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Updated: Feb 28, 2021

It’s a slower-than-normal line. The couple in front of me are from out of town. City folk they say. He wears pressed pants that compliment his coiffed gray hair so perfectly that I wonder if he planned them to match. She’s tall and skinny like Barbie and carries a Louis Vuitton.

We move like thick molasses down aisle one and make small talk. Apparently, they are headed towards Highlands before “getting stuck in this God-forsaken hillbilly town.” Low pressure in a tire caused high pressure in their schedule. It is obvious they are rushed.

The girl behind the counter is new. She counts out the change slowly, then messes up and starts over. He buries his face and sighs loudly, like the world is ending, and mumbles a four-letter word. He looks past his wife towards me and asks if I have the “misfortune” of living here.

A long line has formed at the grocery store bank. Payday. The Friday norm. A daddy holds a toddler on hip. There are construction workers with sawdust in their hair and a 6-pack in their hands. Factory workers in hairnets and rubber boots. And a mama in a Waffle house uniform using WIC to buy food and diapers. A boy from high school runs the place. Two aisles over is a bagger who I call friend.

I glance at the cashier whose face is red and eyes look all wet. I then look back at the man and bite my tongue to keep mean words at bay. Instead, I smile and nod yes.

I know these people. They are my people. And there is no place like home.

I give the girl behind the counter a wink. She half-smiles and hands him the change. Whatever she lacks in math skills, she certainly makes up for in kindness. Hard for me to figure “misfortune” into anything about this sweet community of good-hearted, common folk who exchange haughtiness for humility.

This county is small. Rural. There are plenty of excellent doctors and lawyers who double as deacons and dip a little snuff. The judge is a neighbor and I know the sheriff’s middle name. But most people here are blue-collared workers with paint-splattered t-shirts and tire grease caked under fingernails.

There are some nice houses, but you’re more likely to see modest homes, trailer parks, and rusted trampolines in the front yard. Old cars atop cinder blocks. Chicken houses and farmland are the backdrop for country roads. We have full-service gas stations and old men who sit on porches, smoking cigarettes while watching the fast world go by slow.

Small hardware stores sell everything from honey and ham to lightbulbs and lumber. And once upon a time, Paul Reeves made it possible for poor people to build their houses on IOUs, a handshake, and their word. Proof that it matters less about what you have and more about what you do. Love for each other builds homes. Community and legacies too.

And the mountains here. Purple in the west. Blue-green to the east. And the lakes. Good Lord, you should see the sun sink deep in the jagged jaws of pine trees and evergreens. Lake Burton at sunset is the color of heaven. And the reason I know God is real.

Poppy loves Mimi. Wade loves JoBeth. Cliff loves Lucy. And Tim loves Tink. Painted love is on the underpass.

There’s a church on every corner. A liquor store in Mt. Airy. And you’ll find Jesus in between.

Once upon a time, I wanted to leave this God-forsaken hillbilly town myself. Set out for greener pastures. Bigger cities. Nicer houses. But home is the only place I’ve ever belonged.

She hands me my receipt and I drive away. And there, next to the city folk’s fancy car, is a man on bended knee. A passerby-er–who just happened to notice someone in need of help. His hat is dingy and his dirty uniform bears a name I cannot read. He’s putting air in the tire and pointing to a nail in the tread.

I watch intently. Because us country folk are nosy like that. The rich man and the local shake hands hard–and something in that grip of grace makes the rich man smile.

He tips his hat when I pass and wave. And I recognize his face.

Because I know these people. They are my people. They are our people. And there is no place like home.

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