One of the first things my mother did after my father’s funeral was take us on a trip to Branson, Missouri. My uncle came along.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died Saturday. The funeral is tomorrow. You have written about your father’s funeral, and the days before and after. Is there anything we can do to make things easier for my ten-year-old son? I know he’ll have a hole in his heart forever. I want to do everything possible to support him.

Thanks,
I-LOVE-MY-SON

DEAR I-LOVE:

My mother took me to a therapist after my father’s funeral. Everyone was pretty worried about me because I quit talking.

They tried to get me out of my shell, but I hurt too badly to laugh, smile, or talk. Besides, I didn’t have anything to say.

The therapist’s office was behind a Methodist church and the doctor was a man with a New York accent who never shut up and always tossed a football in the air while he talked.

I guess this was his attempt at being a down-to-earth guy, playing with a football while he explained my father’s suicide. But it didn’t work.

Every time he spoke,

tossing that dumb ball, I kept thinking of how my father used to say, “There’s no better form of birth control than a New York accent.”

And I would start to giggle. But I still refused to talk.

He told me to stop laughing. Then he asked me to try a mental exercise. He handed me an empty mayonnaise jar and a handful of pennies.

“Put a penny in the jar,” he said.

I wouldn’t do it. So we sat for a long time and I held those pennies, thinking about how foolish I felt.

“Those are hurt-pennies,” he said. “And if you put enough hurt-pennies in your jar, one day you’ll have all your hurt in an itty-bitty place, then you can put the lid on and hurl it into the ocean.”

Then he tossed his football in…

My friend pointed to one lady in the congregation. She was slight, with gray hair, and a blue skirt suit. There are some people you don’t forget. She was one of those people.

The things I could write about pound cake. I could go on and on and bore you to death, but I won’t.

After my father died, I remember visiting a Methodist church with my boyhood friend, and he was introducing me to people. He was raised Methodist, I was not. My people were Baptist.

The Methodists were cheerful. My people didn’t believe in cheer. Our pastor preached hard against alcoholism, promiscuity, and narcotics because these things could lead to cigarette smoking.

My friend pointed to one lady in the congregation. She was slight, with gray hair, and a blue skirt suit.

There are some people you don’t forget. She was one of those people.

She had a heavenly glow. People smiled when they passed by her like she was unique.

“Who’s that woman?” I asked.

“That is the Pound Cake Lady,” my pal said in reverence.

After the Methodist service, my friend led me to a downstairs fellowship hall. The Methodists put out a bigger

spread than any I’d ever seen. There was even a special table dedicated to cornbread and biscuits.

It was too much. Overwhelming. I even saw people standing outside the fellowship hall, smoking cigarettes after their meal. It was as though they were unwinding after sin.

The woman in the blue skirt suit placed something on the end of the table. It was golden, fat, hulking, sacred pound cake.

“Hurry and get some,” said my friend, “before it’s all gone.”

He was right. The cake didn’t last four seconds among those chain-smoking Methodists. But when it disappeared, the old woman replaced it with another.

People blessed her name forevermore. Hallelujah. And so did I.

So every church has a pound cake lady. They are young, middle-aged, or elderly, and they are holy. These ladies are messengers, sent to humanity as proof that God is…

Pensacola—A sports bar. The Auburn Tigers were playing the Virginia Cavaliers, and I was the only person in the place not wearing orange and blue.

I am not an Auburn man. I root for the Crimson Tide. My mother roots for the Tide. You cannot change horses this late in life.

Even so, when the Tigers made Final Four basketball history, my Auburn friends lost their minds and nearly set fire to their own hair.

Because that’s how Auburn Tigers are.

One of my Auburn friends called me to say: “I don’t care who your team is, if you don’t come watch the Tigers with me you are a heartless sinner who drinks sugarless iced tea and doesn’t love the Lord.”

Message received. So there we were.

The television above the bar played the game. I sat beside two older women from Mobile. Both had white hair. Both sipped from wine glasses and wore Auburn colors.

“We’ve been friends since high school,” said Carol. “We even finish each other’s sentences.”

“I was gonna say the same

thing,” said Marie.

They cackled. They toasted their glasses.

Marie is an Auburn graduate, and she warned me that if I divulged their ages, I would be singing soprano for the rest of my life.

They have a lot in common. Carol lost her husband some years ago from prostate cancer. Marie lost her husband nine months later from pancreatic cancer.

“I never cared for sports,” said Marie. “It was always my husband who liked them.”

“Same here,” added Carol.

But that changed when their husbands died. Both admit that after the shock wore off, it felt like a vital routine was missing in life. The world was different without their husbands’ tailgating trips to Jordan-Hare stadium, or games blaring on TV.

“Yeah,” said Marie. “I just missed John so bad, I had to do something to keep him alive.”

We left our house because we were traveling a lot, due to my accidental career as a writer—if that’s what you’d call me. We were never in town. Our house sat vacant while we gallivanted through the Southeast. So we rented it out.

This house. I will never forget the first night my wife and I spent in this house. We were still newlyweds. We had just left our apartment. This place was our first real house. Ours. All ours.

We sat on a cold floor, watching a portable TV, we ate take-out Mexican food. We were on top of the world.

We've been gone a long time. I've missed it.

Some background information is in order here. A few years ago, we moved out of our place and started renting it out. We moved into a camper I bought off Craigslist.

I parked the trailer across the road, on our land, in a swamp. It was twenty-eight feet long and smelled like a pot of collards.

We left our house because we were traveling a lot, due to my accidental career as a storyteller—if that’s what you’d call me. We were never in town. Our house often sat vacant while we gallivanted through the Southeast. So we rented it out.

I don't

know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But anyway, back to the camper. It’s funny how you end up living a life opposite from the the one you always dreamed of. Growing up, one of my main dreams was to not go to prison.

Living in a camper feels like doing hard time in San Quentin.

Our living room was about the size of a gas chamber. And it smelled like one, too. I'm not kidding. Several times, our dog Otis (alleged Labrador) would leap onto our counters looking for food. His paws would flip the gas knobs to the propane stove. Nobody would notice.

One night, the trailer filled with noxious fumes while we slept. Early the next morning, I was dizzy. I awoke to find the ghost of Dale Earnhardt nosing through my refrigerator.

Dale greeted me. “Sean, wake up or…

Birmingham—I am in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, overlooking the city. This hotel is a swanky joint. The bathrobes and bath towels are so plush my suitcase won’t latch.

Last night, I told stories to a room of Alabamian farmers’ wives in the hotel ballroom. They wore their nice clothes, I wore mine. We had a big time. Linguine with cream sauce was served.

On my way to the banquet, I met an old man in the hotel elevator. He was from Louisiana, visiting town for a funeral. His name was Elvis.

“Elvis?” I said. “That's your real name?”

"Yep," he said. "Only I’m ten years younger than the other one."

I shook his hand because I have always wanted to shake hands with Elvis.

Before we parted ways I told him what a pleasure it was meeting him.

He did his best impersonation of the King and said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

When I was a boy, I always wanted to be good-looking, but it never worked out. I was chubby, and plain, and I had a deep affection

for Moonpies. My strongest academic area was lunch.

I also wanted to be athletic, but that didn’t work out, either. Coach Watson put me at first base and I was awful. After a week, he created a new position just for me.

“You’re gonna be my right guard,” Coach explained.

“What’s a right guard do?”

“It’s a very important position, he sits on the right half of the bench and guards the water cooler.”

I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.

Back then, I just wanted to be noticed. All children do. Instead, I walked through childhood like a bowling shoe in a sea of penny loafers.

Until the annual talent show.

The talent show was when all fourth-graders were free to exercise their unique abilities. And mine was music. The only thing I could do was music.…

I was a Scout once, it’s a brotherhood. Also, I am pretty good with a campfire.

The flag flies above the hardware store. There isn’t much of a breeze today. It moves with each gust, then becomes slack.

Flags hang from all sorts of places. They adorn bank buildings, supermarkets, schools, Kmarts, gas stations, beauty salons, auto shops, and libraries. There’s one on my front porch, too. I walk past it every day.

At the entrance to the hardware store, just beneath the flagpole, are Boy Scouts. I don’t exactly know what they’re doing. When I pass they look like they’re busy hard-selling a woman who’s buying some hanging ferns.

I walk through the store and get what I need—some screws, a replacement electrical breaker, and a half-inch drill bit. Then I check out.

My cashier wears a lapel pin on her vest that is a miniature American flag. Another pin bears the Army logo. Another is a mini POW/MIA flag.

“I like your pins,” I tell her.

“Thanks.”

“Military?”

“I just got outta the Army. I miss it. I wish I woulda stayed in. It’s hard going

back to this kinda life.”

She spent her formative years in the service, you could say. As a child, she knew she wanted to make it a career, ever since the first time she saw her father wear his dress-blues.

She was born on a military base. She was raised hearing the national anthem once per day over a loudspeaker. Her brother is Army. Her father is a veteran.

I thank her, and I tell her to thank her brother and father for me.

I step outside. The Boy Scouts ask if I need help to my truck. I don’t have anything but the one bag.

Then again, I write a column for a living. I’m always looking for things to write about. I hand them the bag.

One carries it. One follows.

I ask what they…

So what I am about to say, I say to both friends and critics. I say it to the happy, and to the angry. I say it anyone who can fog up a mirror.

A retired professor sent me a letter. He told me that one of my stories was "plain," and "needed more work." And he told me a lot more than that, too.

I was afraid he was going to grade my work and give me a C minus.

I have a noted history of getting C's. I once set a longstanding academic record for earning the most consecutive C's in my weight division. Things like that stick with you.

Not all the messages I receive are bad, though. For example: This morning I got a message from a man in Tallapoosa. He started with the words, “I love you.”

That was nice. I can’t think of a better way to start a weekday.

Then, the man went on to tell me about something that happened to him once.

Years ago, he was standing in a supermarket line. He was trying to pay for his groceries, but his card got declined. A woman in line paid for his items. She was a stranger.

He’s never told anyone about this.

“That woman probably didn’t know it,” he wrote, “but I was a single dad, at the time I was broke. She put food in my kids’ mouths.”

There’s the letter I got from the woman in Chattanooga.

She got pregnant when she was seventeen. Her family kicked her out of the house. She almost gave the child up for adoption because seventeen-year-olds can't afford babies.

She wanted her child to have a good life, even if this meant letting it go.

A neighbor woman invited the girl to live with her for as long as the girl needed. She offered to babysit her child, and to let her use her car. The woman's only condition was that the girl stay in school.

That was ten years ago, today the girl has a nursing degree and a nine-year-old.

Here's another.…

My waitress has a smile that tells me she knows what she's talking about. You can tell a lot about someone by how they smile.

They are holding hands. I like it when young couples hold hands. I don’t see many kids do this very often anymore.

They are sitting on the same side of the booth. I like it when they do that, too.

This is why I loved the bench seats in old cars and trucks. God bless the bench seat. It’s extinct now. But before automobiles lost these long seats, young men and women would sit close when driving. They would love up against each other.

If ever my mother spotted a truck window in traffic with two heads leaning close, she would remark, “Aw, look. That girl’s holding him up so he can drive. Ain’t that sweet?”

It sure is. For a boy, there is nothing sweeter than the feeling of driving a truck with a pretty head resting on your shoulder.

The couple in the booth is somewhat of a rarity. They are not holding cellphones, they aren't texting. They are saying things in soft voices. And it’s great.

I came here this morning for breakfast, I brought

a newspaper with me. But I can't seem to read it. Not when I am people-watching in a classic American scene.

I flick open the newsprint. I watch the couple from the corner of my vision.

They talk to each other. She is your typical teenager—happy and rosy-cheeked. He is your basic high-school boy. Skinny, a little awkward, a touch of Norman Rockwell to him.

The waitress refills my coffee. I am grateful for hot Joe this morning. I didn’t sleep well last night. The folks in the hotel room above me were having a jump rope competition that ran until the wee hours.

“Anything good in that paper?” the waitress asks, nodding to the front page.

“Not today.”

“Yeah, I can't read the news anymore, it’s too depressing, makes me sad.”

She's right. The newspaper is just one disaster after another…

The Atlanta Braves are playing their first home game of the season, and everyone in the South is here to greet them.

SunTrust Park holds 41,500 people. There are even more than that here tonight.

The man taking tickets at the gate is all personality. He says, “Man, we sold out tonight, even our standing-room-only tickets went like hotcakes.”

The Atlanta Braves are playing their first home game of the season, and everyone in the South is here to greet them.

There is magic in baseball. I don’t know how, and I don’t care. Our ancestors played this game. Our daddies taught us to swing while we were in diapers. This magic is not make believe.

I meet Amy and Christopher in the mile-long ticket line. They’re from Dalton, Georgia.

"These tickets were his Christmas present," says Amy. "We're so ready for baseball."

"So ready," Christopher says.

That makes three of us.

My wife came to the game with me. She is not a baseball fan. Even so, after years of marriage, she knows how to keep score, and she knows the infield fly rule. I count this as progress. She knows about the magic here.

We find our seats.

In the row ahead of me is a man from Auburn. Early thirties. Father of three. His name is Darren, his kids are with him. His wife is playing on her phone.

His family wears Auburn University T-shirts with Braves caps.

Darren and I end up having a conversation during the game. This is what men do. We cannot wind our watches and chew bubble gum at the same time. But we can have an in-depth discussion during a baseball game and never miss a play.

My father was the same way. I remember when my father used to change the oil in our station wagon. The dull roar of a crowd would come from a Philco Radio. He would be listening.

“What’s the score?” I would always ask.

“Ain’t good,” he’d say. “Turn it off, I can’t bear to hear it.”

I remember going to Fulton County Stadium to see the Braves. In those days, the Braves were experts at losing. But it didn’t matter. A ballgame is its own reward.

Atlanta—It’s late March. Overcast. Chilly. A lot of pollen dust in the air. My windshield looks like the trees have been committing immoral acts upon it.

The Braves have their first home game of the season tomorrow. The town is buzzing.

I owe this city a lot, but I’ve never figured out how to make good on what I owe. Atlanta and I have history.

When we first came here, I was a boy, and I wasn’t sure how I liked it. We stayed in my aunt’s house, in the county seat of Clayton County.

Back then, this place didn’t feel like a monstrosity. Not to me. It was like several small towns quilted together. And I grew to love its patchwork.

I remember going to Fulton County Stadium to see the Braves. In those days, the Braves were experts at losing. But it didn’t matter. A ballgame is its own reward.

I remember once, we were leaving the stadium, I stared through the windshield at a sea of taillights. I'd never seen so many vehicles in

one city before.

“Wow,” I said. “I’ve never seen that many cars.”

My cousin laughed at me and said, “Well, well, well, country come to town.”

I spent some summers in Atlanta, as a young man. It was here that I met a young lady who I thought was sweet on me. Our romance was a flash in the pan, we parted friends. She might read this, so I ought to mention her.

Hi.

As a grown man, I once drove through Atlanta rush-hour traffic with a forty-foot camper attached to my truck. The camper had dual axles and bad wheel bearings. I had white knuckles.

I heard a loud pop. The trailer swerved. I used an ugly word. Cars honked and sped around me. An eighteen wheeler almost ran me off the road.

I pulled over at a liquor store that…