Clemson scores. Alabama is falling behind. This is difficult to watch. Our team is making mistakes.

The NCAA National Championship. Alabama is playing Clemson in a fight to the death. I am in a living room with my elderly mother-in-law, Mary, preparing to watch the big game.

Mother Mary sits beside me, sipping seltzer water. Mother Mary is eating ice cream. Mother Mary is hard of hearing.

The phone rings.

She answers the phone.

“HELLO?!” she hollers into the phone. “YES! THAT’S RIGHT! WE’RE WATCHING THE GAME! HOW ARE YOU, EDNA?”

Brief silence.

“OH, ISN’T THAT NICE?”

Kickoff.

I’m tuning her out and focusing on the television. This is, quite possibly, the most pivotal game of all time. These are the best teams in the—

“HAAAAAAAH! IS HE STILL ALIVE? OH, I REMEMBER WHEN HE WAS A YOUNG MAN, HE WAS HANDSOME! REMEMBER WHEN HE USED TO WEAR THOSE BASKETBALL SHORTS! REMEMBER? THOSE REALLY TIGHT SHORTS? LORD HAVE MERCY, I DIDN’T HATE THOSE SHORTS.”

Shoot me now.

“YES! THAT’S RIGHT! THEY WERE SUCH SKIMPY SHORTS FOR SUCH A WELL-BUILT, STRONG BOY!”

The Lord is my Shepherd…

Clemson scores. Alabama

is falling behind. This is difficult to watch. Our team is making big mistakes.

“UH HUH! I JUST SPOKE WITH BEVERLY YESTERDAY! YOU KNOW SHE HAD THAT GOITER CUT OFF HER NECK LAST WEEK? DO YOU KNOW THE DOCTORS CUT IT OPEN AND FOUND SOME TEETH AND HAIR INSIDE IT? BLESS HER HEART!”

This game is tense. In fact, I am so nervous, I am about to make a puddle from all the stress. But the important thing to remember here is—

“OOOOOHHH NOOOOOOOOO! SHE DID?! REALLY? OH, GOD LOVE HER! I HEARD SHE HAD HIP SURGERY! HOW IS SHE? OH, SHE IS? THAT’S WONDERFUL! ISN’T SHE JUST THE SWEETEST THING? BUT A LITTLE BIRDIE TOLD ME HER POTATO SALAD TASTED LIKE FERTILIZER!”

Halftime.

Alabama is still behind. Their defense has been drowning. We are falling. I don’t…

I am hiking a trail in the North Floridian woods. My dog is beside me. The longleaf pines go on for miles. I am here to walk my dog, take in the fresh air, and, God-willing, pull a hamstring.

The weather is cool and dry. The sky is so clear you can touch it.

A young couple is ahead of me. I have been trailing them for a mile and I have formed some opinions about them.

For one: they are in love, I can tell by the way they hold hands and lean onto each other.

Second: they are in fantastic shape—I have been trying to keep up with them and I am exhausted.

My dog and I pass a swamp. There is a sign beside it that reads: “Beware of alligators.”

I pause to observe. After a few minutes, I see something in the water. It’s a dark shape that sort of looks like a shiny log.

We keep walking.

Gators don’t scare me.

Once, I lived in an apartment that had a pond behind it—actually, it was more of a drainage ditch. There was a hand-painted warning sign next to it that read:

“YALL MEMBER BOUT THE GATORS.”

Rumors claimed that a gator once crawled out of the pond and ate a Yorkshire Terrier named Izzy. Everyone in the apartments retold this horrific story, but nobody knew if it were true.

Until one day, when my uncle came to visit. I came home one evening to find him out back, sitting on an upside-down five-gallon bucket, holding a fishing rod with a raw chicken breast hooked on the end.

“Are you outta your mind?” I said.

“Ssshhh,” he said. “I wanna see if there’s really a gator out here.”

There was. After an hour of tempting fate, the thing came crawling out of the water faster…

I considered bolting, but that would’ve been childish. Instead, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and recognized me. His nose was running, and his eyes were puffy, his hair was a mess.

I was fired from the only retail job I ever had. The important thing to remember here is that I wasn’t fired because I was a bad worker, or undependable. It wasn’t because I was a crummy person, incompetent, tardy, or lazy.

It was because—and I will never forget this—I didn’t iron my shirt.

The bossman came into work and looked at me with disgust. “God,” he said. “Don’t you ever iron your shirt?”

At the exact moment he said this, I was eating a ham and swiss on rye—heavy on the mustard. And it’s impossible to defend yourself intelligently with a mouthful of ham and swiss on rye with mustard.

He fired me. I packed my things and I was gone in fifteen minutes.

So yeah, I’m messy. I don’t mean to be, but I am.

My truck, for instance, is a mess. A few days ago, I found a small oak tree sprout growing in a pile of decomposing trash in my floorboards. I couldn’t bring myself to uproot

the thing because I love greenery.

My office is a mess, too. I have fifty thousand books. Tall stacks sit on every flat surface so I can always see them, and one day when I am gone, God-willing, someone will think I actually read them all.

I don’t know how I became so messy. I didn’t take a special course to learn how. It’s just a gift.

My mother is tidy. My father polished his lawnmower engines for kicks. My sister keeps a house so clean you could eat supper off her toilet seat. My wife irons our dog-bed covers.

Me? I have a tree growing in my truck.

Yesterday, I was in the post office. I stood in a long line. The room was full of folks with violent winter colds.

After every cough, I covered my nose and…

When I was a boy, I remember my father would look at the stars and say, “Maybe this is the year, Tiger. Maybe this one will be the best ever.”

The stars are out tonight. It’s the fourth day of a new year, and I’m waiting for my dog to finish her business so we can go back inside.

But she’s wandering. And I’m thinking.

One of my first published columns was about going water skiing with my cousin. There were lots of people on a pontoon boat—my aunt, cousins, a pastor, innocent children, nuns, etc.

I wasn’t able to stand up on the skis after several attempts. I was dragged face-first through the water like a limp trout before finally giving up and crawling back aboard.

I clambered up the swim ladder, I shook off like a dog, and announced to the group: “Aww, waterskiing is for losers.”

After I said it, I heard gasps. My cousin covered his eyes. My aunt fainted. The pastor’s wife started praying in tongues. The nuns dove overboard and started swimming for Key Largo.

I realized I was not wearing swim trunks.

That story ran in a tiny magazine. And I can still remember hitting the

“send” button to email it to an editor. It was as though I were pressing the “detonate” button on a nuclear reactor.

I had written an actual “column.” That sort of made me an actual “columnist.” And it was like being born again.

The story tanked. The editor wouldn’t return my calls.

Even so, my life was never the same after that.

The next gig I landed was writing for a magazine in Georgia. My assignment was about the history of baseball in Savannah.

For a week, I camped in Richmond Hill, with my dog. I was there to research baseball. I interviewed elderly residents, one historian, one city official, and one former shortstop. I wrote an eight-hundred-word column.

The editor read my words and said, “Sorry, kid. This is basal writing.”

Kid? I was in my thirties. And…

But the little boy is just that. He is little. He sees a fiberglass horse, adorned with a shiny saddle. And what boy on earth doesn’t want to be a cowboy?

He’s old and gray. His skin is like used tissue paper. He has liver spots.

I see him seated on the bench in front of a supermarket. He is the quintessential old man. Boots. Plaid. Suspenders. Hearing aids.

There is a blonde child riding one of those coin-operated horses that cost fifty cents per ride. The old man is watching over the child. His hands are resting on his cane.

“Ain’t it fun, Benny?” the old man says.

“Yeah, Grandpa!” says the blonde kid.

Another boy wanders toward the ride. This child is Hispanic. Black hair. Dark skin. Two adults are with him, parents maybe.

They are a handsome young couple in ragged clothes, covered in dust and plaster. They look tired.

The kid points at the horse. “Qué chido, Papá!”

I don’t speak Spanish, but I know childhood wonder when I see it.

The young couple starts speaking rapid-fire. I can’t understand them, but I know what they’re saying. It’s universal parent talk:

“Get away from that

horse,” the Hispanic man is saying to the boy. “Come inside, we have shopping to do.”

But the little boy is just that. He is little. He sees a fiberglass horse, adorned with a shiny saddle. And what boy on earth doesn’t want to be a cowboy?

The old man seems to know this. He smiles at the child. “You wanna take a ride on Trigger, son?” he says.

The kid doesn’t answer.

The man taps his cane on the horse. “Trigger? You wanna ride Trigger?”

“Trigger?” the boy says.

As it happens, when I was a child my father and I watched every Roy Rogers melodrama ever made. For most of my life, my father called all horses either “Trigger” or “Silver.”

“Porfa, Papá!” the kid says. “Porfa, porfa! Trigger!”

“No,” says Papá.

There will be…

This was her highest aspiration for my life. She wanted me to use a soft voice, good manners, and to treat people the way I’d treat Pope Francis.

I saw a man in a gas station scream at a cashier. The cashier was a young girl. She made a mistake and overcharged him for gas.

The man lost it. I watched the whole thing happen. He stormed out of the convenience store and sped away, leaving skid marks.

She was embarrassed.

“Oh, man,” she said. “I really screwed up.”

“No you didn’t,” said a man standing in line. “He did.”

Be nice. That’s what my mother always told me. And I never knew her to be wrong.

This was her highest aspiration for my life. She wanted me to use a soft voice, good manners, and to treat people the way I’d treat Pope Francis.

Admittedly, I have failed her many times.

There was the time I was watching the Iron Bowl at a tavern in Columbus, with friends. I was seventeen, but I managed to sneak into the joint.

There was a man at the bar in an Auburn T-shirt

who kept shouting ugly things to my pals. When he tossed a glass of beer into my friend Arnold’s face things went crazy.

Arnold weighed a buck five, soaking wet, and had a stutter, he could not seem to defend himself. It took three of us to pry the man loose.

The rowdy hit me beneath the jaw so hard I bit my own tongue and said a word that is not approved by the Southern Baptist Convention™.

In the heat of the moment, I sat on the man’s chest. That wasn’t very nice. My other friends joined me. Three of us sat on him. My mother would’ve disowned me.

The bartender, a graduate from the University of Auburn, splashed a glass of ice water in the man’s face and shouted “You schnoz-whistle! People like you give Auburn folks a bad name!”

“LET…

A few weeks ago, I met an older couple in a movie theater. White hair. Steel-rimmed glasses. They were leaning on each other like high-schoolers.

A young man sits across from me in a restaurant. It’s a meat-and-three place, with napkin dispensers on the tables.

The young man is with a girl. They’re holding hands. She’s staring at him, he's staring back. And even though my wife begs me not to, I ask how they met.

It’s my thing. Some folks make conversation about weather. I coerce complete strangers into telling me love stories.

The girl asks me to repeat myself. Her voice is uncommonly loud. He tells me that she is deaf.

“Our parents introduced us,” he explains. “We started as friends, and then...”

They're newlyweds. He is signing while he speaks.

Dinner arrives. Our food is terrible.

A few weeks ago, I met an older couple in a movie theater. White hair. Steel-rimmed glasses. They were leaning on each other like high-schoolers.

My wife begged me not to make conversation with them.

But their hair was so white.

The man said they've been married fifty years. They realized long ago that they couldn’t have children. It was a harsh blow.

But they're grateful for this today, he told

me. Because during their forties, a young woman in their town died, leaving behind a five-year-old.

That five-year-old became their daughter. Today, she has a family of her own.

“Some things are meant to be,” he tells me.

I met a twenty-year-old boy. He was a newlywed. We shared a bench at a mall in Birmingham while our wives shopped. I asked about his wife.

He’s been with her a long time already. Her brother and father died when she was not yet a teenager. She wasn’t sure she’d ever survive it. He made sure she did.

“I’ve loved her since I was nine,” he said.

They eloped last month against his parents wishes.

Parents don’t know everything.

I got an email from a man. He’d been with his girlfriend eight years. She wanted to…

My sister is a wife and a mother of two, but when I look at her I still see pigtails.

New Year’s Eve—Sacred Heart Hospital, the pediatric unit.

Tonight the whole world is celebrating. I can already hear firecrackers in the distance. But on the third floor, the women in my life are gathered around a sick baby.

My sister’s daughter, Lucy, was born ten days ago. She was dainty, tranquil, and she smelled like all babies do. But last night, she was admitted into the hospital with viral meningitis.

Doctors fitted her with an IV in her scalp, an oxygen nose piece, and they’re monitoring her heart.

So, while a big ball drops in Times Square, my sister holds Lucy.

My sister has cried a lot today. And I wish there were something I could do to make her feel better, but I‘m just a big brother. Big brothers can’t do much but ask the lady in the cafeteria, “More fries, please?”

A gentle knock on the door.

The nurse enters. She’s got a sunny personality. She checks monitors, administers a blood gas, she is smiling a lot. She refers

to my sister as “Mama.”

That word.

My sister is a wife and a mother of two, but when I look at her I still see pigtails.

To me, she’s the girl who watched cartoons on Saturdays, eating Captain Crunch. The girl who ran barefoot. The teenager who worked at Chik-fil-A, who let me use her employee discount.

I remember when I was sixteen, she was a child. She awoke one night screaming. She clutched her side and howled, writhing on the floor.

“What’s wrong?” I shouted

“I’m dying!” she said.

My mother came running. She touched my sister’s belly. She thought my sister might be suffering from severe constipation.

“Are you eating plenty of fiber?” my mother asked.

“I’m dying!” my sister shouted.

“Wait here while I get the castor oil.”

My…