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…

Even though he had no proverbial pot to tinkle in, he had the whole world. He had a transistor radio, a burger, and a smile.

A few years ago, I had a very bad day. Very bad.

It doesn’t matter how it happened, but I’d lost my wallet. Inside the wallet was a lot of money. More money than I usually carry. It was a crummy day if ever there was one.

And because I am human, it made me feel despondent. When I get despondent I need saturated fat.

That afternoon, I stopped at a fast-food joint for a burger. I saw a man outside the eatery. He had a large duffel bag and stringy hair. He was young, but he looked old.

Around his neck, a miniature transistor radio was blasting music. In his hand was a foil-wrapped burger. In his other hand was a turtle.

I asked if he needed help.

He answered: “Nah, we’re just looking for a place in the shade. It’s hot out.”

“Why not eat inside the dining room?” I asked.

“Don’t think they want guys like me inside. I’d scare people away.”

Well, he

didn’t scare me. We talked in the parking lot. He ate.

“I’m a lucky man,” he said with a mouthful. “The whole world’s my home, dude. I go wherever I want.”

My new friend was happy and upbeat. He did odd jobs when he needed money. In Columbus, for instance, he helped an elderly woman enclose her porch. He built a fence for an eighty-year-old man in town. He’d slept in the man’s guest bedroom for a few days.

“I can’t be indoors very long,” he said. “Makes me all weird.”

He told some of his story. His father abused him. His family kicked him out long ago. He said he’d been homeless, off and on, since his twenties.

“My mom wanted me to be a preacher,” he went on. “She wanted me to do something big with my life, but…

Thus, my future-wife and I arrived at the fellowship hall each week to participate in courses that prepared us for cohabitation.

Before we got married, my wife and I had to take a mandatory church marriage class. The Baptist church would not marry anyone without it.

The idea was: after eight weeks of rigorous marriage training, couples would receive an official certificate, trimmed in gold, with their names on it.

And this certificate would prove to the world, without a doubt, that couples were spiritually prepared to stand at an altar and combine health insurance policies.

Keep in mind, this certificate wasn’t a “marriage license.” This was a “Baptist pre-marriage class certificate,” from the back of the “official Baptist marriage workbook,” purchased for $24.99.

Within the Baptist tradition, you see, you can’t do anything without first obtaining a certificate and unanimous committee approval. Even Sunday greeters are required to attend a four-week class that teaches them to properly say: “Here’s your bulletin, sir.”

Thus, my future-wife and I arrived at the fellowship hall each week to participate in courses that prepared us for cohabitation.

These courses

featured many important games which the workbook termed “marital building exercises.” Many of which were developed by professional marriage book authors—some of whom had been married to the same person for as long as three to four years.

One such exercise was the “Egg Test.”

In this game, the future-bride (Jamie) balances an egg on a spoon clenched between her teeth. She wears a blindfold and walks across a room.

The future-husband (me) stands on the opposite side of the room (over by the piano). He uses ONLY his words to guide his future-wife through an obstacle course made up entirely of folding chairs which represent the confusing Maze of Life.

On the chairs are Post-It notes, labeled with various day-to-day marriage problems like: “car trouble,” “bills,” “career,” “children,” “chapter 11 bankruptcy,” “sharing the covers.”

In this exercise, the woman stumbles over chairs, spoon held in her…

Said my friend Louis: “I like cats better than dogs. Dogs don’t judge you, or hold things against you. A guy can be a real jerk and still be a dog guy. But if you’re not nice to a cat, he’ll burn your house down while you sleep.”

“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 I believed to actually be, in fact, 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 John 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 mother once said: “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.”

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. Not really.”

I’ve said this at a few…

I washed the dogs with a hose. My wife sprayed me with a hose. We ate cornbread and pinto beans for supper. We played cards.

I left a funeral. I was driving through the North Florida rain. My dogs were in the seat behind me.

It was a monsoon on the highway. I’m talking puddles the size of Lake Gertrude. Raindrops the size of Coke bottles.

Cars ahead had hazards flashing. Traffic was crawling. I held the wheel with both hands. A man in a truck sped around my vehicle. He almost amputated my side mirror.

The man’s tires kicked up a waterfall. I almost lost control. I couldn’t see. Horns honked. Tires squealed. I pulled onto the shoulder. I was rattled.

I loosened my necktie.

I don’t often wear neckties. But my mother would rather have her toenails removed with tongs than discover her son attended a funeral with an open collar.

My hands were shaking. My stomach was sick. I was lucky to be alive.

I spotted a dirt road ahead—off the main highway. A small pathway, running into the woods. Against my better judgement I took the forest road.

It ran me through the acres of pines, over bumps and rocks.

There were deep ruts in the road. Ruts which had turned into miniature rivers of orange mud.

Thelma Lou (bloodhound) and Otis (alleged Labrador) sat at attention. They are like most dogs; they are connoisseurs of mud.

The desolate roads were unmarked, and I was in no hurry to get back on the highway. So I drove. And drove.

And it hit me: this was fun.

Furthermore, this was high-quality mud. Not that thin stuff that passes for mud on TV. This stuff was top shelf. I started smiling more than a grown man ought to.

That’s when I stumbled upon it. The Mother of All Mud Holes.

It was an empty lot, pristine mud, without tire tracks or obstacles. Only flat, sprawling soup. It called to me.

Thelma howled—which is dog-language for, “Do it, Daddy-O! Do it!” It is a…

It was four in the morning, hours of work remained, eighty thousand papers were still in the backseat, we sat on a curb. We waited for a locksmith. I placed my head in my hands.

I woke early. My back is stiff. I should be sleeping right now, but I’m not.

My mother always said this would happen. “One day,” she said. “You won’t sleep as long or hard as you used to.”

She was right. She was always right.

It is dark outside. So, I drive to the gas station. I buy coffee and a bag of sodium-free pork rinds for my dog. The coffee isn’t ready yet.

The man behind the counter is nice. He puts the coffee on and tells me it’ll be a few minutes. So I wait out front, looking at the night sky.

A man pulls up in a ratty vehicle. He jumps out and starts loading the newspaper machine with today’s edition.

“Good morning,” I say.

He smiles. His eyes are baggy. His face is tired. I recognize that face.

“Morning,” he says.

“Can I have one of those?” I ask, handing him a five-dollar bill. “They’re better when they’re fresh.”

He forces a courtesy laugh. “Just pay

the machine, dude, besides I can’t make change.”

“I don’t want change.”

He stares at me. He takes the money. He tips his hat. I get my paper.

One hundred years ago, my mother and I threw the Northwest Florida Daily News. We would wake up at two in the morning. She would drink god-awful gas station coffee every blessed day.

And each morning, she’d take one sip and say, “This coffee tastes like bathwater.”

We were service people.

In daily life, you had your regular Joes—guys who had nice cars, a single-story-three-bedroom, and two-point-five kids. And you had service people. Us.

Service people are the sort who drink bathwater coffee.

One morning, my mother and I were delivering papers to apartments on the beach. We carried large canvas bags, slung over our shoulders. My…

The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a voice that’s sweet enough to spread on toast.

Cracker Barrel—I’m eating bacon and eggs. In the background: Ernest Tubb is singing about waltzing across Texas. I’ve been on an interstate all morning.

There is an old woman at a table near ours. She was here before my wife and I arrived. Her white hair is fixed up. She is wiry, wearing a nice zebra-striped Sunday blouse.

She smiles at me.

She is alone, sipping coffee. It doesn’t take long to strike up chit-chat.

She has lines on her face, and a husky voice. She is from the old world. She calls me “sweetheart” twice in the same sentence.

And even though I don’t know her, I know her type. I’ll bet she prepares chicken and dumplings that would make clergymen consider using the Lord’s name in vain.

She tells me that for most of her life she’s been a mother and a wife.

Her husband died many years ago. She has two kids. A son, a daughter. She hardly sees either.

“My daughter and I are supposed to be having lunch today,” she tells me, looking at her watch. “My

grandbabies should be here any second. I can’t WAIT to kiss them all.”

Those lucky grandbabies.

From what I learn, the aforementioned daughter and grandchildren lead busy lives. The grandkids stay occupied with soccer, baseball, ballet, mission trips, and various special activities that require special T-shirts.

The dear woman tries to get together with them as often as she can. But schedules get in the way.

Last week, she decided to drive a few hours to attend her grandson’s soccer game. She packed her folding chair, her snacks, and arrived early.

She waited for one hour on the sidelines of an empty field. A maintenance man told her the game had been cancelled.

Nobody had told Granny.

The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a…

But then, this is how I have always been. I wanted the wrong things. And I wasted a lot of time wanting them. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret much, but I’m sorry if I missed the small things I should’ve noticed.

I am at my friend’s house, watching the ballgame. Dogs everywhere.

Otis, our new three-month-old Labrador is at my feet. He looks like a Holstein cow, only smaller, with considerably more stink.

The ballgame plays. And I am looking at a pond behind my friend’s house. There are lillies on the water, acres of them. Water lilies. The the sound of insects is louder than screaming baseball fans on television.

Crack.

A hit.

The crowd goes wild. I go wild. My friend goes wild. Otis pees. And it’s time for another beer.

My friend’s wife makes soup for supper. And biscuits. Hot, buttery catheads. And we are sitting together, eating, talking, almost like family.

We are talking about everything and nothing. And I’m glad. No, not just glad. I’m glad to be here. Right now.

You might not care about this, but for my whole life, I wanted to be something else. Namely, a musician. I wanted to sing songs in important places. But I wasn’t good enough. A man

has to accept when he’s not good enough.

I had a lot of ideas for my own life. The list goes on and on, and it embarrasses me to talk about. Some ambitions were more idiotic than others.

I wanted to work in radio, for instance. My aunt always told me I had a face that was made for radio.

A man at a country music station auditioned me. He liked my voice and he let me read a few ads over the air.

The night before my artistic debut, I memorized the ads I’d been given. The next morning, I announced them over the air, using a radio announcer’s over-excited voice.

Here’s an ad I still remember—the names have been changed to protect the innocent:

“Phillips and Sons used CHEVY and PRE-OWNED FORD DEALERS, the city’s lowest prices…

Thelma outweighs Otis by at least forty pounds, and is infinitely more bulky. But I don’t want to downplay Otis’ strengths. He might be a squirt, but he is smart, a fast learner, and he can manufacture smells capable of bringing the most hardened shrimp boat captain to his knees.

The last thing we needed was another puppy.

This whole day seems like a blur. I woke up, ate breakfast, read the sports page, took a shower. And (snap!) I have two puppies. It all happened so fast, I’ve forgotten my own name.

The puppy’s name is Otis Campbell. He is black, with white socks, and a snow-white belly. He is part Labrador.

Otis has the disposition of your classic dog. Calm. Quiet. Loyal. Big eyes. He has a sixth sense for things like human emotion, basic spirituality, and how to rip stuffing from residential sofas.

It all started when my wife and I visited a puppy adoption fair today. This was a bad idea.

There were several cars in the parking lot. And inside were people from all walks of life.

A young couple in Spandex workout attire wandered the cell blocks. They poked fingers through cages. They spoke in high-pitched voices.

A red headed little boy held a terrier mutt who looked

like a malnourished Benji.

“He likes me, mom,” said the boy. “He licked me, look! He likes me.”

A young woman and her daughter sat in a kennel with a puppy so skinny you could see its skeleton. It was missing hair, and looked sick.

I asked about this dog.

“Yeah, he’s sweet,” said one volunteer. “He came to us half-starved.”

This upsets me.

There were dogs with names like “Pete,” “Sam,” “Duke,” and “Scruffy.” They watched me walk by with wide eyes and sad stares.

Many of these pups will not be adopted, the volunteers tell me. Many stay in shelters long enough to learn to prefer sleeping in concrete corners.

“Please, mom,” said the redhead again. “He’s so pretty, I promise I’ll take care of him.”

The mother shook her head. She said, “Put him down, I said…

I watched the sunrise. I was sitting in my truck, parked near the beach, eating an egg-and-cheese sandwich.

What a day. It was magnificent. Beginning with the first beam of sunlight.

The sun came up at 6:21 A.M. here in Northwest Florida. It happened the same as it does every day.

The sun woke before everyone else, got itself showered, combed its hair, ate some Corn Flakes, and made its ascent above the Gulf of Mexico.

I watched the sunrise. I was in my truck, parked near the beach, eating a breakfast sandwich.

The ball of light made the Gulf look like emeralds. I had to cover my eyes to look at the water.

Not many people talk about the sun, but they ought to. Because the sun will eventually burn this earth into a Pop Tart.

I hate to get all sciency on you—you’re looking at a 2.3 grade point average here—but scientists tell us that the sun keeps getting bigger. And one day, it will engulf the world as though it were my Uncle Tommy Lee engulfing dozens of innocent devilled eggs.

And when this colossal event happens, everything will be gone. Even devilled eggs. There will be no more trees, no grass, no skies, no more Lawrence Welk reruns. It will be lights out.

Well, actually, it will be lights ON.

You know what else? We are pretty small in the big scheme of things. The sun contains 99.86 percent of the “mass” found in the solar system. What does that mean?

Okay: imagine objects in the solar system were shrunken into miniatures. Imagine the earth were the size of a basketball. That would make the sun about the size of Bryant-Denny stadium.

The sun also makes its own gravity. Meaning: every dadgum thing in this universe sort of hovers around it—like folks at a potluck table.

In fact, if it weren’t for the sun’s gravity, the earth would shoot forward in a straight line through space.…