Long, long ago, in a land far away, there was a chubby little first-baseman who enjoyed sourdough biscuits and fried fish. Like you, his family changed. His daddy disappeared.

DEAR SEAN:

We just moved to Clovis, New Mexico. I really miss home and all my family are in Florida. I am nine years old… My parents are divorced. And I am a very good artist.

I was wondering if you could tell a story about our situation. ...If you don't mind, I would like you to use words kids understand (but still a make it funny and emotional).

Your friend, KAYLIE

DEAR KAYLIE:

I have a story.

Long, long ago, in a land far away, there was a chubby little first-baseman who enjoyed sourdough biscuits and fried fish. Like you, his family changed. His daddy disappeared. And when that happened, the first-baseman’s world turned black.

One day, this boy went walking in the woods—for it is well-known that first-basemen love forests—and he found a creek near the river.

It was filled with magic catfish who talked to him in small voices, saying:

“No fishing poles you use,
Nor trotlines will ever work,
You will never catch us,
You chubby little jerk.”

This made the boy angry. For who were catfish to talk

this way? The first-baseman had been fishing since before he played first base.

So, the next day he visited with a fishing rod. But as it happened, the boy had lost all faith in himself after his daddy died. Because of this, he caught no fish.

The catfish teased:

“Try and try,
You dumb pup,
You'll catch us never,
You've already given up.”

Their singing displeased the first-baseman, for he knew the mystical scum-suckers were wrong about him.

So, the next day he fished again. Nothing.

And the whisker-fish sang:

“Fish, ye, at sundown,
Fish, ye, at sunup,
It won't work, ye young fool,
Because you’ve given up.”


Now the boy KNEW the fish were…

As it happens, nowadays I am hungry—though sometimes this world tries to steal a man's appetite. And I'm more than that. I'm alive.

The week after Daddy's funeral, it stormed. Bad. I woke to the sound of wind. Rain.

And piano music.

I walked downstairs to see our den full of ladies dusting, sweeping, mopping. One woman was even playing our hallway spinet.

“Morning,” said my aunt, kissing my forehead. “You want breakfast?”

No. I didn't.

I hadn't been hungry for weeks. I'd lost weight because of it. The only things I could choke down were milkshakes. And it's because of this, I haven't touched one since my voice dropped.

My aunt led me to the kitchen.

It was crowded. Ladies in aprons, standing at workstations, dusting things with flour. Almost every surface held poundcakes, layer cakes, bunt cakes, or cookies.

I received three hugs, ten kisses, and one stiff pat on the hindsection.

My aunt made a milkshake by hand, then said, “Get some chocolate cake, too. It's GOT to get eaten before it goes bad."

That woman. She was made of sugar and spice, and all kinds of bacon grease.

I wandered to the porch, sipping a milkshake, eating cake. I found my uncle

on the swing, listening to the rain make noise, the same sound TV static makes.

“Ain't they something?” he said, spitting into a mug. “All them busy ladies.”

Yeah.

He laughed. "You know what they call life without women?"

“What?”

"They call it suffering."

Well, I'd counted nearly twelve females in our house—not including the piano-player. Laughter came from the kitchen. Music from the den. I guess we weren't suffering too bad.

Then, the screen door slapped. A young lady came onto the porch with two more plates of chocolate cake.

My uncle stood when he saw the girl. I stood with him—which is something my people do in the presence of females.

He thank-you-ma'amed her. So did I.

He handed me his cake and said, "You're gonna have to eat mine, I already gotta mouthful of…

The preacher took me to Shoney’s after church. He bought my breakfast, then he filled my truck with gas.

Sepulga Baptist Church is a three-room building off County Highway 43. I visited the rural congregation one Sunday. I listened to an old man deliver the kind of sermon that sounded like Karo syrup on hand-cut biscuits.

The kind of preaching without microphones.

This church has been here since before the invention of television. They have nine and a half members.

The preacher took me to Shoney’s after church. He bought my breakfast, then he filled my truck with gas.

I asked why he was being so good to a stranger.

He said, “‘Cause this world needs more good.”

Andalusia, Alabama—my friend and I were at Dairy Queen. We’d just left an early wedding. He stood on the sidewalk, smoking.

A feral cat meandered past us.

My pal tip-toed to his truck and removed a can of cat food. He opened the container with a pocketknife and set it on the curb.

I asked why he had pet food in his vehicle.

He explained, "My granny used to feed any animal she saw, even squirrels. Was a habit I picked up when she died."

I

asked if he missed his granny.

“So bad it hurts,” he said.

Birmingham, Alabama—I was eighteen. He was riding a bike, carrying a backpack. He was old. He smelled as ripe as a laundry bin.

He saw us leave the restaurant, he rode toward us. He said, “‘Scuse me boys, you got any spare change?”

I only had quarters—I was notorious for being low on silver.

Not my pal’s brother. He had a hundred-dollar bill. It was his gas money. He gave it to the man.

“No,” the man said, “I can’t take this, it’s too much.”

My friend’s brother added, “If you don’t take it, I’m just gonna throw it in the garbage.”

The man took it, then gave us parting gifts in return. He gave my pal a women’s wristwatch. I got a…

The bride and groom recite their own vows. Thus, before God and Alabama, he promises to love her through bad health, pitiful finances, unemployment, AC repairs, bad dogs, parental problems, and whatever else the Devil throws at them. Even death.

I’m at a wedding for my friend. His son is getting married. On stage: eight former Little-Leaguers wearing rented tuxes.

They still call my pal, “Coach”.

I used to help lead his son’s practices. The boys never called me anything but “HEY, HEY, HEY!”

Anyway, conversations at weddings are happy ones. And this is reason enough for attending. Because at weddings, nobody talks about jerk-bosses or politics. Plus, they have free beer.

I’m sitting beside a woman named Miss Rhonda, who has snow-white hair. She tells me about her granddaughter, studying biology at Alabama. The fella on my right is Uncle Of The Groom. He sells scratch-and-dent appliances in Atlanta, and begins each sentence with “Let me tell you somethin’ right now.”

Then, the back doors shut. The music changes. And let me tell you somethin' right now, I love weddings.

A flower girl first. Then siblings. Next: the cast of The Golden Girls. They're wearing entire rose gardens on their lapels.

My friend’s son is an All-American groom. His whole life was a ball game because of his

daddy. A cracker-jack pitcher. Driven student. A few wild high-school nights, but nothing serious.

He decided not to play college ball. Instead, he went into the arts. He's a bar musician now. He loves it. His daddy does not. They haven't spoken much over the years. Not even during the World Series.

Today, however, the coach is proud.

Coach is smiling so big his cheeks must hurt. It’s an Atta-Boy look I've seen before—even though we’re not on a field.

Funny. It wasn’t long ago the groom was eating ice cream on my tailgate. He and his friends used to fight over who could make the loudest bodily noises.

Now they’re old enough to disappoint their daddies.

Piano music plays. Doors open. The audience stands. Men button coats. Women smile. Let me tell you something right now, we’re a reverent bunch…

You're probably WAY too old to believe in magical things like Santa, Easter Bunnies, Saint Francis, or Nick Saban. But this is serious. I’ve seen angels with my eyes.

DEAR SEAN:

There's a murderer on the run in Baldwin County and that's where I live. And he’s killed three people... My mom is at work and I'm home with the flu. My aunt and I are locked in the bedroom watching TV and the weather’s getting really bad, too.

...I’m actually scared so much my stomach is truly, literally hurting. My aunt told me I should write you to take my mind off it...

SCARED IN BALDWIN COUNTY

DEAR SCARED:

I'm glad you wrote me. I have a feeling that as soon as I write back, authorities will have caught this joker and none of the following will apply.

Even so, here's what you should know:

There’s no way in hell the peace officers in lower Alabama are going to let anything happen to you. Because they have guns.

And I know men from Baldwin, Escambia, and Santa Rosa County. These boys have been shooting dove, deer, duck, and wild turkey since they were old enough to say, “Look, Mommy, I make poopy.”

This dude's in trouble.

But never mind. You asked for help getting your mind off this topic. So I'll tell you what my mama told me when I was terrified.

There are angels around you.

Big ones. I know. You're probably WAY too old to believe in magical things like Santa, Easter Bunnies, Saint Francis, or Nick Saban. But this is serious. I’ve seen angels with my eyes.

Once, we wrecked in North Carolina. Mama hit a deer. It was late at night on a very dark, empty road. A stranger from nowhere helped us. He even knew my name.

Then he disappeared.

Another story: I know a woman who went swimming in the river with her friend. They got swept into the current. They nearly died. A man swam to them and pulled them ashore. Then he vanished.

You want more? Fine.

We've never met, but I know you. Maybe you woke to screaming kids and an empty bank account. Perhaps you have achy joints, and the meds aren't working.

I'm writing to the woman with the boy in the wheelchair. He followed beside her buggy in the supermarket, hands on his wheels.

They didn't say much to each other. She was too busy shopping. Then, for no reason at all, she leaned over to kiss his cheek.

You've never seen a kid so happy.

I'm writing to the kid who isn't nice-looking. Who’s chubby. Short. Big-eared. Non-athletic. Clumsy. Or God help him—redheaded.

Also, the girl who wishes boys would pay attention to her. Who feels ugly. Who walks with slumped shoulders.

I'm writing to anyone who misses parents; to anyone who misses their spouse. I'm writing to people who miss their dog.

To Guillermo, who I met many years ago in the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant. He lived in his car. He helped jumpstart my truck, then he offered me a twenty.

It moved me to tears. I refused.

So he hugged me and gave me a "God bless you, man."

To my mama—the woman who threw newspapers. Who lived in a one-bedroom trailer. Who worked from can

to can't. Who is one of the strongest humans I've known.

And to you.

We've never met, but I know you. Maybe you woke to screaming kids and an empty bank account. Perhaps you have achy joints, and the meds aren't working.

Whoever you are, this world has sucked you dry, and now it's billing you for the damage. You used to pray, but you’ve sort of given up the habit.

You ask yourself, "If there really is a God, then why the hell hasn't he shown up to make things better?"

Yeah. I’m talking to you. I can't do jack-squat but hook a few words together. But I can tell you something I know:

Nothing lasts.

Not hateful things, not good things. Not ugliness, not beauty. Not football games, back pain, or kidney stones. Not newspaper-delivery jobs. Not life.…

Today, I visited Mama Ruth's restaurant after church. I waited in a long line with Baptists, Methodists, and Holy Rollers who wore neckties and pearls.

"My daddy built this general store when he was twenty-three," Mary says. "Folks used'a visit by mule and wagon."

I'm sitting in Hudson's Grocery, sipping tea from a jelly jar, eating fried catfish and collards. There are buck-heads on the wall. Black-and-white family photos. Mounted large-mouth bass. A few customers in cowboy hats. I have tartar sauce on my shirt.

I'm feeling pretty good.

Miss Jackie waltzes out of the kitchen. She's wearing a dusty apron. She's tall. Bone-skinny. Skin like molasses. She doesn't talk much.

"I enjoyed your cooking," I tell her.

"Mmm hmm," says Miss Jackie.

This one-room joint is located in the speck-of-a-town, Century, Florida—within spitting-distance of the Alabama line. In this city, folks pronounce “fire” as “far." A place where middle-school girls can drop eight-point bucks faster than most forty-year-old men.

Mary and her best friend, Jackie, run this meat-and-three.

Today, I visited after church. I waited in a long line with Baptists, Methodists, and Holy Rollers who wore neckties and pearls.

"Sometimes we serve so many, we run outta food," says Mary.

"Mmm hmm," Miss Jackie explains.

A few years ago, Mary reopened this dusty store as something more than a market. She calls it, Mama Ruth's, and she sells everything from antiques to catfish.

"I love what we do," says Mary. "We're kind of an all-around country store."

“Mmm hmm,” Jackie points out.

This tight-knit community supports Mary Hudson enough to eat her out of house and home. It's been that way from the day she first opened. Her business took off. People couldn't get enough of Miss Jackie's made-from-scratch cooking.

Then Mary got diagnosed with advanced leukemia.

Doctors told her to get her affairs in order. And fast.

Mary closed shop. She left for Dallas to undergo treatment. It was agonizing. It drained her. She felt alone. She missed home.

"I thought, 'God, why's this happening to me?'" she says.

"Mmm hmm."

Mary's…

She's a hero. One who cooked, washed, mopped, gave baths, spanked, and kissed skinned elbows. She was born to love. Now she eats alone.

Crestview, Florida—Cracker Barrel is slow for lunch. There aren't enough folks here to form a baseball team.

I'm sitting alone at a two-top. The elderly woman at the table beside me is also by herself. We're both looking at the phony gas fireplace. It's not all that cold outside.

But a phony fire is better than no fire at all.

We get to talking. I can't tell how old she is, exactly, and it would be rude to ask. She's a small-town Belle. Women like her would rather be shot and quartered than discuss age with anyone who is not a board-certified physician.

What I do know about her:

She's wearing the same kind of perfume everyone's granny does. I don't know what this stuff is called, but the smell makes me smile.

Also, she's dressed to the nines. Pearls. Her handbag matches her blouse.

We make friends.

She orders a breakfast for lunch. She tells me she's been fasting because she had blood work done this morning.

It doesn't take long to learn she's a widow.

But her husband died long ago while her kids were young.

"I didn't have time to remarry," she says. "I was too busy figuring out what was for dinner."

Then, she talks about her kids. And you ought to see this woman's face beam.

One of her sons is an attorney. The other is a restaurant manager. Her daughter is a sales-rep. All three have moved. Two went to Birmingham, I forget where her daughter moved to.

When she talks, I notice something in her voice. It's impossible to miss. She's lonely.

"I loved being a mother," she explains. "It's so hard, especially when you're single. But you live for your kids. Your do it for so long, you don't even think of yourself as a woman anymore, you're just 'Mama.'"

This mama did whatever she could to get by. She was a…

Kids walk the halls, wearing Roll-Tide hoodies and and War-Eagle sweatshirts. There are children of every size. Some eighth-graders are tall enough to qualify for the SEC. Some fifth-graders weigh fifty pounds—soaking wet.

Early morning—it's sleepy here in Brewton. A chill is in the air. The middle school is just off Highway 31, tucked in the woods of South Alabama.

Kids walk the halls, wearing Roll-Tide hoodies and War-Eagle sweatshirts. There are children of every size. Some eighth-graders are tall enough to qualify for the SEC. Some fifth-graders weigh fifty pounds—soaking wet.

The walls are lined with art. A drawing of Harriet Tubman. A cardboard cutout of Mark Twain. A painting of Nick Saban riding an elephant.

Mrs. Cave tells me, “Art's important here, we value creativity. We even have a piano lab. I mean, our kids actually get free piano lessons...”

Lucky kids.

Down the hall, the cafeteria is quiet. Miss Betty, Miss Leola, and Miss Diane work the kitchen shift. Miss Leola is renowned for her sweet tea—the same kind your granny used to make. It's sugary enough to break your jaw.

I ask Miss Leola what ingredients make her tea so special.

“Don't know,” she says. “Sugar'n water, I reckon.”

I reckon.

She's an old-fashioned cook who knows

what she's doing. They tell me that sometimes families visit school to eat. They rave about the fare.

That's because this is not ordinary food. And this is no average school. It's an institution run by mothers, Sunday school leaders, and small-town saints.

I'm talking salt-of-the-earth people like Mrs. Gray, Mrs. Hart, and Miss Leah. People who don't just work here, but who offer shoulders for crying.

A girl hugs her math teacher during class and says, "Love you, Miss McKenzie."

Her teacher says the same thing.

You don't see that much anymore.

“We're lucky,” says the guidance counselor. “I've heard of schools where kids fight, and teachers hate their jobs. That's not us. We love our babies.”

This is unlike the modern academic world. A universe where children have become numbers, where deputies pat them down, waving metal-detectors. Some public school…

It was pure impulse. And even though she wasn't a student, she told her own story—signing her sentences. An entire trailer full of janitors, landscapers, and Hooter's employees sniffled.

I used to attend night college classes. My history class was in a trailer that had coffee machines in back, ashtrays out front, and a bathroom roughly the size of a luxury coffin.

The room had people from all walks of life. Men in camouflage caps, stay-at-home mothers, teenagers, middle-agers, active military, lawn-maintenance professionals, a peace officer, a Hooter's waitress.

And one deaf boy.

The deaf kid was twentyish, tall, skinny. His mother came to every class with him. Each night, she wore the same green Publix uniform. Each night, she brought glazed donuts.

Each night, she sat beside her son, translating the professor's words into sign-language.

They were pleasant folks. He smiled often. She spoke with an accent that sounded like a Georgia hayfield.

At the end of the semester, students were assigned to write essays about our ancestry, then read them aloud. And if you've ever had the privilege of watching thirty adults stand at a podium, reading with as much sincerity as it takes to scratch one's own ass, you understand

torture.

One student wrote about his father's high-school football career. Another discussed her Dutch heritage. I almost slipped into a donut-induced coma.

The last to speak was the deaf boy. He walked to the front. His hands were shaking.

He spoke slow, with labored moans. He told us about himself, about his siblings, about how his father abandoned his mother when doctors discovered he was deaf. And when he started talking about his mother, he had to quit reading.

If you've never heard a deaf boy cry, you don't know what you're missing.

Before he finished, thirty caffeinated blue-collars rose and faced the back of the room. We applauded the woman until her face turned red. Even the teacher clapped.

Then his mother came forward to take the pulpit.

It was pure impulse. And even though she wasn't a student, she told her own story—signing her…