At the end of the night, my dog and I are walking to my truck. I am carrying several foil-covered plates they sent with me. My stomach is full.

This is an engagement party at the Cuthbert farm. There are country people here of every shape, accent, and denomination. Salt-of-the-earth people.

On the buffet line they have every home-cooked casserole you can imagine. Jugs of tea. Coolers of beer. Cheap wine. And a coonhound roaming free.

I recognize this hound. She came with me. And she’s supposed to be my date tonight.

The hound is following a boy who’s as tall as a longleaf pine. The boy is sixteen. Tallest thing at the party.

“Don’t know how he got so stinking tall,” says the boy’s daddy—a roofing man. “He was a normal-sized kid until last year. Then, BOOM. He was Michael Jordan.”

The kid is a baseball pitcher. He can pitch fastballs that shatter sound barriers.

“When he’s standing on that mound, he’s freaking awesome,” says old Dad.

I meet a forty-three-year-old woman, wearing a scarf around her bald head. She’s eating bacon-wrapped venison. The woman is on her last round of cancer treatment. She is aunt to the bride-to-be.

She says her disease was a blessing.

“A blessing?” I ask.

“People all came together for

me. You can’t imagine the support these people give you when you’re sick.

“When this many people love on you, it makes you realize that life’s a gift.”

A gift.

They tell me this woman might not make it.

I meet Miss Bonnie—mid-eighties. She has reddish-white hair and smells like Youth Dew.

She is a passionate little thing.

“Back in the day,” she says. “My girlfriends and I wanted to march with Doctor King, but my Daddy forbid it. Told me it was too dangerous.

“Daddy was a good man. He ended up driving three old country preachers and their wives all the way to Selma for the march.”

I meet a ten-year-old. His name is Jake. He’s a novice welder. He takes lessons from his father after school.

“He’s getting pretty good,”…

That's why I’m writing you, son. Because I can see you, right now. I’m sitting in a restaurant booth behind you. You’re sixteen, maybe seventeen, dressed nice. You’re on a date at a swanky Italian joint. 

Boys, I’ll make this short: treat her good.

Real good.

Treat a girl the way you’d treat the most expensive thing you’ve ever touched. No. Treat her like the most rare thing you’ve NEVER touched. 

Try to think of the most valuable object on earth. A Rembrandt painting, an 11th century Bible, the Cup of Christ, the Stetson of Willie Nelson.

Treat your girl like that.

Treat her like she’s been removed from a bullet-proof case and hooked to your arm by Billy Graham himself.

Open every door for her, pull out every chair, hold her pocketbook when need be. Admire her like a painting—not a magazine.

When you spend time together, look straight into her eyes. After all, her eyes lead to her mind, which leads to her heart, which leads to her soul.

Above all—and I am governmentally serious about this—do not look at your damn phone. Not even once. I mean it. Don’t hold it in your lap, don’t set it on the table, don’t keep it in your pocket, don't make trips to the bathroom to send texts.

When

you’re with her, leave your smartphone in your glovebox. Then, place your car in neutral, lock the doors, set the vehicle on fire, and push it into the nearest muddy ditch.

You’re in public with a famous Rembrandt painting—on loan from the Louvre. Don't waste time.

See how the light hits the angles of her face. Watch the way she wrinkles her forehead when she laughs.

Listen with big ears. Let yourself drift upon the harmonics of her voice like you’re tubing down the Blackwater River with a cooler full of Budweiser and Doritos.

Ask questions. But don't ask common ones. Be original.

Ask how old she was when she lost her first tooth. Ask about her dog, and where it sleeps.

Would she rather hang-glide or flea-market? Winn-Dixie or The Pig? Kroger or Publix? Barbecue or…

I’m in my truck right now. I’m older. I’m wearing a sportcoat. In a few minutes, I’ll be walking into a courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama. A room which, up until a few months ago, I’d only ever read about.

I was a loser. At least, that’s what I would’ve told you back then.

Twenty-five years old. I sat in a truck, in a parking lot lit by streetlamps. My work clothes were sawdusty. Supper was a sandwich and a warm beer.

I was reading, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” squeezing in chapters before class. You’ve probably read it a hundred times, maybe in high school even.

I had not.

I didn’t attend high school. After my father shot himself, my mother and I worked. I dropped out in the eighth grade.

Yeah, yeah. Poor, pitiful me. So who cares about that.

A little about me:

My name is Sean. I like long walks in the woods, Budweiser, Jalen Hurts, dogs, Will Rogers, farm-raised eggs, Andy Griffith. And I enrolled in community college as a grown man. Like I said, a loser.

So, I was reading Mockingbird in my truck. I liked the book. Not only because of the story, but because of where it happened in Monroe County.

The girl I’d fallen in love with was from Escambia

County—just down the road. This same girl let me into her life. Her people were good to me. They fed me. They made me one of theirs. They told me I was special.

In my life before, I’d generally considered myself a lost kid with very little to offer anyone. Larry the Loser. Girls don’t want anything to do with losers.

Once, at the ripe age of twenty, I asked Lydia Bronson on a date. I arrived at her house in a beat-up truck. She saw my unsightly mount. She suddenly developed yellow fever, strep throat, and scurvy simultaneously.

I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. So, I went to a bowling alley and played solo. I ate a hotdog and tried to forget what a screw-up I was.

A group of high-schoolers was there that night. They were nice-looking,…

She was a single mother. She sacrificed. She did without. A saint. The old woman breathed slower. Slower. And slower. One big breath, everyone heard it. And she was no more.

Their mother died.

The two daughters gathered around her bed when it happened. In soft voices, they told their elderly mother that it was okay to leave. They pet her white hair, touched her cheeks.

They shared memories in her last moments.

They remembered how they all used to sing along with the radio—especially when Patsy Cline was singing. And how their mother sewed tags into homemade clothes to make them like store-bought.

She was a single mother. She sacrificed. She did without. A saint.

The old woman breathed slower. Slower. One big breath, everyone heard it. And she was no more.

They didn’t know anything about their father. Their mother told them he’d left while they were babies. They agreed that they needed to tell the man—wherever he was.

They hired someone to find him. It took a few days. They learned that he'd moved to New Mexico because of a military career. Long ago, he'd gotten remarried. He had two kids.

That hurt.

The sisters drove to New Mexico in a minivan. They listened to Patsy Cline and mourned. They slept

in cheap motor inns, they told stories to one another. Stories about her.

New Mexico—it was a mobile home on flat land. They knocked on his door, introduced themselves. The man took the news hard. He bawled.

They sat in his den. And, when he’d gathered himself, he stared at them with serious eyes.

“Oh my God,” he remarked. “You actually think I’m your father.”

The girls held confused faces. You could’ve heard a gnat blink.

“Hate to tell you this,” he began. “But I'm not your father, and your mama wasn’t your biological mother.”

The air went cold and the girls became sick to their stomachs.

He told it like it was. It was complicated, but here are the basics:

Their mother had once been engaged to another—her high-school sweetheart. She had grown up with him.…

Truth be told, he was ashamed to be moving back—which is why he hadn’t told anyone. Not even his saintly mother. But there are no secrets in small towns.

I’m sitting on porch steps with my cousin. We are people-watching in a town about the size of an area rug.

A man is blowing leaves off his driveway. The leaf-blower is filling the neighborhood with noise. They say he’s addicted to yardwork. Poor man.

Miss Elvira is walking her Labrador, Webster, on the sidewalk. The dog is stronger than he looks. The leash looks like it’s about to snap in two. He’s pulling Elvira like Twenty-Mule-Team Borax.

She waves at us. I haven’t seen Miss Elvira since I was nine. My cousin and I picked pinecones in her yard long ago while singing an anthem by the Oak Ridge Boys about her.

Hi-ho, Silver, away.

Peter Stepnowski is poking in his garage. Peter has white hair, thick glasses, and wears tube socks with sandals.

Please Lord, no matter how old I get, don’t let me wear tube socks and sandals.

A delivery truck. A FedEx man jogs the sidewalk, up the steps to the Delanie’s porch. He’s carrying an odd-shaped box that makes every elderly busybody within a six-mile radius become curious.

Take

my aunt, for instance, she is curious.

Four girls walk the sidewalk wearing soccer uniforms. School is out. They have backpacks on shoulders. They’re deep in conversation. Faces serious. They’re solving world problems.

One of the girls is Karin. I remember when her parents announced in Sunday school they were expecting a third baby.

Karin waves. She calls me “Mister Sean.” Those words sound ancient.

Life is moving slow today. That’s how it works in little places.

I was in the big city last week. I rode through Atlanta’s five-o’clock traffic, gripping my steering wheel so hard my knuckles popped—I’m lucky I survived.
I watched a transfer truck amputate a Nissan’s side-mirror. I saw two near-accidents, fifteen cop cars, and a whole bucket of middle fingers.

Big places aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

I believe in the old woman I once knew, who said: “If you REALLY wanna love someone, give’em something good to eat.”

DEAR SEAN:

What things do you believe in?

ELEVEN-YEARS-OLD-IN-CHAPEL-HILL

DEAR ELEVEN:

I believe in fried chicken. The kind made by every granny you’ve ever known. The kind fried in black iron skillets.

I believe it is powerful stuff. Which is probably why you see it at funeral receptions, baby showers, and churches.

I also believe in hand-rolled biscuits made from flour, fat, salt, baking powder, and buttermilk. To add additional ingredients to this mix would be like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

I believe in teaching young men to clean fish. I believe in kids who ask too many questions. And I believe in girls who are gutsy enough to be themselves.

I believe girls have it harder than boys. And I’m sorry for that.

I believe in giving money to the homeless—not once or twice, but every time I see someone down on their luck. Every single time. I believe in giving more than I should.

I believe in old-time country dances. Long ago, before TV’s, smartphones, and twenty-four-hour news channels, I believe people threw more parties.

I believe in bowing heads to say grace. I believe in crickets, loud frogs, and places where you cannot hear busy highways.

I believe in magic tricks. And in teenagers who haven’t found themselves yet. I believe in all golden retrievers, Labs, bloodhounds, some Jack Russels. And marriage.

I believe in Marie, Lorena, and Nadia—living at a battered women’s shelter in South Georgia. I believe in high-school dropouts, and kids who miss their daddies. I believe in nurses.

I believe in music made by hand, fiddles, upright pianos, and the poetry of Hank Williams. I believe in Willie Nelson.

I believe in the memory of grandparents, and keeping them alive with stories. I believe in making lowly people famous, and famous people lowly.

And I believe this world is better than most give it credit. I believe that if folks…

The boy was in shock. He quit speaking altogether. He quit caring. His foster parents didn’t know how to reach him, so they sent him to another facility.

His older brother sang to him. Every night before bed. That might sound strange to you. But it was what they did before bed. Singing.

They lived in a foster home. His brother was more than a brother. He was mother, father, friend, guardian, bunk mate.

Everything.

His brother helped him dress for school, tied his shoes, and taught him to stand up for himself on a playground.

And it was his brother who kept the memories of their mother alive. He talked about the way she used to read stories, make sugar cookies, eat too much ketchup on fries.

His brother was hit by a car while walking home from school. The funeral was small. Only a few social workers, and friends.

The boy was in shock. He quit speaking altogether. He quit caring. His foster parents didn’t know how to reach him, so they sent him to another facility.

He was the youngest in the new place, and found it hard to fit in with the others. He spent time alone. He looked out his

window, remembering the sound of his brother’s singing voice.

One day, a maintenance man arrived to fix a damaged, leaky ceiling in the boy’s bedroom. He was an older man. The kind of man who couldn’t be quiet even if his life depended on it. A happy fella who talked too much and laughed at his own jokes.

The boy liked him. They made fast friends.

For a full day, the man stood on a ladder replacing sections of damaged drywall. Chatting up a blue streak.

The boy started talking, too. And once the child started, he didn’t stop. He talked about football heroes, favorite movies, monsters, dinosaurs, fast cars, fire trucks.

About his late brother.

The old man just listened. He listened so intently that his one-day ceiling repair job took three days.

He let the boy help him work. The kid…