I am in a coffee shop. I’m trying to get some work done, tapping away on my laptop. The two old women behind me are playing cards, talking louder than jayvee football coaches at football camp.

It’s impossible to get anything done with their noisy conversation.

“So how do you like your new phone?” bellows one old lady.

“I love it,” shouts her friend. “It’s just like my old phone, but this one’s gray.”

“That’s nice. My phone is gray, too.”

“I like gray.”

“Gray is a good color.”

“It really is a good color.”

“I like gray better than mauve.”

“My couch is mauve.”

“Mine was, too. But now my couch is gray.”

Shoot me.

The two women are playing rummy.

It’s funny, you don’t see many people playing rummy anymore. I find myself distracted by their game because, you might not know this, but for many years I was international grand rummy champion. I could not be beat.

I first learned how to play the game when I was in third grade. I used to attend a daycare because my mother

and father both had full-time jobs.

I lived at that daycare center. I ate suppers there. I slept there when my parents worked nightshifts sometimes.

The woman who presided over the whole place was an elderly lady named Miss Pat, who smoked Virginia Slims and had a voice like an eight-cylinder diesel engine.

She was a large woman with a great bosom, hard eyes, and white-blond hair that looked like it had been treated with industrial-strength Clorox.

Miss Pat did not have a reputation for being a friendly woman. Children were terrified of her. Rumor was that she had once killed a boy for sticking bubblegum beneath his chair. Word on the playground was that she ended his life with a stapler. His remains were never found.

But by some warped stroke of fate, Miss Pat adored…

“How you doin’?” the security guard said as I walked inside the public library.

“I’m getting my library card today,” I told him.

“Congratulations,” he said.

I stepped through the front doors into the surgically chilled air of the Birmingham Public Library, one of the largest library systems in the southeastern United States. I’m new in town, a library card was my first order of business.

No sooner had I entered than I could smell books. Lots of books.

The scent of books is a powerful hallucinogenic. When you see this many books in one place, your imagination runs away with you. You are among the greatest minds of humankind in paperbound form.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better book collection than the one the Jefferson County Library Cooperative system has. The system consists of 39 branches, with an annual checkout rate of over 3.7 million books.

When I reached the front desk, ahead of me was a young man in line. He was maybe 15. He had shaggy hair, holes in his

shoes, ratty clothes, and shy mannerisms which seemed to scream “low confidence.”

I know the look of the underprivileged. I was one.

He was checking out a large stack of books. I glanced at his literary selections: McMurtry, Coben, Connelly, a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Tolkien. Not a bad mix.

He placed his books on the counter. The librarian was an older Black woman wearing pearls. She asked how he was doing. He spoke with a pronounced stammer.

The woman scanned his books, she God-blessed him, and he left. I saw him rush outside and crawl into a car driven by a young mother. Before their vehicle exited the parking lot, he was nose-deep in Harlan Coben.

A hundred years earlier, that kid could have been me.

When I made it to the front desk, the librarian smiled. “Help you?”

“I’d like to get my…

I have here a letter from Marcus, who is getting married this Friday.

“I’m so nervous,” writes Marcus. “I’m thinking of calling the wedding off because I’m that scared. What should I do? I mean, I love her. But what am I doing? Am I ready for this? Should I get married?”

Dear Marcus:

My wife and I have been visiting a place called Lake Martin ever since we were first married, shortly after the Spanish-American War.

You ought to go sometime. It’s magical. When you look at Lake Martin, you’re looking at 41,150 acres of freshwater within one of the top five cleanest lakes in the United States. You can see straight through this crystalline water and—literally—see the fish swimming among the Keystone beer cans.

Lake Martin is a seasonal lake. Meaning, lots of newlyweds go there to camp in tents because it’s cheap.

This is definitely a happening spot. In the busy season Lake Martin is overrun with tricked-out boats full of barely clothed teenagers listening to loud rap music that vibrates the shingles off

nearby rooftops.

During the off-season, however, the lake crowds thin out, and the place feels empty and sparse. The leaves die, the lake level recedes like ditchwater in the Mojave desert, and many lake houses are vacant. It’s fantastic.

I remember when my wife and I came here after my wife’s father died. We stayed for a few weeks. It was the off season, so there were no tourists around. It was like being a ghost town.

I couldn’t bring my wife out of her funk. So I spent a lot of time fishing by myself. I didn’t catch much more than a sunburn, and I saw her crying whenever she thought I was out of eyeshot.

I ached for her. I wished there was something I could do.

So one day, I rented a pontoon boat in hopes of cheering her up.…

Willie Nelson canceled an upcoming concert in April. No explanation was given for the cancellation. Some have speculated that he might not be in stellar health. I can only hope and pray the 88-year-old is okay.

I’m not sure how Willie Nelson got mixed up in my memories, but he is. My brain’s most replayed memories seem to include the music of Willie Hugh Nelson as a soundtrack.

Truthfully, I’m not sure why I liked Willie so much. Maybe it was because I’m a redhead like him. Or maybe it was because he never struck me as a guy who was trying hard to impress you. He was just himself.

I appreciated the meek way he approached music. I loved the gentle touch he had on his Martin N-20. I liked that he used a guitar pick on nylon strings, causing uptight guitar purists to suffer cardiac infarctions. I liked that over the years his pick wore a hole into the spruce top of his instrument.

Moreover, Willie wasn’t a pop star. He is

us. Kenny Rogers and Conway Twitty were great. But they represented were the shiny, star-studded Nashville elite. Willie was like the guy your daddy worked with.

He didn’t have a powerful baritone voice like Jim Reeves. He didn’t wear a bow tie like Ray Price. He sounded like your uncle singing with the VFW band on bingo night.

And Willie’s tunes weren’t anything like the idiocy that passes for modern country music today.

A few days ago, I was in traffic, flipping past songs on the radio when I landed on a new country song by Trace Atkins, featuring Luke Bryant, and rapper Pitbulll. The tune was entitled, “Where the Country Girls At?” I almost wrecked my truck on purpose.

Willie didn’t write stupid songs. He wrote poetry set to music. He wrote sonnets about cowboys, unrequited love, and angels who flew too close to the…

I was maybe 5 years old when I had my first encounter with an ice cream truck.

It was a late 70s model Chevy Step-Van, rolling through our neighborhood like the U.S.S. Wisconsin. The music on the truck’s loudspeaker was a slow rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

The guy behind the wheel was Mister Jimmy. Jimmy always wore a white peaked cap, he had a five o’clock shadow, and he smelled like unfiltered Camels. He bought the ice cream truck after he’d made parole.

Mister Jimmy was a mythical hero within kiddom. To us children, Mister Jimmy was somewhere on par with Superman, Captain Kangaroo, and Charles Bronson.

Which is why whenever the ice cream truck came around it was a national event. Your entire life stopped.

“ICE CREAM!” one of your friends would shout.

It didn’t matter what you were busy doing. It didn’t matter whether you were cleaning your cap guns, damming the creek, or climbing the branches of a 65-foot oak, studying the complex physics of falling spit.

When you heard the

ice-cream man music box playing, you dropped what you were doing and followed the noise unto salvation.

My chubby legs carried me across an open field where I joined two million kids who were all chasing the truck. One boy was clutching the bumper, his body dragging on the pavement like a rag doll. Little girls were openly weeping like it was a Donny Osmond concert.

The large vehicle finally pulled over, and We the People rejoiced.

All across the neighborhood you could see boys and girls emerging from homes, joining the multitude of seekers.

The ice cream truck was the only attraction in our world which could draw the children like gnats to a pile of organic fertilizer.

Mister Jimmy would pull to the curb, slide open the service window, and say, “Alright now! One at a time! No pushing! Quit kicking! Gimme…

Sixty-eight years ago Miss Ann Elizabeth Fowler Hodges was napping on her sofa when a meteorite the size of a grapefruit crashed through her ceiling and struck her on the side.

She was severely injured. She could walk, but not without shouting unchristian expletives with each step.

This happened outside Sylacauga, Alabama. The year was 1954. Reportedly, witnesses from three states saw a streak of fire in the sky and heard loud booms. Later that afternoon, when Ann’s husband, Eugene, got home from work he asked how her day had gone. She told him there had been, quote, “a little excitement.”

“A little excitement” is exactly how I would describe living in Alabama. Especially when it comes to things careening from the sky.

Because in the two weeks I’ve been an official resident of the Yellowhammer State, it has already snowed, sleeted, flooded, hailed, and today they’re calling for tornadoes. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow a meteor the size of Lebron James crashed through my roof, followed by a category-three hurricane.

This

morning, I awoke to read my newspaper amidst a Biblical downpour. The first news headline I read said: “Tornadoes, damaging winds, and hail will all be possible today.”

It was like the fortune cookie from hell.

All this weather business got me thinking. What kind of weather am I to expect now that we’re living in Alabama? To learn more about this pressing issue, I contacted one of my friends in town who is a local weather buff.

My friend, Bucky, is one of those guys who has high-tech meteorological equipment mounted on his roof and knows everything about weather. He carries a picture of James Spann in his wallet.

“Alabama is unusual, meteorologically,” said Bucky. “It’s one of the only states with both a spring and autumn tornado season.”

Simply put, Alabama has a reputation for bizarre weather. If hurricanes, tornadoes, or flash floods don’t…

My wife and I lived in a 28-foot camper. We were parked on a vacant lot on a rundown street. Our neighbors’ homes were mildewed doublewides. Each trailer’s front yard featured a fashionable Pontiac sitting on concrete blocks.

It was raining. And it wasn’t just a storm. This was a West Floridian squall. Hurricane season in Florida lasts from June until the following June. It was June 1, 2016.

Tropical Storm Bonnie was making its way up into Carolinas like a runaway boxcar. We were getting the outer bands of rain.

I looked out our camper windows it was flooding. Our bedroom window was leaking like a screen door on the Titanic. One of our windows had shattered earlier that night, I had fixed it with duct tape and aluminum foil, but a miniature Niagara was spewing in.

The Atlanta Braves were on the TV, locked in a battle against the Padres. The game had gone into extra innings. I am a diligent Braves fan, I rarely miss games.

When I used to work in a

restaurant as a dishwasher, I carried a transistor radio with me. I listened to games while I was elbow deep in hotel pans caked with burnt cheese, scrubbing like a maniac.

When I played music in beer joints for a living, I kept a radio earpiece in my ear, tuned to the games while I played piano for line-dancers who had consumed too many five-dollar pitchers.

On the screen in our camper was Number Five, our first baseman, Frederick Charles Freeman, exiting the dugout. He was everyone’s favorite. He was the all-American poster child of Atlanta. He’d been with the Bravos since before his voice dropped.

“C’mon, Freddie,” I said. “You can do it.”

I always talk to ballplayers on TV. It helps them.

“C’mon, Freddie,” said my wife.

Freddie took strike one.

My wife cussed openly for morale.

Before we were married my…

Hi there. This is that Little Voice inside your head speaking. Yeah, I know. It’s been a while. But how are you? How’s life? How’s the fam? You still doing keto?

Listen, I know we haven’t talked in a long time, but technically, that’s not my fault. You probably don’t remember this, but you quit listening to your inner voice just as soon as you hit the fourth stage of puberty.

The moment you developed armpit hair, you became a lot more concerned with getting a driver’s license, French kissing, and eradicating zits.

So over time that voice inside you got quieter. Oh, sure, every now and then you’d hear me droning in the background like Charlie Brown’s teacher. But you never actually listened.

Although there were a few times...

Remember that rude waiter a few weeks ago? When the meal was over, you almost stiffed him with the tip. But then, you dug into your wallet and gave him a ridiculously generous gratuity.

Did you ever stop to wonder why you did this? Well, I’ll tell you

why. Because the teeny, tiny voice reminded you that being generous was not just kind, it was right. That Little Voice was me.

There was that other time, when you gave a ride to two Mexican young women who didn’t speak English. Their car broke down in the Walmart parking lot, and they were crying. You helped them out because that faint voice would not shut up.

Also me.

And let’s not forget about the time you almost got into that fatal car wreck.

No, wait. You never knew about that one. You never did know how close you came to the end. Because the Little Voice told you to pull off the interstate immediately before the disaster happened. And you actually listened. In a few seconds there was a ten-car pile up on I-65, and four people were killed.

Still, most…

It’s raining in central Alabama. I am on my porch, barefoot, watching the rainfall, hypnotized by the sound.

Rain can do strange things to a man.

I come from a long line of rain-watchers, horse thieves, and used car salesmen. We are a barefoot people.

And although my wife keeps telling me to put on shoes because it’s so cold outside that ketchup takes a week just to come out of the bottle, I am a Florida man. Shoes are for going to town.

There is a specific cadence to Alabamian rain. The tone is wholly unlike the rain from my home state. This is the kind of thundershower you can only get in the foothills. There’s a different ring to it. It’s similar to the difference between a clarinet and a kazoo.

Birmingham is in the mountains. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. People from more precipitous states such as, say, Colorado, will outright laugh when you suggest that Birmingham has actual mountains.

“Those aren’t real mountains!” Colorado people will say while chewing their

gluten-free granola. But don’t listen to these people. Their brains have been pickled by generations of Coors abuse.

This city definitely has mountains. They might not be the huge peaks of Wyoming, but they could inspire American hymns nonetheless.

Birmingham lives in the Jones Valley, flanked by parallel ridges which run northeast to southwest. These iron-ore hills are the tails of the mighty Appalachians. They are short. They are the Danny Devitos of the alpine world.

Still, to a guy from Florida, they are Mount Kilimanjaro.

I come from a long, flat, state, also known as the Tourism State. Our main crop each year is Midwesterners. There are no mountains in Florida. Even our singing is flat.

The highest point in the whole state is located in my home county. Britton Hill. Britton Hill’s summit is 345 feet above sea level, slightly higher than a…

The white tent with Auburn University markings was set up outside an automotive garage. There were a couple grills beneath the tent, spewing blue smoke into the air. A sign out front read: BBQ.

It was a sleepy afternoon and business was apparently slow at the garage. The mechanics were all sitting outside, relaxing on the axis of the Wheel of Life. Chain smoking.

At the grill was a young man, working the coals. He was well over six-foot eight. Maybe seven feet. He had a frame like an F-150. His hair was in cornrows, his shoulders were the width of a Steinway. He was smothering pork ribs with a paintbrush that had been dipped in what was either barbecue sauce or 10W-30.

I ordered a full rack because I have a sixth sense when it comes to barbecue. My father before me also had a great nose for barbecue.

And I am a chip off the old block.

My old man could procure the greatest smoked nourishment from side-of-the-road places that

most people would overlook. He once bought barbecue in a Mexican man’s backyard, a man who was cooking a goat in a giant hole in the ground.

When the man asked my father how it tasted, my father forced himself to swallow a mouthful and answered, “It definitely tastes like goat.”

The kid at the grill was loading my to-go box when he looked at me and said something. He was unable to articulate words, it sounded more like moaning than talking. Although his tone had the ring of a question.

An older woman was supervising him. His mother maybe. She was smoking a Black & Mild, seated in a folding lawn chair, serving as his interpreter.

“You want your ribs wet or dry?” she asked me.

“Wet, please,” said I.

The young man made another moaning sound, but I could not understand his question to me. I…