This morning there were two dozen homegrown tomatoes on my doorstep. I arrived home to see Piggly Wiggly bags hanging from my doorknob, and I almost lost control of my lower extremities.

It’s a little early for tomato season, but this is Florida, and apparently someone got an early jump on the horse race.

I come from country people. And country people regard tomatoes as holy things. We get excited about items like tomatoes. Deeply excited.

We are the kind of people who show our love in non-obvious ways by using things like vegetables, casseroles, love notes, Dairy Queen products, saturated fat, and passive aggression. Sometimes we use all six.

I saw no note attached to these tomatoes, which struck me as odd. A secret tomato-admirer, perhaps.

I brought the bags inside. I opened them. There were tomatoes of every shape and color. Yellows, greens, reds, and even rich purples the color of eggplants.

Purple tomatoes, my mother once told me, are magic tomatoes. “You’ve hit the tomato jackpot,” my mother would say,

“if you come across a tomato so full of magic that it’s turning purple.”

Well, I have a thing for tomatoes, magic or otherwise. I’m crazy about them. My mother used to grow them in the summers of my youth. If I close my eyes I can still smell the greenery in her garden. Her small patches of tilled earth were surrounded by chicken wire and human hair clippings.

The clippings were mine. Back in those days, my mother used to cut my hair with dull scissors on our back porch. In fact, this was a primary reason for my traumatic childhood. Because my haircuts were a cross between Bozo the Clown and a regulation cue ball.

Often, people at school would say things like, “Hey, who cuts your hair? Ronnie Milsap?”

Directly after my weedwacker haircuts, my mother would gather hair clippings into a dustpan and…

“Tag! You’re it!”

I’m watching several kids play tag in a neighborhood. Eight children scream: “Jon’s it! Jon’s it!”

Jon is “it.”

Their high-pitched laughter is followed by the sounds of tiny feet running upon grassy earth.

Jon is a second-grade redhead who chases his friends like his reputation is on the butcher block right now. Because in Kid World, it is.

I was walking my dog when I came upon them. But now I’m a spectator at this fracas, along with two moms who shout idle threats between their conversations.

And I’m remembering when I was “it” during boyhood games of tag.

When I was in fourth grade I had red hair and I looked like Danny Partridge with a serious carb addiction. Our games of tag were intense. SEC rules. It was a full-contact sport.

One time, Katrina Hoskins was “it.” Katrina was three feet taller than the entire fourth grade. She could pick me up and twirl me overhead like she was a shooting guard for University of Kentucky.

Katrina thought I was cute and often proclaimed that she

was going to marry me. But when I told Katrina that I was keeping my nuptial options open, she used an Encyclopaedia Britannica to dislodge my jawbone during a game of tag. She selected “Volume 3: Bolivia—Cervantes.”

“Tag! Jon’s it!”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

Someone starts crying.

“Hey!” shouts a mom. “Don’t hit your brother, or so help me, I will come over there and...!”

I wasn’t lucky enough to have kids. We wanted them. We tried for them, but it didn’t happen. Even so, I always imagined what my own children would be like.

I had it all planned out in my imagination. If we had a boy, he would’ve been named Lewis. If it were a girl, I would have remortgaged our home to spoil her and make her queen of the United States. And she…

I receive lots of mail each morning. I have compiled some of these emails together and presented them in a generic Q-and-A format, like I sometimes do. So let’s get started:

Q: Hi, Sean, I hate your stories. I don’t like you. I am an angry person who squashes bugs and waxes the steps of nursing homes for laughs. You, sir, are an idiot, your writing stinks.

A: Hey, thanks. I’m not exactly a huge fan of your writing, either.

Q: Howdy, Sean. Longtime reader, first time emailer. How do you go about finding stuff to write about?

A: Long ago, believe it or not, I used to go to Kmart for material inspiration, but then Kmart closed.

Q: Kmart?

A: Yes. We had a great little Kmart in town. When I began writing this column, I would hang out at Kmart before work because my friend Jay was an employee and gave me free nachos and ICEEs.

Q: So what happened?

A: What happened was Kmart, a sacred American pastime, founded 122 years ago in 1899, a company which used

to operate 2,100 stores nationwide, shut down their stores. Currently, there are 34 Kmarts remaining in the U.S.

Q: Really?

A: Thirty-four.

Q: So where do you get material now?

A: Beer.

Q: Be serious.

A: Okay, well, I write seven mediocre columns each week. Meaning: finding human stories is my full-time pursuit. I dig for them anywhere I can.

Q: What do you look for in a story?

A: Nostalgia is a big one. But perspective is the most important thing to me. With the right perspective it’s possible to find something great in any event. My mama taught me that.

Q: So do you keep a journal or what?

A: You bet. Early on I realized I’d better start carrying a journal because producing a daily column is not a part-time job.

When I started traveling a…

It was a redeye flight. Pre-pandemic. My wife and I flew out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport at an ungodly hour of night.

We had been in Arizona to visit my cousins. July in Phoenix was hotter than playing tag in the attic. Earlier that day in Glendale I’d seen a college kid at our hotel frying an egg on the hood of his car as a joke.

Our nine-o’clock flight had been cancelled, so we took a flight departing from PHX while the rest of the sane world was sleeping. We sat in the rear of the plane; livestock class.

I watched the pinprick lights of the Copper State twinkle from 30,000 feet as my wife slept with her head on my shoulder.

The aircraft was mostly empty except for a few sleep-deprived flight attendants and us masochists.

On my other side was a woman wearing pink medical scrubs. She was drifting in and out of consciousness. Her head kept falling onto my other shoulder, whereupon she’d catch herself and apologize.

“Oh, jeez. I’m sorry, sir.”

I smiled. “Don’t be.”

She

had cropped salt-and-pepper hair and wore a hospital lanyard nametag that read LPN. She seemed restless.

I started the conversation. “You’re a nurse.”

“Yeah,” she replied groggily. Then she closed her eyes again, signaling we were done talking.

I glanced at the flight attendants, half-sleeping, buckled in their jumpseats. I was jealous. I tried to fall asleep, too, but it wasn’t happening. My wife was snoring like a GM 6.6 liter diesel.

I pointed to the nurse’s hospital nametag. “Originally from Phoenix?”

She shook her head, eyes still closed. “Nobody’s originally from Phoenix. I’m from Georgia. You?”

“Sunshine State.”

The sound of turbine engines hummed beneath us and we both tried to sleep. But failed.

She said, “So what do you do?”

“Very little.”

Her turn to smile. It was a great smile, but there was sadness…

The wedding was held at an abandoned bank building in small-town Florida. It was a rundown building with old security cameras still mounted on the walls and ballpoint pens on chains. The bride got the venue for a bargain.

I was working as a Sheetrocker at the time. I got off work early and showed up with John Tyler to erect the folding chairs.

There were 40 chairs, the brown kind that every church and civic league used back in the day. We also unfolded old-fashioned card tables with steel legs. The sorts of tables that were responsible for 99 percent of all finger amputations within the U.S. at one time.

Next, the caterer arrived. Although, she wasn’t an actual caterer, she was the groom’s grandma. Her name was Marge. She was gray-haired, wiry, from Queens, New York. And I fell in love with her.

Marge barked orders like a jayvee football coach. She had a northern accent that sounded like submachine gun fire, and everything she said sounded like she

was supremely ticked off.

Marge and her daughters prepared so much food they had to rent a U-Haul van just to carry all the casseroles and chafing dishes.

The designated gift area was located at the old walk-up teller windows. When guests arrived they were to bring presents to the windows that were manned by Laney Daniels and her mom. Laney accepted all gifts and jokingly asked guests for valid IDs and account numbers.

Gifts were then stored in the walk-in vault.

The altar was a couple music stands I stole from a local school, both covered in text which read: “Property of Okaloosa Walton Community College.” Which I thought was a nice touch.

And the flowers. You should have seen the magnolias and lilies, Marge did the place up nicely, you would have never recognized the old bank.

Soon, cars began arriving in the parking lot. Before the…

It’s raining. Hard rain. Old Testament rain. I’m driving and I cannot hear my truck radio over the roaring water on my windshield.

This is what our local meteorologists calls “overcast with 10 percent chance of some precipitation.”

This is definitely “some precipitation.” This is what we in West Florida call a frog choker.

I am wearing my nautical-yellow rain slicker. Water drips from my hat brim like someone recently emptied a mop bucket onto my head.

My dog sits in the passenger seat beside me. Her head follows the windshield wipers. Left. Right. Left… I don’t know how she doesn’t pull a neck muscle.

We are caught in a ridiculous traffic jam. There is a major gas shortage in Florida, which is causing a gasoline panic. Everyone is hitting the highways in search of filling stations, draining the gasoline supply.

All our local gas stations have gone belly up. I’ve tried six different stations this morning. Bupkis.

Throw in “some precipitation,” and you get the slowest moving gridlock known to civilized man.

In traffic like this it will

take me 14 hours to get to the supermarket; 23 hours to get to the post office; and I might as well forget going to PetSmart. Which is where I was going.

Now traffic is moving again. Hallelujah. I’m driving at a pretty good clip when suddenly...

I slam my brakes.

Tires screech. My truck fishtails.

There is a guy is running across the highway in front of me. And I’m caught in a skid, braced for ultimate disaster.

The young man is holding up both hands, screaming at traffic. I can read his lips. “Stop!”

Thank God my truck does.

The kid jogs across a slick highway, through the booming rain. Cars slide to a halt. This boy is out of his mind, he just came scarily close to becoming a full-time harp player.

Car horns blare behind me. All-weather…

Out of the 7 billion people in this world, I saw you.

It was yesterday. You let a lady cut in line at the supermarket. An elderly lady. She was wearing a plastic COVID face shield, toting a fanny-pack oxygen cylinder. I watched you follow this woman to her Nissan Altima and load her groceries.

And last week I saw you. You were mowing a lawn. You, your teenage son, and your friends had all organized a weekly lawn maintenance schedule for a man whose legs were amputated due to diabetes. You work free of charge.

It was also you who returned my neighbor’s dog when the animal went missing. You hiked through four miles of backwoods with a pocketful of dog treats, calling its name. You aren’t even from our town. Someone told me you were vacationing here from Oregon.

Oregon, of all places. The Beaver State.

You sent money to 16-year-old Sara, a terminal cancer patient, as part of an online fundraiser. Altogether Sara raised nearly one hundred thousand bucks before she

died. And while you couldn’t save her life, you certainly showed the world how beautiful her life was.

You adopted a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome even though you are 56 years old and have already raised three children.

You donated blood.

You donated a stack of Louis L’Amour books to our local library. For which I can’t thank you enough.

And those are just the apparent things you did. What about the itty-bitty everyday things you do? Things nobody sees?

Like when you held the door for the gal walking into the Dollar General.

Or when you handed a few bucks to the guy outside Walmart who held a handwritten sign reading: “Hungry.”

Or how about each time you put on your scrubs to work a double shift in the emergency department? You administer IV fluids, take patient samples, and supervise a junior staff of…

A hospital waiting room. My wife sits to my right, waiting on a routine visit. Nothing major. Run-of-the-mill stuff. Welcome to the land of medical care. There will be a co-pay.

And at the moment my wife is hypnotized by the corner television—which is tuned to a home improvement show.

The TV host, a hip guy in a tool-belt, is about to create vaulted ceilings in an average residential bathroom using only his ingenuity, a sledgehammer, and an off-camera 260-man contractor crew. My wife asks if I think our bathroom needs vaulted ceilings.

I do not.

To my left I see a couple, mid-30s. He looks like he works hard for a living—scuffed jeans and boots, weathered skin. The woman beside him, a strawberry blonde, bites her fingernails.

“It's cold in here,” she's saying.

“Yep,” he answers with a blank face.

She pets his hand then holds it. And while he stares straight ahead, she measures her tiny hand against his big one. One of Monet’s water lilies hangs behind them.

“Are you scared?” she asks.

He shrugs,

eyes on the television.

On TV they're now using subway tiles for a kitchen backsplash instead of, I don’t know, non-subway tiles. The TV host is quite excited about this. These subway tiles are apparently a big deal to TV Guy. I get the feeling TV Guy wakes up in the morning and showers with his tool belt on.

My wife taps my shoulder. “I want one of those backsplashes."

I smile.

The woman in the waiting room leans her head on the man's shoulder. He's gazing at the television, deep in thought. Maybe he wants a subway-tile backsplash, too.

The woman says, “I've been praying that the doctor can cut it all out while he's in there, I mean, every last bit.”

“Yeah,” says the unblinking man, letting out a sigh. He's in no mood to chat about whatever cutting he…

DEAR SEAN:

I taught English for 21 years and I often read grammatical mistakes in your writing. This makes me cringe. May I suggest that you refrain from calling yourself a columnist (as you often do) until you get your grammar in order?

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you’re not a columnist. True newspaper columnists like Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck were in command of the English language. Your command is questionable.

Thanks,
GET-AN-EDITOR

DEAR MRS. SUNSHINE:

You’re more fun than a trip to the dentist. Which is exactly where I was when I read your gracious email. I was sitting in the dentist’s chair while Doctor Tim Nettles of Columbiana, Alabama, was peering into my oral cavity and admiring several decades of Folgers stains.

During this vulnerable moment, my phone vibrated in my pocket with your uplifting email. What a blessing. You sound like someone I could really be friends with.

But hey, you’re entitled to your opinions. This is America. And like my grandfather always said:

“Our opinions are like shiny award plaques hanging

in used car dealerships that nobody gives a flying flip about.”

You would have liked Granddaddy. He would have made you cringe, too. He butchered English like it was a dollar-store minute steak. The man worked in sentence fragments the way some work in oils or clay.

“Sir?” a waitress might say to Granddaddy. “Would you like a refill on your iced tea?”

He would extend his cup and grunt: “Much ‘blige t’ya.”

The waitress would commence pouring, whereupon Granddaddy would nod and say, “‘Preciate ch’all.”

Before walking away, the waitress, who also spoke fluent Fragment-ese, would give the universal response. “Ah-ite.”

You would have been in linguistic heaven.

So you’re absolutely right about me fouling up the English language. And I for one ‘preciate cha. Thank you for taking the time to help me understand just what a star pupil…

Last week. I saw a young mother in the supermarket parking lot. Her kids were fussing. She had a toddler in a stroller who was howling.

Her attention was on the screaming baby, so she didn’t notice her fugitive shopping buggy rolling downhill.

I did. So I jogged after it and caught the cart before it smacked the door of a very white, very shiny, very BMW.

She gave me a quick smile and a frantic “Ohmygodthankyousomuch.”

The baby screamed another chorus of misery.

Then the mother buckled her three kids into an economy car—a vehicle with rust around the wheel-wells. When she did, she spilled her purse. It was one of those big beach-bag deals.

God love her.

She threw her head into her hands while her stuff went flying everywhere. She stayed like that a little while. I don’t know whether she was crying, but she certainly deserved to.

A few random strangers and I helped gather her things in the parking lot. I chased a runaway lipstick tube and mid journey, I was

immediately lost in a time warp.

Because, you see, long ago I knew a woman like her. A single woman, a widow, who raised two kids on a shoestring, and struggled for every buffalo nickel.

The same woman who taught me to spell my name. To tie my shoes. And how to yes-ma’am and yes-sir my elders. A woman I called Mama.

I will never forget when Mama met a young Latina woman at her Wednesday Bible study when I was a child.

The Spanish-speaking woman was single, she had a partially deaf son, she lived in a dilapidated apartment, she worked many jobs. The woman had no car, and you won’t get far in a world of interstates and overpasses without tires. Nobody knew this better than Mama.

So Mama made friends with the woman. She carried the young woman to and from…