday school, learned the Bible, recited long passages from memory. Outside of church, he worked with his father, operating heavy machinery, learning to cuss.

He was a rowdy child. He drank too much, smoked more, and hopped from party to party. Since he discovered long ago he couldn't please both parents, he disappointed them instead.

He was successful at that.

He was in the car with his friends when the cops pulled them over. A routine traffic stop. One of the boys had just robbed a grocery store and had a gun tucked in his jacket. Another boy had meth in

his pocket.

Off to prison.

That's where he met Billy, who runs an educational program, teaching inmates to read and write poetry and literature.

Billy says, “It helps'em work through their emotional stuff. You wouldn't believe some of the things these boys write. Ain't a dry eye in the classroom sometimes.”

For his first project, he wrote nothing. Instead, he recited something he learned long ago.

"I couldn't believe he knew the whole Sermon on the Mount from start to finish," Billy says. "There was something exceptional about him."

Billy took special interest in the kid. It only took a few heart-to-heart conversations for the kid to realize what he wanted to do with his life.

He wanted to make his mother proud.

"See" Billy explains. "Lotta these boys ain't bad, just mixed up.”

With Billy's help, the boy finished a GED. When he…

...this world's a lot damned bigger than a TV screen.

Atlanta, Georgia—once, I took my friend to the ER after he broke his ankle running a 5K. The young man in the hospital room beside us was suffering from a gunshot.

His mother sat with him. She was small, gray-headed. She did not cry, nor raise her voice. She whispered while nurses and police officers hurried around him.

He kept mumbling, "I'm sorry, Mama."

She gave one long, "Ssssssshhhhhh," then said, "You're my baby boy."

When they wheeled him to surgery, she lost it. Nurses could barely hold her up. I've never seen a woman scream like that.

Not ever.

Panama City, Florida—I saw a truck crash into a neighborhood telephone pole. It happened during broad daylight.

A police officer lived a few houses away from the accident. He heard the loud sound. There were sparks. Buzzing. The power went out.

The deputy tore out the front door, jogging barefoot. He pulled the dazed kid from the truck and held him. A crowd of neighbors gathered.

The deputy cradled the boy, saying, “It's alright, son.”

Mobile, Alabama—I watched a toddler have

a meltdown in the supermarket. He sat on the floor wailing. His mother tried to console him.

An elderly woman calmed the boy. She used a Snicker's as her weapon of choice.

The mother said, “We adopted him a week ago. He's our first, and I don't think he likes us.” She started sobbing.

The older lady wrote her number on the back of a card and said, “I've raised two boys. You're gonna be fine. Call me.”

I hope she did.

Pensacola, Florida—Boy Scouts held a car wash on the side of the road. My wife and I pulled over. She let them give our vehicle the once-over for fifteen bucks.

I asked why they were raising money.

"Because," one boy said. "My mom has breast cancer. She's not doing good."

When they finished, my wife paid them…

“Dear God,” my uncle began, removing his cap. “May we never forget the true reason we've gathered together here today."

My uncle deep fried a turkey. At age twelve, I'd never seen such a thing. He claimed it made the bird taste better.

But I think he did it because he liked sipping Budweiser outdoors.

It was my first Thanksgiving as a fatherless kid. It was going to be a lonely one. The holidays seemed to make happy people happier, and sad people more lonely. Even our dog was sad.

Daddy's Lab had gotten into a trash bag of his old clothes and made a bed out of his button-downs. I guess she wanted to smell him.

When someone dies. You empty their closet and fill storage bags with their clothes. It's the worst chore you'll ever do. But it's better than looking at orphaned hanging clothes.

My uncle lifted the turkey from the peanut oil.

"Needs more time," he said.

I visited the kitchen. My aunt was preparing a humble meal. Potatoes, greens, sweet potato pie, gravy.

In the den, Mama sat on the sofa, staring out the window. She didn't have much to say. In fact, she hadn't said more than

a few words in months.

A knock on the door.

Mama made a face, saying, "We're not expecting company."

It was my cousins. They brought squash casserole. Mama forced a fake smile. So did I.

Another knock. My aunt and uncle—with chicken gizzards.

More knocks. Two more uncles, two more aunts. They brought cheese straws.


The Millers, McLanes, and Jacksons from church. They'd brought an entire bakery and fourteen rugrats.

Knock, knock, knock.

Dan and Meredith, from the farm behind us. They'd brought a bathtub-cooler of Coke and beer. More knocks. Three members of my ball team, sporting neckties and greased hair.


Mister Dole and his wife. They brought venison back strap, boiled peanuts, and his hunting dog.

Daddy's friend Billy—holding a plastic milk-jug of something clear.

Miss Wanda, with tomato relish, pickled okra, poundcake,…