I’m in a hotel room, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. It’s late, and I’m not tired. My nightstand clock tells me it’s 11 P.M. I think I’ll go for a walk.

Now I’m strolling the dark sidewalks, alone. I pass a man who is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, walking the road, pushing a stroller that is filled with tin cans. I hear them rattling.

He grunts a greeting at me.

I wave.

Maybe I will stick very close to my hotel tonight.

I’ve always been a night owl, and this used to rub the adults in my life the wrong way. I come from fundamentalists who don’t believe good things come from nocturnal activities.

As far as they were concerned, night only nurtured evil things like dancing, fighting, carousing mailbox baseball, grand theft auto, and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

But since we’re being honest, I’ll admit that as a boy I watched Johnny Carson almost every night in secret. I would sneak

downstairs and ignite our television, keeping the volume barely audible.

Johnny’s monologues were the best. The jokes, the gags, the laughs, the interviews. His studio seemed like such a wonderful place to be, and so different from our world.

Of course, I knew I was taking my eternal salvation into my own hands, watching such devilish TV. In my family the only acceptable forms of entertainment were the Lawrence Welk Show, Billy Graham crusades, or watching a washing machine on spin cycle.

The men I come from were morning people. They woke before sunlight, worked hard, sipped coffee all day, and made hour-long conversations about adjusting carburetors.

They burned trash in fifty-gallon drums, ate liver and onions for their birthdays, and went to bed early.

I never fit in with them because I was a night-person. And night-people were not productive, respectable people. Night-people…

The boy was just over three months old. His little fingers, his big eyes, his smooth skin, he was pure perfection.

Montgomery—it was a sunny February day in 1956. Martha and her husband sat in an ugly, sterile, third-floor government office.

Outside was a blue sky, beautiful trees, and birds. Inside, it was dismal.

Martha was wringing her hands. She looked at her husband and saw him bouncing his knees.

“Would you relax?” she said to him.

“You first,” he said.

But the truth was, she was just as anxious as him. And who could blame them? Their adoption papers had been bouncing through the bureaucratic ping-pong machine for twenty-seven months now.

Twenty-seven months.

That’s long enough to earn a master’s degree.

When they first submitted the application they felt nothing but excitement. They filled out the forms and requested a son. The anticipation was almost too much.

What would he look like? Who would he grow to become? After ten years of marriage, Martha was ready to hold her own child. She wanted someone call her “Mama.”

In years past, she’d only ever

held children that belonged to friends or family, and this did nothing to satisfy her two empty arms.

So, they turned in their papers. They hoped, and waited, and stared at their kitchen phone every evening.

But time went on, and the phone did not ring. Six months became a year. A year became two years. Not knowing was torture.

Alabama caseworkers sometimes visited their home in Dothan, without warning. These were friendly social workers, certainly, but only in the governmental sense. The caseworkers would make notes on clipboards, then look at Martha like they were sizing her up for a butcher’s window.

Martha wondered if the phone call would ever come.

Three days ago it did. The bell sounded on Martha’s phone and she almost lost her mind.

The voice on the line said, “You can pick up your son at…

I glanced at my phone and lost my appetite. An old friend died.

A breakfast joint, filled with smells of bacon and coffee. The sound of people, conversing. I was eating my eggs when I got the text.

I glanced at my phone and lost my appetite. An old friend died.

He was seventy-six. He used to be a singer. And I’ll never forget the story I heard about him.

Once, a nine-year-old girl from church asked him to sing for her dog’s funeral. He wore a necktie and the whole nine yards. He sang “Beulah Land.” That’s the kind of guy he was.

I was interrupted from my thoughts. It was another old friend who came through the doors. Lisa, a girl I grew up with.

I hugged her neck and asked how her father was doing.

Lisa smiled. “He’s okay, Mom hired a personal trainer to kick his butt, he whines about it.”

I’ll never forget her father. He once took me to a father-son church retreat at Blue Lake Methodist Camp, along with his own son. He

did this because I had no father and he didn’t want me to be left out.

I stood to leave the restaurant. That’s when I saw another friend. James is his name. James and I used to have a summer job together, parking cars. He’s a mess.

Back then, James would try to procure the phone number of any female unfortunate enough to make eye-contact with him.

I exited the restaurant and saw two more friends in the parking lot. Samantha and her husband, Wade.

We hugged. It was nice seeing them. We were once in a Sunday school class together.

Long ago, our class took a trip to Nashville. Wade brought a Mason jar full of something his Episcopalian uncle had brewed in a bathtub.

Consequently, Wade doesn’t remember much about that trip.

After saying goodbye, I drove across…

They say he sat beside his wife’s bed the morning she passed. He told her, “It’s alright to leave, baby,” right before her final sigh.

He was every old man you’ve ever met. And he wanted to go fishing. Doctors said it was a bad idea, but his son disagreed.

“Doctors don’t know everything,” says his son John. “Daddy wanted to fish, so by God, we took him.”

You should’ve seen it. A sunny day. Four men escorting an old man down the dock. They lowered him into a 14-foot camouflage boat.

The old man held them for support. He mumbled something to them. Nobody understood. The strokes had slowed his mouth down.

The men used ratchet straps to make an improvised seatbelt for him. And away they went.

The old man had been fishing here ever since the invention of red mud.

“Feesing heah wuh mah bess gurl,” the old man said through a contorted mouth.

His daughter translated for her kids: “Granddaddy says he used to fish here with his best girl.”

Granny. His “best girl.” When she was alive, they came here. The old woman loved fishing as much as he did.

The old man wanted a beer. He demonstrated this by reaching

for the cooler. His daughter held a can to his mouth. Beer ran down his chin.

Everyone cheered.

“Don’t tell Daddy’s doctor about this,” John said.

The boat was in motion. The motor trolled. The old man was smiling. Familiar feelings were in the air.

“I remember when Daddy took my middle-school boyfriend out here,” his daughter said. “I knew how to bait my own hook, my boyfriend didn’t. Daddy got a kick outta that.”

She also remembers a senior who once came calling on her. He drove a muscle car and wore too much leather. Her father greeted the kid on the porch, polishing his iron.

“Reckon you’d better keep a’driving, son,” her father told the kid.

The old man was something else. He was funny. He was clever. He was the best our land had to offer.…

My cousin’s ‘82 Ford was riding the two-lane highway. We were listening to our childhood hero on the radio. Willie Nelson was singing “You Were Always on my Mind.” We were seventeen.

We were on our way to Atlanta to visit a friend who had just graduated. Our friend’s father was throwing the mother of all parties. He was taking a bunch of his son’s friends to see a Willie Nelson concert.

You have never met a bigger Willie Nelson fan than the author of this column. I’m crazy about him.

In fourth grade, I had a homemade Willie Nelson lunchbox. My mother had painted the portrait of Willie onto one of my father’s old tool boxes.

Also, I know all the words to most of Willie’s tunes, and I still cry whenever I hear “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” since my mother decidedly failed in this regard.

Anyway, the sun was shining, on Highway 29. When we reached Grantville, we passed a

man who was changing his tire on the shoulder of the road.

We drove straight past him.

After a few miles of silence, we started feeling disgusted with ourselves. So we turned around.

We found the old man in a bad state. His tire was flat, and so was his spare. He was elderly. One side of his face was paralyzed, maybe from a stroke.

“I’ll never make it in time,” the old man kept saying. “I’m so late.”

“Late for what?” we asked.

The man shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now, the party starts in forty-five minutes, I’ll never make it to Columbus.”

I looked in in the backseat of his truck. It was filled with boxes of baby items. A stroller, still in a cardboard box, infant clothes on hangers, toys galore. In his truck bed, he had dozens of…

“Lemme try a sample of the chicken salad,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

The elderly man at the deli counter was undecided. He looked at the lineup of cold salads behind the glass divider with a serious face.

It was the kind of face that deep thinkers wear.

“Lemme try a sample of the chicken salad,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

“It’s REALLY good,” said the cheery young woman with the hairnet. “I just made it, it’s world famous chicken salad, at least that’s what my son says. Every time I make it, I just HAVE to take a few pounds home to my son, my son LOVES my world famous chicken salad, he’s the kind of boy who just loves anything with mayo, and I try to tell him, ‘If you keep eating all that mayonnaise, you’re gonna just swell up like a big ole balloon…’”

The man interrupted, “Lemme try the broccoli salad, please.”

“Sure,” said Miss Sunshine, scooping another sample. “Do you know we put CURRY in our broccoli salad? I used to think curry was

gross, but I was wrong, curry’s good, I eat it all the time now—the broccoli salad I mean, not the curry by itself. I don’t think anyone would do that, eat curry by itself, but you never know, people do some weird things...”

The grumpy man cut her off. “That’s nice, miss, I wanna try the Waldorf salad, now.”

“Comin’ right up,” she said. “It’s funny, all the old ladies come in here and get the Waldorf salad, and I just laugh, they’re the cutest things, they come in every week to eat and talk, but if you ask my opinion, I hate Waldorf salad because I don’t like fruit and mayonnaise to EVER touch each other, that’s gross, I don’t know why anyone with half a brain would put mayonnaise and fruit together, but you know what I always say? I say, ‘Everybody has their…

Jacksonville, Florida—a car accident. A crushed car, sideways in the median. Years ago. She saw the car and pulled over

She jogged toward it. It was instinct. She opened the door. The man wasn’t breathing.

She had been working part-time at a pre-school. Pre-schools have mandatory CPR certification classes. Only a few days earlier, she had practiced resuscitating dummies in a church fellowship hall.

She pulled the man out of the battered vehicle. She found his breastbone. Thirty compressions. Two rescue breaths.

He’s alive today. A father of four. He keeps in touch.

Athens, Georgia—nineteen-year-old Billy didn’t want to get into a fistfight. He’d never been in a fight before. He saw a younger kid being beaten by two large boys. He couldn’t stay out of it.

Billy, who’d never thrown a punch in his life, pushed himself into the conflict. He fended off the two attackers, but not without being beaten-up.

Billy took the kid to the emergency room. They became fast friends. He brought the kid home

to meet his parents. The boy told them he’d been living with his uncle—who neglected him.

Billy’s parents invited the kid live with them. They fixed the guest bedroom. They bought him a Playstation. They fed him. They made him one of their own.

When Billy got married, the kid was his best man. When Billy had his first son, the kid became a godfather.

When the kid wore a cap and gown to receive a diploma, seven people stood and clapped for him.

Hoover, Alabama—Leigh Ann was your classic shut-in. She was too old and feeble to go anywhere.

Most days, she sat in a recliner watching her stories on TV. Sometimes she forgot to feed herself. She had nobody. She’d been lonely ever since her husband passed. Leigh Ann had no children.

One day, a young man who…

You’d think holding your own novel would make you feel giddy, and proud, but it doesn’t. Instead, you are reminded of how short life is.

Her name is Virginia. She is interviewing me. She is fourteen, and wants to go into journalism one day.

Virginia wanted to interview a real writer. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get in touch with any, so she called me.

Her first question: What is being a writer all about?

Jeez. That’s a tough one. I have no idea how to answer it.

I was expecting something more along the lines of: “How long does it take you to learn how to spell ‘receive’ without making mistakes?”

The truth is, Virginia, my writing career all started in a sixteen-foot camper with a bloodhound asleep on my feet. The camper was junk, parked outside Pensacola. The dog was a purebred.

I was there for work. I had just quit construction, and I had finished community college—which had taken me eleven years.

So the world was my oyster. And naturally, I took the next logical step on the ladder of academia to further my professional career. I played music in beer joints.

I’m embarrassed to

admit this. I know this isn’t what real writers do, but that’s what I did.

In the daytimes, to occupy my empty hours in the camper, I would read books. That’s when the idea hit me.

Early one morning, I was reading a book entitled—I’m not making this up—“44 Best Ever Fart Jokes and Poems.” The thought hit me like a shock of electricity.

I slammed the book shut and decided: “I’m going to become a writer! I am going to write a novel! A Western novel!

And I meant it, too. I ran the idea past my bloodhound. She wasn’t crazy about it.

“You don’t think I should write a Western?” I clarified.

She licked herself then fell asleep.

“How about a joke book?”

She sighed.

“A romance?”

She snored.

“Big help you…