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…

This world is trying to break you. And I don’t care how much money advertisers spend to make you feel bad about you. It’s horse manure.

This is one exceptional girl. A senior. She makes good grades, she is lightning sharp, and kindhearted.

A little about her: she can throw a baseball, pick guitar, make jewelry, drive a stick shift, and sew her own clothes.

She is pretty, humble, studious, loyal. She has a future so bright she needs sunscreen.

And a few days ago, her parents checked her into a clinic for eating disorders.

I'm not at liberty to tell her story, so I'll stop here.

But I don’t mind telling you that I’m not happy about what’s happening to women.

I don't like what television is doing to them. And I don’t care for what fashion magazines, underwear ads, music producers, and Hollywood stylists are up to, either.

Turn on a TV. The commercials all shout the same message:

“You’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too hippy, too flat, too broad-faced, too big-nosed, too gray. Your complexion is bad, you have a turkey neck, ugly ankles, you need a facelift, your hindparts need augmentation.”

Also:

Your house is a wreck, your kids dress like chimney sweeps, your

old vacuum sucks, your husband is a minimum-wage loser, and your abs will never resemble the midsection of a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian gymnast.

So, I’m writing to the opposite sex. Every last girl, woman, and granny.

To Bobbi—who feels like the fattest, ugliest girl in her middle-school. Who gets made fun of.

To Catherine—whose husband of fifteen years left her for someone younger.

To Angelica—who’s been clinically depressed, struggling with self-esteem.

I’m writing Cassidy—the thirty-two-year-old with diabetes, who can’t seem to gain weight.

And to Michelle—single mother and nurse, who just had back surgery. Michelle is lying in bed while her sister takes care of her kids.

Katelyn—a girl once abused by her stepdad. Who can sing the yellow lines off a highway. Who's getting married this month.

To sixteen-year-old Mila, whose family migrated here…

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class.

She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in…

Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards. You’re young, pretty, healthy. You’re supposed to be happy. Instead, you’re a few dimes shy of homelessness.

You’re a single mother. Your name is Deidra. Your wallet has three bucks in it. You have an old Visa gift card with twelve dollars left on it.

Something bad happened today.

It wasn’t because of anything you did. It’s because you’re in your late-thirties, and teenagers can do your job cheaper. They cut your hours. Management’s way of firing you.

You reacted. You let your manager have it. You called him an awful name. You wish you could take it back.

You cry in your car. You wipe your face. Then cry again. You wait for your kids to exit the free daycare.

And here you are, sorting mail while you wait. Power bill. Water bill. Cellphone bill. Cable. Insurance. It never ends.

Your kids run toward you. There are kisses, hugs. You notice how tall your oldest is. Your nine-year-old colored a picture.

They talk loud and happy.

You're thinking about what’s inside your refrigerator for supper. A few slices of bologna, half a liter of Coke, old carrots, two eggs.

You

look in your purse. The gift card.

You drive to a pizza buffet. It’s six bucks for your oldest, four bucks for the youngest—not counting soda.

You slide your card and hold your breath.

Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards.

You’re young, pretty, healthy. You’re supposed to be happy. Instead, you’re a few dimes shy of homelessness.

After the meal, you leave eighty-four cents for a tip. That’s all the loose change you have—you're saving your last three dollars.

You drive. Your gas gauge is on E.

You’re humiliated. That’s how poverty works. It embarrasses a person, until…

Anyway, today I hope someone you love tells you how they feel about you—even if you already know it. And I double-hope they show you. No. I triple-hope it. Quadruple-hope. Times infinity.

I hope you have a good day today. I don’t mean an oh-my-God-I-won-the-lottery kind of day. That would be too much euphoria for one afternoon.

No, I hope you have a plain, old-fashioned good day.

Like when an old friend calls and you talk for three hours. Or when you hear “Always On My Mind” on the radio.

I hope you meet someone who impresses you. Like the man I met at Lowe’s yesterday.

He had no legs and one arm. He drove a motorized wheelchair. He was buying supplies to fix his bathroom sink. His young son walked beside him.

We had a conversation, waiting in line. Before I left, the man shook my hand and said, “Hey man, I hope you have a good day.”

Me.

Anyway, today I hope someone you love tells you how they feel about you—even if you already know it. And I double-hope they show you. No. I triple-hope it. Quadruple-hope. Times infinity.

May you get kissed by a

dog, a kid, or anyone with white hair. I hope you kiss back. Kisses get hard to come by once you get lines on your face.

I hope you forget about people who did you wrong. And when you try to recall painful times, I hope you can’t remember a damn one.

I hope you think about your granddaddy. Or your granny. Anyone who called you, “child,” “young’un,” or, “baby.” And may you remember what kind of simple world this place was when you were young.

I hope you feel important.

And I hope someone tells you how nice you look. It’s good to feel attractive. And, by God, you are.

I hope you eat something rich. I’m talking food your doctor warns you about. Such…

Thank you for the letter. We had a cat once. Her name was Rascal Lovebug Sassy Martin Dietrich. She had white and gray fur, green eyes, and the disposition of a cynical rattlesnake.

I’m reading a letter written by eight-year-old Bentley, from South Carolina. The letter is written with superb penmanship:

“My mom said to ask you if I can have a cat,” says Bentley. “...I’m nice to animals and they all like me… And my mom says they are work and please tell my mom I can have a cat!”

Bentley, thank you for the letter. We had a cat once. Her name was Rascal Lovebug Sassy Martin Dietrich. She had white and gray fur, green eyes, and the disposition of a cynical rattlesnake.

Long ago, my wife found her as a kitten on the side of the road. The thing was small enough to fit in someone’s palm.

Rascal took a long time to warm up to humans. In fact, she used to hide beneath our bed during the daylight hours like any normal, domestic vampire.

She'd hiss at those walking by and attempt to draw blood from anything entering her line of vision.

Finally, she'd traipse out of the bedroom around suppertime. Then, she'd sit on our dining

table and stare at our dinner plates.

I would feel sorry for her. So, I'd offer her food. She'd thumb her nose at it, prance into the bedroom, and relieve herself on my pillow.

So we can see cats are unpredictable. In fact, for a long time, I wondered whether Rascal liked me. I know she did.

She was not a bad cat. She was merely a unique creature.

Eventually, Rascal became my friend. She’d even watch football games with me. She’d sit on the sofa. When I’d scream at the TV, she’d whip her tail along with my hollering.

And, each morning when I'd write at my desk, she’d sleep on my lap, curled tight. I came to love that.

I loved it so much, I found it hard to write without her.

Rascal lived for twenty years. That’s a long…

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood, tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

Reeltown, Alabama—I don’t know how old he is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs at their vegetable stand. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it's hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood, tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

“I’m a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not

overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fire and lived without electricity.

When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep-South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty-stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he's helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know we loves’em,” he said. “Want my whole life to belong to people who just need to know someone loves’em.”

He’s shows me a wall of license plates. Rusted car tags…

I pass bumpy creek bridges—I have to slow down to drive across. There’s a crumbling red house—probably older than the late great Kathryn Tucker Windham.

It’s morning in Alabama. I’m driving. There is green everywhere. Live oaks that are old enough to predate the Stone Age.

Tin sheds. Peanut fields with perfect rows that run for miles in straight lines.

American flags are hanging from most mailboxes, horse trailers, workshops, treehouses, and semi-truck garages.

There are plenty of curves ahead, winding through the landscape. They will take you past Faith Chapel Church, Providence Primitive Baptist Church, New Chapel Baptist, First Assembly of God, United Methodist Church. And a heap of other three-room meeting houses with well-kept cemeteries.

There’s the Perry Antique Store—which used to be a gas station one hundred years ago. It sits on approximately thirteen million acres of flat earth.

Old men sit on its porch, chewing the fat. Watching traffic.

There are ancient mobile homes with brand new Fords parked out front.

There are brand new mobile homes with ancient Fords.

I pass red-dirt-road offshoots that lead to God-Knows-Where. Horses in front yards. Cattle in backyards.

Weathered brick chimneys, standing in empty fields.

Telephone poles with signs that read: “Elect Twinkle for governor, for a brighter Alabama.”

I pass small towns, small communities. Brantley. Pine Level. Elba.

Kinston is about as big as a minute, but they have a nice baseball field.

Baseball is serious business in Kinston.

“Now entering Geneva County.”

I pass bumpy creek bridges—I have to slow down to drive across. There’s a crumbling red house—probably older than the late great Kathryn Tucker Windham.

Bass boats sit by the highway with for-sale signs. Farm-implement graveyards stretch clear to China.

There is a man, burning trash in his front lawn. There are manmade bream ponds.

Dead corn fields. Overgrown yards with rusty swing sets and children's playhouses, with wood rot.

Rusty mailboxes with flags up. Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. Lowery Church of Christ. Grain silos.

Chicken farms. Cattle farms. Tree farms. Dirt farms.

The yellow line in the center of…

On my birthday last year, I sat on my porch and watched the sky. I sipped beer, took deep breaths, and counted stars.

DEAR SEAN: 

I've got a son off at college, for two years. He never calls and hardly texts. Holidays and birthdays have gone by without even a text.

We drove to his college twice and he was too busy to see us. I thought we had a great relationship. Always gave him love and support.

Recently, we found out he was visiting town with his girlfriend and he didn't even let us know or come by.

Any advice?
HURTING DAD

DEAR HURTING: 

I have a letter for your son:

On my birthday last year, I sat on my porch and watched the sky. I sipped beer, took deep breaths, and counted stars.

I was thinking about a dead man. But I wasn’t sad—sadness wore off many years ago. I was lonely. And loneliness never fully goes away.

A little about me:

I learned how to drive stick-shift on my own. I learned how to tie a necktie by reading a book. I never learned to shave.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the biggest parts of my life happened

without my father.

For instance, when I was younger, I bought a truck. I presented a boxful of cash to the lady selling it. It was a big day.

When she handed me the title, I was king of the Wiregrass. I wanted to tell Daddy about it. I wanted someone to be proud of me.

No dice.

And my wedding, of course. I was alone that day, too. I stood in the groom’s dressing room. I looked at my reflection and talked to myself.

“You’re a good boy, Sean,” I said aloud. I pretended it was Daddy saying those words.

And when I finished writing my first book. My wife threw a small party. There were illegal amounts of biscuits, tomato gravy, Conecuh Quickfreeze sausage, and Hank Williams music. Family. Friends. Layer cake.

But…