And this humble friend is all alone tonight, asking for a gift from On High. I want to experience the life we had together just one more time. Even if only for a few moments. I want to do it all over again.

Dear Ellie Mae:

You spent half your life in my truck passenger seat. There wasn’t a trip that you didn’t sit beside me. That seat was yours.

Is yours.

And we used to play in the water together. Remember that? It was your favorite thing. I’ve never had a dog love water like you did.

After each swim, you’d jump in the passenger seat and get the truck upholstery wet. God. That’s a good memory.

The truth is, I can’t feel anything right now. I’m numb all over. And sick. My eyes are hot and swollen. I can’t breathe. It feels like the world has turned to ash, and the sky has become rock.

I’ve been crying. I even got down on the floor and moaned. And sobbed. And wailed. I made a fool of myself.

I’m writing you because I don't know what else to do, honey. I can’t talk to you anymore, and you were Daddy’s little listener.

I’m hoping for a miracle of Heaven. I’m hoping that somehow these words get to you. I

hope God sends them upon the wings of angels—I am begging him.

I just want you to know how much I love you. And even though we will not be together anymore, I am grateful.

I’m grateful we belonged to each other. I’m grateful it was me you loved. Grateful it was my truck seat you claimed.

I suppose you’ll have a new hip tonight. New ears. And a new set of young bones, too. And guess what? That means you’ll be able to wrestle again.

Isn’t that great? We used to wrestle. Remember how you loved to wrestle after supper?

I do.

We’d roll on carpet until you were exhausted. We sure knew how to play, didn’t we?

Ellie, honey. Now listen good. I don’t have long, and I may never…

So I hold her. And I smell her. She has a unique smell, one I’d recognize anywhere. And it might sound silly, but I’m sniffing her fur because that’s the Dog Way. It’s how they love.

The veterinary emergency room is slow today. A few cats. A few dogs. And I wish we weren’t here.

Ellie Mae, my bloodhound, is not well. She is at my feet. She doesn’t want to move. I can tell she’s in pain.

I can’t stand seeing a dog in pain.

On the floor beside her is another sick dog. An elderly golden retriever named Bart. Old Bart is a giant with a white face and brown eyes. He’s a sweet boy.

His owner is an elderly woman. She is crying—head in hands. I understand that Bart has come to the end of the road. Decisions were made.

The old woman is petting him. “Good boy, Bart,” she says. “Good boy.”

The vet tech calls Bart’s name. He can’t stand on his own legs, he’s too weak. It takes a few people to lift him. I can tell he’s embarrassed by this. Who ever said dogs don’t have pride?

They walk Bart to the Back Room.

I hate this place.

The

doctor says Ellie Mae is in bad shape. There is a lot of blood in her stools, she’s running a fever. She won’t eat. I offered her Virginia ham this morning, she didn’t want it. Hell must be frozen over.

This is the animal who once stole a pork tenderloin from my neighbor’s open grill. She ate the tin foil and everything.

“This is serious,” says the doctor. “I won’t lie...”

Serious. I cried some. I didn’t want Ellie to see me. So I forced a straight face.

Long ago, Ellie took her first camping trip with me. She was young. She was all legs, ears, and hair—just like me.

She slept in my bed. She ate what I ate. She even went to the public showers with me. You should’ve seen the looks we got when we…

I miss barbecue made by granddaddies, Little League uniforms, chores. I miss how my aunt used to get the Saturday Evening Post. Sometimes they reprinted old Rockwell covers.

It’s late. I‘m cutting through Lower Alabama on my way home. I’m the only vehicle on the road. I pass barns that barely stand upright. Hayfields soft enough to sleep in.

Behold, the country at night.

Headlights in the other lane. I turn my brights off. It’s the polite thing to do. It’s how I was raised.

The man keeps his brights on full-blast. They blind me. I flash. He flashes back, but keeps his high-beams on.

God bless you, too, pal.

I flip on the radio because my truck is old. I don’t have a working CD player. Anyway, I’m crazy about radios. I inherited this crazy from my parents, who always had a song playing. It’s just how I was raised.

Static.

Then, talk-radio:

“...NO, YOU LISTEN TO ME, SIR! YOU LISTEN TO ME CAREFULLY, BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO LISTEN TO ME...”

Station change.

A preacher screams, “...All liars shall have thy part in the Lake of Fire...”

Uplifting.

There’s a billboard in the distance, lit from the bottom.

“Wind Creek Casino, Atmore.” The sign shows happy people playing slot machines. Platters of Lobster Thermidor.

I’ve been to Wind Creek. It’s nice, but there are no tables, only computer games. If they had roulette tables, I’d renew my wedding vows there.

I’m passing Red Level. Not a porchlight for miles. Nothing but sleeping people. These are rural folk. I too, come from rural people. To stay up late is indulgent.

It’s just how we’re brought up.

1. Early to bed.

2. Always offer to do the dishes.

3. Always let supper guests slurp the tomato water in the bottom of the plate.

More static. Heavy metal music. Static. Rap music. Whatever happened to tender songs?

I drive past mobile homes, peppering the long acres near River Falls—I have a soft-spot for trailers. After…

You see, I’m not sure how life works. But I know that just being with a person who holds your hand can make ordinary things become poetry.

It’s early morning. It’s dark outside. And it’s cold enough in our motel room to hang meat.

This is my wife’s doing. She cranked the AC to negative-eighteen degrees. I can see my breath.

We’ve been on the road for weeks now, and my wife has enjoyed sub-Arctic conditions in various hotel rooms. My nose is about to develop frostbite.

Funny. I remember when my father got frostbite on his ears when I was a kid. He’d been welding outside one January day. He came home in bad shape, the tips of his ears were black.

He wore bandages over his ears for a week.

“Why do you have to work outside?” I asked Daddy.

“Because I love you,” he said. “That’s why.”

“You must REALLY love me.”

“I do.”

“How much?”

“Oh, s’pose you take the stars in the sky, multiply them times a billion, then wrap them in sunshine… That’s not even CLOSE to how much.”

Good men die too young.

So, this morning I’m writing you—because I don’t

know what else to do while my wife slumbers in this icy, artificial climate. I can’t feel my toes.

This woman.

She and I have gone through several phases of life together. We’ve changed careers a dozen times.

I laid tile; she worked in a hospital cafeteria. I hung gutters; she taught preschool. I worked landscaping; she was a nanny. I worked nights, playing guitar at an all-you-can-eat-crab-leg joint; she babysat weekends.

Years went by, and my Great Career Ferris Wheel kept spinning. Then, I got laid off.

It was quite a blow. We didn’t know what to do. So we did what all half-broke couples do. We took a lavish vacation.

Well, it wasn’t exactly lavish. We went camping in Indian Pass, Florida—a sleepy North Floridian beach with one seafood shack. We made camp…

Me. A kid trapped in an adult’s body. Me. Someone who once wanted to be a journalist, but hit too many roadblocks. Me. Someone who finally got around to finishing high school in his mid-twenties; college in his thirties.

Monroeville, Alabama—you couldn’t ask for a prettier day. The sky is cloudless. The town square looks like it did when Harper Lee’s book was first written.

And I’ll never forget reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for the first time. I was a chubby kid with a very bald head when I first read Atticus Finch’s words:

“Hold your head high, and keep your fists down.”

Let me explain the baldness: I was fourteen. I’d just lost my hair in a senseless act of home-haircutting. The clipper guard on Mama’s electric razor slipped. I bore a bald spot the size of an aircraft landing strip.

To fix this, Mama scalped me.

When I saw my reflection in the mirror, I cried. My mother kissed my bald head and said, “It’ll grow back.”

To cheer me up, my aunt gave me a paperback book. I read it in one day. The next afternoon, I wrote a five-hundred-word story. I entitled it: TO SHAVE A MOCKINGBIRD.

Many years later, as an adult, I drove to Monroeville to cover the stage adaptation of MOCKINGBIRD. I’d

been invited by veteran journalist, stage-actor, and highly-decorated Methodist, Connie Baggett.

I’ll never forget it.

I arrived in Monroeville at sunset. It was mid-March, but outside it was colder than a brass toilet in a single-wide trailer.

I met Connie in the parking lot of the famed courthouse. She took me on an impromptu tour of the whole town.

“I used to cover Monroeville,” she said. “When I worked for the Press Register, this was part of my territory.”

She was a real newspaper journalist. She was the kind I had wished I could’ve been when I was a kid, but never was. And she had good stories.

She told me about the first time she’d interviewed Harper Lee. She told me local tales and folklore. She pointed out the best barbecue joint in town—on Rutherford Street.

Then, she…

I walk inside to pay for gas. There is a cardboard box near the counter. The box is filled with Ziplock baggies of boiled peanuts. On the bags are handwritten words: “P-Nuts $1.00.”

An old gas station. They have the old pumps with spinning numbers. There is a handwritten sign on the front door: “No dogs in the bathrooms.”

I wonder how that sign came to be.

There are men sitting in chairs out front. One man holds a plastic Coke bottle full of brown spit. The other men are relaxing on the axis of the wheel of life.

There are two Auburn University caps, one Roll Tide, and a cowboy hat. A dog sleeps beside them.

“Howdy,” says one man. “How ya din today?”

It’s been a long time since anyone asked me how I was “din.”

My answer is pure reflex. One I can’t lose.

“Middlin’,” I say. That’s what old timers in my youth said. Phrases like that were used at feed stores, covered-dish socials, and in hardware store aisles, while weighing a pound of nails.

“How ‘bout y’all?” I ask.

One man spits. “If I’s din any better, wouldn’t be able to stand myself.”

I pump gas. When the pump reaches seventy dollars it shuts off. Seventy big ones. It feels like highway robbery.

Long ago, my daddy thought paying ninety-six cents per gallon gas was disgusting. He would mumble colorful words, then say: “When I was a kid, gas was only TWENTY-FIVE cents.”

My granddaddy would say the exact same thing. Only he would add: “I remember when gas was a DIME a gallon.”

And so it went. I come from a long line of old men who reminisce about the price of crude oil.

These were old-world gentlemen who carved pine sticks with pocket knives. Every day, a few more of these men disappear, and I miss them. When they’re gone, who’s going to complain about the price of gasoline?

Before the War, my grandfather pumped gas at a country store. He wore a ball…

Flowers are pretty. And that’s what you are. Pretty. You make life pretty, just by being alive. You might not feel pretty right now, but that’s only because it’s not your season.

“People are flowers,” an elderly church lady named Miss Rebecca once told me.

She was a white-haired sweetheart who made poundcake that was good enough to make strict Baptists take the name of Andy Griffith in vain.

Anyway, there are a lot of ideas on life. Some folks think life is a journey. Like hiking a mountain with the Boy Scouts—who usually smell like the backend of a filthy goat.

Everyone has their own ideas, but if you ask me, we’re flowers, like Miss Rebecca said.

Bear with me here.

Flowers are pretty. And that’s what you are. Pretty. You make life pretty, just by being alive. You might not feel pretty right now, but maybe that’s because it’s not your season.

We can’t all bloom in April. Some of us have to wait until July. But you will bloom. Soon. I promise.

Maybe you’ll turn into a purple violet. Maybe you’ll be a red tulip, or a rose. Maybe you’re a magnolia. Or maybe you’re like me.

I am

a common dandelion.

I know being a dandelion doesn’t sound like much to get excited about. And believe me, it took me a LONG TIME to be happy about being one. But this is only because most folks call dandelions “weeds.”

For many years, that’s how I thought of myself. And that’s why I’m writing this to you.

Dandelions aren’t weeds. They might be overlooked, unwanted, uncared for, and sprayed with pesticides, but they are flowers.

Yes sir. Dandelions are strong, and bright, and yellow. We open every morning to the sun. We close at night. We have the longest flowering season of ANY dadgum plant out there.

Roses might be breathtaking, but we are long lasting. And if we’re lucky, after we die, some grade-school kid will blow our fuzz into the wind.

Our seeds can travel…

So days turned into months. Clark was weak from treatment. He spent entire weeks in bed. He sat on the floor near the toilet a lot.

Clark was a cool kid. He had a bald head, brown eyes, and a nice smile. Clark was not his real name. But they said he liked Superman. So “Clark Kent” it is.

Before Clark lost his hair, he had a head of blue-black, just like the superhero.

When his parents found out he was sick, it nearly knocked the life out of them. But they say Clark didn’t get bothered by it. Nobody knows why. Maybe he was too young to be afraid.

Maybe he was made of steel.

Anyway, I don’t know much about pediatric oncology, but his diagnosis was bad. His mother called it a “death sentence.” His doctors were not hopeful.

But that’s not the story here.

One afternoon, on their way home from a medical appointment Clark saw a man walking the shoulder of the highway. He was near an overpass.

The man was dark-skinned, with white hair, holding the waist of his blue jeans to keep them from falling.

“Stop

Mom!” said Clark.

His mother stopped the car. Clark rolled the window down and asked the man why he was holding his pants like that.

“Lost my belt,” the man said. “And these pants are too big.”

Then, the man asked Clark’s mother for money. That’s where she drew the line. She refused to give cash to a stranger. She rolled up the windows and drove.

“We can’t just leave him,” said Clark. “He needs our help.”

Clark begged his mother to give money. Her only response was “no.”

Her son finally convinced her to stop at Walmart. They bought a belt, some sweatpants, and a few T-shirts. Then, they bought a sandwich from Subway.

They found the man beneath the overpass again. Clark gave him a plastic bag full of goodies. The man was overcome.

So days turned into…

No. You might not have movie-star cheekbones. Join the crowd, brother. Some of us have faces that were practically made for radio. But the universe sees us. And it doesn’t make us any less pretty.

Flowers. Buy them. Today. Give them to her for no reason.

It’s simple. You wrote me for advice, so here it is. You’re seventeen years old and you want her to notice you. Flowers.

Here’s the way I see it:

You want to stand out from a herd of average Joes, right? So, let’s have a look at this flock of seventeen-year-old Joes closely—don’t forget to plug your nose, some Joes haven’t learned about Speed Stick yet.

So here we are. Can you see them? Do you notice anything?

I do. Many have cellphones in their hands. They aren’t even LOOKING at each other. They’re staring at electronics.

Sure, these boys might be more handsome, more athletic, or more popular than you are. Their families might be wealthy. Their fathers might own golf clubs that are more expensive than the average human liver.

So what? I’ll bet you five bucks those boys don’t buy flowers.

And that’s not an opinion, it’s a statistic. Studies show that American boys don’t buy flowers like they used

to. I don’t want to get into the numbers here, but let’s just say that floral purchases among young males are down. Way down.

Boys quit buying flowers right around the time Andy Griffith went off the air. Somewhere along the way, text messages and Snapchat took over the world. And if you ask me—which you didn’t—that’s a crying shame.

Just the other night, for instance, I saw two teenagers in a pizza joint. They were sitting on opposite sides of a booth.

The young woman was drumming her fingers on the table, staring into the distance. Bored. The young man was on his phone.

Then, without warning, the young man stood. He slid into the seat beside the girl. He pressed his shoulders against hers. They smiled. He held his phone outward. Selfie time.

He spent…

After he died, I disappointed him. I didn’t attend high school until later in my adult life. And college took me a long time. A long, long time.

When I drive in the rain, I usually have to pull over. This is because my truck tires are almost bald, they slip in heavy rain.

You might not care about this, but I bought these tires just before a road trip to Savannah, Georgia. And at the time, they were all I could afford.

I was about to take a job, writing for a small magazine, right after I graduated college—I was a thirty-year-old man when I graduated.

It was a big deal for me. A big, big deal. I could hardly afford the trip, but I wanted to be a writer, so:

“Look out, Savannah.”

I paid two hundred bucks for tires that were supposed to get me there. They were missing most of their treads, but the price was right. I bought them at a secondhand tire shop. The owner was Russian.

He said: “These be very okay tires, but you no drive in rain or you die.”

Die. Right.

So on the

way to Savannah, I pulled over at a Citgo station when it started raining.

A man stood beneath the awning, smoking a cigarette. He had wrinkled skin, he wore denim and boots. He was a carbon copy of the people I come from. Steelworking men who dangle from iron beams with little more in their hearts than family and cuss words.

There was a little girl with him, nine or ten, maybe. She was watching the rain. The girl was his granddaughter.

She was out of school for a doctor’s appointment. Her parents couldn’t get off work, so he drove three hours from Nashville to take her.

Three hours.

“When this rain lets up,” he said. “I’m dropping her off and heading back to Nashville for work. I’m working overtime tonight.”

Age sixty-seven. Still working overtime. Driving six hours, roundtrip,
in one…