I was a round child with curly copper hair, freckles, buck teeth, big feet, and fat knees, who mostly daydreamed about meatloaf.

Today is World Redhead Day. And as a longtime redhead, I am in full support of this important national holiday.

It is difficult growing up as a redhead. For me it was doubly hard because I was also chubby.

I was a round child with curly copper hair, freckles, buck teeth, big feet, and puffy knees, who mostly daydreamed about meatloaf.

To make matters worse, in fourth-grade P.E. class, our uniforms included a white T-shirt with our last names on the backs.

Across my shoulders, in permanent marker, was written: “DIETRICH.” Which, if you’ll notice, clearly looks like the two words: “DIET” and “RICH.”

You can imagine the jokes.

“Hey, DIET RICH! Did you eat a RICH DIET today, pucker face?”

At the beginning of each gym period we were supposed to jog around the parking lot for twelve minutes straight. I don’t know why twelve instead of, say, three, but I believe our gym teacher was a sociopath.

I ran with the same grace as John

Belushi. The P.E. teacher, Mister Danny, would sound his whistle whenever he didn’t feel I wasn’t showing enough “hustle.”

Mister Danny was obsessed with hustle. It was all he talked about. And I’m sure it was his favorite dance to perform at various wedding receptions.

But it didn’t matter if I were running harder than Forty-Mule-Team Borax, still he’d yell, “Dietrich! Show some more hustle!”

The skinny kids would howl when I lagged behind the rest of the joggers. They would run past me, fuzz my hair, and say, “Rub a ginger for good luck!”

Or: “Hey DIET RICH, Your mama should pay the ice cream man to keep on driving!”

It hurt. In fact, it still hurts. But I tolerated it because I knew that as soon as school let out, my mother would make meatloaf for supper.

And I love meatloaf.…

I am at a dinner table with two well-dressed older women, sipping iced tea before appetizers. One of them is my elderly mother-in-law, Mother Mary. The other is her younger sister, Aunt Cat.

There are sprigs of mint in the tea. Fine silver on the table. We are having a conversation.

At least, I think that’s what you’d call it.

“I just love oysters,” says Mother Mary, who wears a white blouse, pink pants, and a Life Alert bracelet.

“It doesn’t matter how they’re cooked,” Mary goes on. “I love oysters.”

“Me, too,” says Aunt Cat. “I love them, but I don’t actually eat oysters, I only like their smell.”

“The smell?” says Mother Mary. “Oysters don’t have a smell.”

“Yes they do,” says Aunt Cat. “I like the smell.”

“They don’t have a smell. Besides, you can’t love food just for its smell, you need to either sit or get off the pot.”

“I can like whichever smells I want.”

Mother Mary laughs. “That’s like saying you love Elvis

only for his shoes.”

“I happen to like Elvis’ shoes. In fact, I’m pretty sure he sang a song about shoes.”

“No, no. You’re thinking about Nancy Sinatra. And her song was about boots. That song has always brought out my sassy side. I can be sassy.”

It’s about time I interject.

“Elvis DID sing about shoes,” I add. “It goes: ‘One for the money, two for the show…’”

“That song’s not about shoes,” says Mary. “It’s about his hound dog.”

So I show Mother Mary my cellphone to prove it. On the screen is a video clip of Elvis.

“See?” I say. “It says right here, the song is entitled ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’”

“Well,” Mary says, “I’ve never heard it called that, and I’m older than YouTube. And I remember that song when it…

I have always had a soft spot for old men. From my childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body.

I am backstage, about to tell stories onstage. A woman with a clipboard announces, “Ten minutes to showtime.”

I am tuning my guitar, hoping I won’t stink tonight.

This is what all performers think about before they go onstage. They say silent prayers that all go, more or less, the same way.

“Dear God, don’t let me stink tonight.”

It’s easy to stink at storytelling because there is no school for it. There are no credentials, either.

Which leads me to ask: “What am I doing with my life?”

I am still unclear on how I started telling stories for a living. The only education I have in storytelling came from elderly men who wore Velcro shoes.

I have always had a soft spot for old men. From childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body. I never fit in with peers. This was only made worse by the fact that I was raised fundamentalist.

As a young man, I would find myself in a crowd of teenagers who were smoking cigarettes, sipping longnecks, far from parental eyes. And for some reason, nobody ever offered me any real chances at sinning.

I would have appreciated the opportunity, but they viewed me as different. It was as though I were elderly.

Once, as a joke, my friend Jordan handed me a lit cigarette in front of everybody. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a wimp, so I took the biggest drag I could. I almost died from a coughing fit.

My friends howled when they discovered that I had peed my pants a little from hacking so hard.

I can’t believe I just told you that.

Thus, I was blacklisted. I was the old man of the group. During social situations, I would generally hang in the corner, drinking prune juice, adjusting my Velcro…

My cousin Ed Lee claims that, after many years of personal research, he has found a sure-fire repellent for the yellow fly.

And on the Eighth Day, when the Lord finished creating the world, and was leaning back into his recliner, watching Golden Girls on TV Land, the Devil snuck into Heaven’s control room and said unto himself, “Let there be yellow flies.”

And up from the pit of Hell, where the worm dieth not and the creator of Miracle Whip is imprisoned forevermore, arose a swarm of Floridian yellow flies (also known as deer flies). And the Devil saw it and he said that it was “pretty good.”

And here we are.

The Panhandle yellow fly is a vicious, aggressive, bloodsucking insect. When they bite, two things happen. First, you swell up like a water wing. Second, you die.

My cousin Ed Lee claims that, after many years of personal research, he has found a sure-fire repellent for the yellow fly.

“Beer is the secret,” Ed Lee explains. “Seriously, there are complex B vitamins in beer, they come out through your pores and yellow flies don’t want nothing

to do with B vitamins.”

A few nights ago, on Ed Lee’s porch, he tested his hypothesis with an adult beverage in his hand. Ed Lee’s bare legs were covered in yellow flies.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked. “You have yellow flies all over your legs.”

“You worry too much,” came his response.

Long ago, I dated a girl who moved to Florida from Arkansas. She said they didn’t have yellow flies up there.

A few yellow flies got trapped in her mother’s car while she was driving. They bit her mother twenty-eight times. When she got home she called for her husband, he was bitten thirty-six times. A few days later, they moved back to Arkansas.

And one time my uncle’s friend, Jerry, was sitting on a screened porch. There was a rip in his screen door. Flies came in by the dozen.…

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

DEAR SEAN:

I want to be a writer, but sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t even bother to write at all since everyone else is better than I am.

Sincerely,
THIRTEEN-AND-WANT-TO-WRITE

DEAR THIRTEEN:

I think you should keep writing. Especially when you feel like you aren’t any good.

I have written my worst stuff on my best days and my best stuff on my worst days. And it’s been the greatest thrill of my life.

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

For instance, I have written a lot about my late dog, Ellie Mae. Once, she ate an entire jar of coffee grounds. I discovered that coffee stimulates the lower intestines of an animal.

Don’t ask me how I learned this.

I also wrote about the time I got stranded on an island for four hours. No kidding. My boat motor died, the current pushed me into the grass flats of the Choctawhatchee Bay. I

had to wait until I got rescued by a man with beer.

I wrote about the time I dressed up like Elvis for a talent show. And about the time I did a ventriloquist act with the puppet of a squirrel. The puppet’s name was Ernie.

The next morning I wrote about it.

There was my college professor. When my first book got published, I gave her a stack of books and told her she was the reason. I wrote about that.

And about the woman who shares my life. My wife. Once, I sat in a waiting room at UAB, asking Heaven to make her better again. And when Heaven answered, I had to write about it.

Only ten minutes after I received news that my thirteen-year-old coffee-eating bloodhound had died, I wrote about it. My face was swollen, my eyes…

“Howdy,” is the woman’s first word to me.

Winn-Dixie—they remodeled this store not long ago. It’s something else. A little too fancy, if you ask me.

I’ve been shopping here since the old days. Back then, it was your average supermarket. Linoleum floors, decent beef, clinically depressed cashiers.

Today, they have deli counters that sell salmon sushi. I’d rather lick the restroom floor than eat salmon sushi.

The woman behind me in the checkout line is old. She is frail, with white hair, and big glasses. She is every American granny you’ve ever seen. I’ll bet the closest she ever came to sushi was a wild night at the Baptist clothing swap.

She is holding onto her daughter for support.

Her daughter is Hispanic—black hair, dark skin, late fifties. The two women couldn’t look more different.

They have a full cart. They have purchased all the usual supermarket fare. Chicken, tuna cans, jars of peanut butter, Duke’s mayonnaise, Colonial Bread, and enough paper towels to sink the U.S.S. Uruguay.

We make friends.

“Howdy,” is the woman’s first word to me.

“Howdy,” I say.

The old woman tells me about herself.

She adopted her Hispanic daughter when the girl was three. The toddler had been abandoned at a shopping complex. The child didn’t understand English, and she was sick with a chest infection.

“She almost died,” the old woman says. “I had to do something to help.”

The old woman met the girl at a foster facility. Some of the her church friends used to visit local foster homes to give attention to needy children.

“There were only a few of us who did that,” the old woman goes on. “We were so young. We’d hold the babies, play games, read stories, sing to’em sometimes. You know, mom stuff.”

Mom stuff.

“Kids need touching to survive,” the lady adds. “It’s been proven. Look it up.”…

Robert was a squirrel. He had a good life. You would’ve liked him. My dog and I found him lying dead in the street while on a walk. He was the victim of a hit and run.

I first noticed the squirrel while my dog was busy doing her business in the neighbor’s yard. I wore a plastic dog-doody-bag on my hand.

One of the neighbor kids saw the squirrel, too. The girl’s name is Erin. Erin started crying. Her brother, Tyler, came to see what was wrong.

“Don’t cry,” I said. “It probably didn’t even feel anything before it died.”

“We HAVE to have a funeral,” Erin told her brother.

“What?” said her brother. “A funeral for a squirrel?”

“He had a name,” the little girl said. “His name was Robert.”

That’s when my dog started licking Robert’s—how do I put this?—remains. Erin shrieked. I tugged my dog’s leash and apologized.

“Will you help us?” said Erin. “With the funeral?”

I had better things to do, of course. A serious writer

doesn’t just sit around eating tuna salad and watching baseball all day. Occasionally, he watches basketball.

I didn’t have time to conduct a homegoing service for a rodent. I explained this.

But the kids didn’t seem to understand. And I cannot say no to kids.

So I went home, and in a few minutes, I returned wearing another doody-baggy over my hand. I used old barbecue tongs to position Robert in a shoebox.

Four children were part of the procession. We all marched from Robert’s skidmark to Erin’s backyard.

Erin’s big sister, Kristen, stood on the porch, texting her friends about what dorks her siblings were. And about what an even bigger schmo the writer down the street was.

I felt ridiculous, but not too bad. Because when I was a boy, I once threw a wedding…

It happened when I was twelve. When my father took his life, I was watching TV.

DOTHAN—There’s a festival on North Saint Andrews Street. Hordes of people. Families. Face painting. Popcorn. Fried catfish. Beer. Bluegrass. Laughter. Kids everywhere.

The Blayne Hardy Barfield Foundation is throwing a Family Fun Day.

The foundation is named after Blayne Barfield, a young woman who committed suicide four years ago. I ask Blayne’s husband why he started this foundation.

“For my little girl,” he answers. “To break the silence, man. I want people to know that they can talk about it. ”

I meet a few who do.

One lady is watching the band, eating coleslaw and hushpuppies. She has cropped silver hair and a bright sundress.

“My son took his own life,” she says. “He was twenty-eight, wanted to be an actor, or anything involved with movies.”

She shows pictures on a cellphone.

A few moments later, I am standing in line for the restrooms. I meet a girl. She is wearing a T-shirt with the word “cowgirl” on the front. She is early

twenties, cheerful.

She says, “Yeah, I was the one who found my mother after she… Well... It was bad. I was sixteen, and I’m just now starting to talk about it, my therapist says I should.”

She speaks to me like I am a friend. Because I am a friend.

In fact, I am just like her.

I was twelve. When my father took his life, I was watching TV in another county.

At the exact moment the shotgun blast blew a hole through my uncle’s roof, I was watching the commissioner of Major League Baseball announce that the World Series would be cancelled that year.

The universe has a strange irony to it.

That night, the minister helped my mother break the news to me. He sat beside the fireplace and seemed nervous. I didn’t know what he was about to say.…

I know people who pay big money to sample the finest Bordeauxs, or eat at five-star restaurants. They can have it. Give me homemade cornbread any day.

TUSCUMBIA—Momma Jean’s is a sleepy cafe out in the country. They serve hoecakes here. Not plain cornbread, but the stuff your granny made in a skillet.

It looks like a pancake, and tastes like a home run feels.

This is the kind food that would’ve made my uncle lick his lips and shout, “Go ahead on!”

Which is country talk.

My father would sometimes holler “Go ahead on!” at a preacher who was on a roll. It’s also a phrase that people shout at Little League games when cheering for their kids.

Sometimes, we shout it at wedding receptions when our eighty-three-year-old aunt is shaking her moneymaker to “Viva Las Vegas.”

And we say it when a cook has blessed our heart. It is an all-purpose phrase.

Momma Jean’s is your all-American joint with fried food, good veggies, and paper towels on the table. And I am so hungry I could eat a Presbyterian.

The old man in the booth behind me has tall hair. The elderly

woman beside him has hair shaped like a helmet. They are saying grace. The man does the talking.

The woman chimes in, saying, “Yes, Lord.”

I overhear them praying for someone named Maria. Their prayer lasts a long time. Whoever this Maria is, these elderly people are not letting her be forgotten.

On the other side of the restaurant are a few men wearing neon work vests and boots. They are covered in dust and drinking iced tea.

When their food arrives, they hold hands and bow heads. After the prayer is over, a young Hispanic man makes the Sign of the Cross.

I’ve never seen so many people saying grace in one diner before.

I’m scanning the menu. This restaurant has it all. They serve pintos, collards, cabbage, catfish, chicken, and lemon icebox pie.

Lord have mercy. It’s been a…

We took care of each other. I did her laundry and taught her how to fry bacon. And when our dog had puppies, I showed her how to hold them—there’s an art to handling newborn pups.

I was the second person to hold her. Daddy said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t drop her.”

She looked like a white bullfrog. She smelled like vanilla and grass clippings. I promised I’d take care of her forever.

That was harder than it sounded. This girl grew into a kid overnight, and she did reckless things.

She used to leap off round hay bales, flapping her arms, yelling, “CATCH ME!”

She liked to see how long she could hold her breath underwater. She climbed trees that were too high. She ate too much bacon.

Her first word was, “NO!” Her second word was “NONONO!” She used these words when I tried to force an oyster past her lips. She pitched a fit.

I’d never known anyone who didn’t like oysters. They were the food of our forefathers. Our ancestors consumed oysters when they learned the War Between the States was over. It was celebratory food. The food of holidays. And of summer.

She was four when Daddy died. The morning of his death, I sobbed alone on our

back porch. She crawled onto my lap.

“Don’t cry,” she said.

I did anyway.

We took care of each other. I did her laundry and taught her how to fry bacon. And when our dog had puppies, I showed her how to hold them—there’s an art to handling newborn pups.

Once, I rented a library book on French braiding. She let me practice until her hair resembled overcooked spaghetti.

She tried out for the school play. I attended her audition. She was nervous, and the smug drama teacher told her she had no talent.

I’m a quiet man, but I wasn’t that day. I called the teacher a greasy Communist who didn’t love the Lord. I’m sorry about ever saying that now. I don’t know if she really was greasy.

Throughout her high-school years, she worked different jobs. Once,…