My wife and I ate Chinese take-out tonight. My meal came with a fortune cookie whose fortune read: “Relax, you have all you need.”

I’m not one to take life advice from a cookie that tastes like cardboard, but it can’t be all wrong.

My home is small. One-story. Simple. There is a mobile home beside it. Across the street, there are three empty trailers, old, and covered in grime.

I own two rusted boats. One works. I have a workshed, and one orphaned dirt bike that needs its gaskets resealed. It sits beneath the shade of an oak tree, broadcasting to the world that my neck is a little red.

We live on a dirt road—a point of pride in our family. A few years ago, they tried to pave our street, but they didn’t pave our particular section of the road because my wife was standing in it, shouting death threats to the bulldozer driver.

My truck sits parked beside my boats. It is a Ford, 2003. The tailgate is rusted. The

paint is flaking off. There is a mountain of junk piled in the truck bed. I keep meaning to clean it out, but...

Maybe some other day.

Every night, my wife and I walk our dogs after supper. We eat early because we are getting middle-aged and we don’t sleep well if we eat late.

We walk the dirt road, then down the paved street toward Hewett Bayou, which is on the Choctawhatchee Bay. And though I can’t prove it, I believe ninety-nine percent of the frogs in the Southeastern United States are conceived in my backyard.

On our walks, we talk. Mainly, about what we would do if we ever had money. Then we laugh and realize that we will never have money because we are not money people.

You are either a money person or you aren’t. You can’t be both. You either love…

One night, I noticed a pie through the glass refrigerator door. Pecan. It was supple. Golden. Blonde crust. Firm filling. Illuminated by a faint light from above.

You can imagine my reaction when yesterday I discovered that Pamela Anderson had made me a pecan pie. Someone hand-delivered the pie and there was a sticky note attached. It read: “Love, Pamela Anderson.”

I started to get light headed.

Granted, it might not be the famous Pamela Anderson, since the pie came from Thomas County, Georgia. But—and follow me closely here—the famous Pamela Anderson has not publicly denied knowledge of this pie.

I cut a slice and buried it with enough Reddi-Wip to cover Mount Rushmore. It was so sugary it gave me heart palpitations.

“What’re you eating?” my wife asked.

“Oh nothing,” I said. “Just a gift from Pamela Anderson.”

“Who?”

“Don’t make me say it again, honey. Celebrities are very funny about their privacy.”

My wife inspected the note and laughed at me. “What are you, fourteen years old? It’s not the celebrity, it’s just some woman named Pamela Anderson.”

But she is just jealous. Wives get that way when former television stars bake things for you.

If Pam happens to be reading this, she should know that pecan pie is my all-time favorite. That is, unless Anne Margaret bakes me a blueberry pie. Then my all-time favorite pie is blueberry.

Barbara Eden could make me liverwurst on a cracker.

Once, I had a job at an ice cream shop. I was recently married, taking a second job to pay the mortgage. The job paid minimum wage and it wasn’t a great gig. I was a glorified soda jerk, complete with a dorky uniform.

On my first day, the owner trained me to scoop ice cream, make malts, and say things like “Gee whiz, Beave’.” He was a grumpy man, elderly, and always in a funk.

The first order of business was to introduce me to the pie coolers. There were two. Each cooler was filled…

This one is from my elderly friend, Mister Boots: “Smartphones have made stupid people.”

“Don’t kiss a girl without being prepared to give her your last name.”

My granny said that.

My father once said this: “If you so much as touch a cigarette, you might as well tear up half your paychecks from now on.”

My mother’s axiom, however, is my all-time favorite: “It’ll be be okay.”

It might sound like a simple phrase, but my mother said this often. Whenever things were running off the rails. Whenever a girl broke my heart. Whenever I lost my job. Whenever I cried.

Whenever I had a common cold that I believed to be, for instance, tuberculosis, she said this—I needed her to say it.

She also said: “Cleaning your plate means ‘I love you, Mama.’”

And this is why I was an overweight child.

I could keep going all day.

“Don’t answer the phone when you got company over,” my uncle once said. “It’s just flat rude.”

This one is from my elderly friend, Mister Boots: “Smartphones have made stupid people.”

My grandfather said: “Anything worth doing is worth waiting until next week to do it.”

My wife’s mother once

said: “Always carry deodorant in your truck, for crying out loud. You smell like you’ve been roping billy goats.”

Said the man named Bill Bonners, in a nursing home, from his wheelchair: “I never wanted to be a husband, I really didn’t want that. But I just couldn’t breathe without her around me.”

He died four days after his wife passed.

And one childhood evening, I was on a porch with my friend’s father, Mister Allen James who was whittling a stick, and he said:

“Boys, if you marry ‘up,’ you’ll have to attend a lotta parties you don’t wanna go to. Remember that it’s better to marry ‘down.’”

I never forgot it.

On the day of my father’s funeral, a preacher came through the visitation line and said: “No man ever truly dies.…

But I am a little hungry. So I do some digging around the room. I locate a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos and I almost start dancing.

THOMASVILLE—I’m about to make a speech at a local bookstore. I am running late. I speed into town like Dale Earnhardt on a beer run.

I have a soft spot for small towns. In fact, you might say that my entire life has been built by small-town people. Like those in this city.

The streets are lined with shops and markets. The store windows are covered by awnings. There are plants hanging from street lamps. A dog wanders Broad Street. Reddish. Scruffy. He has no collar.

A simple drive around town is worth the price of admission. When you’re here, you’re back in time.

In the historic district you’ll see antebellum homes, Queen Anne architecture, and steep-pitched rooflines. Whitewashed columns on old mansions. Big porches. And people riding lawn mowers, drinking Bud Light, and listening to gospel music on headphones.

But it’s the downtown that everyone comes to see. We’re driving through it at sundown. Every few seconds my wife uses the phrase “Oh, how cute.”

There

are cobblestone streets. Two-story buildings with the tall windows.

A crowd of young women in evening wear poses for a picture on the street corner.

Boys in baseball uniforms meander the sidewalk, following their designated team-dad, who looks like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown.

Women stroll together, toting shopping bags. I see one shop owner sweeping the sidewalk with a broom.

I didn’t think anyone swept sidewalks anymore.

And the dog still roams Broad Street. He stops now and then to see if any passers by want to feed him. No dice.

It’s all too pretty to believe. I keep expecting to see Barney Fife pull alongside my vehicle and accuse me of jaywalking. Or perhaps Floyd might approach me and ask if I need a haircut. And the answer would be: Yes, I do. Badly.

I dart into…

I do not tan. I am a redhead. I have two shades. Winter Pale, and Red Lobster.

It’s a perfect summer evening. The world is moving slow. It’s hot. The sounds of the world are music. Crickets. Insects. Frogs galore. And the magnificent sound of my redneck neighbor, Jerry, four-wheeling his pickup truck through the mud on the property behind mine, shouting “THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ‘BOUT, SON!” out his window.

I am eating strawberries because summer is coming to an end and I don’t want to forget it. The strawberries were good this year.

So were the tomatoes. I ate a lot of tomatoes this summer. People gave them to us wherever we traveled. And we traveled a lot, doing shows in various places.

A middle-aged couple in Palatka, Florida, attended one of my shows and gave me real homegrown tomatoes that were the size of footballs.

In Birmingham, an elderly man gave me a trash bag full of Purple Cherokee heirlooms.

In North Georgia, someone gave me a cardboard box full of Better Boys that his mother grew. I carried

that box on a road trip across the Southeast, the Midwest, and into Texas. I took these tomatoes to every state we visited until they were gone.

Also, this summer I got a tan. Which is kind of a big deal for me. I haven’t had a tan since I was nineteen and someone rubbed pigmented lotion on my arms and legs for a beach wedding. My skin turned the color of a seasick carrot.

I do not tan well. I am a redhead. I have two shades. Winter Pale, and Red Lobster.

This summer, baseball has been exquisite. I have watched the Atlanta Braves play in all sorts of unlikely places while traveling.

I saw them on a TV in a New York City hotel after spending the day translating Northern accents. And in Washington D.C., where my wife and I took a taxi to see…

I love cornbread. I was raised on the stuff, just like everyone else in America.

My friend’s mother, Miss Sylvia, is making cornbread. Her house is alive with the smell. The seventy-two-year old woman cooks cornbread the old-fashioned way. An iron skillet in the oven. Lots of butter.

Sylvia tests the hot bread by poking it with a broom bristle. If the bristle is gummy, she licks the bristle then returns the skillet to the oven. If not, it’s Cornbread-Thirty.

I watch this bristle maneuver. She breaks a piece of straw from her broom. And I don’t want to ask, but I have to.

“Is that broom clean?” I say.

“Relax,” Sylvia says. “It’s just one bristle.”

“But is it clean?”

“Define clean.”

“Has it been used to sweep your floor?”

“This particular broom? Yes.”

“Your dusty, residential, hepatitis-C floor?”

“Yes.”

So this cornbread is contaminated and will probably kill me. But then, I’m a dinner guest, I HAVE to eat it even though the old woman’s floors are frequently used by a family dog who is nicknamed “Egypt” because wherever he goes he makes little

pyramids.

Still, I love cornbread. I was raised on the stuff, just like everyone else in America.

My mother used to make cornbread a few times per week. Sometimes more. Primarily because it was cheap, and my family ate cheap food.

You always knew when it was cornbread night because my mother would make a fresh pot of boiling bacon grease with a few navy beans floating in it. She called it bean and ham soup, but I call it cardiac arrest stew.

Either way, you would use your bread to sop the sides of the bowl. Occasionally, while doing this you would get so giddy that you’d break into song and sing a number from “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man,” or in extreme cases “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

All my life, I considered cornbread to be the fingerprint of a good…

The day the store opened, I was standing in line among the first customers. I was a young man, walking the aisles, running my hands along the books. And I was in heaven because I love books.

I am on my way to a birthday party. Before the party, I stop at the bookstore because I need to buy a gift. Which I completely forgot to do.

I’m a last-minute kind of guy. I didn’t even plan my own honeymoon until we were in the parking lot, leaving the reception. There were tin cans tied to my bumper.

My wife said, “Where are you taking me?”

I only smiled.

“Oh my God,” she said. “You’re probably taking me to Dothan, aren’t you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “It’s a surprise.”

And it was. For us both. We left for Charleston. Just as soon as I cancelled our reservations at the Super 8 Motel in Dothan.

I’m walking into the bookstore. I know it sounds crazy, but I love this place. I remember when they built it. They spent months clearing the forest behind my old church to build this strip mall.

The day the store opened, I was standing in line among the first customers. I was a young man, walking the aisles, running

my hands along the books. And I was in heaven because I love books.

I even filled out a job application. A week later, a man called my house and asked me to come for an interview. I hung up the kitchen phone and danced a jig.

For the interview, I wore my nicest shirt and my finest tennis shoes. My appointment was early in the morning, before the store opened. I showed up on the sidewalk. The lights were off. Nobody was inside. So I let myself in.

Soon, I was wandering the dark aisles. The place was filled with classic literature. Twain. Dickinson. Whitman. Grizzard. And a bunch of other authors whose names I frequently use at swanky dinner parties.

A gruff voice came from behind me. “Can I help you?”

I turned to see a man with a sour face,…

“I’m Auburn’s BIGGEST FAN!” he says.

In honor of college football season, I want to tell you about the biggest SEC football fan I know. He lives in Monroeville, Alabama, which is your quintessential all-American town. Walk the square and take a trip backward on the timeline. Drive around town. You’ll see barbecue joints, a Piggly Wiggly, a Sonic, a world-famous courthouse.

And you might see Kenny.

Kenny is late-forties. He lives in the upstairs bedroom of his parents’ house. A little about him: Kenny likes dogs, people, food, singing, sports, and hugging anyone within a six-foot radius.

Kenny has Down syndrome. There is a touch of gray on his temples. His face has smile-lines. And, if Kenny were to ever donate blood, doctors would discover he bleeds orange and blue.

He is an Auburn University fanatic.

“I’m Auburn’s BIGGEST FAN!” he says.

There’s no doubt. He gives me the dime tour of his bedroom—a shrine to the Tigers.

There are seventeen thousand orange ballcaps adorning his walls. Bo Jackson autographs, Gus Malzahn posters, stuffed tigers, eagle figurines, and Shug Jordan coffee mugs.

During the tour, Kenny

breaks into spontaneous song:

“WAR EAGLE! Fearless and true,
“Fight on, you orange and blue...”

He finishes his performance by hugging me. Kenny gives good hugs.

In the corner is an Auburn Christmas tree, weighted with orange ornaments—he keeps it up year round. Auburn bedspreads, throw rugs, drapes, pillows, light-switch covers.

“When we first had Kenny,” says his father. “Doctors told us our baby had issues. Told us we’d better let him go and institutionalize him.”

Kenny’s father informed the doctor they would do no such thing. Instead, the family built their world around the new baby. They loved him.

“Raising him was the big blessing of our life,” says Kenny’s father. “We were never alone, that’s part of life in a small town. You’re never alone. This community raised Kenny with us.”

Kenny spent twenty years finishing…

I am sitting in the living room with my elderly mother-in-law, Mother Mary. We are watching television. Mother Mary holds the remote.

The television is enormous. I am talking about a TV that’s bigger than a king-size mattress mounted to the wall. The volume is cranked up so loud that bits of ceiling plaster are falling into my beer.

My wife is away tonight, and she has left me alone with Mother Mary. We are watching TV. Mother Mary is flipping channels.

You’d like Mother Mary. She is white-haired, with a voice like Scarlett O’Hara. She sits in her recliner, and we are eating pizza delivery.

She flips past all the major networks. She pauses on HGTV for a little while, but nothing appeals to her. She scrolls past all her favorites: TLC, TBS, USA, TNT, Home Shopping Network, Univision.

She finally lands on the Discovery Channel. The show is entitled “Naked and Afraid.”

On the screen are two forty-somethings. Male and female. They hike through the wilderness trying to survive. And they are both—how do

I put this?—buck naked.

The gist of the show is simple and realistic. Two people with desk jobs suddenly find themselves wandering through the woods, fighting insurmountable odds, harsh weather, sleep deprivation, predators, and multiple commercial breaks. And they do it without wearing any pants.

The important thing to remember here is that these are not actors, and they are actually naked. Their primary body parts are blurred by special camera effects, but their secondary body parts are in clear focus.

For example: There is a man on the screen right now. He is bending over to get a drink from the river. And I see London, I see France.

“Oh my word,” remarks Mother Mary. “I see his little hiney.”

I cover my eyes. “Mother Mary, would you like another piece of pizza?”

“Would you JUST look at that?”

“How about something from…

We are having an Andy Griffith Show marathon. We start with the first season, episode one: Aunt Bea comes to town.

Early evening. My mother-in-law (Mother Mary) and I are watching the Andy Griffith Show. We are whistling along with the opening theme song.

Mother Mary is wearing hearing aids. The television volume is turned up as high as it will go, blaring so loud that pieces of the popcorn ceiling are falling into my beer.

We are having an Andy Griffith Show marathon. We start with the first season, episode one.

The plot is simple: Aunt Bea comes to town. Opie doesn’t like her. In the final scenes, everyone hugs. The end. Roll the credits.

Mother Mary says, “TURN IT UP!”

“But Mother Mary,” I say, “the television is all the way up.”

“HUH?”

“I SAID THE TV’S TURNED UP!”

“NO! NO! TAX DAY ISN’T UNTIL MARCH FIFTEENTH!”

“TAX DAY?”

“HUH?”

“MOTHER MARY! TAX DAY IS IN APRIL!”

“WHAT?”

“I SAID, TAX DAY’S IN APRIL!”

“WHY SHOULD I GIVE A RIP WHICH MONTH TAX DAY IS?”

So we watch TV together. And even though we’ve both seen this episode a hundred times, we still laugh at the jokes and whistle with the credits.

Episode one ends. Cue episode two: Andy and Barney catch an escaped

convict.

“TURN IT UP!” says Mother Mary.

“I CAN’T!”

“HUH?”

“I SAID, I CAN’T!”

“WHO DID?”

“WHO DID WHAT?”

“GREG!”

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!”

“HUH?”

They can hear our television blaring from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Whenever Barney Fife speaks, the sound of his voice shatters our windows and cracks one of my fillings.

Even so, this is the best show on the planet. I have loved it for my whole life.

As a boy, my friends always wanted to play “Army,” or “Cowboys,” or if we were in Marvin Kowalski’s basement, “Weatherman.” But I usually voted for playing “Andy Griffith.”

I had the clothes for it, too. My mother bought several khaki-colored safari shirts from the thrift store. If you…