She was young, I’d guess mid-twenties. She had a sleeve of multi-colored tattoos on both arms. She was pretty. She was nice.

She stood behind the New York City deli counter, slicing salami, making sandwiches. She had a line 16 miles long, snaking outward into the frenetic streets of The City So Nice They Named it Twice.

Some of her patrons were very “particular” about their orders. Although where I come from, we would not call these people “particular.” We would call these people “fussy.” But hey. When in Rome.

The girl took it on the chin. She replied to each “particular” customer by smiling and batting her eyes.

I detected a slight drawl in her voice. I wouldn’t have noticed this in any other city. But in New York, you notice drawls.

It was my turn. I ordered the cheapest sandwich available, an item which cost about as much as an average Harvard doctoral semester.

She began making my sandwich. “Where are you from?” she asked.

“Birmingham.”

A look of wistfulness came over her face. “Birmingham,” she

said. “I’m from Birmingham. I was born there.”

“Small world.”

“And it just got smaller.”

The man behind me in line was not happy about this casual conversation between myself and our delicatessen professional. He began clearing his throat loudly.

New Yorkers, I have read, do not like idle chit-chat. I read this in an official guidebook. The guidebook stated: “New Yorkers do not like superficial conversation, eye contact, small animals, children, old people, or anyone who talks slow.”

The man in line behind me cleared his throat loudly again. He was sending a clear message.

“Can we speed this up?” the man actually said aloud. Then he made a “let’s get the ball rolling” getsure.

I was horrified. In Birmingham, this man would have already been in the backseat of a Jefferson County Crown Victoria.

The young woman merely smiled. She…

Ah, New York City. There is a slight chill. The city is full of Midwesterners, all wearing white Reeboks, all staring straight upward.

My wife and I have just stepped out of our cab, after leaving LaGuardia Third World International Airport. Our cab driver was a nice man who drove upwards of 75 mph with only one finger on the wheel, and that was just on the sidewalks.

Right now, my wife and I are walking to our hotel. Because that’s all you do in New York City, really. You walk. You walk for miles, until the blisters on your feet become the size of U.S. Congresspersons.

Right now, we are stuck walking in a massive clot of people moving like a herd of bison. We are trekking onward, hauling our luggage, dodging cabs.

Even so, my wife is thrilled to be in this town. It is her first time visiting. So she is taking cellphone pictures by the gazillions.

My wife finds important photographic moments wherever she glances. So far, she has taken pictures of our cab’s interior, my half-eaten airport bagel, the

plane’s lavatory, and a middle-aged woman walking down the street dressed like a giant marital aid.

I also have this feeling the locals can tell we’re out-of-towners. We have that look about us. I met a cashier in a coffee shop, for example, when I was trying to order a large iced tea.

My tea arrived. “There’s something wrong with my iced tea, ma’am,” I said.

“What‘s wrong?”

“It’s not sweet.”

“So add some sugar.”

“I can’t add granulated sugar to cold tea.”

“Why not?”

“Because I love the Lord.”

Then the cashier asked if I was from Alabama. I was so impressed this lady guessed where we were from.

“That’s amazing,” I said. “How on earth could you tell where we’re from?”

“Honestly?” she said, leaning in to whisper. “It’s your teeth.”

I’ve never been…

We’re driving. Through hayfields and cotton. Because daddy liked to drive. Because that’s what families used to do before smartphones. Because there was little else to do except to watch lead paint dry.

So we took drives.

Blue collar Americans like my family drove all the time. We drove on Christmas morning, after opening presents. Daddy fired up the family heap on the Fourth of July, before the fireworks. On my birthday, we all hopped in the fifth-hand station wagon and drove until the earth ran out.

We drove whenever slight boredom overtook my father. We drove especially on overcast days, when the sky looked like polished steel, when the air was chilly, when the smell of woodsmoke was in the air.

I’m not sure what driving accomplished. But gas was cheap. And the world was so big.

We were big automobile-singers, too. Daddy and I sang duets as he drove. He would start by singing: “Well, I looked over Jordan and what did I see?”

My part was to answer: “Coming for to carry me home!”

Whereupon

he’d sing: “I see a band of angels, coming after me…!”

“Coming for to carry me home!”

I sang harmony. Which was no small chore when singing with my father. If you were going to sing with my old man, you had to give it all you had.

Because Daddy was deaf in his left ear. So he sang like a 180-decibel rocket launch. As a result, one thing I have never struggled with is quietness.

We’d sing until we reached some far flung filling station, way out in the sticks. We’d stop. We’d walk inside and see a man about a dog.

Daddy would ask the man at the counter about this and that. They’d laugh together. Shoot the bull.

People always liked my father. He always asked how their mothers were doing. Daddy always knew how to draw people out…

“Dear Sean, how can we save this country?” came the email.

The writer of this letter lives in West Virginia. His name is Roger. I have no idea why Roger thinks a hayseed like me is qualified to answer this loaded question. I’m not a smart guy. I’m so dense, blondes tell jokes about me.

Still, if I were forced to answer this question, I’d say, for starters, Roger, the way to save this country, first and foremost, is to put the Wurlitzer organ back in baseball.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but Major League Baseball has undergone many changes since you and I were kids. Many, many changes. Bad ones. Even the game’s rules have changed.

Baseball is our sacred pastime. Baseball was played during the Civil War. Baseball is America. Some scholars believe stickball was played during the Pilgrim days. And the Wurlitzer organist was the Pilgrim’s most valuable team player.

Today, the organ has been nixed. I went to a game recently, and all I heard was Keith Urban.

This

is an affront.

On April 26, 1941, organist Ray Nelson debuted at Wrigley Field, playing an organ. It was the first organ music to be heard in baseball. Nelson played before a crowd of 18,678 Chicago Cubs fans. He played such standards as, “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for T-U-L-S-A.”

At one time in America, all ballparks had organists. Today, only 7 parks feature organs. Most stadiums now use canned music, including pop-country.

Let me go on record to say, I’d rather eat a jockstrap than listen to Luke Bryan singing “Knockin’ Boots” between batters.

Another way to save this country is to bring back piano lessons. At one time in this nation, 79 percent of Americans took piano lessons during childhood. Do you know what the percentage is now? Eight percent. That’s not enough Americans to form a chess club.

I took piano lessons as…

She was trash. At least that’s how she was treated. She was found wandering a rural Mississippi highway. Beneath the stars.

It was a wonder the girl hadn’t been hit. This was a busy highway. The kind with transfer trucks.

The dog was walking in the center of the road. On the yellow line. Clearly there was something wrong with her. Animals don’t walk open highways. But the black-and-tan dog was moving by feel. Because she is blind.

All she knew was that she liked open highway because the surface was smooth, and there were no obstructions. And when you’re blind, no obstructions is a good thing.

She was a skeleton. Every rib visible. Every spinal disc showed. There were scars all over her, as though she’d been involved in a host of dog fights.

A scar on her face. A scar on her chest. One behind her ear. On her side. Another on her right forelimb.

Probably, she had been caged with other hunting dogs. The dogs were probably mistreated and hungry. Hunger makes dogs

mean.

Nobody knows how the blindness happened. But it didn’t take a rocket engineer to figure it out.

“Someone hit this animal with a blunt object,” the veterinarian later said, choking back tears. “Someone beat this poor dog. Maybe with the butt of a rifle. Maybe with rebar.”

People say that dogs use smell above all other senses. That’s a lie. A dog doesn’t use her sense of smell to avoid walking headfirst into walls. A dog doesn’t use smell to detect body language in other animals or humans.

A car stopped on that lonesome highway. A Samaritan picked up the dog. The dog was apprehensive to get into the car, but then, she was so hungry.

The Samaritan placed her into the backseat. The Samaritan took photos of the animal and posted them to Facebook. Nobody claimed the animal. Nobody even commented. Nobody…

I arrived in Millbrook at 10:48 a.m. for the Mardi Gras parade. I parked at the Presbyterian church.

The first person to greet me was wearing a Carnevale mask and cape. They immediately informed me they were Episcopalians, then asked if I wanted a beer.

“But,” I replied, “it’s not even 11 o’clock in the morning.”

“The Lord doesn’t live by Earth Time,” came the response.

A cold aluminum can was placed into my hand. I was ushered into a parade vehicle by a Millbrook policeman. My chariot was a snazzy Pontiac convertible, driven by the preacher’s wife, Miss Judy.

I rode atop the vehicle, waving to the crowd like a dork. I could see the looks on people’s faces as I passed by. Most were thinking, “Who is this idiot?”

My driver was cheerfully shifting gears. Happy as a clam.

“Are you an Episcopalian, too?” I asked Miss Judy.

“I am today,” she said, gunning the engine. “Hold on tight.”

Millbrook, Alabama, has been throwing a Mardi Gras parade for 18 years. This celebration is no

small affair. This is the largest Mardi Gras celebration north of the coast. “Southern Living” wrote about this parade once and said, quote, “These people are nuts.”

Which might not be a direct quote. But I, for one, can assure you that the people who throw this party are, indeed, bat-dookie crazy.

The Revelers Mardi Gras krewe is made up of approximately 120 folks who are deeply committed to fun. Most of them are in costume. Many have flammable breath.

“We maintain several floats, and we throw, literally, thousands of Moonpies and beads,” said one woman. “You throw so many Moonpies your arms are sore the next day.”

So I was excited. Mainly, because this is only the second parade I’ve ever been in.

My first parade happened when I was 13. I was a member of—this is true—the pitchfork drill team. Our…

“Dear Sean, are you a Christian? Sometimes I can’t tell. There is only one way to heaven, and your ‘tolerance for all,’ and ‘just be a good person’ philosophy sounds fine, but it leads to hell.

“...Hell is real, Sean. I read about your affinity for alcohol, and how you condone flagrant sinners. …As a Christian, I find your feel-good writing to be misleading and disgusting to Believers. There is only one way to heaven… and I believe you know this. I am not saying any of this in judgment, I am only saying this as your brother. Repent, friend. The time is at hand.”

Dear Friend. Gosh. First of all, your concern for my soul humbles me. I am honored. You sound like someone I could be friends with.

Thank you for taking time to write such a stirring and unsolicited email.

It’s funny, I used to know an elderly retired preacher who said that someone’s eternal soul was like their groin region. To just walk up and start talking about someone’s

groinal region is rude and downright uncalled for. But congratulations to you. You just jumped right in there.

The writer in me needs to tell you that your letter was extremely well written. Not one grammatical error. I am verry empressed. I actually counted your total words. There were 912. It takes me hours to write 900 error-free words.

Ergo, you spent at least an hour out of your day writing to me. How unselfish.

I’ll bet you spend the same amount of time worrying about children who are born to crack-addicted parents. I’ll bet, each day, you visit those drug-addicted babies in their lowly states.

I’ll bet you are also a frequent volunteer in the NICU, holding motherless and fatherless babies, so they don’t die of neglect. Kudos to you, sir. I wish I could be like you.

You probably also visit the homeless shelters and…

Homewood. Supercuts hair salon. The young woman cutting my hair goes by the name Shelby. She is as country as a collard, with an accent like Ribbon cane syrup.

She is 21. She is constantly laughing. She smiles a lot. All the customers here do the same whenever Shelby is around. This girl is Pollyanna.

I ask where Shelby’s originally from.

“Woodstock,” she says. “Not the one in New York. The one in Alabama.”

I would have never guessed.

I ask how she got started styling hair.

“Started cutting hair when I was 10 years old. My mama was a hairstylist, but she didn’t cut men’s hair, so Daddy would hand me the scissors and say, ‘You cut my hair, Shelbylane.’ That’s my real name, Shelbylane. My daddy wanted me to have a double first name like a Southern belle. Do you want me to trim the clumps of hair shooting straight out of your ears?”

“Please.”

While Shelbylane works steadily, I’m trying to imagine a world wherein a grown man would give a 10-year-old child surgically sharpened scissors

and allow the child to take a whack at his head.

“Your father trusted you a lot, to let you cut his hair when you were so little.”

She laughs. “Oh, Daddy believed in me so much. His confidence in me made me what I am. When I was a kid, I felt like I could do anything because of his faith in me. Do you want me to trim your unibrow, sir?”

“Please. Does your father live in Woodstock?”

“No, he passed away.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. He died when I was 14. I’ve had time to deal with it. But I miss him real bad.”

I know all about daddies dying at young ages. I know all about missing daddies real bad.

“But I have a theory,” says Shelbylane, firing up her electric clippers. “If you lose your parent…

She has long red hair. Fair complexion. A high-school senior. Quiet. Mild mannered. When she speaks, her voice sounds like Locust Fork, Alabama.

Her name is Morgan. Seated beside her is Clarabelle, a black Labrador wearing a Service Dog Alabama vest.

Morgan has paralysis on the left side of her body; her left hand doesn’t work. She has frequent seizures, she is sensitive to light. She has diabetes. She has low vision, and is nearly blind in one eye. Her intestines are paralyzed, too, so digestion is an issue. A day in the life of Morgan is no walk on the beach.

Her health issues stem from a previous bout with encephalitis (brain swelling). The encephalitis complications should have killed her. But they didn’t.

“Took me six months to learn to walk again,” she said. “But I knew I could do it. I believed I could.”

She’s a tough cookie. Morgan practically grew up in Children’s hospital, in Birmingham. Her youth was nothing like the average American childhood. While most kids were busy playing in their

backyard sprinklers, eating Flinstone Push Ups, Morgan was in a hospital room, relearning how to walk.

Her mother remained at her bedside. When Morgan was too paralyzed to feed herself or hold her head upright, nurses did these things for her.

“My happiest childhood memories are at Children’s hospital. Those people love me.”

In her teenage years, things have gotten even tougher. What she misses most is her independence. When you deal with the medical trials Morgan deals with, you’re always under supervision. This gets old, fast.

“I couldn’t do anything on my own. Couldn’t even walk the school hallway without nurses hovering around me, waiting for me to have a seizure.”

Morgan wouldn’t sleep by herself, for fear a nighttime seizure would kill her. She wouldn’t eat by herself, for fear that she would choke. She couldn’t drink a bottle of water without…

It was a big day in Heaven. Maybe one the biggest. You didn’t know this. Neither did I.

After all, you and I were merely going about our day, here on earth. We were doing our thing. Walking around the planet. Driving our vehicles. Buying stuff we need. Visiting Publix. Taking kids to school. Cooking supper. Making important phone calls. Paying bills. Buying hemorrhoid cream. Whatever.

Meanwhile, something huge was happening On High. Something astronomical.

You see, our lives here on Earth are so small. Sure, I know it seems like you and I are the center of the Solar System, but we aren’t. Our lives, our schedules, our concerns, our problems, they are all so paltry in comparison to the Hereafter.

It all began this morning. Heaven’s big party was scheduled for 7 a.m. There were posters all over. Even posters plastered on the Mother-of-Pearl Gates.

Everyone was coming to this party. And I mean everyone. This was going to be a party with a capital P.

All week, the angels have been fluttering around,

getting everything just so. Saint Peter even booked a band. The band included the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Glenn Miller, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Strauss, Debussy, and Hank Senior was on vocals.

There was an all-you-can eat buffet that was about the size of six U.S. states. One of the administrative angels ordered an ice sculpture that was about the size of Des Moines.

There were trillions—no—centillions of people who gathered. More people than you can imagine. So many people that, when you looked into the distance, the entire horizon was made of heads.

There was an electricity in the air you could feel. The clock was showing 6:58 a.m., Earth time. Everyone was ready.

Then, suddenly, the back of the crowd started going nuts. The roar was deafening. Not figuratively, but worse, metaphorically.

Because God was coming to the party.

God wasn’t…