Arizona—I am a long way from home, watching the Atlanta Braves play baseball on a television in a sports bar. I am waiting for my wife to finish shopping so we can go to dinner.
The man next to me is from Georgia, but he’s been living in Phoenix for nine years. He asks what I do for a living.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
“Really?” he says. “That’s cool. What do you write?”
“Aviation engineering manuals.”
We share pretzels from a glass bowl. Two strangers from the Southeast, meeting in a state where cactuses grow. Where waiters have never heard of sweet tea.
Our beloved Braves are locked in battle with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and we are the only two in the joint who root for them.
My friend’s elderly mother is ill. He’s leaving for home in a few days to see her. It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.
He shows a picture on his phone. A photo of a young woman and her two boys, both wearing plaid pants. Hello 1970’s.
“That’s her,” he says. “My dad bailed on us, she raised us by herself.”
I could show this man similar photos on my phone. Photos from my own broken childhood, after my father died. I could tell him I half know how he feels.
I could tell him about the first time someone called my mother a “single mother,” and how it turned my stomach. But I won’t. Because writers don’t talk, they listen.
“Mom gave us everything,” says my friend. “Me and my brother got whatever we wanted, even though she couldn’t afford nothing.”
My mother did the same thing. I could tell stories about the sacrifices she made. But like I said. Writers.
Our conversation comes to a pause. The Braves are at the plate. Josh Donaldson is at bat.
“C’mon Josh!” we are both shouting at the TV.
Because Josh Donaldson is your quintessential Brave. Born in Pensacola, went to high school in Mobile, played college ball for Auburn. When I see Josh on the screen, though I am in a desert sports bar, I am back home.
The bartender approaches us. “Would you fellas mind keeping it down?” he asks.
We apologize for being rowdy, but we can’t help it.
A few nights ago, Josh Donaldson hit his first home run for the Braves. I was with my wife in a pizza joint when it happened. I cheered like my pants were on fire and tried to chest bump a man from Indiana.
We from the Gulf Coast support our own.
My friend glances at his phone and says, “My brother just texted, says he has the game on in Mom’s hospital room.”
Then he tells a story:
“In middle school, all my friends had Ocean Pacific shirts, you remember those? Ones with the little ‘OP’ on the chest?
“Well, we couldn’t afford’em, Mom got our clothes at thrift stores. But one time I got home from school and she had a bunch of OP shirts for me.
“They were knock-offs. Mom had stitched the letters ‘OP’ on a bunch of cheap shirts with a needle and thread. Took her several weeks.”
A tear threatened to fall from the corner of his eye.
We are interrupted. The bartender turns up the volume. Josh Donaldson has just tagged a runner out at third. Hot diggity spit.
My friend and I high-five.
The bartender shushes us.
I almost tell my friend about the time my mother bought a two-hundred dollar guitar for her awkward son.
Two hundred dollars in those days was enough to buy a used washing machine, or new tires, or groceries. I’ll never forget seeing the instrument in my bedroom.
I nearly tell my friend about it, but choose not to.
I could also tell him that I was a boyhood freak to the rest of the world. I could explain that a kid whose father takes his own life and leaves his family in ruin isn’t exactly someone other kids want at their birthday parties. I could tell him about how my mother helped me through that period.
I could. But I don’t.
My wife finally arrives. We’re about to go to dinner. Before I leave, my friend and I shake hands. I briefly consider hugging him, but I decide against it.
“A writer, huh?” he says. “I’m gonna check out your stuff, I’m gonna need something to read on the plane to Georgia.”
Right now would be a perfect time to tell him that I hope his mother defies the odds and makes a full recovery. And I could tell him that I truly believe in such miracles, because I happen to be one of them. And so does he. I could tell him that I love him, though I’ve never met him. But I won’t.
I’ll just let him read about it on the plane home.
Because that’s what writers do.