I am hiking a trail in the North Floridian woods. My dog is beside me. The longleaf pines go on for miles. I am here to walk my dog, take in the fresh air, and, God-willing, pull a hamstring.

The weather is cool and dry. The sky is so clear you can touch it.

A young couple is ahead of me. I have been trailing them for a mile and I have formed some opinions about them.

For one: they are in love, I can tell by the way they hold hands and lean onto each other.

Second: they are in fantastic shape—I have been trying to keep up with them and I am exhausted.

My dog and I pass a swamp. There is a sign beside it that reads: “Beware of alligators.”

I pause to observe. After a few minutes, I see something in the water. It’s a dark shape that sort of looks like a shiny log.

We keep walking.

Gators don’t scare me.

Once, I lived in an apartment that had a pond behind it—actually, it was more of a drainage ditch. There was a hand-painted warning sign next to it that read:

“YALL MEMBER BOUT THE GATORS.”

Rumors claimed that a gator once crawled out of the pond and ate a Yorkshire Terrier named Izzy. Everyone in the apartments retold this horrific story, but nobody knew if it were true.

Until one day, when my uncle came to visit. I came home one evening to find him out back, sitting on an upside-down five-gallon bucket, holding a fishing rod with a raw chicken breast hooked on the end.

“Are you outta your mind?” I said.

“Ssshhh,” he said. “I wanna see if there’s really a gator out here.”

There was. After an hour of tempting fate, the thing came crawling out of the water faster…

I considered bolting, but that would’ve been childish. Instead, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and recognized me. His nose was running, and his eyes were puffy, his hair was a mess.

I was fired from the only retail job I ever had. The important thing to remember here is that I wasn’t fired because I was a bad worker, or undependable. It wasn’t because I was a crummy person, incompetent, tardy, or lazy.

It was because—and I will never forget this—I didn’t iron my shirt.

The bossman came into work and looked at me with disgust. “God,” he said. “Don’t you ever iron your shirt?”

At the exact moment he said this, I was eating a ham and swiss on rye—heavy on the mustard. And it’s impossible to defend yourself intelligently with a mouthful of ham and swiss on rye with mustard.

He fired me. I packed my things and I was gone in fifteen minutes.

So yeah, I’m messy. I don’t mean to be, but I am.

My truck, for instance, is a mess. A few days ago, I found a small oak tree sprout growing in a pile of decomposing trash in my floorboards. I couldn’t bring myself to uproot

the thing because I love greenery.

My office is a mess, too. I have fifty thousand books. Tall stacks sit on every flat surface so I can always see them, and one day when I am gone, God-willing, someone will think I actually read them all.

I don’t know how I became so messy. I didn’t take a special course to learn how. It’s just a gift.

My mother is tidy. My father polished his lawnmower engines for kicks. My sister keeps a house so clean you could eat supper off her toilet seat. My wife irons our dog-bed covers.

Me? I have a tree growing in my truck.

Yesterday, I was in the post office. I stood in a long line. The room was full of folks with violent winter colds.

After every cough, I covered my nose and…

When I was a boy, I remember my father would look at the stars and say, “Maybe this is the year, Tiger. Maybe this one will be the best ever.”

The stars are out tonight. It’s the fourth day of a new year, and I’m waiting for my dog to finish her business so we can go back inside.

But she’s wandering. And I’m thinking.

One of my first published columns was about going water skiing with my cousin. There were lots of people on a pontoon boat—my aunt, cousins, a pastor, innocent children, nuns, etc.

I wasn’t able to stand up on the skis after several attempts. I was dragged face-first through the water like a limp trout before finally giving up and crawling back aboard.

I clambered up the swim ladder, I shook off like a dog, and announced to the group: “Aww, waterskiing is for losers.”

After I said it, I heard gasps. My cousin covered his eyes. My aunt fainted. The pastor’s wife started praying in tongues. The nuns dove overboard and started swimming for Key Largo.

I realized I was not wearing swim trunks.

That story ran in a tiny magazine. And I can still remember hitting the

“send” button to email it to an editor. It was as though I were pressing the “detonate” button on a nuclear reactor.

I had written an actual “column.” That sort of made me an actual “columnist.” And it was like being born again.

The story tanked. The editor wouldn’t return my calls.

Even so, my life was never the same after that.

The next gig I landed was writing for a magazine in Georgia. My assignment was about the history of baseball in Savannah.

For a week, I camped in Richmond Hill, with my dog. I was there to research baseball. I interviewed elderly residents, one historian, one city official, and one former shortstop. I wrote an eight-hundred-word column.

The editor read my words and said, “Sorry, kid. This is basal writing.”

Kid? I was in my thirties. And…

But the little boy is just that. He is little. He sees a fiberglass horse, adorned with a shiny saddle. And what boy on earth doesn’t want to be a cowboy?

He’s old and gray. His skin is like used tissue paper. He has liver spots.

I see him seated on the bench in front of a supermarket. He is the quintessential old man. Boots. Plaid. Suspenders. Hearing aids.

There is a blonde child riding one of those coin-operated horses that cost fifty cents per ride. The old man is watching over the child. His hands are resting on his cane.

“Ain’t it fun, Benny?” the old man says.

“Yeah, Grandpa!” says the blonde kid.

Another boy wanders toward the ride. This child is Hispanic. Black hair. Dark skin. Two adults are with him, parents maybe.

They are a handsome young couple in ragged clothes, covered in dust and plaster. They look tired.

The kid points at the horse. “Qué chido, Papá!”

I don’t speak Spanish, but I know childhood wonder when I see it.

The young couple starts speaking rapid-fire. I can’t understand them, but I know what they’re saying. It’s universal parent talk:

“Get away from that

horse,” the Hispanic man is saying to the boy. “Come inside, we have shopping to do.”

But the little boy is just that. He is little. He sees a fiberglass horse, adorned with a shiny saddle. And what boy on earth doesn’t want to be a cowboy?

The old man seems to know this. He smiles at the child. “You wanna take a ride on Trigger, son?” he says.

The kid doesn’t answer.

The man taps his cane on the horse. “Trigger? You wanna ride Trigger?”

“Trigger?” the boy says.

As it happens, when I was a child my father and I watched every Roy Rogers melodrama ever made. For most of my life, my father called all horses either “Trigger” or “Silver.”

“Porfa, Papá!” the kid says. “Porfa, porfa! Trigger!”

“No,” says Papá.

There will be…

This was her highest aspiration for my life. She wanted me to use a soft voice, good manners, and to treat people the way I’d treat Pope Francis.

I saw a man in a gas station scream at a cashier. The cashier was a young girl. She made a mistake and overcharged him for gas.

The man lost it. I watched the whole thing happen. He stormed out of the convenience store and sped away, leaving skid marks.

She was embarrassed.

“Oh, man,” she said. “I really screwed up.”

“No you didn’t,” said a man standing in line. “He did.”

Be nice. That’s what my mother always told me. And I never knew her to be wrong.

This was her highest aspiration for my life. She wanted me to use a soft voice, good manners, and to treat people the way I’d treat Pope Francis.

Admittedly, I have failed her many times.

There was the time I was watching the Iron Bowl at a tavern in Columbus, with friends. I was seventeen, but I managed to sneak into the joint.

There was a man at the bar in an Auburn T-shirt

who kept shouting ugly things to my pals. When he tossed a glass of beer into my friend Arnold’s face things went crazy.

Arnold weighed a buck five, soaking wet, and had a stutter, he could not seem to defend himself. It took three of us to pry the man loose.

The rowdy hit me beneath the jaw so hard I bit my own tongue and said a word that is not approved by the Southern Baptist Convention™.

In the heat of the moment, I sat on the man’s chest. That wasn’t very nice. My other friends joined me. Three of us sat on him. My mother would’ve disowned me.

The bartender, a graduate from the University of Auburn, splashed a glass of ice water in the man’s face and shouted “You schnoz-whistle! People like you give Auburn folks a bad name!”

“LET…

A few weeks ago, I met an older couple in a movie theater. White hair. Steel-rimmed glasses. They were leaning on each other like high-schoolers.

A young man sits across from me in a restaurant. It’s a meat-and-three place, with napkin dispensers on the tables.

The young man is with a girl. They’re holding hands. She’s staring at him, he's staring back. And even though my wife begs me not to, I ask how they met.

It’s my thing. Some folks make conversation about weather. I coerce complete strangers into telling me love stories.

The girl asks me to repeat myself. Her voice is uncommonly loud. He tells me that she is deaf.

“Our parents introduced us,” he explains. “We started as friends, and then...”

They're newlyweds. He is signing while he speaks.

Dinner arrives. Our food is terrible.

A few weeks ago, I met an older couple in a movie theater. White hair. Steel-rimmed glasses. They were leaning on each other like high-schoolers.

My wife begged me not to make conversation with them.

But their hair was so white.

The man said they've been married fifty years. They realized long ago that they couldn’t have children. It was a harsh blow.

But they're grateful for this today, he told

me. Because during their forties, a young woman in their town died, leaving behind a five-year-old.

That five-year-old became their daughter. Today, she has a family of her own.

“Some things are meant to be,” he tells me.

I met a twenty-year-old boy. He was a newlywed. We shared a bench at a mall in Birmingham while our wives shopped. I asked about his wife.

He’s been with her a long time already. Her brother and father died when she was not yet a teenager. She wasn’t sure she’d ever survive it. He made sure she did.

“I’ve loved her since I was nine,” he said.

They eloped last month against his parents wishes.

Parents don’t know everything.

I got an email from a man. He’d been with his girlfriend eight years. She wanted to…

My sister is a wife and a mother of two, but when I look at her I still see pigtails.

New Year’s Eve—Sacred Heart Hospital, the pediatric unit.

Tonight the whole world is celebrating. I can already hear firecrackers in the distance. But on the third floor, the women in my life are gathered around a sick baby.

My sister’s daughter, Lucy, was born ten days ago. She was dainty, tranquil, and she smelled like all babies do. But last night, she was admitted into the hospital with viral meningitis.

Doctors fitted her with an IV in her scalp, an oxygen nose piece, and they’re monitoring her heart.

So, while a big ball drops in Times Square, my sister holds Lucy.

My sister has cried a lot today. And I wish there were something I could do to make her feel better, but I‘m just a big brother. Big brothers can’t do much but ask the lady in the cafeteria, “More fries, please?”

A gentle knock on the door.

The nurse enters. She’s got a sunny personality. She checks monitors, administers a blood gas, she is smiling a lot. She refers

to my sister as “Mama.”

That word.

My sister is a wife and a mother of two, but when I look at her I still see pigtails.

To me, she’s the girl who watched cartoons on Saturdays, eating Captain Crunch. The girl who ran barefoot. The teenager who worked at Chik-fil-A, who let me use her employee discount.

I remember when I was sixteen, she was a child. She awoke one night screaming. She clutched her side and howled, writhing on the floor.

“What’s wrong?” I shouted

“I’m dying!” she said.

My mother came running. She touched my sister’s belly. She thought my sister might be suffering from severe constipation.

“Are you eating plenty of fiber?” my mother asked.

“I’m dying!” my sister shouted.

“Wait here while I get the castor oil.”

My…

Somewhere in South Alabama—Waffle House is packed. Families in every booth, truckers on every stool. I have been riding the interstate all morning.

I find a seat at the counter. My waitress is young. She brings coffee before I even finish ordering it.

A man sits next to me. He smells like the outdoors, and it’s been a few decades since he last shaved. His clothes are torn. His shoes are mismatched—one is gray, the other is black.

I notice he is carrying a tent. It’s sitting beside his stool in a ratty cardboard box that reads: “Deluxe Two-Person Tent.”

He’s eating eggs and grits, moving his mouth, singing along with the music overhead.

Finally, he looks at me and smiles. He is missing teeth.

“Don’t mind me,” he says. “I’m just singing.” He starts humming again.

“Singing?” I say.

“Yeah, it helps me figure things out, and I got things to figure out, man.”

“What sorts of things?”

“That’s my personal business.”

Okay then.

This signifies the end of our

conversation.

The waitress leans onto the bar and grins at him. He grins back.

“You doin’ okay?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says. “Just got a lot to figure out.”

“Maybe I can help,” she says.

“Aw, you don’t wanna hear my problems.”

“Well, maybe you wanna hear MY problems. I got a lot of’em.”

He flashes a toothy smile. It’s an old-man smile. It ought to be trademarked.

He says, “I would love to hear someone else’s problems for a change.”

There is egg yolk all over his beard. She wipes it off his whiskers with a wet rag.

Then, she tells him all about her life. She talks about how she just started working as a pizza delivery girl in the evenings to supplement her income.

She has two kids. Her…

My mother claims I never slept in a bed until I was three weeks old. I mostly slept in his arms. He would talk to me all night long in a whispered voice.

Alabama is playing Oklahoma University, and it is my birthday. And I am writing you.

As it happens, I was born during an Alabama game. Coach Bear Bryant’s final match. The Liberty Bowl was playing on the television in the corner of the delivery room the moment I drew breath.

The fighting Illini and the Crimson Tide were locked in heated battle. And by the third quarter, the doctor was holding me by the feet, swatting my white hindparts.

The score was 12 to 14. The University of Alabama was barely ahead.

They tell me that my father almost dropped me when Oliver Williams scored a touchdown for Illinois that nearly tied the game.

He was so upset that he removed his surgical cap, threw it on the ground, then shouted.

My mother says the first thing my infant ears heard was the voice of my father saying…

Well, use your imagination.

The truth is, my father hadn’t wanted kids when he was a younger

man. That’s what my mother told me.

He’d had such a lousy upbringing that he wasn’t going to have children. The details don’t matter, but his childhood was no cakewalk.

But, his best friend’s three little daughters changed his mind. My mother says he came home one night from a barbecue and announced, “I wanna have a baby.”

My mother answered, “Great. Let me know if you need any help.”

They tried, but nothing happened. My mother had a two miscarriages. The doc told her she was barren.

Then, one day my mother saw a greasy televangelist on TV who hollered:

“There’s someone out there who wants a baby, God hears you! Believe, and ye shall have a child!”

That’s all it took. My mother learned she was pregnant with me shortly thereafter, and the televangelist went down in history for being a…

So my purpose in life. I still don’t know what it is. But I can tell you my aspiration: to be nice.

You might not care about this, but fifteen years ago I didn’t know my purpose on this planet. Today, I’m middle-aged, and I can finally say I still don’t know—only, now I have a bad back.

This morning, I ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel, it should be noted, doesn’t have the greatest biscuits, but in a pinch they’ll keep you alive.

An old woman and her daughter sat at the table beside mine. The woman was in a wheelchair, with messy hair. And talkative.

“That man needs to shave!” she hollered.

Several people in the room giggled.

Cute, I was thinking, looking around the for an abominable snowman.

“He needs to SHAVE!” she shouted again, this time in my general direction.

“Mama,” gasped her daughter. “Be nice.”

I smiled at the old woman. And that’s when it hit me. This lady was yelling about me.

I am the Bigfoot.

And I became a middle-schooler again. It was like a bad dream, only without the corduroy pants and the Barry Manilow music.

The woman’s daughter apologized. But I told her it wasn’t necessary.

The old lady went

on, “Your face looks like a big, fat bear!”

Precious memories. How they linger.

Eventually, she calmed and I finished breakfast in peace. She, more or less, forgot about me—until I stood to leave. Then, she noticed me again.

Her old passions reignited.

“Go shave your dumb face!” she hollered.

The daughter whispered to me, “I’m SO sorry, my mother has no filter.”

I got into my truck and took a few breaths. I looked into the rearview mirror.

I don’t know what that woman might be going through. Maybe she’s not in control of her mind. Maybe she’s had a traumatic experience involving too much hair.

Either way, all I could see in my mirror was a chubby middle-schooler who looked like Cousin It. I saw a boy I’d almost forgotten.…