Hate is for sale, and it’s buy-one-get-one-free this week. People are killing people. Crime-scene tape gets strung across innocent porches. Explosions right and left.

Huntsville, Alabama—Enrique is a long way from Guatemala. A teenager. He speaks no English.

He works long hours on framing crews. He lives in a tent behind the gas station with two other boys.

Enrique comes down with a cold. The cold gets worse. And worse. He spends days lying on the ground of his campsite, wheezing, moaning. His fever is boiling hot.

One night, he hobbles through town for help. He finds an insurance office with a light on.

Enrique walks inside and mumbles, “Ayudame.” Then, he collapses.

One man drives Enrique to the hospital. Then, the man gives Enrique a place to stay—for two years.

And well, that was a long time ago. A lot of people have helped Enrique throughout his life.

They helped him get his citizenship, for instance. They also taught him English. They helped him through school. They helped him through nursing school, and clinicals.

Most of those same people, and fellow nurses, were at Enrique’s wedding.

Morgantown, West Virginia— Cindy is a recent

widow. She is driving the interstate, on her way home from work. It’s late.

She sees a girl, walking the shoulder, pushing a stroller. She wears a fast-food uniform.

Cindy stops. “Can I give you a ride?” she asks.

The girl refuses and says she doesn’t mind walking.

Cindy sees her again the next morning. This time, it is raining. Cindy offers the girl and her baby a ride.

The girl tells Cindy she was kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend, she has no family, and no place to stay.

The last few weeks, the girl’s been living in a friend’s garage, sleeping on an air mattress. Her baby has been sleeping in a cardboard box.

Cindy considers giving money, but it doesn’t feel like enough. So, she brings the young woman home.

The next day,…

Me. A kid trapped in an adult’s body. Me. Someone who once wanted to be a journalist, but hit too many roadblocks. Me. Someone who finally got around to finishing high school in his mid-twenties; college in his thirties.

Monroeville, Alabama—you couldn’t ask for a prettier day. The sky is cloudless. The town square looks like it did when Harper Lee’s book was first written.

And I’ll never forget reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for the first time. I was a chubby kid with a very bald head when I first read Atticus Finch’s words:

“Hold your head high, and keep your fists down.”

Let me explain the baldness: I was fourteen. I’d just lost my hair in a senseless act of home-haircutting. The clipper guard on Mama’s electric razor slipped. I bore a bald spot the size of an aircraft landing strip.

To fix this, Mama scalped me.

When I saw my reflection in the mirror, I cried. My mother kissed my bald head and said, “It’ll grow back.”

To cheer me up, my aunt gave me a paperback book. I read it in one day. The next afternoon, I wrote a five-hundred-word story. I entitled it: TO SHAVE A MOCKINGBIRD.

Many years later, as an adult, I drove to Monroeville to cover the stage adaptation of MOCKINGBIRD. I’d

been invited by veteran journalist, stage-actor, and highly-decorated Methodist, Connie Baggett.

I’ll never forget it.

I arrived in Monroeville at sunset. It was mid-March, but outside it was colder than a brass toilet in a single-wide trailer.

I met Connie in the parking lot of the famed courthouse. She took me on an impromptu tour of the whole town.

“I used to cover Monroeville,” she said. “When I worked for the Press Register, this was part of my territory.”

She was a real newspaper journalist. She was the kind I had wished I could’ve been when I was a kid, but never was. And she had good stories.

She told me about the first time she’d interviewed Harper Lee. She told me local tales and folklore. She pointed out the best barbecue joint in town—on Rutherford Street.

Then, she…

I walk inside to pay for gas. There is a cardboard box near the counter. The box is filled with Ziplock baggies of boiled peanuts. On the bags are handwritten words: “P-Nuts $1.00.”

An old gas station. They have the old pumps with spinning numbers. There is a handwritten sign on the front door: “No dogs in the bathrooms.”

I wonder how that sign came to be.

There are men sitting in chairs out front. One man holds a plastic Coke bottle full of brown spit. The other men are relaxing on the axis of the wheel of life.

There are two Auburn University caps, one Roll Tide, and a cowboy hat. A dog sleeps beside them.

“Howdy,” says one man. “How ya din today?”

It’s been a long time since anyone asked me how I was “din.”

My answer is pure reflex. One I can’t lose.

“Middlin’,” I say. That’s what old timers in my youth said. Phrases like that were used at feed stores, covered-dish socials, and in hardware store aisles, while weighing a pound of nails.

“How ‘bout y’all?” I ask.

One man spits. “If I’s din any better, wouldn’t be able to stand myself.”

I pump gas. When the pump reaches seventy dollars it shuts off. Seventy big ones. It feels like highway robbery.

Long ago, my daddy thought paying ninety-six cents per gallon gas was disgusting. He would mumble colorful words, then say: “When I was a kid, gas was only TWENTY-FIVE cents.”

My granddaddy would say the exact same thing. Only he would add: “I remember when gas was a DIME a gallon.”

And so it went. I come from a long line of old men who reminisce about the price of crude oil.

These were old-world gentlemen who carved pine sticks with pocket knives. Every day, a few more of these men disappear, and I miss them. When they’re gone, who’s going to complain about the price of gasoline?

Before the War, my grandfather pumped gas at a country store. He wore a ball…

Flowers are pretty. And that’s what you are. Pretty. You make life pretty, just by being alive. You might not feel pretty right now, but that’s only because it’s not your season.

“People are flowers,” an elderly church lady named Miss Rebecca once told me.

She was a white-haired sweetheart who made poundcake that was good enough to make strict Baptists take the name of Andy Griffith in vain.

Anyway, there are a lot of ideas on life. Some folks think life is a journey. Like hiking a mountain with the Boy Scouts—who usually smell like the backend of a filthy goat.

Everyone has their own ideas, but if you ask me, we’re flowers, like Miss Rebecca said.

Bear with me here.

Flowers are pretty. And that’s what you are. Pretty. You make life pretty, just by being alive. You might not feel pretty right now, but maybe that’s because it’s not your season.

We can’t all bloom in April. Some of us have to wait until July. But you will bloom. Soon. I promise.

Maybe you’ll turn into a purple violet. Maybe you’ll be a red tulip, or a rose. Maybe you’re a magnolia. Or maybe you’re like me.

I am

a common dandelion.

I know being a dandelion doesn’t sound like much to get excited about. And believe me, it took me a LONG TIME to be happy about being one. But this is only because most folks call dandelions “weeds.”

For many years, that’s how I thought of myself. And that’s why I’m writing this to you.

Dandelions aren’t weeds. They might be overlooked, unwanted, uncared for, and sprayed with pesticides, but they are flowers.

Yes sir. Dandelions are strong, and bright, and yellow. We open every morning to the sun. We close at night. We have the longest flowering season of ANY dadgum plant out there.

Roses might be breathtaking, but we are long lasting. And if we’re lucky, after we die, some grade-school kid will blow our fuzz into the wind.

Our seeds can travel…

So days turned into months. Clark was weak from treatment. He spent entire weeks in bed. He sat on the floor near the toilet a lot.

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.


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…

Here is a woman, I’m thinking, who’s got a room bursting at the rafters with folks. There are wrong orders to fix, grumpy customers to pacify, and employees who want to bend her ear.

The Cracker Barrel in Prattville is busy. And loud. Inside, there isn’t much in the way of elbow room. There are heaps of people eating dangerous amounts of biscuits.

And I am trying master the wooden Triangle Peg game.

The object of the game, of course, is simple. Leave the fewest pegs remaining on the triangle as possible.

Let’s say, for instance, you finish a game and only one peg is left. This means you are a NASA-level genius. Two pegs; you are moderately clever. Four pegs; your parents are first cousins.

Whenever I play the Triangle game, it’s not pretty.

I love it here. But then, I have a long history with Cracker Barrel. I’ve eaten at Cracker Barrels from Junction City to Gainesville. The food suits me.

The overhead music always has steel guitar in it.

Today, an elderly couple is sitting next to me. The man is skinny. She is frail. They are shoulder to shoulder.

The man is wearing a hospital bracelet. His entire lower

leg is in a brace. His face is bruised purple. He is resting his head onto the old woman’s shoulder.

“I love you, Judy,” he says.

She just pats his head and scans the menu.

On the other side of the dining room is a table of paramedics. They wear radios on their shoulders. Their eyes are drooping. It looks like they’ve had a long night.

I eavesdrop on their conversation, but can’t make out much. All I hear is: “I’m ready to go home.”

These men are modern-day saints.

Behind me is a young family with five kids. Four boys are tall and thick. One is not.

One child is small and slight. He has a device in his ear and a device mounted on his head. He stares at his older brother’s plate and says, “Can I have…

No. You might not have movie-star cheekbones. Join the crowd, brother. Some of us have faces that were practically made for radio. But the universe sees us. And it doesn’t make us any less pretty.

Flowers. Buy them. Today. Give them to her for no reason.

It’s simple. You wrote me for advice, so here it is. You’re seventeen years old and you want her to notice you. Flowers.

Here’s the way I see it:

You want to stand out from a herd of average Joes, right? So, let’s have a look at this flock of seventeen-year-old Joes closely—don’t forget to plug your nose, some Joes haven’t learned about Speed Stick yet.

So here we are. Can you see them? Do you notice anything?

I do. Many have cellphones in their hands. They aren’t even LOOKING at each other. They’re staring at electronics.

Sure, these boys might be more handsome, more athletic, or more popular than you are. Their families might be wealthy. Their fathers might own golf clubs that are more expensive than the average human liver.

So what? I’ll bet you five bucks those boys don’t buy flowers.

And that’s not an opinion, it’s a statistic. Studies show that American boys don’t buy flowers like they used

to. I don’t want to get into the numbers here, but let’s just say that floral purchases among young males are down. Way down.

Boys quit buying flowers right around the time Andy Griffith went off the air. Somewhere along the way, text messages and Snapchat took over the world. And if you ask me—which you didn’t—that’s a crying shame.

Just the other night, for instance, I saw two teenagers in a pizza joint. They were sitting on opposite sides of a booth.

The young woman was drumming her fingers on the table, staring into the distance. Bored. The young man was on his phone.

Then, without warning, the young man stood. He slid into the seat beside the girl. He pressed his shoulders against hers. They smiled. He held his phone outward. Selfie time.

He spent…

After he died, I disappointed him. I didn’t attend high school until later in my adult life. And college took me a long time. A long, long time.

When I drive in the rain, I usually have to pull over. This is because my truck tires are almost bald, they slip in heavy rain.

You might not care about this, but I bought these tires just before a road trip to Savannah, Georgia. And at the time, they were all I could afford.

I was about to take a job, writing for a small magazine, right after I graduated college—I was a thirty-year-old man when I graduated.

It was a big deal for me. A big, big deal. I could hardly afford the trip, but I wanted to be a writer, so:

“Look out, Savannah.”

I paid two hundred bucks for tires that were supposed to get me there. They were missing most of their treads, but the price was right. I bought them at a secondhand tire shop. The owner was Russian.

He said: “These be very okay tires, but you no drive in rain or you die.”

Die. Right.

So on the

way to Savannah, I pulled over at a Citgo station when it started raining.

A man stood beneath the awning, smoking a cigarette. He had wrinkled skin, he wore denim and boots. He was a carbon copy of the people I come from. Steelworking men who dangle from iron beams with little more in their hearts than family and cuss words.

There was a little girl with him, nine or ten, maybe. She was watching the rain. The girl was his granddaughter.

She was out of school for a doctor’s appointment. Her parents couldn’t get off work, so he drove three hours from Nashville to take her.

Three hours.

“When this rain lets up,” he said. “I’m dropping her off and heading back to Nashville for work. I’m working overtime tonight.”

Age sixty-seven. Still working overtime. Driving six hours, roundtrip,
in one…

The woman sitting beside me is from Atlanta. She lost her husband a few years ago to a work accident. She starts talking about Heaven.

A dim-lit bar with greasy burgers and three choices of beer—two are Budweiser variations. A jukebox is playing George Jones.

Heaven, I am convinced, is a place with a jukebox.

It’s quiet tonight. The folks here are mostly out-of-towners. Take me, for instance, I’m an out-of-towner.

The woman sitting beside me is from Atlanta. She lost her husband a few years ago to a work accident. She starts talking about Heaven.

This is not typical barroom conversation. She’s had a little too much to drink. The server has to call her a cab.

She asks if I believe in an afterlife. Before I can answer, the bartender answers:

“Honey, nobody wants to hear about Heaven,” the bartender says. “Why don’t you go wait outside for your cab.”

But it’s too late. We are talking about the afterlife in a saloon. The conversational train cannot be stopped.

The man beside me is a mechanic for factory equipment. He repairs the things that make things.

“Yeah, I believe in it,” he says. “I think going on to Glory

is different for everyone.”


A waitress speaks. She’s late-forties. I understand she has a bachelor’s in literature. The money in food service is better.

“Heaven’s real,” she says. “I just know it. I’ve seen it. When I was a little girl, I had an experience, I almost died. I saw things.

“Heaven’s all around us, all the time. Our dead loved ones are in the room with us right now. We just can’t see’em.”

Hi, Daddy.

She lost her mother to lung cancer. Her mother was sixty-one.

Everyone has lost somebody.

The busboy-slash-dishwasher enters the room. He’s early twenties. His brother joined the Marines a few years ago. His father abandoned him when he was a teenager. He and his brother practically raised each other.

“I WANT Heaven to be real,” he says.…

The first thing we did was name the animal “Blackie”—an original name, I know. Then, all four of us laid on our stomachs beneath a sagging shotgun house, in the dirt, talking in high-pitched voices to Old Black.

My childhood friend, Danny, was a dog-person.

I remember once, we were painting a house together. The house was old. Four of us boys were painting it because the owner was too old to do it himself.

We took several days to finish—earning twenty bucks per boy. We painted the clapboards flat white and the shutters green. We drank well over our legal limit of Coca-Colas.

And one sunny day, a dog trotted into the yard while we painted. It walked with a limp. It hobbled toward the house and crawled beneath the porch.

Danny was the first to crawl in after the dog. Dog-people, you see, do strange things like that.

We could see the dog was in bad shape. There was dark, shiny blood on its stomach. It growled if anyone got too close.

“He’s hurt,” said Danny. “I think he’s needs our help.”

The first thing we did was name the animal “Blackie”—an original name, I know. Then, all four of us laid on

our stomachs beneath a sagging shotgun house, in the dirt, talking in high-pitched voices to Old Black.

“Hey boy,” we said. “Who’s a good boy?”

“Here Blackie, here Blackie.”

But it did no good. Blackie a nervous wreck. He panted so hard it looked like his chest was going to explode.

Danny came up with an idea. He suggested we read books to Blackie.

“Read to him?” I remarked.

Danny reasoned that whenever his own mother read stories to him before bedtime it calmed him, lowered his blood pressure, and made him an all-around amiable human being.

So, we worked in shifts. Three boys would paint the house; one would stay beneath the porch with a book and a flashlight.

We did this for a day.

Blackie started to trust Danny. Whenever Danny was nearby, the dog seemed relaxed. Whenever…