I am in South Alabama, covering Hank Williams’s 100th birthday in his home state and mine.

My first stop is a nursing home. I have an interview with Earl. Earl is not an authority on Hank’s music. Earl is a retired sheet metal worker.

He sits in his wheelchair beside the window, listening to music at such a high volume that the windows are cracking. He is slouched. A stroke has impaired his speech and his thinking.

“He used to be sharp, before his stroke,” his granddaughter explains. “He used to have great expressions, sometimes I kick myself for not writing them all down before his stroke.

“One thing I remember he used to say: Things don’t always work right, but they always works out.’”

Earl listens to music coming from a smart TV. The song is Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” He bobs his head. You can see the toe of his Velcro shoe moving.

“I-I-I used to p-p-play this song!” he shouts. “Turn it up!”

Earl used to play upright bass with a band called

the Wildcats. They played all over South Alabama. He played every Hank song in the book. His wife died. He never remarried. He raised six children on his own. No help.

You want to talk about strong.

So I don’t get far with Earl. The stroke has done too much damage. So we part ways. Soon I’m on my way to the next interview.

Hank is on my truck stereo. The tune is “Dear John.” A song which reminds me of my father. Also named John. In some ways, he and Hank were similar. Both were skinny. Both were singers. And both ended their lives by their own hands.

My next interview is Karah, who is no expert on Hank Williams, either. But she grows delicious tomatoes and that’s practically the same thing.

I find her working in her garden with her 10-year-old daughter,…

Atlanta. A baseball game. The Braves were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was muggy. Truist Park smelled like armpits, onion rings, and little-kid sweat. Which is exactly how you want a ballpark to smell. All that was missing was the cigar smoke.

One of the great disappointments of my life is when they banned smoking in ballparks. To this day, whenever I smell a cigar, I think of Fulton County Stadium in the summer. My uncle was present when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. Hank hit the home run on my uncle’s fourth cigar. He had a six-day hangover thereafter.

My uncle, not Hank.

So anyway, there I was. Sitting in the cheap seats. Namely, because I come from cheap people. We did not believe in extravagance when I was a boy. My mother was so cheap her pancakes only had one side.

It was a crummy game. The Braves were getting their hindparts handed to them on a paper plate.

Losing is not an unfamiliar feeling for I am

a longtime Braves fan. I remember the lean years. My uncle used to say that the Braves and Michael Jackson had a lot in common; they both wore one glove and didn’t use it.

So anyway, it was the ninth inning. The Braves were down five or six runs. It was hopeless. There wasn’t much that could be done to stop the bleeding. Some people were already leaving the stadium.

Our team was looking tired. You could see our guys in the dugout, spitting, slumped in their seats, nodding at whatever the manager said. There was no hope for us.


Then something happened. A little boy stood up in the nosebleeds. One section over from me. He was maybe 7. He was small, wearing an oversized ballcap. Messy red hair poking out from beneath it. His glove was the size of a municipal monument.

The boy screamed…

I love you. Maybe you need to hear that. If so, allow me to be the one to say it. I love you.

You don’t have to believe me. You don’t have to trust me. You don’t even have to keep reading this; I’m not going to. Just know that someone loves you. Namely, this guy.

You don’t have to do anything to deserve love. There are no criteria to meet. You don’t have to say magic words to receive love that is rightfully yours. You don’t have to chant “I’m special” three times, hug yourself, then affirmatively pat your own backside.

Maybe you mistakenly think love is something you have to work for. Something you have to earn. Maybe you’re a people pleaser, continually trying to win people over so they’ll love you.

But it’s not like that. You don’t have to work to receive love. It’s free. Love is a basic human right. Like water. Or air. Or SEC football broadcasts.

So I don’t know what you’re going through. But I know you’re a human. Just like me. Therefore, I know you need

loved to function.

It’s biological. They’ve done studies on it. Love is what makes your cells grow. What makes blood move. What makes a heart beat. This is legit, you can trust me. I’m on the internet.

Moreover—and you know who you are—I know you don’t FEEL any love right now. Which is probably why you’re still reading this poorly written article from some guy you’ve never met in Alabama.

You’re reading because deep down, you want love. But you just can’t seem to find it. Well, you’ve found it here.

So if that’s you, allow me to reiterate. I love you.

I love you if you are a total jerk, and you push away everyone who has ever tried to get close to you. I love you even though you try to destroy yourself…

Call me timid, but I was nervous to have my prostate examined.

For starters, I don’t like doctors. In my experience, any person who visits the doctor’s office, even to deliver U.S. parcel, receives a tetanus shot. And I hate shots.

When I was a kid, for example, we had a doctor come to the school and administer vaccinations. They told me—swore to me—that the injection wouldn’t hurt. Then, a doctor pulled out a needle about the size of milkshake straw and shoved it into my thigh. My screams could be heard in the next county.

But this was worse than an injection.

Today, I underwent a brief medieval exam conducted by a certified sadist. I won’t go into details. All I’ll say is that when the doctor removed his rubber glove, he said, “I give your prostate two thumbs up.”

Afterward, there was a nurse in my exam room, filling out paperwork. She was mid-40s. We started talking.

She was sweet. The young woman was missing teeth. She had a quiltwork of tattoos on her arms,

and on her neck. Her hair was worn in a ponytail, the sides of her head were shaved, and there was more ink on her temples.

“I never thought I’d become a nurse,” she said. “Nobody in my family thought I’d make it this far.”

Her life was a troubled one. She used to be addicted to methamphetamines. She had a kid when she was 18, which she put up for adoption. After her parents kicked her out, for a brief time, she lived in alleyways and homeless missions in West Virginia.

“I was mountain trash,” she told me. “That’s what I’ve always thought. I believed I was less than other human beings.”

One night, on a whim, she started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She got clean. Then, she got a job at a gas station, as a night clerk, with one of…

I am a dropout.

I grew up pretty hard. I am an educational failure. I had few academic opportunities. As a result, I am a very slow reader, and an even wurse speler.

This is because, after my father died, my family hit rock bottom. My mother cleaned houses for a living, and worked in fast food. I, my ownself, dropped out of school and got my first job at age 14, hanging drywall.

Later, I would install tile and wood floors. I hung commercial roofing and seamless gutter. I had other ignoble occupations, too. I scooped ice cream. I was a telemarketer for exactly 13 hours.

In the evenings, for extra cash, I played music at local bars where overserved people two-stepped and showed their appreciation by lobbing bottles at the piano player.

I wasn’t particularly talented. I owned a guitar. I had a cheap piano my father bought from the classified section. I had long hair. Nobody wanted their daughter to date me.

But something about the communal glow of a

beer joint changed me. I’ve had some powerfully good memories in dim rooms with clinking glassware.

When I was 16, I spent my birthday playing “Faded Love” in a joint on the Alabama state line. The bartender, Wanda, asked if I wanted a beer. Wanda was five foot, even, and had a voice like a pack of filtered menthols.

I told Wanda, without hesitation, yes, I did want a beer. So Wanda opened a PBR and poured three fingers of the golden nectar into a tumbler.

“Happy birthday,” she said. “You’ll have to wait until you’re 21 to get the rest.”

Whereupon she ceremoniously finished the bottle.

I also played piano in church, and at every Baptist function including fifth-Sunday sings, Decoration Day potlucks, and VBS. Most Baptists turned a blind eye to my nocturnal habits.

I attended community college as a 30-year-old man. I rectified my…

The little redheaded boy found his grandfather on the porch swing, late at night. The old man was whittling basswood, listening to a ballgame on the radio. The kid let the screen door slap behind him. The boy wore Evel Knievel pajamas.

“What’re you doing up?” said the old man. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Had a bad dream.”

The old man patted the swing. “Step into my office, Kemosabe.”

The kid climbed onto the swing and leaned against the old man who smelled like burley tobacco, Old Spice, and sweat. The crickets were singing their aria.

“I’m scared, Granddaddy.”

He resumed carving. “Hush now. Ain’t nothing to be scared of. Just a dream.”

The ballgame droned in the background. The Braves were playing the Cardinals and getting shelled.

“What’re you carving?”

The old man held up the block of basswood. “It’s a dog. Hunting hound. This is Shelby.”

The boy looked at the crude canine figurine. It looked more like a deranged ferret than a dog.

“I know it ain’t pretty,” said the old man. “But she ain’t done yet.”

“Who’s Shelby?”

“My old dog. I got her

when I was a little older’n you. I found her. She was caught in a mess of barbed wire in our east field. Nobody knowed where she come from so I took her home and kept her.”

“That was a long time ago?”

“You have no idea.”

“Was she a good dog?”

He inspected his wooden handiwork. “She was.”

“Tell me about her.”

“Well. Old Shelby came ever’ where with me. One time I took her to a church dinner on the grounds. She embarrassed me so bad when she jumped on the table where all the fancy dishes were. Looked like she was surfing. Broke ever’ piece a china.

“I had to work a custodian job at the church that summer for punishment, sweeping the floors, touching up the pews with wood stain.”

He was outdoorsy. More outdoorsy than me. Don’t get me wrong. I love the outdoors just as much as the next guy. Sometimes, I spend all day watching movies that were filmed entirely outdoors. But he was different.

He smelled like the outdoors. That’s what I remember most about him. It was a leathery smell. Like soot, and foliage, and dirt.

He smelled like this because he worshipped his lawn. The man could waste entire weeks obsessing about one little brown spot in his yard. And he would work in the flower beds more than most peoples’ grandmothers ever did.

He was a blue collar man. It’s impossible for me to tell you much about him without highlighting that. His uniform was denim. He wore it every single day. Except Sundays. He was an ironworker. A union man. I never saw him sit in anything but a Ford.

On weekends, however, he was a certified nutcase.

Once, he had the bright idea to conduct a controlled burn on our land. Thirteen acres of

tall, dry grass. His friends told him it was a bad idea, but like I said, he was a nut.

On Saturday morning, he drove the truck around the property; his buddy rode on the tailgate, dumping gasoline onto the grass. They spent half the day saturating the land. Then he parked near the house and lit a match. One match.


Thirteen acres exploded. The fire department was called. The police were called. I think he even made the paper.

It took a full day to put the fire out. And when it was all said and done, my father was covered in black soot, head to toe. He said, “Well, that was a bad idea.”

I remember those words exactly.

Another story I remember. He was driving and he saw this man on the highway whose car broke down on the side of the road.…