MOUNT JULIET—I am doing a book signing event tonight. Which is a fancy way of saying that I’m using a Sharpie to deface the property of innocent people.
Right now Tennessee is cold, biting, and everyone is wearing jackets. I shake hands, give hugs, sign books, and continuously run my mouth with everyone I meet. This is slowing down the line, but I can’t help it. I’m a big talker just like my mother.
And tonight I’m hugging necks from all over the Southeast.
One of the first necks I hug belongs to a guy from Sopchoppy, Florida. He is cheery and has a long beard. And we are discussing the finer points of underpants. Seriously.
He tells me he has recently discovered a new brand of cutting-edge undies that are built for comfort. We talk about these underpants in great detail. And before we say goodbye his exact parting words are: “You’re gonna love the underpants, man! They’re awesome underpants!”
So the literary event is off to an excellent start.
I hug the necks of Stephani and Jacki, two sisters who grew up with a mother that forgot to put E’s on the ends of their names.
I meet Randy and LaTresa, a talented husband-and-wife musical duo who give me copies of their albums.
I run into my friend Matthew, who brought his sweet mother. If I am not mistaken, Matthew is wearing orange-and-blue Auburn University plaid. Which hurts my Crimson heart a little.
I see my pal Rob. Rob is a real author with a bona fide career. For some reason, call it misfortune, he has believed in me from the early days. One time he even drove all the way to Alabama just to see me perform. That was back when I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully, after much practice and a few years of trial and error, I still have no freaking idea what I’m doing.
I shake hands with Mark, who came from Virginia. I asked why he drove so far. He said, “I love to drive, dude. And besides, you look just like my brother, he died last month. And since I can’t see Lucas, I thought I’d see you.” Then he asks for a hug.
One woman came from Franklin, Kentucky. Her first husband died, leaving her and her eleven-year-old son behind.
She says, “You wrote a column especially for me once. Do you remember that?”
I do. About a year ago I wrote a story that took place when I was her son’s age. It was about how after my father’s funeral my mother took us to Branson. It was the worst period of my existence, but somehow, because of my mother, the sun shined for a week in Branson.
The woman shows me pictures of a cute little boy standing beside his late daddy. “That’s my sweet son,” she says.
Two ladies traveled here from North Carolina just to bring me some Chili Cheese Fritos and a stuffed squirrel for my dog.
I meet another sweet couple from Luverne, Alabama—not far from my home. Both of whom say to me in unison: “We just wanna know if you’ve ever eaten at the Chicken Shack?”
Have I? Does a fat dog squat? The Chicken Shack is where God lives.
I meet an older couple from Northern Illinois. A teenage girl from Minnesota. A young man who moved to Tennessee from Mobile, who is so homesick he can’t see straight.
Then comes the Baptist minister, Wayne, and his wife. Wayne’s father used to have a church in Geneva, Alabama, long ago. And I get excited because I actually know where this church is.
“Hey,” Wayne goes on, patting my shoulder, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you. And I mean it.”
Not many Baptist preachers have told me this. And to be fair, I haven’t always deserved to hear it. We get our photo taken together and I threaten to visit Wayne’s little church in Maple Grove someday. He says, “I’d be tickled.”
To my knowledge, I have never successfully tickled any Baptist preachers.
At the end of the line is a man named Randy. He’s a nice guy. Red beard. He’s from Gallatin, Tennessee. By the time we shake hands the bookstore is empty and about to close. Randy has been waiting a few hours and I feel terrible about that.
“I’m an undertaker,” Randy says. “My grandfather died when I was fourteen, and that’s when I first got into the funeral business.”
He tells me that the director for his grandfather’s funeral took Randy under his wing. And that was that. Randy has been doing funerals since before he was old enough to drive.
After our conversation, I apologize to Randy for making him stand in line so long.
He laughs. “You call that a line? I’m a funeral director, man. You haven’t seen a real line.”
Then he digs into his pocket and hands me a lapel pin with the Tennessee flag on it. He says, “Remember us when you’re on the road, because Tennessee appreciates you.”
Tonight, my wife and I are highway bound for Mississippi. Then comes Alabama and Georgia. I do not want to forget the people I have met in this little bookstore on a cold Tennessee evening. Which is why I have pinned the state flag onto my jacket, and am wearing it over my heart.
I am also wearing some extremely cutting-edge underpants right now.