My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so I answered. I expected to be greeted with an automated voice, delivering exciting information about my auto warranty. Instead, it was a young man. I’ll call him Fred, although that’s not his name. I’d forgotten I was expecting his call.

“Where do you want me to start?” said Fred.

“Start wherever you want.”

He was calling from the third-floor of the oncology unit. Thirteen years old. When he told me that he was dying, I lost the air in my lungs.

“Are you still there?” he said.

“Yeah,” I answered.

At first, I was tempted to ask if this was all some kind of elaborate prank. Cynical, I know. But it’s not every day you meet a kid like Fred.

He went on. “I just wanted to tell you what I’ve learned on my personal journey. I thought maybe you could write about it.”

Big words from a young man. I couldn’t even answer.

“Are you still there, Mister Sean?”

“I’m here.” I fumbled for a pencil. “Go ahead, Fred. I’m listening.”

I could hear his mother in the background urging him to speak. And I got the sense that I was involved in a deeply personal family moment. I felt like an intruder.

“I’ve learned that people are great,” he began. “People are nice to you when you need them. But not the people you think will be nice. People I didn’t even think were my friends are now friends and they would probably do anything for me.

“Like, my friend Rachel has come to the hospital pretty much every day this year. Sometimes she sleeps here and we play games and stuff like that. We weren’t even friends before I got sick, she was just in my class. There are, literally, a bunch of people like that in my life right now.”

I wrote it all down, but said…

My wife and I crossed the Alabama line and arrived in the southernmost U.S. State. The cradle of our youth. Our windows were down and the radio was playing. The sky was ultramarine. The welcome-to-our-state sign was adorned with non-native palm trees.


Of course the misconception about Florida is that we are a land of sunshine and Mickey-Mouse ears. Which is patently untrue. We also have Mel Tillis. And frankly, we don’t get as much sunshine as you’d think.

Fact: Florida has more annual days wherein the sun is blocked by 20 to 70 percent cloud coverage.

We also receive 54 inches of rain per year, which is more average rainfall than Seattle. And don’t even get us started on hurricane season, which goes from June to the following June. The tourism council should call us the “I Hope You Bought Trip Insurance State.”

Nevertheless, Florida is my home. It will always be the scenery of my subconscious. Its minerals are in

my blood. It is who I am. Currently, I live far away, but I am a Florida child. And you can’t change who you are unless you are Brittany Spears.

West Florida was a great place to spend a feckless youth. I passed the first portion of life walking barefoot among sandspurs and shattered longneck bottles. It was a quiet time to be alive.

At one time, my home county had a grand total of 30,000 people, which isn’t enough to fill up Yankee Stadium. There was nothing here unless you counted the squirrels and the fundamentalists.

Every night before bed, the crickets would sing us to sleep. Our pine trees were tall and ancient. The Gulf air was so salty it made your skin sting. Our Camaros were perched upon their blocks like works of high art. Our Fleetwood singlewides were exquisite.

You could actually see the Milky…

With all the important problems going on in the world—the war in Ukraine, political upheavals, and Oscar Award winners assaulting each other on live television—I’d like to tell you a few things that happened last week that you might not have heard about.

Such as Janice’s dog, Freddy Fender. Freddy went missing last Thursday in McLennan County, Texas. Janice printed up flyers, she went door to door, she asked people to keep an eye out. She prayed. She cried. She camped in her car, hoping to spot Freddy.

Then, on a whim, she visited her priest, who had an idea.

“Cook bacon,” suggested the padre.

“It was brilliant,” Janice told me. “My priest said the smell of bacon naturally attracts dogs.”

Leave it to the Catholics.

That same evening, her priest came over to help. He stood outside her house, frying fatback on a Coleman camp stove and using a welcoming voice, saying, “Here, Freddy, Freddy!”

Come to find out, when a priest fries bacon in a suburban area, it does more than attract dogs.

It also attracts middle-aged dads, neighborhood children, woodland creatures, feral cats, hitchhikers, escaped convicts, and members of Congress. In a few minutes, Janice’s priest was the most popular human being in nine city blocks.

He cooked one package of bacon and it worked. In a pivotal moment that can only be called “cinematic,” a slightly overweight, 19-pound pug came trotting out of the woods, heading toward the smell of hickory-smoked Roman Catholicism.

“We call Freddy the ‘Prodigal Pug,’” remarked the padre.

Meanwhile, over in Charlotte, North Carolina, a kid named Ryan was given a good medical report. This past year has been traumatic for his family, and the pediatric oncology treatments have been pure misery. Still, after months of medical hell, the therapy has worked.

As of last week, Ryan was given the all-clear by his doctors. Ryan’s family wept so hard they forgot to…

I was staring at a four-ton Idaho potato. The large spud sat on a tractor trailer parked near Mooyah Burgers in Hoover, Alabama. It was an overcast day. The potato was roughly the size of the Jefferson Memorial.

Beside me was a boy named Lonnie who was taking a picture of this titanic tuber with his phone. Lonnie was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and a cowboy hat. He was maybe 9 years old.

He wore thick plastic eyeglasses that reminded me of drugstore glasses from the early ‘60s. He kept pushing his glasses upward on his nose, spouting off random facts about the world-famous potato.

“It’s over thirteen feet high,” said Lonnie.

“Really?” I said.

“And ten feet wide.”


“The truck is seventy-two feet long.”

“How about that.”

Lonnie also informed me that this potato would be capable of making 20,217 servings of mashed potatoes, or around 3 million potato chips. It would take two years to bake.

“I wonder how many French fries it would make,” I said to Lonnie.

Lonnie pressed his glasses

upward and fell silent. He blinked a few times.

I had stumped the whiz-kid.

His grandmother was behind him, admiring the prodigious potato. She was wearing a portable oxygen tank, seated on her bumper, eating an Almond Joy. Her hair was blazing white, her skin was parchment.

“We need to hurry, Lonnie,” she said. “You said this wouldn’t take long.”

“French fries…” Lonnie whispered privately, thumb-typing something on his phone. “How many French fries…”

The behemoth potato is currently on its tenth cross-country tour. Last week, the potato visited Hot Springs, Baton Rouge, and Mobile. And as soon as the potato left us, it would be visiting the Piggly Wiggly in Sneads, Florida. After that: Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, D.C., the Mid-Atlantic, and the Eastern Seaboard. This potato gets around.

Since its creation in 2012, the meteoric spud has covered over 100,000 American miles,…

How I ended up walking into a sliding glass door in a supermarket is pretty simple. I got a text from my wife. I looked at my phone to read the message and, WHAM! Goodbye nasal cartilage.

I’m not surprised this happened, inasmuch as whenever I am at the supermarket I receive a lot of texts from my wife. My wife is one of those people who prefers to text me her supermarket list one item at a time. It’s unclear why she won’t give me the entire list at once. Maybe her list is a state secret. Maybe the grocery list is privileged information only known by those with security clearance.

Either way, I usually receive her fragmented supermarket list in the form of random neural firings, such as the following verbatim text: “we r out of non-iceberg.”

Truthfully, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what “non-iceberg” was, but I figured it was a Coors product.

So once I have gathered all items on her list, I’ll be standing in the checkout line

and—DING!—another text comes through. I often receive this text at the exact moment I am placing my non-iceberg items on the conveyor belt.

The text will read something like: “we r out of good toilet paper.”

At which point I will sheepishly apologize to the cashier and quietly ask to cancel my sale so that I can leave the checkout lane to locate what my wife needs.

But the cashier usually tells me, no, it’s okay, she doesn’t want to cancel my sale since she’s already scanned half my items, she says she’ll just wait for me to jog across the store and fetch the toilet paper. At which point everyone in line behind me collectively agrees to set fire to my car.

The cashier then flips on her blinking aisle light, signaling that there is a major problem in Checkout Lane Five. And she tells…

ALICE—I became a librarian in 1957. Thank you for your recent column about librarians. Being a librarian is not a job, it’s a calling.

WENDY—I earned my masters in library science in 1970 and got my first job. There was a little girl who came to our branch every day at the same time. She would read exactly the same book, and she did this for months. She never checked the book out, she only read the same few pages every day. We all wondered what she was doing.

One day I asked her why she came in to read the same pages over and over. She told me she was teaching herself how to read by memorizing pages of the book so she could recite them to herself for practice. I told her she could take the book with her and keep it with her all the time, but she said she’d rather memorize.

Then the girl recited the first chapter to me, letter by letter. I knew I was

dealing with a gifted child.

I was able to get her tested academically and she was accepted into a school for advanced students. I don’t know what happened to her, but I think about her all the time. Thanks.

BILL—My wife was an academic librarian for 22 years. She is on hospice. Thank you for your writing.

MISTY—My dad went to libraries all his life, he always kept a stack of books by his bed. He taught himself Spanish by reading a book from Stanislaus County Library, just so he could communicate with his Spanish-speaking coworkers and make friends with them.

When his friends asked how he learned Spanish so well they were all shocked when he told them the library. This brought him into all kinds of homes and situations, helping Latinos in need. He credited God and the library for everything. I miss him so much.


This is his story.

Bryan was walking along the Arkansas highway shoulder with only the moon to guide him. He had a backpack slung over his shoulder. It was cold. Blisteringly cold.

He was a kid, 23 years young. This was not a friendly evening, weather-wise. Tonight it was colder than a brass toilet seat in Nova Scotia. And it was sleeting.

He had a long way to go before he hit the nearest town. He was wet. His feet hurt. His back hurt. His whole mind hurt.

His family was a downright mess, and his homelife was a wreck. He had decided, tonight on this walk, that he was going to end it all. He didn’t have the details worked out, but he’d made up his mind nonetheless.

A pickup truck practically materialized out of nowhere. The headlights were blinding. The vehicle pulled over, crunching on gravel.

Inside was an older woman. The heater was blaring.

“Get in,” said the lady.

And she didn’t say it as a question.

Bryan piled into the bench seat. The heat felt good on his wet body. They shook hands and swapped


“Where you headin’?” she said.

Her hair was gray and messy, like it hadn’t been combed since the Crimean War. Her eyes were wild.

“Don’t know,” said Bryan. “I’ll go anywhere you’re going.”

She just looked at him.

“Are you an angel?” she said.

He laughed. “What?”

“Tell me the truth.”

He wasn’t sure if this old woman was pulling his leg.

“I’m no angel,” he said.

She stared at him like she was boring a hole through limestone.

“I can take you as far as Little Rock,” she said. “That’s where I’m going, I’m meeting my granddaughter tonight.”

“Little Rock would be great.”

In a few moments, they were careening down the highway. Bryan noticed the woman kept staring at him with an odd look on her face.


I am in a coffee shop. I’m trying to get some work done, tapping away on my laptop. The two old women behind me are playing cards, talking louder than jayvee football coaches at football camp.

It’s impossible to get anything done with their noisy conversation.

“So how do you like your new phone?” bellows one old lady.

“I love it,” shouts her friend. “It’s just like my old phone, but this one’s gray.”

“That’s nice. My phone is gray, too.”

“I like gray.”

“Gray is a good color.”

“It really is a good color.”

“I like gray better than mauve.”

“My couch is mauve.”

“Mine was, too. But now my couch is gray.”

Shoot me.

The two women are playing rummy.

It’s funny, you don’t see many people playing rummy anymore. I find myself distracted by their game because, you might not know this, but for many years I was international grand rummy champion. I could not be beat.

I first learned how to play the game when I was in third grade. I used to attend a daycare because my mother

and father both had full-time jobs.

I lived at that daycare center. I ate suppers there. I slept there when my parents worked nightshifts sometimes.

The woman who presided over the whole place was an elderly lady named Miss Pat, who smoked Virginia Slims and had a voice like an eight-cylinder diesel engine.

She was a large woman with a great bosom, hard eyes, and white-blond hair that looked like it had been treated with industrial-strength Clorox.

Miss Pat did not have a reputation for being a friendly woman. Children were terrified of her. Rumor was that she had once killed a boy for sticking bubblegum beneath his chair. Word on the playground was that she ended his life with a stapler. His remains were never found.

But by some warped stroke of fate, Miss Pat adored…

“How you doin’?” the security guard said as I walked inside the public library.

“I’m getting my library card today,” I told him.

“Congratulations,” he said.

I stepped through the front doors into the surgically chilled air of the Birmingham Public Library, one of the largest library systems in the southeastern United States. I’m new in town, a library card was my first order of business.

No sooner had I entered than I could smell books. Lots of books.

The scent of books is a powerful hallucinogenic. When you see this many books in one place, your imagination runs away with you. You are among the greatest minds of humankind in paperbound form.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better book collection than the one the Jefferson County Library Cooperative system has. The system consists of 39 branches, with an annual checkout rate of over 3.7 million books.

When I reached the front desk, ahead of me was a young man in line. He was maybe 15. He had shaggy hair, holes in his

shoes, ratty clothes, and shy mannerisms which seemed to scream “low confidence.”

I know the look of the underprivileged. I was one.

He was checking out a large stack of books. I glanced at his literary selections: McMurtry, Coben, Connelly, a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Tolkien. Not a bad mix.

He placed his books on the counter. The librarian was an older Black woman wearing pearls. She asked how he was doing. He spoke with a pronounced stammer.

The woman scanned his books, she God-blessed him, and he left. I saw him rush outside and crawl into a car driven by a young mother. Before their vehicle exited the parking lot, he was nose-deep in Harlan Coben.

A hundred years earlier, that kid could have been me.

When I made it to the front desk, the librarian smiled. “Help you?”

“I’d like to get my…

I have here a letter from Marcus, who is getting married this Friday.

“I’m so nervous,” writes Marcus. “I’m thinking of calling the wedding off because I’m that scared. What should I do? I mean, I love her. But what am I doing? Am I ready for this? Should I get married?”

Dear Marcus:

My wife and I have been visiting a place called Lake Martin ever since we were first married, shortly after the Spanish-American War.

You ought to go sometime. It’s magical. When you look at Lake Martin, you’re looking at 41,150 acres of freshwater within one of the top five cleanest lakes in the United States. You can see straight through this crystalline water and—literally—see the fish swimming among the Keystone beer cans.

Lake Martin is a seasonal lake. Meaning, lots of newlyweds go there to camp in tents because it’s cheap.

This is definitely a happening spot. In the busy season Lake Martin is overrun with tricked-out boats full of barely clothed teenagers listening to loud rap music that vibrates the shingles off

nearby rooftops.

During the off-season, however, the lake crowds thin out, and the place feels empty and sparse. The leaves die, the lake level recedes like ditchwater in the Mojave desert, and many lake houses are vacant. It’s fantastic.

I remember when my wife and I came here after my wife’s father died. We stayed for a few weeks. It was the off season, so there were no tourists around. It was like being a ghost town.

I couldn’t bring my wife out of her funk. So I spent a lot of time fishing by myself. I didn’t catch much more than a sunburn, and I saw her crying whenever she thought I was out of eyeshot.

I ached for her. I wished there was something I could do.

So one day, I rented a pontoon boat in hopes of cheering her up.…