I have named nearly a thousand fish in my day.

I am about to go fishing. Don’t ask me why. You don’t need a reason to go fishing. That’s one of the great things about it. It is reasonless work.

My late father-in-law taught me that.

Certainly, some men fish like they are on a mission for the U.S. government. These men are either constipated, or they drink Coke Zero.

But for most of us, fishing is just sitting on a boat and fighting off dehydration. It is a beautiful waste of time. And it is even more wasteful when you throw fish back, like I do.

I haven’t always released fish. I used to keep them, and I would even pay to get the big ones mounted.

In my office, for example, there are five fish on the wall. In my den, six.

There is a nice redfish I had mounted by an old man in Choctaw Beach, long ago. He would mount fish for twenty-five bucks. He was a little senile, and he screwed up one of my fish by painting it green.

When people see this fish, they often say, “What kinda fish is that?”

“A very jealous one,” I say.

And nobody laughs because that is the worst joke you will ever hear.

But somewhere along the way, I started releasing fish. I would drag them into the boat and I couldn’t bring myself to gut them. So I would remove the hook, name the fish, and let them go.

I have named nearly a thousand fish in my day.

The first one I ever named was while fishing with my father-in-law, Brother Jim—I never referred to my father-in-law any other way.

I caught a speckled trout on a number-six hook, and I felt bad for the fish. I kept thinking about what it must be like to be a speckled trout. I wondered if the…

Fourth of July was the holiday that hurt most.

A busy Cracker Barrel. My family sits at a large table. My mother on my left. My wife on my right. My sister across from me. Her two children. My brother-in-law, and my mother’s boyfriend.

That’s a lot of people. Don’t make me count them all.

Long ago, there were only three of us. My mother, my baby sister, and twelve-year-old me. Back then I didn’t know what we were. Whatever it was, it didn’t feel complete.

I’ll never forget when the church had “Family Fun Fair” on the Fourth of July. I begged my mother not to attend because, I kept telling her, we weren’t a “true family.” Not since my father had died.

I could tell this hurt her. But I meant it. When people looked at us, I could practically feel pity leaking from their eyes. And pity sucks.

Family Fun Fair was reserved for real families. The kind who had a living father, a mother, two-point-five kids, a dog, a riding lawnmower

in the garage, and a Kitchenaid mixer.

We did not have these things. We had a push mower that leaked oil. And my mother’s cheap handheld mixer was basically a gasoline engine with beaters.

Fourth of July was the holiday that hurt most.

That was the holiday when American families would swarm together like honeybees. They would park their cars on the curbs, throw loud barbecues, laugh too much, and holler.

My friend Jackson, for instance, had nearly forty people at his family reunion. They participated in something they called “Boat Day.”

Who ever heard of Boat Day? How ridiculous, I thought. Everyone in his family would crawl into their respective boats and cruise in circles, water-skiing, shouting, and carrying on like they were the happiest clowns you ever saw.

Gag me with an outboard prop.

Even so, my mother did not leave…

I finished one paragraph and proclaimed it the worst book ever. I’ve seen refrigerator manuals more entertaining.

The highest aspiration of my childhood was to be a cowboy. When that didn’t work out, I wanted to be an FBI agent. That definitely didn’t work out.

I wouldn’t have survived FBI training. I could’ve never done the obstacle course at Quantico where they make you climb a rope without knots. I couldn’t even climb the rope in gym class.

Kids today might not remember the dreaded rope in P.E. But there was a time in public schools when we had to scale a fifty-foot rope dangling above a concrete floor. It was dangerous. If your arms wore out at the top, you fell and died.

But that was school, and we didn’t complain because it was better than the uphill walk home.

Anyway, when my FBI career didn’t seem feasible, I decided I wanted to be a novelist. I was in fifth grade when I made the decision to be a maker of books. It all happened because of my big fat mouth.

Let me explain:

My father was an avid reader, so was my mother. During one particular supper my parents discussed a book entitled: Chesapeake. By James A. Michener. They were crazy about this book. They worshiped this book. They would have eaten this book for supper if there had been enough ketchup. It was all they talked about.

When I tried to tell my mother about falling off the rope in gym class, my mother shushed me and talked about James Michener.

Naturally, I became curious about this Michener. One afternoon, I snuck into my father’s room. Beside his bed sat a book the size of a cinder block—only heavier.

I finished one paragraph and proclaimed it the worst book ever. I’d seen refrigerator manuals more entertaining.

But my father caught me reading it. When he saw me, he smiled.

“Are you ACTUALLY reading that book?”…

I fixed my plate and was met with an old woman behind the buffet. She looked at my mountain of cheese and gasped.

A graduation party. There must have been a hundred people there, all dressed in nice clothes.

In the entryway was a poster-sized picture of the kid who graduated. He’s eighteen, tall, handsome. He looked like Superman, minus the “S.”

People were mingling, there were refreshments, music, and a long buffet. And I was on a mission for pimento cheese.

I will do almost anything for pimento cheese. Not plain pimento cheese, but the kind made by a professional. My aunt, for instance, makes a spectacular variety. And my wife’s pimento cheese is good enough to make Billy Graham slap his own mama.

My mother is not going to like that joke.

Anyway, I don’t care for the orange slop found in supermarket coolers. That stuff looks like stink bait. I’m talking about the real thing, made by a lady who knows her way around a kitchen.

A woman who swats your hand when you poke your finger into her food. A woman who shakes a wooden spoon at you and says, “Good things come to those who wait, young man.”

These sweet women have been shredding blocks of cheddar the old-fashioned way since the early days and have developed arms bigger than Sylvester Stallone.

My mother used to have a cheese grater we called the “knuckle buster.” It was shaped like a cowbell, with rusted edges. You had to stay current on your tetanus shots to use it.

If you were disobedient, my mother sentenced you to grate cheese until your knuckles were unidentifiable. If you were especially bad, you had to grate the onions for tartar sauce.

I don’t know if you’ve ever grated an onion. Many good men have lost fingers grating onions on my mother’s grater.

But the fare was worth it. And years later, I would discover that this brand of food is hard to locate…

They swarm Jeremy. They tell him stories. They touch him. They hug him. Everyone gets their turn.

They are old, but they love singing. So on Sunday afternoons, Jeremy sings to them. The residents who can still sing, do.

Jeremy visits the nursing home after playing piano at the Methodist church. He sits at the upright in the cafeteria and plays the classics.

Wheelchairs roll in by the dozen. Residents park in rows. Early birds get seats up front. Stragglers sit in the nosebleeds.

Jeremy has been playing music at nursing homes since age six. He can play any tune in the hymnal like a bona fide Cokesbury jukebox. He does it with a smile.

He sings “Old Gospel Ship,” “I Saw the Light,” and “Church in the Wildwood.” When he finishes, the residents of the nursing home clap. Some louder than others. And after the song singing is done, the real fun begins.

They swarm Jeremy. They tell him stories. They touch him. They hug him. Everyone gets their turn.

“I was a logging man,” one old man tells Jeremy. “I cut wood in

South Alabama, did I ever tell you that?”

“No sir.”

An old woman touches Jeremy’s face. “You look just like my son, you’re so handsome, just like my son.”

Another lady wheels toward Jeremy in an electric chair. She hands him an old envelope. “Would you autograph this? You’re going to be famous one day, I just know it.”

He’s puts his John Hancock on the paper. She wheels away like she’s just confiscated Elvis’ underpants.

It’s lunchtime. The cafeteria comes alive with smells of canned corn, Salisbury steak, and creamed potatoes. I sit with Jeremy, we talk over plates of lukewarm apple pie. But our conversation is cut short because Jeremy has more people to see and he only has a little time left to make his rounds.

He jokes with the old man who is from New York. He laughs with the elderly…

I was not a cheerful person. I was a quiet kid. I was lonely. Friends were hard to come by. Good friends were a myth. I sat in my bedroom eating a lot of peanut butter.

It’s late. I am staying at a small inn. There is a wedding rehearsal dinner in the courtyard outside my room window. It’s a big shindig. There is a loud band. A crowd. Laughter. Twinkling lights.

I am eating peanut butter from a jar, watching the whole thing through my window.

The party band is playing “Benny and the Jets.”

It is 10:21 P.M.

The people in the wedding party are dressed snazzy. Men wear Sunday clothes. Ladies look like they’re ready for prom.

Everyone sips red wine from tall glasses in a sophisticated way which tells me they are not sipping Boone’s Farm Blue Hawaiian. I’ll bet it’s expensive wine.

I am in my bathrobe, standing by the window, sampling a fine vintage Smucker’s Crunchy Natural. Light bodied, with piquant overtones of Dothan.

I am a well-noted peanut butter lover. I eat several jars per week. The day before my wedding, my friends pitched in and bought me Sam’s Club gallon barrels of JIF. They wrapped them in red ribbons and

attached notecards.

My friend Bobby wrote: “This should last you a few days.”

The party band is playing an encore of “Benny and the Jets.” People are dancing. Friends, family, and happy people.

It’s hard not to smile. Because there is nothing more holy than friendship. Not to me. I grew up in a broken home. My friends were, are, and always will be the closest family I have ever had.

For example, earlier today I had lunch with one such friend. Her heart is gold, and she has the audacity to believe in me. She has believed since I first met her, not long ago.

You don’t forget people who believe in you, not for a hundred years. They don’t even have to say anything sentimental to tell you how they feel. All they have to do is give you…

The sky is wild, with vivid cloud shapes that would make Picasso look like a hick.

FAIRHOPE—I am having supper at a bar, watching baseball. The food is superb. The baseball is not. The place is crowded.

Louis Armstrong is singing overhead, “What a Wonderful World.”

I love this song. I wish I could tell you how much I love this song. The elderly man to my left loves the song too. He is singing along. His date is not impressed.

“I’m on a date with my granddaughter,” he tells me.

He looks ninety years old. His date is ten. She’s eating a cheeseburger.

He finally winks at me and says, “My granddaughter hates it when I sing in public.”

I finish supper and follow the sidewalks, carrying a to-go box. It’s sunset. The live oaks hang over the winding streets, and there is an epidemic of pink flowers.

No matter where you go in this town, the bay is nearby. I stop and sit on a park bench to admire it.

I wrote a college essay about the Mobile Bay

once. Ships have been sailing this water since the 1500’s. Hernando de Soto and his men first named it “Bahía del Espíritu Santo.” Which, when translated literally means: “Dude, I Think We’re Lost.”

It’s a beautiful sunset. I see a boat with running lights glowing. I hear the distant sound of music. The Temptations, I think.

The squirrels in the trees are trying to fit in the rest of their steps for the day.

The sky is wild, with vivid cloud art that would make Picasso look like a hick.

Though, I have never particularly cared for Picasso. I suppose I’m not smart enough to appreciate such high-brow art.

I’m a Norman Rockwell man, myself. I once made a weekend trip just to see a Rockwell exhibit in Birmingham. I spent two hours admiring his work. I went back the next day to…

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in every subject. Her disposition got sweeter, too.

Her life was on the upswing. She dated her first boyfriend. She joined school clubs. She played in band.

And on the last…

I had always wanted to sail. I started looking in the classifieds for boats. I visited everywhere from Mobile to Panama City looking at them.

FAIRHOPE—I sat on the docks in the late afternoon and watched the sailboats do figure eights. It made me smile.

I once had this crazy idea that I wanted to take up sailing. And when I get ideas I can’t be stopped. I don’t want to say that I’m stubborn. So I’m not going to say it.

I had always wanted to sail. I started looking in the classifieds for boats. I visited everywhere from Mobile to Panama City looking at them.

I finally found a twenty-six footer in Fairhope. It was old, and ugly, but seaworthy.

It was a big step for me. I’d never done anything notable except once, when I slid down a bannister with the wood grain facing the wrong way.

This does not give you the same exhilaration as sailing.

The man on the sailboat was waiting for me. I waltzed along the dock and I declared that I would buy his boat. Then, I handed him a check.

“But you haven’t even seen it yet,” he said.

“No, but I’ve seen enough bad boats to know when I’ve seen a mediocre one.”

That man took me on my first voyage. I sort of discovered myself on that Fairhope water. I didn’t think it would be that easy to find yourself, but sometimes it is.

For three months, that kindhearted man gave me lessons. He taught me to raise the main, to trim the jib, and he taught me to sail single handed.

And after my first successful solo sail, he handed me a cigar and said, “I bought these for celebration.”

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”

“You do today.”

In the following years, I would use the boat with my wife, my dog, or some unfortunate friend. And I would demonstrate my newly acquired knowledge by sniffing my nose…

Somehow I felt like I belonged in this colorful world. I was a lost boy with a dead father. Boys like me don’t often feel like they belong anywhere.

MOBILE—When you take in a deep breath, the salt air hits the back of your throat and you know you’re near the Gulf of Mexico.

I am eating a cup of gumbo for lunch, writing you, spilling food on my shirt.

There’s a saying about gumbo: “The longer it sits, the better it gets.”

I don’t know who said that. My wife, maybe. Or maybe it was Abraham Lincoln, or Engelbert Humperdinck.

I never knew what the phrase meant until my wife made gumbo for a bridal shower. The gumbo came out good. But after sitting in the fridge for two days, it became poetry.

Mobile and I have history. When I was younger, all my teenage friends wanted to visit New Orleans to sow their wild oats.

But not me. Mobile was the siren that called to me. And I didn’t have many oats.

I remember visiting here for Mardi Gras when I was seventeen. I clocked out from work, I stood on

a curb with a duffle bag, waiting for a truckload of my friends.

My mother had given me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to stay out of trouble. I promised her. She made me look her in the eyes and promise again.

The city was full of things that kids from nothing towns haven’t seen before.

For instance, Mobile was once a baseball town, the home of Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron. The old mansions are worthy of Margaret Mitchell’s words. Dauphin street looks like an oil painting. And the azaleas.

One of my friends pointed out the truck window and said, “Look, a band!”

A brass band played “O When the Saints.” We saw old ladies with umbrellas strutting on the sidewalk. Their dance looked like a cross between the Funky Chicken and a seizure.

Somehow I felt I belonged in…