His biological parents didn’t want anything to do with him. And this might’ve made him bitter, or angry, but his mama taught him otherwise.

Dothan, Alabama—the pollen is bad this time of year. I am stuffed up. My eyes are puffy.

He’s waiting for me in a parking lot. He’s traveling light. An overnight bag and an art kit. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. He needs a ride to Northwest Florida, for a family reunion.

I happen to be on my way to Northwest Florida.

Road trip.

I’m going to call him Willie Merle, even though that’s not his name—those happen to be two names I like.

Willie is easy to talk to. He’s wiry, gray-headed, smokes Marlboros, and has a happy smile.

His biological mother was negligent. When he was nine days old, she bathed him in turpentine. His aunt saw this happen. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and took him home.

His aunt adopted him and he never called her anything but “Mama” thereafter.

“She was my angel,” Willie said.

His biological parents didn’t want anything to do with him. And this might’ve made him bitter, or angry, but his mama taught him otherwise.

He tells me he’s

not perfect. He’s made mistakes—show me a man who hasn’t—but I’m not at liberty to talk about them here.

“I’m on probation,” he said. “That’s how come I ain’t got no license. Spent three weeks in county jail, wasn’t no fun. Had to wear orange and everything.

“I’ve hurt my friends and my family. Hell, I don’t feel like I deserve love from nobody.”

We passed through the miles of pasture between Dothan and the Panhandle. The sky was blue. The air was full of spring pollen.

He talked. I listened.

“Haven’t seen my brother and sisters in years,” he said with wet eyes. “My biggest regret is disappointing them. I want to make things right.”

He covers his eyes and sniffs.

Anyway, this weekend is not going to be a…

It was the worst day ever. And I’d just come off the heels of what had been the worst month ever.

I rear ended a Toyota. Six years ago. I was driving the highway, John Conlee was on the radio singing “Rose Colored Glasses.”

I can close my eyes and recall the whole scene. It had been a bad week. A bad year. And it got worse.

A car ahead of me slammed its brakes. The tailpipe came toward me so fast I didn’t have time to say: “Holy Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!”

The crash was loud. I blacked out.

When I awoke, I was lying in the median. Paramedics were around me. I couldn’t remember my name. I was out of it.

“You’re gonna be okay,” the EMT said. “You’re just in shock. And look on the bright side, kid, at least you didn’t poop your pants.”

Thank God for small blessings.

They rushed me to the ER. No broken bones. Only bruises. A doctor shined a light in my eyes and inspected my neurological reactions.

He was a white-haired man who said, “Say your ABC’s backward

for me, son.”

I closed my eyes and said, “‘Your ABC’s backward, son.’”

A good laugh was had by all—except the doctor, who charged an extra fourteen hundred bucks for laughter.

That night, I sat on the sofa with bruised ribs. The medication my wife had given me made me loopy, I was starting to see things. Julia Child, for instance, was on television, descaling a fish with a acetylene blowtorch.

I thought she was the loveliest woman I’d ever seen.

So my truck was totalled. My face was beat-up. My collarbone and ribs hurt.

It was the worst day ever. And I’d just come off the heels of what had been the worst month ever.

Weeks earlier, my longtime dream of becoming a writer had been squashed—I’d been rejected from an academic writing program.

AND: I had…

I would’ve told you that I believe in good things. Big things. Love, kindness, charity, compassion, and the Lonesome Dove miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

I was walking a sidewalk on Palafox Street. It was dusk. I saw the kid walking toward me with a buddy. He wore a necktie, khakis, and backpack.

They were passing out flyers. I noticed him from a mile away. I tried to avoid him. But he nailed me.

The red letters on his paper flyer read: “Heaven or Hell?”

Then the kid said, “Do you know where you’re spending eternity, sir?” Then he told me all about the hot place where I would probably be going.

A fine howdy-do.

Things got quiet. I thought it was wise to keep my mouth shut, since no particularly sweet words were coming to mind.

The truth is, I can’t recall ever being told that I’m bound for Hell. In times past, however, certain people have suggested that I visit.

I wish I would’ve answered the kid, but he left before I had a chance to respond. So, on the off chance he’s reading this, I’m answering you now, friend.

For starters: I wish you would’ve asked me what I believed instead of where I’ll be staying after I kick the oxygen habit.

I would’ve enjoyed a question like that.

I would’ve told you that I believe in good things. Big things. Love, kindness, charity, compassion, and the Lonesome Dove miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.


I would’ve also told you about a bar fight I once saw as a young man. It happened in a beer joint in the sticks of South Alabama

A skinny kid and a large man resembling a gorilla were about to rip each other’s eyeballs out. A crowd circled around them, holding beer bottles, hollering.

I bet ten bucks on the big fella.

Before the fight began, an old man stepped between the boxers. He took one blow to the jaw.…

Years ago, I wrote my first book. I wondered why I’d done such a silly thing. After all, I was thinking to myself, who really cares if I write a book?

Brewton, Alabama—the Huddle House restaurant is busy tonight. There are teenagers all over. A few wear formal clothes and styled hair.

Brewton’s prom was a few hours ago.

One girl wears white satin. The boy next to her wears a tux. Their smiles could be used in Colgate advertisements.

If there’s anything happier than youth, I wish I knew what it was.

So this is Brewton. Some visitors might drive through town and remark: “What a cute town.” Or they might say: “Those old houses are pretty.”

And even though the antebellum homes on Belleville Avenue are worth slowing down for, this place is more than houses.

This place means something to me. I’ll tell you why:

For starters, look at the railroad, cutting through the center of the downtown. Listen to the train whistle. I’m a sucker for trains.

The old storefronts on Saint Joseph Avenue. They haven’t changed in a million years. The flatiron building that was once Holman’s Pharmacy—which later became Old Willie’s.

Go have a look

at the new middle school. You’ll meet teachers with thick accents. And Miss Leola—the lunch lady whose tea is sweet enough to power chainsaws.

The redhead principal. A woman who has memorized a list of names longer than the Lamb’s Scroll of Life.

Visit the high school. It will make you believe in society again. Go to a football game on a Friday night during the height of the season. When the T.R. Miller Tigers take the field, you’ll go deaf.

I wish I would’ve grown up here, but I didn’t—I’ve wished for a lot of things that never came true. But this place has a way of making up for ungranted wishes.

Years ago, I wrote my first book. I wondered why I’d done such a silly thing. After all, I was thinking to myself, who really cares…

Everyone loves her stories. Especially children. Those in her family recall sitting on this porch, listening to her gentle voice—like I’m doing. Here, they shucked corn, or shelled white acre peas.

A back porch. I’m with an elderly woman named Jenny. She’s sitting on a genuine rocking chair.

“Wish I were shelling peas,” says Miss Jenny. “I tell better stories when I’m shelling.”

This is how you know you’ve made it in life. When you find yourself on a porch—shelling, peeling, shucking, or listening to someone over eighty tell a story.

Miss Jenny has cotton-white hair, blue eyes. She lives in a house which her husband built after the Korean War.

Everyone loves her stories. Especially children. Those in her family recall sitting on this porch, listening to her gentle voice—like I’m doing. Here, they shucked corn, or shelled white acre peas.

“Daddy was a part-time preacher,” she tells me. “He told stories, always had him a good one.”

Long ago, people visited her father for advice. Folks with drinking problems, people with marriages on the rocks.

Her father didn’t provide “help.” Instead, he took them fishing. On the water, he’d tell stories.

“Daddy used to say, ‘Going fishing can help a man more than

a bellywash of cheap medicine.’”

Bellywash. I miss words like that.

Miss Jenny’s breathing is labored, her voice is frail. But she spins a fine yarn.

She’s the real thing. Her stories are about olden days, clapboard churches, and a childhood with skinned knees.

She even tells stories about her cat.

“Kitty Brown was chasing Blue Bird one day,” she begins. “Blue Bird lured Kitty high into a tree, then flew away. Poor Kitty was stuck up there for two days before anyone knew he was up there.”

She laughs to herself.

She goes on, “Moral of my cat story is: all kitties should be happy on the ground instead of chasing things they shouldn’t.”

And I’m five years old again. Someone get me a sucker.

Then there’s the tale of her grandfather and the…

I met a seven-year-old girl who was in the audience. Her name was Emily. She was small and shy. She handed me a handwritten note.

Ozark, Alabama—the weekend. It’s late. I’m at an Applebee’s because it’s the only place still open. There are a few men at the bar, drinking alone. They look exhausted.

The food here is barely passable. The beer is cold. Our waitress is named Amber. Amber looks tired.

My wife and I are here with our friend Katie. You’d like Katie. She’s a hospice nurse, a priest’s wife, a mother. Women like her should be wearing capes and tiaras. She gives good hugs.

I am tired tonight. An hour ago, I spoke at the First United Methodist Church of Ozark. I’m surprised they even let me through the front doors.

I’m not a Methodist, you see. In fact, I’m not sure what I am.

After speaking, I met a seven-year-old girl who was in the audience. Her name was Emily. She was small and shy. She handed me a handwritten note.

On her letter it read: “From Emily, your number-one fan.” It was written in purple ink.


placed it into my pocket.

Emily gave me a good hug.

Good hugs are getting harder to find, if you ask me. Not everybody gives them, you know. I’ve had my share of crummy embraces.

Some folks give weak hugs. Others shrink away—raising serious questions about my breath. Some older men slap you on the back hard enough to stunt your growth. My uncle, for instance, is a notorious slapper.

Emily hugged me hard. And I noticed her wiping a few tears from her eyes. Then she was gone.

I was one of the last to leave the church. I packed my things. The building was empty. I walked past an open door in a hallway.

I passed a small chapel. I peeked into the empty room. The lights were off. The stained glass was pretty. The chapel had an old-fashioned…

So I hope you feel important. I hope you get some good news. I hope you sleep good. I hope you see some good weather.

I used bad grammar in public. And it gets worse. I did it in front of an English teacher. He almost suffered a stroke in the middle of Target. I should’ve known better. It was a careless mistake.

Here’s how it happened. I shook his hand and said the worst formed sentence in history: “I hope you’re doing good.”


My friend, an esteemed college professor, made a face.

“You hope I'm ‘doing GOOD?’” he said. “That’s HORRIBLE grammar. I thought you were a writer.”

A writer. Well, as it happens, I’m more of a saturated fat appreciator than I am a writer.

People who eat like I do, also use bad grammar from time to time. And okasionaly i eaven mispel sum wirds.

But of course, I know the rules. Our sixth grade teacher instructed us to never say things like: “I hope you are good.”

She taught us the correct way to say: “I hope you are WELL.”

Then, if you want to

really impress your socialite friends, graciously lift your pinky finger while taking a sip from your Natural Light.

But teachers don’t know everything. After all, my sixth grade teacher once told us Pluto was a planet. She was dead-wrong.

I might be a C-student, but even I know that scientists proved Pluto is not a full-fledged planet. Pluto, you see, is one of seven documented “dwarf planets” which orbit the “Snow White” galaxy, discovered in 1492 by Sir Elton John.

So, grammatical errors aside, the reason I am writing this is because I hope you are “doing GOOD” today.


It’s my favorite word. And I hope everything is GOOD for you. I hope things come easy. I hope you eat a GOOD breakfast. I hope you feel GOOD. I hope you hear a GOOD song on the radio.

And when you hear…

When they cry, squeeze their hands. When they moan, rub their backs. When they double over and sob about the injustice of it all, Lord, cry with them.

I heard it on the radio last night. I was driving. When the announcer said it, I pulled over.

The radio voice explained that a shooting had happened at UAB Highlands Hospital in Birmingham. One woman dead. A young man injured. The shooter did himself in.

UAB Highlands. The same hospital my wife has visited. The same building, same waiting rooms, same vending machines, the same weak coffee.

Nancy Swift died. She was 63. 28-year-old Tim Isley was the other victim.

While I write this, Tim isn’t doing well.

I’ve never met Nancy or Tim. And their stories are none of my business—there’s a lot that isn’t my business. But, I want to say something, if I may.

Dear Lord:

You have no reason to listen to me. I know that billions of other messages are filling your inbox while you read this. And I know you’re very busy.

I’ll make this quick.

If there’s any real magic in you, like the preachers say, use it. Send it to the families who need


That’s what I ask.

Do your thing. Do it big. Throw your weight around. Help the grieving feel strong. Make Tim Isley all better. Give the families of the victims all sorts of things to believe in.

It’s hard to believe in anything this day and age, God. I don’t know if you know this. After all, you’re not human like we are. We’re frail. We lose hope too easily.

So that family needs you to do something. Make some miracles in the sky, give them special dreams, do something incredible. Let them see beauty. Let them feel something other-worldly.

I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud here. You’re the one with all the ideas.

Anyway, remind them to eat. It’s easy to forget food during a time like this. And help them get plenty…

She is powerful and gentle. She is a classroom hero. A doctor, a nurse, a waitress, a teacher, a custodian, an artist, writer, singer, or poet. She is a mother, a granny, an advice giver.

“You’re fat.” That’s what a classmate told freshman, Cassidy Torres, in P.E. class. A boy said it. And it’s too bad he didn’t get his hindparts worn out.

It all happened in a gymnasium. Students were standing in a single-file line. They were doing body-mass-index calculations with calipers and measuring tapes.

Cassidy’s numbers were higher than the recommended baseline. You can only imagine the laughs and animal sounds that followed.

The aforementioned boy made a comment. Cassidy was in tears.

Amd you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking. Which is: “Great, just what every insecure freshman needs. Calipers.”

Well, not that it matters what I think—because it doesn’t—but I don’t think measuring the bellies of high-schoolers qualifies as gym class.

What ever happened to good old-fashioned P.E.? I’m talking sadistic American games like dodgeball, unsupervised rope-climbing, and of course, lawn darts.

But measuring body fat in public? I wouldn’t wish that experience on even the worst IRS agent—let alone a shy freshman.

Anyway, to dig up more answers on this matter, I interviewed noted expert, and acclaimed commentator on

adolescent issues—my friend’s daughter, Kayleigh.

Kayleigh is your typical sophomore. She’s in chorus, math club, and on a volleyball team. She likes Dr. Pepper, Cheese Nips, rap, Labradors, and she thinks she’s fat.

I asked Kayleigh why she thought this. She had a lot to say on the matter. Her answer:


My guest today has been Kayleigh Williamson.

The thing is, Kayleigh is as lean as they come. And she can bench press her bodyweight. Her mother has a theory.

Her mother points to the magazines on Kayleigh’s nightstand and says, “Those dumb magazines are messing with her mind.”

Kayleigh shows me one such beauty magazine. The cover model features a young woman who weighs less than a rice cake in a water shortage, with abs sharp enough to grate parmesan.

She offered him a smoke. He thanked her. He tinkered beneath her car with a ratchet—cigarette wedged in his lips. She held the flashlight steady.

She reads the Bible every morning. She also smokes off-brand cigarettes. To a lifelong Methodist like her, the two go hand in hand.

She’s eighty-four and frail. She digs a cigarette from a carton, her daughter lights it. The doctor says she shouldn’t smoke, but the Good Lord understands.

She tells a story.

“After my husband left us,” she begins, “I was raising my kids, doing all I could to survive. He left me with eighteen bucks in our bank account—no lie.”

Then, the worst. One day, she walked into work and her boss fired her.

Instead of crying, she lost her temper. She attacked him. She threw a lunch bucket at him. She landed several good slaps to his face. Her friends pulled her away.

This woman is a regular barrel of gunpowder.

That night, she loaded her children into a station wagon and drove straight for her sister’s in South Carolina. Radio blasting. Cigarettes burning.

“I was crying,” she says. “And worried about everything, I was sick.”

Her car broke down somewhere outside Athens, Georgia. Two in the morning. An empty highway. Not a soul for miles.

Her station wagon sat in a ditch. Her children were in the backseat, asleep. She leaned against her steering wheel and the tears came.

This was rock bottom.

Her sobbing was interrupted by the sound of transfer truck brakes. A big rig pulled behind her. Earth-shaking engine. Headlights blaring.

A man stepped out of the cab and walked toward her.

“I was scared,” she says. “Here I was, a young woman, middle of nowhere, and this man comes walking up.”

He was tall. She remembers this very clearly. And older.

He asked if she needed help. She told him what had happened, using a nervous voice.

His smile put her at ease. He said, “Pop the hood, ma’am. Lemme…