Don't use the word, “y'all,” “ain't,” or, “reckon,” people might think you're a redneck.

DON'T SWIM IN THE GULF WATER! That's what the experts say. Also: wear enough sunscreen so that you look like a marshmallow. And since we're on the subject, don't eat sugar. Or flour. Or gluten. Or breathe too deeply while in the upright position.

Kids, don't go barefoot. Don't climb trees, or play with bee-bee guns, or eat undercooked hamburgers—which will kill you. Don't play Red Rover, you could break an arm. Don't play baseball, unless you want a concussion. Don't play tackle football. Don't fistfight, you'll go to jail. Don't eat too much birthday cake, and don't you dare ask for more ice cream.

You'll get

diabetes.

Don't watch Westerns—too violent. Don't play with cap-guns. Never use the term, "Indians," that's offensive. Say instead, Native Americans. Don't swing from the monkey bars, don't use tire swings, don't cuss. Just sit Native-American style on the floor and watch the Atlanta Braves take a whooping from the Cleveland Native Americans.

Don't pee outside, ride bikes without helmets, or walk to school. In fact, don't WALK anywhere.

Don't drink anything stronger than apple juice, don't stay up past nine. Don't laugh at dirty jokes. And for God's sake, don't memorize any. If,…

Truth told, I don't know why I count. What does it matter how close the storm is? It's coming for me just the same. There's nothing anyone can do about it. You can't run.

It's raining while I write this. Hard. You ought to see the clouds. They look like dark tidal waves. And in the middle of them, flashes of light, followed by low rumbles. If I close my eyes, the rain almost sounds like a stadium full of people.

This is the best time to sit on your porch. You can see the whole forest soak in a good drink of water. If you're lucky, you might even see a tree get hit by lightning.

Just be careful.

My daddy's friend got struck by lightning once. He was on a job-site. He felt his hair

stand up. So, he laid himself flat on the ground, spread-eagle.

He said it felt like a firecracker went off in his brain. The blast blew off his shoes, burned his scalp, and ruined his hearing. He was never the same. They say he used to be a quiet man who tucked in his shirt; afterward, he was a sloppy, chatty night-owl who liked to chew ice all the time.

He told folks lightning was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Even so, Daddy said whenever it started to rain, he'd…

Males are strange animals. We pretend. In fact, we've been faking it a long time.

“Don't get me talking about my mama,” he said. “Or I'll start crying.”

The man in the necktie started talking about her anyway. There was no way he could help it. He'd just attended her funeral. According to him, it was a small affair. She was in her eighties.

"They did a good job on her," he said. "She looked rested."

It was late. The bartender was tired, musicians packed up instruments, waitresses swept floors, and this man wanted to talk about his mama.

Well, talking about your mother is a tradition in this part of the world. You can hear mama-stories in almost any waterhole across our region. And each tale carries the same weight as a Sunday-school Bible lesson. I don't know if people from other parts talk about mothers quite as often, but I hope they do.

As a teenager, I remember sitting around an Andalusia campfire, watching three boys with beer cans swap mama-stories. Three of us had mothers. John did not.

“You know," said John. "Before Mama died, I fell off the porch once. I broke my leg, I was in a cast for months...”

“I remember that,” said another.

The older he got, the harder it was to speak. He became the butt of a few high-school jokes from fools who couldn't look past his slow-moving mouth.

He had a lot to say—only he couldn't say it.

Whenever he'd open his mouth, it was like, “...someone took hold of my throat," he said. "The words just got all tangled up.”

I knew him back then. He lived to ride horses. And his stuttering might have been the reason for that. On horseback, he could go a whole day without saying anything, which suited him just fine. Because whenever he did open his mouth, it was like trying to extract a tooth. His eyes blinked, his face grimaced. Embarrassment mixed with determination.

Inevitably, someone would finish his sentence for him.

“I hated that,” he

said. “People think they're helping you out when they do that, but they're not. It's like they're kinda saying, 'Geez, man, I'm sorry you stammer so bad.'”

The older he got, the harder it was to speak. He became the butt of a few high-school jokes from fools who couldn't look past his slow-moving mouth. His confidence went down, he quit spending time in the company of his peers—more time in the company of horses.

“I just didn't fit in,” he said. “And if ever I was around girls, I just prayed…

I won't lie to you, she's ruined my vehicle. You'll find dog saliva on my truck windows, seats, and dashboard.

Right now, a big lump of black fur is busy snoring at my feet. She sounds like a diesel semi-truck warming up on a cold morning.

This dog does almost everything alongside me. She eats what I eat. She goes everywhere I go. Even on long road trips. We've been doing this for years now.

In fact, each day around ten o'clock—which is when I run errands—she sits at the front door, whimpering. Every few seconds, she'll trot up to me. Then to the door. To me. To the door. Me. Door. Me. Door. Back and forth, until she's a blurry streak of fur

and dander.

I won't lie to you, she's ruined my vehicle. You'll find dog saliva on my truck windows, seats, and dashboard. And, there's enough black hair in there to build a special kind of black-and-tan snowman. But it doesn't bother me. I carry a lint brush.

The other day, I took Ellie to Geneva, Alabama. I drove backroads. We rode past a scenic, open field just off Highway Two. I pulled over. If you've ever wondered where Heaven is, it's on the way to Geneva.

I kicked the door open and tossed…

This place hasn't had a real congregation for a half a century, hardly anyone lives nearby anymore. But that doesn't matter. Because when he's in here, his face lights up.

“This place was our life,” he said. “Growing up, going to meeting was everything.”

The country chapel sat empty, lights off. It looked more like a shed in an overgrown pasture than it did a church. Daylight peeked through the clapboards, the floor made creaky sounds. Seeing it from the road, it resembles a leftover from another world.

"See up there?" He pointed above the choir loft. “A hornet's nest was right up yonder, long time ago. As a boy, I had to knock it down. Whoooo-weee! I got stung to beat the band.”

This place hasn't had a real congregation for a half a

century, hardly anyone lives nearby anymore. But that doesn't matter. Because when he's in here, his face lights up. It's the same grin your face might have when you bump in to one of your aunts at Piggly Wiggly.

“Folks don't understand,” he said. “This weren't juss our religion. It was life. Out here in the sticks, some of us didn't have running water, women come here just to use the communal washing machine out back. Ladies all took turns.”

A different era.

He pointed to the rotary phone. “Most folks didn't have…

Hell is a remote-control away, you can see it any time you want. Which is probably why folks think there's more hate out there than love.

New Orleans, Louisiana—I saw a homeless man playing guitar. His Labrador sat nearby. His singing voice sounded like a tin bucket scraping against concrete.

The man's cardboard tip-box was overflowing. Folks took turns throwing handfuls of money in, then they stroked the dog.

The man said he'd found the dog underneath a bridge, years earlier. When he found her, she was even skinnier than he was. He gave her all the food he had, and went to bed hungry.

“This is my girl,” the man said, patting the Labrador's ribcage. "I thank God for her every day. And she's my biggest money-maker. Without her, we wouldn't eat. People

just love her.”

But not as much as he does.

Mobile, Alabama—inside Target, a woman's purse fell from her cart, she didn't know it. Without skipping a beat, a scruffy boy in a hoodie came behind her. He gathered the contents, then chased after her.

“Ma'am!” he said. “Your purse!”

You should've seen the look on her face.

And mine.

Pensacola, Florida—a parade downtown. I watched an old man struggle to keep up with his family. He moved slow with his walking stick, then fell knees-first on the sidewalk.…