He won games hand over fist. People came from all over just to watch him pitch. During his sophomore year, a professional scout was in the bleachers.

Behind a filling station. Middle of Nowhere, Georgia.

The kid was Master of the Mound. He stood on a pitching mound, throwing to his friend who wore a catcher’s mask. There was another holding a bat.

The first baseman shouted, “C’mon, throw the cutter!”

The kid pitched a ball so fast you only heard the smack of the catcher’s mitt.

The onlookers who watched the game were old men. They stood with hands in pockets, some with full lower lips. Spitting.

“He’s got scouts looking at him,” said one old man.

“He could be famous one day,” said another.

“He could be a major leaguer maybe.”

Baseball is poetry to watch. And this kid is a poet.

He is tall. Black. Wiry. He has long, powerful arms. And he has a story. The boy was found in a walk-in closet in a vacant house.

His biological mother left him there, wrapped in an old flannel shirt when he was a toddler. A few days after they found him, they

found her at a house down the street. Expired.

“Drugs,” said the old man, who told the story. “Both his mama and daddy.”

The kid winds up. There’s the pitch. Smack. Strike three.

The old men applaud.

This is only a friendly game between local kids. We are approaching the end of summer. School has started.

It makes me feel good to know that kids still play baseball in rural parts of the world.

The child—who looks like a man—was adopted by a local youth minister and his wife. I’ll call them the Wilsons, even though that’s not their name.

The Wilson’s had four kids when they heard about the boy, they would not let him become part of the foster pinball machine.

Pastor Wilson adopted him.

But life isn’t a storybook. It wasn’t…

Long ago, somewhere along the line, I realized most of my good friends were fatherless.

I ate with friends I haven’t seen in a million years. I ordered a New York strip. It was overcooked. But the beer was cold.

Long ago, somewhere along the line, I realized most of my good friends were fatherless.

When I discovered this, it sort of confused me. It’s not as though I ran an ad in the Thrifty Nickel that read: “Looking for friends without dads. Apply today. Must like beer.”

I first realized this as a young man, during a camping trip with a few friends. We sat around a campfire in Andalusia, Alabama, on a Saturday night. The stars were doing what they do best. And I’ll never forget this: one of my friends was trying to cook a ham sandwich on a long stick held over the campfire.

The bread caught fire and his dinner turned into an inferno. So he flung the flaming ham sandwich into the dry field. It set the grass on fire, which was soon creeping toward our trucks.

After several

minutes, we finally got the fire extinguished. When all was said and done, we were out of breath, and we even laughed about it. Then we fell silent.

“You think you’re ever gonna have kids one day?” one of us said.

Silence.

“Yeah,” said another. “I wanna prove it can be done, my old man left before I could walk. I’m gonna be the best dad you ever saw.”

Another chimed in: “Me, too. I want lots of kids. I’m gonna take’em all over the world and stuff, and take’em to Disney World.”

Disney World.

More silence.

“I ain’t never been to Disney World. You?”

“Disney is for babies.”

“Who’d ever wanna go there?”

“I ain’t been, either.”

That night, we discovered that none of us had ever been to Disney World. During the summers,…

“Cream Puff used to be small enough to fit in your pocket,” says Wanda. “Used to let him sleep in my bed and everything. Thought he’d stay that small.”

“I’m just an old woman who raises pigs,” said Miss Wanda. “You’d be crazy to wanna write about me.”

Maybe I am crazy. But right now, I am on Miss Wanda’s sprawling farm in Central Alabama, and there are pigs everywhere, roaming, making deposits.

One pig—named Twiggy—is brushing against my leg like a lovesick house cat. She is sniffing my hand. Twiggy weighs more than a commercial washing machine.

“Twiggy loves cookies,” Miss Wanda tells me. “She thinks you have cookies in your hand.”

Miss Wanda is seventy-six, and a pig lover. Her love affair with pigs started innocently just like any hobby. She bought a pig that was supposed to be a “teacup pig,” from a breeder in Georgia.

They named the tiny pig “Cream Puff.”

“Cream Puff used to be small enough to fit in your pocket,” says Wanda. “Used to let him sleep in my bed and everything. Thought he’d stay that small.”

But Cream Puff kept eating his Wheaties, and soon he was about the

size of a defensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys.

Miss Wanda explains: “I found out there ain’t no such thing as a ‘teacup pig.’ People oughta know that going into their first pig purchase.”

Check.

Cream Puff turned out to be a big old boy. He eats eight pounds of feed each day and frequently makes six-pound contributions to the Barnyard of Life.

Miss Wanda is her own woman. She is a vegetarian, a musician, a quilter, and a dedicated granny. And she loves pigs.

Wanda takes me into her home. It’s a place that smells like cinnamon and fresh bread. There is sheet music everywhere, and fabric bolts, and porcelain figurines.

She removes a violin from an old case. She plays “Flop Eared Mule,” and “Amazing Grace.”

She holds the fiddle low on her arm. Her fingers are arthritic. Her spirit…

But marriage. Somehow, this made things better. It made me feel like less of a screw-up. After suppers each night, my wife would hold my arm, we’d sit on the shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay. We’d say things like: “I can’t believe we’re married.”

Mobile, Alabama—“Just Married.” That’s what’s written on the back of a ratty tailgate in white shoe polish. The plates are North Carolina. The old Ford Ranger has seen better days.

I’m at a gas station when I see the truck. The windows are rolled down. The vehicle is empty. The young couple is inside the convenience store, paying for gas.

I am at the pump, filling my tank.

My friend is nosy. He is inspecting the small Matrimony Wagon. He peeks into the truck bed.

“They sure don’t travel light,” he says. “There must be ten pink suitcases in there.”

Welcome to marriage.

Tonight, my friend and I are on our way home after playing music in Mobile. It was a pathetic venue, but the music wasn’t bad. And besides, I’ve been playing pathetic gigs since I turned eighteen. What’s one more?

I’ve played some doozies. Bingo parlors, bowling alleys, rundown bars, a shoe store clearance, and the dreaded all-you-can-eat seafood joint.

A girl exits the store, walking toward the

vehicle.

My nosy friend is almost caught red handed. He trots away from the truck. He lights a cigarette and pretends to be inspecting my tires.

The girl reaches through the window and grabs her purse. She counts a few dollars, then steals handfuls of change from her ashtray. She counts quarters in her palm. She darts inside.

Money. It’s hard to come by when you’re a newlywed.

My friend tells a story: at his wedding, twenty-five years ago, his sister placed a money tree on the cake table. People clipped dollar bills to the branches to fund the couple’s honeymoon.

“We had ninety bucks on that tree,” he tells me. “We needed that money for our honeymoon, we were flat broke.”

My honeymoon was no lavish affair, either. We went to Charleston on a shoestring budget. I’d hocked…

I learn that Helen was a lifelong Montgomery native until her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was sixty-six when that happened. She’s a lot older now.

Montgomery, Alabama—I am standing only feet from Hank Williams’ gravestone in Oakwood Cemetery. Hank is joining me for lunch today.

On my lunch menu: a SPAM and mustard sandwich.

Long ago, my cousin and I spent a few weeks in Montgomery when he was visiting his girlfriend in Hope Hull. We were eighteen. We couldn’t afford a motel, so we slept in the back of his truck. We cooked suppers on a propane burner. We bathed in truckstop bathrooms.

The things a lovesick teenager will do.

On that trip, I visited Hank Williams’ grave for the first time. It was night. I stood before his tombstone and my cousin asked me to sing a few bars.

I sang “Mansion on a Hill.” We removed our caps.

High-school-age kids came upon us. We could see their headlights and hear them snickering.

“Have some respect!” shouted my cousin. “Audrey Williams was kin to my mother!”

I made the Sign of the Cross and took a knee, even

though Audrey Williams was about as kin as Forty-Mule-Team Borax.

The high-schoolers apologized and left; we laughed until we turned purple. And we ate SPAM and mustard sandwiches for supper.

We did that for my father’s sake, he loved SPAM almost as much as he loved Hank. My father used to cut little chunks of pink meat with his pocket knife, drown it in mustard, and place it on white bread.

I never cared for it.

Anyway, Hank’s music was my father’s music. And it ties me to him, somehow. I can see Daddy sitting on a porch, singing “Hey Good Lookin’” and whittling, while I sit in the yard, eating mud.

After my father passed, I listened to one particular Hank album until I wore it out. Because back then, Hank Senior gave me the same feeling I missed. A good feeling.

The…

Before I got to class, a man met me in the hall, he had a grave face. I knew something was wrong. He told me the university had rejected my application.

Dadeville, Alabama—Lake Martin. Long ago, I once visited this magnificent Alabamian wonder after a major university pooped on me.

Let me explain:

I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to do something that mattered. I wanted to not feel like an adult loser with the IQ of a room-temperature pumpkin. I wanted to write.

After I finished community college, I applied to the aforementioned university. I made arrangements in a new city. I rented an apartment near campus. I placed one thousand bucks in a landlord’s hand.

That same week, I moved a vanload of furniture into the ugly apartment. My buddy, Lyle, strained his hamstring moving a sofa-sleeper that weighed more than a ‘64 Buick Skylark.

My wife hung curtains, I shampooed carpets, we painted, I stocked the fridge. I even bought two masculine, yet moderately floral-scented Yankee Candles.

My wife and I spent the night in that small apartment. I told her I was nervous about my first day of

class—I was a grown man, going to school with a bunch of teenagers.

“Relax,” my wife said to me. “Your turn’s coming.”

The next day, on the way to my first class, I passed kids carrying backpacks, covered in tattoos, with earrings embedded in various parts of their facial structure. I wore a button-down shirt and khakis, like Mister Rogers on his way to communion.

A kid on a skateboard shot past me. He hollered, “Whoops! Sorry, professor!”

Professor?

Before I got to class, a man met me in the hall, he had a grave face. I knew something was wrong. He told me the university had rejected my application.

“I’m sorry someone didn’t notify you,” he said. “They should’ve never let you register for classes.”

I was embarrassed. I explained that I’d already paid a lot of money for an apartment, bought…

That night in Birmingham, I stood before a microphone and a roomful of people who wore smiles. I felt like I was going to puke. And I lost it. I cried in front of a lot of people. It was not my finest hour.

DEAR SEAN:

My name is well... That’s not important.

I lost my dachshund last night. She was fifteen years old overweight, had seizures, and was incontinent, but she owned my heart.

My wife doesn't want another pet, but what do I do with this love?

This is just a short note to you ‘cause I knew you’d understand.

MISSING-MY-DACHSHUND

DEAR MISSING:

The day my bloodhound died, I was away in Birmingham for work. Ellie Mae was thirteen, she’d been sick the morning before I left town.

We‘d taken her to the ER. They gave her meds, stabilized her, and it looked like she would make a full recovery.

The next morning, I kissed Ellie’s long face and left for Birmingham to tell stories and jokes to a roomful of a few hundred folks.

It was a nice day. I remember it well. I drove along the highway, humming with the radio. The sun was shining. By the time I reached Camden, I got a call from my wife.

“Ellie’s not right,” she said. “Something’s wrong.”

I almost turned the

truck around, and maybe I should’ve. But I didn’t.

By the time I reached Selma, the vet was on the phone delivering bad news. When I reached Maplesville, my wife and I were already discussing sending her to Heaven, and my gut churned.

“I don’t want her to suffer,” said my wife.

“I don’t either,” I said.

“You think we should… I can’t bring myself to say it.”

“Me neither..”

“I don’t want her to suffer.”

“Me neither.”

“I love her so much.”

(Sniff, sniff)

“So does that mean we should put her out of her misery, then?”

“I can’t do it.”

“Me neither.”

“But she’s in pain.”

“I know.”

“What do we do?”

“I dunno, but I don’t want her to…

The support has been staggering. The high-school choir performed at the local Italian restaurant to raise funds for Ben’s family. His classmates made bracelets that read: “Hope with Ben.”

Sixteen-year-old Ben Leary smiles too much. That’s what they tell me.

“Ben’s smile could light up a room,” says his aunt. “It absolutely lights up the room.”

Tonight, Ben’s smile is lighting up a little room inside the Ronald McDonald house on Alabama Avenue, in Memphis, Tennessee. He’s been there since June.

Right now, he’s probably lying in bed, watching movies on his laptop. Or maybe he’s texting with friends, or watching YouTube.

This last year has been a doozie. Radiation treatments have taken his energy, and he’s been tired. Inside and out.

But he smiles a lot.

It all started with headaches last September. Ben was getting ready for homecoming. He was going to take his neighbor, Julia, to a dance. It was going to be a good year. A very good year.

But headaches kept getting worse. Then came the bouts of anxiety. Then, exhaustion. The symptoms seemed minor at first, but became crippling.

One morning, he awoke with head pain too intense to bear.

His mother took him to the emergency room.

Bad news. The MRI showed a tumor on his frontal lobe. A big one. Glioblastoma—one of the most aggressive brain cancers there is.

Stage four.

They rushed him to the hospital for surgery. It was traumatic—not just for Ben, but for the whole family. And surgery was only the beginning of a long road.

More heartache came afterward. Another brain operation, a few months later. Hospital transfers. Medications. Recovery. Thirty-six radiation treatments. Thirty-six.

This is cancer in the twenty-first century, and it’s not cheap.

You know the drill, the family’s world gets shaken upside down like a piggy bank. And it’s nothing but waiting rooms thereafter. His parents slept in vinyl chairs, his brother and sister lived on vending machine food. And Ben fought.

But the radiation wasn’t working. Soon:…

Please, Lord. Give me something in black-and-white. I love old movies.

I am in a hotel with seven hundred cable channels. I turn on the television. It’s been awhile since I’ve actually watched TV. I’m in the mood for something good. Maybe an old movie, or something with Aunt Bee in it.

CLICK.

“...For tuning into Channel Five News, I’m Bobby McBobberson, I hope you’re having a fantastic evening. A nuclear explosion went off in…”

Flip.

“...You filthy piece of @^%&*ing Spam, (BANG! BANG!) I oughta shoot you three more times just because this is cable TV… (BANG! BANG! BANG!)”

Flip, flip, flip.

Young man in cowboy hat, holding microphone, singing:

“...COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL
COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL,
COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL,
WELLA, WELLA, I SAY A COLD BEER...”

Flip.

“...And VOILA! You can’t even SEE my cellulite! Can you? Magi-Cream removes all traces of wrinkles, unsightly worry lines, and the years emotional damage from my first marriage…”

Flip.

“...The embarrassment of plantar fasciitis disorder used to be so bad, it impeded

the quality of daily living, it made me suffer clinical depression, and I was isolated from my kids, my family, my friends, and the JCPenney’s activewear model who plays the part of my husband in this commercial. But then my doctor prescribed Belvacore®…”

Flip.

“...at Channel Five we’re covering the nuclear incident, it’s very bad. VERY bad. We don’t know what’s happening. But it’s VERY bad. And we want to stress the world ‘NUCLEAR’ as often as we can. Channel Five is live on the VERY bad scene...”

Flip, flip, flip, flip, flip.

“...JEEEEEE-ZUSSSSS cometh with all his angels, and will judgeth the quick and the dead. And THIS is why we NEEDETH your financial support. For FIVE EASY love gifts of $19.99 you TOO can experience...”

Flip, flip.

“...COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL
COLD…

Then, he met her. She’d moved to town to teach school. When he saw her at church, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He approached her with an idea.

I drove four hours to meet the editor of a big-city newspaper. I walked into a large office wearing my nicest necktie. I was young. Wide-eyed.

She told me I had five minutes. I handed her a pathetic resume so tiny it needed a magnifying glass.

“You’re not even a journalism major?” she remarked.

“No ma’am.”

“You’re still in community college?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re wasting my time. I’ve got journalists lining up around the block. Find me a good story, and maybe we’ll talk.”

A good story.

The next day, I stopped at a nursing home. I walked inside and asked if there were any storytellers in the bunch.

The woman at the desk gave me a look. “They’re ALL storytellers, sweetie.”

She introduced me to a ninety-four-year-old man. We sat in the cafeteria. I asked to hear about his life. He said, “You with the IRS or something?”

He talked, and he was eighteen again. A rural boy who’d never set foot in a schoolhouse. His father used a wheelchair. His mother was dead.

Then, he met her. She’d moved to town to

teach school. When he saw her at church, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He approached her with an idea.

“I played on her sympathy,” he said. “Was my only hope, she was too pretty to be seen with me.”

He asked her to teach him to read. She agreed. He made fast progress—which was no surprise. He would’ve rather died than disappoint a pretty girl.

They married. She taught, he farmed. During those years, he remembers how they sat together in the evenings, watching evening take hold of the world. Love can be simple.

She died before age forty.

It was crippling. He gave up living. His fields went to weed. He lost his farm. He lost himself. He checked into a room at the motor-inn.

“I had nothing left,” he said. “I…