Our beloved Braves are locked in battle with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and we are the only two in the joint who root for them.

Arizona—I am a long way from home, watching the Atlanta Braves play baseball on a television in a sports bar. I am waiting for my wife to finish shopping so we can go to dinner.

The man next to me is from Georgia, but he’s been living in Phoenix for nine years. He asks what I do for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

“Really?” he says. “That’s cool. What do you write?”

“Aviation engineering manuals.”

“Really?”

“No.”

We share pretzels from a glass bowl. Two strangers from the Southeast, meeting in a state where cactuses grow. Where waiters have never heard of sweet tea.

Our beloved Braves are locked in battle with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and we are the only two in the joint who root for them.

My friend’s elderly mother is ill. He’s leaving for home in a few days to see her. It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.

He shows a picture on his phone. A photo of a young woman and her two boys, both wearing plaid pants. Hello 1970’s.

“That’s her,” he says. “My dad bailed on us, she raised us by herself.”

I could show this man similar photos on my phone. Photos from my own broken childhood, after my father died. I could tell him I half know how he feels.

I could tell him about the first time someone called my mother a “single mother,” and how it turned my stomach. But I won’t. Because writers don’t talk, they listen.

“Mom gave us everything,” says my friend. “Me and my brother got whatever we wanted, even though she couldn’t afford nothing.”

My mother did the same thing. I could tell stories about the sacrifices she made. But like I said. Writers.

Our conversation comes to a pause. The Braves are at the plate. Josh Donaldson is at bat.

“C’mon Josh!” we are both shouting at the…

Before Clark lost his hair, he had a head of blue-black, just like the superhero.

Clark was a cool kid. He had a bald head, brown eyes, and a nice smile. Clark was not his real name. But they said he liked Superman. So “Clark Kent” it is.

Before Clark lost his hair, he had a head of blue-black, just like the superhero.

When his parents found out he was sick, it nearly knocked the life out of them. But they say Clark didn’t get bothered by it. Nobody knows why. Maybe he was too young to be afraid.

Maybe he was made of steel.

Anyway, I don’t know much about pediatric oncology, but his diagnosis was bad. His mother called it a “death sentence.” His doctors were not hopeful.

But that’s not the story here.

One afternoon, on their way home from a medical appointment Clark saw a man walking the shoulder of the highway. He was near an overpass.

The man was dark-skinned, with white hair, holding the waist of his blue jeans to keep them from falling.

“Stop

Mom!” said Clark.

His mother stopped the car. Clark rolled the window down and asked the man why he was holding his pants like that.

“Lost my belt,” the man said. “And these pants are too big.”

Then, the man asked Clark’s mother for money. That’s where she drew the line. She refused to give cash to a stranger. She rolled up the windows and drove.

“We can’t just leave him,” said Clark. “He needs our help.”

Clark begged his mother to give money. Her only response was “no.”

Her son finally convinced her to stop at Walmart. They bought a belt, some sweatpants, and a few T-shirts. Then, they bought a sandwich from Subway.

They found the man beneath the overpass again. Clark gave him a plastic bag full of goodies. The man was overcome.

So days turned into…

I wonder what happened to hat tipping.

I was a boy. We were in a supermarket parking lot. I held my mother’s hand. We saw an old woman walking into the store ahead of us. She was frail, with a scarf wrapped around her white hair.

My mother pushed me toward the door. I knew what she wanted me to do.

“Be a gentleman,” she said.

And somehow, I knew what this meant. It meant I was to rush ahead of the woman and open the door for her. And when the woman thanked me, I knew which two words my mother wanted me to say.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Supermarkets did away with swinging doors a long time ago. They replaced them with automatic doors and the age of chivalry suffered another blow.

Today, the only way to open a supermarket door for an approaching female is to jog ahead, wave your hands in front of the electronic sensor, and shout, “Hurry!”

If she’s feisty, she’ll slide past you like she’s stealing third.

Being a gentleman was a big deal in my family. I never knew exactly what a gentleman was, per se, but I knew what he was supposed to do.

For starters, a gentleman always washes his hands before supper.

My mother never even had to say the words “wash your hands.” Instead, she would wear a stern face and say, “Hands, Mister.”

And that was enough. I knew if I appeared at her table with dirt beneath my fingernails I would be dragged behind the porch and shot.

My mother also believed a gentleman should walk on the curb-side of a sidewalk when accompanying a woman, or when letting her pass.

This was an odd rule. I never understood it until years later, strolling through Atlanta. I was with several of my friends. A young lady was approaching on the sidewalk. She wore a yellow…

We watched, shaking our heads, biting our lips, and a few of us wiped our eyes.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire and the world watched it burn. The only word that comes to mind is “tragedy.” A real tragedy.

I never got to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though, I had a chance once when I was nineteen. A girl I was dating from Dothan was going to France on scholarship. She asked me to go with her.

It was a bad idea. I am a small-town American who has never traveled overseas. The idea of leaving U.S. soil makes me break out in hives—I wouldn’t survive the Turkish toilets.

I told her to send me a postcard. I never saw her again.

But I always wanted to go. In fact, there are only a few things I’d like to see in person before I die:

The World Series. The Dixie Belle Riverboat. And the spires of Notre Dame de Paris.

I guess I missed my chance.

Today, my wife and I were riding through the Arizona wilderness after spending

a weekend at the Grand Canyon. The local radio station interrupted George Strait to announce that Notre Dame was on fire.

My wife turned up the volume. A reporter with a heavy French accent said:

“Ze greatest relic of our civilization is engulfed in flames.” The announcer’s voice broke with emotion. “It is a tragedy, people, a true tragedy…”

My wife covered her mouth.

We pulled over at a burger joint outside Flagstaff, not far from historic Route 66. And in the all-American diner we watched the corner television broadcast a scene from Hell.

A flaming cathedral roof, falling to pieces. Dante’s Inferno.

“I been there once,” said our waitress, filling my coffee mug. “My family’s Italian Catholic, we saw the cathedral last year and my grandpa was holding my hand all along the tour, crying at the relics.”

“We’ve been there,…

Hey, you don’t know me, but I herd you needed some in couraging so I wanted to write you.

My name’s Sean—please to meet you—I just failed the fifth grade.

I’m serious. I just up and failed school this year. It’s a long story, but I feel pretty dumb bout it.

Anyway, Teacher said we was supposed to write how we talk when we write letters, so that’s what I’m doing. Thing is, I probably shouldn’t, cause Mama said I use the word “ain’t” too dang much.

I promised her I wouldn’t use it no more. Unless, course, I half to, on count a I can’t think of a better word.

Anyway, I really want to be a writer when I grow up, but I don’t know if it’s ever gonna work out, cause I’m obviously not very smart. But I’m trying to keep my chin up bout it.

Whenever I start to feel crappy bout my own self, from failing fifth grade, Daddy said I should look in a mirror and say:

“World. You ain’t seen nothin yet.”

Well, I feel kinda dumb doing that, but he says it works pretty good. And he’s usually right.

I ask Mama about writing tips all the time since I’m plannin to be a writer. She helps me a lot. Mama went to college and she knows more than your average mama. She said I got a long way to go.

For one thing, she tole me to quit using the word “Mama” whenever I write about her. Stead, she says I should use the word “Mother,” cause she didn’t raise no hick.

And she thinks I need a dictionary cause I dont spell to good.

So it was my own fault I didn’t do good at school, I didn’t get good grades. But the main reason is cause math hasn’t never…

The Grand Canyon could not look any better. The colors of morning shine on the rocks and make purple shadows.

My wife and I stand at the rail and overlook one of the best things ever forged.

A family from Shanghai stands beside us. The Chinese man asks me to take their picture by speaking in fluent hand gestures.

His family poses.

“Say CHEESE!” I shout.

“SHREEEEEEEE!”

“No! CHEESE!”

“SHREEEEEEEX!”

Close enough for American.

I have been to the Canyon a handful of times because this was one of two places my late father loved most.

Years ago, I came here to camp and hike by myself. I had gone through a rough patch and I was here to clear my head. I slept in a tent, I lived on canned food and warm beer. It was great.

One night, I camped beside an older man named Jerry. He was from Oklahoma. Jerry was a Church of Christ deacon. And even though I wanted to be

alone, Jerry started tagging along on my hikes without invitation.

After one full day of walking together, we shared supper. Beans and bacon cooked over a fire. When I cracked open my can of warm beer he got upset.

He said, “You’re not actually going to DRINK that are you?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I prefer to guzzle.”

I took one sip and wished I hadn’t. The next thirty minutes were filled with a bona fide sermon about beer. I started to feel so bad that I emptied my can on the campfire and apologized for offending him.

The next morning, I tried to sneak away from camp before Jerry awoke, but I was not quick enough. Jerry was already up with the chickens.

He was wearing a tucked-in shirt, khakis, and his backpack.

“Hurry up,” he said. “We have…

I was embarrassed. No. Embarrassment doesn’t even begin to describe it. I was pathetic.

Tallahassee—The hospital volunteers luncheon was well attended. In the dining room were white-haired beauties who donate their time to suffering strangers without expecting anything in return.

These are saints. They visit those undergoing chemo. They smile at the downtrodden. They hold the hands of the infirm.

And they are always on the job.

The buffet was fried chicken, potato salad, and string beans. Flower arrangements lined the tables. The entertainment was me.

I had been running ahead of schedule. So, before the luncheon I found myself wandering Tallahassee, admiring the local sites.

I had forgotten how pretty it was. The Spanish moss in the oaks is like something from a postcard. It’s hard to believe I used to dislike this town.

It’s a long story. I’ll give you the short version.

I lived in Tally for a hot minute. And by this I mean for a couple weeks. I rented an apartment not far from Florida State University, and I planned to attend.

A little

about my boyhood education:

I was a high-school dropout. I quit school because of reasons that don’t make much sense now. Later in life, I completed my education as a grown man.

I felt pretty ashamed about this for a long time.

After I finished community college, I applied and got accepted to FSU, and I was over the moon. I bought curtains for my new apartment. Scented candles. Throw rugs.

But my excitement was short lived. As it happened, I had not been accepted. A clerical error had been made.

I was formally rejected a few days before classes started. And on that disappointing day, I sat in my truck watching teenagers scurry to class, and I felt like the world’s biggest flunky.

I’ll never forget seeing a teenage boy on a skateboard who wore pajamas. He was on his way…

Montgomery—I’m sitting beside Judge Jimmy Pool at a baseball game. He’s wearing a ball cap. We’re talking during the third inning.

“Montgomery’s downtown wasn’t always this alive,” he says. “The downtown used to be dead in the water.”

I remember those days, back when tumbleweed rolled down Coosa Street and shop windows were vacant.

My cousin and I came here long ago to visit some friends. The downtown felt empty. A man wearing a trash bag asked if we had a few bucks. My cousin gave him a five. The man thanked us, then showed us a dandy little knife.

“How about a little more?” the man said.

My cousin gave him the rest of his cash. I gave him all my pocket change, a rubber band, some plastic-wrapped Saltines, and an expired Florida Lotto ticket.

The downtown is very different now. It is hip, and vibrant. The Hank Williams statue stands near the river, overlooking bustling streets and nice barbecue joints. Acoustic music comes from a sidewalk

restaurant.

“I can tell you exactly when this town changed,” says Judge Jimmy. “It was when Mayor Bobby Bright said, ‘I’m gonna bring baseball to Montgomery.’”

And so it happened. Fifteen years ago, the quaint stadium became a reality. And that, by God, was that.

Locals voted on a mascot. Lots of choices were offered, but the buttermilk biscuit logo won by a country mile.

“We’re really just a big small town,” says Jimmy. “And the Biscuits bring that out in us, we’re like family at this park, sometimes this stadium is my living room.”

I see what he means. In this small park, I am lost in the bygone era of our grandparents. Maybe it’s the gruff voices of umpires, the smell of stale beer, or the sounds of children laughing.

The food isn’t bad, either. Here they serve Conecuh Sausage.…

When we got closer, I saw her. It was Minnie Pearl. The price tag on her hat dangled from the brim. Her voice was unmistakable.

I remember going to see the Grand Ole Opry as a boy. My father drove through the busy city of Nashville. I was five, he was thirty-six.

“Daddy,” I said, “Do you think that there will be anyone famous there?”

“Do I?” he said. “You better know it. There’s always famous people at the Opry, and famous ghosts, too.”

“Ghosts? Really?”

My daddy was good with a ghost story.

“Why sure,” he said. “The ghost of Hank Williams, for one thing. And Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell... There’s always ghosts at the Opry.”

“Are they nice ghosts?”

“Depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“On if you’re a nice little boy or not.”

“What happens if I’m not a nice little boy?”

“A ghost will swoop down from the rafters and rip your face off, suck out your soul, and send you to Hell and make you listen to classical music for eternity.”

“Really?”

Then he would laugh. My father had a laugh that sounded like Mister Ed.

My father and I walked into the amphitheater

and were greeted by the smell of hotdogs and popcorn. I had the greatest evening of my life.

Men in ten-gallon hats. Women in rhinestones. Steel guitars, dueling fiddles, the sound of Keith Bilbrey's silky announcing voice.

We were suspended from the real world for a while. It was a star-studded dream, wrapped in a beehive hairdo, with a guitar strapped to its chest. Onstage we saw Jerry Clower, telling jokes.

My father laughed, slapping his armrest. And there was that Mister Ed laugh again. His odd laugh was funnier than any joke that ever inspired it.

But the height of our evening was not the music, nor the laughs, nor the sparkling rhinestones. The apex of this memory happened after the show.

We made our way to the lobby. There was a horde of people waiting in line. We…

One of the first things my mother did after my father’s funeral was take us on a trip to Branson, Missouri. My uncle came along.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died Saturday. The funeral is tomorrow. You have written about your father’s funeral, and the days before and after. Is there anything we can do to make things easier for my ten-year-old son? I know he’ll have a hole in his heart forever. I want to do everything possible to support him.

Thanks,
I-LOVE-MY-SON

DEAR I-LOVE:

My mother took me to a therapist after my father’s funeral. Everyone was pretty worried about me because I quit talking.

They tried to get me out of my shell, but I hurt too badly to laugh, smile, or talk. Besides, I didn’t have anything to say.

The therapist’s office was behind a Methodist church and the doctor was a man with a New York accent who never shut up and always tossed a football in the air while he talked.

I guess this was his attempt at being a down-to-earth guy, playing with a football while he explained my father’s suicide. But it didn’t work.

Every time he spoke,

tossing that dumb ball, I kept thinking of how my father used to say, “There’s no better form of birth control than a New York accent.”

And I would start to giggle. But I still refused to talk.

He told me to stop laughing. Then he asked me to try a mental exercise. He handed me an empty mayonnaise jar and a handful of pennies.

“Put a penny in the jar,” he said.

I wouldn’t do it. So we sat for a long time and I held those pennies, thinking about how foolish I felt.

“Those are hurt-pennies,” he said. “And if you put enough hurt-pennies in your jar, one day you’ll have all your hurt in an itty-bitty place, then you can put the lid on and hurl it into the ocean.”

Then he tossed his football in…