A beer joint. In the sticks. A cinderblock building. There were beat-up trucks parked in a dusty parking lot. No sign. Only a small Pabst Blue Ribbon marquee indicated this was a place where a man could break a dry spell.

My companions were old enough to be my grandfathers. I accepted their invitations to attend their private waterhole.

“We don’t want anyone to know it’s here,” said one old man whom I will call Billy. Although that is not his name. It is Ted Carter.

“Otherwise, people will ruin it,” said his cohort.

It was a dank place. A lot like the place where Miss Wanda sold me my very first beer when I was 14.

Yes, I realize 14 is way too young to consume libation. I also realize that if Wanda had done such a thing today, she would be rotting beneath Tutwiler Prison. But those were different times.

Wanda gave me an ice-cold Miller High Life in exchange for a song played on my guitar. She asked me to sing to the barroom

because—how’s this for irony?— her mother heard me sing in church once.

I sang “Hello Walls.” I tried to make my voice do like Faron Young’s voice did.

We opened the door. The old men assumed their barstools. The place smelled like someone’s crawl space.

There was a tiny plywood stage in the corner. An old guy with a ponytail was picking and singing Vern Gosdin’s “Set’em Up Joe.”

I ordered a Miller High Life, just to see if the spirit of Wanda lived on.

“We don’t carry High Life,” said the bartender. She was young and full-faced. But in a pleasing way.

My two partners ordered Bud Lights. I ordered a Budweiser. The girl called out. “I need two Bud Lights and one beer!”

The other bartender was nicknamed “Tiny.” He weighed roughly 250 lbs., and his arms were the size of…

I was a pitiful child. When I graduated fourth grade, I was the only student voted most likely to enter the field of manual culvert excavation. I was a total loser.

“But Sean,” I can hear you saying, “we were all total losers when we were kids.”

Thank you for trying to make me feel better, but no, we were not all total losers. Some kids were actually attractive and popular and brilliant.

Case in point. Yesterday, a 14-year-old from Florida won the National Spelling Bee. The kid’s name was Dev Shah. His winning word was “psammophile,” which is an extremely rare noun used to describe organisms that prefer sandy soil environments.

I, for one, am impressed inasmuch as I once lost the elementary spelling bee to the word “potato.”

“T-A-T-E-R?” I spelled over the microphone.

The auditorium erupted in laughter.

I never won anything when I was a kid. I was unimpressive in every way. My Little League team never won a single baseball game.

This is because my Little League team was composed

of Deepwater Baptist boys. Our parents did not believe in winning. We believed in the doctrine of suffering. We believed in being of service to others.

So whenever other teams were undergoing batting slumps, they played us and felt much better about themselves. That was our team’s role.

We were not taught to win. My team was named the “Submergers.” We were servants. If my team had won a gold medal, our mothers would have just had it bronzed.

Spelling bees? No way. I come from country people. My people did not emphasize spelling.

When I was a kid, for instance, I remember when my aunt Jospehine died.

My uncle Jerry Lee called the funeral home, in tears. Jerry Lee gave the funeral-home driver directions to his home address, which was at the end of Eucalyptus Drive. To which the funeral home operator replied, “Can…

I am in a hospital waiting room. My wife is having cataract surgery right now. For the last four hours I’ve been in this crowded holding pen of optical patients where we have been exposed to dangerous quantities of daytime television.

Currently, there is a TV mounted overhead with volume set to “deafen.” We are prisoners, all forced to watch “Live with Kelly and Mark,” where the banter between co-hosts goes like this:

“I’m so glad it’s June.”

“Me too. Does June have 31 or 32 days?”

“It only has 28.”

My wife was nervous about getting surgery this morning. I could tell by the way she was chewing her fingernails when we arrived at the hospital.

My wife is a feisty individual who, aside from being a dedicated fingernail chewer, is not afraid to use strong language during appropriate situations, such as, traffic, national championship games, Bible study, etc.

So when the male nurse, for example, inserted a needle into my wife’s arm, she implied loudly that he had been born to unmarried


After that, we waited for several hours while medical staffers took her vitals, made sure her heart worked properly, examined her blood pressure, and asked vitally important medical history questions, such as, “Will this be a co-pay?”

Then they wheeled her back. I waved goodbye to her.

And now here I am. Waiting alongside other eye surgery candidates. All of whom wear looks of dread on their faces.

I don’t know how anyone could be anything but nervous. So far, we have watched dozens of patients get wheeled into the mysterious back room, then re-emerge after a few hours with bandages, eye patches, groggy looks on their faces, and wearing butt-revealing gowns.

These surgery patients are usually accompanied by escorts who roll them along in wheelchairs. And you can tell the patients are still loopy from medication by the way they affectionately grope their escorts,…

Knoxville. Last year. I am walking into a Waffle House to get supper because everywhere else is closed at this hour. The sidewalks are rolled up. The lights are off. Knoxville is asleep.

I should be asleep, too, of course. But I’m not. Because I had to make a speech earlier tonight. It was one of those long nights where I drove straight to Knoxville and came right back.

I had to wear a tux. Have you ever been to a Waffle House while wearing a tuxedo? You get a lot of funny looks.

“Did you just finish with senior prom?” the waitress asks.

“No,” I say. “It was much worse. I had to make a speech to drunk rich people.”

She leans on the counter. “You wanna cry about it?”

“No. I’m past that.”

“So. What’re we drinking, Prom King?”

“Anything that’s hot and black.”

“One cup of tar, coming up.”

There is a guy at the counter who is dressed in a service uniform of some kind. He is old. There are tattoos all over his arms. Tattoos on his knuckles. Piercings all

over his face. A ring in his nose.

He is a little long in the tooth to have a ring in his nose, but there you are. The tattoos on his knuckles let me know that he has no problem using those babies.

He gazes into his coffee cup.

Here is a man who is not playing with his phone. Which is a rarity in our world. He’s not reading anything. He’s not talking to anyone. He’s just gazing.

“Evening,” I say to him.

He glances up from his coffee. “Hi ya, buddy.”

He’s country, with an accent like your favorite uncle. Country people always call you “buddy.”

The waitress stops by the old man’s mug.

“Get you a refill?” she says.

“Yes, please,” he says as she pours. “Thank you, baby.”

Country people also…

The Alabama mountains look good today. The evening sun is cresting over the hillsides. I’m watching an Appalachian spring overtake the foothills beneath me.

Beside me is Otis. Otis is an athletic dog. He hikes faster than me. He is smarter than me. He can hike farther distances, too. Otis probably even knows how to do algebra.

I, on the other hand, am no athlete. I come out here and I hike in a style that would make athletes cringe. I hike slow. And I mean R-E-A-L-L-Y slow. I am DMV slow.

In my backpack, I carry all the nutrition anyone could need. I have chicken salad from Chicken Salad Chick. I have a Payday. And I have two beers. One for me. One for Otis.

You will not find any gluten-free energy bars or trail mix in my bag. You will not find lifegiving food that nourishes the arteries and feeds the limbic system. You will find food which contains bacon, and Budweiser.

Whenever I stop for lunch, I sit on

a tall rock and dangle my legs off the edge, and I watch the world below me.

Otis never wants his beer. Which means that, once again, I am forced to drink it. The things I do for this dog.

And after a brief moment of repose, we are back to hiking again. We move steadily upward. My pale, shaky thighs are weak. I have unusually scrawny legs. My mother used to say I looked like a guy riding a chicken across the backyard.

But eventually, we reach the top. Whereupon I will pause to catch my breath while Otis looks at me as if to say, “You shouldn’t have drank my beer.”

And the view is arresting.

My father was a mountain lover. He was an ironworker. Local Number 10. He was a stick welder. Stick welders are real men.

My old man could climb things. Anything.…

Sunset. There must be a million people gathered in Railroad Park tonight. Downtown Birmingham is crazy. There are no parking spots left. People are parking cars as far away as Milwaukee.

The Alabama Symphony Orchestra is playing a Memorial Day weekend concert outdoors in the park. Concert goers have come from every corner of the earth. This place is like Woodstock, only with fewer naked people.

There are children, playing tag. Young families. High-schoolers, full of hormones, with only one thing on their minds. (Hint: It ain’t bingo.) College couples on first dates, carrying on intense conversations. And elderly married couples, who haven’t conversed since the Nixon administration.

The symphony tunes up. And away we go. The music can be heard all the way in Hoover.

The most interesting person I will meet this evening is a young man with Down syndrome. He is 6 years old. His family’s blanket is near mine. He listens to the orchestra with slack-jawed awe. I’ll call him Ray.

“We just adopted him,” Ray’s parents say.

Ray’s biological mother got

rid of her son when he was a newborn. And by “got rid of” I mean that she threw Ray in a dumpster when she discovered his developmental disabilities.

A neighbor found the infant screaming among the garbage. And yet here he is. I have never seen a child more excited. Also, I have never been hugged so many times. Ray is a big hugger.

After each hug, Ray listens to music for a few seconds, until he suddenly realizes he isn’t hugging me, so he re-hugs me again. We do this every 9 seconds.

“Ray loves everyone,” says his mother.

Ray and I meet a young woman nearby. I’d guess she is maybe 16. She is very pretty. Ray wanders over to this girl and gives her a big hug.

“You smell good,” Ray tells her.

“Thank you,” she says.

“What about me?”…

Danny and the band arrived late to the nursing home. They were running behind schedule because of traffic. But they were here, and that’s all that mattered.

And they brought their instruments.

“We’re all waiting for you, Danny,” said the nurse, leading the band toward the rec room.

Residents filled the day-use room, wall to wall. There were dozens of wheelchairs, O2 canisters, and a corral of roller-walkers stabled near the door like Appaloosas on the open range.

Residents had donned their Sunday best. Old men wore ballcaps with KOREA and VIETNAM embroidered on the fronts. Old ladies sported oversized tennis shoes and hairdos which hadn’t changed since the Johnson administration. Everyone’s hearing aids were cranked up.

The musicians set up near the spinet piano. Then Danny introduced the band over the mic.

There was Roger on the drums. Roger is no spring zucchini, he’s been playing the skins since Buddy Holly was a household name.

Albert was on double bass. I asked how long Albert has been playing the upright. His only response was,

“I have underpants that are older than you.”

And of course, there’s Danny, playing his collector’s item candy-apple-red Country Gentleman guitar, which is worth about as much as an amphibious aircraft carrier. Danny’s mother bought him this guitar in 1960. “My mom gave me this guitar for my thirteenth birthday,” he said.

The band opened with a few easy numbers. Just the classics. “Summertime,” by Gershwin. That always gets the collective heart rate up. Then “Fly Me to the Moon,” the older crowd loves that one.

One man in the front row became so excited that he began to shout, “I have to pee!” Whereupon the rowdy stood and attempted to demonstrate this for his fans just before the nurse escorted him from the room.

The band followed this with “You’re Not Mine Anymore,” by Willie Nelson. A song which debuted in 1954, when many…