I’m glad my wife kept this hat. It’s become her trademark. She wears it often even though it looks ridiculous on her. She carries it in her beach bag. She wears it when she works outside. Or on long drives—like the long drive we took yesterday. We landed in a Birmingham hotel at ten at night.

My wife wears a green John Deere hat. It’s too big for her head, it’s ratty. It looks ridiculous. Long ago, she almost placed this cap inside her father’s casket. But at the very last minute, she saved it for herself.

I remember seeing her father wear the hat while riding his lawnmower. The cap sat slightly crooked on his head.

There’s something about the way old men wear ball caps crooked. It makes them look distinguished. Many times I have tried to wear my cap, slightly cockeyed. I look like the town wino.

I’m glad my wife kept this hat. It’s become her trademark. She wears it often even though it looks ridiculous on her.

She carries it in her beach bag. She wears it when she works outside. Or on long drives—like the long drive we took yesterday. We landed in a Birmingham hotel at ten at night.

And that's is where I am now. I’m in a hotel room, still wearing my pajamas.

My wife just left me to meet a friend for lunch. I am writing.

The television is playing a soap opera on mute.

And I’m looking at this dumb cap, thinking about things. Important things.

Like my friend, who just lost his thirty-five-year-old wife to cancer. Ten years they were married. He has two kids. He’s a wreck. He smiles when he’s in public, and it’s a phony one.

I also know a man who was diagnosed with a terminal illness in his brain. He is young. He has a good job, a magnificent family, and he’s been eating healthy for most of his natural life.

The doctor told him he needs to get his affairs in order.

There's a man whose wife died nine days after her fiftieth birthday. Breast cancer. I stood in her funeral line and shook her husband’s hand. He cried so hard that he held up the line.

As…

“You move on with your life,” he says. “You realize that you still got a lotta time left to live, you can't just give up.”

Montgomery, Alabama—the top of the ninth inning. The Montgomery Biscuits are finishing off the Jackson Generals.

This is minor-league baseball at its best. I’m eating a foot-long Conecuh Quick Freeze sausage on a bun. The beer is bath-water warm. I am sweating.

The last Biscuits game I attended was twelve years ago, when they were still new to Montgomery. I was sitting on the other side of the stadium with my cousin. The Biscuits lost that night.

But they are winning tonight. The man behind me is not surprised.

He’s white-haired. There is a bag of popcorn in his lap. He doesn’t move much, he’s past the age of unnecessary movements.

His name is Paul. He lives outside Montgomery, he’s been coming to games since 2005. He comes as often as he can. He wears a butter-yellow team cap, thick glasses. He looks like he forgot to shave this week.

“I love my Biscuits,” says Paul. “Them players are just kids, but they good players. Gotta good coach, too.”

That’s why he’s here. He loves the game. It’s in his blood.

“When my son was just a baby,” said Paul, "he liked baseball right away. I knew he was the real deal.”

Paul started working with his son during grade school and middle school. It was your typical Great American childhood. Games of catch at sunset. Homemade batting cages in the backyard—constructed from chicken-wire fencing.

“My son was a good pitcher,” said Paul. “Good, good pitcher.”

Good.

Major League scouts were at his son’s games during his sophomore year. By his junior year, Paul was getting phone calls.

“Had one scout tell me, ‘Make sure you keep that arm healthy and de-inflamed.’ So I’d ice his arm down after every game.”

A drunk driver killed his son during his senior year.

His son was on his way home from a friend's house. A two-lane highway. A woman driving a Bronco…

“The Devil’s beating his wife,” my daddy would’ve said, observing such a scene. Childhood-me would’ve looked at the sky and asked what he meant. He’d give an explanation that would lead into a ghost story. I loved his ghost stories.

Entering Conecuh County. That’s what the little green sign reads, off Highway 31. I’m going north, passing through a small sliver of the county. I love it here.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to Birmingham, I listened to an audio book. The narrator spoke with an accent like a New Jersey paperboy. He pronounced Conecuh as “Koh-NEE-koo.”

That hurt.

Now entering Butler County. Wingard’s Produce Stand. B&H Cafe. Dollar General. There’s the McKenzie watertower.

And, God said, “Let there be kudzu.” I love kudzu. I planted some in my backyard in hopes that one day it would swallow my house. Everything looks better swallowed in kudzu.

Georgiana is eight miles away. I love it, too. I’ve visited the Hank Williams boyhood home in Georgiana too many times.

Anyone who knows me knows I love Hank. It goes back to childhood.

My father’s workbench. A radio. Hank, blaring from a small speaker while he changed the oil.

My favorite part of the Hank museum tour is the underside of the house. Miss Margaret says Hank used to practice his guitar there.

“It was cool down there,” says Miss Margaret. “He’d sit on an old car bench-seat to avoid the heat.”

Miss Margaret. I love her, too. She is old. Half her face is paralyzed. Her accent sounds like a Camellia garden on the Fourth of July. I wish she would adopt me.

Georgiana also has Kendall’s Barbecue joint. “Love” is a weak word for Kendall’s. I WOULD tell you more about this place, but someone wrote me an ugly letter last week, saying:

“You talk about Kendall’s TOO MUCH! I'm from Texas originally… I KNOW good barbecue, Alabama barbecue SUCKS, man!”

I understand Texas is beautiful this time of year. I’ll bet they’d throw a nice party if you went back.

I’m passing the Greenville and Pine Apple exit. Greenville is a town like Mayberry. I love it. Pine…

The tables sit loaded with church food. Casserole dishes. The kind of fare that requires a visit to the confessional after eating.

Chelsea, Alabama—this church is small with a capital “S”. The fellowship hall is a basement with ceilings low enough to graze my hair. The walls are painted rocks.

“Dug out this basement my ownself,” says the eighty-four-year-old man. “When I’s younger. Lotta sweat.”

He’s attended this church all his life. Long before the town was called Chelsea.

The tables sit loaded with church food. Casserole dishes. The kind of fare that requires a visit to the confessional after eating.

I’m standing in line, trying to decide between six different kinds of potato casserole.

At my table, I meet Doctor Brent. “Used’a practice country medicine,” he says. “Mostly, we delivered babies out in the sticks. You ever deliver a baby?”

No sir.

“It’s rock and roll, buddy,” he says. “The room looked like a hog-killing took place when we were done.”

One older woman adds, “My sister was born on our kitchen table.”

A few people nod.

I meet a man and woman in their mid-fifties. A nice-looking couple. He’s wearing a chef’s jacket, she’s in her Sunday best. They have a young daughter.

“I was in my fifties

when I got pregnant,” says his wife. “We were in total shock. Didn’t think I could ever have a baby.”

Her husband says, “Some of my friends were like, ‘A baby? At your age? Oh no, what’re you gonna do?’

“But my buddies in the kitchen were high-fiving me, saying, ‘You da MAN!’”

I high-fived him.

Because he’s the man.

I sit a few chairs down from Father Eric. He’s tall. Soft-spoken. He used to be a teacher in a previous life. We have things in common. Once, he was a hardworking man with bills. Today, he’s a hardworking man with bills who wears a collar.

He’s been here since last January.

“This place is like nowhere I’ve been,” he says. “These people are a family. I mean a REAL family.”

Before…

The Peanut Festival. We listened to music that makes grown men thirsty for Budweiser products. We spent our money on junk we’ll never use. We rode rides we were too old for.

It was a good year for a Peanut Festival. Sunny. Blue skies. A little chilly.

My wife and I walked rows of arts and crafts. We ate the kinds of food that give cardiologists panic attacks.

We listened to music that makes grown men thirsty for Budweiser products. We spent our money on junk we’ll never use. We rode rides we were too old for.

And I saw a girl.

Eight or nine years old, maybe. She was wandering. She had no adult with her. Her face looked worried.

I approached the girl and asked if she needed help.

She did not answer. She only took a step backward and started to run.

My wife squatted low and asked, “Honey, are you lost?”

She said, “I can't find my mom.”

No sooner had the girl gotten words out than her face busted open. She soaked my wife’s shoulder.

It was enough to break a stainless steel heart.

My wife asked if the girl was hungry. She yes-ma'amed.

So, I offered the girl my bag of deep-fried peanuts.

The little girl made a face

and said she didn't care for peanuts. I informed her she was at the wrong festival. Then, I bought her a nine-dollar deep-fried Snickers bar.

Nine dollars.

My wife took the girl to get her face painted while I went to find an official-looking person for help.

I found a man in uniform and brought him to the girl.

The uniform asked the girl where she’d last seen her mother.

Then, we walked in circles, trying to find the places she remembered.

She held hands with my wife.

I had heard the girl say: “Can you hold my hand? I don't wanna get lost again.”

We saw many things on our jaunt across the fairgrounds. Things you'd see at Anytown Festival USA. We saw young couples carrying oversized Panda bears. We saw families pushing strollers. Men in…

“You’re gonna be okay,” my mother said. “One day, you’ll look back and feel silly about this.”

DEAR SEAN:

My first day of school is tomorrow. I'm at a new school and don't know people and I’m scared. Mom says don't be because everyone always likes me.

FIRST-GRADE ‘FRAIDY CAT

DEAR ‘FRAIDY CAT:

My first day of kindergarten scared me. I thought it would be an awful lot like going to kiddy prison.

Namely, because they had schedules for everything. Schedules for eating. Schedules for recess. Schedules for the commode.

I cried when my mother walked me to the door.

“Please don’t make me go,” said I.

“You’re gonna be fine,” she said. “And when you look back on this day, you’ll feel silly.”

She was right. I feel silly.

School was big fun. Our teacher played piano and sang. She read stories. She taught us to use the john on command. I made my first paper Valentine. I tasted my first swig of Elmer’s.

Try not to worry because you'll have a lot of scary firsts in life, just like me.

For example: many years later,

Mama drove me to my first date—sort of. I was twelve.

Her name was Anne. She had naturally curly hair, and I liked her more than hand-cut onion rings.

I rode in Mother’s car, nervous. I wore my Sunday best, and I’d used so much Alberto V05 I resembled a Cupie doll whose hair had been dipped in mayhaw jelly and lit on fire.

I was trembling when we arrived at Anne's birthday party.

“You’re gonna be okay,” my mother said. “One day, you’ll look back and feel silly about this.”

Mama.

Then, I hit adulthood. I lived on my own. My mother got sick. Very sick. Doctors gave her some bleak…

She managed to hide her pregnancy from her parents that summer—she left town to live with a friend and worked a summer job.

She wasn’t a bad kid. She was seventeen, an all-American girl, pretty, the daughter of a Baptist pastor.

She got pregnant.

It happened so fast that it confused her. She thought she was in love. She wanted to marry him. She envisioned a small house, a decent neighborhood, shutters, hanging ferns, and a swing set in the backyard.

He told her he wanted to to have the pregnancy “taken care of.”

It broke her heart. She wanted to keep it. He pleaded with her to end it. She refused. He pushed.

He drove her to the clinic in a bad part of town. They sat in the car. She cried.

“I can’t do it,” she said.

“You HAVE to do it,” he said.

And so it went.

A big argument erupted. She jumped out of his car. He sped off.

She never told a soul about the baby.

In fact, she even managed to hide her pregnancy from her parents that summer—she left town to live

with a friend and worked a summer job.

She went into labor one July night. She remembers it like yesterday. She drove herself to the hospital.

It was a boy.

“Soon as I had him,” she said. “I wanted so bad to touch his face. That was an instinct, I think.”

But she wouldn't. She told nurses to take him away, or else she'd never say goodbye.

She called an adoption agency. She signed papers. They took the baby. She left the hospital the same way she came. Alone.

It was the hardest thing she ever did.

She grew up. She went to college, she pleased her parents. She got married to a man who loved…

I’m not supposed to be here. People like me are supposed to be other places. Maybe installing tile, hanging sheetrock, or swinging hammers. Instead, I’m riding Highway 274, behind a log truck at eight in the morning, writing this.

Mid-morning—my wife is driving us across the Old South. I am writing from the passenger seat. We do this a lot. She drives. I write.

There are log trucks ahead of us. Red flags, flying from the tips of fresh-cut pines, traveling fifty-one miles per hour.

I’m on my way to speak to a roomful of teachers in Altha, Florida—a community of five hundred folks.

Me. A child who grew up quick, who lost a father, who didn’t attend high school, who went to community college late in life. Speaking, as though I have anything to say.

It’s hard to believe. No. It’s humbling.

Last week, I spoke to an auditorium of folks. The stagelights made me sweat. I was there to tell stories, and that’s what I did.

My whole life, I believed I was below others. My father’s death did that to me. It made me different. Hard upbringings make different boys.

Anyway, I’m not supposed to be here. People like me are supposed to be other places.

Maybe installing tile, hanging sheetrock, or swinging hammers.

Instead, I’m riding Highway 274, behind a log truck at eight in the morning, writing this.

I get to meet people.

In North Georgia, for instance, I met a baby who was born without eyesight. I held that child and felt her breath on my neck.

I met a ninety-year-old who told me about gutting lizards and crows for supper during the Depression.

And in Atlanta, I talked to a group of children whose loved ones have killed themselves—like mine did.

An abused women’s shelter. A handful of coffee shops. Rotary Clubs. Kiwanis. A beer-and-billiard joint. O-Town Ice Cream Shoppe. A tiny church here. A small-town library there. A barbecue dive. A classroom. A…

He tells me he needs to look sharp for a wedding. His first wife is getting remarried. He’s a nervous wreck. He wants her to see him at his absolute best.

I’m trying on pants. It’s a department store, and I need something for a party.

The dressing room isn’t big enough to see my reflection. I step outside to look at myself in the three-way mirror.

I hear voices. A conversation. A father and a child are in the stall next to me.

“Do these pants look okay?” the adult voice says.

“They look good, Dad,” the boy says.

“You sure? I really want your mom to like’em, they feel kinda big.”
“They're good.”

“You don’t think they're saggy? They seem saggy. You know what, I’ll look at them in the full mirror.”

He leaves the stall and I see the man behind the voice.

He’s bone skinny. And bald. I step aside so he can look into the mirror. He is inspecting the fit of his slacks.

“They do look a little big,” I offer.

“Really?” he says. “I KNEW it.”
He tries on another pair. They fit much better.

He tells me he needs to

look sharp for a wedding. His first wife is getting remarried. He’s a nervous wreck. He wants her to see him at his absolute best.

And he doesn't feel his best.

“I’ve lost twenty-three pounds, man,” he says. “All my friends say I look sick.”

That's because he is sick. Colon cancer. He’s had two surgeries. He just finished chemo. He doesn’t want to talk about what he's gone through, and it's none of my business.

But he does say: “They tell you the nausea’s bad. Man, it’s worse than anything you’ll ever experience.”

Doctors just ran tests to see if treatments have gotten rid of it. He's got an appointment on Monday to get the results.

They flew into New York City first. They rented a car and set off for the Yellowhammer State—home of Spanish moss, live oaks, boiled-peanut stands, cotton fields, and mosquitoes big enough to kill most medium-sized house cats.

Mobile, Alabama—a bed and breakfast. It’s early morning. I am not a morning person. On a good day, it takes me a full sixteen hours to wake up.

There are two girls at the breakfast table. They are from France. Sisters.

They are young. Talkative. They speak English, with accents. They are eating triple the food I eat.

This is their first visit to Alabama.

“We NEVER visit this Deep South before,” says the girl who wears a camellia in her hair. “There is so much beauty. But it is SO hot.”

Hot. It’s only eighty-six outside. I could wear a wool sweater and jump rope in the attic without breaking a sweat.

They tell me their mother passed away a month ago. The girls are taking this trip—which their mother always wanted to take.

They’re here to honor her memory.

They flew into New York City first. They rented a car and set off for the Yellowhammer State—home of Spanish moss, live oaks, boiled-peanut stands, cotton fields, and mosquitoes big enough to kill most medium-sized house cats.

Yesterday, they hired a

guide to take them fishing in Mobile Bay. It was everything they’d hoped it would be.

“I catch my FIRST fish!” she says. “A beeg, beeg one! It was THIS beeg.”

She holds her hands out as far as she can.

“We even eat GRITS!” says her sister. “With cheese, they are so weird, these grits.”

If they were weird, they were instant, sister.

The girls traveled to Tuscumbia, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuskeegee, Selma, and Mobile.

They got their first American sunburns, they drank Ko-Kolas from glass bottles. They ate tomato sandwiches.

They just left Birmingham recently, where they spent two days. They were nervous in the big city.

“Our friends in France warn us that Birmingham is dangerous city,” she says. “That we must be VERY careful, or we get shot.”

I inform her that her friends…