The Little Town that Could

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By Sean Dietrich

When you pull into town proper you ride past churches, clapboard houses and people sitting on front porches—even though it’s cold outside.
There are painted murals on the wide brick walls of storefront buildings. There’s a freight train cutting through town, darting past Brewton Iron Works, the T.R. Miller timber mill and rushing into the woods. The locomotive whistle blows and you can feel this city’s little heart beating.
Brewton is the kind of place where you can dial a wrong number and the person who answers the phone will give you the correct one.
Last night, I went to a local prayer meeting. At least that’s what the attendees call it. Though I don’t know why. The meeting was held at a bar inside a Mexican restaurant, nobody was praying, and everyone was cradling Coronas.
The evening’s only prayer was shouted by Miss Connie. It was six words. “Hey, God, thanks for the food!”
Then everyone ordered another round.
I asked why they called it prayer meeting.
“Because,” said Connie. “Let’s say your mom or your husband asks why you were out late on Wednesday night. You can just tell them you were at prayer meeting and the spirits were flowing.”
That’s Brewton. You might think it’s irreverent, but that’s probably because you’re not from here.
This is my wife’s hometown. I fell in love with it from day one. There was a time when I never thought I’d fit in anywhere, but somehow I managed to fit in here. I don’t know why, but people didn’t seem to mind having me around.
I don’t come from a town like this. I am of the Florida Panhandle, a place that was once rural, but has since been overthrown by real estate developers. The first thing the developers did when they moved in was cut down a million acres of pine and establish an Olive Garden.
Does the world really need another Olive Garden?
Maybe this is why I have a soft spot for Brewton. They don’t have Olive Gardens here. They have David’s Catfish House.
Certainly, Brewton has its critics. It’s a sleepy village and there isn’t much to do here. The complaints are all the same:
There are hardly any restaurants. The only form of cardiovascular exercise is gossip. And a big source of local entertainment is when someone gets ticked off and airs their dirty laundry online.
But if you happen to love imperfect things, like I do, Brewton is your town. From its old vine-covered Universalist church, to the antique Antebellum porches that are still visited by senators, statesman, oil magnates, stray dogs, kids on roller skates and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness.
Today, I went to a funeral that was in the backyard of a Brewton home. The sky threatened rain, and it was colder than a brass brassiere.
People in attendance were from all rungs of the social ladder. In the congregation were fancy trench coats, camouflage jackets and Carhartts.
When service ended, the people mingled and ate hors d’oeuvres. The back lawn was filled with trickling conversations of the small-town variety.
“How’s your dad’s hip after his fall?”
“Oh, he’s fine. Mama’s waiting on him hand and foot, spoiling him.”
“He’s rotten.”
“To the core. How’s your wife?”
“She’s good. She just married her divorce attorney. They’re honeymooning in Belgium.”
“Congratulations.”
I once went to a funeral in metro Atlanta where the people were so stiff and formal it was like attending… Well. A funeral. Hardly anybody spoke to each other. And for some reason people kept giving me their business card.
But people here are chatty. And nobody gives business cards. After all, if you need a phone number, you just text your uncle. If you need a septic tank installed, call your grandmother, she’ll know someone. And if she can’t help, you can always borrow your cousin’s backhoe and install it yourself.
After the funeral, my wife and I went to a restaurant with her cousin. The whole place was filled with locals. In eateries like this everybody talks to everybody and you’re lucky if you even have time to eat.
People stopped by our table to ask how we were doing. Another few asked how our dogs were. And I can’t help but wonder if the small-town spirit is going to become a dying art form.
The statistics are a little sad. Across the U.S., more young people are moving away from their native hamlets. They’re raising families in bigger cities that offer better jobs, faster internet service, and multiple Olive Gardens.
But here in Brewton, things are still the same as they’ve always been. You drive past the high school and you can still see young athletes running drills. You pass the beauty salon and there’s still a poster in the window reading: “GO TIGERS!”
You pop into the supermarket to buy a bottle of ketchup and it still takes you three hours to leave the store because you see 60 people you know.
And even though you’re an outsider, like me, you’re almost hesitant to leave this wonderful timber-mill town that adopted you nearly 20 years ago. No, it’s not your home, you know this. You will never actually belong here. But every now and then, sometimes late at night when you hear a distant train whistle, it certainly is fun to pretend that you do.
Especially after a wild and crazy prayer meeting.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.

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