Granny says they live in the country. Their entire lives have been spent filling silos, raising cattle, and attending church four nights per week. Now they’re too old to do much more than an occasional Sunday service.

Emporia, Kansas, is hot today. The mostly brick and concrete downtown is a throwback to 1953. The weather feels like I’ve just jumped rope in the attic.

I am sitting on a bench, counting cars, eating soft serve ice cream.

I’ve lost count.

I remember my redheaded father bringing me to Emporia as a kid when he had errands to run. I had to hold his hand when we’d cross the street. He’d waltz into a hardware store, and talk to the old men behind store counters.

The old timers all talked the same—they added “now” to the ends of their sentences.

“Okay, now,” an old man might’ve said, messing up my ugly red hair. “Be a good boy, now. Listen to your daddy, now. Hear me, now?”

“Bye, now,” would be the typical farewell greeting.

And my father would always return their goodbyes with: “Alright, then.”

My father could make conversation with a fire hydrant. He was especially chatty with total strangers. And they would usually open right

up to him. I don’t know how he did it.

Maybe it was his red hair that made him so easy to talk to.

A green Chevy truck pulls to the curb. A teenage boy leaps from the driver’s seat. The boy is all business. He helps an elderly couple from the vehicle.

The old man wears a camouflage ball cap. He can’t seem to move one side of his body. A stroke, I’m thinking.

The old woman’s silver hair is in a tight bun. She is every farmer’s wife since the Eisenhower Administration.

Together, they all hobble across the street in a three-person clot. The teenager supports them both with lanky arms.

The boy is moving nice and easy, making sure they don’t trip.

They are only inside the store for a few minutes. Then, they exit.…

Today, I just saw the place where his Thinking Bench still sits. It remains, after all these years. And it makes me happy.

I saw on the news this morning that Anthony Bourdain took his own life. After that, I read that someone named Kate Spade did the same thing. I never met Anthony or Kate, but I knew someone like them once.

We had a bench by our pond. A pine-log bench. It sat near the edge of the water. Daddy called it his Thinking Bench. This afternoon, after twenty-five years, I sat in that bench. I remember the day he built it—using only a sharp axe and cuss words.

It’s funny, how I can remember things like benches, but not what I had for supper last night.

Salmon, I had the salmon. No, it was chicken.

Anyway, weeds grew around his bench. He trimmed the grass using a jack knife sometimes. I don’t know why he did that. Cody, his Lab, would sit beside him when he used the bench.

One December morning, when the weather was unusually cold, I found him there. He’d been sitting all night. He wasn’t moving. Eyes open.

There was a thin layer of frost on his back and shoulders. His red hair stiff from the cold.

Mama ran outside with a blanket. He didn’t want it.

“You coulda froze to death,” she said. “You need serious help, John.”

“Help doing what?” he’d say with vinegar in his voice.

Because Daddy didn’t trust shrinks. After all, who could trust a medical man who had baby soft hands and wore silk underpants? How could a man like that help a body?

Besides, nobody from my father’s world seemed to KNOW what professional help was, exactly. At least not back then. Fewer understood words like “depression.” Back then, those were just modern ideas invented by folks who ate snails at dinner parties and talked about things like cubism, yoga, and frozen yogurt.

Daddy was the kind who made log benches. The kind who liked…

She has two kids. She dropped out of high school after she had the first. She was raising them as a single teenage mother. Her mobile home caught fire. It was heroism. There’s no other word for it. She saved her babies, and she bears the scars of it.

Kansas. An itty-bitty town. An old cafe. Linoleum floors, vinyl stools. The coffee tastes like ditch water.

In the parking lot: one semi truck, and fifty Fords. George Jones is on the radio.

Thank the Lord these places still exist.

This morning, I visited a river my father used to fish. I had to see it again. I was going to go fishing for old time’s sake, but decided I wanted eggs instead.

My waitress has the personality of a saint, and the smile to go with it. She warms up my coffee. I notice the skin on her chest and neck is marbled red and purple. Burns. Bad ones.

The man beside me is white-haired, wearing a cowboy hat. So are the old men beside him. I don’t know them. But these are the men my father came from.

We start talking.

“What’cha do for a livin’?” one cowboy hat asks.

Men have a biological need to ask this question of strangers. It’s as essential to manhood as

fishing rivers our daddies fished.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

This causes a stir among the hats at the counter. They lean forward to get a better look at the out-of-towner.

“What’cha writin’ about?” one asks.

Between five of them there are four cowboy hats, three pairs of suspenders, and enough white hair to sink the U.S.S. Uruguay. These men are the men I come from.

“This, that, and the other,” I say.

“Well, son,” says Cowboy Hat. “I’m gonna tell you a story about Bigfoot that I been trying to get published for SIXTY years...”

The other men laugh, but the old fella is serious.

“I was a boy,” Cowboy Hat goes on. “Saw this big ole thing in the woods. I’s scared to death, but got me a good view... It was Bigfoot, alright.”

The others…

Your prairies were a blip on the television screen of me. And I’m a stranger here, a foreigner. I have my own family, my own life, and it's a good one. And I haven’t thought of you again, Kansas.

Hello, Kansas. Nice to see you. It’s been a long time. You’re just as lovely as you used to be.

I’m driving through your prairies, the sun is setting over the wheat. The small towns are nothing but grain elevators and high-school baseball fields. And I’m remembering too much.

Namely, I remembering the way my daddy listened to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast on Saturday nights in a Kansas shed. I remember how he loved Minnie Pearl.

Whenever Minnie would say, “I’m jest proud to be here,” he’d slap his knee. Because when her voice came on the air, we knew she was going to say that.

He used that same corny phrase ten times per day. Until I was sick of it. He used it at baseball practice, supper tables, and even when he shook THE ACTUAL Minnie Pearl’s hand.

So yeah, I remember a lot, Kansas. I remember the place where I hit my first in-the-park home run, not far from here.

My father was clapping, and shouting. He was

wearing a Little League T-shirt, spitting sunflower seeds.

I ran the bases.

Roy Wallace was catcher. By the time I reached home plate, he had the ball in his mit.

Daddy shouted, “Mow his ass over, boy!”

So I did. I slid into Roy like a windmill in a tornado. My uniform was covered in dirt.

My father screamed, “HOW-DEEEEEEEE!”

I was fifteen feet tall.

Kansas. I hated you for a long time. My father left this world by way of his own gun, and he did it here. After we left this place, we never came back. And never wanted to.

In fact, I almost didn’t come today. I almost cut through Oklahoma on my way home.

I’m glad I didn’t. Because I would’ve missed the painted sunset behind Coolidge. I would’ve missed the golden fields…

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents sing. Every able-bodied patron sings. I sing. And for a moment in time we are eight years old again.

I’m in a Mexican restaurant. I’ve been driving. I’m tired. I’m here to enjoy cold beer and something salty.

Earlier, I tried visiting the joint up the road. The place has allegedly good barbecue. I left after three seconds. They had a band that only knew two volume levels: loud, and nuclear holocaust.

So I’m here.

Behind my booth are children. It’s a birthday party. There are at least fifteen. They sit around a long table which is mounding with gifts. They holler and laugh.

A few wear pointy hats. I didn’t know kids wore pointy hats anymore.

My waitress brings my beer, and I overhear all the Top-40 hits of childhood happening behind me.

“Gross, you eat boogers?”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

“My dad could beat up your dad.”

“COOTIES!”

How have we come this far as a civilization, and still not eradicated cooties?

Then, parents hush kids. Children's voices run quiet. A mother walks to the door and looks through the glass.

"Here she comes,” the woman says to her group. “Get ready.”

There is a pregnant pause. I am holding

my beer with both hands, watching the door.

The door opens.

Children scream “Happy Birthday!” loud enough to break stained glass. Then, applause.

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

Her father helps her to the table, holding her arms. The girl sits and covers her face. She’s blushing.

“YOU GUYS!” she says.

Her smile is bright enough to tear the cotton-picking world in half.

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents sing. Every able-bodied patron sings. I sing. And for a moment in time we are eight years old again.

Princess Pink opens gifts, using both hands. The wrapping paper doesn’t stand a chance.

“Tell her what gift you gave her,” the princess’…

My wife is asleep in the passenger seat. Thelma Lou, bloodhound, is chewing my wallet. For the last week, I’ve been saying things to this dog like: “NO! DROP THAT WALLET, THELMA LOU! I MEAN NOW!”

It’s early. I’m leaving Colorado Springs. My father’s mountain resting place is in the rearview mirror. Ahead of us: two more weeks on the road.

My wife is asleep in the passenger seat. Thelma Lou, bloodhound, is chewing my wallet.

For the last week, I’ve been saying things to this dog like: “NO! DROP THAT WALLET, THELMA LOU! I MEAN NOW!”

She loves it when I say this.

I've taken to hiding my wallet, and somehow she keeps finding it—even when it’s in my pants. So, like any diligent dog owner who cares deeply about their pet and discourages bad behavior, I am employing the ancient training technique of “letting her have the God forsaken wallet.”

Anyway, I’m spending this morning riding through mountains that belong in a John Wayne movie. I am enjoying a leisurely drive when suddenly:

ZOOM!

An SUV almost sideswipes me.

Horn honking.

ZOOM!

HONK! HONK!

What the?

The female motorist even shows me her sacred finger. And all at once, I understand. This is a major highway, and I’m going under the speed-limit.

Well, I don’t mind telling you that I’m not a speeder. I wish I were, but you can’t change who you are. You’re either a “go-getter,” or “lazy-and-walletless.”

My father used to lovingly call me Sean “the Slug” Dietrich.

I earned this nickname one summer when he told me to pressure wash our deck—which was roughly the size of Nova Scotia. He insisted that this chore would be good for me. Power washing, you’ll note, has never been “good” for anyone in the history of backyard accessory structures.

While I operated the machine, a neighbor kid named Joseph came riding on a bike. He nearly passed a kidney stone.

“COOL!” said Joseph. “YOUR DAD’S LETTING YOU USE A POWER WASHER?!”

“Yep.”

“You’re SO LUCKY!”

I thought about this for a minute. Then, drawing…

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

It’s late night. She’s driving an empty highway. The radio is playing something lively. She’s heading toward South Carolina. A new life. A new job. A new town.

She’s got a lot going for her. She’s fresh out of college, smart, ambitious, she comes from a good family, she’s got all the support she can stand.

She’s giddy about her new job. She starts on Monday. She’ll get her own office, good benefits, the whole enchilada. She’s wondering where life is going to take her next, and she’s pure excitement.

She doesn’t see the deer jump in front of her. All she hears is the sound of crunching.

It’s over fast. She smashes into a guardrail, her vehicle tumbles a few times. There is blood in her vision, but she’s not hurt—it’s a miracle.

Her car is wrecked, she’s stuck in a ditch, but she’s alive with no broken bones. She tries to crawl out of the vehicle, but the door is jammed.

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through

the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

Her new friend says, “You’re gonna be alright.”

It’s dark. They hike toward the highway to flag a car down. When she gets to the road, the man is gone.

Here’s another:

Bill has cancer. It started as a skin problem on his back. It grew fast. It spread. Doctors operate and cut it out.

After the invasive procedure, he lies on a hospital bed, subjected to lethal doses of daytime television.

Bill is sad. He has no wife, no children, no immediate family to visit him. He’s never felt as alone as he does today.

Then.

He sees a child, standing by the open door. He doesn’t know how the boy got in. Only friends and family are allowed to visit—Bill has neither.…