This is a country church. There’s a carport behind the chapel—a church van parked beneath it. And a cemetery behind that. And a hayfield behind that. And cows behind that.

A church potluck in the country. I’m a visitor with a bloodhound named Thelma Lou. Thelma is begging for food from anyone on this church lawn by using her hidden super-power.

Very, very big eyes.

People feed her left and right. A ten-year-old girl gives Thelma two cheeseburgers and a drumstick. I ask the girl why she does this.

She answers, “Just look at those eyes.”

She’s got a point.

This is a country church. There’s a carport behind the chapel—a church van parked beneath it. And a cemetery behind that. And a hayfield behind that. And cows behind that.

Tonight this place is buzzing. Boys throwing baseballs to fathers. Grannies chasing toddlers.

There’s music. A makeshift band is serenading a line of people at a buffet table. I’m standing in line with folks who all pronounce “‘nanner puddin’” and “tater salat” the right way.

I’ve met people tonight.

One woman hugged me and said, “Did you know that my Shih Tzu is named Dolly Parton?”

I did not.

I meet a man named Jeremiah, who wears a bowtie and suspenders. Jeremiah is late seventies, an elderly version of Bernard P. Fife.

Jeremiah tells me his first wife passed sixteen years ago. He still misses her. Then, he shows me his left hand.

He wears a brand new gold ring.

“Just got married to a younger woman,” he says. “She’s practically a baby!”

His new wife is two months and four days younger than he is.

A child runs, hollering, laughing. The kid crashes into me so hard I almost spill my plate. His name is Chris, and he’s playing football with his brother.

Chris hands me the football. “Throw it!”

I’ve never been able to throw a spiral. I lob the ball like guy who couldn’t play competitive shuffleboard on an AARP cruise. The ball flops…

By the time you read this, she’s already in Pigeon Forge, married, on a summer honeymoon. She’s been so excited about it she hasn’t been able to sleep.

She lives in a forty-foot single-wide trailer with her brother. She’s in her early thirties, but seems older.

And wiser.

It’s a nice place. Decorated. Frilly curtains. Laundry hangs in the backyard. Photographs on the coffee table. A few scented candles.

Her younger brother is making a sandwich in the kitchen. He’s skinny, tattoos cover his arms. He walks into the living room.

He hugs her before leaving and says, “Love you, Sissy, I’m working late tonight.”

To him, she is more mother than sister. She raised him. She did all things mothers do: diaper changing, wiping hindparts, and she’s washed enough laundry to populate the county landfill.

Her mother died when she was nine. She and her brother lived with their grandfather in this single-wide.

“I remember when I was thirteen,” she says. “I realized it was up to ME to be a mom.”

On the wall is a photograph of her grandfather. She’s in the photo, too. She is young, blonde. She stands behind the old man—arms wrapped around his neck.

“Cancer,” she tells me. “He was seventy.”

He was diagnosed when she

was a sophomore. She cared for him during the last few years of his life.

On his final day, she drove him to the emergency room because he couldn’t catch his breath.

In a hospital bed, he told her, “I’m so sorry, baby. First your mama left you, now I’m leaving you.”

Those were his last lucid words.

But.

I’m not here to write something that makes you feel sorry for her. She’s too exceptional of a person for pity. I’m writing about something else.

She met someone.

He is a fireman-paramedic. When they were first introduced, he asked her on a date. She refused.

“I’d never BEEN on a date,” she says. “I was so awkward and just so nervous that he would even ask me.”

He persisted. She gave in. He…

She wore black. She covered her woven hair in a scarf she made from a shirt found in his closet. Her son wore starched clothes she’d bought and ironed earlier that day.

She was hired to help him. He was elderly, house-bound, stuck in a recliner.

She was young, a single mother, poor.

She and her son lived in a poor, rundown apartment with rodent issues. She worked two jobs to keep the refrigerator stocked.

On her first day, she rolled into the old man’s driveway on fumes. Her car had rust on the fenders, an axle that made noise.

The old man fell in love with her—it would’ve been hard not to. Maybe it was her midnight skin, or the way she hummed when she worked. Maybe it was how she wrapped her woven hair in colorful homemade scarves.

She was a hard worker. She changed sheets, shopped for groceries, made breakfasts, lunches, and suppers.

She helped him use the bathroom. She eased him into showers. She scrubbed his backside. She combed his hair. She did his laundry. She folded his clothes while daytime TV gameshows ran in the background.

He talked.

He told her more than he’d told anyone. He talked about old days. About a war he fought. About jobs

he worked. About his late wife. About losing his only son.

She listened to him. No. She did more than listen.

She heard him.

And when he’d cry—which happened often—she held him the same way she would’ve held her son.

He enjoyed her son. Jemiah was the boy’s name. Jemiah wore poor-boy clothes, his shoes had holes in them.

The child liked to read, and write make-believe stories on construction paper. He wrote a story about the old man. It had illustrations of a white-haired man in a magical recliner that could fly.
Jemiah titled it: “My Friend Anthony.”

The old man kept it on his nightstand. It had been a long time since anyone called him friend. He read through it time and again.

His end came early one evening.

She was leaving his house for…

So I’m watching her work at the stove right now. She has no idea I’m writing this. My bloodhound is on my lap, a TV is blaring.

I’m watching my wife cook. She’s frying okra in an iron skillet. A dog lies in my lap. The television is playing. My life ain’t bad.

Except.

Three’s Company is on. I don’t care for Three’s Company.

“Turn it up,” my wife says.

She likes this show. I don’t know what she sees in it. I’ve never cared for the trials and tribulations of Jack Tripper. I’m an Andy-Griffith man, myself.

John Ritter is no Andy Taylor.

Anyway, cooking. This is what my wife does. It’s how she’s put together. If you’ve never met her, there are only two things you should know about her:

1. she talks with a loud voice.

2. don’t ever touch her plate.

On our honeymoon, we went to a greasy burger joint in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the kind of place with a jukebox, and burgers so thick they cause cardiologists to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm.

I made a serious attempt to steal an onion ring from my wife’s basket. It was the first and only

time I ever attempted such an act. And even though it happened long ago, I never regained mobility in my left hand.

Food, you see, is important to her. It’s what she does.

I’m not saying she’s a hobbyist. I’m saying that when we first met, she’d already completed culinary school with flying colors and worked in a kitchen. She doled out orders, stocked inventory, and balanced budgets.

A “chef de cuisine” is what they’re called. She knew all there was to know about beurre blancs, chèvre cheese, semi-rigid emulsions, and beef bourguignon.

When we were dating, she cooked supper a lot. On one such occasion, she asked what I wanted for supper.

I really wanted to impress her with worldly culinary wisdom. I felt it important to appear to be a man of sophistication when…

I’ve heard people say this world is in the outhouse. The newspapers, for instance, claim civilization is in big trouble.

Georgiana, Alabama—Kendall’s Barbecue joint is not just a barbecue joint. Inside this tin-roofed place is God’s own kitchen. The pulled pork here is nothing short of Biblical.

And today I need a little pork. I’m on my way to a memorial service.

I pull over for lunch. Large pulled pork. Extra pickles. I’m eating in my truck with windows down.

It’s hot outside.

A young couple in a Taurus pulls in. Dirt on the fenders. The boy is tall and skinny. His pants are too big. She’s pregnant.

There are three kids with them—all redheads. God help those children.

The young man is covered in sweat and dust.

They get their bag of food and head toward the car. He helps kids into carseats. He kisses each on the forehead.

The woman says to him, “Hurry, come quick! Feel him kick!”

He comes to her. He presses an ear to her swollen belly. His face lights up. He kisses her.

Then, they share a look.

After they leave, an older man orders at the counter. He has white hair, overalls, sweat spots on his shirt.

When he gets his paper bag, he takes it and walks to his truck. There is a dog in his vehicle.

While the man eats in his driver’s seat, I see him through his window. His mouth is moving, and he’s smiling.

I’ll be dog if he isn’t talking to that pup.

When he finishes, he stuffs a tobacco pipe with his thumb, cracks the window, and lights it. The dog gives the man a lick on the cheek. This makes the man smile.

Which makes me smile.

Next: a heavyset man orders food. He has broad shoulders and thick arms. He is with an elderly woman who uses a cane.

He orders. She sits in the shade.

“Mama,” he says to her. “You want tea?”

She does.

He helps her to a…

You, in a Cracker Barrel. You, tending bar, or walking in a shopping mall, or teaching second grade, or in a wheelchair, or mopping floors at Wendy’s.

I wish I had the right words, but I don’t. I wish I could tell you how I feel about you, but we don’t know each other. You’d think I was weird.

So I’m writing you.

Two weeks ago, I saw you in a grocery store, in Texas. You were in the produce aisle. You had a son. Your son was bald, wearing a surgical mask.

He was riding on your shoulders, right in the middle of a store. You were giving him an airplane ride.

We talked. You probably don’t even remember me.

You told me, “I don’t take any moments for granted anymore. My family has really started living, we don’t wanna miss out on a single second.”

Before I left, your son high-fived me. He said, “Cancer sucks!”

He said it with a laugh and a smile. At least I think he was smiling—it was hard to tell beneath his mask.

Anyway, you’re why I’m writing this. You, and people just like you. You are the

reason.

You—the woman in Cracker Barrel. I’m writing to you because I saw you. You were feeding your mother who sat in a wheelchair.

Your mother couldn’t move anything but her jaw. You helped her, spoonful by spoonful. She had fiery red hair—so did you.

You were there before I arrived. And you were probably there long after we left. You never touched your plate of food. You were too busy helping Mama.

I’m writing to the man I met yesterday, at a brewery. He was serving a crowd of young people at the bar. The man had a tattoo on his arm, I asked about it.

“This tattoo’s for my wife,” he said. “These are angel wings. She loved angels. We really miss her.”

She took her own life. She had a three-year-old son at the time.…

I’m watching my dog run on the beach. She’s running alongside the waves. She stops every few moments to stare.

She’s not, too sure about waves.

It’s Father’s Day, and I’m a father—well, almost. I have a fifteen-week-old bloodhound named Thelma Lou. That’s almost like being a father. The only difference, of course, is that human babies don’t chew your wallet then poop inside your boot.

You read that right. My dog didn’t poop ON my boot—as in: the exterior. She did her business INSIDE my boot. The basic physics behind this acrobatic marvel are astounding. I only wish I could’ve captured it on video, it would’ve been worth millions.

So poop in a boot, that makes me a father. At least this is what I’m going with.

People without kids, like me, still have the same amount of love parents have. That love has to go somewhere. That’s where dogs come in.

My first dog was a border collie. My father bought it. We named it Pooch. Pooch

was bred to herd sheep, but since there were no sheep around, he herded redheads.

When my mother yelled my name, Pooch would dart off the porch like a bullet. He’d circle me, yelping, nipping. When he died, I thought a piece of me died.

My next dog was Goldie. A retriever. Long, pretty hair, happy face. I raised her from a pup.

Goldie was Hell on Wheels. She lived beside me. She slept while I did homework, she chased baseballs. In the woods, when I was busy with little-boy things, like catching frogs, or swinging limbs, she watched over me.

Cody was next. She was my father’s dog. She was a chocolate Lab who loved my father. I can close my eyes and see him strolling from the barn to the shed, Cody trailing two feet behind him.

When he…