I’ll never forget it. I was a boy. An old man visited our house. He was a friend of our family, though I don’t remember how.

“I knew your daddy before he died,” the man told me.

I can hardly remember that man. All I can remember are the colorful socks he wore. They were bright-colored, with pictures of dogs on them.

Before he left, he handed me a book. It was a hardback, entitled: “Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You: A Good Beer Joint is Hard to Find, and Other Facts of Life.”

I read the first page. The words sort of jumped off the page and made me smile.

It’s funny what a few words can do to a boy.

I read the book of humor columns in one sitting. Then, I read it again. The next week, I went to the library and found every book the columnist ever wrote.

I’ve loved him ever since.

After my father’s death,

we lived in Atlanta, briefly, in the upstairs bedroom of my uncle’s house. In the mornings, I would trot to the end of the driveway to retrieve the newspaper before Fifi the Terrorist Pomeranian made her morning rounds.

Often, I would unfold the paper and read my favorite columnist, there in the driveway. Then, I would use scissors to cut out the column for a keepsake.

In the evenings, when my uncle would shake open his paper after a long day at the office, there would be a large hole on page A4. And he would cuss.

I loved everything the columnist wrote, and I read almost every one of his words.

When he wrote about his father, I cried. When he wrote about his dog, I laughed. When he wrote about traveling backroads, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.…

If you were in a real hurry, you’d probably risk your life on Interstate 65. But if you weren’t, you could take a country road like Highway 31.

I don’t like interstates. Sometimes I have to use them, but not by choice. Today, for instance, I have a long drive ahead of me, I am avoiding the interstate like the plague.

Instead, I take the rural route of my youth, Highway 331. This little gem of a two-lane shoots from the Choctawhatchee Bay, upward into Covington County, Alabama, and straight across God’s country.

It’s an unassuming road that will weave you through Defuniak Springs, Paxton, Florala, Onycha, all the way to Opp.

Opp is the home of the Rattlesnake Rodeo. There, you can see snake races, snake contests, snake comedy acts, snake lectures, and good old-fashioned poisonous snake handling. Fun for the whole family.

Even though the rodeo is only seventy miles from my doorstep, my friends always go without me because I am deathly afraid of snakes.

When I was in first grade, a woman from the zoo visited our classroom. She brought a boa constrictor the size of a sewage pipe. She let it

lick my face.

I lost all control. I screamed, I cried, I couldn’t breathe. Our teacher had to call reinforcements. The next thing I knew, I was going to the school nurse’s office to receive a pair of loaner trousers for the day.

Next comes Brantley, the “Front Porch Capital of the South.” Subsequently, you won’t find better food than Michael’s Southern Foods restaurant, downtown. It will bless your heart.

Then comes Luverne—Pepsi bottling country. Luverne is also the home of the Chicken Shack. If you’ve never been to the Chicken Shack, you need to get right with the Lord.

Highland Home, Alabama. They don’t get too worked up in Highland Home.

Hope Hull is next. My cousin once dated a girl in Hope Hull. They were hot and heavy one summer. My cousin and I went to visit her—he had high hopes of…

A cafe. I’m drinking coffee, typing on a laptop. I am trying do some writing. But it’s hard to concentrate.

Namely, because I am sitting beside a group of middle-aged women who are having a conversation about Tupperware.

“Do you remember my friend Martha?” says one woman. “Martha has a Tupperware container, she got it at Target, she can put anything in it.”

“Anything?”

“Yep, anything she wants, she just puts it in the container.”

“Martha does?”

“She got it at Target.”

“They have good containers at Target.”

“Martha just loves it.”

“I’d love a container like that.”

Shoot me.

Across the cafe, I see an old man. He’s alone, eating a sandwich, sipping coffee. He wears a ratty ball cap and gazes out the window. I have a soft spot for old men who gaze out windows.

Over to my left are teenagers—boys and girls. One boy is wearing a Boy Scout uniform, a girl sits beside him. They are holding hands. These kids are so happy they belong in padded cells.

Also, an elderly couple sits behind me. He’s talking into a cellphone, using a voice loud enough to register on the Richter Scale.

Cellphone man shouts, “My doctor said my heart is looking good, darling! There’s nothing to worry about! I don’t need surgery after all!”

And the woman beside me keeps saying:

“Oh, Martha told me the lid just unscrews off her container.”

“The lid unscrews?”

“On and off, just like this.”

“How does it go back on?”

“When you wanna put the lid on, you screw it on. When you wanna take it off, you unscrew it.”

“Whose container is this again?”

“Martha’s container, she got it at Target.”

For the love of Hank.

The old man in the ratty cap is still looking out the window. He wears…

Baseball season is almost here. Hallelujah.

The sun is lowering over the trees on the horizon, and the sky is lit orange. The world is filled with light. The birds are chattering.

Baseball season is almost here. Hallelujah.

I am catching a game between two Little League teams. It’s an unofficial matchup. This is pre-spring training in a small town, where baseball is still something folks get excited about.

The kids are young, and still unclear on the rules of the game, but they’re trying.

A child hits a ground ball.

“RUN!” the parents in the bleachers cheer. The kid drops the bat. He sprints straight toward the pitcher, runs over the mound, leaps over second base, and keeps going until he collides with the centerfielder. And I love it.

Major League spring training starts today, and I can hardly stand myself. I’ve been counting down the days.

When I was a boy, my father and I listened to ball games on his Philco radio, or watched them on television. Almost every

night of the summer, we kept a scorecard placed beside an AM speaker, and a bag of parched peanuts.

When we weren’t following baseball, we were playing catch. When we weren’t doing that, we were at Little League games, like this one. When we weren’t doing that, we were in church.

Of course, my childhood baseball career was cut short. My father died in a terrible way. It was the kind of death that makes everyone in a small town gasp when they read it in the papers.

It was though someone had erased the sun.

And something else bad happened on the same day of his passing. And I mean the ACTUAL DAY of his death.

It was an announcement on the national news. The commissioner of Major League Baseball stood at a podium and proclaimed that there would be no World Series that…

Granny is really Mama. She’s raising the boy and his sister because their mother is out of the picture.

Breakfast time. A mediocre hotel. The continental buffet features food that is only a few notches above prison-camp food.

A youth soccer team forms a line at the buffet. They are filling paper plates with dry bacon and shoe-rubber eggs. I am standing behind them, waiting for my gruel.

I didn’t sleep well last night because of minor back pain.

Long ago, my mother used to say that each naughty thing I ever did would come back to haunt me in the form of back pain. I never believed her as a child. Now I do.

I find an empty table. I am eating breakfast in peace when an old woman asks if she can sit beside me.

And all of a sudden, I’m eating with a stranger.

We are quiet for a few minutes. What should strangers say over breakfast? Conversations about the weather would be shallow. And I don’t feel like discussing politics.

“I’m having a hard time waking up,” she finally says. This starts the conversational ball

rolling.

“When you’re my age,” she goes on, “you don’t sleep good, you’re lucky if you get a few hours. How about you?”

“I had back pain last night.” Then I tell her what my mother used to say about divine back punishment.

She laughs.“You musta been an ornery child.”

“I had moments.”

We are joined by a boy in a soccer uniform who sits beside the woman. She uses sign language to speak to him. He moves his hands in response.

“This is Aaron,” says the woman. “He’s my grandson.”

A girl makes her way toward us. She is older than the boy, tall, lean, with blonde braids. She carries a full plate. I count four biscuits.

If I ate four biscuits, I’d nap like a bear that’s just been shot with a tranquilizer dart.

“This…

I am camping. It’s cold outside. I am about to freeze.

The elderly people in the campsite beside me are from Pittsburgh. Mary and Herbert are their names.

Mary has white hair. She wears a pink sweatshirt and Velcro tennis shoes.

Herbert has two hearing aids, no hair, and he wears a khaki jumpsuit—the kind auto mechanics wear.

Herb putters around his campsite all day, doing things that don’t actually need doing. Like picking up pinecones and tossing them into the woods.

I wave to Herbert on my way to take my morning shower in the bath house.

“Have a nice day!” I call to him.

He smiles. “Nope!” he says. “Haven’t seen him!”

“I said, ‘Have a nice day!’”

“When was that?”

This is getting me nowhere. So, finally I shout, “HAVE A NICE DAY, HERB!”

He smiles. “Dangest thing! Haven’t seen any of those all week!”

And he resumes throwing pinecones into the woods.

I guess I’ll have to forget about communicating with old

Herb today, and wish YOU a good day instead.

I know we don’t know each other, but I can still wish you well. It’s a free country, you can’t stop me—not even if you threatened to tickle me to death.

So wherever you are, I wish you the best day you ever had. Ever. I really mean it. I hope the weather is bright, sunny, and warm. I hope someone you haven’t heard from in years calls you unexpectedly.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. I got a phone call from a friend I haven’t heard from since I was 10 years old. We were buddies back then.

Once, he and I got in trouble for putting frogs in the girls’ restroom sinks at school. Before the principal interrogated us, he made us place our hands on the Bible and…

His family ate dried beans and rice. They’d been living in a friend’s camper. He worked every task he could drum up. Power-washing driveways, delivering papers, scrubbing toilets.

He found twenty bucks at a gas station. The bill was sitting on the pump, weighted with a rock. A Post-It note was stuck to the bill.

“God bless,” the note read. “Pass it on.”

About him:

He was broke. We’re talking flat busted. He had forty-three bucks to his name. Single dad. Two kids. Life was a mess.

He’d been looking for work for months. He’d taken small jobs, whatever he could find.

His family ate dried beans and rice. They’d been living in a friend’s camper. He worked every task he could drum up. Power-washing driveways, delivering papers, scrubbing toilets.

His friend’s sympathy ran out. They were evicted. He searched classifieds, filled out applications, begged employers.

They left for the city to find work. His car was on “E" before he even hit Clanton. He stopped to use the only forty-three dollars to his name. He prepaid for gas and almost vomited.

Then, it happened.

He was filling his tank. He saw twenty bucks. He tucked it into his shirt pocket. He coasted into Birmingham on fumes.

The first day

in town, he walked into a restaurant with his children. He talked to the owner. He offered to wash dishes in exchange for feeding his kids. The owner agreed.

The things a parent will do.

They slept in their car, eating from Styrofoam boxes.

The next day, he visited construction sites, hat in hand. He was met with “I’m sorry, sir."

That night, he washed dishes until midnight. His hands were pruny, his energy was spent.

He met a young Hispanic waitress. She was worse off than he was. Tips were bad, she had no husband, and four kids.

Before she left, he handed her the twenty dollars with the sticky note.

She read the note aloud. “God bless. Pass it on.” And she cried.

His two children huddled beside him in the backseat that night. He cried…