I am greeted by Alecia and other members of her team. We all exchange hugs. Alecia says, “Thank you so much for being here.”

NASHVILLE—The book publisher’s building is large, modern-looking, and intimidating. There is a mirror-like finish on the outside.

There is an intercom by the front door. Before getting inside, you must present a valid ID, a birth certificate, the blood of a sacrificial ram, and five years of past tax returns.

No, I’m only kidding. The intercom is probably for weeding out crazy people.

Which is why the most important thing to remember when speaking into this intercom is to relax and be yourself so the receptionist doesn’t think you’re a crazy person.

I mash the button.

“Hello,” I say, using a 17th-century British female accent. “I am not a crazy person.”

The voice says, “Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes.”

The door unlatches with a buzzing sound. And I am inside the HarperCollins building. This place is fancy. Tall ceilings, big windows. There’s a pianist in the lobby playing “Moon River” on a six-foot baby grand piano.

Again, this is just a joke. He’s actually playing “Red Sails in the

Sunset.”

I am greeted by Alecia and other members of her team. We all exchange hugs. Alecia says, “Thank you so much for being here.”

This seems to be the phrase of the day. I hear it a few hundred times from many nice people.

These are book-people. Their lives revolve around books. Anything you can imagine doing to a book, they have already done it. They eat, sleep, and bench press books.

They think in complete paragraphs that are virtually typo-free. Some copy editors even do double air quotes with their fingers before and after every sentence they say.

There are cubicles everywhere. People at computers. Bookshelves. Coffee makers.

The walls are lined with posters featuring some famous book covers. And these posters all leave you struck with the feeling that pretty much all people in the Western world—including…

I have not been able to find our dishrag drawer since the late 1990s.

I am looking for the peanut butter in my kitchen. But I can’t find it. I can never find things in my own house because I am married.

Just when I figure out where the silverware is located, or the peanut butter, or the master bathroom, my wife changes everything around. Then she changes it again.

When I ask her about it, she offers no explanation other than: “I moved the peanut butter above the dishrag drawer.”

If I actually knew where the dishrag drawer was located it would be smooth sailing. But I have not been able to find our dishrag drawer since the late 1990s.

So I just keep looking around for the peanut butter, opening and closing cupboards until I end up staring into a cabinet filled with vitamins and one Oster six-speed hand mixer. Then, I completely forget what I was looking for and end up on the sofa watching the “Young and the Restless.”

I forget things because we men have short

attention spans. I get distracted all the time. I can be talking about one thing, then suddenly (bam!) did you know that a squirrel’s front teeth never stop growing?

Which is true, by the way.

This attention deficit problem in males is annoying to women. But it’s just part of being a man. We can be very thickheaded.

This is why a man can wander into his own kitchen, open his OWN refrigerator, stare at fourteen different kinds of mustard on the door, including the moldy Grey Poupon that nobody has thrown away since his cousin’s wedding reception last summer, and without the slightest irony ask his wife, “Do we have any mustard?”

At my in-law’s house it was salad dressing instead of mustard. My father-in-law would accumulate salad dressing like nobody’s business. I finally figured out why when I went shopping with him.

He…

“What are you writing?” she asks. Only it comes out sounding like “Choo rattin’?”

I have a few hours to kill. I stop at a small place to eat. The place is dead. It is just me and a waitress. She is older. Covered in tattoos.

The place is rundown. My coffee mug has lipstick traces on it. The music overhead is George and Tammy. My table is sticky. I’ve been in a lot of breakfast joints in my day, but this is definitely one of them.

I order eggs and bacon. And I type on a laptop while listening to George sing.

She watches me. At first she isn’t going to say anything, but eventually she does. Her boredom is unbearable.

“What are you writing?” she asks. Only it comes out sounding like “Choo rattin’?”

“It’s just a story,” I say.

“Story ‘bout h-whut?”

“This and that.”

“You a writer?”

“Sorta.”

“You any good?”

“Not really.”

“I ever heard of you before?”

“I doubt it.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sean.”

“Never heard of you.”

The music overhead changes to Randy Travis. I have always liked Randy Travis.

I ask her the quintessential breakfast-joint

question. “So, where’re you from?”

“Virginia, originally. Only, I been in Alabama since I’s twenty.”

“Doing what?”

“This and that.”

“You any good?”

This makes her smile. “I was good at being stupid. So are my daughters. All been stupid just like me. My son’s the only one who did right. He joined up.”

“The military?”

“A Marine.”

“Semper Fi?”

“Do what?”

“I think that’s their motto, the Marines, Semper Fi.”

“Is that Spanish?”

“I think Latin.”

“Don’t know nothin’ bout no Latin, but he’s a good boy, when I get to see him.”

She returns to wiping the counter. It’s just busywork. There’s nothing to wipe. The cook is in the kitchen playing with his phone. He appears to have a runny…

I’m on a two-lane highway.

I am leaving Florida, heading for Birmingham on important business. By which I mean barbecue.

My cousin is having a little get-together in his backyard. He is slow-smoking a large pork butt, serving homemade banana pudding, and his famous fall-off-the-bone ribs. I have been known to travel great distances for good barbecue.

I’m on a two-lane highway. It’s 99 degrees outside. The Florida weather is so hot that the trees are bribing the dogs.

I cross the state line, and I’m in Alabama.

The first town I pass is Florala. It’s tiny. It sits on Lake Jackson. Picture thick oaks with lots of moss, a small mainstreet, and Opie Taylor kicking a can on the sidewalk.

I once dated a girl from Florala. Her father hated me. One day he invited me hog hunting. Just the two of us. This was my cue to get off his porch before I had an unfortunate hunting accident.

You can follow Highway 55 upward for a breathtaking drive. Pass Lockhart,

North Creek, miles of farmland, and soon you’re in Andalusia. Hank Williams got married in Andalusia.

Pass the country club, the Conecuh River, and you’re back on 55 again. Follow this through Red Level, McKenzie, and you really ought to stop in Georgiana, at Kendall’s Barbecue—a little shack beside a gas station. Thank me later.

While you’re in town, visit the childhood home of Hank Senior. Get the dime tour of the museum from a sweet elderly woman named Miss Margaret, who I keep hoping will adopt me.

After that, you will have a few routes you can take to Birmingham.

1. Interstate 65—a congested mega-highway with every SUV in the known universe riding your butt and trying to ram your tailgate if you don’t drive 125 miles per hour even though they have bumper stickers which read “Jesus is my co-pilot.”

2. Highway 31.

Ride…

And he was a blue collar man. It’s impossible for me to tell you much about him without highlighting that. His uniform was denim.

He was outdoorsy. More outdoorsy than me. Don’t get me wrong. I love the outdoors just as much as the next guy. Sometimes, I spend all day watching movies that were filmed entirely outdoors. But he was different.

He smelled like the outdoors. That’s what I remember most about him. It was a leathery smell. Like soot, and foliage, and dirt.

He smelled like this because he worshipped his lawn. The man could waste entire weeks obsessing about one little brown spot in his yard. And he would work in the flower beds more than most peoples’ grandmothers ever did.

He was a blue collar man. It’s impossible for me to tell you much about him without highlighting that. His uniform was denim. He wore it every single day. Except Sundays. He was an ironworker. A union man. I never saw him sit in anything but a Ford.

On weekends, however, he was a certified nutcase.

Once, he had the bright idea to

conduct a controlled burn on our land. Thirteen acres of tall, dry grass. His friends told him it was a bad idea, but like I said, he was a nut.

On Saturday morning, he drove the truck around the property; his buddy rode on the tailgate, dumping gasoline onto the grass. They spent half the day saturating the land. Then he parked near the house and lit a match. One match.

Boom.

Thirteen acres exploded. The fire department was called. The police were called. I think he even made the paper.

It took a full day to put the fire out. And when it was all said and done, my father was covered in black soot, head to toe. He said, “Well, that was a bad idea.”

I remember those words exactly.

Another story I remember. He was driving and he saw this man on the…

This woman is important to me. I married her when I was young like you. She has contributed more to my life than any single person alive.

DEAR SEAN:

I want to ask this girl to marry me. I am 21, and she is 22, and we are completely in love. Her family is against our wedding and my family isn’t all about it either.

I have had some serious health issues since I was a child and I almost died several times so I know that life is short, more than other people. I asked a pastor what to do and he said it would be disrespectful to our parents to disobey them, but I am so confused, so what do I do? We just want to be together.

Thanks,
VERMONT-GUY

DEAR VERMONT:

First off: You do not need advice. Anyone who has “almost died several times” has already learned things I will never know.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had a few moments when I THOUGHT I was dying. But nothing like you.

I am not kidding. I am predisposed to episodes of something called “vasovagal syncope.” This

is just a medical way of saying that I pass out at the drop of a hat. It happens only when I get very freaked out.

People who experience vasovagal syncope experience lightheadedness, nausea, the feeling of being hot or cold (accompanied by sweating), ringing ears, confusion, inability to speak or form words, visual disturbances such as lights seeming too bright, tunnel vision, and (this is a real biggie) RELAXATION OF THE BOWEL MUSCLES. Then these people pass out.

I have passed out a lot. Once when I was a child, a faith healer from Tennessee came through our church. He asked if I “believed.” I told him I did. He did put his hand on my forehead and hissed like a snake.

I hate snakes.

I passed out. When I came to, something was very wrong. My mother took me into the bathroom and—I don’t mean…

My wife and I ate Chinese take-out tonight. My meal came with a fortune cookie whose fortune read: “Relax, you have all you need.”

I’m not one to take life advice from a cookie that tastes like cardboard, but it can’t be all wrong.

My home is small. One-story. Simple. There is a mobile home beside it. Across the street, there are three empty trailers, old, and covered in grime.

I own two rusted boats. One works. I have a workshed, and one orphaned dirt bike that needs its gaskets resealed. It sits beneath the shade of an oak tree, broadcasting to the world that my neck is a little red.

We live on a dirt road—a point of pride in our family. A few years ago, they tried to pave our street, but they didn’t pave our particular section of the road because my wife was standing in it, shouting death threats to the bulldozer driver.

My truck sits parked beside my

boats. It is a Ford, 2003. The tailgate is rusted. The paint is flaking off. There is a mountain of junk piled in the truck bed. I keep meaning to clean it out, but...

Maybe some other day.

Every night, my wife and I walk our dogs after supper. We eat early because we are getting middle-aged and we don’t sleep well if we eat late.

We walk the dirt road, then down the paved street toward Hewett Bayou, which is on the Choctawhatchee Bay. And though I can’t prove it, I believe ninety-nine percent of the frogs in the Southeastern United States are conceived in my backyard.

On our walks, we talk. Mainly, about what we would do if we ever had money. Then we laugh and realize that we will never have money because we are not money people.

You are either a money person…

One night, I noticed a pie through the glass refrigerator door. Pecan. It was supple. Golden. Blonde crust. Firm filling. Illuminated by a faint light from above.

You can imagine my reaction when yesterday I discovered that Pamela Anderson had made me a pecan pie. Someone hand-delivered the pie and there was a sticky note attached. It read: “Love, Pamela Anderson.”

I started to get light headed.

Granted, it might not be the famous Pamela Anderson, since the pie came from Thomas County, Georgia. But—and follow me closely here—the famous Pamela Anderson has not publicly denied knowledge of this pie.

I cut a slice and buried it with enough Reddi-Wip to cover Mount Rushmore. It was so sugary it gave me heart palpitations.

“What’re you eating?” my wife asked.

“Oh nothing,” I said. “Just a gift from Pamela Anderson.”

“Who?”

“Don’t make me say it again, honey. Celebrities are very funny about their privacy.”

My wife inspected the note and laughed at me. “What are you, fourteen years old? It’s not the celebrity, it’s just some woman named Pamela Anderson.”

But she is just jealous. Wives get that way when former television stars bake things for you.

If Pam happens to be reading this, she should know that pecan pie is my all-time favorite. That is, unless Anne Margaret bakes me a blueberry pie. Then my all-time favorite pie is blueberry.

Barbara Eden could make me liverwurst on a cracker.

Once, I had a job at an ice cream shop. I was recently married, taking a second job to pay the mortgage. The job paid minimum wage and it wasn’t a great gig. I was a glorified soda jerk, complete with a dorky uniform.

On my first day, the owner trained me to scoop ice cream, make malts, and say things like “Gee whiz, Beave’.” He was a grumpy man, elderly, and always in a funk.

The first order of business was to introduce me to the pie coolers. There were two. Each cooler was filled…

This one is from my elderly friend, Mister Boots: “Smartphones have made stupid people.”

“Don’t kiss a girl without being prepared to give her your last name.”

My granny said that.

My father once said this: “If you so much as touch a cigarette, you might as well tear up half your paychecks from now on.”

My mother’s axiom, however, is my all-time favorite: “It’ll be be okay.”

It might sound like a simple phrase, but my mother said this often. Whenever things were running off the rails. Whenever a girl broke my heart. Whenever I lost my job. Whenever I cried.

Whenever I had a common cold that I believed to be, for instance, tuberculosis, she said this—I needed her to say it.

She also said: “Cleaning your plate means ‘I love you, Mama.’”

And this is why I was an overweight child.

I could keep going all day.

“Don’t answer the phone when you got company over,” my uncle once said. “It’s just flat rude.”

This one is from my elderly friend, Mister Boots: “Smartphones have made stupid people.”

My grandfather said: “Anything worth doing is worth waiting until next week to do it.”

My wife’s mother once

said: “Always carry deodorant in your truck, for crying out loud. You smell like you’ve been roping billy goats.”

Said the man named Bill Bonners, in a nursing home, from his wheelchair: “I never wanted to be a husband, I really didn’t want that. But I just couldn’t breathe without her around me.”

He died four days after his wife passed.

And one childhood evening, I was on a porch with my friend’s father, Mister Allen James who was whittling a stick, and he said:

“Boys, if you marry ‘up,’ you’ll have to attend a lotta parties you don’t wanna go to. Remember that it’s better to marry ‘down.’”

I never forgot it.

On the day of my father’s funeral, a preacher came through the visitation line and said: “No man ever truly dies.…

But I am a little hungry. So I do some digging around the room. I locate a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos and I almost start dancing.

THOMASVILLE—I’m about to make a speech at a local bookstore. I am running late. I speed into town like Dale Earnhardt on a beer run.

I have a soft spot for small towns. In fact, you might say that my entire life has been built by small-town people. Like those in this city.

The streets are lined with shops and markets. The store windows are covered by awnings. There are plants hanging from street lamps. A dog wanders Broad Street. Reddish. Scruffy. He has no collar.

A simple drive around town is worth the price of admission. When you’re here, you’re back in time.

In the historic district you’ll see antebellum homes, Queen Anne architecture, and steep-pitched rooflines. Whitewashed columns on old mansions. Big porches. And people riding lawn mowers, drinking Bud Light, and listening to gospel music on headphones.

But it’s the downtown that everyone comes to see. We’re driving through it at sundown. Every few seconds my wife uses the phrase “Oh, how cute.”

There

are cobblestone streets. Two-story buildings with the tall windows.

A crowd of young women in evening wear poses for a picture on the street corner.

Boys in baseball uniforms meander the sidewalk, following their designated team-dad, who looks like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown.

Women stroll together, toting shopping bags. I see one shop owner sweeping the sidewalk with a broom.

I didn’t think anyone swept sidewalks anymore.

And the dog still roams Broad Street. He stops now and then to see if any passers by want to feed him. No dice.

It’s all too pretty to believe. I keep expecting to see Barney Fife pull alongside my vehicle and accuse me of jaywalking. Or perhaps Floyd might approach me and ask if I need a haircut. And the answer would be: Yes, I do. Badly.

I dart into…