I searched the woods. I drove side streets with windows rolled down. I knocked on doors. I rattled a tin food bowl and used a high-pitched voice. I whistled. Clapped. Begged. No sign.

It all happened fast. Someone left our front door wide open after unloading groceries—someone who looks like me but shall remain nameless.

My coonhound, Ellie Mae, caught sight of our neighbor’s cat. Before I could grab her, she departed for parts unknown.

She ran away so fast her paws barely touched the ground.

And she was gone.

I searched the woods. I drove side streets with windows rolled down. I knocked on doors. I rattled a tin food bowl and used a high-pitched voice. I whistled. Clapped. Begged. No sign.

When I got home, I sat on my porch. I hoped I’d see a black-and-tan dot, trotting toward me. I waited two hours. Nothing.

The last time a dog escaped my care, things didn’t fare well.

My dog, Joe, dug beneath our fence and bolted for Birmingham. He was gone half the day. I got a phone call. An official voice told me a dog had been found on the side of the highway. Those were the exact words used.

“The side of the highway…”

Someone dropped Joe at a

veterinary hospital. The doctor shaved the back of his body and cut him twelve different ways. I borrowed money to pay for surgery.

I visited the clinic. Joe laid in a steel cage. He looked terrified.

“I’m not gonna candy coat this,” said the doc. “His chances are slim. You might wanna say your goodbyes.”

I held Joe. He rested his head on my lap. I told him it was going to be okay. I told him how much I loved him. I hummed—he always liked it when I hummed.

I asked God for a favor. God must’ve been on lunch break that day.

The next afternoon, Joe went limp. I cried so hard I had to take two days off work.

Anyway, I didn’t cry for Ellie. I would not. I held myself together. I sat in my den,…

There is an old man. He is skin and bones. He has an oxygen tank with him. The woman with him is old. Her hair is a bright white. She helps him walk toward an upright piano.

This fellowship hall is full of fried chicken and people. Men wear camouflage caps. Women wear blue jeans and T-shirts.

If you were to show up in, say, khakis, you'd be grossly overdressed. Take me, for instance, I am grossly overdressed.

There are enough deep-fried goods on the buffet table to short circuit the U.S. House of Representatives. Hot biscuits. Field peas. Sliced tomatoes. Hallelujah.

There is an old man. He is skin and bones. He has an oxygen tank with him.

The woman with him is old. Her hair is a bright white. She helps him walk toward an upright piano.

Their trip across the tiny room takes a fortnight. He holds her for balance. She keeps her hand on the small of his back. He shuffles.

Nobody is paying much attention to them. Most folks are doing what I’m doing—using a biscuit to shine my plate.

The old man sits on the piano bench and looks at the keys. He’s trying to catch his breath.

She rubs his back.

He starts to play, but he's rusty. He punches out more wrong notes than right.

She keeps her arm around his shoulder and smiles. He can’t find the energy to finish the song.

She touches his face. I wish I could hear what she's telling him.

He picks up where he left off. He plays to the end of the song—I don't recognize the tune. He has more strength this time. Whatever she told him worked.

He plays another.

“There’s Just Something About That Name,” is the title of the melody, they tell me. A few ladies at my table hum along.

Light applause.

The woman kisses the man on the cheek. It's just a…

The boys played Merle Haggard’s anthem, “Are the Good Times Really Over.” The young man singing was not yet thirty. He had a dark beard, his eyes were closed, and he was testifying.

It was late. The bar was overrun with good-timers who were out past their bedtimes. The night-crowd was dwindling.

Bartenders were ready to go home.

I’d just gotten off work, I stopped by to see the band.

The boys played Merle Haggard’s anthem, “Are the Good Times Really Over.” The young man singing was not yet thirty. He had a dark beard, his eyes were closed, and he was testifying.

The bar fell silent while he sang.

The old man next to me stared into his beer glass at his own reflection. “That boy’s the real deal, ain’t he?” he said.

Ain’t he though.

When he finished singing, he picked up a banjo and nearly tore off the strings. The whole establishment stomped its heels on one and three.

“God, he’s good,” said the man next to me. “That kid is something else.”

I ordered a beer, but forgot to drink it. I was too carried away watching the virtuoso fly through the Great American Songbook.

During a break, I introduced myself. He was standing outside, looking at the stars. I told him how

much I liked his music.

He smiled, but said nothing in return.

So, we stood for a few uncomfortable minutes, silent. I decided I must’ve said the wrong thing—as is often my custom.

Another man joined us. He was staggering, slurring his words. He lit a cigarette. He stood beside us, too.

"Damn son,” he said, slapping the kid's back. “You were fabu-lificent.”

Nobody talked.

The young man finally answered, “Thanks.” Then, he wandered inside and picked up a mandolin.

Later, the young man switched to guitar. Then electric guitar, then banjo, the list goes on. And I’ll bet if you handed him a Campbell’s soup can and a number-two pencil, he could’ve played Brahms’ Symphony Number 4.

Years later, I saw him again. He was a little older. He was even more accomplished than the…

The man behind the bar is gray-haired. Tall and lanky. He has been tending bar for forty-three years, he tells me.

I am in a bar. Not a nice one. A place that features low lighting, dirty beer glasses, and an unidentifiable odor.

The live music is allegedly country. But it sounds like a college kid sawing his guitar in half.

The man behind the bar is gray-haired. Tall and lanky. He has been tending bar for forty-three years, he tells me.

He has the easygoing personality every bartender should.

“Got my first bartending gig when I’s in my twenties,” he said. “Was either that or go to school to make Mama happy.”

Tending bar was an education in itself. The nightlife is no cakewalk. Bartending is a lot of hard work for mediocre tips.

He met a girl from a small Georgia town. A waitress.

“She and her boyfriend had just broke up,” he says. “Knew I loved her first moment I saw her.”

They hit it off. Things blossomed. They dated. He moved in. They married.

They lived outside Atlanta where he opened his own

place. A bar and grill with country music on weekends. She worked the kitchen, he served beer.

They had two kids. They did family vacations at Disney. Little League games. They owned a Labrador.

But nothing in life lasts.

“She came home early one day,” he says. “And stayed locked in our bathroom all afternoon.”

It was bad. The doctor found something in her breast.

What followed was hell. He sold their restaurant for a pittance. He took care of kids while she laid in bed. He made sack lunches, cleaned house. Prayed.

He drove his wife to treatments. He read aloud from magazines while she sat connected to plastic tubes.

Treatments didn’t work. Neither did surgery. She was forty-three…

I took classes when I could afford them. I attended night school after work. I ate suppers in my truck, going over homework under a dome-light. I wish I could tell you I was a fantastic student. I wasn’t.

DEAR SEAN:

Your writing sucks. What makes you think you’re so freaking special? LOL.

Regards,
I DON’T LIKE SEAN OF THE SOUTH

DEAR I DON’T LIKE:

It was evening. The ceremony was in the gymnasium. The room was filling up. My wife squeezed my hand. “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I wasn't. I was more ready than nervous.

My father killed himself when I was twelve. My mother wasn’t the same after it happened. She spent her days grieving in a bedroom. I did not attend high school.

My first construction job was as a teenager. I hung drywall. Drywall is the Devil's work.

I don’t know how it happened. But over time, I came to believe I was unintelligent. After all, smart folks drive nice cars, go to college, and tell Charles to saddle their horse.

Educational failures like me sanded drywall seams.

Embarrassment was my roommate. I did a lot of reading during those years. I read so much I developed headaches.

I did

this because I missed out on things like prom, football, and other various benchmarks. Books helped me feel less stupid.

The librarians knew me by name. I read Westerns, adventure novels, “The Unabridged Encyclopaedia on Cheesemaking,” “Innocents Abroad,” and the autobiography of Andy Griffith.

I admire writers. Always have. Especially those who write.

Anyway, getting into a community college was no small feat for someone like me. The truth is, I barely made it.

I took classes when I could afford them. I attended night school after work. I ate suppers in my truck, going over homework under a dome-light.

I wish I could tell you I was a fantastic student. I wasn’t. It took me nearly a decade…

After she takes our order, she waits on the party across from us. At that table: four adults, and a five unruly kids. The children holler in voices loud enough to affect atmospheric conditions.

The barbecue restaurant is slammed. Our waitress is tall. Blue-eyed. Middle-aged.

After she takes our order, she waits on the party across from us. At that table: four adults, and a five unruly kids. The children holler in voices loud enough to affect atmospheric conditions.

The waitress takes their drink orders. She disappears, then reappears with a tray held over her shoulder.

When she nears their table, a little boy stands on a chair. He reaches for his drink before she has even set the tray down. Everything topples.

It is a disaster of Charlton-Heston-like proportions.

One of the men in the group—a man covered in sweet tea—says a terrible word to the waitress.

She places hand over mouth and apologizes. Soon, he is half-shouting, attracting the attention of every patron.

Cleanup takes a while. The waitress is on her hands and knees beneath their table. She gathers ice cubes, cleans the floor. The adults are angry with her.

The kids play with phones while she takes care of the

mess.

The man of the group calls the manager over. He tells them their meals are on the house. The family eats, then leaves.

They leave no tip.

“Have a nice day,” the waitress says to them when they walk out the door.

When she delivers our food, her eyes are red, her face is puffy. She places plates on the table and asks if there’s anything we’d like.

“No ma’am,” I say.

She cleans their vacant table, takes plates to the kitchen.

Her manager approaches her. I can tell by his body language that he’s unhappy.

She takes her scolding like a hero. She nods with every word he says. She walks away, composed and…

And right now, she sits on the porch steps, watching a million barrels of rain. There is thunder. Lightning. The sky is black.

The bottom has fallen out of the sky. My wife and her mother are standing by the front door, watching cats and dogs fall from heaven.

The Weather Channel is on TV. The map shows radar splotches over South Alabama and the Panhandle.

My wife has a bouquet in one hand, a purse in the other. She’s wearing her nice shoes.

My mother-in-law is beside her. She’s wearing what any dignified Belleville Avenue woman would, when leaving the house:

Pearls, ruby lipstick, white sling-back heels, Youth Dew, and her hair is fixed in place with Bullseye Shellac.

“Looks like we’ll have to wait out this storm,” says my wife.

There is disappointment in her voice.

Today is the five-year anniversary of her father’s death. She is supposed to be leaving to visit his grave, only the weather isn’t playing nice.

She leans against the front door, eyes closed.

I don’t know if she remembers, but this front doorstep is exactly where my wife got word of her father’s passing.

When she heard the news, she dropped the phone. She fell to her knees and cried with an

open mouth without making noise.

I held her. She went limp. She moaned in a pitch low enough to vibrate my spine.

“Please, no!” was all she could say.

Five years.

The day of our wedding her father was in the parking lot, waiting for me. He stood on the curb watching an orange sky.

I wasn't well-represented that day. Inside the chapel, I had three members in attendance. My mother, uncle, and sister. I’ve never felt so happy and alone at the same time.

He patted my shoulder and he pulled me into himself.

“You’re about to be my son,” he said. “Let’s go make it official.”

Then, he slipped a hundred-dollar bill in my hand and winked.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“Just ‘cause,” he said.

He took me fishing. He…