I just met someone. An invisible someone. A man who—despite whatever his problems may be—isn't lost. A man who knows things. Who smokes used cigars. 

He sits on the steps of the Shell Station. A backpack beside him. His skin is rawhide. His beard is white.

His name is Buck. He’s from North Carolina. He fought in Korea, and completed two tours in Vietnam.

He’s not here begging, he’s resting his feet. 

“My old feet hurt more’n they used to,” says Buck. “It’s a bitch getting old, buddy.”

There is a half-smoked cigar next to him. He dug it from an ashtray. It still has life in it, he says.

He’s sipping coffee.

“First cup’a Joe I had in a week,” he tells me. “Fella gave me a quarter, few minutes ago. Piled my coins together to buy me a cup.”

A quarter.

When Buck went inside to buy it, there were only cold dregs left. He asked the cashier if it were possible to brew a fresh pot. She told him to get lost.

So, he’s drinking dregs—for which he is grateful.

There are holes in his shoes. He found these sneakers in a sporting-good-store dumpster. Buck estimates he’s put nearly eight hundred miles on them.

His bloody toes poke through the

fronts. His middle toenail is missing.

Buck explains, “God say, ‘Don't worry what you’ll eat drink or wear.’ That's hard sometimes. Specially when you ain’t eaten.”

I walk inside the gas station on a mission. I ask the aforementioned cashier to brew a fresh pot of coffee—for me.

She smiles and says, “Sure, sweetie.”

Ain't she nice.

I buy a hot cup, an armful of snacks, and a pack of Swisher Unsweetened Mini-Cigars. I give them to Buck, and I tuck a bill into his hand. I wish I had something bigger, but I don't.

Buck starts crying.

And the truth is, I’m embarrassed to even be telling you this. Because this story isn’t about me—it’s about Buck.

“Did you know that I see God in you?” Buck tells me through glazed…

Her boyfriend didn’t stick around during pregnancy. She was forced to work. Her job was in a hotel laundromat. She was promoted to a maid last year.

Colatta is her name. She and I are in the elevator together. She is pushing a large cart of cleaning supplies and mini shampoos.

Colatta is short, black, cheery. She’s wearing scrubs. She is pure Alabama. She has an accent that won’t quit, and wears a War Eagle headband.

“Went to Auburn,” she says. “Wanted to be a vet, but didn’t even come close to finishing ‘cause I had my son.

"Man, I thought my life was over, it was just beginning.”

Her boyfriend didn’t stick around during pregnancy. She was forced to work. Her job was in a hotel laundromat. She was promoted to a maid last year.

“Have a good day,” she says to me, rolling her cart down a corridor.

“You, too,” I say.

“Me?” She laughs. “Already HAVING me a good day. I’m so blessed it ain’t funny.”

Colatta. I love that name.

Later that day, I drive two hours east. I stop at a cafe inside a gas station. It’s a hole-in-the-wall.

After eating, I pay at the register. The cashier is older, very skinny. She places a handheld vibrating box

to her throat to speak. Her voice is robotic.

She hands me a receipt. Then, she presses the device to her neck again and says: “Have a good day. Enjoy this nice weather.”

There is a gnarled scar beneath her jaw.

And she's wishing ME a nice day.

7:09 P.M.—I’ve driven all day. I’m eating in a locals-only beer joint. People in this room are looking at me funny. I’m an out-of-towner and they smell it.

There’s an old man with a service dog—a brown Lab named Hershey.

The man wears a ball cap with a battleship on it. He shows me a tattoo on his forearm which reads: “Albert, Daniel, Adam.”

“My three brothers,” he says. “Killed in Europe. I was too young for the Big War, they sent me to Korea.”

That’s…

Wood planks were sucked from the boardwalk. I saw a bass boat flying through the air. Lawrence’s face was pink with blood and dirt. My T-shirt had been blown clean off. The sand was slicing through my bare skin. 

DEAR SEAN:

I want to write a love letter to my girlfriend, but I’m not good with words, so excuse the typos, there are probably all kinds in this message!

My Tori walked right into my life after my wife left and she's helped raise my two sons and one daughter like they were her own. She became a mother right off, my lifesaver, and she has always been more than just a girl to me. She’s my angel, I want her to know how much I love her. Oh, and we’re getting married.

Thanks for helping me in advance!
JASON 

DEAR JASON AND TORI:

I have seen a hurricane up close.

I was younger, braver, and infinitely more stupid. My friend, Lawrence, and I parked at a beach. We walked toward the angry shore like a couple of young men with dangerously low IQ's. We watched white water churn in the Gulf.

The windblown sand stung my face and nearly ruined me eyes. I leaned headfirst into the wind and let the force lift my teenage body upward.

Like I said: stupid.

The gusts hoisted me an entire foot off the ground, throwing me backward.

I won’t lie, it felt exhilarating.

That day, the water screamed loud enough to cause deafness. It looked like the world was getting ripped apart.

My friend looked at me and shouted. He was only inches from me, but I couldn’t hear his voice. The roaring water made my eardrums throb.

The sand cut my friend’s cheeks and made blood streaks run across his face. The air became pure saltwater. And though we were standing close, we couldn’t see one another.

The pressure sucked air from my lungs.

Lawrence and I traded excitement for flat-out fear. We’d made a grave mistake. We'd been foolish enough to think we could survive a few minutes in Hell.

Only this was not simply Hell. This was…

A few more things I love: Kathryn Tucker Windham, bottle trees, Magnolia Springs, the color yellow, anything made of oak, slow-moving trains, Hank Williams, American buffalos, and breakfast. 

My mother-in-law is watching television, sipping a milkshake. I’m sitting with her.

She’s slurping so that I can hardly hear the television.

It’s just as well. The folks on TV are hollering at each other about political issues, mass shootings, patriotism, and weather conditions. 

My mother-in-law changes the channel and slurps louder.

Different network. Different newscasters. Same five-dollar issues. She changes it again. More shouting. More shameless slurping.

She flips the channel.

The Home Shopping Network advertises commemorative American-flag lapel pins made from recycled cellphone batteries. Only $19.99. Call now.

My mother-in-law turns the television off. She slurps her milkshake so hard the ceiling is about to cave in.

“You know,” says Mother Mary—the sophisticated voice of 1958, and all-around model American. “TV sucks.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

Once upon a time, I enjoyed the idiot box. I don’t anymore. The faces on television talk too much about the gruesome and repulsive. They make commentaries only on things they hate.

I wish more people talked about things they loved.

Like daisies. Why aren’t folks talking about those?

Earlier today, I

pulled over to pick some. I got carried away and picked a whole armful. I wrapped the bundle of stems with duct tape and tossed the bouquet onto my dashboard.

I don’t even know who I picked them for.

You know what else I love? The late great Don Williams. I heard him singing about a woman named Amanda on the radio. I turned it up. The lyrics made me think about a woman I love.

A few more things I love: Kathryn Tucker Windham, bottle trees, Magnolia Springs, the color yellow, anything made of oak, slow-moving trains, Hank Williams, American buffalos, and breakfast.

I love the box of family photographs in my closet. Sometimes, I look at them and revisit black-and-white ancestors I never knew.

I love coffee—black and strong. Hashbrown casserole from Cracker Barrel. And my…

The man playing piano is blind. His eyelids are closed. He plays old favorites. “Sweet Sweet Spirit,” and “Give Thanks,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

A church fellowship hall in Chumuckla. There’s a serious church buffet happening. Kindhearted women with white hair keep the line moving with serving spoons.

You can’t visit a place like this without seeing white-haired women with serving spoons.

The chicken is exquisite. The fried catfish was caught in the Escambia River. Fried okra, cornbread, biscuits, macaroni and cheese. Ham hocks—seasoned with a few butter beans.

It’s my second time through the food line. The white-hairs ask how we liked our food.

The phrase of the night is one you’ll hear all over the Great American South:

“We enjoyed it.”

It's the unofficial motto of Lower Alabama and the Panhandle.

My wife and I sit on folding chairs. I am wearing seersucker.

It’s funny how life repeats itself. As a boy, my mother would’ve forced me into seersucker and penny loafers for a NASCAR rally. Today, I’m wearing such things of my own volition.

The room is alive with voices—talking and laughing. And, of course, there’s singing. You can’t visit a place like this without singing.

The man playing piano is blind. His eyelids are closed. He plays

old favorites. “Sweet Sweet Spirit,” and “Give Thanks,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

His hands feel the keys for the next chords. He’s playing through the musical score of my childhood.

He has a nice voice, but he isn't trying to impress listeners. That’s not how we Baptists do. If you’re looking for impressive vocal gymnastics, visit the Assembly of God up the road.

We're singing:

“When the shadows of this life have gone,
“I’ll fly away...”

People hum with mouthfuls of peach cobbler. Even kids who aren’t old enough to ride the Teacups at Disney World sing. Some folks are even brave enough to clap.

You cannot visit a place like this and not clap to “I’ll Fly Away.”

At the end of the night, people hug necks. They talk about what…

Some hold signs. Some carry photographs of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, best friends, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, students. 

Pensacola—I’m looking at one thousand people wearing running shoes and Spandex leggings. There are people laughing, smiling, stretching hamstrings.

A large man in a Roll Tide hat shakes my hand. He has a long gray beard. On his T-shirt: the image of a teenage boy.

“This was my son,” he says. “His girlfriend broke up with him, he shut himself in our garage and kept his Jeep running until he…” He pauses.

“I ain't never felt so alone until he died.”

Alone. As it happens, I know that particular emotion.

I meet a twelve-year-old girl with red hair. She also feels alone. She’s bone-skinny, wearing braces. She has so many freckles on her snow-white skin she looks half-orange.

“My mom was real depressed,” she says. “She overdosed, my sister and I found her not breathing in her chair.”

Grandma hugs them both.

I meet a thirty-two-year-old girl with the personality of cane sugar. She seems happy. She starts talking about her late father.

She shows me a photo. He’s a nice-looking man, holding a baby. He could be anyone’s daddy.

Speaking of daddies. I'm

here today because of mine. I'm here because of the way he died.

I was twelve. I was redheaded. Freckled.

Music plays over loud speakers. The historic downtown is catching the first bit of early sun. The Pensacola Bay sits behind us.

For most of my life, Pensacola has been my closest biggest city. It’s where I used to take dates for dinner. It’s sort of where I grew up. Today it's a place of pilgrimage.

The herd of survivors starts walking. They aren’t solemn—like you might think. In fact, they look empowered. Joyful even. Maybe it’s all the Spandex.

I’m walking with them—or are we marching? Whatever you call it, we are from all styles of life. Rural communities. Suburbs. City-dwellers. Out-of-towners.

We are here for loved ones, friends, relatives. We’re here to remember.

Some…

I should leave him. I should let him be with his memories. I should go inside and eat my burger. But I can't. I’ve got too much of my mother in me.

A beach bar. Early evening. These days, I only visit quiet bars that serve decent hamburgers in baskets. This bar allegedly has a decent burger.

It is anything but quiet.

There is a band. The musicians are supposed to be playing country. They aren’t. The lead singer has a voice that sounds like a recently maintenanced M4 Sherman tank.

There’s a man sitting beside me. He’s staring into his glass. He’s overdressed. He wears a loosened necktie.

The bartender refuses to serve him another drink. Then, the bartender gives me a glance which seems to say, “This guy’s tanked.”

He’s half-tight, all right. He introduces himself. We shake hands.

I shouldn’t engage him. I really shouldn’t. I know this. Drunk folks like me too much. They latch onto me like deer ticks on a German shorthaired pointer.

Take, for instance, the time in New Orleans, with my cousin. An intoxicated seventy-three-year-old woman forced me onto the dance floor practically at gunpoint. We danced a light bossa nova. We twirled.

She asked me to dip her. I did. Paramedics were involved. Her hip

was never the same.

The man at the bar tells me his daughter died five years ago yesterday. He’s in town, visiting her headstone. His face looks swollen when he says it.

“You think you’ve gotten over the worst,” he says. “But you never get over your baby.”

He’s a mess. The bartender helps him outside for some fresh air. He collapses on a bench.

I should leave him. I should let him be with his memories. I should go inside and eat my burger.

But I can't. I’ve got too much of my mother in me.

The bartender has taken his keys and called a cab. And here I sit. Babysitting.

He tells me about the time he took his girl to the zoo. How she acted when she saw the monkeys. She didn’t want to leave…

Life is good for Josh. The company just promoted him to regional manager. They gave him a big bonus, and a free two-week vacation in Orange Beach.

Interstate 65—the middle of the night. Josh is driving, singing with the radio. He’s on his way from Birmingham to Orange Beach.

His '87 Honda is packed with bags. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flops.

Life is good for Josh. The company just promoted him to regional manager. They gave him a big bonus, and a free two-week vacation in Orange Beach.

Free.

This is the best day of Josh’s thirty-year-old life.

He pulls off the interstate at Walmart to use a bathroom, buy groceries, and get beer.

In the dim parking lot, a tall man, smoking a cigarette approaches. The man says nothing.

“Can I help you?” Josh asks.

The man steps on his cigarette. He beats Josh until he’s cracked his jaw, fractured his ribs, and broken Josh’s knee.

The man drags Josh behind a dumpster, then speeds away with his, wallet, cellphone, and his Honda. Josh watches the tail lights head toward the interstate without him.

That night, Josh sleeps among empty cardboard boxes—he is too beat-up to move.

The next morning:

A Mercedes pulls to the dumpster. A clean-cut man in khakis steps out. He tosses

several bags into the trash. He sees Josh.

Josh moans.

The man furrows his brow.

“Help,” Josh says.

The man removes a few dollars and tucks them into Josh’s hand.

“Don’t spend this on crack,” the man says.

And he is gone.

A few hours later. A large SUV with tinted windows and a bumper sticker which reads: “Honk if you love Jesus.”

The man throws a crumpled McDonald’s bag into the dumpster.

Josh moans.

The man pats his pockets and shrugs. “Sorry pal, no spare change. Have a blessed day.”

And he is gone.

The sun sets. It’s been twenty-four hours since Josh has tasted water. He manages to curl himself into a fetal position.

He is coughing up red. His face is purple. When he breathes, it…

I have no answers. And I don’t want any. Because people who are fortunate enough to know it all tend to act like it.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m not certain where you stand with Jesus Christ, and that concerns me. I read the things you write and I hear you say things about God, but then you say things about dying and coming back to earth as a squirrel? Uh, what?

That is paganism, sir, and mistaken beliefs like that tell me that we probably aren't going to spend eternity together. I know where I’m going, do you?

If you’ve got questions, I want you to know I have the answers that your heart is searching for.

I HOPE SEAN OF THE SOUTH REPENTS

DEAR I HOPE:

This comes as no surprise to me. I’ve always suspected I’d be going to hell.

The first time I realized this, I was working part-time in a Southern Baptist church—long ago.

I spent my days doing construction. On Sundays, I helped lead singing at church.

One Sunday, I brought three of my Mexican coworkers to service. Let’s call them Shadrach, Meshach, and Vincente Fernández.

The boys wore tattered jeans and paint-splattered T-shirts. They sat front row, watching me sing.

After service, the pastor asked

me not to let those boys sit up front again—he thought their appearance was disrupting.

I never sang in that church again.

I’ve got missionary friends, too. My missionary compadres spent three years on a Native American reservation. My friend was there to help a poverty-stricken, heathen tribe.

He was a seminary grad, with answers—all twenty-nine years of accumulated wisdom.

His first weeks, the elders of the tribe showered him and his wife with gifts.

The women brought hot breakfasts, homemade casseroles, fresh vegetables. They brought handmade jewelry, blankets, clothing.

My friend asked the elders why they were being so gracious.

The elders said, “Because we want you to know we love you, even though you tell us we are going to hell.”

I know a man named Jim. He’s almost eighty-three today. He’s…

She is in good shape, she doesn’t talk much. Sometimes she is clear, other times not. But her eyes sparkle like they’re sixty years younger. Her name is Irene.

I wasn’t going to come tonight. I don’t usually attend birthday parties for folks I don’t know. But then, it’s not every day you get to sing “Happy Birthday” to a brand new ninety-nine-year-old.

She is in good shape, she doesn’t talk much. Sometimes she is clear, other times not. But her eyes sparkle like they’re sixty years younger. Her name is Irene.

She grips my hand and smiles. She is like looking at American History. “Oh, it’s good to see you, Sam,” she tells me.

I explain that my name’s not Sam.

She rubs my shoulder. “Don’t be fussy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

If you can’t beat them, join them, I say.

Earlier, her sons and nephews picked her up from the assisted living home. It was the first time she’d ridden in a car since Easter Sunday.

Her boys moved a high-back recliner into the kitchen.

Irene sits in the same kitchen she raised her family in. She sits with women who prepare supper. Women like her grew up in kitchens.

She sits, watching her redheaded daughter and granddaughters prepare potato salad.

She speaks. Maybe she’s offering words of advice. Nobody is sure because she’s not

using complete sentences.

“Pick’em taters, Sam,” she says to me.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Pick’em, I say.”

“I’m a pickin’ ma’am.”

“Oh, Sam.”

Her son smokes the pork. We stand beside a grill and sip. He talks.

He says, “My mama’s strong. I remember when Daddy died, she was going through medical problems of her own at the time. We didn’t think she’d last much longer.”

She certainly showed them. That was forty years ago.

“Mama’s tough,” he said. “Not in-your-face tough, but quiet-tough. Remember once, she chased me for a half-mile up the road, when I’s fourteen, just to give me a whippin’.”

Quiet-tough.

When the patio table is set, we sing “Happy Birthday.” It sounds like any rendition you’ve ever heard. Off-key, and sincere.