GULF SHORES—I have always liked this beach town. There is something about it. Not only is it situated on the Gulf, but wherever you go there is a feeling in the air that seventy percent of the tourist population has been drinking since noon.
I have good memories here. My wife went to college here. A good friend got married on these beaches. I have fished here.
Right now, Earl is giving me a ride in his truck.
Earl is white-haired, and quiet. He drives while I sit in the passenger seat.
It is night. I have just finished doing my one-man show in an auditorium where I told stories, jokes, and sang for two straight hours. I am exhausted and I have lost my voice.
When I exited backstage, Earl was waiting beside his truck.
Earl’s job is to give me a ride to the other side of the building so I can stand by the door, shake audience members’ hands, and apologize for ruining two hours of their lives.
Earl is relaxed and easygoing. He can sense that I am tired.
“How about we go for a drive?” Earl suggests. “So you can catch your breath.”
I nod because my voice is shot.
Soon, I am lost in thought. And do you know what I am thinking?
I’m thinking that for most of my life, I’ve never felt like I did a “good job” at anything. Sure, I’ve done okay, but I never felt like I did anything worthy of a pat on the back.
I realize that admitting this makes me seem pathetic. But then, I come from perfectionists who used to mow their lawns twice per week. These were men who would see tiny patches of grass the lawnmower missed and freak out. Then, they would jog outside to clip the grass with scissors.
But as a kid, I was desperate for somebody to slap my shoulder and say, “Good job, Sean.” Occasionally, I even begged for it in roundabout ways.
Just one pat on the back from someone was all I was looking for. One.
Earl drives in circles. I am looking through the windshield, resting my voice.
“I appreciate the ride,” I whisper.
“Don’t mention it,” says Earl.
I was never what you’d call a model student. I was chubby. And I grew up in a fundamentalist household where people talked more about the evils of hot pants than they talked about, for instance, the threat of nuclear war.
My grades were poor, my athletic abilities were non-existent. Blah, blah, blah. Who cares? Everyone has their own story.
I am a late bloomer, but somehow at this stage of life, I stand in front of people, running my mouth for a living. I have no idea what I’m doing. And most days, I don’t know how it happened. Or why.
I try to make polite conversation with Earl.
“Gulf Shores sure has changed over the years,” I say. “I don’t even recognize the town anymore.”
“Tell me about it,” says Earl. “When I first moved here, this place felt small.”
“Where’d you live before?”
I take a sip of water. “You know, my hometown is sort of like Gulf Shores.”
“Oh, I know all about you.”
And I am taken by surprise. I have never met Earl in my life. Earl is a stranger.
I make sure the vehicle doors are unlocked.
Earl adds, “I’ve been reading your stuff for awhile.”
If I wasn’t so dehydrated, I might cry. I don’t know why. Earl seems like such a nice man, I don’t know why he’d be interested in me. Also, I don’t know why I’m so emotional. Maybe it’s just my time of the month.
I look through the windshield at the night befalling Gulf Shores, and I think about how much I’ve always wanted to use the word befalling in a column.
I’m also thinking about how sometimes, when you need something—and I mean really need it—somehow it’s given to you.
Sometimes, Heaven looks down on you and knows exactly what you need, and how badly you need it. And it gives a tiny miracle to you. My life has been one continuous strand of these.
It’s a shame I didn’t realize this until just now.
When Earl drops me at the door, I see people leaving the auditorium, and it hits me all at once. I’m so ordinary it hurts. What am I doing here?
Five years ago, I was laying tile in the daytime, and playing music in an all-you-can-eat seafood joint at night. I was the guy voted most likely be late on his income taxes. What am I doing in Gulf Shores on a weeknight, outside an auditorium?
Earl says, “You alright?”
“Yeah,” I say with a hoarse voice. “I think so.”
Silence befalls the truck.
Earl says nothing. He only reaches across the seat and pats me on the back. Just once. And once is enough.
There is something about this beach town.