My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

The sun was coming up. We rode toward Charleston, doing sixty-five miles per hour in a two-seat truck.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” said my new wife.

“Me neither.”

In my wallet: two hundred dollars cash. It was all I had. I earned it by selling my guitar, one week earlier.

My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

Well, she must not have cared because I had none. I was a blue-collar nothing with a nothing-future ahead of me. I had no high-school education. No achievements. No pot to you-know-what in, and no plant to pour it on. And not much confidence.

Until her.

She unfolded a roadmap on the dashboard. My truck radio played a Willie Nelson cassette. I was married.

Married. Things were looking up.

We arrived at a cheap motor-inn. She took a shower while I watched the idiot box. Andy Griffith was on.

I’d seen the

episode a hundred times. Barney makes Otis jump rope to prove he’s sober. You know the rest. Crisis. Cliffhanger. Andy saves the day. Roll credits.

I made reservations at an upscale restaurant where the waiter pulls the chairs out for you. I wore the only necktie I owned.

We ate food I could not afford. I paid a hundred bucks—plus tip. We walked the streets, arm in arm.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” she said.

Then: the sound of horse hooves. A carriage. A man stepped out and groomed his animals on the sidewalk.

My wife remarked how pretty the horses were.

I asked how much he charged for rides.

“Hundred bucks,” he said.

Many of the hotel guests are young. Several use wheelchairs, or walking canes. Some are communicating in American Sign Language.

Mobile, Alabama—I’m in a large hotel lobby. There are hundreds of people here. I'm people-watching.

Many of the hotel guests are young. Several use wheelchairs, or walking canes. Some are communicating in American Sign Language.

A boy sits next to me. A teenager. He’s got hearing aids in both ears and thick glasses.

“IS THIS SEAT TAKEN?” he asks.

“No sir," I say.

“GOOD! I’M WAITING FOR MY MOM!”

Congratulations.

It doesn’t take long for him to learn my name. And soon, every other word he uses is my name.

Talking come easy for this kid. He has the personality of an azalea blossom and the smile of a professional conversationalist.

He’s here attending a conference for people with disabilities. This is his first year, and he’s excited. Not only about the conference, but about his hotel room, located on the top floors.

“I CAN SEE EVERYTHING FROM MY ROOM, SEAN!” he points out. “EVEN BIRDS AND CLOUDS!”

My, my.

“ARE YOU WAITING FOR YOUR MOM, TOO, SEAN?”

“No,” I point out. “And you don’t have to keep using my name.”

While we talk, he removes a notepad

from his pocket and takes notes. He asks me about myself. He reminds me to talk slow while he scribbles.

“You a writer?” I ask.

“YES,” he says. “MY MOM TOLD ME TO ALWAYS WRITE STUFF DOWN SO I DON’T FORGET, SEAN!”

Smart lady.

He flips through pages and and shares some of his previous notes. His whole life is in that notebook. He writes about insulin-pump maintenance, doctor-appointments, birthday parties, cleaning his bedroom, meetings with speech therapists, driving lessons, lunch with his daddy.

“THIS MONDAY IS LUNCH WITH MY DAD!”

I ask about his father. And from what I learn, his daddy left home when he discovered his son had struggles.

The kid just got reintroduced to his father for the first time last year.

“I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I HAD…

When my father died, adults planned a funeral. There were photographs scattered on the kitchen table. A few of his personal items. His eyeglasses. I stole his glasses when nobody was looking.

Somewhere outside Mobile, Alabama—a string of car headlights. There must be one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles behind us, stretching from here to Ardmore.

I pull over.

So does every car on the road.

First, the blue lights pass. Then, a long black car. This, followed by a mile-long chain of high beams.

When my father died, adults planned a funeral. There were photographs scattered on the kitchen table. A few of his personal items. His eyeglasses.

I stole his glasses when nobody was looking.

My father once found those glasses in the dirt, outside a supermarket. He dusted them and said, “These look expensive, don’t they?”

He put them on.

I laughed. The wire frames looked out-of-place on his face. He stared into the rearview mirror. He grinned at himself, then tucked them into his pocket.

He visited an eye doctor for an exam. The doctor said Daddy had perfect vision.

“You don’t need glasses, sir,” said the doc.

“Not even a little?”

“Nope, you're twenty-twenty.”

Daddy insisted he replace the lenses with fake ones.

Thus, he wore phony glasses. He didn't wear them all the time, but he wore them often. For family photographs. For Sundays. For trips into town.

“These things make me look smart,” he once remarked.

Smart.

After he died, I locked myself in the bathroom and tried on those glasses. I inspected my reflection for nearly ten minutes until the floor was wet.

That night, I fell asleep wearing them. During sleep, the wire frames cut me on the temple. I woke up to dried blood on my pillow.

The morning of his funeral, I wore his tweed jacket—which hung off my adolescent body. And…

So, I let him talk. He handed me a flyer and recited a frightening speech about my eternal soul. He told me exactly where I was going, and how long I’d be there without cable television.

11:32 P.M.—he walked a crowded Palafox Street with a friend. I saw him a mile away. They were nineteen, maybe twenty.

They carried Bibles, they wore neckties. They passed flyers to innocent bystanders who lingered outside dim-lit establishments.

They zeroed in on me.

“Howdy, Tex,” said I.

This two-word salutation was my daddy’s greeting of choice. When I say it, it sounds like he’s inside my throat.

The kid asked if I were going to heaven when I died.

Instead of waiting for my answer, he spoke in a loud voice. It took ten seconds for him to explain that I was riding the southbound train to Fire-and-Brimstone City.

While he spoke, I noticed his hands trembled.

So, I let him talk. He handed me a flyer and recited a frightening speech about my eternal soul. He told me exactly where I was going, and how long I’d be there without cable television.

I asked the kid if he would pray for me—right then.

“You mean you wanna get

SAVED?” the kid asked.

“How about we just stick with a short prayer for now, Tex?”

His prayer was something to the melody of:

“God, help this sinner repent before he lands in Eternal Hellfire, where flames are hot enough to melt U.S. manufactured steel, where there are no vending machines, and the possum dieth not…”

When he finished, I thanked him. Then, I asked if I could pray for him in return.

He exchanged a look with his partner. I swore on Daddy’s grave that I’d be respectful. They agreed. We bowed heads.

The kid closed one eye.

“Dear Lord,” said I. “Thank you for these nice-looking, kind hearted young men. And let me…

He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

DEAR SEAN:

I was wondering if you have any bad habits or vices. I have a couple, drinking and smoking, mostly, and I feel like they're holding me back. Any advice?

Best,
DRINKING TOO MUCH

DEAR DRINKING:

Sure, I have bad habits. I wait too long to file income taxes. I haven’t made my bed since nineteen hundred and twenty. I avoid confrontation. And according to my doc: I eat too much barbecued pork.

I also apologize too much—which is an embarrassing habit. I don’t know why I do it.

I’m sorry.

My friend, Davey, was king of bad habits. Davey was an alcoholic for most of his life. And when I say “alcoholic,” I mean: face-down-in-his-own-vomit-for-six-hours alcoholic.

We painted houses together. At night, we played music at various bars and beer-joints.

He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

He was in his seventies, but years of hard living made him

look two hundred years old. He had white hair, pale skin, stubbly face.

His one-bedroom apartment was on Campbell Street. His walls were lined with books—floor to ceiling. A feral cat lived on his porch. Dirty dishes sat in his sink.

Davey puffed Winstons all day. His emphysema was so bad he barely had the diaphragm-strength to smoke.

One night, we played in a Pensacola joint. He sat on a barstool during the break. The bartender asked what he wanted.

Davey buried his head and said, “Whatever you do, DON’T give me what I ask for.”

She looked at him and blinked. He ordered a stiff drink. She told him to get lost.

“Thank you, ma’am,”…

Her name is Ellie Mae, and she has ruined the passenger seat of my pickup. Which is why I don’t take many guests in my vehicle—least of all my wife.

There is something sleeping on my feet while I write this. A she-something. Her snoring sounds like a diesel engine.

She has paws bigger than skillets, a bladder the size of a teacup.

Every morning, at approximately 5:13 A.M., she wakes me. And every morning, I walk the yard with her, saying, “Go tee-tee, dammit,” in my morning voice.

No dice. Instead, she digs holes, eats unidentified stinky objects, and trees various housecats.

Her name is Ellie Mae, and she has ruined the passenger seat of my pickup. Which is why I don’t take many guests in my vehicle—least of all my wife.

Not many appreciate black coonhound-hair on American-made Ford upholstery, and wet-nose marks on windows.

Today, Ellie sat in the passenger seat. We went into town.

I started my busy day by ordering breakfast at the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. The servers at the window made a fuss over Ellie.

We parked outside Winn Dixie to eat. I ate. She ate.

I keep cans of

dog food (beef tips with brown gravy, rice, and snap peas) in my glovebox. There’s a dog bowl on the seat between us.

I talk to her about things over breakfast. She listens. I read the paper. She watches people.

Then, I wipe her face with baby wipes. She licks my forehead. Her breath often smells like a substance plentiful in most barnyards and hog pens.

After our meal, I ran errands while she slept in the truck with the AC blasting, listening to the radio.

Ellie and I have the same taste in music. She likes Willie Nelson just as much as me—maybe more.

Funny. I’ve had many dogs in my life. Almost too many to count. But I have only had two who…

“Wish my kids lived closer,” he went on. “My house is always quiet. Take my advice. Don’t never get too busy to call your old man. We live for those phone calls.”

I met him outside a barbecue joint in Lynn Haven, Florida. His hair was so white it glowed.

There was a tattoo on his forearm—a crude looking image of a bull. He used to be a rodeo clown long ago. It was a hobby, but turned into something that paid well.

“Not a bad job,” he said. “You DO have occasional bad days, but it’s big fun.”

I asked why he got out of the business.

“My wife got pregnant.”

Once, I met an elderly woman. On Saturdays, she bakes several poundcakes, layer cakes, sugar cookies, and banana puddings. Her adult daughters help. So do her granddaughters.

Until this stage of life, she never had time to teach baking. She was a single mother, fighting to keep her head above water.

“Want my girls to learn my kitchen tricks,” she said. “If I don't teach them, all my mother’s recipes will disappear.”

Last year, her daughters and granddaughters were faced with a choice between summer softball, or cooking lessons with Granny.

They haven’t played softball since.

An elderly man from Crestview, Florida—he retired from driving semi trucks several years ago. He wore a large belt buckle and ostrich-skin boots.

“Driving was my life,” he said. “Retirement is killing me.”

He started driving after his wife left him, forty years ago. Since then, he’s seen America. Every part of it.

“Took my grandson on a trip once,” he said. “At first, he wasn’t happy to be away from home. But then I showed him the Grand Canyon.”

He handed me a photograph of his grandson, sitting behind the steering wheel of thirty-thousand horsepower.

“That boy’s everything to me,” the man said.

In an antique store, yesterday, I…