Anyway, I’m not a boy anymore. I’m braver, and I’m happier, and I’ve learned a lot about me. I’ve known happiness in many different forms. And kindness. Today, I am a grown-up. A skinny, long-legged redhead with freckles.

Louisiana—I’m driving a sunny highway. The weather is perfect. The cane fields are brilliant green.

I am going to visit my father’s grave.

I still have a long way left to go—four more states left, to be exact.

Louisiana highways are jagged. When I was eighteen, I drove these highways to Dallas in a ‘79 Ford. The uneven roads were so bad they nearly rattled my truck apart and gave me permanent drain bamage.

Daddy rests fourteen thousand feet above sea-level in Colorado. His ashes are part of a mountainside. We scattered him when I was a boy. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t been back since.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve meant to visit, but I haven’t. I don’t know why.

My father was a stick welder. He traveled wherever work was good. Work led him to Colorado, as a young man. He lived there in a trailer. He always said he loved that period of his life.

He used to talk about those days and tell me

things that I was too young to understand:

“Every man needs to find himself,” he once told me. “And that mountain’s where I found me. When I die, it’s where I wanna be scattered.”

He only said it in passing, but it was stenciled into my mind.

Mama said he lost weight in Colorado. She said he ate a steady diet of canned beans and beer. When Mama went to visit him, she said he was so skinny he only needed one back pocket.

She tried to fatten him up, but that was impossible. Daddy was a long-legged, red headed sack of bones. He had freckles that weighed more than he did.

I was angry with him after he pulled his own curtain. I wasn’t furious, mind you. I felt the same kind of anger you’d feel when you bite your tongue…

So I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for. I hope you have a few loyal friends. I hope that while reading this, you feel warm for a few minutes.

I almost didn’t write this. Every time I typed a sentence, I felt like I’d written something incredibly stupid. Then, I’d hit backspace and mumble words not fit for network television.

But, I’ve typed this far, I might as well keep going.

See, I think about you sometimes. It’s not deep thought, mind you. After all, I’ve never met you. But for all I know you are just like me.

Namely, I wonder if you ever feel alone. I wonder if you think you’re drifting through this world by yourself. I know what this feeling is like.

When I was a teenager, we once lived in a twenty-six-foot trailer, right after my father passed. I wondered if anyone would ever take care of us again. When you lose someone, you think about things like that.

At the trailer park, there was an elderly couple named Tom and Norma. Tom smoked three packs per day, and did maintenance work on trailers in the park.

One day, I helped him repair a hot water heater.

He had a cigarette hanging from his lips.

Tom said, “You know, you ain’t the only one.”

“Huh?” I said.

“You ain’t alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“My daddy died when I’s your age. And so did lots of people’s daddies. You ain’t alone.”

I’ve never forgotten that.

Some people are obsessed with happiness. They want to feel so giddy that their toenails fall off and their cheek muscles pop. That’s fine, I guess. But happiness doesn’t last long. It never does.

One moment it’s here; the next, it’s heading back to wherever it came from.

But being UN-alone, now that’s something better than happiness. A fella could get used to feeling like that.

I hope you feel that way. I hope you figure out how UN-alone you are.

Like the woman…

After supper, Andrea brings a slice of key lime pie for dessert. She stabs a candle in the top. She lights it. We sing “Happy Birthday.”

The seafood joint is busy. There are people everywhere. We are waiting for a table. It’s Mother Mary’s 78th birthday.

The place is overrun with beach tourists. These are typical American families. Families with husbands who drive hundreds of miles in minivans, with screaming children, angry wives, incontinent dogs, and moderately Satanic mothers-in-law.

Studies have proven that mothers-in-law are the leading cause of beer among North American males who own minivans.

But not my mother-in-law.

I’m lucky, I guess. She’s different. She hails from Brewton, Alabama, and she is more sophisticated than a napkin ring. She’s the sort who wears pearls to check her mailbox.

She is in good spirits tonight. Her hair is fixed, her makeup is perfect, her walker has just been WD-Fortied. Her hearing aid batteries are brand new.

Our waitress is named Andrea, I happen to know her. She is a good woman. When Mother Mary sees Andrea coming, she tells my wife, “Jamie, I want to order the alligator.”

But it’s hard to hear in this loud room. Jamie asks: “What’d you say, Mother?”

Mary adjusts her hearing aid. “Say that again, Jamie, I couldn’t hear you.”

“I said, ‘What was that you said, Mother?’”

Mary smiles. “I said, ‘Say that again, Jamie, I couldn’t hear you.’”

“I KNOW that’s what you said, Mother, I wasn’t asking you about that.”

“Huh?”

“It’s time to order food.”

“You did what?”

“MOTHER, ARE YOU GOING TO ORDER SOMETHING TO EAT?”

“My feet? They hurt something awful, I believe it’s time for a little toenail trim.”

“EAT! EAT! MOTHER!”

“Huh?”

“EATEATEATEATEATEATEATEAT!”

Andrea, I’ll have a beer please.

We start with an appetizer of alligator. Mother Mary loves alligator. She takes a bite and says, “You know, alligators eat so many humans, isn’t it empowering to eat one of them for a change?”

“Empowering. Yes, ma’am,” I say.…

Another day; another shooting. One group of people screams at a another. It’s hard to tell the difference between nice folks and the other kind. It’s difficult to know what to believe.

She lost her best friend. It happened yesterday.

He was a good boy. Fourteen years old. He was always beside her. When she ate supper. When she watched television. When she used the restroom. He even slept on the floor near her bed.

He was a Labrador, and then some. The biggest in his litter of twelve. His shoulders were wide, his neck was a column of muscle.

He wasn’t a playful dog, but he was happy. He was gentle. He liked children, chewing, lying in the sun, he loved tomatoes. He enjoyed walks, but only short ones. He seemed to go crazy over “Downton Abbey.”

He could eat more than any dog she’d ever seen. He was a garbage disposal with a tail.

When she worked nights in a commercial kitchen, he waited for her to get home. She’d arrive after work, he would be seated at the front door, squealing.

She would bring him things from work. The spoils of her occupation. Fish guts, lamb

fat, chicken gristle, and sacred ground beef.

And he loved her for it.

But she owed it to him—and then some. He’d seen her through hard times. He knew her emotions like a roadmap. He knew when she was sad, happy, or angry before anyone else did.

When her father died, he crawled on a sofa and placed his hundred-pound body in her lap. It almost crushed her.

“I love you,” is what he was actually saying. Which is the only thing dogs know how to say—except: “Feed me right now or I’ll poop in the kitchen.”

He was with her when she lost her job. He was with her when she moved houses. He was with her when she passed a class, certifying her as a teacher. He was with her when her mother was ill.

Yesterday, she took him to the vet.…

“People thought I’s crazy,” the old woman says. “They all told me: ‘You’re not even married, you don’t have kids, you don’t even know what you’re doing. But I told them all where they could—”

Winn-Dixie—they remodeled this store not long ago. It’s something else. A little too fancy, if you ask me.

I’ve been shopping here since the old days. Back then, it was your average supermarket. Linoleum floors, decent beef, clinically depressed cashiers.

Today, they have deli counters that sell salmon sushi. I’d rather lick the restroom floor than eat salmon sushi.

The woman behind me in the checkout line is old. She is frail, with white hair, and big glasses. She is every American granny you’ve ever seen. I’ll bet the closest she ever came to sushi was a wild night at the Baptist clothing swap.

She is holding onto her daughter for support.

Her daughter is Hispanic—black hair, dark skin, late fifties. The two women couldn’t look more different.

They have a full cart. They have purchased all the usual supermarket fare. Chicken, tuna cans, jars of peanut butter, Duke’s mayonnaise, Colonial Bread, and enough paper towels to sink the U.S.S. Uruguay.

We make friends.

The old woman tells me about herself.

She adopted her Hispanic daughter when the girl was three. The toddler had been abandoned at a shopping complex. The child didn’t understand English, and she was sick with a chest infection.

“She almost died,” the old woman says. “I had to do something to help.”

The old woman met the girl at a foster facility. Some of the her church friends used to visit local foster homes to give attention to needy children.

“There were only a few of us who did that,” the old woman goes on. “We were so young. We’d hold the babies, play games, read stories, sing to’em sometimes. You know, mom stuff.”

Mom stuff.

“Kids need touching to survive,” the lady adds. “It’s been proven. Look it up.”

I’ll have to do that.

Anyway, she couldn’t put the toddler…

She’s a woman. So help me, a woman. She has a husband, a daughter, a good job. I don’t know how she survived our sad childhood without getting hurt. God knows, it wasn’t easy.

I was the second person to hold her. Daddy said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t drop her.”

She looked like a white bullfrog. She smelled like vanilla and grass clippings. I promised I’d take care of her forever.

That was harder than it sounded. This girl grew into a kid who did reckless things.

She used to leap off round hay bales, flapping her arms, yelling, “CATCH ME!”

She liked to see how long she could hold her breath underwater. She climbed trees that were too high. She ate too much bacon.

Her first word was, “NO!” Her second word was “NONONO!” She used these words when I tried to force an oyster past her lips.

She pitched a fit.

I’d never known anyone who didn’t like oysters. They were the food of our forefathers. Our ancestors consumed oysters when they learned the War Between the States was over.

She was four when Daddy died. The morning of his death, I sobbed alone on our back porch. She crawled onto my lap.

“Don’t cry,” she said.

I did anyway.

We took care

of each other. I did her laundry and taught her how to fry bacon. And when our dog had puppies, I showed her how to hold them—there’s an art to handling newborn pups.

Once, I rented a library book on French-braiding. She let me practice until her hair resembled overcooked spaghetti.

She tried out for the school play. I attended her audition. She was nervous, and the smug drama teacher told her she had no talent.

I’m a quiet man, but I wasn’t that day. I called the teacher a greasy communist who didn’t love the Lord.

Throughout her high-school years, she worked different jobs. Once, she worked in an ice-cream shop. Each day, I’d clock out of my job and visit her.

When the store was slow, she gave me ice cream for free—with Heath Bar…

He turned into the graveyard. He explored the headstones in the glow of his headlights. He didn’t know why he was there.

His wife died. It was sudden. One day life was good; the next day he was picking out urns.

They say he gave up living, which is probably why he lost his job, fell behind on rent, and missed his electric bill. They repossessed his storage unit. He got evicted. It was one thing after another.

He was broke—without a pot to you-know-what in. All he had left were two kids, and an urn.

And one Datsun truck covered in rust.

He didn’t like himself. Homelessness will do that to a man. He decided to leave town. He would stay with his uncle in Atlanta to get on his feet again.

The first night on the road was spent at a rundown motel. The next night was spent in the bed of his truck with his kids. He was running out of money fast.

He held the urn while he drove. His kids slept in the seat beside him. And he thought about her. He talked to

her sometimes.

He spoke in a whisper, careful not to wake his kids. While talking to her, he noticed his gas tank was on “E.”

He pulled off the highway. He had a few dollars left to his name. On the way to the filling station, something caught his eye.

It was an ancient cemetery, just down a dirt road—the kind with iron fencing, crooked headstones, and live oaks.

He turned into the graveyard. He explored the headstones in the glow of his headlights. He didn’t know why he was there.

And that’s when he saw it.

It was a headstone with his wife’s name on it. Her first and last name. He almost choked. He bent low and inspected it. The dates were different, but it was her name, along with four engraved words:

“‘Til we meet again.”

What are…

Well, she must not have cared because I had none. I was a blue-collar nothing with a nothing-future ahead of me. I had no high-school education. No achievements. No pot to you-know-what in, and no plant to pour it on. And not much confidence.

The sun was coming up. We rode toward Charleston, doing sixty-five miles per hour in a two-seat truck.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” said my new wife.

“Me neither.”

In my wallet: two hundred dollars cash. It was all I had. I earned it by selling my guitar, one week earlier.

My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

Well, she must not have cared because I had none. I was a blue-collar nothing with a nothing-future ahead of me. I had no high-school education. No achievements. No pot to you-know-what in, and no plant to pour it on. And not much confidence.

Until her.

She unfolded a roadmap on the dashboard. My truck radio played a Willie Nelson cassette. I was married.

Married. Things were looking up.

We arrived at a cheap motor-inn. She took a shower while I watched the idiot box. Andy Griffith was on.

I’d seen the episode a hundred times. Barney makes Otis jump rope to prove he’s sober. You know the

rest. Crisis. Cliffhanger. Andy saves the day. Roll credits.

I made reservations at an upscale restaurant where the waiter pulls the chairs out for you. I wore the only necktie I owned.

We ate food I could not afford. I paid a hundred bucks—plus tip. We walked the streets, arm in arm.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” she said.

Then: the sound of horse hooves. A carriage. A man stepped out and groomed his animals on the sidewalk.

My wife remarked how pretty the horses were.

I asked how much he charged for rides.

“Hundred bucks,” he said.

I handed him my remaining wad of cash. “How much will this buy?”

He thought about it. “How’s ten minutes sound?”

We covered ourselves with a blanket. He carted us through the streets. We saw hotels where…

The sign has been out of commission for a long time. Without it, the interstate has been nothing but a den of iniquity.

The Devil Billboard is back. The world-famous religious sign hangs beside I-65 just like it did forever-ago. And I’m glad about it.

The billboard sits outside Prattville. It looks as pretty as always. It displays the image of a cheerful, fun-loving Satan—who bears a striking resemblance to my Uncle Tommy Lee.

For nearly thirty years, the sign has been warning motorists to:

“Go to Church or the Devil Will Get You.”

The sign has been out of commission for a long time. Without it, the interstate has been nothing but a den of iniquity.

Now the sign is back. My wife and I just saw it. It’s pure nostalgia.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t BELIEVE the sign. But the point here is: the billboard is back, and so are the memories.

The earliest memory I have of the billboard was when I was riding in the backseat of my aunt’s car. My aunt pointed out the window and said, “Look, there’s the Devil! Doesn’t he

look just like your Uncle Tommy Lee?”

My cousin and I laughed.

It was true. The billboard featured a red creature with lanky legs, a tail, and a face that looked like Uncle Tommy Lee at a Wednesday night foot-washing service.

My cousin and I would wave at Beelzebub, yelling, “Hey, Uncle Tommy Lee!”

And, each time we passed the sign, my aunt would discuss the finer points of the Rapture. She would end her mini-sermons by playing a Bill Gaither Greatest Hits cassette.

Then, she would ask if we had sins we needed to confess. She would play the music at an earsplitting volume until we started repenting.

So we invented sins to repent of, or else we would’ve been subjected to “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” all the way to Greenland.

And these were my people. They believed…

But you can’t control Thelma. She enjoys chewing more than she enjoys peeing. In fact, chewing is her God-given talent you could say.

I am operating a barbecue grill. I’m making burgers and it’s not easy because I have a wild puppy named Thelma Lou who cannot sit still.

She is ten weeks old. Her paws are bigger than her head, her ears drag on the ground. She pees whenever the spirit moves.

And right now, she is chasing a neighborhood kid named Tyler, who is babysitting her. I’ve paid Tyler ten dollars to entertain her.

And he’s entertaining, all right. She is a speeding black-and-tan blur, only visible by high-tech slow-motion cameras. And she’s his problem right now.

I gave Tyler simple instructions:

“Make sure she goes pee pee,” I said.

This is of congressional importance because Thelma Lou has been known to get so excited she pees on me for kicks.

Anyway, I am sporting an apron my wife bought me. On the front it reads: “I like pig butts and I cannot lie.”

I’m no grill master, but I make okay hamburgers. It took me

a whole year to perfect my recipe. It’s not complicated, but it takes concentration. And you can’t concentrate while babysitting a puppy.

Believe me, I tried this a few days ago. I ended up chasing the black-and-tan streak across the Southeast United States. I ran with a spatula held above my head, hollering: “Quit that!” And: “Stop chewing my wallet!” And: “Get away from that dead possum!”

But you can’t control Thelma. She enjoys chewing more than she enjoys peeing. In fact, chewing is her God-given talent you could say.

If, for instance, I were to enter Thelma in one of those TV-show talent contests, Thelma would win.

“... And thanks for watching America’s Most Talented Pets, folks. Our next contestant is Thelma Lou. Thelma will disassemble a Stradivarius cello using only her teeth, then urinate on its remains while howling ‘Moon River’ in…