That night in Birmingham, I stood before a microphone and a roomful of people who wore smiles. I felt like I was going to puke. And I lost it. I cried in front of a lot of people. It was not my finest hour.

DEAR SEAN:

My name is well... That’s not important.

I lost my dachshund last night. She was fifteen years old overweight, had seizures, and was incontinent, but she owned my heart.

My wife doesn't want another pet, but what do I do with this love?

This is just a short note to you ‘cause I knew you’d understand.

MISSING-MY-DACHSHUND

DEAR MISSING:

The day my bloodhound died, I was away in Birmingham for work. Ellie Mae was thirteen, she’d been sick the morning before I left town.

We‘d taken her to the ER. They gave her meds, stabilized her, and it looked like she would make a full recovery.

The next morning, I kissed Ellie’s long face and left for Birmingham to tell stories and jokes to a roomful of a few hundred folks.

It was a nice day. I remember it well. I drove along the highway, humming with the radio. The sun was shining. By the time I reached Camden, I got a call from my wife.

“Ellie’s not right,” she said. “Something’s wrong.”

I almost turned the

truck around, and maybe I should’ve. But I didn’t.

By the time I reached Selma, the vet was on the phone delivering bad news. When I reached Maplesville, my wife and I were already discussing sending her to Heaven, and my gut churned.

“I don’t want her to suffer,” said my wife.

“I don’t either,” I said.

“You think we should… I can’t bring myself to say it.”

“Me neither..”

“I don’t want her to suffer.”

“Me neither.”

“I love her so much.”

(Sniff, sniff)

“So does that mean we should put her out of her misery, then?”

“I can’t do it.”

“Me neither.”

“But she’s in pain.”

“I know.”

“What do we do?”

“I dunno, but I don’t want her to…

The support has been staggering. The high-school choir performed at the local Italian restaurant to raise funds for Ben’s family. His classmates made bracelets that read: “Hope with Ben.”

Sixteen-year-old Ben Leary smiles too much. That’s what they tell me.

“Ben’s smile could light up a room,” says his aunt. “It absolutely lights up the room.”

Tonight, Ben’s smile is lighting up a little room inside the Ronald McDonald house on Alabama Avenue, in Memphis, Tennessee. He’s been there since June.

Right now, he’s probably lying in bed, watching movies on his laptop. Or maybe he’s texting with friends, or watching YouTube.

This last year has been a doozie. Radiation treatments have taken his energy, and he’s been tired. Inside and out.

But he smiles a lot.

It all started with headaches last September. Ben was getting ready for homecoming. He was going to take his neighbor, Julia, to a dance. It was going to be a good year. A very good year.

But headaches kept getting worse. Then came the bouts of anxiety. Then, exhaustion. The symptoms seemed minor at first, but became crippling.

One morning, he awoke with head pain too intense to bear.

His mother took him to the emergency room.

Bad news. The MRI showed a tumor on his frontal lobe. A big one. Glioblastoma—one of the most aggressive brain cancers there is.

Stage four.

They rushed him to the hospital for surgery. It was traumatic—not just for Ben, but for the whole family. And surgery was only the beginning of a long road.

More heartache came afterward. Another brain operation, a few months later. Hospital transfers. Medications. Recovery. Thirty-six radiation treatments. Thirty-six.

This is cancer in the twenty-first century, and it’s not cheap.

You know the drill, the family’s world gets shaken upside down like a piggy bank. And it’s nothing but waiting rooms thereafter. His parents slept in vinyl chairs, his brother and sister lived on vending machine food. And Ben fought.

But the radiation wasn’t working. Soon:…

Please, Lord. Give me something in black-and-white. I love old movies.

I am in a hotel with seven hundred cable channels. I turn on the television. It’s been awhile since I’ve actually watched TV. I’m in the mood for something good. Maybe an old movie, or something with Aunt Bee in it.

CLICK.

“...For tuning into Channel Five News, I’m Bobby McBobberson, I hope you’re having a fantastic evening. A nuclear explosion went off in…”

Flip.

“...You filthy piece of @^%&*ing Spam, (BANG! BANG!) I oughta shoot you three more times just because this is cable TV… (BANG! BANG! BANG!)”

Flip, flip, flip.

Young man in cowboy hat, holding microphone, singing:

“...COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL
COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL,
COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL,
WELLA, WELLA, I SAY A COLD BEER...”

Flip.

“...And VOILA! You can’t even SEE my cellulite! Can you? Magi-Cream removes all traces of wrinkles, unsightly worry lines, and the years emotional damage from my first marriage…”

Flip.

“...The embarrassment of plantar fasciitis disorder used to be so bad, it impeded

the quality of daily living, it made me suffer clinical depression, and I was isolated from my kids, my family, my friends, and the JCPenney’s activewear model who plays the part of my husband in this commercial. But then my doctor prescribed Belvacore®…”

Flip.

“...at Channel Five we’re covering the nuclear incident, it’s very bad. VERY bad. We don’t know what’s happening. But it’s VERY bad. And we want to stress the world ‘NUCLEAR’ as often as we can. Channel Five is live on the VERY bad scene...”

Flip, flip, flip, flip, flip.

“...JEEEEEE-ZUSSSSS cometh with all his angels, and will judgeth the quick and the dead. And THIS is why we NEEDETH your financial support. For FIVE EASY love gifts of $19.99 you TOO can experience...”

Flip, flip.

“...COLD BEER, PICKUP TRUCKS, HEEEYYY GIRL
COLD…

Then, he met her. She’d moved to town to teach school. When he saw her at church, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He approached her with an idea.

I drove four hours to meet the editor of a big-city newspaper. I walked into a large office wearing my nicest necktie. I was young. Wide-eyed.

She told me I had five minutes. I handed her a pathetic resume so tiny it needed a magnifying glass.

“You’re not even a journalism major?” she remarked.

“No ma’am.”

“You’re still in community college?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re wasting my time. I’ve got journalists lining up around the block. Find me a good story, and maybe we’ll talk.”

A good story.

The next day, I stopped at a nursing home. I walked inside and asked if there were any storytellers in the bunch.

The woman at the desk gave me a look. “They’re ALL storytellers, sweetie.”

She introduced me to a ninety-four-year-old man. We sat in the cafeteria. I asked to hear about his life. He said, “You with the IRS or something?”

He talked, and he was eighteen again. A rural boy who’d never set foot in a schoolhouse. His father used a wheelchair. His mother was dead.

Then, he met her. She’d moved to town to

teach school. When he saw her at church, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He approached her with an idea.

“I played on her sympathy,” he said. “Was my only hope, she was too pretty to be seen with me.”

He asked her to teach him to read. She agreed. He made fast progress—which was no surprise. He would’ve rather died than disappoint a pretty girl.

They married. She taught, he farmed. During those years, he remembers how they sat together in the evenings, watching evening take hold of the world. Love can be simple.

She died before age forty.

It was crippling. He gave up living. His fields went to weed. He lost his farm. He lost himself. He checked into a room at the motor-inn.

“I had nothing left,” he said. “I…

“You march upstairs, mister,” she told me. “You go count your blessings, count every single one you can think of, or you don’t get any meatloaf.”

I was a little boy. I was in a bad mood. My mother sent me to my room before supper.

“You march upstairs, mister,” she told me. “You go count your blessings.”

“But MAMA!” I said.

“Count’em one by one, young man, make a long list, or you don’t get any meatloaf.”

I’m thirty-some-odd years too late, but my wife is making meatloaf tonight.

So:

My wife—because she loved me first.

And boiled peanuts—just because.

And dogs—every dog.

And people who stop four lanes of traffic to save dogs. And people who adopt dogs. And people who like dogs. And people who spend so much time with dogs they start to think like dogs.

And saturated fat. Smoked bacon, cured hams, and runny egg yolks in my fried eggs.

And cotton clothes that just came off a summer clothesline.

And the sound wind makes when it makes its way through trees. And the smells of fall. And rain.

Old radio shows. As a boy, a local station used to

play reruns of Superman, the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, the Jack Benny Show, Abbott and Costello, and the Grand Ole Opry. I lived for these shows.

And the girl I met in Birmingham—she’s lived in fourteen different foster homes.

The child in Nashville—whose feet are too big for her sneakers. She can’t afford new ones.

Every soul at Children’s Hospital, Birmingham. Doctors, nurses, janitors, cooks, staff, and patients.

Every child who will be fortunate enough to see tomorrow morning. Every child who won’t.

And tomatoes. Tomatoes remind me of things deeper than just tomatoes themselves. They remind me of women who garden. Women like my mother, who suffered to raise two children after her husband met an untimely end.

Mama. The woman who made me. The woman whose voice I inherited. Sometimes, I hear myself…

Anyway, I stopped at a local gas station for some coffee. Only, it wasn’t really a “gas” station. The proper term is: “filling station.” There’s a difference you know.

I am driving through Everytown, USA. Kids are riding bikes along a street that weaves by brick storefronts. A boy rides past me. He has baseball cards on his bicycle spokes. I can hear the glorious sound his wheels make. And I am sucked backward into childhood.

I hope this nation never stops putting baseball cards to bicycle spokes

But then, maybe we already have. Baseball cards are a thing of the past. Young folks quit collecting them long ago—I heard this tidbit on the news.

As a boy, I had shoeboxes full. I had my father’s ‘52 Bob Feller—The Heater from Van Meter. And a ‘57 Hank Aaron.

I wonder if today’s kids know about Hank “the Hammer” Aaron.

Anyway, I stopped at a local gas station for some coffee. Only, it wasn’t a “gas” station. The proper term is: “filling station.” There’s a difference, you know.

A gas station is found along interstates. A filling station has old men sitting out front. If you’re lucky, those old men are boiling

peanuts.

The young man running the register was twenty years old. He had one semester left at Auburn. He was your all-American kid, and he looked like the kind who knows about baseball cards on bicycle spokes.

He glanced at my coffee. “Aw, you don’t want THAT coffee,” he told me. “It’s four hours old.”

Before I could say another word, he dumped the coffee and made a fresh pot.

They don’t do this at interstate “gas” stations.

I hope this nation never loses filling stations.

I browsed the aisles while coffee brewed. My eyes lit up when I found things from my childhood. Candy cigarettes, taffy, and a few other things that reminded me of the days spent catching fireflies.

I paid and left. I waved goodbye to the old men sitting out front. One gentleman was whittling a stick.

Marilyn. The woman who’d helped him make his family. Who’d turned his kids into adults. Adults who had successful lives and successful families. They live in successful cities, they do successful things.

Mister Vernon died last night. He went easy.

You never met him, but you knew him. He was every white-haired man you’ve ever seen.

He spoke with a drawl. He talked about the old days. He was opinionated. He was American. Lonely.

Miss Charyl, his caregiver, did CPR. She compressed his chest so hard his sternum cracked. She was sobbing when the EMT’s took him.

Caregiving is Charyl’s second job. She’s been working nights at Mister Vernon’s for a while.

She arrived at his mobile-home one sunny day. Mister Vernon was fussy, cranky. A twenty-four carat heart.

She listened to his stories—since nobody else would. He had millions.

He talked about creeks, mudcats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and Cahaba lilies.

And he talked about Marilyn. Marilyn was the center of his life once. His companion. But she was not long for this world.

He talked politics, too. Charyl and he disagreed. Mister Vernon would holler his opinions loud enough to make the walls bow.

He was a man of his time. An oil-rig worker, a logger, a breadwinner, a

roughneck. He helped build a country. And a family.

Each day, he’d thumb through a collection of old photos. His favorite: the woman with the warm smile.

Marilyn. The woman who’d helped him make his family. Who’d turned his kids into adults. Adults who had successful lives and successful families. They live in successful cities, they do successful things.

“He sure missed his kids,” says Charyl. “They hardly came to see him. They were so busy.”

Busy.

Last night, Vernon asked Charyl for a country supper. She lit the stove and tore up the kitchen. She cooked chicken-fried steak, creamed potatoes, string beans, milk gravy.

“Marilyn used to make milk gravy,” he remarked.

She served him peach cobbler. Handmade. The kind found at Baptist covered-dish suppers.

“Marilyn used to make peach cobbler,” he said.

After supper,…

Thelma Lou, the bloodhound, is sixty-five pounds of droopy eyes and ten-miles of legs. And she is sprinting toward parts unknown. Muscles flexed, ears flying. We’re talking full-on demonic possession.

My dog stole my cellphone. I was trying to watch the Braves game when she stole it from my armrest and left for another zip code.

Thelma Lou, the bloodhound, is sixty-five pounds of droopy eyes and ten-miles of legs. And she is sprinting toward parts unknown. Muscles flexed, ears flying. We’re talking full-on demonic possession. And I’m chasing her.

Of course, any dog owner will tell you that it’s a bad idea to chase a dog. You must never chase a dog. Dogs are programmed to run away from you when you chase them.

Instead, experts stress that the best way to recall a dog is to pat your thighs and unleash a string of profanity that causes small trees and most domestic varieties of hydrangeas to die.

Not me. I’m chasing and hollering:

“THELMALOUTHELMALOU!!!”

Thel is already a mile away, galloping a dirt road into a neighborhood of mobile homes. The trailer-park neighborhood is quiet tonight. Folks are sitting in front yards, seated in lawn chairs.

One man is shirtless, with many tattoos, his name is Miller. Miller’s mother—I’d guess late-seventies, maybe—is seated beside him. She is smoking a cigarette and wearing a patriotic bathing suit which provides less coverage than number 08 dental floss.

Granny is spraying Miller’s kids with the water hose. They are laughing and giggling.

“What kinda dog is that?” Granny asks me.

I’m not making eye contact with Granny in case of any possible swimsuit malfunctions.

“A bloodhound,” I say.

She stabs her cigarette and adjusts her bikini top. “Nice-looking dog, Sweetie Pie. What’s your name?”

She winks at me.

So Miller decides to help me. He chases Thelma. And he runs faster than I can. He darts away so quick that his baggy jean shorts almost rip and he nearly spills his beer.

But Miller is committed to…

I want Willie Nelson to live forever. And I’d like it if the lady who throws my newspaper at three in the morning would inherit a million dollars.

How I got invited to a corporate business convention isn’t the story here. But let’s just say there are lots of people wearing nice suits and finishing sentences with: “Did I already give you a card?”

There is a guest speaker. He is famous. I don’t care for him. His talent: complaining.

He complains about America, religion, the economy, pro-sports. About lukewarm fried eggs.

The people love him. They applaud after each purple-faced rant.

The woman next to me says, “Oh, I watch his show on TV all the time. Don’t you just love him?” She grinned. “By the way, did I already give you a card?”

I do not love him. If you ask me, he needs considerably more fiber in his diet.

I leave the main event and make the long drive back home. The sun is setting. It is a stunning sky.

I don’t know what’s happening to the world. People are angry. TV personalities earn seven-digit incomes by getting peeved.

Well, maybe I am feeling particularly inspired by the guest speaker. Because I have a mind to make a list

of my own complaints.

My first complaint: sunsets.

Sunsets don’t last long enough. They only give a few minutes of sky-painted glory, then it’s goodnight, Gracie.

I know. That’s not a real complaint, but give me time, I’m new to this.

Complaint two: puppies. They grow up too fast. There is nothing half as marvelous as razor-sharp puppy teeth. This, I know.

I’m also complaining that there aren’t more barbecue joints.

I don’t mean the fancy kind where waiters wear all-black and use iPads to email copies of your receipt. I’m talking concrete-block joints with ugly bathrooms, decent service, and food that your doctor warns you about, served in red plastic baskets.

Something else: I wish people gave more compliments for no reason.

Hardback hymnals. I’m not happy about their disappearance. Give me elderly Miss…

My uncle was his own man. He rolled his own cigarettes, recycled his coffee grounds, went fishing whenever he wanted, and didn’t mind letting others cook his supper.

It’s the middle of the day and I just woke from a nap. My bloodhound has her head on my chest. She is snoring. There are noxious fumes coming from her backend. I’m worried she’s about to make a pile on my bed.

My nap was not a good one. Sadly, this is because I wouldn’t know how to take a decent nap if I tried. I come from Baptist people who believe napping to be the Eighth Deadly Sin.

The only person I knew who took naps was my uncle. He was a believer in midday rest and he used to claim that this was the secret to a happy life.

“The secret to a good life,” he once told me. “Is after lunch, strip your clothes off, fold’em up nice and neat, and take a nap.”

My uncle took naps in his ‘52 Dodge RV with the windows open. Nobody ever bothered him when he napped because we didn’t want to know what Baptists

looked like without clothes.

He was an odd bird. He had a large handlebar mustache and he spoke with a funny cadence. I can close my eyes and hear his unique voice in my head, telling a story. His stories were good. His work ethic was not.

One summer, my uncle attempted to fix our air conditioner. It took eighteen days, fourteen thousand cigarettes, and a lot of naps. Finally my mother knocked on my uncle’s RV and said, “Screw it! I’m buying a new air conditioner.”

He was in the middle of a nap at the time.

My uncle was his own man. He rolled his own cigarettes, recycled his coffee grounds, went fishing whenever he wanted, and didn’t mind letting others cook his supper.

He minded less if someone offered to buy lunch. My uncle’s favorite pastime was inviting people to lunch at…