NASHVILLE—There must be a million people inside the Music City Convention Center, gathering for the Public Library Association’s annual conference. These are all librarians.

This conference is the Olympic Games of the library world. Dedicated library professionals from all over the nation attend to represent their communities with one goal in mind, namely, to locate free alcohol.

I’m kidding. But not totally. They also visit for the free books, the engaging speakers, and to learn about breakthroughs in the field of self-inking rubber stamps.

I love librarians. Though I’ll admit I’m also a little afraid of them. This fear dates back to when I was younger. I used to visit the library and check out lots of Louis L’Amour novels. I was terrible about returning them on time. I still have overdue books that have been accruing debt since the Coolidge administration.

Thus, I have become very good at spotting librarians in crowds so that I can hide from them. In fact, if you were to line up ten people and hide one

librarian among them, I could pick out the librarian. She would be easy to find. Just look for the sweet older woman wearing tennis shoes and scented bath powder.

Another dead giveaway would be that everyone would be calling her “ma’am” and promising to return their overdue books under threat of the death penalty.

As it happens, the subject of late fees is a big issue at today’s book convention.

“I hate late fees,” said one librarian from Alaska. “They ruin the whole experience for kids who forget books, the kids are always embarrassed when I tell them they owe me lots of money. I feel like a mafia boss, like I’m threatening to break their legs or something.”

“Hear, hear,” said another woman from Michigan. “Most kids are so scared of me they leave with their books and never come back. Which only makes MORE late…

FRANKLIN—It’s colder than a brass bra in Tennessee. This is the second day of my book tour and my cheeks are frozen solid. All four of them.

We left the hotel this morning and drove southward through Nashville. At each stoplight the morning road crews were spreading rock salt, slowing traffic to a crawl. Local traffic reports said that, due to frozen conditions, Nashville’s I-65 was gridlocked with nine miles of bumper-to-bumper bachelorette parties.

I was not prepared for cold weather. I am from Florida. I own exactly one winter jacket, which still has the pricetag on it. I usually wear this jacket on Christmas morning to walk the dogs—purely for a joke. This past Christmas, for instance, it was seventy-two degrees where we live.

But today, I’m wearing gloves, a scarf, long underwear, and the whole nine yards.

As part of this tour, I am a guest on some podcasts, which is a new experience for me. I am told that being on the air is sort of like taking

powerful hallucinogenic medication.

Basically, you get locked in a studio and talk to inanimate objects (microphones, padded walls, English majors, etc.) for several minutes until you either fall asleep or the producers start decomposing.

Chris is the host of this show. He’s courteous, kind, and he asks thoughtful interview questions about my life and my work. Chris also has a real talent for listening. Which comes in handy.

Because when I answer his questions I tend to ramble and speak in caffeinated run-on sentences that can go for nearly six or seven minutes without a single breath or pause so that everyone inside the studio has fallen into a deep sleep and is currently having hallucinatory experiences of their own, kind of like you are having right now, because I just won’t shut up, because I keep coming up with something else that I HAVE to say until Chris…

NASHVILLE—It is snowing on the first day of my book tour.

Sometimes when people hear the term “book tour” they immediately think fancy schmancy. Well, believe me, this tour is extremely fancy. Nothing but the best for us. The hotel we stayed at last night, for example, recently installed several brand new top-of-the-line mouse traps.

We’re calling this the “Snow Tour.” Which is a only joke because the snow here in Nashville only lasted for a whopping four seconds before Davidson County officials brought the snowfall to a halt, penalizing flurries for accumulating without a building permit.

Needless to say, I’ve never done an official book tour before. Though, I imagine it sort of works the same way the Tour de France works. You ride across the country, enduring sleep deprivation, stinking to high heaven, straddling a seat that’s about the size of a Snickers bar. Luckily, our van’s bucket seats are a little bigger, more like a Baby Ruth.

My wife and I will be living on the road for nearly a

month. This means that we will be wearing the same clothes day after day, doing our laundry in hotel sinks. So if you happen to see me while on tour, make sure you give me a big hug because I’ll be smelling great—provided you like the smell of Limburger cheese.

Speaking of Limburger, I should mention my book.

I started writing it a couple years ago during a vacation to Lake Martin because my wife had gotten a great internet deal on a lake cabin. Well, at least that’s what we thought. Come to find out, it wasn’t a deal.

For starters, the cabin wasn’t even on water. It was located on a remote part of the lake that hasn’t seen any actual water since the Paleolithic era. The lake had receded WAY back so that the porch was overlooking miles of fudge-colored mud and dead fish…

I am in traffic listening to an oldies AM radio station. Extreme oldies. The music coming through my speakers takes me to an antique world of hi-fis, beehive hairdos, and weird congealed salads.

The radio DJ says, “...And that was a song from Benny Goodman, now let’s hear one from the Les Baxter Orchestra...”

I remember my granny listening to Les Baxter albums. One such album was called “The Primitive and the Passionate,” ala 1962. On the cover was a photo of a woman who could’ve passed for Sophia Loren, dancing in a sultry way, beckoning to all who looked upon her. Even little Baptist boys.

I remember the record playing on a turntable. It was lush and tranquilizing. When you hear music like that, you are immediately transported to an earlier time, sitting on a plastic-covered sofa, watching someone’s dad—usually named Gary, Frank, or Dennis—use a cocktail shaker to make a Manhattan.

I remember another Les Baxter record. “Space Escapade” (1958). On the cover was Les Baxter dressed in a spaceman suit

with spacegirls falling all over him. Keep in mind, Les Baxter looked a lot like your grandfather’s dentist.

But the record was great. An hour’s worth of exotic orchestral music that sounds exactly like being trapped in a department store with your mother while she’s trying on dresses.

“Attention shoppers,” the department store intercom says. “Special on aisle twelve, make your own julienne fries with the new Fry-O-Matic! Fourteen ninety-nine with rebate. Also, ask your sales associate about our sale on boy’s athletic supporters.”

The radio station is now playing selections from the country music vein. Conway Twitty. Hank Snow. Followed by Buck Owens, singing “Together Again.” I turn it up.

If I close my eyes, I’m sitting in front of a Zenith console TV with my father. On the screen: Roy Clark and Buck Owens are surrounded by their “Hee Haw” gals in cutoff denim shorts.…

Mister Vernon died last night. He went easy. You never met him, but you knew him. He was every white-haired man you’ve ever seen.

He spoke with a drawl. He talked about the old days. He was opinionated. He was American. Lonely.

Miss Charyl, his caregiver, did CPR. She compressed his chest so hard his sternum cracked. She was sobbing when the EMTs took him.

Caregiving is Charyl’s second job. She’s been working nights at Mister Vernon’s for a while.

She arrived at his mobile-home one sunny day. Mister Vernon was fussy, cranky. A twenty-four carat heart.

She listened to his stories—since nobody else would. He had millions.

He talked about creeks, mudcats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and cahaba lilies.

And he talked about Marilyn. Marilyn was the center of his life once. His companion. But she was not long for this world.

He talked politics, too. Charyl and he disagreed. Mister Vernon would holler his opinions loud enough to make the walls bow.

He was a man of his time. An oil rig worker, a logger,

a breadwinner, a roughneck. He helped build a country. And a family.

Each day, he’d thumb through a collection of old photos. His favorite: The woman with the warm smile.

Marilyn. The woman who’d helped him make his family. Who’d turned his kids into adults. Adults who had successful lives and successful families. They live in successful cities, they do successful things.

“He sure missed his kids,” says Charyl. “They hardly came to see him. They were so busy.”

Busy.

Last night, Vernon asked Charyl for a country supper. She lit the stove and tore up the kitchen. She cooked chicken fried steak, creamed potatoes, string beans, milk gravy.

“Marilyn used to make milk gravy,” he remarked.

She served him peach cobbler. Handmade. The kind found at Baptist covered-dish suppers.

“Marilyn used to make peach cobbler,” he said.

My phone rings. I answer it.

“Hello,” the young voice says. “Is this Sean Deet… Deet... ”

My last name has always been a source of frustration for telemarketers and non-German-speakers. I help the poor girl out. “Sean Dietrich,” I say.

“Thank you, Mister Dietrich. I’m writing something for my school newspaper and your wife scheduled this interview for us. Is now a good time?”

“I have all the time in the world. Can I ask your name?”

“Oh, shoot. Sorry, yes. My name’s Lindsey.”

“Hi, Lindsey.”

Long silence. The sound of rustling papers. An electric pencil sharpener.

“What grade are you in, Lindsey?”

“Fourth.”

“Fire at will.”

“Um… My first question is, what do you like about writing?”

A very good question. In fact, I have done more than a few interviews, but I rarely get straightforward questions like this. I have to think for a few moments about how to answer. Finally, I say, “I guess I like how it makes me feel, the act of writing, I mean. I can’t explain it.”

She says in a whisper, “How… It... Makes… Him… Feel...”

“I also like meeting new people who I get to write about. I enjoy meeting people.”

“...Meeting… New… People…”

More silence. Followed by paper sounds. The noise of a child clearing her throat. “Are you happy with your life?”

Good Lord. This child is aiming straight for the jugular. She’s asking existential questions that I don’t know if I have answers for. Besides, what is happiness, really? Is this a yes or no question? Or is it a matter of percentages? Is anyone ever truly happy? If so, do they stay that way forever, or only for a few weeks? I mean, I know some who have everything they want—health, stuff, money, family, success, a pasta maker—and they still want more.

“Sure,” I say.

Long pause.

“What about you, Lindsey? Are you happy?”

“Uh, yeah,…

Today was the first day of baseball’s spring training. Every Major League team played. The professionals all trotted onto dirt infields to punch gloves, swing bats, and make life a little better for those of us who are emotionally unstable enough to be called “fans.” Baseball is back.

I realize that not everyone cares about baseball, but last year, after our Atlanta Braves were decapitated by the Saint Louis Cardinals, it was like a nuclear holocaust at my house.

This pain can be traced back to my father, a lifelong Cardinals hater, who would have rolled in his grave after the upset. I will refrain from printing any unnecessary Cardinals jokes here because one or two Cardinals fans might know how to read.

Sorry. That was cheap. And I apologize. But I can’t help myself. Because I learned to love baseball during infanthood. My early days can be measured by red dirt stains and strained groin muscles. We would sweat all summer, rolling on grassy outfields, sliding into second,

stealing bites of Navy plug chew and pretending to be men.

Of course, I was no man. I was freckled, chubby, and an all-around unattractive kid. But when I was on the field, I felt like I was part of something big.

I did not grow up in an era of technology and smartphones. Mine was probably the last generation to experience an electronically quiet life. We rode bicycles to practice, gloves hanging over our handlebars. There was no internet, instead our elders fed us tales about growing up with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Ted Williams.

My father grew up during a time when the Yanks were a superpower. A time when the Dodgers finally defrocked the Bronx Bombers to become world champions. When Jackie Robinson was in the twilight of his career. Mickey Mantle was the American League’s top slugger. Hank Aaron was hitting .314. Willie Mays was unstoppable.

Why…

He’s sixty-two. He’s driving a Ford on the interstate. This is a big deal.

I know what you’re thinking: since when is driving on the interstate a big deal?

When the interstate is Atlanta 285.

Also, he hasn’t been behind the wheel in three years. Not since a botched surgery—which was when his life went downhill.

There were complications, which led to other complications, and recovery has taken time. He has a hard time moving his legs and feet, he uses a walker. It left him with crippling pain.

He became a bona fide shut-in. His only window to the outside world is his adult daughter—who lives all the way in Union City.

His lovely daughter helps him almost every day. And even though she has been pregnant, about to have her own family, she still labors without complaint.

Anyway, earlier this particular evening his daughter called. She had an announcement.

“Dad,” she said. “I had the baby.”

When he heard the news, he was so overcome he couldn’t form words.

“Dad?” came her voice on the phone. “You still there?”

No answer. He was crying.

But they weren’t happy tears, they were

of self disgust. He despised himself. He hated being lame, and he hated burdening his family.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Fathers weren’t supposed to load their daughters with caregiving responsibilities.

“Dad?” she said. “You there?”

His lips quivered, he breathed heavily. “I thought you weren’t due for two weeks,” he said.

“I wasn’t, but… Surprise.”

He choked back more tears.

“I’m sending Danny,” his daughter went on. “He’s coming to pick you up in a few minutes.”

“No!” he shouted. “Don’t bother!”

“What?” she said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I said don’t bother!” he spat at her, “I don’t wanna come!” Then he slammed the phone.

He couldn’t explain why he was so angry.

The man sidled his walker toward his recliner…

A crowded lunch joint. Seated beside me is a man reading a newspaper. I glance at a sobering headline that reads: “Boy Scouts of America Files for Bankruptcy.” The man with the paper sighs, and folds it closed.

Meanwhile, the television above the bar rolls shocking footage of a shooting. This is followed by reporters talking about deaths due to coronavirus.

Then come pharmaceutical commercials by the dozen. After that, a legal commercial about how to sue pharmaceutical companies.

The waitress looks at the TV and says, “Hot awmighty, they never tell you anything good do they?”

She changes the channel. The TV shows a riot. She changes it again. On the television screen are two men in suits shouting at each other with spittle flying. She flips again. The news announcer says: “Two more deaths from the coronavirus, experts say you should all run for your…”

Mercifully, she turns the television off.

A man at the bar says, “Thank you.”

Another man raises a coffee mug. “‘Preciate that.”

And you get the feeling that everyone here is

about to applaud.

The mood improves considerably. Pretty soon the waitress is playing music overhead. I hear a steel guitar intro. It’s George Strait, singing about Amarillo. And color is being restored to the world. Thank you, George.

The waitress warms up my coffee and I’m feeling a lot better now. Certainly, I know the universe is full of bad things, but it’s full of good things, too. And sometimes I wish that I heard more about them.

A few nights ago, for instance, I heard about one such item. I met a man who told me about angels.

“Angels?” I asked him.

“Yes, angels,” he said.

The man was white-haired. He looked like your favorite granddaddy. He spoke with a thick Georgia accent and wore plaid.

“I was driving home late,” he began. “Crashed into a log truck.”

His wife held…

I am on a stage. I am playing guitar and doing my one-man show. The same show that critics often hail as a remarkably powerful sleep aid.

I see a redheaded man in the audience, sitting in the balcony. I almost lose track of what I’m talking about on the microphone. The redheaded man is grinning at me. He reminds me of someone I once knew. Someone from long ago.

The very first time I was ever on a stage I was six years old. My father was the reason. I don’t know why he had such a bee in his bonnet about getting me in front of people, but he was hellbent on it.

He practically begged the preacher to let me sing in front of church, even though I REALLY didn’t want to do this. My father could be relentless. Soon I was standing before everybody and their mother’s house cat singing “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”

Something I’ll never forget: Just before I took the church stage, the old

preacher introduced me by calling me a forty-year-old man trapped in a six-year-old's body.

Everyone chuckled. But I didn’t see what was so funny. I sang the best I could, but I was godawful. People applauded. My redheaded father, who was in the balcony, whistled with his fingers.

After that, I started doing some singing in public. I was shy and I hated it. But my father said the only way to get over stage fright was to simply get over it. He kept making me audition for local plays. I couldn’t understand why he found this so important. All I wanted was to go back to making mud pies in the backyard.

I got a role in one play where I had to memorize nearly a hundred lines. My mother and I worked on these lines every day after school. She’d read the script while standing at…