I was not a cheerful person. I was a quiet kid. I was lonely. Friends were hard to come by. Good friends were a myth. I sat in my bedroom eating a lot of peanut butter.

It’s late. I am staying at a small inn. There is a wedding rehearsal dinner in the courtyard outside my room window. It’s a big shindig. There is a loud band. A crowd. Laughter. Twinkling lights.

I am eating peanut butter from a jar, watching the whole thing through my window.

The party band is playing “Benny and the Jets.”

It is 10:21 P.M.

The people in the wedding party are dressed snazzy. Men wear Sunday clothes. Ladies look like they’re ready for prom.

Everyone sips red wine from tall glasses in a sophisticated way which tells me they are not sipping Boone’s Farm Blue Hawaiian. I’ll bet it’s expensive wine.

I am in my bathrobe, standing by the window, sampling a fine vintage Smucker’s Crunchy Natural. Light bodied, with piquant overtones of Dothan.

I am a well-noted peanut butter lover. I eat several jars per week. The day before my wedding, my friends pitched in and bought me Sam’s Club gallon barrels of JIF. They wrapped them in red ribbons and

attached notecards.

My friend Bobby wrote: “This should last you a few days.”

The party band is playing an encore of “Benny and the Jets.” People are dancing. Friends, family, and happy people.

It’s hard not to smile. Because there is nothing more holy than friendship. Not to me. I grew up in a broken home. My friends were, are, and always will be the closest family I have ever had.

For example, earlier today I had lunch with one such friend. Her heart is gold, and she has the audacity to believe in me. She has believed since I first met her, not long ago.

You don’t forget people who believe in you, not for a hundred years. They don’t even have to say anything sentimental to tell you how they feel. All they have to do is give you…

The sky is wild, with vivid cloud shapes that would make Picasso look like a hick.

FAIRHOPE—I am having supper at a bar, watching baseball. The food is superb. The baseball is not. The place is crowded.

Louis Armstrong is singing overhead, “What a Wonderful World.”

I love this song. I wish I could tell you how much I love this song. The elderly man to my left loves the song too. He is singing along. His date is not impressed.

“I’m on a date with my granddaughter,” he tells me.

He looks ninety years old. His date is ten. She’s eating a cheeseburger.

He finally winks at me and says, “My granddaughter hates it when I sing in public.”

I finish supper and follow the sidewalks, carrying a to-go box. It’s sunset. The live oaks hang over the winding streets, and there is an epidemic of pink flowers.

No matter where you go in this town, the bay is nearby. I stop and sit on a park bench to admire it.

I wrote a college essay about the Mobile Bay

once. Ships have been sailing this water since the 1500’s. Hernando de Soto and his men first named it “Bahía del Espíritu Santo.” Which, when translated literally means: “Dude, I Think We’re Lost.”

It’s a beautiful sunset. I see a boat with running lights glowing. I hear the distant sound of music. The Temptations, I think.

The squirrels in the trees are trying to fit in the rest of their steps for the day.

The sky is wild, with vivid cloud art that would make Picasso look like a hick.

Though, I have never particularly cared for Picasso. I suppose I’m not smart enough to appreciate such high-brow art.

I’m a Norman Rockwell man, myself. I once made a weekend trip just to see a Rockwell exhibit in Birmingham. I spent two hours admiring his work. I went back the next day to…

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in every subject. Her disposition got sweeter, too.

Her life was on the upswing. She dated her first boyfriend. She joined school clubs. She played in band.

And on the last…

I had always wanted to sail. I started looking in the classifieds for boats. I visited everywhere from Mobile to Panama City looking at them.

FAIRHOPE—I sat on the docks in the late afternoon and watched the sailboats do figure eights. It made me smile.

I once had this crazy idea that I wanted to take up sailing. And when I get ideas I can’t be stopped. I don’t want to say that I’m stubborn. So I’m not going to say it.

I had always wanted to sail. I started looking in the classifieds for boats. I visited everywhere from Mobile to Panama City looking at them.

I finally found a twenty-six footer in Fairhope. It was old, and ugly, but seaworthy.

It was a big step for me. I’d never done anything notable except once, when I slid down a bannister with the wood grain facing the wrong way.

This does not give you the same exhilaration as sailing.

The man on the sailboat was waiting for me. I waltzed along the dock and I declared that I would buy his boat. Then, I handed him a check.

“But you haven’t even seen it yet,” he said.

“No, but I’ve seen enough bad boats to know when I’ve seen a mediocre one.”

That man took me on my first voyage. I sort of discovered myself on that Fairhope water. I didn’t think it would be that easy to find yourself, but sometimes it is.

For three months, that kindhearted man gave me lessons. He taught me to raise the main, to trim the jib, and he taught me to sail single handed.

And after my first successful solo sail, he handed me a cigar and said, “I bought these for celebration.”

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”

“You do today.”

In the following years, I would use the boat with my wife, my dog, or some unfortunate friend. And I would demonstrate my newly acquired knowledge by sniffing my nose…

Somehow I felt like I belonged in this colorful world. I was a lost boy with a dead father. Boys like me don’t often feel like they belong anywhere.

MOBILE—When you take in a deep breath, the salt air hits the back of your throat and you know you’re near the Gulf of Mexico.

I am eating a cup of gumbo for lunch, writing you, spilling food on my shirt.

There’s a saying about gumbo: “The longer it sits, the better it gets.”

I don’t know who said that. My wife, maybe. Or maybe it was Abraham Lincoln, or Engelbert Humperdinck.

I never knew what the phrase meant until my wife made gumbo for a bridal shower. The gumbo came out good. But after sitting in the fridge for two days, it became poetry.

Mobile and I have history. When I was younger, all my teenage friends wanted to visit New Orleans to sow their wild oats.

But not me. Mobile was the siren that called to me. And I didn’t have many oats.

I remember visiting here for Mardi Gras when I was seventeen. I clocked out from work, I stood on

a curb with a duffle bag, waiting for a truckload of my friends.

My mother had given me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to stay out of trouble. I promised her. She made me look her in the eyes and promise again.

The city was full of things that kids from nothing towns haven’t seen before.

For instance, Mobile was once a baseball town, the home of Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron. The old mansions are worthy of Margaret Mitchell’s words. Dauphin street looks like an oil painting. And the azaleas.

One of my friends pointed out the truck window and said, “Look, a band!”

A brass band played “O When the Saints.” We saw old ladies with umbrellas strutting on the sidewalk. Their dance looked like a cross between the Funky Chicken and a seizure.

Somehow I felt I belonged in…

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

Thank you for holding the door for an old woman at Cracker Barrel. You must’ve been fourteen, you were with friends. You were laughing and carrying on when you saw the old woman, pushing a walker. You jogged ahead. You beat her to the door. You held it open.

She thanked you. You yes-ma’amed her. And you made my day, kid.

My whole day.

And thanks for giving money to a homeless man in Birmingham, Alabama. You don’t know me, but I watched you.

I was at a stoplight. You were outside UAB School of Medicine campus. You wore green scrubs, and carried a backpack. You gave money. Then, you gave a cup of coffee and a fast food to-go bag.

Thanks for sitting with that young girl after work. She was seated on the sidewalk outside the bar. She was waiting for her ride.

It was two in the morning. She didn’t need to be alone at that hour. So you sat with her. You might not think you did much, but you did.

Thank you for filling that backpack with food, then leaving it in a tenth-grader’s locker—anonymously.

You know who you are.

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

When the hitchhiker stepped into your car, you could tell he had mental illness. But you didn’t try to fix him, you didn’t try to be a hero, you didn’t try to DO anything. You were just nice to him. And he appreciated that.

Thanks for driving a kid named Peter to baseball practice. After his father died, his mother has been working double shifts. Peter has been babysitting and cooking supper for his sisters since his mother started working longer hours.

Peter had to drop out of baseball because he didn’t have a ride.…

When I first attended this school, it was called Okaloosa Walton College. It was about the size of an area rug back then.

NICEVILLE—The Northwest Florida State College parking lot is swarmed with cars. Families are hurrying toward the gymnasium, dressed in their Sunday best.

I pass a man wearing denim. There are grease smudges on his jeans. Holes in his work shirt.

“I’m gonna see my son graduate,” he tells me, lighting a cigarette. “I can hardly believe it.”

Tha man’s name is Danny, he drove here from DeFuniak Springs to see his boy walk across a stage to receive a degree.

“My son’s the pride of our family,” he says. “I love that boy so much.”

Inside the arena is a huge crowd. In the center of the basketball court are hundreds of students in black gowns and square caps. Their faces, happy. Their smiles, blinding.

I stand in the nosebleeds beside Danny. He uses his phone to capture this moment.

Danny tells me his bossman didn’t want him leaving work today. But Danny said, “Damn that, I’m gonna see my boy walk, sir, and if you don’t like it, that’s

too bad. I’ll be back after lunch.”

When we sing the national anthem, Danny removes his cap and holds it over his heart. He sings louder than anyone.

Then he waves at his son. But his son doesn’t see him.

“There he is,” Danny says, pointing. “See him?”

“I see him,” I say.

When I first attended this school, it was called Okaloosa Walton College. It was about the size of an area rug back then.

This was the only place that would take an adult dropout like me. And it is the only alma mater I have ever known.

It’s funny. I was afraid to enroll here as an adult. I was worried everyone would think I was stupid. I was embarrassed on my first day of class. But I got over it. It took me less than…

I don’t know a thing about the nature of life, but I don’t think happiness is something a young man can whip up. I believe over time it grows on him, like algae.

Port Saint Joe is painted with late afternoon sunlight, and I am walking downtown with my wife.

The small Panhandle city is busy with pre-summer tourists. The storefronts look the same way they did in the 1950’s. The old theater marquee reads, “God bless Port Saint Joe.”

I love it here. Long ago, I wrote a novel here. Actually, it was more like a novella. It wasn’t thick enough to balance a wobbly table, but I’ll never forget the sense of accomplishment it gave me.

I didn’t think I could do it. I had almost no faith in myself. To write it, I had camped in a small sixteen-foot camper with my dog.

It was my pal, Lyle, who first encouraged me to do it.

He said, “If you don’t give yourself permission to do something you’ve always wanted to, then what the hell’s your life all about?”

So I tried it. I camped. I wrote for hours, then I ate oysters for supper and drank Red Stripe beer. My bloodhound could eat nearly as many raw oysters as I could.

My bloodhound was born in Indian Pass, just down the road from Port Saint Joe. When I first got her, she was the kind of pup who had saltwater in her blood. She lived for this water.

Throughout her life, we would visit often. I loved watching her run these beaches. She was a special dog.

Some of her ashes sit on my mantle, some ride in my truck. I also brought some of her on this trip.

I put a few spoonfuls of her ash into a Red Stripe bottle, with a cork in the top and rocks in the bottom. And there was a handwritten poem inside.

It was short:

“I love her, Ellie Mae,
Though she is now above,
May she rest forever on…

Breakfast was a grand production. And my girlfriend, Jamie, was in charge of making the biscuits. She was fixing her Granny’s recipe. I almost proposed.

Cape San Blas—The Gulf of Mexico is outside my window. I am eating breakfast. These are some very good biscuits.

Biscuits are the reason I am writing this. I love biscuits, you see. When I was a boy, my mother made them by dusting the counter with flour and stamping dough with a drinking glass. Hers were big enough to be used in professional wrestling matches.

Right now, my wife and I are in Cape San Blas, staying in a rented beach house with the windows open. The kitchen is tiny, but my wife managed to whip up magic.

In its lifetime, the cape has seen its share of hell. Four historic lighthouses have come and gone due to hurricanes. Storms have been beating this peninsula ever since Adam’s heyday.

Recently, Hurricane Ivan, Katrina, and of course Michael. But you can hardly tell it. The remote cape looks as lovely as it always has.

“If you live in Cape San Blas,” said one local man, “you expect

things to get rough, but we don’t worry too bad, that’s life, man. You get your tools and rebuild.”

There’s something poetic about that.

Years ago, I had the first breakfast my wife ever prepared for me, right here in Cape San Blas. We weren’t married. I was a younger man.

My father had been dead for years. I was damaged goods, but somehow I managed to get a girlfriend. I was staying with her family in a rental house on the cape. That first breakfast lives in my memory.

Her father was frying sausage, her mother was eating a grapefruit with sugar, and her brother was getting his fishing rods ready.

There was an old man in a recliner, they told me he was a politician once. He wore seersucker. He was reading the Port Saint Joe Star.

Breakfast was a grand production.…

Port Saint Joe—It’s early morning. It’s dark outside. And it’s cold enough in our room to hang meat.

This is my wife’s doing. She cranked the AC to negative eighteen degrees. I can see my breath.

We’ve been on the road for weeks now, and my wife has enjoyed sub-arctic conditions in various hotel rooms across the Southeast. My nose is about to develop frostbite.

Funny. I remember when my father got frostbite on his ears when I was a kid. He’d been welding outside one January day. He came home in bad shape, the tips of his ears were black.

He wore bandages over his ears for a week.

“Why do you have to work outside?” I asked Daddy.

“Because I love you,” he said. “That’s why.”

“You must REALLY love me.”

“I do.”

“How much?”

“Oh, s’pose you take the stars in the sky, multiply them times a billion, then wrap them in sunshine… That’s not even CLOSE to how much.”

I don’t know why good men die so young.

So, this morning I’m writing you—because I don’t know what else to do while my wife slumbers in this icy, artificial climate. I can’t feel my toes.

This woman. She and I have gone through several phases of life together. We’ve changed careers a dozen times.

I laid tile; she worked in a hospital cafeteria. I hung gutters; she taught preschool. I worked landscaping; she was a nanny. I worked nights, playing guitar at an all-you-can-eat-crab-leg joint; she babysat weekends.

Years went by, and my Great Career Ferris Wheel kept spinning. Then, I got laid off.

It was quite a blow. We didn’t know what to do. So we did what all half-broke couples do. We took a lavish vacation.

Well, it wasn’t exactly lavish. We went camping in Indian Pass, Florida—a sleepy North Floridian…