Years later, I would learn that the primary reason for my weight gain was: Chili Cheese Fritos.

DEAR SEAN:

Me and my brother are not skinny, but he was telling me how he feels okay about being this way when he reads about how you were chubby too. I am reading your writing now because of him, so thanks. I’m in tenth grade and he’s in seventh and he really likes you and now so do I. Chubby kids unite! LOL!

DANICA-FROM-NORTH-GEORGIA

DEAR DANICA:

I am glad you wrote me. I was having a rough day when I got your letter. And you made me feel pretty good.

I am embarrassed to admit this, but when I was around your brother’s age, I hated my mirror. It all started in fifth grade. Something happened to my body. I ballooned up. My cheeks got puffy, and my mama often referred to me as her “precious little butter ball.”

Years later, I would learn that the primary reason for my weight gain was: Chili Cheese Fritos.

I’ve said it before, but Chili Cheese Fritos are one of my all-time favorite foods. All my friends know this. I once had a birthday party wherein a good friend filled a plastic kiddie pool full of these little babies. I literally went swimming in Fritos, and it brought me more internal happiness than a major religion.

But in fifth grade, I went a little overboard with Fritos. Or, it could have been my hormones. I don’t know. Either way, I became a chubby kid.

Here’s the really weird thing, Danica. I was only hefty for maybe four or five years max. But—and this is what I’m getting at—these were IMPRESSIONABLE YEARS. Years that stuck with me forever.

I tried losing weight when I was twelve. For exercise, I came up with the idea of mowing lawns. Things went pretty well. I push-mowed like crazy. Five bucks per yard. Whenever I took breaks, I would sit beneath a shade tree, listening to Arethra…

“The Devil’s beating his wife,” my daddy would’ve said, observing such a scene.

Entering Conecuh County. That’s what the little green sign reads, off Highway 31. I’m going north, passing through a small sliver of the county. I love Alabama.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to Birmingham, I listened to an audio book. The narrator spoke with an accent like a New Jersey paperboy. He pronounced Conecuh as “Koh-NEE-koo.”

That hurt.

Now entering Butler County. Wingard’s Produce Stand. B&H Cafe. Dollar General. There’s the McKenzie water tower.

And, God said, “Let there be kudzu.” I love kudzu. I planted some in my backyard in hopes that one day it would swallow my house. Everything looks better swallowed in kudzu.

Georgiana is eight miles away. I love it, too. I’ve visited the Hank Williams boyhood home in Georgiana too many times.

Anyone who knows me knows I love Hank. It goes back to childhood.

My father’s workbench. A radio. Hank, blaring from a small speaker while he changed the oil.

My favorite part of the Hank museum tour is the underside of the house. Miss Margaret says Hank used to practice his guitar

there.

“It was cool down there,” says Miss Margaret. “He’d sit on an old car bench-seat to avoid the heat.”

Miss Margaret. I love her, too. She is old. Half her face is paralyzed. Her accent sounds like a Camellia garden on the Fourth of July. I wish she would adopt me.

Georgiana also has Kendall’s Barbecue joint. “Love” is a weak word for Kendall’s. I WOULD tell you more about this place, but someone wrote me an ugly letter last week, saying:

“You talk about Alabama barbecue TOO MUCH! I'm from Texas originally… I KNOW good barbecue, Alabama barbecue SUCKS, man!”

I understand Texas is beautiful this time of year. I’ll bet they’d throw a nice party if you went back.

I’m passing the Greenville and Pine Apple exit. Greenville is a town like Mayberry. I love it.…

Her smile makes me smile. Which makes my wife smile. Which makes Tamba smile. Which makes me grin so hard my cheeks are sore.

CALERA, ALABAMA—the Cracker Barrel off I-65 is busy this morning. There are people in the dining room from every walk of life. Lots of noise.

An elderly man with military patches on his ball cap. A young couple with loud children who test the limits of the known sound barrier. An old man in a cowboy hat, sitting with his grandkids.

My waitress is Tamba. She is pretty, middle-aged, with cropped black hair, and a smile that sets the room on fire.

“How y’all today?” she says.

Her smile makes me smile. Which makes my wife smile. Which makes Tamba smile. Which makes me grin so hard my cheeks are sore.

She fills my coffee mug. She takes my order. And there’s that smile again.

My cheek muscles will never recover.

I watch her weave through the chaotic dining room like a ballerina. She takes orders from grumpy parents, over-caffeinated children, and flat-faced out-of-towners who woke up on the wrong side of the hotel bed.

She greets each customer with sugary words and that patented cheek-crippling grin.

She takes orders by memory. She listens

when picky eaters specify exactly how they want their eggs. Before she leaves tables, she recites orders to her customers without flaw.

And I sincerely hope that John Q. Customer notices how remarkable she is. Her personality is brilliant, her sense of humor is refreshing, and her memory is the Eighth Wonder of the World.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet she could memorize the Jefferson County phonebook in one sitting and recite it with her eyes closed.

On her way to the kitchen, people flag her down.

“I need mayo!” hollers a man.

She’s got it covered.

“Ma’am!” says an impatient woman from the back. “I NEED some pepper sauce.”

Pepper sauce. Check.

“Ma’am, can I get some more biscuits?” says a little boy.

On it.

“‘Scuse me, Miss?” says a woman. “We’re…

It’s just a game. I keep telling myself that because I know it’s true.

Dear Atlanta Braves,

Beloved team. I love you. My eyes light up whenever someone mentions your name. It doesn’t matter where I am. When someone says “Braves,” I get excited and fall into a heated discussion about the importance of relief pitching, even if I happen to be, for example, taking communion.

But it’s only a game, I know this. I really do.

It’s a silly sport played by grown men swinging hickory sticks at five-ounce balls. There’s no real meaning to it. It’s not important in the large scheme of life. In fact, it’s ridiculous when you think about it.

I mean if alien visitors came to earth and saw thousands of crazed fans at a championship playoff, hollering and screaming as though the fate of the Free World depended on a lefty-lefty matchup, the aliens would be rolling on the floor, peeing their space-pants with laughter. Then they would zap us all with their electromagnetic death rays and turn Yankee Field into a huge septic tank for their spaceships.

I would enjoy that.

I was a toddler when my father taught me the rules of the sport. We were in the backyard. I had a glove. He had a glove. He pitched underhand. I missed the ball and got a bloody lip.

My mother became so upset with him that she used a stream of four-letter words not found in the Bible. Then she threatened to lodge the baseball in a place of my father’s body that I won’t name here.

But he wasn’t sorry. Because he couldn’t wait to teach me to play. To him, glove control was as important as learning to feed myself, respecting my elders, or successfully opening a beer bottle using a vehicle door handle.

When I finally caught the ball, my father got so excited that he swung me around and said, “Wasn’t that fun?” Then, if memory serves me correctly, I…

I meet some tourists on the way back to my room. Selma attracts a lot of tourists because of its role in history.

SELMA—I am watching the sun come up over the downtown skyline. I see the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the distance, arching over the mighty Alabama River.

They say that Selma is the Butterfly Capital of Alabama, I’m not sure why. Though I am told that if you see a black-and-yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly, it’s good luck.

I look for these butterflies, but I don’t find any. All I ever seem to see are various pigeons using my windshield for a public restroom.

Today, I am speaking in schools. This is not something I do very often. Mainly, because kids either like me or they don’t. There is no middle ground with children.

Besides, America’s youth could do a lot better than me, that’s for sure. I don’t have anything special to say. And even if I did have something profound to share, it wouldn’t matter because kids can only maintain focus on the adult monotone voice for 0.008 milliseconds before going slack-jawed and falling into paralyzing REM sleep.

The first place I speak is a

school library. I’m not exactly a success, but luck smiles on me. These kids treat me like I’m the greatest guy they have ever met. They laugh at my jokes. They applaud often. I get many hugs.

One fifth-grader tells me he is interested in being my manager. He gives me his business card and tells me to keep in touch.

Between gigs, we drive across Selma’s historic downtown which has been here since the early 1800s. French Colonial architecture mixes with Antebellum homes to make one big enchilada of colors and shapes, topped with Spanish moss.

I see the historic Baptist church on Lauderdale Street. It’s not like any Baptist church I ever saw. It is made of stone, with gargoyles shooting from the eves. These gargoyles have big, dragon-like, ugly faces. The same kinds of facial expressions Baptists often wear when someone sneaks…

The producer gives us the count down: “Aaaannnd we’re on in five, four, three, two...”

I am on a radio show. I’m sitting in a studio, waiting to talk about my new book, like real authors do. I am wearing headphones. There is a microphone in front of me. The producer gives us the count down:

“Aaaannnd we’re on in five, four, three, two...”

He points.

—PEPPY INTRO MUSIC FOR MORNING SHOW—

RADIO HOST: Hi, you’re listening to WKXPRHZBXC, your home for soft rock favorites and non-stop continuous Michael Bolton ballads. I’m your highly caffeinated morning-show host, Morning Man Larry, and I’m crazy! With a capital K! Our guest today is author Shane Deeters. Shane, thanks for being with us.

ME: My name’s actually Sean Dietrich. But thank you for having me, Larry.

HOST: Don’t mention it. Now, I’m holding a copy of my guest’s newest book, and I wanna tell you, folks, this looks exactly like a real book. It has an actual spine and a dust cover and pages and everything. Trust me. I have seen some books in my day, but this is definitely one of them. You can trust Morning Man

Larry because I am now talking in a low, serious voice to convey the idea that I am a close personal friend. Please, tell our listeners a little bit about your book, Shane.

ME: Well, my name is Sean, and the book is a story about my—

HOST: How long did it take to write this particular book?

ME: I was trying to answer your first question...

HOST: And how many years, approximately, have you been writing books? How many books do you have? When did you first fall in love? What’s your middle name? Where is Fiji? What is a granivorous ornithologist?

ME: I’m sorry, which question am I supposed to be answering?

HOST: Anyway, you know what I think? I think writing is a very noble process. Don’t you agree, Shane? Can I call you Shane?

ME: I…

I am taking the MARTA bus today. I figured, why not? The weather is nice. Fall is here.

ATLANTA—I am in the big city today, covering the arrival of fall. I am sitting on a bench, reading an Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. I am a longtime admirer of this paper. I’ve been reading it since boyhood, back when we would visit family here in Atlanta.

When I hold this newspaper, I still remember my first pangs of literary ambition. I was a kid who wanted to be a writer. A columnist, even. I dreamed of a thrilling life in journalism, filled with rewarding work, the machine-gun sound of newsroom typewriters, grumpy editors in suspenders, and above all, an expense account.

But some things are never meant to be. I didn’t even start writing until I was a grown man who had barely finished community college.

I am taking the MARTA bus today. I figured, why not? The weather is nice. Fall is here. And most importantly, I hate Atlanta traffic.

When I was a kid we lived here for a hot minute. To live in this city means spending half your

life stuck on Interstate 285, physically abusing your steering wheel during gridlock.

Riding the MARTA bus is a more mellow experience. The bus takes me through town while I read the sports section.

The bus arrives at an upscale shopping area. I visit a few stores. A strange lady sprays cologne on me against my will. One man in a kiosk begs me to buy a timeshare. I get a three-dollar massage in a coin-operated recliner. You can’t beat it.

For lunch, I eat at a taco joint. Atlanta is full of taco joints.

“Tacos are huge in Atlanta,” one taco employee tells me. “We cater tons of weddings, everyone wants tacos at their wedding.”

I believe it. A few months ago, I attended a friend’s wedding. It was a fancy event with porta-potties and an outdoor tent. A dance band played “Mustang Sally” for country club members…