I approach slow. And even though I claimed the exact place where he sits long before Lincoln was sworn in, I ask the boy if he minds letting me fishing next to him.

He is in my fishing spot. A kid. Blonde. Freckles. He is eating Doritos.

The kid fishes with frozen shrimp from a Ziplock bag. His cellphone is beside him, blasting modern country music.

I’ve been fishing this wooded grove since before the earth cooled. And I’ve always called this “my spot” even though it doesn’t belong to me.

The kid is sitting in a dry-rotted plastic lawn chair I placed here years ago. He is sort of smiling, cranking his reel.

The Choctawhatchee Bay has strange powers over boys.

I approach slow. And even though I claimed the exact place where he sits long before Lincoln was sworn in, I ask the boy if he minds letting me fishing next to him.

This is a custom among fishermen. You would never fish next to a fella without asking. Such barbaric behavior would be worse than taking your buddy’s mother to prom.

We shake hands. We introduce ourselves. We talk.

The kid says, “Did you hear they caught a GATOR in this bay?”

This is male conversation at its best.

Murderous creatures with jaws big enough to crush average-sized Buicks. Men in boats, wielding heavy artillery.

“It was HUGE,” he adds. “Like sixteen feet, I think.”

“Wow,” I say.

Actually, the gator he is referring to was only twelve-foot long, but who’s counting? The thing was caught months ago, and it was a big deal because gators are not common here.

Though, in my youth I heard plenty of gator stories. I never put stock in any of them.

I once knew an old-timer, for instance, nicknamed “Snoopy,” who claimed he caught an eight-foot gator. I never believed him because Mister Snoopy also claimed he invented the first pay phone.

The kid asks, “You ever seen gators in this bay before?”

“Nope,” I say. “But upshore from here, about twenty years ago, my cousin and I saw an elderly couple skinny…

He was tall, white-haired. He wore a tattered cap. He was older, mid-seventies, with shoulders broader than an intercostal barge.

She is a waitress here. She has white hair, and a habit of winking when she smiles. Her name is Mary. I know this because it’s on her nametag.

I don’t know Mary—today’s the first time we’ve met—but I want to be her forever-grandson.

I just watched Mary get dog-cussed.

It happened when she swiped a young man’s credit card at the register. It was denied. She was quiet and discreet with him.

He shouted at her, “Run it again, lady!”

This made everyone’s ears perk up. It’s not every day you see some punk yelling at Barbara Bush.

She swiped the card. Denied.

“Do you have another card?” she asked in a soft voice.

The man shouted, “Another card? Don’t treat me like I’m @#$ing stupid, lady!”

Her mouth fell open. So did everyone’s.

The young man didn’t stop. He went on to say things which I can’t repeat—my mother reads these things.

The air in the restaurant went stale, like in old Westerns, just before John Wayne pumps some desperate bandito into the everlasting abyss.

The customers in the restaurant looked around at each other. The man in

the booth beside me stood. So did I. We walked toward the register.

But another man beat us to it.

He was tall, white-haired. He wore a tattered cap. He was older, mid-seventies, with shoulders broader than an intercostal barge.

The old man said, “What seems to be the problem over here?”

The angry kid spat, “My card won’t work.”

The old man let his eyes do his talking. Hard eyes. The same eyes I’ve seen in a hundred Westerns, just before the hero draws a greased Colt Single Action Peacemaker and opens the gates of Armageddon.

The old man was calm. He reached for his wallet. He said to Mary, in a syrupy voice, “I’d like to pay for this gentleman’s meal, ma’am.”

Then, he placed a large hand…

But as we just discovered, hatefulness goes against your very anatomy. Every cell in your human corpus is made with love.

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t like your writing because you are a dumbass.

Thanks,
I DON’T CARE IF YOU USE MY NAME

DEAR I-DON’T-CARE:

Let’s go back in time.

Now, of course, I don't know your personal story, but let's be theoretical here. Pretend your mother and father just met two minutes ago. The circumstances which brought them together don’t matter. Your parents probably feel something for each other.

This feeling is something I want to talk about. A feeling that gets stronger with each heartbeat. A warm, happy, thick, dripping, hot feeling.

Scientists might call it “energy.” We common folk call it “love.”

Whatever you call it, it is an intelligent thing, programmed into the body. A force greater than even your parents.

So one day, inside the dark and hushed womb of your mother, a fertilized embryo floats the white-water rapids of her insides. That loveable little egg manages to attach itself to a uterine wall.

Then, the Little Egg That Could, starts producing NEW CELLS. Each cell the SAME SIZE as its original zygote. And this eventually becomes you.

I know. This is almost too boring to stand. And to tell you the truth, I know about as much about science as a blind mule on a field trip to Dollywood.

So let’s use simple language here:

One small act of love made YOUR cells appear out of NOWHERE.

In other-other words: you’re a miracle. And it was love-energy that made you.

You are a walking talking collection of organs, a central nervous system, a conscience, and a receding hairline. Because of love.

You are a soul, and souls can be all sorts of things. They can be thoughtful, hardworking, ambitious, easygoing, understanding, kind, and certain souls are even lucky enough to be born as Cradle Episcopalians.

Souls have the power to be good, or not-so-good. Nice, or hateful.

But as we just discovered, hatefulness goes against…

I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big. Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, feels as good as a hug. This month alone, I’ve spoken at a handful of places and I have received roughly—this is no exaggeration—five trillion hugs from people.

Including two hundred grade school students this morning.

Hugs do something to a person. After ten hugs, a fella starts to feel warm inside. After two hundred, his heart is raw. Right around four hundred, he forgets every evil thing he ever saw or heard. People need hugs. And by “people,” I mean me. I love a good hug.

I also love baseball. It’s a beautiful game. While I write this, I am listening to a radio. The Milwaukee Brewers are doing battle with the Dodgers. I want the Dodgers to eat mud.

And, I love football. I was born during the third quarter of Coach Bear Bryant’s farewell game. My father was watching the hospital-room television during the exact moment the doc smacked my hindparts.

I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big.

Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

But not in small towns. In small towns, Little America is still alive and well.

Which reminds me: I love little things. I love them even more than I did when I started this article.

The small Chevette I learned to drive in. The small coin I bought at a gift shop atop the mountain where my father is buried—I carry it everywhere. I like little trucks from yesteryear. Little farmhouses. Little billboards painted on the sides of barns.

Little upright pianos in my aunt’s den—the kind she only plays at Christmas.

Speaking of holidays, I love them, too. Each and every one. Christmas, Turkey Day, Labor Day, and Halloween.

Last year I spent…

“Do you solemnly swear,” I began, “to tell all sorts of stories about anything and everything, even dumb things?”

Selma, Alabama—I am in a school gymnasium, staring at bleachers filled with kids. I have no idea why I’m here.

I don’t know why 140 students are staring at me. I don’t know why I have a microphone in my hand. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.

I have spoken in a lot of schools in my time. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it feels like having your soul sucked from your body.

Nevertheless, I am trying to deliver tales the best I can to these kids who are smarter than I am. But I’m struggling.

A few months ago, I told stories in a school in Lower Alabama. The children gathered into the gymnasium and stared at me for sixty minutes while I spoke. Not single child even blinked—not even when I told my top-shelf jokes.

But there was a little boy in the front row who listened with both ears. And I’ll never forget him. He laughed at everything I said. Even things that weren’t

funny.

He was 8 years old. He wore hunting boots, blue jeans, and a stained T-shirt. And even though I was a flop that day, he clapped like we were at Carnegie Hall.

When storytime was over, I wanted to hide beneath a rock and only come out for Christmas dinner. But before I could leave the gymnasium, the kid came galloping toward me.

“Hey!” he said. “I wanna shake your hand, man!”

His hand was clammy, he was missing two front teeth, and he was as cute as a duck in a hat.

He said, “How do I be a storyteller guy like you? Is it hard to learn? I wanna do what you do.”

The truth is, I don’t actually know how to tell stories, I just pretend to. Furthermore, I don’t know why anyone would listen to them.

I…

In the food court is a merry-go-round. There is a single-file line waiting to board the carousel. First in line is an older man. He has white hair, and he walks with an uneven gait. A young woman is holding his arm.

It’s a sunny day. The Birmingham Galleria Mall is busy. There are hundreds of people beneath the tall atrium. They have places to go and things to buy.

I am here with my wife, who is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy.

Shopping for jeans with your wife is a dangerous gamble. In the Western world, the leading cause of divorce is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy with your wife. Ranking second is chewing your food too loud.

It goes like this:

Your wife locks herself in the dressing room with eighty-seven pairs of jeans. While she tries them on, you, the husband, go to the designated detention area with other husbands.

Intermittently, you wife emerges from her room, modeling jeans that look exactly like the jeans she wore when she entered the store.

Then, she glances at her reflection and begins speaking in foreign tongues. She asks things like: “Does this chino inseam appear too constricting?”

And: “Do you

think these boot-cuts too are too roomy on the calf region?”

We husbands have no idea what our wives are actually asking. This is why we often mumble. Because we know our words don’t really matter when it comes to blue jeans. Our wives will make their own decisions.

We know that by the end of the day our wives will have at least two emotional breakdowns, and likely leave the store without a single pair of blue jeans because they hate blue jeans and they wish blue jeans would’ve never been invented and they hate anyone who wears blue jeans including members of Congress, anyone below age thirty, and Cher.

And instead of buying jeans, our wives end up getting something like a “cute little cardigan that was on clearance.”

Then everyone goes out for ice cream. The end.

The best thing a guy can do…

The back half of her body was shaved bald, covered with bruises, stitches, staples, and dried blood. It was a curious site to her eyes. She tried to lick her wounds, but the people in scrubs wouldn’t let her.

She was lost. The old girl had traveled this trail before and it always led back home. But this time she couldn’t find the right smell.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. She kept her nose to the ground for something familiar. But there was nothing.

After all, she wasn’t exactly a young pup. Her nose wasn’t as good as it had been. Long ago, she could sniff a man’s pant leg and know exactly which denomination he was and which party he voted for. But now she was lost.

She followed the smells until she found a highway. Big machines shot across the highway so fast it made her ears hurt.

She lost all sense of smell and sound. This place was not familiar. This was a world she didn’t belong in. This place belonged to the big machines on wheels.

Across the road was what looked like a neighborhood. She could see rooftops through the traffic. The homes looked familiar. Or did they? Maybe that’s the neighborhood

where she lived. She couldn’t remember.

Besides, all she could feel was hunger. She needed food. That’s why she’d left home in the first place. Her owner wasn’t very nice. He would often go days without feeding her, and it had made her skinny. Sometimes, he wouldn’t give her water, so she would drink from ditches.

Early that morning, she crawled beneath the fence and left. She was only looking for food and drink. What she found was a highway.

WOOSH! WOOSH!

Big machines rocketed past her. She should’ve turned around and gone toward safety, but hunger made her cross the highway.

She pranced on the pavement, hoping that the big machines would avoid her. One machine sped by so fast it almost lifted her from her feet. Then another. And another. And another.

That’s when it happened.

She heard…