The sound-guys are erecting speaker towers. And I am watching a copper-topped boy in a cowboy hat run in circles.

2:49 P.M.—A farm in LaFayette, Alabama. There are hardly any structures around for miles, only cornfields and silos. My band will play a concert here tonight. A hoedown, if you will.

Our band’s only mission: Fun. With a capital “F.”

When I arrive, the band is already waiting on me. I have been playing music with these men for many years. We’re not great, but we’re okay.

Tom (bass) sits on a porch swing, overlooking miles of corn. Jimmy (drums) leans against his car, smoking a cigarette, lost in a moment of spiritual reflection.

“Gosh,” Jimmy says, “I wonder where people go pee out here?”

The sound-guys are erecting speaker towers. And I am watching a copper-topped boy in a cowboy hat run in circles.

3:32 P.M.—Soundcheck. Tom tunes his upright bass. Jimmy tightens his drumheads. Aaron is on fiddle. I’ll be playing guitar and accordion tonight.

I have played accordion since my early days. The accordion is not an instrument per se, but more of a family embarrassment.

4:08 P.M.—Cars arrive by the dozen. People are mingling. There is an old man drinking out of a Mason jar, clear liquid. I doubt it’s water.

4:32 P.M.—Copper Top approaches me and says, “Is that a REAL accordion?”

“Yep.”

“And are you REALLY gon’ play that thang?”

“Yessir.”

“Dang.”

When I was a boy, I took up accordion because I wanted to be like my grandfather. But I learned to play with a bad habit, I stomp my right foot in rhythm. Sometimes I stomp so hard that I develop knee issues. But it’s fun. And that’s the keyword tonight.

5:11 P.M.—The parking area is now overflowing with cars. People have brought folding chairs and coolers. There is a taco truck in the distance.

The old man with the Mason jar is having an animated conversation with a cow.

When the first sliver of light showed, the girl shot to her feet and ran along the beach, waving arms in the air. So did the others.

I’m writing this in the early morning. The birds are asleep, the crickets, too. The sun is about to rise, and it’s going to rise just for you. There is a faint glow behind the trees. Just wait.

I received a letter this morning from a girl I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is eighteen. She told me about herself.

She wrote:

“I feel ugly and I know that’s why I’ve never had a boyfriend... I probably never will have one. People don’t like me, and I’m worried that nobody will ever love me.”

Sweet Caroline.

Here’s another letter from a man we’ll refer to as “Elvis”—because that’s what he wanted to be called. Elvis is forty-four.

He wrote:

“My ex-wife broke my heart… Why is it I end up trusting somebody and they break my heart, and instead of hating THEM, I dislike MYSELF somehow? I don’t like myself...”

And this beautiful young woman:

“I have an arteriovenous malformation… Which is why my arm doesn’t work, and now it’s moving to my leg. The malformation started

small, but has grown to the size of a tennis ball, giving me daily seizures and other obstacles…

“The hardest part about all this is being forgotten. I used to have a lot of friends before my diagnosis, but now...

“I get that people are busy, but is life really about being busy?”

Well, I hate to disappoint these good people who’ve written me, but they’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.

The only thing I can possibly think to tell these good folks is about what happened to me during my seventh-grade year.

First, a little background: my seventh-grade year was shaping up to be a good one. Often, in the school cafeteria I’d have my pals laughing until milk spilled from their noses and they lost control of their lower…

And I was thinking: “What in the Sam Hill am I doing here?”

FAIRHOPE—A bookstore downtown. A book signing. I am wearing a sport coat, shaking hands, and smiling. There are a lot of people here tonight, and I am writing my name in their books.

The ironic thing is that I am not a legitimate writer. At least, I have a hard time seeing myself that way.

I have always seen myself as a Ford-owner first, a redhead second. A close third would be a devoted husband. However, in my house this job title has no official description. It would be hard, for instance, to view my family role as any different than the role of our dogs.

My dogs and I both sleep a lot, we both depend on my wife for meals, and the highlight of our day is finding a tree in the backyard that needs watering.

But here at this bookstore, I am signing books, and people are treating me like a real writer. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

What am I

supposed to do? Smile and pretend that I’m actually what these people think I am? It feels ridiculous. It just doesn’t feel real.

I am thinking about the time in fourth grade when my mother told me I was smart, but I didn’t believe her. I seriously thought my mother was full of beans.

I made the worst grades in class. And bad grades take a toll on a kid’s mind. They make him feel like he’s doomed to be a janitor.

Imagine: All your friends are getting papers back with A’s, but your papers always bear a D, F, or a frowny face.

Also, I often got in trouble for things I didn’t do. Like the time when Mark Campbell brought a racy magazine to class. Mark’s desk was beside mine.

Mark whispered something to me but I ignored him because our teacher…

It takes place in the parking lot, before everyone parts ways. It’s called the Goodbye Ceremony.

A beach bar. My wife and I are with our cousins, James and Jessica. We are eating pizza. Somebody got a little crazy and even ordered oysters.

You know what my favorite part of any family gathering is? Not oysters or pizza. The part at the end. It takes place in the parking lot, before everyone parts ways. It’s called the Goodbye Ceremony.

In this part of the world, the simple act of saying goodbye can last for three hours. Sometimes longer if it’s football season.

James and Jessica are cool cousins. I once rode out a hurricane with James. I’ll never forget it. Hurricane Ivan was tearing through Brewton, Alabama. The rest of the family was downstairs, listening to a radio by candlelight.

James and I were upstairs, the ultimate thrill seekers, watching the storm. But we couldn’t see anything because it was too dark.

So our entire conversation basically went like this:

“Did you hear that?”

“Yeah.”

“What about that?”

“Yep.”

When the storm hit, we heard creaking and groaning. It sounded like the core of the planet was getting ripped from the soil and hurling through outer space somewhere above the casino in Atmore.

The next morning, the town had lost so many trees you couldn’t drive down Belleville Avenue. The power was out. It was tragic.

But Brewton’s families banded together. You could see people on porches, cooking food on gas grills, drinking beer at noon.

Because that’s what family does.

Family is important to me. It becomes even more important the older I get. I didn’t grow up with much. And at this age I have to sort of create my own, which isn’t easy because I have no kids.

This is tough sometimes because I really like kids. I like them so much that every child I meet—I know this is going to…

“Come and get it,” says my wife.

There comes a time when a man must stand up for what he believes and ask for extra gravy on his chicken fried steak. Which is exactly what I am doing.

I am asking my wife to cover my plate in white pepper gravy.

I have a long history with chicken fried steak. It goes back to when I was a child.

Chicken fried steak was a real treat in our household. We rarely ate it at home. And we hardly ever went out to eat, either. Eating out was too expensive, and my father was so cheap that he wouldn’t have given a nickel to see Jesus ride a bike.

If we ever did go out, I was only allowed to order ice water. No ice.

Until one fateful Saturday morning, for an unknown reason, my father decided to take our family to a breakfast restaurant.

I can still remember it. The place was a dive. Vinyl seat cushions. Napkin dispensers. George Jones was singing

overhead.

My father told me I could have anything I wanted on the menu. So I ordered chicken fried steak and asked the waitress for extra white gravy.

My father said, “You’ll never finish all that.”

I laughed at my critics.

The waitress brought me a steak that was about the size of Venezuela. I ate three bites and had to be carried out of the restaurant on a stretcher.

When I got older, I visited a themed restaurant outside Little Rock that claimed to have the world’s biggest chicken fried steak.

When I ordered, the perky waitress said, “You sure you wanna order that? You look kinda puny, kid.”

“I’m sure.”

My steak arrived on a platter with a Bowie knife sticking from the top. And I could swear I heard George Jones singing overhead.

“Stand back,” I said. “This could get…

We sit on blankets, we listen to the band. And I have to pinch myself. Where am I? Does it get any better than this?

The weather is perfect. Families sit on blankets, eating fried chicken that was cooked in iron skillets. A band plays music on a miniature stage. Guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.

This is the church my friend’s mother attends. It’s tiny. Most of the congregation is late-sixties or mid-seventies. But there are plenty of young families, too.

Tonight, they are having a picnic.

The chapel is the only structure around for miles, surrounded by farmland and hayfields. Behind the all-brick building is an outhouse. It’s not operational anymore, but it’s maintained for historical purposes.

“It’s a two-seater,” says Brother Williams, a deacon. “When I was a boy, I did my business out there a lot.”

How nice.

The fiddle, guitar, and mandolin are playing the song “Precious Memories.” And I can’t think of a better tune for tonight because the memories are getting thick.

These are Baptists, but not the hardshell kind. These are the sort who go to college football games toting soft coolers.

Even so, no matter what

kind they are, you can’t get Baptists together without having food. It’s in our DNA. Scripture says, “Wherever two or three are gathered, a chicken must be brutally murdered.”

There is some serious fried chicken here tonight. The real kind. Homemade. Church ladies place this food on a table that’s covered in gingham. The tablecloth is clipped with clothespins to keep it from blowing away.

In the pasture behind the church, children are playing a game of Tag.

I see an old man with a dog. He’s wearing an Auburn University cap—the man, not the dog. The dog follows the man everywhere he goes, begging for food from strangers.

I meet a woman who moved to the area from the big city.

“I used to have a good job in Birmingham,” she says. “I was in marketing, worked with some pretty big…

It’s night and I am on a beach in Destin, Florida. I am sitting on the shore, watching the mighty Gulf of Mexico. It never stops moving.

Never.

A few hours ago, I was in a beach bar having dinner with an old friend. He looked good. He’s a family man now, with a good job in Birmingham. Two kids. A nice wife. I haven’t seen him in decades. Not since we were ugly young men, operating nail-guns together.

Long ago, we had things in common. His father left before he was born. Mine died when I was a boy.

Back then, we had the same idea on life. Namely, that life wasn’t fair.

We had fun tonight. There was a band playing Top Forty hits. The lead guitarist sang “Brown Eyed Girl” like a donkey with a sinus infection. And people danced.

My friend and his wife ordered fruity drinks and two-stepped until they were sweaty. I said “Goodnight, Gracie” and left early.

On my way home, I stopped here. And the memories came back by the

metric ton.

This used to be my beach. I haven’t been here in years. We lived a few streets over. Our family’s old house was yellow. And tiny. I slept on a pull-out sofa. My sister slept with my mother.

I would sit on the back porch steps when I couldn’t sleep, and look at the night. And I’d wonder things. Important things.

Things like: why does the Pope wear pointy hats? Who invented drive-thru liquor stores? Is it bad luck to be superstitious? And why does it seem like life is out to get me?

Anyway, this town has changed. Once upon a time, Destin was a sleepy fishing village. It had one traffic light—two at the most. It wasn’t swallowed by chain restaurants. There were only a few dives, a Shell Station, and the docks on the harbor.

But progress…

“Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.”

DEAR SEAN:

I know you usually write about good things, but I am pretty down and I don’t know what to do, I think about ending it all sometimes, but don’t know what to do about it. I have a wife and two young sons and dogs, and she [wife] really wants me to go to the doctor, but I hate doctors.

Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.

HELP

DEAR HELP:

I am terrified of doctors, too. I hate waiting rooms, needles, elevator music, blood-pressure cuffs, outdated issues of “Better Homes and Gardens,” the smell of rubbing alcohol, and god-awful fluorescent lighting.

When I was a boy, I disliked our family dentist so much that I would fake terminal diseases just to avoid him. My dentist was an old man who looked like Harry Caray and his breath smelled like a reclaimed water facility.

He smoked Winstons while he

worked, and listened to Glenn Miller cassette tapes. To this day, I can’t hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra without developing a nicotine buzz.

One day, the old doc looked into my mouth, he was humming along with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” breathing smoke directly into my face, and he told me that he was going to install a permanent retainer on my bottom teeth.

I got so scared that I almost Chattanooga-Choo-Chooed in my shorts.

He glued a piece of wire to my teeth with an industrial adhesive often used on commercial runways. When I left his office, I felt like somebody had constructed a Steinway inside my mouth.

But the wire didn’t last. It came loose after only a month. When the wire dislodged, it left behind huge globs of hardened glue on the backside of my teeth.

Now, I should have told…

Jacob was a foster child. He grew up in the Foster Pinball Machine. Birth to graduation. He was never adopted by a family.

He and I weren’t good friends, but we knew each other. I lost track of him at age fifteen. He moved away to a group home.

We got in touch a few years ago. I expected to learn he had a wife and kids, but that wasn’t the case. Jacob has animals.

Six dogs, three cats.

I don’t think Jacob would mind me saying that he marches to the beat of his own tuba.

He’s had little choice in the matter. His childhood was spent bouncing from family to family, looking after himself, remembering to eat regularly.

Today, he leads a good life. He’s a restaurant cook, he likes to hike, camp, and he’s had the same girlfriend for ten years.

I asked about all his animals.

“I dunno,” he said. “Just love animals.
Growing up, I was never allowed to have any.”

Jacob found his first dog after work one night. It was late. A stray black Lab was

sniffing trash cans behind a restaurant.

The dog bolted when it heard footsteps.

Jacob tried to coax it with food. The dog wasn’t interested. So, Jacob resorted to heavy artillery.

Raw ground beef.

He left an entire package on the pavement. The dog still wouldn’t come. Jacob gave up and crawled into his car to leave. Before he wheeled away, he glanced in his rear mirror.

The dog was eating a pound of sirloin in one bite.

“Started feeding him every day,” Jacob said. “I just wanted him to know somebody cared, that was it.”

For two months, Jacob cared. He fed the dog from a distance seven nights per week—even when he wasn’t working.

And on one fateful night, the old dog walked straight toward Jacob and had a seat.

“You shoulda seen how he…

“Changing diapers couldn’t be easier,” Marsha explains.

I volunteered in the Methodist nursery last Sunday. The colorful room was overrun with babies. Marsha was my team leader for the day, and the only woman with first-hand experience handling a loaded diaper.

Working in the nursery is a pretty straightforward gig. Basically, all you do is wear a nametag and wait for a baby to cry, then hold them.

Your other job—and this is an important one—is to sniff the air and locate Number Two.

Marsha is very proactive when it comes to finding Number Two. She is constantly on the lookout for Number Two. Sometimes she even interrupts adult conversations to shout, “I smell Number Two!” Then she conducts randomized diaper checks.

I get the impression that going Number Two is all babies ever do. And don’t ask me where it all comes from because during snack time, I couldn’t get any babies to eat their pureed sweet potatoes without spitting up on themselves.

But let me assure you, these kids are definitely eating when nobody’s watching.

Because every kid in the room waddles as though his or her diaper contains a No. 6 bowling ball.

Before today, I hadn’t changed many diapers. As a boy, I helped change my kid sister’s diapers. But I don’t remember much about it.

All I can recall is that my mother used cloth diapers and washed them outside with a garden hose and a crucifix.

But Marsha has her finger on the pulse of today’s diaper scene, which is very different from the old days. Modern diapers are made of plastic, with ventilation systems, and color-coded accident indicators, which work sort of like mood rings.

“Changing diapers couldn’t be easier,” Marsha explains.

All you do is lay the baby down, keep the kid still, remove the kid’s recent installment, wipe the baby’s legs, sanitize the child, apply baby powder, and tag his or…