Lady is brown, with long floppy ears and a calm face. She is reserved, and she is thick in the middle. She has white around her snout, and two eyes that seem wise.

The woman was walking her dog on the sidewalk. I saw them. She had a Cocker Spaniel, it was wearing a red vest. The dog was well-behaved.

I love Cocker Spaniels. Long ago, I had one.

“Her name’s Lady,” the woman said. “She used to be a service dog, but she’s not anymore. She’s retired.”

Lady is brown, with long floppy ears, and a calm face. She is gentle, and she is thick in the middle. She has two eyes that seem wise.

Lady’s quite an animal. Her previous owner passed from a stroke in 2017. Lady was eleven when it happened. This woman has owned Lady ever since.

“She’s a good girl,” said the woman. “But she likes to be really doing something, you know, working. I don’t have any jobs for her to do though, so I just invent games for her.”

And at the end of every day, Lady crawls on the woman’s lap. She rests her head on the woman’s tummy while

she reads a book before bed. Lady usually falls asleep before anyone else.

Lady also gets up a lot earlier than the others in the family. But she makes no sound. She only waits by her new mother’s bed, sitting at attention, until everyone else wakes up. Old habits die hard.

This dog looks just like a friend I had once.

My old Cocker Spaniel was just like this one. One day, she just showed up on my porch, covered in knots and burrs. She was one of God’s own saints, sent to earth to show me what it means to slow down, eat more saturated fat, and take longer naps. She was my friend when I needed a friend.

We spent the rest of her life together. She would wait for me in the windowsill every evening. Whenever my truck would pull into the…

She helped the girl find herself. She helped the child become a woman. She helped the woman become a mother.

She was a pretty girl. A teenager. Dark skin. Black hair. And alone. She was standing in the canned soup aisle of the supermarket. Scared.

Miss Wilma—which isn’t her real name—was an elderly woman, reaching for a can of chicken broth from the top shelf.

She was going to make chicken and dumplings. It was a recipe that had been passed down from her great grandmother. It was a recipe which, women in her family claimed, could cure yellow fever, and croup. And on one occasion in Mount Dora, Florida, 1969, it prevented divorce.

The girl reached the top shelf for the old woman. She was a tall girl. Seventeen, almost eighteen.

A pang in Wilma’s gut told her something was wrong. There was something in the girl’s face. The girl looked terrified.

She started talking to the girl. Their conversation led Wilma to ask where the girl’s mother was.

“I don’t know,” the girl admitted. “I think I lost her.”

But the girl hadn’t lost her. The mother

had left.

The girl’s mother had disappeared from the state, and left her daughter in the supermarket. The girl had been looking for her mother for hours.

“Why haven’t you asked for help?” asked Wilma.

“Because I don’t wanna get my mom in trouble,” the girl said.

Wilma was going page the woman over the supermarket intercom, but the teenager begged her not to.

“But,” said Wilma. “What’ll you do? How will you get home?”

The girl shrugged. “Ain’t got no home.”

The girl was from Jacksonville. But truthfully, she was from everywhere. She’d been living in a car with her mother, roaming highways since her early days. Her mother had a talent for falling in with the wrong people—which is how the woman had kept a drug habit going. Motels, RV parks, public shelters, those were her homes.…

At club meetings, members store cellphones in a locked safe. Their mothers serve pimento cheese sandwiches and juice boxes. And the kids talk about, say, Leo Tolstoy.

The sun rose over the Alabamian highway, and it was pure majesty. The sound of birds was music. I was on my way to speak to a book club.

I don’t usually speak to book clubs, namely because I’m no good at it. I’ve found that avid readers are smarter than I am. Most often, it goes like this:

A man in steel-rimmed glasses stands and asks a question like: “What was your subjective motivation within the pretext of the outlined apparatus of your—dare I suggest?—almost quasi-static prose?”

I usually just mumble something about current tax laws, take a sip of water, and say my closing remarks:

“It’s been a bona fide treat, folks. A bona fide treat.”

Then it’s off to KFC for some bona fide supper.

This book club, however, is different. These are thirteen-year-olds.

A girl named Claire emailed me several weeks ago. She told me their group of friends formed a club that reads books instead of playing with phones.

At club meetings,

members store cellphones in a locked safe. Their mothers serve pimento cheese sandwiches and juice boxes. And the kids talk about, say, Leo Tolstoy.

They are smart kids. They read authors like Robert Frost, Carson McCullers, Walt Whitman, and one redheaded writer whose truck has needed new brake rotors since 2002.

I arrived in a residential neighborhood of manicured lawns. I wasn’t sure whether I should wear my tweed jacket with the elbow patches. I decided against it.

Their mother invited me inside. I shook hands with kids and parents. A kid named Brad held his hand out and said, “Cellphone, please, sir.”

He locked my cellphone in a fireproof safe with the other phones, then showed me to the den. The living room was full of kids sitting on the floor.

The round table started by discussing the Mark Twain book they’d…

I finished college by age thirty-something. Also I have seen Willie Nelson in concert. And, not to brag, but I hold the regional record for eating the most consecutive slices of blueberry pie at last year’s Fourth of July dinner on the grounds.

I am fishing. Hogtown Bayou couldn’t be any prettier if it tried. The clouds over this bay are nothing short of American poetry

The air is salty. The crickets are out. The water is calmer than a monk on Miller Lite.

The Choctawhatchee Bay is the best part of my youth. When I was sixteen, I took Wendy Benton to the shores of Hogtown Bayou. It was a poor-man’s date.

Hogtown Bayou resembles Beulah Land. Not that long ago, forests still stretched for miles. You could find longleaf pines with catfaces the turpentiners once carved on them, long before the invention of cable television.

And, if you fished the right spots, you had to carry a baseball bat to swat the fish away.

Wendy was from Mountain Brook. She was repulsed by this place.

“Fishing?” she said. “Gross. You brought me FISHING?”

“No,” I said. “I brought you to see a magnificent sunset.”

“But, you have a fishing pole in your hands.”

“I do? Well, would you look

at that? How’d that get there?”

I caught a one-pound redfish. Wendy swatted mosquitoes. She never returned my calls. I understand she married an attorney and lives in Toledo.

Years later, I took the would-be Mrs. Dietrich to Hogtown Bayou. Her name was Jamie.

Jamie said, “Do you take all your heifers out here?”

The answer was no.

I told her I wanted to live on Hogtown Bayou one day. I wanted to fish here whenever I felt like it. I told her all about myself. She listened.

She caught a fish bigger than the state of Delaware. I asked her to marry me a few weeks later. We bought a small house a stone's throw from Hogtown Bayou.

Tonight, I caught jack squat. A miniature pinfish, one stingray, and one Mountain Dew bottle. My father, had he been alive, would’ve…

When she was twenty-four, Beater suggested she apply for a job at the hospital. She thought this was ridiculous. Hospitals didn’t hire “poor white trash.”

Some fool called her, “trash.” And that’s when she made up her mind. She wanted to better herself, and her family. So, that’s what she did.

“That GED test,” she said, while she checked my blood pressure. “That ain’t no joke, now. It’s tough.”

Her accent is so Alabamian it hurts. She’s missing a few teeth, but it doesn’t look bad on her. She’s old, wiry, but strong.

Where she grew up, country folks didn’t go past the eighth grade—some still don’t. And according to her daddy, “Once a young’un can read, it’s time to work.”

Saying this made her laugh.

All six of her brothers dropped out, so did she. She met a man who worked in a lumber mill, they had two children before she was twenty. She’s still with him. She calls him Beater. I don’t know why.

When she was twenty-four, Beater suggested she apply for a job at the hospital. She thought this was ridiculous. Hospitals didn’t hire “poor white trash.”

“Which is exactly what I am,” she tells me.

Even so, she inquired. They told her, she

needed college. So she called a college. They said she needed a high-school diploma. So she called the high school. They said she needed a GED.

For six years, she attended night classes. Beater took over cooking, and putting kids to bed.

“He believed in me,” she said. “He’d always say, ‘Wish I could do what you’re doing, but I’m too stupid.’ But he ain’t dumb, he paid for every bit of my school.”

If only there were more Beaters in the world.

She got her GED. Then, she zipped through college, clinicals, and even taught a little.

“Been a nurse since the seventies,” she said. “I work ER shifts too. Shoulda retired long ago. Shoot, my kids’re grown.”

Beater is pushing for retirement. He even bought an RV. He wants to visit the Everglades, the…

This potluck is attended by people of all ages. A little girl plays piano. She is playing “Heart and Soul.” She’s been playing this melody for ninety minutes straight.

A potluck. A small church. There is more food here than people. A cooler of iced tea. Casseroles out the front door. Coffee. Coke. Fried chicken.

I never met a potluck I didn’t like. Not even when I was in Kentucky last summer, and there was a casserole that allegedly had chunks of raccoon in it.

I love food, and people, and cholesterol. Combining all three makes miracles happen.

The fried chicken is nothing short of spiritual. My fingers are too greasy to type.

It’s euphoria on a short thigh. Lightly battered, golden brown, spiced with black pepper. I am crazy about fried chicken. In fact, you could say I consider myself a chicken enthusiast.

And this chicken is fit for company.

There is also a cream cheese dip made by an elderly woman named Miss Carolyn. It’s addictive. I’ve eaten three quarters of this dip, and am in serious need of Rolaids.

I ask Miss Carolyn what’s in this marvelous dish.

“It’s simple,” she says. “It’s called Cowboy Crack, my

grandkids love it.”

This potluck is attended by people of all ages. A little girl plays piano. She is playing “Heart and Soul.” She’s been playing this melody for ninety minutes straight.

A church lady finally drags the girl away from the piano and assigns her to kitchen work, washing dishes. The girl is not happy about this.

Life isn’t always fair, kid.

The deacon at my table is an avid golfer. He is talking about golf even though I told him I don’t know the difference between a five-iron and a duck-hooked double bogey.

He keeps talking just the same. So, I’m smiling, nodding, and willing myself to spontaneously combust into flames. I have always thought spontaneous combustion would be a dramatic way to go.

I take my leave. I go for seconds on the buffet line. Namely, I…

I had an old condenser microphone my father bought at a garage sale. It was broken, but I used it for make believe.

I am writing this before I go on a stage, about to speak into a microphone and tell a story over radio airwaves. I only have eleven minutes. My story is a simple one. There are jokes embedded within it. Jokes I hope people laugh at.

I am not nervous—which is somewhat of a miracle. I used to get nervous a lot. I used to get so nervous that I talked like Porky Pig on a blind date. But I’m calm.

They tell me this station’s audience is small. Only two radios will actually tune into this AM station on a weeknight. The sound engineer, and the sound engineer’s mother.

The signal isn’t strong. But it does reach the interstate.

I’m excited nonetheless.

After all, you never know who will be listening. Maybe a man in an eighteen-wheeler will be overcome by unexplained inclinations to turn on his radio. And MAYBE, as if by urgings of unseen forces, he’ll turn his dial to a weak-signaled AM station. And MAYBE, by miracle, he will

have reception for ninety seconds and hear me say:

“Hi everybody, I’m Sean Di—”

(Static hisses)

“...And I just wanted to say from the bottom of my heart th—”

(More static.)

“...Our guest has been Sean Dietrich.”

I don’t just like radio. I love it.

In fact, if you would’ve met me when I was a young boy, making mudpies in the backyard, you would’ve known that I already had a career in radio.

I had an old condenser microphone my father bought at a garage sale. It was broken, but I used it for make believe.

Back then, I would report on weather, school kickball, and deliver updates on the happenings within Miss Welch’s socially stratified first-grade class.

I was, for instance, the first broadcaster to break the news of the scandal that rocked the elementary school—involving…

People in the vestibule were talking about how beautiful it was, just as soon as they walked through the doors. The white colors, the draped linen, the floral arrangements, and magnolia blossoms.

Good morning, Erin. You don’t really know me, and I don’t really know you, but I wanted to thank you for inviting me to your wedding last weekend. It was a beautiful service.

You picked a good man to marry. Todd is an old friend. He’s moral, kind, loud-mouthed, and he can handle more adult beverages than any man I’ve ever known because he is Episcopal.

He is giving. Once, I saw him empty his wallet and give it to a handful of Hispanic boys outside the hardware store.

It was cold weather. They were looking for an honest day’s work. They were wearing T-shirts. He gave them a handful of cash to buy coats. That’s your new husband.

Anyway, it was a nice ceremony. They tell me that you and your mother decorated the chapel all by yourselves—and on a puny budget. It was breathtaking.

People in the vestibule were talking about how beautiful it was, just as soon as they walked through the doors. The white colors, the draped

linen, the floral arrangements, and magnolia blossoms.

Somebody’s red headed toddler was running around in the back pews. And not that this is an issue, but he’d messed in his britches. We all know this because we could smell him.

His mother chased him, she was livid. She wore the angry face of Satan, adorned with pearls and heels. She couldn’t catch the kid. He eluded her grasp, then ran toward the altar of God just before the wedding started.

He waved hello to the congregation.

We waved back.

And once his furious mother caught him, we all knew this redhead would not see his next birthday.

Anyway, I was sitting beside your aunt and uncle. They were country people, and I have a soft spot for country people. These are the sort I come from.

They were beaming with pride…

I remember early mornings when my mother and I threw the daily newspaper. I remember my sister, sitting in the backseat. I remember the jokes we told each other to keep smiling. And how her laughter sometimes turned into crying for no reason.

She’s having another baby. I still can’t get over the idea that she ever had a first. She is my little sister. That’s how I will always see her. Little.

My wife sometimes has to remind me: “Your sister’s a grown woman now.”

But I remember her as a tiny thing. I remember how much she liked ice cream. I remember her full cheeks.

I remember long ago, when she tried to run away from home. We were in Georgia. I remember how sad she was. Somehow, I talked her into staying.

I remember the sound of her voice when she cried that day.

“Nobody loves me,” she moaned.

“I do,” I said.

“Well, I KNOW you do, but nobody else does.”

“Mama does.”

“I KNOW you and Mama do, but that’s all. Nobody else loves me.”

“The mailman does.”

“The mailman?”

“Oh, you bet. The mailman loves you a whole lot, he told me so himself.”

“The MAIL-man said that?”

“Hand to God. He said you were the only thing that keeps him going.”

“Oh, c’mon, now you’re just being

stupid. Tell me who else loves me.”

“Miss Randolph, a few houses down. She loves you to death.”

“Oh, don’t be stupid.”

“She brings tomatoes and watermelons from her own garden because she loves you so much. You’ll crush her if you run away.”

“Oh, you’re being silly. Keep going, who else loves me?”

“Who else? Hmmmmm. Let’s see. The Daniels boys, they’re crazy about you.”

“Those greasy pigs?”

“They’re in love with you. Aaron Daniels practically wants to marry you, he told me that just this morning.”

“EEWWWW! He did? He smells bad. Who else?”

And I talked her into staying.

I remember when she was a baby. A clammy little thing who sang songs even though she didn’t know the words. I remember when she lost her front…

They miss running more than anything. I’m talking about all-out, wide-open, honest-to-goodness running. They’re legs were made for this, but they can’t do it. Not in here.

They stand behind caged doors. They look at you when you walk by. They bark like their lives depend on it.

Some have barked so hard they’ve lost their voices.

They miss running more than anything. I’m talking about all-out, wide-open, honest-to-goodness running. Their legs were made for this, but they can’t do it. Not in here.

The old dogs don’t even bother barking anymore. They know what awaits. One day a woman in scrubs and rubber gloves will lead them away, and they won’t come back.

Jack, the Labrador, for instance, he was ten years old, reddish colored. Nobody wanted him because of the white on his snout. He went to Heaven yesterday.

“People just don’t want elderly dogs,” a staff worker tells me. “It breaks your heart, I won’t lie.”

And Ophelia. She’s a beagle. She’s an old woman. So is ‘Bama, Pistol Pete, Chocolate, Bradley, and Miss Daisy. Abandoned dogs. Lost animals. This is their last stop on the bus ride of life.

Through the doors

walks Jace. Jace is a seven-year-old boy with rosy face and blonde hair. His parents are divorced. They live in a two-bedroom apartment, with no neighbor kids. Jace gets lonely.

“My son needs a friend,” his mother explains.

Jace walks the long corridor and looks for a pal. He sees Rip—a basset hound with so many skin wrinkles he ought to win an award. His face is long, his ears touch the floor. Rip is nine.

Jace pokes his hand through the bars.

“We ain’t supposed to let people touch the cages,” a staff worker whispers to me. “But Rip’s a sweetheart.”

Rip wanders to the door. He licks Jace.

“Mom!” says Jace. “He licked me!”

Rip stares at Jace. In dog years, Rip is older than this boy. And he’s smart, too. You can see this in his…