This potluck is attended by people of all ages. A little girl plays piano. She is playing “Heart and Soul.” She’s been playing this melody for ninety minutes straight.

A potluck. A small church. There is more food here than people. A cooler of iced tea. Casseroles out the front door. Coffee. Coke. Fried chicken.

I never met a potluck I didn’t like. Not even when I was in Kentucky last summer, and there was a casserole that allegedly had chunks of raccoon in it.

I love food, and people, and cholesterol. Combining all three makes miracles happen.

The fried chicken is nothing short of spiritual. My fingers are too greasy to type.

It’s euphoria on a short thigh. Lightly battered, golden brown, spiced with black pepper. I am crazy about fried chicken. In fact, you could say I consider myself a chicken enthusiast.

And this chicken is fit for company.

There is also a cream cheese dip made by an elderly woman named Miss Carolyn. It’s addictive. I’ve eaten three quarters of this dip, and am in serious need of Rolaids.

I ask Miss Carolyn what’s in this marvelous dish.

“It’s simple,” she says. “It’s called Cowboy Crack, my

grandkids love it.”

This potluck is attended by people of all ages. A little girl plays piano. She is playing “Heart and Soul.” She’s been playing this melody for ninety minutes straight.

A church lady finally drags the girl away from the piano and assigns her to kitchen work, washing dishes. The girl is not happy about this.

Life isn’t always fair, kid.

The deacon at my table is an avid golfer. He is talking about golf even though I told him I don’t know the difference between a five-iron and a duck-hooked double bogey.

He keeps talking just the same. So, I’m smiling, nodding, and willing myself to spontaneously combust into flames. I have always thought spontaneous combustion would be a dramatic way to go.

I take my leave. I go for seconds on the buffet line. Namely, I…

I had an old condenser microphone my father bought at a garage sale. It was broken, but I used it for make believe.

I am writing this before I go on a stage, about to speak into a microphone and tell a story over radio airwaves. I only have eleven minutes. My story is a simple one. There are jokes embedded within it. Jokes I hope people laugh at.

I am not nervous—which is somewhat of a miracle. I used to get nervous a lot. I used to get so nervous that I talked like Porky Pig on a blind date. But I’m calm.

They tell me this station’s audience is small. Only two radios will actually tune into this AM station on a weeknight. The sound engineer, and the sound engineer’s mother.

The signal isn’t strong. But it does reach the interstate.

I’m excited nonetheless.

After all, you never know who will be listening. Maybe a man in an eighteen-wheeler will be overcome by unexplained inclinations to turn on his radio. And MAYBE, as if by urgings of unseen forces, he’ll turn his dial to a weak-signaled AM station. And MAYBE, by miracle, he will

have reception for ninety seconds and hear me say:

“Hi everybody, I’m Sean Di—”

(Static hisses)

“...And I just wanted to say from the bottom of my heart th—”

(More static.)

“...Our guest has been Sean Dietrich.”

I don’t just like radio. I love it.

In fact, if you would’ve met me when I was a young boy, making mudpies in the backyard, you would’ve known that I already had a career in radio.

I had an old condenser microphone my father bought at a garage sale. It was broken, but I used it for make believe.

Back then, I would report on weather, school kickball, and deliver updates on the happenings within Miss Welch’s socially stratified first-grade class.

I was, for instance, the first broadcaster to break the news of the scandal that rocked the elementary school—involving…

People in the vestibule were talking about how beautiful it was, just as soon as they walked through the doors. The white colors, the draped linen, the floral arrangements, and magnolia blossoms.

Good morning, Erin. You don’t really know me, and I don’t really know you, but I wanted to thank you for inviting me to your wedding last weekend. It was a beautiful service.

You picked a good man to marry. Todd is an old friend. He’s moral, kind, loud-mouthed, and he can handle more adult beverages than any man I’ve ever known because he is Episcopal.

He is giving. Once, I saw him empty his wallet and give it to a handful of Hispanic boys outside the hardware store.

It was cold weather. They were looking for an honest day’s work. They were wearing T-shirts. He gave them a handful of cash to buy coats. That’s your new husband.

Anyway, it was a nice ceremony. They tell me that you and your mother decorated the chapel all by yourselves—and on a puny budget. It was breathtaking.

People in the vestibule were talking about how beautiful it was, just as soon as they walked through the doors. The white colors, the draped

linen, the floral arrangements, and magnolia blossoms.

Somebody’s red headed toddler was running around in the back pews. And not that this is an issue, but he’d messed in his britches. We all know this because we could smell him.

His mother chased him, she was livid. She wore the angry face of Satan, adorned with pearls and heels. She couldn’t catch the kid. He eluded her grasp, then ran toward the altar of God just before the wedding started.

He waved hello to the congregation.

We waved back.

And once his furious mother caught him, we all knew this redhead would not see his next birthday.

Anyway, I was sitting beside your aunt and uncle. They were country people, and I have a soft spot for country people. These are the sort I come from.

They were beaming with pride…

I remember early mornings when my mother and I threw the daily newspaper. I remember my sister, sitting in the backseat. I remember the jokes we told each other to keep smiling. And how her laughter sometimes turned into crying for no reason.

She’s having another baby. I still can’t get over the idea that she ever had a first. She is my little sister. That’s how I will always see her. Little.

My wife sometimes has to remind me: “Your sister’s a grown woman now.”

But I remember her as a tiny thing. I remember how much she liked ice cream. I remember her full cheeks.

I remember long ago, when she tried to run away from home. We were in Georgia. I remember how sad she was. Somehow, I talked her into staying.

I remember the sound of her voice when she cried that day.

“Nobody loves me,” she moaned.

“I do,” I said.

“Well, I KNOW you do, but nobody else does.”

“Mama does.”

“I KNOW you and Mama do, but that’s all. Nobody else loves me.”

“The mailman does.”

“The mailman?”

“Oh, you bet. The mailman loves you a whole lot, he told me so himself.”

“The MAIL-man said that?”

“Hand to God. He said you were the only thing that keeps him going.”

“Oh, c’mon, now you’re just being

stupid. Tell me who else loves me.”

“Miss Randolph, a few houses down. She loves you to death.”

“Oh, don’t be stupid.”

“She brings tomatoes and watermelons from her own garden because she loves you so much. You’ll crush her if you run away.”

“Oh, you’re being silly. Keep going, who else loves me?”

“Who else? Hmmmmm. Let’s see. The Daniels boys, they’re crazy about you.”

“Those greasy pigs?”

“They’re in love with you. Aaron Daniels practically wants to marry you, he told me that just this morning.”

“EEWWWW! He did? He smells bad. Who else?”

And I talked her into staying.

I remember when she was a baby. A clammy little thing who sang songs even though she didn’t know the words. I remember when she lost her front…

They miss running more than anything. I’m talking about all-out, wide-open, honest-to-goodness running. They’re legs were made for this, but they can’t do it. Not in here.

They stand behind caged doors. They look at you when you walk by. They bark like their lives depend on it.

Some have barked so hard they’ve lost their voices.

They miss running more than anything. I’m talking about all-out, wide-open, honest-to-goodness running. Their legs were made for this, but they can’t do it. Not in here.

The old dogs don’t even bother barking anymore. They know what awaits. One day a woman in scrubs and rubber gloves will lead them away, and they won’t come back.

Jack, the Labrador, for instance, he was ten years old, reddish colored. Nobody wanted him because of the white on his snout. He went to Heaven yesterday.

“People just don’t want elderly dogs,” a staff worker tells me. “It breaks your heart, I won’t lie.”

And Ophelia. She’s a beagle. She’s an old woman. So is ‘Bama, Pistol Pete, Chocolate, Bradley, and Miss Daisy. Abandoned dogs. Lost animals. This is their last stop on the bus ride of life.

Through the doors

walks Jace. Jace is a seven-year-old boy with rosy face and blonde hair. His parents are divorced. They live in a two-bedroom apartment, with no neighbor kids. Jace gets lonely.

“My son needs a friend,” his mother explains.

Jace walks the long corridor and looks for a pal. He sees Rip—a basset hound with so many skin wrinkles he ought to win an award. His face is long, his ears touch the floor. Rip is nine.

Jace pokes his hand through the bars.

“We ain’t supposed to let people touch the cages,” a staff worker whispers to me. “But Rip’s a sweetheart.”

Rip wanders to the door. He licks Jace.

“Mom!” says Jace. “He licked me!”

Rip stares at Jace. In dog years, Rip is older than this boy. And he’s smart, too. You can see this in his…

I haven’t had food poisoning since I visited Dallas with my buddy, Chubbs. We were there for the Mesquite Championship Rodeo. I ate some tripa tacos that didn’t settle well.

Dothan, Alabama—It’s been quite a night. The Milwaukee Brewers beat the Braves like rented mules. I was eating jalepeño cheese dip in a sports bar, watching the game. Afterward, I went back to the hotel to pout. My stomach started churning. It got worse.

I have food poisoning.

I haven’t had food poisoning since I visited Dallas with my buddy, Chubbs. We were there for the Mesquite Championship Rodeo. I ate some tripa tacos that didn’t settle well.

For two days thereafter, I hugged a motel toilet.

My faithful constituent, Chubbs, vowed to take care of me on my deathbed. I sent him to the supermarket for emergency supplies. He returned with Gatorade, Velveeta cheese, and Hellman’s mayonnaise.

“What’s the Velveeta for?” I asked.

“For nutrition,” he said, blowing a bubble in his gum.

“Where’s my Pepto Bismol?”

“I got mayonnaise instead.”

“Huh?”

“Hello? In case you want a mayonnaise and Velveeta sandwich.”

More toilet hugging.

I missed the rodeo that year. The next year, we visited again and I got my

picture with a Dolly Parton impersonator.

Anyway, this case of food poisoning isn’t nearly as bad as Dallas. But I can’t sleep, so I’m reading emails.

I got a letter from a young woman named Paulette. It was a sad letter.

“Dear Sean,” writes Paulette, “my husband left me… I am twenty-two and I have a son who’s too young to even know what’s happening…

“It’s hitting me slowly, I’m numb inside, I don’t even know why I’m writing, I mean why should you care about some stranger’s divorce? Tell me a story.”

Paulette. I wish I had something valuable to share, but I don’t. All I can tell you is that you emailed a man whose insides are falling out.

But because I have a few hundred more words left to go, and…

He won games hand over fist. People came from all over just to watch him pitch. During his sophomore year, a professional scout was in the bleachers.

Behind a filling station. Middle of Nowhere, Georgia.

The kid was Master of the Mound. He stood on a pitching mound, throwing to his friend who wore a catcher’s mask. There was another holding a bat.

The first baseman shouted, “C’mon, throw the cutter!”

The kid pitched a ball so fast you only heard the smack of the catcher’s mitt.

The onlookers who watched the game were old men. They stood with hands in pockets, some with full lower lips. Spitting.

“He’s got scouts looking at him,” said one old man.

“He could be famous one day,” said another.

“He could be a major leaguer maybe.”

Baseball is poetry to watch. And this kid is a poet.

He is tall. Black. Wiry. He has long, powerful arms. And he has a story. The boy was found in a walk-in closet in a vacant house.

His biological mother left him there, wrapped in an old flannel shirt when he was a toddler. A few days after they found him, they

found her at a house down the street. Expired.

“Drugs,” said the old man, who told the story. “Both his mama and daddy.”

The kid winds up. There’s the pitch. Smack. Strike three.

The old men applaud.

This is only a friendly game between local kids. We are approaching the end of summer. School has started.

It makes me feel good to know that kids still play baseball in rural parts of the world.

The child—who looks like a man—was adopted by a local youth minister and his wife. I’ll call them the Wilsons, even though that’s not their name.

The Wilson’s had four kids when they heard about the boy, they would not let him become part of the foster pinball machine.

Pastor Wilson adopted him.

But life isn’t a storybook. It wasn’t…

Long ago, somewhere along the line, I realized most of my good friends were fatherless.

I ate with friends I haven’t seen in a million years. I ordered a New York strip. It was overcooked. But the beer was cold.

Long ago, somewhere along the line, I realized most of my good friends were fatherless.

When I discovered this, it sort of confused me. It’s not as though I ran an ad in the Thrifty Nickel that read: “Looking for friends without dads. Apply today. Must like beer.”

I first realized this as a young man, during a camping trip with a few friends. We sat around a campfire in Andalusia, Alabama, on a Saturday night. The stars were doing what they do best. And I’ll never forget this: one of my friends was trying to cook a ham sandwich on a long stick held over the campfire.

The bread caught fire and his dinner turned into an inferno. So he flung the flaming ham sandwich into the dry field. It set the grass on fire, which was soon creeping toward our trucks.

After several

minutes, we finally got the fire extinguished. When all was said and done, we were out of breath, and we even laughed about it. Then we fell silent.

“You think you’re ever gonna have kids one day?” one of us said.

Silence.

“Yeah,” said another. “I wanna prove it can be done, my old man left before I could walk. I’m gonna be the best dad you ever saw.”

Another chimed in: “Me, too. I want lots of kids. I’m gonna take’em all over the world and stuff, and take’em to Disney World.”

Disney World.

More silence.

“I ain’t never been to Disney World. You?”

“Disney is for babies.”

“Who’d ever wanna go there?”

“I ain’t been, either.”

That night, we discovered that none of us had ever been to Disney World. During the summers,…

“Cream Puff used to be small enough to fit in your pocket,” says Wanda. “Used to let him sleep in my bed and everything. Thought he’d stay that small.”

“I’m just an old woman who raises pigs,” said Miss Wanda. “You’d be crazy to wanna write about me.”

Maybe I am crazy. But right now, I am on Miss Wanda’s sprawling farm in Central Alabama, and there are pigs everywhere, roaming, making deposits.

One pig—named Twiggy—is brushing against my leg like a lovesick house cat. She is sniffing my hand. Twiggy weighs more than a commercial washing machine.

“Twiggy loves cookies,” Miss Wanda tells me. “She thinks you have cookies in your hand.”

Miss Wanda is seventy-six, and a pig lover. Her love affair with pigs started innocently just like any hobby. She bought a pig that was supposed to be a “teacup pig,” from a breeder in Georgia.

They named the tiny pig “Cream Puff.”

“Cream Puff used to be small enough to fit in your pocket,” says Wanda. “Used to let him sleep in my bed and everything. Thought he’d stay that small.”

But Cream Puff kept eating his Wheaties, and soon he was about the

size of a defensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys.

Miss Wanda explains: “I found out there ain’t no such thing as a ‘teacup pig.’ People oughta know that going into their first pig purchase.”

Check.

Cream Puff turned out to be a big old boy. He eats eight pounds of feed each day and frequently makes six-pound contributions to the Barnyard of Life.

Miss Wanda is her own woman. She is a vegetarian, a musician, a quilter, and a dedicated granny. And she loves pigs.

Wanda takes me into her home. It’s a place that smells like cinnamon and fresh bread. There is sheet music everywhere, and fabric bolts, and porcelain figurines.

She removes a violin from an old case. She plays “Flop Eared Mule,” and “Amazing Grace.”

She holds the fiddle low on her arm. Her fingers are arthritic. Her spirit…

But marriage. Somehow, this made things better. It made me feel like less of a screw-up. After suppers each night, my wife would hold my arm, we’d sit on the shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay. We’d say things like: “I can’t believe we’re married.”

Mobile, Alabama—“Just Married.” That’s what’s written on the back of a ratty tailgate in white shoe polish. The plates are North Carolina. The old Ford Ranger has seen better days.

I’m at a gas station when I see the truck. The windows are rolled down. The vehicle is empty. The young couple is inside the convenience store, paying for gas.

I am at the pump, filling my tank.

My friend is nosy. He is inspecting the small Matrimony Wagon. He peeks into the truck bed.

“They sure don’t travel light,” he says. “There must be ten pink suitcases in there.”

Welcome to marriage.

Tonight, my friend and I are on our way home after playing music in Mobile. It was a pathetic venue, but the music wasn’t bad. And besides, I’ve been playing pathetic gigs since I turned eighteen. What’s one more?

I’ve played some doozies. Bingo parlors, bowling alleys, rundown bars, a shoe store clearance, and the dreaded all-you-can-eat seafood joint.

A girl exits the store, walking toward the

vehicle.

My nosy friend is almost caught red handed. He trots away from the truck. He lights a cigarette and pretends to be inspecting my tires.

The girl reaches through the window and grabs her purse. She counts a few dollars, then steals handfuls of change from her ashtray. She counts quarters in her palm. She darts inside.

Money. It’s hard to come by when you’re a newlywed.

My friend tells a story: at his wedding, twenty-five years ago, his sister placed a money tree on the cake table. People clipped dollar bills to the branches to fund the couple’s honeymoon.

“We had ninety bucks on that tree,” he tells me. “We needed that money for our honeymoon, we were flat broke.”

My honeymoon was no lavish affair, either. We went to Charleston on a shoestring budget. I’d hocked…