MOUNT JULIET—I am doing a book signing event tonight. Which is a fancy way of saying that I’m using a Sharpie to deface the property of innocent people.

Right now Tennessee is cold, biting, and everyone is wearing jackets. I shake hands, give hugs, sign books, and continuously run my mouth with everyone I meet. This is slowing down the line, but I can’t help it. I’m a big talker just like my mother.

And tonight I’m hugging necks from all over the Southeast.

One of the first necks I hug belongs to a guy from Sopchoppy, Florida. He is cheery and has a long beard. And we are discussing the finer points of underpants. Seriously.

He tells me he has recently discovered a new brand of cutting-edge undies that are built for comfort. We talk about these underpants in great detail. And before we say goodbye his exact parting words are: “You’re gonna love the underpants, man! They’re awesome underpants!”

So the literary event is off to an excellent start.

I hug the

necks of Stephani and Jacki, two sisters who grew up with a mother that forgot to put E’s on the ends of their names.

I meet Randy and LaTresa, a talented husband-and-wife musical duo who give me copies of their albums.

I run into my friend Matthew, who brought his sweet mother. If I am not mistaken, Matthew is wearing orange-and-blue Auburn University plaid. Which hurts my Crimson heart a little.

I see my pal Rob. Rob is a real author with a bona fide career. For some reason, call it misfortune, he has believed in me from the early days. One time he even drove all the way to Alabama just to see me perform. That was back when I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully, after much practice and a few years of trial and error, I still have no freaking idea…

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,…