KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—It’s sunny weather. The college town is filled with frat boys and sorority pledges who buzz around the city like fire ants on a fallen Snickers bar.

The happy city that feels like Disney World for 20-year-olds this morning. There are a lot of people wearing Tennessee Orange.

Today I am meeting with my friend’s son, Peter. Peter is a 19-year-old student, and he is going to take me to visit The Mound. At first, I didn’t know what mounds were. But now I do.

The North American mounds are prehistoric hills that were formed by early-early-early Native American tribes. As it happens, there are mounds all over the Knoxville region. Some estimates suggest that there were once over 200 mounds in this area. Today, about a dozen are left.

I’ve known Peter since he was a baby, he’s always been into history-type stuff. It used to be dinosaurs. Today, it’s mounds.

Peter is a brilliant young man who looks like a college kid on the outside, but has a nuclear-physicist’s brain. He is on the

autism spectrum, and it was not always easy for him growing up.

This is why when he decided to leave home for college his parents were worried sick about him being on his own with friends. But Peter was determined to do it. So they let him go.

Peter's dad told me, “It’s hard having your son leave. He’s my best friend. Hardest thing I ever did was driving away from the school, seeing my baby in the rear mirror, waving goodbye. Ripped my heart out.”

But getting back to the mounds, Peter tells me all about them.

“The mounds are really cool,” Peter says, “Knoxville was originally built by the Mound People. They lived here back in 3500 BCE.”

Peter talks like a professional tour guide, and he keeps looking to me for appropriate responses to his speech.

“Wow,” I say.

Peter…

BIRMINGHAM—Early morning. The sun is low. Fog rests on the trees. And I have a persistent case of writer’s block.

I leave my hotel on foot because I love morning walks. They help in more ways than one. When I walk, I’m able to think in straight lines, clear my head, and most importantly, pull a hamstring.

I see a pest guy spraying outside my hotel. He wears a COVID mask, and carries a spray canister of noxious chemicals.

“How’re you doing this morning?” he asks.

“I have writer’s block,” I say.

“Oh, no. I used to get writer’s block, but I don’t get it anymore.”

“Really? What’s your secret?”

“I had four kids.”

I make my hike across a nearby parking lot, aiming toward a shopping complex. Outdoor malls are great places to walk.

This is when I hear tires squeal behind me.

I turn to look. It is a bad dream happening in slow motion. A white Mitsubishi swerves through the parking lot like a runaway diesel, roaring straight for me.

The vehicle fires forward and misses me by an eyelash. I don’t

even have time to shout any religious language at the driver.

I am left standing on the pavement. Adrenaline has made me cold. I am doubled over.

The guy with the sprayer calls out, “You okay?”

All I can do is nod. “Just dandy,” I say.

It takes a few minutes to gather myself. I am still sick to my stomach. But I keep walking.

I walk across culverts, ditches, decorative shrubbery, thorny bushes, and steep embankments until I reach the mall. My nerves are shaken, but I’m alive, and that’s the important thing.

The shopping complex is empty this morning except for a few older women out power-walking.

I pass a slew of employees in shopfronts. They’re unlocking display windows, doing inventory, drinking coffee from paper cups. And I am finally starting to calm…

Lorie was watching when the supermarket cashier told the young mother that her card was declined. She knew she wanted to help the woman. She couldn’t explain why. It was something she wanted to do.

Just because.

Maybe it was the way the girl was holding a baby on her hip and a toddler by the hand. Or it could have been the girl’s frazzled facial expression.

Maybe it was the single-file line of impatient shoppers, rolling eyes, glancing at watches, adjusting their surgical masks.

Lorie stepped forward. She spoke to the cashier. “I wanna buy her groceries,” she said, presenting her card.

The girl looked embarrassed. There’s a feeling that comes with being the recipient of charity. It’s not a pleasant one. You feel a mixture of colossal idiocy and gratefulness, combined into one giant, foul-tasting pepperoni.

“No,” said the girl. “I’ll just put all this stuff back.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lorie.

“Please, ma’am, I don’t need no charity. My boss just hasn’t direct-deposited my check, that's all.”

There is none prouder than a mother with a light wallet.

“I’m buying

your groceries,” said Lorie. “You can either take them home, or let them spoil in the parking lot. But I’m buying them.”

The young woman seemed genuinely confused. “Why are you doing this?”

Lorie thought about it for several moments. It was a very good question. What had come over her? Why was she doing this?

“Just because,” Lorie said.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just a few scant groceries. The girl had practically shoved the whole grocery store into her buggy.

She was buying the confectionary things growing children need to stay healthy and strong. Chocolate bars, chocolate milk, chocolate popsicles, chocolate chips, chocolate fudge brownies, chocolate syrup, chocolate pretzels, Swiss chocolate swizzle sticks, triple chocolate dark fudge ice cream, and a new pancreas.

The girl agreed to let Lorie buy her items. But before…

It’s a great day for a drive in the Azalea City. The afternoon sun is on the bay. The grass flats are stretching toward the horizon like furry islands.

I ride through the tunnel, which shoots me beneath the Mobile River and spits me into a mild-mannered, picturesque French colonial city. I love it here.

I had a friend from Mobile once say that if you want to make locals angry, tell them Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans.

“These are fighting words,” said my pal.

If you say such a thing to a Mobile-person, their face will contort, their nostrils will flare, they will speak in strange tongues, and their head will rotate 360 degrees.

Then they will spit out facts about how Mobile has the oldest organized Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. They will also explain that Mobile’s Mardi Gras fun was happening in 1703, long before New Orleans was even wearing a training diaper.

Then they will fling beads at you.

When I was a young man, I played music in

a crummy bar band. We were always getting gigs in Mobile. The guys in the band would carpool together, and I was usually the driver.

This was before GPSs, back when early man was still using Rand McNally products. The truck would be loaded with musical junk, amplifiers, and instruments. And five of us idiots would be riding through town looking like the cast members from “Hee Haw.”

To us, Mobile was the biggest city around. Three times the size of Pensacola or Dothan. It wasn’t like other mega-cities, either. People were friendly in Mobile.

As long as you didn’t ask stupid questions about Mardi Gras.

The first thing I’m always struck with here is that this is a baseball town. Hank Aaron was born Down the Bay. And so was Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige. And Satchel Paige is one of my all-time heroes.

They…

DEAR SEAN:

My mom doesn’t want anything to do with me, I haven't seen her in like six years, and she doesn’t even wanna meet her granddaughter, my daughter. I feel so alone and just, like, I don't know. I don’t have any family who cares. Why are families so [bleeped] up?

Sorry I cussed,
FAMILY-LESS-IN-CHICAGO

DEAR FAMILY-LESS:

When I was growing up, there was an embroidered proverb hanging in my aunt’s laundry room. Framed in glass. The text read: “You can’t choose your family.”

I remember this because when I was supposed to be folding clothes I would be looking at it, thinking about what it meant. This is one of the first things I learned how to read, ironically.

I always wondered why anyone would go to the trouble of embroidering such an obvious statement.

I mean, hello? People can’t choose their family? This is no newsflash. So why embroider it? This would be like embroidering: “Yes, you can eat pickles.” Or “Your mother’s brother is also your uncle.”

It’s funny what you think

about when you’re folding towels. And my aunt was big on folding towels. Her towels had to be just so.

In my life I have since learned that every woman has her own way of folding laundry. My mother, for instance, folded clothes one way. My aunt folded things a different way. And when I got married, I was taught that males should not fold anything because we have the domestic intelligence of lukewarm pizza.

Every time I fold a towel in my house, a random woman appears out of the shadows to unfold my towel and refold it the correct way.

This is also true when it comes to loading the dishwasher.

Dishwasher loading is a sacred art only known by the chosen sages who walk among us. Once, at my in-laws’ house, I literally saw the same dishwasher reloaded five or…

A brilliant sunset. I’m on the porch. My neighbors are on their porch. We can’t see each other. I am eavesdropping because I am a semi-professional eavesdropper.

The people are talking and sipping. I hear the sound of ice clinking in glasses, and I overhear average people making conversation.

And there is a baby cooing.

An older man’s voice says to the baby, “Wook at Gwanddaddy’s wittle gull. Hey! You’ve got Granddaddy’s nose!”

The voice that belongs to his wife answers, “Give back Granddaddy’s nose, pwecious wittle gull.”

“Who’s Granddaddy’s wittle baby gull?”

“Jenna! Come outside, quick! She’s got Granddaddy’s nose!”

Yes. There’s a lot to be excited about at the neighbor’s house tonight.

For me, one of the hardest things about the quarantine was the lack of conversation. I miss it. I think I could endure anything if I had enough chit-chat. But without it my mind starts to worry and I work myself into a frenzy.

In the past I’ve interviewed old men who spent their youth in World War II foxholes. Men who didn’t speak about the war until they were in their eighties.

Something they said was that during lulls between fighting, it was the gentle art of conversation that kept them sane.

One man told me that infantrymen would have conversations lasting six or seven hours sometimes. Maybe longer. Until their voices gave out. Until they couldn’t speak the next day.

They would talk about how they missed their hometowns, about their best girls, their kid brothers, their favorite dogs, their childhood sweethearts, their mother’s cooking.

They talked to keep from losing it. They laughed to keep from being afraid.

My neighbor’s voice: “Who’s Granddaddy’s wittle gull? Are you Paw Paw’s wittle baby gull?

I hear them laugh.

I lean my head backward and close my eyes. I could listen to their happy cadence all night. Nobody is talking about a virus, national death tolls,…