But stories are important. They can keep us going when life sucks.

DEAR SEAN:

Will you come to one of my games? I have no dad anymore but I read your stories because you are like him is what my mom and I say. You like baseball and I just started to learn it. I should be playing center filled if you come to it next summer when we are playing. I am a redhead like you are. Thank you.

NINE-YEAR-OLD-IN-NEBRASKA

DEAR NEBRASKA:

Nebraska is a long way from me. Seven states away, actually. That’s practically another world. If I drove the whole way, it would probably take me—factoring in the slow speed I travel; the number of pit stops I take due to my teacup-sized bladder; and all the roadside cafes I will have to visit to meet my daily quota of bacon—ten years to reach Nebraska.

So to answer your question: Yes. I will try to come.

Firstly, because I believe in baseball. Also, because I am flattered that you read my writing. You could read anything you want, but you choose to read my few hundred

words. Which raises the question: Are you nuts?

But then, maybe it has something to do with the color of our hair. We redheads are a dying breed you know.

Experts claim that long ago, during caveman times, redheads ruled the earth. In those days, the mythical ginger was often an important leader of a powerful tribe. Sometimes we were even worshiped.

Historians also tell us that redheads were mankind’s first poets, philosophers, and discovered many important medical breakthroughs such as tinctures, compounds, tonics, and out-of-pocket copay deductibles.

But somewhere along the way, the number of redheads decreased. We dwindled to two percent of the world’s population—which is a true statistic.

It was hard growing up as a two-percenter. In my childhood, people didn’t see us as tribal leaders, and they certainly didn’t worship us. They sort of saw us as weirdos.

It’s…

WEEKI WACHEE—I am walking into the Mermaid Theater in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to see the mermaids. Ten minutes until showtime.

This is your quintessential old-time Florida tourist attraction. In the small underground aquatic theater are young and old people seated on benches, waiting to get their money’s worth.

Sitting beside me is little girl wearing a Disney T-shirt. “Are we gonna see muh-mays, Mama?” she says.

“Just be patient,” says her mother.

The theater has been here since 1947. It is a memory from an era when Florida tourists used to pack the family into a four-door Ford Country Squire station wagon and hit the road for vacation.

The elderly couple on my other side is from Upstate New York. “Yeah, I’ve seen the mermaids several times,” the lady says. “Came when I was a kid. The training the mermaids go through is really difficult, I admire them.”

Her husband winks at me. “I admire them, too.”

A cheesy trumpet fanfare comes over the loudspeaker. We are all watching the glass windows which display

underwater views of Weeki Wachee’s natural springs. The room has a bluish, underwater hue to it. Sort of like floating at the bottom of a public pool—only without Johnny Cooper yelling, “Marco!” every two seconds.

The worst game ever invented was Marco Polo, wherein in a child closes his eyes and wanders around a swimming pool trying to find his friends by shouting “Marco!”

Theoretically, if his friends are Christians, they will answer “Polo!” But if his friends are, for instance, Satan worshippers, they will say nothing. Whereupon the boy searches for thirty minutes with his eyes closed until he realizes something is wrong.

Finally the lifeguard, who has been watching the whole thing, has enough mercy to say, “Open your eyes, kid, they’ve all gone home.”

Friends don’t let friends play Marco Polo. Remember that.

The mermaids make their appearance. The theater applauds.…

I stop every few miles to get things like boiled peanuts and pecan rolls. I also buy a crate of oranges for eleven bucks. You can’t beat it.

My wife and I are leaving for Weeki Wachee, Florida, on a sunny morning. It’s supposed to be fall, but the joke is on us. It is still 320 degrees Fahrenheit outside even though it’s October.

This morning, for example, after packing the car I had to change clothes because I was sweating worse than a chubby kid doing Zumba in the attic.

We’re traveling to Weeki Wachee, of course, because of mermaids. Real mermaids. They are legendary mermaids who have been performing underwater shows since Harry Truman was in office. They swim. They do backflips. They blow kisses to lucky schmucks in the audience. I am hoping to be one such schmuck.

All my life I have wanted to see these Floridian mermaids swim underwater from the famous 450-seat aquarium theater.

Once when I was a child, we got all the way to Hernando County and actually stood outside the attraction gates, but the doors were locked and the place was closed. So we ended up eating at a rundown buffet

and buying a bunch of lacquered gator heads as Christmas presents for family members.

The ride to Middle Florida is a fairly uneventful one. My wife and I take turns driving. When she drives, I nap. When I drive, she gives me instructions on how to drive because I am male and therefore not smart enough to pull up my own underpants let alone pilot an automobile.

She shouts things like: “PUT ON YOUR BLINKER, DUMMY!”

“NO! NO! NO! STOP! IT’S A YELLOW LIGHT!”

“I THINK YOU JUST RAN OVER THAT OLD WOMAN AND HER LITTLE SHIH TZU!”

But there is nothing like a Floridian drive to put you in a good mood. Today, the scenery is unbeatable. We see open fields and fat oaks laden with moss.

Pretty soon, we are in the middle of nowhere and we lose cell-phone reception. I get a little excited about…

I learned to type on a manual typewriter in a classroom with eight other kids. Our teacher was an elderly woman with a beehive hairdo and five-inch-thick stockings.

I remember the first time I ever put hands on a computer. My cousin Billy had one. It was the size of a Buick Roadmaster and it smelled funny. He would play this glorified game of slow-motion ping-pong as though it were a matter of national security.

His mother, my aunt Eulah, worried about using computers. She believed they were invented by the Devil. But then, Aunt Eulah worried about everything. She was the same woman who, whenever she heard ambulance sirens, called her entire family to make sure they weren’t dead.

During childhood we would receive random calls from Aunt Eulah wherein she would shout, “I heard an ambulance, I had to make sure you weren’t bleeding to death!”

We would always answer the same way: “Aunt Eulah, have you been drinking again?”

And she’d get so mad.

Anyway, when I was a kid, only rich people owned computers. Or doctors. Or people who worked for the government. We didn’t have them in school.

I learned to type on a manual typewriter in a

classroom with eight other kids. Our teacher was an elderly woman with a beehive hairdo and five-inch-thick stockings. We practiced typing sentences like: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Or: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.”

I timed myself while typing those words just now. It took thirteen seconds, not counting the quotation marks.

I’m not a fast typist, never was. But I still own my old typewriter, and I use it. I wrote most of my first novel on it. And I completed ten books with it.

It’s a workhorse. It has fallen down stairs, tumbled out of my car, dropped into a puddle, and on one occasion it was dropkicked by a man named Marvin Lloyd.

I adore typewriters. But I have a love-hate relationship with computers. Sure, they’re okay,…

I had no idea that I was wearing an actual “Arkansas Beaver Tail” hairdo because I couldn’t see the back of my head.

You can imagine how shocked I was to discover that for the past two months I have been wearing a mullet haircut without knowing it.

This is not a joke. So please try to remain calm and do not get so horrified that you drop your cell phone, tablet e-reader, newspaper, or eight-month-old son.

But as it turns out, I have been parading around the Free World wearing a hairstyle that is cut short in the front, but long in the back. A hairstyle commonly known as an “Achy-Breaky-Big-Mistakey.” Or in certain regions, “The Mississippi Mudflap.”

I figured this out when I walked into a salon yesterday. As soon as I sat in the chair, I knew something was wrong. Because four professional hairdressers surrounded me and ran their fingers through my hair, saying things like, “You poor baby.” One of them even dropped her eight-month-old son.

Said one stylist, “What kind of a person did this to you, sweetheart?”

I had no idea what they were talking about.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Jessica gripped the long hair behind my head and yanked it. “This,” she said. “I hate to break it to you, but THIS is a Tennessee Tophat.”

“A what?”

“You know,” another explained. “A Squirrel Pelt, a Texas Tidal Wave, a Dothan Dangler.”

“What’s that?”

“You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of a Kentucky Neckwarmer? A Floridian Fun Flap? A Missouri Compromise?”

“She’s right,” said another stylist. “Your hair is a full-fledged mullet.”

A girl named LaShanda held my long rat-tail and said, “I’ve never seen one up close before.”

“Yep,” said Jessica, holding a handheld mirror behind my head. “Business up front, party in the back.”

Of course this explains a lot. When I first got this haircut three months ago, I knew something was wrong. I got it in Huntsville, Alabama. I drove…

I am greeted by Alecia and other members of her team. We all exchange hugs. Alecia says, “Thank you so much for being here.”

NASHVILLE—The book publisher’s building is large, modern-looking, and intimidating. There is a mirror-like finish on the outside.

There is an intercom by the front door. Before getting inside, you must present a valid ID, a birth certificate, the blood of a sacrificial ram, and five years of past tax returns.

No, I’m only kidding. The intercom is probably for weeding out crazy people.

Which is why the most important thing to remember when speaking into this intercom is to relax and be yourself so the receptionist doesn’t think you’re a crazy person.

I mash the button.

“Hello,” I say, using a 17th-century British female accent. “I am not a crazy person.”

The voice says, “Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes.”

The door unlatches with a buzzing sound. And I am inside the HarperCollins building. This place is fancy. Tall ceilings, big windows. There’s a pianist in the lobby playing “Moon River” on a six-foot baby grand piano.

Again, this is just a joke. He’s actually playing “Red Sails in the Sunset.”

I am greeted by Alecia and other members of her

team. We all exchange hugs. Alecia says, “Thank you so much for being here.”

This seems to be the phrase of the day. I hear it a few hundred times from many nice people.

These are book-people. Their lives revolve around books. Anything you can imagine doing to a book, they have already done it. They eat, sleep, and bench press books.

They think in complete paragraphs that are virtually typo-free. Some copy editors even do double air quotes with their fingers before and after every sentence they say.

There are cubicles everywhere. People at computers. Bookshelves. Coffee makers.

The walls are lined with posters featuring some famous book covers. And these posters all leave you struck with the feeling that pretty much all people in the Western world—including various cast members from “Love Boat”—have written runaway bestsellers.

And…

I have not been able to find our dishrag drawer since the late 1990s.

I am looking for the peanut butter in my kitchen. But I can’t find it. I can never find things in my own house because I am married.

Just when I figure out where the silverware is located, or the peanut butter, or the master bathroom, my wife changes everything around. Then she changes it again.

When I ask her about it, she offers no explanation other than: “I moved the peanut butter above the dishrag drawer.”

If I actually knew where the dishrag drawer was located it would be smooth sailing. But I have not been able to find our dishrag drawer since the late 1990s.

So I just keep looking around for the peanut butter, opening and closing cupboards until I end up staring into a cabinet filled with vitamins and one Oster six-speed hand mixer. Then, I completely forget what I was looking for and end up on the sofa watching the “Young and the Restless.”

I forget things because we men have short attention spans. I get distracted all the

time. I can be talking about one thing, then suddenly (bam!) did you know that a squirrel’s front teeth never stop growing?

Which is true, by the way.

This attention deficit problem in males is annoying to women. But it’s just part of being a man. We can be very thickheaded.

This is why a man can wander into his own kitchen, open his OWN refrigerator, stare at fourteen different kinds of mustard on the door, including the moldy Grey Poupon that nobody has thrown away since his cousin’s wedding reception last summer, and without the slightest irony ask his wife, “Do we have any mustard?”

At my in-law’s house it was salad dressing instead of mustard. My father-in-law would accumulate salad dressing like nobody’s business. I finally figured out why when I went shopping with him.

He would take three steps into a Piggly Wiggly,…

“What are you writing?” she asks. Only it comes out sounding like “Choo rattin’?”

I have a few hours to kill. I stop at a small place to eat. The place is dead. It is just me and a waitress. She is older. Covered in tattoos.

The place is rundown. My coffee mug has lipstick traces on it. The music overhead is George and Tammy. My table is sticky. I’ve been in a lot of breakfast joints in my day, but this is definitely one of them.

I order eggs and bacon. And I type on a laptop while listening to George sing.

She watches me. At first she isn’t going to say anything, but eventually she does. Her boredom is unbearable.

“What are you writing?” she asks. Only it comes out sounding like “Choo rattin’?”

“It’s just a story,” I say.

“Story ‘bout h-whut?”

“This and that.”

“You a writer?”

“Sorta.”

“You any good?”

“Not really.”

“I ever heard of you before?”

“I doubt it.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sean.”

“Never heard of you.”

The music overhead changes to Randy Travis. I have always liked Randy Travis.

I ask her the quintessential breakfast-joint question. “So, where’re you from?”

“Virginia, originally. Only, I been in Alabama since I’s twenty.”

“Doing what?”

“This and that.”

“You

any good?”

This makes her smile. “I was good at being stupid. So are my daughters. All been stupid just like me. My son’s the only one who did right. He joined up.”

“The military?”

“A Marine.”

“Semper Fi?”

“Do what?”

“I think that’s their motto, the Marines, Semper Fi.”

“Is that Spanish?”

“I think Latin.”

“Don’t know nothin’ bout no Latin, but he’s a good boy, when I get to see him.”

She returns to wiping the counter. It’s just busywork. There’s nothing to wipe. The cook is in the kitchen playing with his phone. He appears to have a runny nose. He wipes it with his palm. And I think I’m going to be sick.

Out of the…

I’m on a two-lane highway.

I am leaving Florida, heading for Birmingham on important business. By which I mean barbecue.

My cousin is having a little get-together in his backyard. He is slow-smoking a large pork butt, serving homemade banana pudding, and his famous fall-off-the-bone ribs. I have been known to travel great distances for good barbecue.

I’m on a two-lane highway. It’s 99 degrees outside. The Florida weather is so hot that the trees are bribing the dogs.

I cross the state line, and I’m in Alabama.

The first town I pass is Florala. It’s tiny. It sits on Lake Jackson. Picture thick oaks with lots of moss, a small mainstreet, and Opie Taylor kicking a can on the sidewalk.

I once dated a girl from Florala. Her father hated me. One day he invited me hog hunting. Just the two of us. This was my cue to get off his porch before I had an unfortunate hunting accident.

You can follow Highway 55 upward for a breathtaking drive. Pass Lockhart, North Creek, miles of farmland, and soon

you’re in Andalusia. Hank Williams got married in Andalusia.

Pass the country club, the Conecuh River, and you’re back on 55 again. Follow this through Red Level, McKenzie, and you really ought to stop in Georgiana, at Kendall’s Barbecue—a little shack beside a gas station. Thank me later.

While you’re in town, visit the childhood home of Hank Senior. Get the dime tour of the museum from a sweet elderly woman named Miss Margaret, who I keep hoping will adopt me.

After that, you will have a few routes you can take to Birmingham.

1. Interstate 65—a congested mega-highway with every SUV in the known universe riding your butt and trying to ram your tailgate if you don’t drive 125 miles per hour even though they have bumper stickers which read “Jesus is my co-pilot.”

2. Highway 31.

Ride the sleepy highway past Chapman, Bolling, and…

And 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 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.

Boom.

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.…