John has no family at the ceremony. No mother, father, uncles, aunts, cousins. There are only two older men standing for him. They are wiry and weathered.

It’s a morning wedding. A simple one. There is Spanish moss in the trees. The birds are out. This is John’s first marriage. He's forty-five years young. It’s the biggest day of his entire life.

And I forgot a wedding gift.

This is his cousin’s hunting land, a place John thought would be a perfect spot for a shindig. He was right.

John’s new wife has two kids. Boys. They are pure energy, but well-behaved.

John has no family at the ceremony. No mother, father, uncles, aunts, cousins. There are only two older men standing for him. They are wiry and weathered.

They used to work on oil rigs with John. He calls them the only family he’s ever had. They treat him like a sort of son.

The bride’s family is in attendance. They are salt-of-the-earth folks. Khakis and button-downs, cotton dresses. Simple.

“I look forward to being a dad to her boys,” says John. “I grew up without one, I know how bad kids need a

father.”

John knows a lot more than that. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. It was bad. He went through surgery, chemo, nausea, hair loss, weight loss. The works. He’s been in remission ever since, but it’s changed him.

“Scared the you-know-what outta me,” says John. “Now I wake up each day and think, ‘Man, is it gonna come back?’ It plays with you mind.”

She is the picture of loveliness. She was married once before. Her husband left her. She and her boys moved in with her mother.

John was working on a concrete crew, laying a driveway for her mother’s rental house. Her kids befriended John right away.

“He was all they could talk about for days,” she says. “I thought, geez,…

Yeah. I know. This world isn’t all rainbows, roses, and ice-cream shops. It’s a hard place to live. People are angrier than they used to be. Money gets harder to come by. So do smiles.

Sunset. A high-school graduation. Students in caps and gowns take the football field. I’ve lost my wife in a crowd of parents and teachers.

There’s a woman next to me. She is old, curly white hair. She is missing teeth. Her accent sounds like hard work.

Granny points to the field. “That’s my Robbie,” she tells me. “First in our family to graduate high school. Told him since he was born, ‘You can become anything when you grow up.’”

She is so proud, her buttons are under strain.

The announcer calls Robbie’s name. Granny claps so hard she almost fractures a wrist.

“That’s him,” she says. “Can you see my Robbie?”

Yes’ ma’am.

A shopping mall—a young woman. Her son is the size of a sixth-grader. She holds him on her hip.

“Will you PLEASE take him, honey?” she says.

Her husband is a skinny man with tattoos. He places the kid in a large stroller. The kid starts bawling.

The man wheels the stroller in circles, making airplane noises.

The kid quits

fussing and smiles. He hollers something along the lines of:

“Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The man stops and kisses the kid’s forehead.

“I love you,” he says.

A gas station—a man is walking toward the door. He is wearing basketball shorts and knee-length surgical stockings. There are stitches on his shaved scalp.

A kid out front stabs out a cigarette and opens the door.

When Basketball Shorts shuffles back outside, the young man is waiting. He helps him into his car—a white Ford. He pumps the man’s gas. They talk. They even laugh.

The Ford drives away.

The kid is left, standing at the pump, waving goodbye.

The…

Seven riflemen fired at the sky. A lone trumpet played “Taps.” If there was a dry eye in the county, it was made of glass.

His funeral was in the dead of summer. It was graveside. Early morning. Muggy.

His skin looked powder-white, his face wore an artificial smile. Red, white, and blue draped over his casket.

They did him up good.

Seven riflemen fired at the sky. A lone trumpet played “Taps.” If there was a dry eye in the county, it was made of glass.

Once, I went to a ball game with him. I was a boy. The organ played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

He stood, saluted, and sang in a voice that was part tenor, part Andy Griffith.

I asked why he sang so loud.

“‘Cause,” he said. “That’s one hell of a flag flying up there.”

I asked where they shot him during the War.

He lifted his arm and pointed to his armpit. “Already showed you this a hundred times,” he said.

Make that one hundred and one.

He grew up on a dirt farm. He was as tough as the callouses on his

hands. He was a musician.

As a young man, he sang on a Thursday-evening gospel radio hour, flatpicking a guitar in a one-room radioshack.

He fell in love. She came from a poor family. They married before he shipped to Europe.

The night before their wedding, they slept in the same bed—on top the covers, with their clothes on.

“He was nothing if not decent,” was once said of him.

But he was more than decent. He was ten-foot tall. His heart was purple, his Case knife was sharp, his fishing rods were bamboo. He listened to the Opry, and Hit Parade. He believed in solid cars, and pretty music.

I liked to watch him play mandolin.

[READ MORE...]

I would’ve told you stories. That way, you could’ve had a million to tell your own redhead one day. I think all World’s Greatest Daddies need stories. Good ones. Tales that make their sons proud.

I think about you sometimes. Especially during summer, when families get together for picnics and fireworks. When fathers wear T-shirts that read: “World’s Greatest Dad.”

I like those.

You’re the son I never had. You never existed, but I still think about you.

Mostly, I wonder what color your hair would have been. I have a feeling it would’ve been red—like your old man’s.

My daddy had red hair, too. And even though he died long ago, sharing his hair color makes me feel less alone.

I would’ve taught you baseball. Chances are, you would’ve been awful at it—just like me.

But I love the game. And I love what goes with it. The hot dogs, the twenty-five-dollar beers, screaming in the stands. Fathers and sons.

I’ve gone to many games alone. I would've made sure you didn’t.

I would’ve told you stories. That way, you could’ve had a million to tell your own redhead one day. I think all World’s Greatest Daddies need stories. Good ones. Tales that make their sons proud.

The few I have of my own father are precious.

Anyway, I’m not

a teacher, but I would’ve taught you. Things like: how to play “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on a guitar, how to eat ice cream sandwiches, how to gig frogs, and how to speak slow when delivering a punchline.

I would’ve shown you how to bait a hook, clean a bream, and use words like, “I love you,” too much.

You would’ve learned to open doors for girls, and how to apologize to a woman with heart.

I would’ve learned from you. You would've discovered that I made a lot of mistakes.

But I would’ve told you that this world is not all Memorial-Day sunshine and flowers—even though I wish it were. That the problem is that people are selfish. Every last person. Even your old man.

But, there is also something in…

Across the parking lot: a man. He’s short. Gray hair. He asks if the kid is having engine trouble. The kid hardly understands him beneath his thick Mexican accent.

He is young. He is wearing a red shirt. A cap. He drives a Ford pickup that has seen better days. The roof is rusted, the wheel bearings are in bad shape.

The kid is on lunch break, parked in a grocery-store parking lot. He is eating bananas because fruit is cheap and he has a light wallet.

His windows are rolled down. He’s only got ten minutes before he’s expected back at a jobsite, to hang gutter on a three-story house.

It’s god-awful work. He’s not afraid of heights, but he certainly doesn’t love nine-hundred-foot ladders.

The kid finishes eating. He tosses a banana peel into his flatbed. He tries to start his truck. It makes a coughing noise. He tries again. The truck sputters. The kid cusses.

The old Ford has crossed the river.

These are the days before cellphones ruled the world, there’s no way to call the kid’s boss. His boss is already at work, probably glancing at his wristwatch.

The kid sits, wondering what happens after he gets fired.

He could always join the circus and clean up after the elephants.

Across the parking lot: a man. He’s short. Gray hair. He asks if the kid is having engine trouble. The kid hardly understands him beneath his thick Mexican accent.

The man pops the hood. He leans inward. He tells the kid, “Try it now!”

The kid turns the key.

The gray-haired man winks. “I know what is thee problem,” he says. “We can buy part in town. Come. We take my car.”

“I can’t,” the kid says. “I’m supposed to be at work.”

“Work?

The man understands this word.

They pile into the man’s Honda, which looks like it’s rusting apart. The…

He says, “I really didn't plan on doing this today. But this morning, I just realized that I love her so much, and I love her kids, too. I just want us to be a real family.”

I'm at a jewelry store to get my watch repaired. It’s a cheap watch.

The jeweler is a white-haired man with a grandaddy face. He’s staring at my watch, squinting.

“It’s Italian,” I tell him. “El Timexo.”

He says the thing needs a new battery-o.

There is a kid browsing the glass cases behind me. He’s young, skinny built. He’s wearing a neon-orange reflective vest, work boots.

He asks the girl at the counter if he can see a ring. She unlocks the case.

He looks at it, frowns, then hands it back.

He asks, “Should ALL engagement rings have diamonds?”

She tells the kid that there’s no constitutional mandate, but that it’s strongly recommended by the American Jeweler's Association.

He asks about payment plans. She shows him a flyer and tells him about financing options.

The kid asks to see a cheaper ring.

He looks hard at it. “You sure this is the right size? It looks so big.”

“Yep. That’s a six.”

“If it’s too

big, can I bring it back?”

“We can resize it.”

He takes a few heavy breaths. He sighs. He says, “I just hope she says yes. I mean, I think she will. But what if she doesn’t?”

The woman smiles. She holds up her left hand for him, showing him a small ring. Then, she tells the story that goes with it.

She was at a swimming pool. Her boyfriend showed up unannounced. He climbed the high-dive. He screamed his proposal from the top of the world.

She hollered, “Yes!”

So, he attempted a backflip. He slipped. He skinned his backside and hit his head on the springboard. He had to visit the…

...If you’ve read this far, you might as well know that I believe in something. I don’t know what it’s called, exactly, but I know it’s out there. And I know it's good.

He was homeless. Long beard, weathered skin. I was sitting in traffic. He walked between lines of vehicles at a stoplight. He carried a cardboard sign.

I rolled down my window and handed him all the cash I had—which wasn’t much. Maybe fifteen bucks. He smelled like an open bottle.

He stood at my window and said, “I don’t know you, but I love you.”

Those words. I’ve thought about them for days.

I thought about them when I drove past an ambulance this morning. Two cars looked like crushed Budweiser cans. Traffic backed up for a mile. EMT’s loaded a stretcher.

One paramedic was hugging a child in the median. The kid squeezed him and cried his eyes out. The EMT squeezed back.

I'll bet they don't teach that in EMT training.

Here's another:

After my friend’s wife died, he adopted a cat. It didn't take long before he’d spoiled the animal. He bought an outdoor pet-bed, a food bowl, a collar.

The next morning, he woke to see

three feral cats on his porch. So, he did what any self-respecting man would. He named them.

The following day, two more feral cats.

“I went from being lonely,” he said, “to being Doctor Doolittle. Cats just trust me.”

Last week, I met an old man who sat at the bar of a rundown beer joint. He was watching the band play. He was deaf.

In a loud voice, he asked if he could buy me a beer. I accepted.

He told me he’d totally lost his hearing a few years ago. He woke up one morning and he was fully deaf.

His life changed. It forced him to retire early. It’s been hard.

Last year,…

One woman embraces me, then says I’m welcome in her guestroom any time I visit. Another man invites me fishing tomorrow. A six-year-old girl insists I take her fidget spinner as a gift.

A church lawn. The middle of nowhere.

He’s old. He’s wearing high-waisted trousers, a pressed shirt, and a fedora. So help me, a fedora. Seeing him is like seeing nineteen hundred and fifty-two.

My dog, Ellie Mae, follows this man.

There aren't many folks here, maybe fifty. Kids are playing with fidget spinners. Girls wear summer dresses. Young men wear boots. Middle-aged men in khakis.

This is dinner on the church grounds.

Behind the building is a hayfield, recently scalped. A few boys hop the fence.

Tables are lined with casserole dishes. Plastic pitchers of tea. Behind the church is a grill. It’s the sturdy kind made from a two-ton iron pipe.

The smell of pecan smoke makes the world seem happy.

Abe is cooking ribs and chicken. His name isn’t really Abe, he admits. It’s Danny. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. He was an incurable tattle-butt. His mother nicknamed him “Honest Abe” to cure him of his habit.

The name stuck.

“Any hotdogs?” asks a kid.

“You want HOTDOGS?” Abe remarks. “Instead of RIBS? What’s wrong with you, child?”

I’m

next in line. I ask for a little of everything.

Honest Abe tells me greediness is a vice worse than gluttony.

The evening kicks off with a gospel quartet. The high-tenor is outstanding. He sings notes only Gabriel could reach.

On our blanket: two adults and ten empty plates. My coonhound is nowhere in sight. She has made friends with the old man in the fedora. They are across the lawn.

The unfaithful animal.

The quartet sings “Moving Up To Gloryland.” The baritone is singing so low, it looks like he’s about to lose consciousness.

The adults finish eating. The sun is almost gone. Kids are in the hayfield. And it looks like—if my eyes are correct—they’re playing Red Rover.

As I live and breathe.

I haven’t played Red Rover since fourth grade. Greg…

I remember nearly every bad word used on me. In sixth grade Doreen Severs called me “chunky.” I was a round-faced, chubby kid. Her remark made me cry for forty days and forty nights.

DEAR SEAN:

What should I do when a boy calls me fat? I’m not super skinny or anything, but I’ve always thought I was regular.

I want guys to like me, but this guy called me fat and got me thinking I'm ugly and fat, and now I'm wondering what I should say back.

My mom told me to message you.

Thank you,
FIFTEEN IN ALABAMA

DEAR FIFTEEN:

First off: I’m going to tell you what my granny would’ve told me. Though you might not want to hear it—God knows I never did.

Compliment that hateful boy. Tell him how nice he looks. Make a remark about his shoes. Tell him he’s got lovely eyes. Anything sweet.

You don’t even have to mean it.

Of course, this is the last thing you want to do. But it’s an old rural trick which folks like Granny called: drowning outhouse flies in honey.

Something you don't see many people do these days.

Listen, I wish I could tell you how to forget the insults, but that's silly. You can’t forget them any more than you

can forget being kicked in the teeth.

I remember nearly every bad word used on me. In sixth grade Doreen Severs called me “chunky.” I was a round-faced, chubby kid. Her remark made me cry for forty days and forty nights.

My mother forced me to approach Doreen the next day and tell her she had marvelous brown eyes.

I almost gagged on my words. But you should've seen Doreen’s face. You could’ve knocked her over with a residential lawn mower.

She never gave another lick of trouble.

The truth is, I don’t know much, but I can tell you the problem isn't you. Neither is the problem the boy.

It's much bigger than him.

In fact, it’s so big that it's almost invisible. And it can be found in magazines, swimsuit ads, underwear commercials,…

Behind me is a literature professor from New Hampshire. He’s a slender man. Polite. He has a big vocabulary. It takes two minutes to discover that “unparalleled” is his favorite word.

Monroeville, Alabama—the sun is setting. One hundred and nine people wait outside the courthouse to see “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

You can hear crickets downtown.

In line, I meet a millworker from Milton, a mechanic from Montgomery, a Birmingham neurosurgeon, a football coach, a peanut farmer.

Behind me is a literature professor from New Hampshire. He’s a slender man. Polite. He has a big vocabulary. It takes two minutes to discover that “unparalleled” is his favorite word.

He’s driven a long way to see this play. He is a well-known author—I know this because he tells me.

Three times.

“We’re excited about the show,” says the professor. “We hear it’s unparalleled.”

He’s right. This is the quintessential hometown play, in the world’s most famous hometown—second only to Mayberry.

This production has all my favorite stuff. Clapboard porches, antique automobiles, linen suits, ladies in cotton dresses.

The professor sits a few seats from me. He tells me he's memorized parts of the famous novel. He demonstrates this. He's pleased with himself.

“What brings you here tonight?” he asks.

“My cousin, Robert,” I say. “He plays

the farmer.”

The play starts. It's fast paced. The second act is a clencher, taking place inside the old courtroom. It's a majestic building with heart-pine floors made from trees which were once cut from a forest up the road.

The cast’s delivery is heartfelt. Close your eyes. You can hear sniffles from the audience. Most of those are mine.

Afterward, the professor remarks, “I can NOT articulate how this UNPARALLELED story and its cupidity absolutely ingressed me.”

Gazoontite.

Well, my vocabulary might be small, but I’m inclined to agree with him. This play is some kind of special. The soft accents, the down-home morals, the women wearing nylons thick enough to stop bullets.

This classic story is about community—one so small you need a magnifying glass to see it. It’s about small-town living. The good,…