We are in Oxford, Alabama, standing in line at the Wendy’s.
In front of us: three young men, ages eleven, twelve, and thirteen. The youngest and the oldest are, except for their age, virtually identical: disheveled brown hair, camouflage jackets and pants, chunky waistlines, battered sneakers. Even their orders are identical: Baconators. Yes, combos. With Cokes. Large.
As these two yammer, banter, and scuffle, the third is lost in his own world, studying the lighted menu board. He is rail thin, and even standing still, he has the distinctive poise and grace of a dancer.
He wears a black-and-white checkered Nike cap; beneath it, his hair is trimmed, layered, and highlighted. Instead of a hunter’s jacket, he sports a form-fitting UnderArmour t-shirt made of shiny silver fabric, paired with black track pants and new black leather running shoes.
His arms are crossed over his chest; standing there, he crooks one knee and shifts his weight from one leg to the other before ordering the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad and a Diet Coke.
And in that moment, because of what I suspect is true, my heart goes out to him.
I know it is like to grow up in Alabama and be different. I look at his father — a beefy man, with shaggy hair, a scruffy beard, and a pot belly — and I wonder how he feels about this son, and whether, in this family, such differences matter, and whether, because of them, this boy will be treated differently than his brothers.
At the table, as the others hunch over their burgers, he sits in his chair, swinging one leg, staring wistfully out the window. When they leave, he’s the one that clears the table, scooping up the trash and sorting it — just so — on top of a short stack of bright orange trays. And when they pile into the family truck, he is the last one in, taking the seat closest to the door.
As they drove off, I found myself wanting to say this: good luck, little brother. There’s a big world out there, most of it very different from Calhoun County. I’ve no idea how things are for you now, but I can promise you this: if you’ve got the strength to hang in there, the boldness to keep on being yourself, the courage to be led by your heart, and the honesty to embrace whatever Truth your Truth turns out to be … life can be better than you ever imagine.