Listen, I’m not a particularly smart man, friend. But then, you don’t have to be smart to know what I know. Life evaporates. It rises toward heaven so quick that you’re lucky if you catch a glimpse.

DEAR SEAN:

My dad died last year and I just don’t really know what to do with myself anymore. I know your dad died when you were my age, I think, so how do I be, like, normal again?

Really hope you write back,
FOURTEEN-IN-VIRGINIA

DEAR FOURTEEN:

I’m the wrong guy to ask about normalcy. I haven’t been normal since the third grade when I peed my pants onstage at a school assembly.

Even our school nurse remarked, “That child’s one rung short of a step ladder.”

She was right. But then, I don’t believe in “normal.” It’s a made-up word. And not that it matters, but I don’t believe in magic beanstalks, pop-stars, Florida Powerball, high cholesterol, or daylight saving time, either.

Years ago, while driving through South Alabama, I saw something. It was an overcast day and the world was colorless. My wife and I had just left a funeral. There was a sadness over our vehicle.

We rode through miles of farmland. My wife yelled, “LOOK!”

I glanced out the window. It was spectacular. I pulled into a cow

pasture. We stepped out. We ran through acres of cow pies and green grass.

A rainbow.

And so help me, the colors were touching the ground. The tail was diving into the dirt like a spotlight. I’d never seen anything like it.

The cows watched us with big eyes while we behaved like six-year-olds. We took turns swatting the colors. I don’t know exactly why we did this, but I would’ve regretted not doing it.

Here’s where it gets somewhat magical.

The colors disappeared when I got too close. They reappeared when I took several steps back.

Closeup; gone. Far away; voila. The colors were there, but not always visible.

Eventually, the sun came out and the rainbow vanished completely.

We hiked back to the truck. I took in a breath of morning air and I felt…

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I bear-hugged her sister, then lifted her out of the passenger seat.

A newsroom. I was in my mid-twenties. Unruly red hair. Big nose. A necktie that was suffocating me. Don’t ask me how, but I had a job interview. I was pure nerves.

I had no business being there. But then, I have a well-documented history of being in places I shouldn’t be.

“No journalism degree?” the editor said, squinting at my resume which read like a Hardee’s breakfast menu.

“No ma’am.”

“So, what’s your degree in?”

I explained that, at the time, I was in my ninth year of community college. And I was showing true potential as a promising liberal arts major.

“Aren’t you a little old to be applying?” she said. “What exactly do you want?”

It paralyzed me. I didn’t know how to answer. She waited. I made no human-like sounds. She asked me to leave.

Goodnight John Boy. Thanks for playing.

I loosened my necktie. I ordered three tacos from a Mexican dive downtown. The tacos came doused in a red sauce that would forever burn the protective lining from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

I sat on a curb.

What DID I want?

I saw a group of young men, walking the street, wearing suits and neckties. They did not look like me. They were cleancut, perfect teeth.

They probably had vocabularies which did not contain words like, “y'all,” and “twelve-pack.”

I was interrupted.

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I bear-hugged her sister, then lifted her out of the passenger seat.

And it did something to me. I discovered what I wanted.

And I’ll share it with you, if I may:

First: I want my friends to feel important. I want children to feel loved—all children. I want dogs to follow me for…

The girl told more stories. She used words that were above her age. Like: “resuscitation,” “trach tube,” and “ventilator.”

The doctor’s waiting room. Martha was sick to her stomach. These were supposed to be her golden years. But the “C” word had changed all that.

She was angry at the world. Angry at herself. And scared.

Doctors confirmed that it wasn’t serious. They operated. It was an outpatient procedure, she was cooking supper for her grandkids that same evening.

But she was anxious. The fear kept her from up at night. She couldn’t focus. She spent days, weeks, months feeling sorry for herself. It was hell on earth.

In the waiting room, a little girl sat beside her. She was the only one in the room with Martha.

The girl was reading a magazine, swinging her feet. She wore an Atlanta Braves ball cap. A brace on her leg.

Martha’s anxiety was bad, it almost swallowed her. She had to talk to someone. Anyone.

It was the usual kid-to-grown-up conversation. How old are you? How do you like school? Martha had spent a lifetime raising kids, she knew how to talk to them.

The girl was a conversationalist—which a rarity in a technological age. Martha

asked where the girl lived.

“Used to live here, in the hospital,” the girl said. “But now I live at a foster home. I don’t got me no parents.”

The girl was small. Her joints were unusually big; her limbs were hickory switches. A thin tube ran from beneath her shirt into a hip pack.

“What grade are you in?” asked Martha.

The girl shrugged. “No grade. Can’t go to school because I’ve always been in a hospital.”

“Always?”

“Since I was eighteen months.”

“Wow, that’s a long time.”

The girl set her magazine down. “Hey, know what’s cool?” she said.

“What.”

The girl held up five fingers. “I died five different times.”

“Died?”

“Yessum. Last time, I was dead for forty-nine seconds, I don’t remember it. All I saw was just white, bubbly…

I was in a hotel room last night. I turned on the television and heard reporters say the world was falling apart. That's not all I saw. I saw crazed talk-show hosts, sex scandals, pharmaceutical commercials, and snow in Florida—as I live and breathe.

Birmingham, Alabama—the mall. Two kids. They were lost. Brother and sister. Black hair. Dark eyes. Mexican.

Keith found them. They were wandering, holding hands. They wore concerned looks. He sensed something was wrong.

“I got four kids,” says Keith. “I have a feel for these things.”

He approached them. He kept his voice cheery. He asked if they were lost. They couldn’t understand him.

No problema. Keith almost majored in college Spanish.

“Are you lost?” He asked in Spanish.

“Si.”

As it happened, they’d lost their father. They’d been hiding from him in the department store. They were only playing a joke, it was supposed to be a game. It became a disaster.

They were too scared to ask for help because their father wasn't legal.

Keith promised he wouldn’t alert authorities. Instead, he searched the mall.

No luck. So, he bought the kids supper. Then he gave them a ride. The little girl rode in the front seat, guiding him through traffic by memory.

Turn here, turn there, take a right at the light.

She led him straight to her aunt’s apartment. Her mother and aunt came running. Tears

were shed.

Lots of tears.

Charleston, West Virginia—Amy rode her bike to the school-bus stop. She was minding her business like a good eleven-year-old.

A boy was dropped there by his father. He was new to the neighborhood.

Something happened.

The boy had an asthma attack. His inhaler was empty. His face went pale. Amy kept calm—though, I don’t know how.

She helped the boy onto her bicycle seat. She jumped on her pedals hard.

“Hold tight!” she said.

He wrapped his arms around her while she sped to his house—a half-mile away.

Nobody was home. He couldn’t find his key. She broke a window. She gave him a breathing treatment. It worked.

They still made the bus in time.

Knoxville, Tennessee—Billy was shopping with his wife. Actually, he was…

Vacant churches. Abandoned service stations. Orphaned chimneys. Election signs. Crumbling barns. Longleaf forests—which never change. Heaven, I am convinced, is full of longleaf pines.

South Alabama looks good this morning. There’s a low mist on the farmland. The cattle are sleeping. The sun is not up yet. I'm driving.

It was a morning like this I first learned how to chew Red Man. My father and his friend showed me how to tuck a wad in my cheek. It tasted like raisins and kerosene.

“Whatever you do, don’t swallow,” said Daddy.

I got so sick I fell off the tailgate. He laughed and said, “If you even THINK about telling your mama, I’ll put you up for adoption.”

This is a good morning. The orange sun is still behind the trees. It’s thirty-some degrees. The grass is green, even though it’s January.

My cousin lived on a cotton farm. Long ago, I helped run heavy machinery for one weekend. The smells of the earth were enough to make a kid drunk.

It's too early and too cold to think about heavy machines.

I’m passing dilapidated mobile homes with seventy-five-thousand-dollar trucks in the driveways.
There are dogs, wandering the highway. Scrappy ones, looking for trouble.

Or love.

I’m behind a school bus. Kids are staring out the windows at me. I wave. They wave. They’re laughing, sticking out tongues.

Childhood.

I’m on a dirt road. This is a shortcut my friend showed me long ago. I’m cutting through scalped fields with dry rotted fences which are older than I am.

The road spits me onto pavement. I hope my truck caught enough red dust to make it pretty.

I pass faded brick buildings with Coca-Cola signs. I miss the days when good folks called it “KOH-kola.” I miss a lot of things.

I miss an age before cellphones. And kids who rode bikes to a best friend’s house to ask, “Can Sammy play?”

Today they text.

I pass old homes with outdoor workshops. The kind of one-room buildings where old men piddle. With workbenches…

The night-shift cashier gave him hotdogs and egg rolls—lukewarm from the warming rack. She did this instead of throwing them away. She did it because she liked Tony.

A gas station. The middle of the night. Tony stopped by this store every evening. He came for the food, and the company.

The night-shift cashier gave him hotdogs and egg rolls—lukewarm from the warming rack.

She did this instead of throwing them away. She did this because she liked Tony.

Tony. A nice homeless man with yellowed beard, gentle spirit, and dusty skin. A man who occasionally smelled like whiskey.

The two would sit on the sidewalk during the wee hours. They’d swap cigarettes, stories, laughter.

He was a spiritual man.

He told her about himself. In another life, he’d been a fella who was working his way through seminary. A thirty-something man, trying to do something worthwhile.

Then, his pregnant wife died in an interstate accident. He lost two people in one day. And he lost himself.

Anyway, Tony listened to her, too. She told him about boyfriend problems, her runaway father, and her unstable mother. She looked forward to his visits, they helped each other with late-night boredom. They helped each other period.

He gave her advice.

She brought him clothes. He gave her presents on her birthday.

One particular week, Tony never showed. She sat on the sidewalk, waiting. No signs. She felt like something wasn’t right.

She called the hospital. The voice on the phone said, "Yeah, we got a homeless guy here… Been here a few days. He belong to you?”

Tony had checked himself in. He’d told doctors he couldn’t breathe. His chest infection had become pneumonia. He was dehydrated.

She visited when she got off work. She lied to the nurses and said she was family. They knew better, but looked the other way.

She found him in a bed with tubes connected to him. She sat in the chair beside him. When his eyes opened, she handed him a greasy paper bag.

“I made these fresh,” she said.

Hotdogs and egg…

Morning is here. No sign. She’s been missing a full day now. The house is a tomb. I can’t find the gumption to even make coffee. I sit in a chair with my head between my hands.

My dog ran away. I feel like someone kicked me in the ribs.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It happened earlier. I got home to see the front door swinging in the wind. Maybe it didn’t latch.

I called Ellie Mae’s name, then listened for the sound of paws on pavement. Nothing. She'll come back, I'm thinking.

Three hours: I am sick.

Three hours, she could be anywhere. She could be across the county line. She could have wandered onto a busy highway.

“Stay calm,” I’m telling myself. Dry insanity sets in. I’m imagining bad things. Like what happened to my old dog, Joe.

Years ago, Joe dug a hole under our fence. We drove, searching until we couldn’t. I remember seeing his body after the accident. You can’t unsee something like that.

So the sun is setting. The orange sky is turning into night. My best friend is gone.

I’m searching side streets, back roads, dirt trails. I’m praying under my breath. We knock on doors. We call the sheriff, neighbors, shelters.

“Ellie Mae!” my wife shouts into the woods, until her voice sounds

like pleading.

It’s late. We’re hoarse. Eight hours she’s been missing.

We give up. We pull into our driveway. We’re silent. I skip supper. I crawl into bed with my clothes on, but can't sleep.

I toss and turn. I think about when I took Ellie Mae fishing and my boat motor gave out. I swam the boat to shore. She swam beside me.

There was the time she stole a pecan pie from my neighbor’s backyard deck. She ate the pie and the tin foil together. The foil made a reappearance the next morning.

And the time my wife brought Ellie home. She was just floppy skin and bones. Her ears were a mile long. She tackled me and fell asleep, snoring on my chest.

Her snoring has been the sound I sleep by.

Morning…