“I learn from people,” he tells. “And maybe I can even encourage them, you know?

The filling station sits on a rural highway, across from a kajillion acres of peanuts. A kajillion, you will note, is more than a bazillion, less than a zillion.

He is outside the filling station, sitting in a wheelchair. He wears a camouflage cap, hunting T-shirt, tattoos everywhere. He is drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He is young.

“Nice weather,” he says when he sees me pumping gas.

And no matter how old I get, I love to cuss the weather. I come from a long line of men who cussed the weather. It’s something humans have in common. We can all talk about the weather with complete authority even though we don’t know much about what it will do.

“Yeah,” I say. “Great weather. But a little hot.”

“I know,” he says. “But I like the heat. It’s better than being stuck in a dark house.”

He seems to know what he’s talking about.

He parks his motorized wheelchair here at this station almost every day except

Sundays. He does it because he is Chatty Cathy. Here, he meets people. And he likes people.

“I get all cooped up in my house,” he says. “I need to be around people, and feel like I’m really here.”

After his accident—which he tells me nothing about—he’s been isolated from life. His friends have all have jobs, and girlfriends, and he’s been fighting to recover.

“Man,” he says. “I used to do so much cool stuff, four-wheeling, and hunting, and fishing, and you know, everything. It’s tough not being able to do that no more.”

He doesn’t say it, but I can see it. He’s lonely. He just wants someone to talk to. Someone to do things with. His friends used to go fishing with him, and go riding.

Even so, this isn’t getting him down. Not when the weather is…

You will meet a dog named Ellie Mae, who will change you. She will look at you and see perfection. No human will ever see this in you. Because it’s not actually there. But this dog will give you the holy gift that only canines can give.

Dear Young Me,

I hope you are well. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, I forgot what a kid you are. You are eighteen. And even though you don’t know this, you are very, very stupid.

But that’s okay. Stupidity isn’t all bad.

You have big ideas. I’m tempted to call them dreams. But then, they aren’t dreams. Dreams are ambitious things. You aren’t ambitious. You start a project, then peter out.

You’ve been told you’re lazy, and slow, and not good at things you do. But I’m writing to say that you are good enough.

If you remember nothing else I write, please remember that last sentence.

You once had a girlfriend tell you—and in one case, even her mother told you—that you were going nowhere. You believed them.

You’re watching friends get accepted into good colleges. They’ve set compasses for their lives. They are doing well for themselves. Everyone seems to be succeeding. Except you.

Take heart, Young Me. Your life is going to be full

of surprises. You don’t know it yet. You have no idea what’s around the corner. None. I get excited just thinking about it.

For example: you will meet a beautiful woman who knows how to make beautiful biscuits. You will marry, and you will be beautifully poor. So, so poor. And it will only make you happier.

Let’s see. What else? You’ll total a few trucks. You will have back surgery. And on one occasion, you will be lost in Toledo, Ohio, without a car.

And brace yourself for what I am about to say:

The Chicago Cubs will win a World Series.

I am dead serious about this. When this happens, you will shout at your television—even though you aren’t a Cubs fan. Even though your wife is asleep in the other room.

You will…

Sister Jean takes the pulpit. She is ninety-one. She was the first ordained female in the Alabama-West Florida Methodist Conference. This woman is a history book wearing pearls and pumps.

Hartford First United Methodist Church. Small church. Small town. One barbershop on the square. One insurance place. A Chinese restaurant.

In the church entrance, I am greeted by eight white-haired men who all take the time to learn my name. Then, we males dispense with playing nice and start talking about last night’s game.

These are old men who wear University of Alabama belts, War Eagle shirts, or Troy University lapel pins, with khakis. These are Methodists.

Something I know about Methodists: they don’t pronounce “amens” the same way Southern Baptists do.

A Methodist says “AH-men.” You can hear this at the end of their hymns. There is a long “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh-meennnnnnnnn” in the final measure.

A deepwater Baptist, wouldn’t “AH-men” if our piano was on fire. We are of the “AY-men” persuasion. Long “A.” We shout our “AY-mens.” Sometimes right at the preacher.

I sit in the center of the small sanctuary. The pews are oak, with history in them. This building was built in 1921, and feels it. Tall

windows adorn pure white walls. Sun shoots through colored glass and falls upon churchgoers like halos.

The service is straightforward:

A hymn. A scripture. “AH-men.” Another hymn. A few more words. Another “AH-men.”

“Our town is shrinking,” one man told me before service. “With every funeral, another little piece goes away, but we love our town. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it just wonderful?”

Yeah.

Next: organ music. An older woman plays. She moves her feet, hands, and eyeballs at the same time. Modern people forget how hard it is to play the organ. It’s a dying art.

I am sitting next to Mister Frank. He is aged, with liver spots, and hearing aids. I can hear Mister Frank’s weak voice sing “The Doxology” and recite the Apostle’s Creed. He says the Lord’s Prayer with his eyes closed.

We sit.

Sister Jean…

We didn’t have much to talk about, since we weren’t actually friends. But we remembered getting through a math class together once. And we remembered that beer.

DEAR SEAN:

I heard you tell story about not being a high-school grad, I am not one either. I was too embarrassed to come talk with you after the show. I am in my second year of GED stuff and this crap is hard, man. How do I get through it? I want this, but I don’t know if I got what it takes.

Thank you,
HOPELESS-IN-HOOVER

DEAR HOOVER:

The scene is a community college parking lot, years ago. It’s nighttime. I’m sitting in my truck, doing math homework for a high-school equivalency class.

I hate math. Math is bad. Math was invented by Satan. I do not understand Math and I do not want to.

Professionally, I began my life as a “grunt.” On a construction jobsite, that’s what workers called young men like me.

“Get my tape measure, and make is snappy,” a Grade-A dipstick might say to a young grunt.

Or he might say:

“Sand this drywall joint!”

Or: “Go to McDonalds and get me

an Egg McMuffin with extra cheese and a Doctor Pepper.”

Survival. That’s REAL life. It is about having money to make rent. Survival is real. Math is not.

Be as it may, a drop-out like me had to take high-school equivalency math courses out the kazoo before I could take college courses.

I loved literature. And art. And music. I had a love affair with English.

But math.

I almost quit school. But then I met him. On my way into class. I will never forget. We were going to the same classroom.

He had silver in his hair. He was smoking a cigarette in the breezeway. He wore filthy clothes. His work boots were covered in stucco mud. He had books beneath his arm. He was all smiles.

He said in a heavy accent, “How. You. Are. Doing.…

And, God said, “Let there be kudzu.” I love kudzu. I planted some in my backyard in hopes that one day it would swallow my house. Everything looks better swallowed in kudzu.

Entering Conecuh County. That’s what the little green sign reads, off Highway 31. I’m going north, passing through a small sliver of the county. I love Alabama.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to Birmingham, I listened to an audio book. The narrator spoke with an accent like a New Jersey paperboy. He pronounced Conecuh as “Koh-NEE-koo.”

That hurt.

Now entering Butler County. Wingard’s Produce Stand. B&H Cafe. Dollar General. There’s the McKenzie water tower.

And, God said, “Let there be kudzu.” I love kudzu. I planted some in my backyard in hopes that one day it would swallow my house. Everything looks better swallowed in kudzu.

Georgiana is eight miles away. I love it, too. I’ve visited the Hank Williams boyhood home in Georgiana too many times.

Anyone who knows me knows I love Hank. It goes back to childhood.

My father’s workbench. A radio. Hank, blaring from a small speaker while he changed the oil.

My favorite part of the Hank museum tour is the underside of the house. Miss Margaret says Hank used to practice his guitar

there.

“It was cool down there,” says Miss Margaret. “He’d sit on an old car bench-seat to avoid the heat.”

Miss Margaret. I love her, too. She is old. Half her face is paralyzed. Her accent sounds like a Camellia garden on the Fourth of July. I wish she would adopt me.

Georgiana also has Kendall’s Barbecue joint. “Love” is a weak word for Kendall’s. I WOULD tell you more about this place, but someone wrote me an ugly letter last week, saying:

“You talk about Kendall’s TOO MUCH! I'm from Texas originally… I KNOW good barbecue, Alabama barbecue SUCKS, man!”

I understand Texas is beautiful this time of year. I’ll bet they’d throw a nice party if you went back.

I’m passing the Greenville and Pine Apple exit. Greenville is a town like Mayberry. I love it. Pine…

It was a grand affair, with steak for supper. There was singing, joyous voices in the den, card games. The kid’s mother made a cake. The room went black, the candles were lit.

He was just a kid. Not an adult. And even though he’s a man now, even though he has a family, he’ll always be a kid when he tells this story. I can see it on his face.

The kid had a father—a man who was forty-one. Tall. Handsome.

That Sunday, the kid’s family threw his father a birthday party. It was a grand affair, with steak for supper.

There was singing, joyous voices, card games. The kid’s mother made a cake with blue icing. The room went black, the candles were lit. He took one breath and blew them out.

Monday was sunny. The kid’s father loved yard work. He lived for it. So, by God, they did plenty. The kid mowed near the barn. His father changed a belt on the tractor.

Tuesday, the kid’s father came home late from work. A blue collar man, he put in long hours. Overtime. Then worked more.

The kid noticed his father’s face had changed. Something behind the eyes. The

kid will never forget this. How can a kid know a father his whole life—really know him—but not know him? How?

But then, he was just a kid.

There was a fight. A big one. The kid says he remembers how bad it was.

His father’s mind was not working normally. His mother pleaded. The father screamed things that weren’t making sense. The forty-one-year-old tossed furniture against walls. Spit frothed at the corners of his father’s mouth.

The kid tells me he does not want to talk about this anymore. Because after all, this was not the kid’s father. This was a sickness.

The kid’s baby sister was terrified. She buried herself in the folds of the kid’s clothes. The man they called “Daddy” lost his mind.

There are too many things that happened on that night. Far too many.…

Long ago, we had men who raced to the door to prove that their mothers had raised them right. They were men who wouldn’t use a four-letter word in the presence of long eyelashes, not even if you threatened them with soap operas.

I’m at the bank. I’m standing in a line that is one hundred miles long. I’m in the rear. The line is not moving.

I would rather have open heart surgery administered by Howdy Doody than wait in line.

Through the doors, I see a woman, walking across the parking lot. I’m trotting toward the door to open it for her.

This is because I was raised by women. Polite behavior was beaten into me with hairbrushes and unabridged King James Bibles. I believe in opening doors for anyone you’d refer to as ma’am, miss, or Mama.

But someone beats me to the door.

A boy in line. He is twelve, thirteen maybe. He’s here with his mother. He swings it open.

“Thank you,” the woman says, grinning.

Two more women are strolling through the parking lot. The boy flies into action. He opens the door.

They thank him. They even call him “sir.”

He likes this.

Here comes another. She’s waltzing toward the door, talking on her phone. You ought to see the surprise on her face when the kid pulls the Open Sesame trick.

She giggles. “Aren’t you sweet?”

Yes, he is.

And I remember a time when most men were. “Gentleman,” my granddaddy would’ve called them. “Polite,” Mama would’ve called it.

I call it being considerate. And I believe in it.

Long ago, we had men who raced to the door to prove that their mothers had raised them right. They were men who wouldn’t use a four-letter word in the presence of long eyelashes, not even if you threatened them with soap operas.

But those days are evaporating. And I don’t like saying it, but the world has changed.

Even so, some of us still remember our Mama, reminding us to treat every girl, woman, and granny better than the Queen of England.

I asked the boy’s mother how her son became such a knight in…

The problem for me was, of course, my mother believed in the Gospel According to Khakis. She ironed my slacks with so much starch the creases could slice cantaloupes.

DEAR SEAN:

How do I get a girl to like me? I am a 7th-grader who goes to (blank) Middle School and I really want her to think I am cool even though I’m not one of the cool kids… I am a little chunky, but I’m really nice.

Please write me back with advice,
UNCOOL-IN-THE-7TH-GRADE

DEAR UNCOOL:

Let’s take a look at “coolness.” First, when I was your age, coolness was dependent upon a surprisingly short list of criteria.

1. Did the child in question own, or have sufficient access to, and was thereby able to use at will, without administrative or parental restriction, a Sony Walkman radio?

Secondly: Did this kid wear dorky khaki pants?

It was that easy.

The problem for me was, of course, my mother believed in the Gospel According to Khakis. She ironed my slacks with so much starch the creases could slice cantaloupes.

Thus, while other kids wore blue jeans, I wore khakis that had been—and this is very hard for me to say—purchased from

Sears.

AND…

These were not just pants. They were “Husky” pants. You might not know what that is. They were pants designed for boys who loved church potlucks.

I looked like a khaki-colored Butterball ham.

So anyway, there was this girl. Her name was—never mind, it doesn’t matter. I thought she was wonderful. She was one of the “cool” kids. I wanted her to notice me.

More importantly, I wanted her to notice me AT THE ROLLER RINK.

Now, I know what a kid from your generation might be thinking: “What’s a roller rink?”

I’m glad you asked. Long ago, after the dawn of the electric lightbulb, we had big buildings that were dimly lit and smelled like body odor. We would skate for hours to such unforgettable hits like: “Do the Hustle,” “Love Train,” and “Tico Tico.”…

The Bible is red, cracked, and old. Remember? It was originally Mama’s Bible from her teenage years. She gave it to you when she bought a new one.

I wanted to be the first to wish you a happy birthday today. I hope you’re doing well. Life is pretty good down here. Things have been going great.

And hey. You know what? I’m going fishing today, in your honor. I thought you’d get a kick out of that. If I catch something, I’m going to throw it back. That way people won’t mistake me for a good fisherman. We don’t want that.

It’s too bad we can’t get together and catch up. That would be fun. I think you would like the adult me. I think I’m a nice guy.

Let’s see, what else? I live a simple life. I have a small spot in the woods, a workshed, a bass boat that has seen better days.

And, I have a little office for writing. In fact, that’s where I’m writing now. In my office camper.

The camper is a ‘52 Yellowstone. It was cheap, and ugly as homemade soap. I spent a year gutting her and

fixing her up. It’s still ugly. But it’s mine.

Inside I have a desk, a kitchenette, a bed, a small shower, several books, a few mounted bass, knick-knacks on shelves.

I also have several of your things, situated near my desk.

I am looking at your barometer, for instance, which used to sit on your garage workbench. I have a Hank Williams record, an old watch, your baseball bat, your Bible.

The Bible is red, cracked, and old. Remember? It was originally Mama’s Bible from her teenage years. She gave it to you when she bought a new one.

There are highlighted verses, dog-eared pages, and notes in the back. The notes are yours. They date back to God-knows when.

I remember when you’d sit in church. I can still see you, dressed in your pressed clothes. You’d doodle on…

I’m here early, before the first pitch. I came to this ballpark because rumor has it that this is where God lives.

Montgomery—it’s a quiet evening. I’m at Riverwalk Stadium, the sun is already low. The sky is pink. This is nice baseball weather.

I’m here early, before the first pitch. I came to this ballpark because rumor has it that this is where God lives.

I’m not joking. They tell me He hangs out over in section 105 sometimes. They say He’s a committed fan who attends every Biscuits game. And he’s seen the Major League greats come through this Minor League park. David Price, Jonny Gomes, B.J. Upton, and Evan Longoria.

You can’t see Him, they tell me, but He sits in row 2, right behind the third-base line.

“Where you wanna sit?” the ticket clerk asks me.

“Section one-oh-five,” I tell her.

“You know there ain’t no net over there.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I pay her. I enter the stadium. There is organ music playing overhead—sort of like church.

The first man I meet is old. He uses a walker and shuffles toward the hotdog vendor. On the

back of his jacket are military patches. Special Forces badges, Army badges, a badge representing the Purple Heart. He is something to see.

I order the same thing he does. Our onions hiss on the hot steel. The server places dogs in buns. I dress mine with too much mustard and kraut—the way my father taught me.

The ball players are warming up on the grass. They touch toes, twist backs, roll shoulders, loosen neck muscles.

I take my seat.

Section 105 is nearly empty. I’m looking for signs of the rumored Big Man Himself—long white beard, sandals, shepherd’s crook. After all, I’m a writer. A writer’s job is to chase down rumors.

There’s the first pitch.

The smack of the catcher’s mitt is so loud it makes my hand sting.

This sound brings back every…