If you were in a real hurry, you’d probably risk your life on Interstate 65. But if you weren’t, you could take a country road like Highway 31.

I don’t like interstates. Sometimes I have to use them, but not by choice. Today, for instance, I have a long drive ahead of me, I am avoiding the interstate like the plague.

Instead, I take the rural route of my youth, Highway 331. This little gem of a two-lane shoots from the Choctawhatchee Bay, upward into Covington County, Alabama, and straight across God’s country.

It’s an unassuming road that will weave you through Defuniak Springs, Paxton, Florala, Onycha, all the way to Opp.

Opp is the home of the Rattlesnake Rodeo. There, you can see snake races, snake contests, snake comedy acts, snake lectures, and good old-fashioned poisonous snake handling. Fun for the whole family.

Even though the rodeo is only seventy miles from my doorstep, my friends always go without me because I am deathly afraid of snakes.

When I was in first grade, a woman from the zoo visited our classroom. She brought a boa constrictor the size of a sewage pipe. She let it

lick my face.

I lost all control. I screamed, I cried, I couldn’t breathe. Our teacher had to call reinforcements. The next thing I knew, I was going to the school nurse’s office to receive a pair of loaner trousers for the day.

Next comes Brantley, the “Front Porch Capital of the South.” Subsequently, you won’t find better food than Michael’s Southern Foods restaurant, downtown. It will bless your heart.

Then comes Luverne—Pepsi bottling country. Luverne is also the home of the Chicken Shack. If you’ve never been to the Chicken Shack, you need to get right with the Lord.

Highland Home, Alabama. They don’t get too worked up in Highland Home.

Hope Hull is next. My cousin once dated a girl in Hope Hull. They were hot and heavy one summer. My cousin and I went to visit her—he had high hopes of…

A cafe. I’m drinking coffee, typing on a laptop. I am trying do some writing. But it’s hard to concentrate.

Namely, because I am sitting beside a group of middle-aged women who are having a conversation about Tupperware.

“Do you remember my friend Martha?” says one woman. “Martha has a Tupperware container, she got it at Target, she can put anything in it.”

“Anything?”

“Yep, anything she wants, she just puts it in the container.”

“Martha does?”

“She got it at Target.”

“They have good containers at Target.”

“Martha just loves it.”

“I’d love a container like that.”

Shoot me.

Across the cafe, I see an old man. He’s alone, eating a sandwich, sipping coffee. He wears a ratty ball cap and gazes out the window. I have a soft spot for old men who gaze out windows.

Over to my left are teenagers—boys and girls. One boy is wearing a Boy Scout uniform, a girl sits beside him. They are holding hands. These kids are so happy they belong in padded cells.

Also, an elderly couple sits behind me. He’s talking into a cellphone, using a voice loud enough to register on the Richter Scale.

Cellphone man shouts, “My doctor said my heart is looking good, darling! There’s nothing to worry about! I don’t need surgery after all!”

And the woman beside me keeps saying:

“Oh, Martha told me the lid just unscrews off her container.”

“The lid unscrews?”

“On and off, just like this.”

“How does it go back on?”

“When you wanna put the lid on, you screw it on. When you wanna take it off, you unscrew it.”

“Whose container is this again?”

“Martha’s container, she got it at Target.”

For the love of Hank.

The old man in the ratty cap is still looking out the window. He wears…

Baseball season is almost here. Hallelujah.

The sun is lowering over the trees on the horizon, and the sky is lit orange. The world is filled with light. The birds are chattering.

Baseball season is almost here. Hallelujah.

I am catching a game between two Little League teams. It’s an unofficial matchup. This is pre-spring training in a small town, where baseball is still something folks get excited about.

The kids are young, and still unclear on the rules of the game, but they’re trying.

A child hits a ground ball.

“RUN!” the parents in the bleachers cheer. The kid drops the bat. He sprints straight toward the pitcher, runs over the mound, leaps over second base, and keeps going until he collides with the centerfielder. And I love it.

Major League spring training starts today, and I can hardly stand myself. I’ve been counting down the days.

When I was a boy, my father and I listened to ball games on his Philco radio, or watched them on television. Almost every

night of the summer, we kept a scorecard placed beside an AM speaker, and a bag of parched peanuts.

When we weren’t following baseball, we were playing catch. When we weren’t doing that, we were at Little League games, like this one. When we weren’t doing that, we were in church.

Of course, my childhood baseball career was cut short. My father died in a terrible way. It was the kind of death that makes everyone in a small town gasp when they read it in the papers.

It was though someone had erased the sun.

And something else bad happened on the same day of his passing. And I mean the ACTUAL DAY of his death.

It was an announcement on the national news. The commissioner of Major League Baseball stood at a podium and proclaimed that there would be no World Series that…

Granny is really Mama. She’s raising the boy and his sister because their mother is out of the picture.

Breakfast time. A mediocre hotel. The continental buffet features food that is only a few notches above prison-camp food.

A youth soccer team forms a line at the buffet. They are filling paper plates with dry bacon and shoe-rubber eggs. I am standing behind them, waiting for my gruel.

I didn’t sleep well last night because of minor back pain.

Long ago, my mother used to say that each naughty thing I ever did would come back to haunt me in the form of back pain. I never believed her as a child. Now I do.

I find an empty table. I am eating breakfast in peace when an old woman asks if she can sit beside me.

And all of a sudden, I’m eating with a stranger.

We are quiet for a few minutes. What should strangers say over breakfast? Conversations about the weather would be shallow. And I don’t feel like discussing politics.

“I’m having a hard time waking up,” she finally says. This starts the conversational ball

rolling.

“When you’re my age,” she goes on, “you don’t sleep good, you’re lucky if you get a few hours. How about you?”

“I had back pain last night.” Then I tell her what my mother used to say about divine back punishment.

She laughs.“You musta been an ornery child.”

“I had moments.”

We are joined by a boy in a soccer uniform who sits beside the woman. She uses sign language to speak to him. He moves his hands in response.

“This is Aaron,” says the woman. “He’s my grandson.”

A girl makes her way toward us. She is older than the boy, tall, lean, with blonde braids. She carries a full plate. I count four biscuits.

If I ate four biscuits, I’d nap like a bear that’s just been shot with a tranquilizer dart.

“This…

I am camping. It’s cold outside. I am about to freeze.

The elderly people in the campsite beside me are from Pittsburgh. Mary and Herbert are their names.

Mary has white hair. She wears a pink sweatshirt and Velcro tennis shoes.

Herbert has two hearing aids, no hair, and he wears a khaki jumpsuit—the kind auto mechanics wear.

Herb putters around his campsite all day, doing things that don’t actually need doing. Like picking up pinecones and tossing them into the woods.

I wave to Herbert on my way to take my morning shower in the bath house.

“Have a nice day!” I call to him.

He smiles. “Nope!” he says. “Haven’t seen him!”

“I said, ‘Have a nice day!’”

“When was that?”

This is getting me nowhere. So, finally I shout, “HAVE A NICE DAY, HERB!”

He smiles. “Dangest thing! Haven’t seen any of those all week!”

And he resumes throwing pinecones into the woods.

I guess I’ll have to forget about communicating with old

Herb today, and wish YOU a good day instead.

I know we don’t know each other, but I can still wish you well. It’s a free country, you can’t stop me—not even if you threatened to tickle me to death.

So wherever you are, I wish you the best day you ever had. Ever. I really mean it. I hope the weather is bright, sunny, and warm. I hope someone you haven’t heard from in years calls you unexpectedly.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. I got a phone call from a friend I haven’t heard from since I was 10 years old. We were buddies back then.

Once, he and I got in trouble for putting frogs in the girls’ restroom sinks at school. Before the principal interrogated us, he made us place our hands on the Bible and…

His family ate dried beans and rice. They’d been living in a friend’s camper. He worked every task he could drum up. Power-washing driveways, delivering papers, scrubbing toilets.

He found twenty bucks at a gas station. The bill was sitting on the pump, weighted with a rock. A Post-It note was stuck to the bill.

“God bless,” the note read. “Pass it on.”

About him:

He was broke. We’re talking flat busted. He had forty-three bucks to his name. Single dad. Two kids. Life was a mess.

He’d been looking for work for months. He’d taken small jobs, whatever he could find.

His family ate dried beans and rice. They’d been living in a friend’s camper. He worked every task he could drum up. Power-washing driveways, delivering papers, scrubbing toilets.

His friend’s sympathy ran out. They were evicted. He searched classifieds, filled out applications, begged employers.

They left for the city to find work. His car was on “E" before he even hit Clanton. He stopped to use the only forty-three dollars to his name. He prepaid for gas and almost vomited.

Then, it happened.

He was filling his tank. He saw twenty bucks. He tucked it into his shirt pocket. He coasted into Birmingham on fumes.

The first day

in town, he walked into a restaurant with his children. He talked to the owner. He offered to wash dishes in exchange for feeding his kids. The owner agreed.

The things a parent will do.

They slept in their car, eating from Styrofoam boxes.

The next day, he visited construction sites, hat in hand. He was met with “I’m sorry, sir."

That night, he washed dishes until midnight. His hands were pruny, his energy was spent.

He met a young Hispanic waitress. She was worse off than he was. Tips were bad, she had no husband, and four kids.

Before she left, he handed her the twenty dollars with the sticky note.

She read the note aloud. “God bless. Pass it on.” And she cried.

His two children huddled beside him in the backseat that night. He cried…

Anyway, yesterday morning was a beautiful sunrise. I woke early. I watched the colors over the highway. I drove to meet my cousin at a breakfast joint.

Montgomery, Alabama—it was late afternoon, the grocery store was busy. It was a big weekend, hurried customers played demolition derby with shopping carts.

I saw two young men shopping together. Their basket was overflowing with bachelor food. Microwave dinners, hotdogs, potato chips, Michelob Ultra, spray cheese.

The youngest man was wearing cargo shorts. His right leg was disfigured. Below the knee, his leg was mostly shinbone without any visible muscle, covered in scars.

I followed the men around the supermarket because I am a writer, and writers are odd people.

When they reached the self-checkout lane, I was a few customers behind them in line.

An old man approached the men. They had a brief conversation. I tried to listen to their words but their voices were too quiet.

The only thing I heard the elderly man say was: “Where were you stationed?”

“Afghanistan,” the young man answered. Also, I heard the words, “ambush,” “explosion,” and “physical therapy.”

When the young

men finished scanning items, I will never forget what happened next. The old man removed his wallet and swiped his credit card.

The young men tried to stop him, but they were too slow. The man replaced his wallet, then winked at them and said, “You snooze, you lose, fellas.”

I can still see that old man when I close my eyes. Some things stick with you, I guess.

Just like the time I saw an elderly woman in Franklin, Tennessee. Her car wouldn’t start. Three men from inside the gas station rushed to help her.

They were large men with long beards, dirty clothes, and work boots. They crawled over her car until they figured out the problem beneath the hood.

“It’s her serpentine belt!” one man finally shouted.

That was all it took. They leapt into their truck and left. After a few…

Line workers like these men invade disaster zones like armies. They work from dawn to dusk.

Just outside Chipley, Florida, three wooden crosses stand beside the highway at the intersection of Highway 77 and Talton Drive. I pulled over to look at them.

Neon-colored vests hang from a pinewood crossarm, which resembles an electrical utility pole.

Beneath the crosses are hardhats, American flags, and handwritten notes. The roadside monument was built to honor three line workers killed in a hit-and-run accident in Washington County.

You might’ve read about it. It happened months ago when a vehicle left the road and struck workers who were restoring power to an area affected by Hurricane Michael.

I am interrupted by the sound of tires on gravel.

A truck pulls beside me. The driver kills his engine and rolls his window down. I see a man with tanned cheeks and lines on his face.

He doesn’t introduce himself, he only says:

“Them lineman were working seventeen-hour days. They came from all over the nation after the storm, worked like dogs. They were good,

good men.”

Good men.

Line workers like these men invade disaster zones like armies. They work from dawn to dusk. They survive on light sleep, caffeine, and text messages from their children.

“I’ll tell ya,” the man says, “losing one of our own was harder on folks in Chipley than the storm was.”

Chipley is a town with a main street so short you could roll a bowling ball through it without much effort. The community is so tight it holds water.

When I was sixteen, I once dated a girl who lived in Chipley, she pronounced it “CHEE-yip-lee.” She was from a family who still shelled peas on the porch before supper.

After the hurricane, utility workers came by the hundreds, they blanketed Northwest Florida. In this part of the world, you couldn’t drive 10 feet without seeing cherry-pickers beside utility poles, and men working…

Dear Katrina,

Thanks for the story you sent me. I read it twice because it was so good. I especially liked the part about the magical princess falling in love with the NFL player. Love stories are the best.

From your letter, it sounds like this year has been hard on you. Not only did your parents get divorced, but you’ve relocated to a new state.

You asked me a question:

“I don’t have friends at my new school, how do I get everyone to like me?”

That’s a tough one, Katrina. I don’t really have an answer.

But, judging by your well-written letter, and your three-page story fairytale romance, this is not going to be difficult. You are a very bright ten-year-old with a unique talent.

I know this because in your story you used the word “exquisite” when you described your main character.

Most girls would’ve chosen a different word. They would’ve used the word “beautiful,” or worse: “pretty.” But not you. You went for the gold

medal. That shows real smarts.

When I was your age, I also had an usual talent. I could memorize song lyrics after only hearing a tune once or twice.

My father thought this ability was wonderful. He would turn on a radio, let me listen to a song, then flip it off to see if I could remember the words.

Usually, I could sing almost every verse.

At school, however, I was an outsider. I wasn’t a natural athlete, I wasn’t a good student, I had an overbite, and I was chubby. I didn’t have many friends.

But that all changed one fateful day. Our class had an after-school party. I don’t remember what we were celebrating, but I remember cake.

The kids ate so much sugar it made them insane. Especially George Walborsky. And if you knew George Walborsky, like so…

We were newlyweds, living in a grungy apartment.

Each morning, I would wake before her. I would pass my morning hours writing poetry on a yellow legal pad, sipping coffee.

Mostly, I’d write the kinds of god-awful things you’d expect newlyweds to write. I’m talking painfully corny stuff. I’d leave these poems on slips of paper scattered throughout our apartment for her to find.

One such poem read:

“Together, the two of us,
“In thought, and deed, and breath, and heart,
“Shall never be lacerated apart.”

Gag me with number-two pencil. “Lacerated?” What kind of a dork uses that word? In fact, I’m not certain this verb works in this particular case.

LACERATE [verb: las-uh-reyt] lac·er·at·ed, lac·er·at·ing
1. to tear; mangle; rip. Example: “Hey dude, that poem you wrote really freakin’ lacerated.”

My wife saved all my crummy poems in a shoebox, and today they reside in a storage closet.

Anyway, when we first married, we lived in an apartment that smelled like dead squirrels.

I am not being figurative. I mean our apartment actually had a nest of decomposing squirrels in the attic above our master bedroom.

The place was tiny, and about as ugly as homemade soap. The tenant before us had painted the walls black and greenish-gray. Sherwin Williams officially titled this color “Seasick Granite®.”

When we moved in, we made the place our own. We painted the walls brown and khaki. We bought a used coffee table and some scented candles.

My friend, Chubbs, found an old console television on the side of the road. I was lucky enough to claim the TV before the garbage man came.

The thing was heavier than a dead preacher, but we got it up the stairs. Chubbs, however, would suffer from severe disc degenerative problems for the rest of his life.

Our building sat across the…