It’s morning. I’m parked at a community ballpark, eating a breakfast sandwich.

I made the mistake of turning on the radio. It’s nothing but horrifying news, greasy politics, shouting evangelists, and music that sounds like a choir of chainsaws with chest colds.

Radio off.

I see a boy in an oversized helmet, he’s on the field by himself. A man pitches underhand to him. The kid swings. After a few strikes, he hits a home run. It arcs clear over the fence.

Meet William. He’s the 9-year-old who hit the ball, and he hit that thing harder than Roy Hobbs.

Right now, William is very happy. You can see it on him. He’s running the bases. His legs are skinny, his face is all smiles. William has Down syndrome, and his tender heart is the size of four U.S. states.

This morning, his father has been teaching him to use a bat. Will’s mother is the only one in the bleachers.

“I didn’t expect Will to be so amazing,” his mother says. “Did you see him hit that ball?”

I can sort of relate to what Will must be feeling. The first time I ever hit a baseball over the fence was the only time it ever happened. It was the apex of boyhood.

I was about William’s age. I was moderately chubby, unathletic, I liked pocket knives, pork products, endurance napping, and I wore Superman underpants.

I was no Johnny Bench, but I liked the game.

I remember when my father handed me the bat during a game. It was top of the eighth. My T-shirt bore the name of a local gas station. My white pants had a patch sewn on the seat á la my mom.

Daddy said, “Keep. Your. Eye. On. The. Ball.”

I swung. It was pure luck. The thing sailed like the S.S. Minnow. Over the fence. Home run. And the image I remember…

I fell into a time warp. I can’t remember how it happened. But it did. I was sucked backward 53 years.

I pulled off State Highway 160 in Hayden, Alabama. I wheeled into a sleepy Sunoco gas station. The parking lot was full of mud-caked Fords, and guys in work clothes drinking Gatorades. The front window of the convenience store said, “Ice Cold Coca-Cola Sold Here.”

I pushed the door open and walked inside the old country store. And I fell into the 1960s.

The smell of fried chicken hit me like a groundswell. The gal behind the sneeze-guard was selling 8-piece meals, fried potato wedges, Mexican rice, and some kind of fruit cobbler so good it’s probably illegal in three states.

The menu on the wall was an old lightbox menu. There was a wait.

The men in line for lunch were the prototypical blue-collars I come from. They wore steel-toes and ratty denim. They had black smears on their faces, and dirty hands. They looked like they had just

gotten out of the mines, just left the steel mill, or just finished laying beads on column splices.

On my way to the bathroom, I realized this was not just a convenience store. Not in the sense that we know them today.

Today, you walk into a gas-station store littered with futuristic slushy machines and those roller grills turning sausages and eggrolls which predate the Carter administration.

This wasn’t a place like that. This was a sure-enough general store. This place was more akin to the mercantile your mama sent you to, riding on your bicycle, whenever she was out of cornmeal.

This was the kind of place that could cover all your domestic needs in one fell swoop. You could buy a pound of roofing nails, a Stoffeur’s lasagna, a squeegee, and a Baby Ruth, all in the same trip. Throw in some Navy plug for your old…

I am going to hell. There is no getting around it. I stole something. I am not proud of this. I am ashamed to even write these words.

Before I say anything else, it’s important for you to know that I am not a thief. I was raised in a moral home. I was a Boy Scout. And whenever I leave public restrooms, I sometimes wash my hands.

But a man can only take so much temptation before he succumbs to pure evil.

Yesterday, I was walking past my neighbor’s house. It was a serene, sunny day. In the side yard of my neighbor’s house is a large tomato garden. The garden is unprotected. Unfenced.

There must be 40 tomato plants out there. These plants produce more tomatoes than any rational human being could ever eat.

I stood before my neighbor’s garden, staring at the giant tomatoes, rotting on the vines.

I gazed upon the tall stalks and saw the plump things, glistening in the sunlight and the Devil started talking to me.

“Whoa, check out those tomatoes,” said

Beelzebub. “It’s be a shame to let them go to waste.”

I told the Devil to get behind me. So he did. He got right behind me and pushed me straight into my neighbor’s garden.

There I was. Standing before a row of suggestive tomato plants. I glanced both ways. Nobody was around.

So I stepped a little closer to take a look. No harm in taking a look, right?

“Right,” said the Devil.

“After all, looking and sinning aren’t necessarily the same thing, right?”

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” said Lucifer.

I touched one of the ripe beefsteaks and felt a cold thrill shoot through me. I cupped my hand around its supple base. The thing weighed as much as a Chrysler. It was warm. And so soft.

My mother used to grow tomatoes. One of her…

Late afternoon. The grocery store was busy. It was a big weekend, hurried customers played demolition derby with shopping carts.

I saw two young men shopping together. Their basket was overflowing with bachelor food. Microwave dinners, hotdogs, potato chips, Mick Ultra, spray cheese.

The youngest man was wearing cargo shorts. His right leg was disfigured. Below the knee, his leg was mostly shinbone without any visible muscle, covered in scars.

I followed the men around the supermarket because I am a writer, and writers are intrusive people.

When they reached the self-checkout lane, I was a few customers behind them in line.

An old man approached the men. They had a brief conversation. I tried to listen to their words but their voices were too quiet.

The only thing I heard the elderly man say was: “Where were you stationed?”

“Afghanistan,” the young man answered. Also, I heard the words, “ambush,” “explosion,” and “physical therapy.”

When the young men finished scanning items, the old man removed his wallet and swiped his credit card.

The young men tried

to stop him, but they were too slow. The man replaced his wallet, then winked at them and said, “You snooze, you lose, fellas.”

I can still see that old man when I close my eyes. Some things stick with you, I guess.

Just like the time I saw an elderly woman in Franklin, Tennessee. Her car wouldn’t start. Three men from inside the gas station rushed to help her.

They were large men with long beards, dirty clothes, and work boots. They crawled over her car until they figured out the problem beneath the hood.

“It’s her serpentine belt!” one man finally shouted.

That was all it took. They leapt into their truck and left. After a few minutes, they returned with a new belt from the auto parts store.

The woman tried to pay them, but they refused. I heard one…

I’m writing this in the early morning. The birds are asleep, the crickets, too. The sun is about to rise, and it’s going to rise just for you. There is a faint glow behind the trees. I can see it. Just wait. It’s coming.

I received a letter this morning from a girl I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is eighteen. She told me about herself.

She wrote:

“I feel ugly and I know that’s why I’ve never had a boyfriend... I probably never will have one. People don’t like me, and I’m worried that nobody will ever love me.”

Sweet Caroline.

Here’s another letter from a man we’ll refer to as “Elvis”—because that’s what he wanted to be called if I wrote about him. Elvis is forty-four.

He wrote:

“My ex-wife broke my heart… Why is it I end up trusting somebody and they break my heart, and instead of hating THEM, I dislike MYSELF somehow? I don’t like myself...”

And then this beautiful young woman:

“I have an arteriovenous malformation… Which is why my arm doesn’t work, and now it’s moving to my leg.

The malformation started small, but has grown to the size of a tennis ball, giving me daily seizures and other obstacles…

“The hardest part about all this is being forgotten. I used to have a lot of friends before my diagnosis, but now...

“I get that people are busy, but is life really about being busy?”

Well, I hate to disappoint these good people who’ve written me, but they’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.

The only thing I can possibly think to tell these good folks, something that might possibly comfort them, is about what happened to me during my seventh-grade year.

First, a little background: my seventh-grade year was shaping up to be a good one. Often, in the school cafeteria I’d have my pals laughing until milk spilled…

“Hello, sir,” said the guy answering the phone. His accent was foreign. “Thank you for calling the Spectacular Internet Service Help Center hotline. How may I help you today?”

“Yeah, hi. Look, my internet is out, and I just need to get it turned back on.”

“I see. Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Let me begin by thanking you for being a valued Spectacular Internet Service customer. I shall be helping you with this very important problem you face. Do you have access to a phone, please?”

“A phone?”

“A telephone, sir.”

“I’m calling you on a phone right now.”

“Okay. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. And what seems to be the problem today?”

“Like I said. My internet service. It’s not working.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you for your persistent patience, sir. I will be helping you to troubleshoot this inconvenient problem, can you hold please?”

“Hold? Okay.”

Smooth jazz.

Then, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”

Then, “Wildfire,” by Michael Martin Murphy.

“Thank you for your patience, sir,” said the voice on the phone. “How is it that I may help you this day?”

“Yeah, It's still me.

Same person. I just need my internet turned back on.”

“Yes, sir. I see. I will be assisting you in this terrible technical issue. Are you near your modem?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“Thank you, sir. Please unplug your modem.”

“Look, I’ve already tried this, the unplugging-the-modem thing. I unplugged it, did the whole power cycle deal. Then I plugged it back in and nothing happened. So I tried it a few more times, and still nothing happened. That’s actually why I called you. Something is wrong, and the problem is not on my end.”

“Please tell me when you have unplugged your modem, sir.”

“Okay. I’ve unplugged it.”

“Very good, sir.”

Long silence.

“Hello?” I said.


“I said I have unplugged my modem.”

“Yes. Thank you, sir.”


The cardboard sign on the highway said “Hot Bulled Pee-Nuts.”

I pulled over out of pure instinct. For there are few things I love more than a pee-nut that has been properly bulled.

I parked. I stepped out of my truck and walked toward the smell of steaming Cajun spices. The man boiling peanuts was older, seated beneath an Auburn University tent.

He was dressed in Levis and square-toes. He wore a belt buckle the size of a hubcap. He used a canoe paddle to stir a kettle seated atop a roaring blue propane flame.

Beside him was a 50-pound bag of Sam’s Club salt. He removed handfuls of salt and tossed them into the boiling water like fairy dust. Then he licked his fingers for show.

And the line grew longer.

Soon, there were six of us standing there, on the side of a rural Alabamian highway at noon. We were sweating in the violent heat until our clothes were translucent and our hair was matted.

“He does good peanuts,” said a guy in line.

The man looked as though he had come directly from work. He wore a necktie. His shoes cost more than my truck.

“They’re worth it,” said another woman balancing a baby on her hip. “My husband says his spicy peanuts are the best he’s ever had.”

So we waited. And waited.

And waited.

Now and then the old man would remove a hot goober pea, crack it open, and sample it. Then he’d spit it out, shake his head, and announce that they weren’t ready yet.

A few kids on BMX bikes showed up. They ditched their cycles and joined the line. And we became 8.

Then a truck with Florida tags stopped. A man and his wife got out and assumed a place in line. And then we were 11.

“First time I ever had a boiled peanut,” said a guy in line,…

It is hot in Alabama. Spitefully hot. Recent rains have turned the grassy parking area at Rickwood Field into beef stew.

I exit my truck and step directly into a mud hole that reaches clear up to my shins.

A guy in the parking lot says, “They didn’t pave parking lots a hundred years ago, and the folks at Rickwood are all about preservation.”

Lucky me.

I enter the ancient ballpark with muddy shoes. I pass through the antique turnstiles. I visit the concession stand and order a Coke. And I fall backward in time by about 112 years.

Rickwood Field is the oldest professional ballpark in the United States. It is a small park, seating roughly 11,000. Being here feels like walking into a James Earl Jones monologue.

These stands were built when William Howard Taft was still sleeping in the master bedroom of the White House. This press box was getting nailed together while the Titanic was still being constructed.

Today, there is a travel-ball game being played, so the park

is filled with parents wearing team T-shirts and tennis shoes. But I can’t see these people.

Instead, wherever I look I see ghosts in fedoras. Women in A-line dresses. Kids flat caps and knickers. I see handlebar mustaches, spats, watch fobs, and bags of penny peanuts.

I take a seat behind home plate. The sun is brutal. But the Coke is sweet enough to break your jaw. And I’m now living in 1910, the year before my grandfather was born. The year Halley’s Comet visited the earth.

The boys are warming up. Pitchers are loosening their arms. The outfield billboards feature classical ads from a former era. “Drink Pepsi 5¢.” “Try Coca-Cola—relieves fatigue.” “Budweiser—with meals and lunches.”

This park is located 7 miles from my front porch, and yet I’ve never visited it. In fact, many people in Birmingham have never even heard of this ballpark. When…

I got home and found a stack of mail on my desk.

Most of it was bills, bank statements, or catalogs for J. Crew, which advertised a stunning new summer collection specifically tailored for ordinary men and women. And by “ordinary men and women,” I mean people who are college age, over six foot, and weigh approximately 29 pounds.

So you can imagine my surprise when I tore open one envelope to find a type-written letter produced by a manual typewriter. Single spaced.

Moreover, this letter contained perfect grammar, flawless punctuation, and was written by a brilliant 14-year-old girl named Meg.

A girl who not only writes well, but also uses the Oxford comma.

See, Meg, I have a long history with the Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma, the serial comma, the final comma, or the comma that is smoking crack). I love this comma.

For the unbaptized, the Oxford comma is placed before the conjunction at the end of any list.

Here is an example sentence:

Whenever you come to

Mrs. Biderbecke’s class, please bring a notebook, pencil, eraser, a protractor, and a compass which students will never use except to carve bad words into desks.

The last comma in the previous sentence is an Oxford comma. Personally, I use this comma all the time because this habit was beaten into me from an early age.

My grade-school teacher, Mrs. Biderbecke, was a Pentecostal preacher’s wife with a 14-foot tall beehive hairdo. She taught our class with a King James Bible in one hand and a riding crop in the other. She compelled all God’s children to use Oxford commas.

And it was good advice, too. Because the Oxford comma is so lithe, functional, and cute. It works so well that it’s nearly invisible. It is the Jan Brady of the punctuation world.

It is, however, easy to go overboard when using commas. When I was…

BIRMINGHAM—Red Mountain filled my windshield from end to end. The sun was coming up. And the waffle gods were calling me. So I pulled over.

Waffle House was slow. The place was mostly empty except for a trucker, a teenage boy, and a cop eating hash browns.

The cook was staring out the window, sipping coffee. George Strait played overhead, singing about a clear blue sky. It was cold enough inside to hang meat.

My waitress was a motherly looking woman. She had long woven hair, done up in crimson braids. She approached my table. She placed my napkin and silverware down.

“Know what you want to drink, baby?”


I ordered a sweet tea, eggs, a pecan waffle and a few strips of sowbelly. She called out my order to the guy at the grill.

The cook lumbered into action. He was wearing one of those little paper hats. When I was a young man, working in the greasy bowels of an American diner, I wore a hat like this. We

called it “the confidence killer.”

I listened to the symphony of a kitchen begin to play. Refrigerators opened and closed. Eggs cracking. The hiss of a flat top. The metallic chop-chop of a steel spatula on a griddle.

I watched my waitress approach the teenager in the booth in front of me. He looked like a rough customer. His arms, neck and chest were painted in an assortment of artwork.

I had a perfect view of him from where I sat. There was the tattoo of a lyre emblazoned on his chin. There was the image of a demon on his shoulder. On one bicep was a four-letter word. A well-known word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet.

The kid was apparently hungry because he was on his second plate of food. When the waitress asked if he wanted to order something else the kid thought…