“Dear Sean,” the letter began, “I am worried about your soul because the Bible is clear that if you don’t answer the call of salvation, you won’t be in heaven with the rest of us…”

Hoo boy, here we go.

“...I don’t care how nice of a guy you might pretend to be on social media, Satan is after you, and if you don’t know Jesus Christ, you will suffer in a place where flame never dies…

“Love, Mary Townsend,”
Topeka, Kansas.

Hi Mary. If you have a minute, I’ll tell you a story.

I am going to call her Peggy, but that’s not her name. Peggy was raped when she was 14. She got pregnant by her attacker. Nine months later, boom, she had a kid.

Funny thing is, nobody in her family believed her when she told them what happened. Her family was very, VERY religious. They blamed Peggy for being a, quote, “loose woman.”

The irony is, Peggy wasn’t loose. Peggy had never cut her hair because of her denominational rules. She’d never

worn anything but long skirts, never kissed a boy, never held hands. Never done anything other than Scripture drills and VBS. And here she was, in ninth grade, with a baby.

Then, her parents kicked her out of the house. And her “fellowship was withdrawn” by her local church.

Whatever that means.

Why? Because she was living in sin, of course. That’s what everyone said. Her mother and father told her, verbatim, that she was going to “burn in hell.”

Peggy was now a homeless mother. She tried to stay with an aunt, but the aunt could not allow “bad morals” into her home. She tried to stay with friends from church, but nobody would have her home.

For Peggy was a harlot.

So Peggy took the money she had in savings ($73.29) and bought a bus ticket. She traveled to a big…

You don’t see many prestigious journalism prizes awarded for in-depth investigations about mayonnaise, but that’s what I got.

Well, sort of. Ever since I wrote a column about mayonnaise, my mailbox has been brimming with product samples from various mayonnaise companies. Which is almost the same thing as a Pulitzer.

Big-mayonnaise has been sending me parcels of congealed egg-yolks by the boxful. The neighbors are starting to think I’m involved in a highly secretive mayonnaise ring.

It all started a week ago when a few of my family members and I conducted a highly officialized mayonnaise taste test, wherein we sampled multiple brands. Then I wrote a column about it.

Initially, I got a lot of feedback from readers regarding our research, primarily from readers who didn’t agree with the low scores we gave to their favorite brands. I inadvertently discovered, through these emails, that Americans are extremely loyal to their mayo.

Letters such as this one from an elderly reader in West Virginia named Emma Royd: “Hey, you lowdown eggsucking son of a butcher, why

don’t you shove that Miracle Whip jar up your earhole?”

And that was one of the friendlier emails.

I was also informed that I upset many people because I didn’t include their cherished mayonnaise brands in my column. Others accused me of rigging the contest. One man from Philadelphia (named Jacques Strap) suggested that I had been accepting indecent favors from the Duke’s corporation in exchange for writing a pro-Duke’s column.

Some people, it turns out, were DEEPLY offended because their favorite mayonnaise wasn’t listed. These people—you can just tell—lead very rich, gratifying lives.

The truth is, I tasted 73 brands of mayonnaise, but I couldn’t list them all in the column unless I were to quit my job and devote all my time to eating jars of cholesterol.

The most labor-intensive part of the whole taste-test ordeal was visiting all the grocery stores…

Today is National Columnists’ Day. Someone just told me. It’s a holiday for honoring those depraved, half-crazed individuals who crank out 500 to 800 words each day beneath rigorous deadlines and still manage to remain, technically, married.

I remember when I unofficially became a columnist. Sort of.

I was a boy. I was in my room, pouting.

My room looked like any little boy’s room. It was messy. It smelled funky. There were underpants scattered on my floor. There were Hardy Boys books, aquariums featuring dead goldfish, and half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches that predated the Carter administration.

I was having a particularly bad day. Namely, because my friends were playing outside and they had not invited me to join them. I could see my pals from by bedroom window. They were having fun, but they didn’t want me around.

When a kid’s father dies in the shameful way mine did, that child is not exactly the hippest kid in the county. I was forgotten. And it hurt.

There was a knock on my door.

It was my mother.

“What’re you doing in here all alone?” she said.


She glanced out the window. “You’re pouting.”

“No I’m not.”

“Then go outside and play with your friends.”

“They’re not my friends anymore.”

My mother was carrying something behind her. She placed a gift-wrapped box onto my bed. It was the size of a small suitcase, and heavier than a sack of Quickrete, wrapped in Christmas paper, although it was July.

“What’s this?” I said.

“Open it,” she said.

“I don’t feel like presents.”

Her face tightened. “Well, maybe when you’re done wallowing in self pity, you will.”

Then she left.

Mama always had a way of putting things.

I tore open the packaging. Inside was a vinyl case containing a manual typewriter. Sea-foam green. The spacebar was a little crooked, the S and D keys were faded, the ribbon was new.

He’s in the hotel lobby. He is old. He is wearing Coke bottle glasses and hearing aids. He wears a University of Georgia ball cap. But hey, nobody’s perfect.

He is eating hotel “scrambled” eggs, which taste like a four-letter word. This particular hotel chain also serves pork sausage. But it is neither pork, nor sausage. The hotel employee tells us these are turkey wieners.

Those poor turkeys.

The old man is easy to talk to. His name is Norman. He is 100 years old. Although you’d never guess his age. His mind is as sharp as a Barlow knife. His eyes move quickly. I notice a tattoo on his forearm. It’s an Army tattoo he says.

“I was in the War,” he says. “World War II,” he adds.

The man was a doughboy. Infantry. One of the tough guys. He endured the worst of the worst. They marched through a soggy European hell. Through miles of mud. Sometimes his feet would get so waterlogged, when he would remove his boots, pieces of his feet would fall


Still, he insists he didn’t have it as bad as some. “We had it easy. There were some guys who didn’t come back. Plus, it wasn’t all misery.”

I ask him to elaborate.

“Well,” Norman says. “It was Europe. We met lots of Italian girls.” He raises his eyebrows in a way that indicates he may be old, but he ain’t dead.

He takes a sip of bathwater coffee and gazes into the distance. Maybe he’s thinking about dead men. Maybe he’s thinking about old friends. He tells me times have changed. Not many people in today’s culture talk—or even think about the War Against Hitler.

“Used to,” he says, “All you had to do was mention the War, and everyone knew exactly what you were talking about. They lived through it. We all lived through it. There’d be a handful of…

The mountains of North Carolina. Mitchell County. I am in a country church. This is a homegoing service. These are mountain people.

It’s a simple chapel, founded the same year Granny was born, back in 1912. Woodrow Wilson was in office. The hit song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

We are in an all-wooden room. The floors. The pews. The altar. The pulpit. Wood, wood, wood. Even the priest is made of wood.

Wait, no. I’m mistaken. The priest is just being reverent right now. Namely, because this is a funeral.

There is an urn placed on the altar. Some members of the congregation are weeping. My friend Amy is seated in a pew, dabbing her eyes. Her sister, Tammie, is closing hers. My wife, Jamie, is in the rear pew, lightly sobbing.

Heads are bowed. Noses sniffing. My friend Joel is wearing a sport coat, delivering a eulogy at the pulpit. And in a few moments, I will play a funeral song on my banjo.

I am a musician. I am not proud

of this per se, but we are who we are. And when you’re born as a music maker, you will play lots of funerals.

I have played the funerals of my late friends, and my friends’ late parents. The funerals of my grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Old friends. And young ones. I played at my own father’s funeral.

When I was high-school age, I was often asked to sing for funerals. People tried to pay me for this service, but my mother always made me give the money back and tell the grieving family: “It was my privilege to be here.”

And I’ve always believed in my mother’s lessons. Don’t mistake me, I am not a model Baptist boy. I freely admit, I am a backslidden man. I drink cheap beer, I sleep in on Sundays, I like the smell of cigar smoke, and when I mash…

Willie Nelson is on my radio. He is singing one of my favorite songs.

“In the twilight glow I see her,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain,
“When we kissed goodbye and parted,
“I knew we’d never meet again…”

I turn it up because I am a sucker for this tune. Though, I’m not sure why. When I was a boy, the lyrics never made sense to me.

After all, nobody with blue eyes ever cried in the rain for me. And I certainly didn’t have blue eyes. My eyes are gray. My mother used to say my eyes were the color of our pump shed.

Even so, there’s something about this tune that moves me. I can close my gray eyes and go back in time.

And I see my father’s work bench in the garage. A radio sits beside a chest of mini-drawers that is filled with bolts, nuts, screws, washers, and rubber grommets.

Crystal Gayle is singing “Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue?”

Then Willie begins playing over the speaker.

My father turns it up.

“Love is but a dying ember,
“Only memories remain,
“Through the ages, I’ll remember,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain…”

And I am holding a GI Joe doll, watching a tall, skinny man work on something beneath a shop lamp, holding a screwdriver.

He does all his own repairs, this man. Because he believes it is wasteful to hire people to do work you could do yourself. Just like it’s disgraceful, and even unforgivable, to throw away refrigerator leftovers.

The people I come from are proud and self-sufficient, and they are not above eating ten-week old meatloaf that has turned Sea Foam Green. They cut their own hair. And their own lawns.

When I started travelling a lot for work, I hired a yardman to cut my grass. It only made sense. But it felt…

He was born in 1924. America was very different from today’s world. Today we have flying cars, laboratory-grown chicken, and a computer program called ChatGPT that will write your essay, term paper, novel, or newspaper column for you.

But in 1924, people in the country were still using corn cobs to wipe their most cherished body parts. The world moved much slower.

Calvin Coolidge was president. The White House still occasionally used horses and buggies. The Model T was still a teenager. The hit song was by George Gershwin.

The boy was born on a cold, frosty morning in the mountains of the Carolinas. He was delivered in a clapboard shack. By firelight. His mother developed maternal sepsis two weeks after he was born. She died.

He was raised by a nearby elderly farmer, and the farmer’s wife. The farmer had already raised several children, he was supposed to be retired. But sometimes God has other plans.

The boy wanted to be a writer. That was where his talents

were. Words. He was good with sentences. But writers weren’t needed in such an era. A Great Depression was on. People were starving. A farming family was doing good just to stay alive. Who needs words and sentences?

America did not need words. Politicians gave the world plenty of words. Soon, America was at war, and what Uncle Sam needed was soldiers with strong lumbar muscles. So that’s what he did with his life.

He was tall for his age, so he enlisted. He told the recruiters he was 18, although he was 16. They knew he was lying, of course. Namely, because he was so skinny he would have had to stand up ten times just to make a shadow. But this was war.

He was in basic training when he met a woman at a USO dance. She was beautiful and young. He asked her to dance, but she…

The Carolina mountains are covered in a down quilt of fog. It’s summer, but the temperature is a biting 55 degrees.

The distant mountaintops look like blue humps in the hazy foreground. There are trees everywhere, trees so green they look fake.

The mountain highway winds back and forth like a half-inebriated copperhead, climbing upward, constantly twisting, turning, dipping, whirling, then doubling back. The Western North Carolina the scenery couldn’t get any more beautiful if it were made of golden bricks.

We pass a steep mountain pasture, not far from Mount Mitchell. The grass is so richly verdant, it’s lime green. The hillside is peppered with goats of all colors, grazing in haphazard formation. The goats are surrounded by a wooden fence that was at one time white, but is now weathered wood.

There is no traffic on this old highway. If you were to pull over, you could lie down in the middle of the road for half the day and live to tell the story.

It’s quiet out here.

There are no vehicles. No overhead commercial airliners. No noisy A/C unit compressors. No ambient music. No nothing. Just the bleating of goats. Choirs of woodland birds. Light percussive rain, pitter-pattering on the leaves of the forest. And your own heartbeat.

I was reared in the country. Long before I moved to the city, it was the sticks that were my home. I was not raised in the mountains, but this place sort of reminds me of those early days.

My wife and I stop at a mountain gas station. The joint has seen better times. I’m not even sure whether this station is actually open for business, or whether it remains here as shrine to the days of yore. The pumps are old, with spinning numbers. No credit card readers. No overhang.

I fill up the van. I go inside to pay. A bell dings overhead. Randy Travis…

It’s a long story. My cousin was over for dinner; we got to talking about mayonnaise. One thing led to another. The conversation got heated, and eventually we were shouting.

“Hellmann’s Mayonnaise is the best!” my cousin insisted.

“Nuh-uh!” yelled his wife, Julie, “It’s Kraft!”

“Gag me!” hollered my wife. “It’s Duke’s, or everyone pukes!”

It’s a wonder the police weren’t called.

The next day, my cousin and I found ourselves wandering local supermarkets, buying dozens of jars of mayonnaise, spending upwards of $100 on egg-yolk-based protein emulsions.

We are grown men, we have mortgages, careers, and quasi-decent automotive insurance. And our carts were full of mayo. Also, Budweiser.

When we got to the checkout lane, the cashier gave us a funny look. “You must REALLY like mayonnaise,” she said.

“We’re having a taste test,” we explained.

The cashier smiled at us in much the same way you might smile at someone who had just soiled their pants on purpose.

Soon, we were in my kitchen, engaging in a highly scientific, officiated mayonnaise taste comparison. The testing

was conducted by seven judges:

My wife, my cousin Ed Lee, his wife Julie, me, our neighbor Jake, his wife Rena, and their 9-year-old daughter named Jordan.

It was a blind taste test. The way it worked was: Various condiment cups contained globules of unidentified mayonnaise. We tasted each brand. Then, using official scorecards, made from real legal pads, we rated each brand on a scale of 0 to 10.

We tasted a lot of mayonnaise, but I’ll hit the highlights.

Kroger Real Mayo ($2.99). This mayonnaise earned an average score of negative 6. “It tastes cheap,” said one judge. “Gross,” said another. And: “Are we eating furniture polish?”

Next: McCormick Mayonnaise ($3.98). This brand claims to be the number-one brand in Mexico. They manufacture their “mayonsea” with “real lime flavoring!” The judges’ comments were as follows: “Too tart.” “Yuck.” “Not impressed.” And…

It’s a quiet night in Avondale. The sun is low in the western sky. The air is lit with lightning bugs. There are a few neighborhood kids, playing in front yards, trying to catch them with Tupperware.

And the memories are getting so thick you have to swat them away like gnats.

I remember the first time I ever heard a lightning bug called a “firefly.” I was 11 years old. A kid from California had recently moved into our neighborhood. He got excited when the front yards were alight with summer lightning bugs.

He said, “Look, fireflies!”

All us kids looked at the new boy as though his cheese had slid off his cracker. Fireflies?

“They’re not fireflies,” said Margaret Ann. “They’re LIGHTNING BUGS.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

“No they’re not,” he answered. “They’re FIREFLIES.”

“What the [expletive] is a firefly?” said my cousin, Ed Lee.

“They’re bugs that light up.”

We howled with delight. My cousin Ed Lee almost peed himself. “Californians!” my cousin remarked.

Then the Californian went on to tell us he’d never seen lightning bugs

before. He said they didn’t have them in the Golden State. We were aghast. No lightning bugs? That was like not knowing Jesus. Or Dale Earnhardt.

“You’ve never seen lightning bugs?” we said in disbelief.

The Californian shook his head stating that, no, he’d never seen anything like these bugs with the iridescent hindparts.

Which gave us great pride. Because, you see, ever since this Californian had come to our school, he immediately became the hippest kid in our hillbilly class.

Namely, because he had wavy blonde hair, a skateboard, and he knew what tofu was. And one time, for Show and Tell, the kid declared that he had gone surfing. The girls in the class went crazy for him and indicated that they would be interested in bearing his offspring someday.

But he’d never seen lightning bugs.…