I miss him, he was my only dog. I had him since I was three. Can you write some words about him for his funeral? His name was Tornado.

DEAR SEAN:

My dog died. We had to put him down last night because of cancer. We came home today and I actually expected to see him on my bed in my room, sleeping, and he wasn’t. I’ve never had any dog die before... I feel so sad I literally don’t even know what to do.

I miss him, he was my only dog. I had him since I was three. Can you write some words about him for his funeral? His name was Tornado.

FIFTEEN AND SAD

DEAR SAD:

Nothing I write is going to do Tornado justice. Because you didn’t lose a dog. You lost someone.

Once, I had a someone named Joe. He was a strange pup who slept in the bathtub. I’d hear his claws clink on the porcelain. Eleven years, he slept in that tub.

He was a good boy. He sat beside me when I ate, he sat beside me when I worked, he sat beside the shower when I bathed.

A greater dog I have never had.

His coat was thick. Pure black.

Ten inches deep. I groomed him in the summers with a pair of clippers and did a god-awful job. He’d have patches of skin showing, and a skinny tail that belonged on a rat.

“Poor Joe,” people would say when they saw him.

But Joe wasn’t worried about his appearance.

He camped with me. He fished with me. He loved tomatoes, hated corn chips. Chased squirrels; hid from sprinklers.

When I wrote my first novel, he laid on my feet. And when I would play Willie Nelson on the radio, he’d close his eyes and give me an open-mouthed smile.

He escaped from my backyard fence one day.

Someone found him on the side of the road. His legs were crushed. They did surgery. I went to see him. He wagged his tail when he saw me come into the…

“I'm an old lady,” she says. “I hope you don't mind if I wear these while we talk.”

We're at her condo. By the pool. She wears tropical-print and big sunglasses. I don’t know what it is about elderly women and oversized sunglasses, but they go together like ham and swiss.

“I'm an old lady,” she says. “I hope you don't mind if I wear these while we talk.”

Not at all, ma'am.

She talks about a boy. Black hair. Freckles. Long ago, he sat by himself at recess. Which for a third-grader, is as bad as it gets.

She’d ask, “You okay, sweetie?”
He was uneasy around her. Skittish. She was a teacher. He was a foster kid.

She arranged to meet his foster parents. They were folks with big-hearts and a house full of kids rolling through the American Foster Pinball Machine.

The boy’s biological parents were drug abusers who'd neglected him. He’d lived off whatever he found in a pantry. He was malnourished and underweight.

When she heard this, it cut her.

“I knew he was my responsibility,” she says. “I just thought: ‘The best thing I can do is give him love.’”

So, she

gave it by the metric ton. During class period, he sat beneath her desk. He told her small spaces made him feel safe.

“I had to get him outta that hole,” she says. “If I had one mission in life, that was it.”

For recess, she organized T-ball games. She made him shortstop. He didn’t want to play unless she played second base.

So, she bought two gloves.

When the year ended, the new one began, she visited him in his fourth-grade classroom—often.

“We were joined at the hip,” she says, laughing. “Got to the point where if I had to go tee-tee, he waited outside.”

Tee-tee.

They sent him to middle school. She quit her job as elementary teacher and applied for a job at the middle school.

By high school, he was on his own. He was…

“I’m going to give you some friendly advice,” says Dan, in a letter he sent me.

“I've been reading your work," he explains. "And I'm going to tell you the truth, precisely like I tell my students... Your writing comes across weak. One can never reside in the ranks of great columnists by writing only about happy subjects and biscuits.

“Complain, Sean! You must write persuasive copy about the things you dislike in this unfair world. Don't be afraid to rant. That's what I tell students. Trust me on this, I’ve been writing columns for twenty-one years.”

Dan—which is not his name—makes a point. And he knows more about writing than I do. Thus, I’ve decided to heed his counsel.

No more biscuits.

But before I start slinging complaints, I need to say a few important things.

Firstly: I love trees.

Bear with me, Dan. I know that was off-topic, but I CAN'T complain until I’ve at least mentioned how much I like trees.

You ought to see the live oaks in this part of the world. Then, you'd understand.

And: birds. I love bird-calls at six in the morning, when the world is waking.

And spittoons.

That might seem bizarre. I don't even chew, but I love spittoons almost as much as I love spitting. Daddy had an antique brass spittoon. It was just for show.

Also: I like runt puppies, ham hocks, tomatoes staked with twine, waking up to bacon, and Bernard P. Fife.

And skinks. Like the skink on the porch with me now. He's blue and black. Fast. I think I’ll call him Edwin.

Edwin, because that was the name of my server at the Mexican restaurant last night. He was rude. He botched my order and forgot my beer. Worst service I’ve had in years. I SHOULD'VE complained.

Instead, I left old Ed a fat tip. I’m not wealthy, Dan, but I believe in tipping…

She was chatty. She could strike up conversation with a brick. It was a gift. But grade-school teachers didn’t see it that way.

They tried to break her talkative habits. They moved her desk around the classroom. Disciplined her. It didn’t work.

She was the baby of four. Artistic. As a girl, she'd walk to town just to stare through Weaver’s store window. She studied what she saw.

Then, with a sewing machine and faded cotton fabric scraps, she sewed her own clothes.

In high school, she met a tall, skinny hick. He was a good-timer, but she loved him. They married in the public-park gazebo. It was a poorly attended wedding.

He was an iron-worker. She was five-foot-two. They were penniless, hard-working, and happy.

It didn't take long before she grew tired of peanut-pay and long hours. She enrolled in college.

She put herself through school, using her own nickels. She studied her hindparts off. She graduated with flying colors. She worked in hospitals, she tended to the dying. Patients liked her.

Then she got pregnant.

And it

was on a Wednesday, during the Liberty Bowl—Bear Bryant’s farewell football game—she gave birth to a seven-pound-eight-ounce frog.

“He was a lazy baby,” she remarked of her pale son. “He barely made any crying noise.”

The lazy redhead would call her Mama, and she would never go by another name in her own household.

They lived forty-five minutes from town. Her husband pulled overtime shifts. After full days welding column-splices, he’d work himself raw with chores.

She had another child. A girl. Life was going famously.

On her husband’s forty-first birthday, she cooked steak. A white-icing cake. She smiled. They laughed. There was singing. It was a good day.

Three days later, he placed the business-end of a twelve-gauge into his mouth.

Her life went to hell. She lost what she owned. The house. The land. Her job. She stayed…

While I write this, my wife is watching the evening news. The Barbie Doll on the TV screen is saying that the economy is in trouble, the government is crumbling, and mankind is dangling by a thread.

Pensacola, Florida—Dodge’s Convenience Store. Friday afternoon. This is the kind of gas station with greasy fried chicken that's not half bad.

In the long line ahead of me: a young couple. They are sweaty, dressed in white clothing, covered in paint splatters. The woman is holding a toddler.

On the counter, the man places two energy drinks and a large box of chicken. He removes his wallet. He has no cash.

“Never mind,” he tells the Dodge’s cashier, “I’ll just put everything back.”

A old woman in line behind them removes her wallet and pays.

He thanks her.

She says, “Nah, don't thank me.” Then, she leaves.

Montgomery, Alabama—a very nice restaurant. Mary is in her car, applying makeup before meeting her boyfriend.

She sees two boys at the valet desk, wearing matching golf shirts.

An old man with a long beard shuffles the sidewalk. He has a backpack on his shoulder. He walks past the boys.

They holler, “Sir, wait!”

One kid runs inside. He returns with a take-out box. The man thanks them.

Mary watches the man walk on ahead, sit on the pavement, and eat with

his hands.

Mary has to re-apply mascara.

Jacksonville, Florida—an older man finds a cat in his neighborhood. The cat has a bloody stub where her right ear once was.

He takes her to the vet and gets the wound dressed. The cat sleeps on the man’s recliner. He names her.

One morning, before he’s even made coffee, he notices something beneath his easy chair.

He crawls on his hands and knees to look. Four newborn kittens.

“I’m a dad,” he writes me.

A granddaddy is more like it.

Shreveport, Louisiana—Anne is a young widow. Her car is giving her fits.

She takes it to a garage. The mechanic says it’s an expensive problem. She’s better off getting a new vehicle.

One of the young mechanics overhears this. He takes Anne aside.

It was my first major failure, and it was a crushing blow. On the last day of class, the teacher kept me late.

I was a below-average student. A mediocre baseball player. I tried out for the football team twice. Rejected twice.

I was chubby—built like a summer squash. I talked too much.

I failed fifth grade.

It was my first major failure, and it was a crushing blow. On the last day of class, the teacher kept me late.

She called me to her desk. “I’m really sorry to tell you this…” she said.

The liar. She was a hateful woman who disliked me from the moment she laid her beady little turkey eyes on me.

I sat on the school curb and cried.

I’d decided I would join the circus, or perhaps get certified to empty Port-a-Johns. Maybe then, I could avoid begging outside shopping malls.

The school janitor found me sitting. He was a young man. Tall and lanky. He was a different bird. Some kids made fun of him.

They said things like: “He’s three aces short of a deck.”

Others called him worse.

He sat beside me on the pavement while I waited for Mama to arrive.

“It's the last day of school,”

he said. “You oughta be happy.”

I told him what happened.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he showed me a magic trick with a quarter.

I was in no mood. I’d seen tricks like that before. I was far too old to believe coins came from behind my ears, anyway.

So, he quit trying and said, “You ain’t stupid.”

I asked him, kindly, if he’d leave me alone. Besides, the jury had spoken. I had the intellect of an Allen-wrench.

He wouldn't leave. He only did more magic tricks.

Finally, he said, “You know, I’s born with my birth cord wrapped ‘round my neck. My old man called ME stupid.”

He went on to explain he was partially deaf, and how school had been a struggle. He'd dropped out after eighth grade. He admitted he could…

I'm a sucker for the flag. Always have been. At Boy Scout camp I helped fold the flag—a job of congressional importance.

They are raising a flag over a new bank building. I can see them doing it while I sit at a stoplight.

Folks in business suits cut a red ribbon with giant scissors. A group of Junior ROTC uniforms stand around the flagpole. A photographer. It's a small ordeal.

I'll bet there's free finger food inside.

I'm a sucker for the flag. Always have been. At Boy Scout camp I helped fold the flag—a job of congressional importance.

The week before camp, my pal and I practiced folding bed sheets in the backyard.

Mishandling such obligations is a grievous offense in the Scouts—second only to horse thievery and using the “S” word on the camp bus.

The year before, there had been an incident. Kevin Simpson and Jerry Miller had taken to arguing over a certain brunette during the flag ceremony. While they folded, tempers flared.

Stars and Stripes hit the dirt, and a fight ensued. One of the Scoutmasters had to be revived with cold water.

Kevin and Jerry, as I understand, are still peeling potatoes

in federal prison.

I folded my first flag on a June morning. Birds made noise. Cold dew hung in the air. Myriads of khaki uniforms gathered. I don't think I've ever felt so responsible.

Thirteen folds. Then, I marched the flag to the Scoutmaster. He took it, and I gave a three-finger salute.

He whispered, “Look behind you, son.”

I turned to see hundreds of freckle-faces in the camp, all saluting in my direction Serious faces. A few Scoutmasters were veterans. They saluted with as much sincerity as any boy ever had.

Some things stick with you, I guess.

Junior ROTC raised the flag over the bank. The wind caught it and hurled it over the building. The word majestic comes to mind.

A state trooper on the highway shoulder showed full-salute. The truck in front of me rolled down windows and hollered.…