I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

DEAR SEAN:

I want to be a writer, but sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t even bother to write at all since everyone else is better than I am.

Sincerely,
THIRTEEN-AND-WANT-TO-WRITE

DEAR THIRTEEN:

I think you should keep writing. Especially when you feel like you aren’t any good.

I have written my worst stuff on my best days and my best stuff on my worst days. And it’s been the greatest thrill of my life.

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

For instance, I have written a lot about my late dog, Ellie Mae. Once, she ate an entire jar of coffee grounds. I discovered that coffee stimulates the lower intestines of an animal.

Don’t ask me how I learned this.

I also wrote about the time I got stranded on an island for four hours. No kidding. My boat motor died, the current pushed me into the grass flats of the Choctawhatchee Bay. I

had to wait until I got rescued by a man with beer.

I wrote about the time I dressed up like Elvis for a talent show. And about the time I did a ventriloquist act with the puppet of a squirrel. The puppet’s name was Ernie.

The next morning I wrote about it.

There was my college professor. When my first book got published, I gave her a stack of books and told her she was the reason. I wrote about that.

And about the woman who shares my life. My wife. Once, I sat in a waiting room at UAB, asking Heaven to make her better again. And when Heaven answered, I had to write about it.

Only ten minutes after I received news that my thirteen-year-old coffee-eating bloodhound had died, I wrote about it. My face was swollen, my eyes…

“Howdy,” is the woman’s first word to me.

Winn-Dixie—they remodeled this store not long ago. It’s something else. A little too fancy, if you ask me.

I’ve been shopping here since the old days. Back then, it was your average supermarket. Linoleum floors, decent beef, clinically depressed cashiers.

Today, they have deli counters that sell salmon sushi. I’d rather lick the restroom floor than eat salmon sushi.

The woman behind me in the checkout line is old. She is frail, with white hair, and big glasses. She is every American granny you’ve ever seen. I’ll bet the closest she ever came to sushi was a wild night at the Baptist clothing swap.

She is holding onto her daughter for support.

Her daughter is Hispanic—black hair, dark skin, late fifties. The two women couldn’t look more different.

They have a full cart. They have purchased all the usual supermarket fare. Chicken, tuna cans, jars of peanut butter, Duke’s mayonnaise, Colonial Bread, and enough paper towels to sink the U.S.S. Uruguay.

We make friends.

“Howdy,” is the woman’s first word to me.

“Howdy,” I say.

The old woman tells me about herself.

She adopted her Hispanic daughter when the girl was three. The toddler had been abandoned at a shopping complex. The child didn’t understand English, and she was sick with a chest infection.

“She almost died,” the old woman says. “I had to do something to help.”

The old woman met the girl at a foster facility. Some of the her church friends used to visit local foster homes to give attention to needy children.

“There were only a few of us who did that,” the old woman goes on. “We were so young. We’d hold the babies, play games, read stories, sing to’em sometimes. You know, mom stuff.”

Mom stuff.

“Kids need touching to survive,” the lady adds. “It’s been proven. Look it up.”…

Robert was a squirrel. He had a good life. You would’ve liked him. My dog and I found him lying dead in the street while on a walk. He was the victim of a hit and run.

I first noticed the squirrel while my dog was busy doing her business in the neighbor’s yard. I wore a plastic dog-doody-bag on my hand.

One of the neighbor kids saw the squirrel, too. The girl’s name is Erin. Erin started crying. Her brother, Tyler, came to see what was wrong.

“Don’t cry,” I said. “It probably didn’t even feel anything before it died.”

“We HAVE to have a funeral,” Erin told her brother.

“What?” said her brother. “A funeral for a squirrel?”

“He had a name,” the little girl said. “His name was Robert.”

That’s when my dog started licking Robert’s—how do I put this?—remains. Erin shrieked. I tugged my dog’s leash and apologized.

“Will you help us?” said Erin. “With the funeral?”

I had better things to do, of course. A serious writer

doesn’t just sit around eating tuna salad and watching baseball all day. Occasionally, he watches basketball.

I didn’t have time to conduct a homegoing service for a rodent. I explained this.

But the kids didn’t seem to understand. And I cannot say no to kids.

So I went home, and in a few minutes, I returned wearing another doody-baggy over my hand. I used old barbecue tongs to position Robert in a shoebox.

Four children were part of the procession. We all marched from Robert’s skidmark to Erin’s backyard.

Erin’s big sister, Kristen, stood on the porch, texting her friends about what dorks her siblings were. And about what an even bigger schmo the writer down the street was.

I felt ridiculous, but not too bad. Because when I was a boy, I once threw a wedding…

It happened when I was twelve. When my father took his life, I was watching TV.

DOTHAN—There’s a festival on North Saint Andrews Street. Hordes of people. Families. Face painting. Popcorn. Fried catfish. Beer. Bluegrass. Laughter. Kids everywhere.

The Blayne Hardy Barfield Foundation is throwing a Family Fun Day.

The foundation is named after Blayne Barfield, a young woman who committed suicide four years ago. I ask Blayne’s husband why he started this foundation.

“For my little girl,” he answers. “To break the silence, man. I want people to know that they can talk about it. ”

I meet a few who do.

One lady is watching the band, eating coleslaw and hushpuppies. She has cropped silver hair and a bright sundress.

“My son took his own life,” she says. “He was twenty-eight, wanted to be an actor, or anything involved with movies.”

She shows pictures on a cellphone.

A few moments later, I am standing in line for the restrooms. I meet a girl. She is wearing a T-shirt with the word “cowgirl” on the front. She is early

twenties, cheerful.

She says, “Yeah, I was the one who found my mother after she… Well... It was bad. I was sixteen, and I’m just now starting to talk about it, my therapist says I should.”

She speaks to me like I am a friend. Because I am a friend.

In fact, I am just like her.

I was twelve. When my father took his life, I was watching TV in another county.

At the exact moment the shotgun blast blew a hole through my uncle’s roof, I was watching the commissioner of Major League Baseball announce that the World Series would be cancelled that year.

The universe has a strange irony to it.

That night, the minister helped my mother break the news to me. He sat beside the fireplace and seemed nervous. I didn’t know what he was about to say.…

I know people who pay big money to sample the finest Bordeauxs, or eat at five-star restaurants. They can have it. Give me homemade cornbread any day.

TUSCUMBIA—Momma Jean’s is a sleepy cafe out in the country. They serve hoecakes here. Not plain cornbread, but the stuff your granny made in a skillet.

It looks like a pancake, and tastes like a home run feels.

This is the kind food that would’ve made my uncle lick his lips and shout, “Go ahead on!”

Which is country talk.

My father would sometimes holler “Go ahead on!” at a preacher who was on a roll. It’s also a phrase that people shout at Little League games when cheering for their kids.

Sometimes, we shout it at wedding receptions when our eighty-three-year-old aunt is shaking her moneymaker to “Viva Las Vegas.”

And we say it when a cook has blessed our heart. It is an all-purpose phrase.

Momma Jean’s is your all-American joint with fried food, good veggies, and paper towels on the table. And I am so hungry I could eat a Presbyterian.

The old man in the booth behind me has tall hair. The elderly

woman beside him has hair shaped like a helmet. They are saying grace. The man does the talking.

The woman chimes in, saying, “Yes, Lord.”

I overhear them praying for someone named Maria. Their prayer lasts a long time. Whoever this Maria is, these elderly people are not letting her be forgotten.

On the other side of the restaurant are a few men wearing neon work vests and boots. They are covered in dust and drinking iced tea.

When their food arrives, they hold hands and bow heads. After the prayer is over, a young Hispanic man makes the Sign of the Cross.

I’ve never seen so many people saying grace in one diner before.

I’m scanning the menu. This restaurant has it all. They serve pintos, collards, cabbage, catfish, chicken, and lemon icebox pie.

Lord have mercy. It’s been a…

We took care of each other. I did her laundry and taught her how to fry bacon. And when our dog had puppies, I showed her how to hold them—there’s an art to handling newborn pups.

I was the second person to hold her. Daddy said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t drop her.”

She looked like a white bullfrog. She smelled like vanilla and grass clippings. I promised I’d take care of her forever.

That was harder than it sounded. This girl grew into a kid overnight, and she did reckless things.

She used to leap off round hay bales, flapping her arms, yelling, “CATCH ME!”

She liked to see how long she could hold her breath underwater. She climbed trees that were too high. She ate too much bacon.

Her first word was, “NO!” Her second word was “NONONO!” She used these words when I tried to force an oyster past her lips. She pitched a fit.

I’d never known anyone who didn’t like oysters. They were the food of our forefathers. Our ancestors consumed oysters when they learned the War Between the States was over. It was celebratory food. The food of holidays. And of summer.

She was four when Daddy died. The morning of his death, I sobbed alone on our

back porch. She crawled onto my lap.

“Don’t cry,” she said.

I did anyway.

We took care of each other. I did her laundry and taught her how to fry bacon. And when our dog had puppies, I showed her how to hold them—there’s an art to handling newborn pups.

Once, I rented a library book on French braiding. She let me practice until her hair resembled overcooked spaghetti.

She tried out for the school play. I attended her audition. She was nervous, and the smug drama teacher told her she had no talent.

I’m a quiet man, but I wasn’t that day. I called the teacher a greasy Communist who didn’t love the Lord. I’m sorry about ever saying that now. I don’t know if she really was greasy.

Throughout her high-school years, she worked different jobs. Once,…

I have named nearly a thousand fish in my day.

I am about to go fishing. Don’t ask me why. You don’t need a reason to go fishing. That’s one of the great things about it. It is reasonless work.

My late father-in-law taught me that.

Certainly, some men fish like they are on a mission for the U.S. government. These men are either constipated, or they drink Coke Zero.

But for most of us, fishing is just sitting on a boat and fighting off dehydration. It is a beautiful waste of time. And it is even more wasteful when you throw fish back, like I do.

I haven’t always released fish. I used to keep them, and I would even pay to get the big ones mounted.

In my office, for example, there are five fish on the wall. In my den, six.

There is a nice redfish I had mounted by an old man in Choctaw Beach, long ago. He would mount fish for twenty-five bucks. He was a little senile, and he screwed up one of my fish by painting it green.

When people see this fish, they often say, “What kinda fish is that?”

“A very jealous one,” I say.

And nobody laughs because that is the worst joke you will ever hear.

But somewhere along the way, I started releasing fish. I would drag them into the boat and I couldn’t bring myself to gut them. So I would remove the hook, name the fish, and let them go.

I have named nearly a thousand fish in my day.

The first one I ever named was while fishing with my father-in-law, Brother Jim—I never referred to my father-in-law any other way.

I caught a speckled trout on a number-six hook, and I felt bad for the fish. I kept thinking about what it must be like to be a speckled trout. I wondered if the…

Fourth of July was the holiday that hurt most.

A busy Cracker Barrel. My family sits at a large table. My mother on my left. My wife on my right. My sister across from me. Her two children. My brother-in-law, and my mother’s boyfriend.

That’s a lot of people. Don’t make me count them all.

Long ago, there were only three of us. My mother, my baby sister, and twelve-year-old me. Back then I didn’t know what we were. Whatever it was, it didn’t feel complete.

I’ll never forget when the church had “Family Fun Fair” on the Fourth of July. I begged my mother not to attend because, I kept telling her, we weren’t a “true family.” Not since my father had died.

I could tell this hurt her. But I meant it. When people looked at us, I could practically feel pity leaking from their eyes. And pity sucks.

Family Fun Fair was reserved for real families. The kind who had a living father, a mother, two-point-five kids, a dog, a riding lawnmower

in the garage, and a Kitchenaid mixer.

We did not have these things. We had a push mower that leaked oil. And my mother’s cheap handheld mixer was basically a gasoline engine with beaters.

Fourth of July was the holiday that hurt most.

That was the holiday when American families would swarm together like honeybees. They would park their cars on the curbs, throw loud barbecues, laugh too much, and holler.

My friend Jackson, for instance, had nearly forty people at his family reunion. They participated in something they called “Boat Day.”

Who ever heard of Boat Day? How ridiculous, I thought. Everyone in his family would crawl into their respective boats and cruise in circles, water-skiing, shouting, and carrying on like they were the happiest clowns you ever saw.

Gag me with an outboard prop.

Even so, my mother did not leave…

I finished one paragraph and proclaimed it the worst book ever. I’ve seen refrigerator manuals more entertaining.

The highest aspiration of my childhood was to be a cowboy. When that didn’t work out, I wanted to be an FBI agent. That definitely didn’t work out.

I wouldn’t have survived FBI training. I could’ve never done the obstacle course at Quantico where they make you climb a rope without knots. I couldn’t even climb the rope in gym class.

Kids today might not remember the dreaded rope in P.E. But there was a time in public schools when we had to scale a fifty-foot rope dangling above a concrete floor. It was dangerous. If your arms wore out at the top, you fell and died.

But that was school, and we didn’t complain because it was better than the uphill walk home.

Anyway, when my FBI career didn’t seem feasible, I decided I wanted to be a novelist. I was in fifth grade when I made the decision to be a maker of books. It all happened because of my big fat mouth.

Let me explain:

My father was an avid reader, so was my mother. During one particular supper my parents discussed a book entitled: Chesapeake. By James A. Michener. They were crazy about this book. They worshiped this book. They would have eaten this book for supper if there had been enough ketchup. It was all they talked about.

When I tried to tell my mother about falling off the rope in gym class, my mother shushed me and talked about James Michener.

Naturally, I became curious about this Michener. One afternoon, I snuck into my father’s room. Beside his bed sat a book the size of a cinder block—only heavier.

I finished one paragraph and proclaimed it the worst book ever. I’d seen refrigerator manuals more entertaining.

But my father caught me reading it. When he saw me, he smiled.

“Are you ACTUALLY reading that book?”…

I fixed my plate and was met with an old woman behind the buffet. She looked at my mountain of cheese and gasped.

A graduation party. There must have been a hundred people there, all dressed in nice clothes.

In the entryway was a poster-sized picture of the kid who graduated. He’s eighteen, tall, handsome. He looked like Superman, minus the “S.”

People were mingling, there were refreshments, music, and a long buffet. And I was on a mission for pimento cheese.

I will do almost anything for pimento cheese. Not plain pimento cheese, but the kind made by a professional. My aunt, for instance, makes a spectacular variety. And my wife’s pimento cheese is good enough to make Billy Graham slap his own mama.

My mother is not going to like that joke.

Anyway, I don’t care for the orange slop found in supermarket coolers. That stuff looks like stink bait. I’m talking about the real thing, made by a lady who knows her way around a kitchen.

A woman who swats your hand when you poke your finger into her food. A woman who shakes a wooden spoon at you and says, “Good things come to those who wait, young man.”

These sweet women have been shredding blocks of cheddar the old-fashioned way since the early days and have developed arms bigger than Sylvester Stallone.

My mother used to have a cheese grater we called the “knuckle buster.” It was shaped like a cowbell, with rusted edges. You had to stay current on your tetanus shots to use it.

If you were disobedient, my mother sentenced you to grate cheese until your knuckles were unidentifiable. If you were especially bad, you had to grate the onions for tartar sauce.

I don’t know if you’ve ever grated an onion. Many good men have lost fingers grating onions on my mother’s grater.

But the fare was worth it. And years later, I would discover that this brand of food is hard to locate…