And this morning’s traffic—if you can call it that—is sparse. I don’t often get to count cars anymore, but when I do, I wave at people who drive them. I like to count how many people wave back.

I’m on a cousin’s porch this morning. A puppy is in my lap. I am watching traffic roll by.

And this morning’s traffic—if you can call it that—is sparse. I don’t often get to count cars anymore, but when I do, I wave at people who drive them.

I like to count how many people wave back.

People don’t wave like they used to. It’s a dying art, waving. Not long ago, you’d wave at folks and get waves in return. Things have changed.

A red truck rides past. A man wearing a cowboy hat is driving. I wave. The old man waves.

You can trust old men in cowboy hats.

The first cowboy hat I ever had was not a true cattleman’s hat. It was a construction hard hat in the shape of a ten-gallon one. It was my father’s.

My father wore a hardhat every day of his professional life. And like most ironworkers of his day, his everyday hard hat was covered in stickers. I remember those stickers.

There

are some things you don’t forget.

My dog Thelma Lou is snoring while I count cars. This dog is pure adrenaline. I have only had her for six days, and I haven’t slept but a few minutes all week.

She wakes at odd hours with hellish insanity in her eyes. She chews anything within a nose’s-reach—including her own body. I love her.

I took Thel for a walk at 4:34 A.M. I haven’t been able to go back to sleep since.

Another car passes. It’s an old Chevelle, a ‘69 or ‘70. Kelly Green. Pretty. It’s full of high-schoolers. I wave at them. Nobody waves back.

Sad.

My uncle John used to drive a ‘73 Chevelle—Periwinkle blue, with Redneck Rust on the hood. I learned to drive stick in that thing.

A man is walking his Labrador…

He retired from work. He moved out of his old house and bought a new home. It wasn’t a nice place, but it was in a decent neighborhood. And the house had a detached garage apartment.

I’ll call him Sam, but he was more than just a Sam. He was special is what he was. On his outside, he was a fella with gray hair, a drywall man, a widower.

On the inside, he was a giant.

Long ago, his wife died from cancer. He thought his life was over. He gave up day-to-day living and stayed in his bathrobe for months. He ate cartons of ice cream, he quit doing laundry, stopped shaving.

He retired from work. He moved out of his old house and bought a new home. It wasn’t a nice place, but it was in a decent neighborhood. And the house had a detached garage apartment.

That’s where it all happened.

The first person to live in the apartment was a young man he’d met at a diner. The kid was a waiter. He was covered in tattoos and piercings. They started talking.

As it happened, the kid was late on child support, behind on taxes, and homeless.

It broke Sam’s heart.

So he let the kid live in the apartment, rent free. After only a year, the kid had saved up enough money to make child support, and get onto his feet.

The second person to live in Sam’s garage apartment was a young woman with three girls. Her husband was injured in a work accident—it crushed his ribs and spine.

Sam let the woman live in the apartment while she visited her husband’s rehab every day. Sam even babysat her girls. When her husband got released, the family lived in that one-bedroom place for two years.

The third person to live in the apartment was an elderly man who was legally blind. He’d lost eighty percent of his vision and couldn’t live on his own.

Sam opened his door.

On the day the man moved in, Sam gave…

And I was privileged to see Thel spend her first few minutes in the bay water. She only made it up to her chest, but we’re getting there.

I took a puppy named Thelma Lou fishing today. It was her first fishing trip. We fished at a secluded spot that I’ve been fishing at for a long time.

I’ve never told anyone where it is. Not even my wife.

To tell you the truth, it’s not really that great of a spot. Actually, it’s terrible for catching fish. But it’s quiet, and that counts for a lot in my book.

Little Thel and I hiked to the spot around lunchtime. She followed close behind my heels until she got tired. Then, she rode in my bait bucket.

Right away, I could tell fishing with Thelma Lou was a bad idea. This is because the only skills this seven-week-old puppy currently has are:

1. walking
2. pooping

Plus, she doesn't know how to sit still for more than eight seconds.

I finally gave up fishing and ate lunch. I’d brought a Thermos of coffee, a sandwich, and a jar of peanut butter. The

coffee and sandwich were for me. The peanut butter was for Thel.

My late dog loved peanut butter. I used to buy it by the case. You’ve never seen an animal go so crazy over peanut butter. I’ve still got dozens of unopened jars in the pantry.

Last night, I discovered Thel likes peanut butter, too. She was whimpering at the table, so I dipped my finger into a jar and gave her a taste. She drew blood.

One taste turned into another taste. Then another. And another.

It was almost too much culinary delight for one puppy to bear. She got so excited that she made a Tootsie Roll on the kitchen floor.

So, back to fishing.

After lunch, Thel fell asleep in a peanut butter coma. While she snored, I fished. She only slept for twenty minutes. When she awoke, she started…

They pile into the man’s Honda, which looks like it’s rusting apart. The man weaves through traffic, and drives into a nice neighborhood. He drops the kid at a three-story house.

He is young. He is wearing a red shirt. A cap. He drives a Ford pickup that has seen better days. The roof is rusted, the wheel bearings are in bad shape.

The kid is on lunch break, parked in a grocery-store parking lot. He is eating bananas because fruit is cheap and he has a light wallet.

His windows are rolled down. He’s only got ten minutes before he’s expected back at a jobsite, to hang gutter on a three-story house.

It’s god-awful work. He’s not afraid of heights, but he certainly doesn’t love nine-hundred-foot ladders.

The kid finishes eating. He tosses a banana peel into his flatbed. He tries to start his truck. It makes a coughing noise. He tries again. The truck sputters. The kid cusses.

The old Ford has crossed the river.

These are the days before cellphones ruled the world, there’s no way to call the kid’s boss. His boss is already at work, probably glancing at his wristwatch.

The kid sits, wondering what happens after he gets fired. He could always join the circus and clean up after

the elephants.

Across the parking lot: a man. He’s short. Gray hair. He asks if the kid is having engine trouble. The kid hardly understands him beneath his thick Mexican accent.

The man pops the hood. He leans inward. He tells the kid, “Try it now!”

The kid turns the key.

The gray-haired man winks. “I know what is thee problem,” he says. “We can buy part in town. Come. We take my car.”

“I can’t,” the kid says. “I’m supposed to be at work.”

“Work?

The man understands this word.

They pile into the man’s Honda, which looks like it’s rusting apart. The man weaves through traffic, and drives into a nice neighborhood. He drops the kid at a three-story house.

The boss is upset.

The Mexican man offers to stay and help hang gutter.…

I pulled over by the bay in a spot where Ellie used to swim. Once upon a time, Ellie and I would fish in this same place. At night, I would set pinfish traps. Early in the mornings we’d go fishing. Ellie would sit beside me.

Thelma Lou rode in the truck. She sat in a passenger seat that once belonged to a good dog named Ellie Mae. Chew marks and all.

Thelma is only pup. Seven weeks old. She’s not even big enough to climb honest-to-goodness stairs yet. But she’s ready to give truck-riding a shot. Baby steps.

Ellie Mae lived for rides like this. To Ellie, watching traffic through vehicle windows was the best life offered. Throw in a jar of peanut butter, a few pig ears, a swim in the bay, and Ellie was in Beulah Land.

Thel is too short to see above the dashboard. But she tried. She stood with her front paws on the dash, watching the windshield.

She stared out my passenger side. She wagged her tail at stoplights. She smiled at cars. She licked the window. She chewed upholstery.

This truck’s interior is well-loved by Thelma Lou’s predecessor. The zig-zagged snot traces on the window are Ellie Mae’s—I will never wash them. The ripped chair cushion is Ellie Mae, too.

So today was a

pretty day for driving. Thelma Lou had a lot to look at. Sun, trees, birds. There was almost too much to look at.

I went to the hardware store. I took Thelma inside with me. I carried her in my arms. Three employees wanted to hold her. One wanted a photo.

Later, Thelma and I stopped at a fast-food joint. She howled in a squeaky voice while I ordered at the speaker. It wasn’t a mature howl, more like a baby yelp, but Thel gets an “A” for effort.

The girls at the drive-thru window went nuts over her. They came outside to take turns holding her. Thelma Lou licked the makeup from one woman’s face, chewed the hair off another, and ripped the name tag from some poor kid’s shirt. Baby steps.

Still, I was proud of Thelma Lou. And I can’t explain…

We giggled. We made idiots out of ourselves. We formed a human-and-bloodhound-puppy sandwich—like we once did with the a good dog we called Ellie Mae. We kissed Thelma Lou’s bare belly. We let her chew our fingers.

Molino, Florida—my wife and I drove hilly roads into the sticks of the Panhandle. Molino is a place with livestock fences, horse trailers, old barns, goats, and Mennonites who drive cars without radios.

I watched the acres roll past our windows. I rubbed a penny between my thumb and forefinger.

This penny is special.

I’ve been carrying the penny since the best dog I ever had, Ellie Mae, died. The day after she passed, I was walking Seventh Avenue in Birmingham, wiping my eyes like a blamed fool.

That dog was thirteen good years of my life, wrapped in fur.

I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up—I never pick up pennies. I inspected it. Imprinted on the face was Ellie Mae‘s birth year. Coincidence? I don’t know. But I kept it.

I suppose I wanted to believe that wherever Ellie was, my best friend was thinking of me.

Anyway, my wife and I turned into a long dirt driveway. There were muddy trucks,

horse trailers, wide porches, and bloodhound puppies everywhere.

A man could raise a family in Molino.

And I saw her. A seven-week-old puppy, running through green grass. She tripped over long ears. I lifted her into my arms. She is heavier than she looks.

Her paws are too big for her body. Her breath smells like the Seventh Circle of Heaven. She bit my nose and made it bleed. She chewed my ear lobes. She licked my eyebrows.

Earlier this morning, my day was getting off to a bad start. I awoke to an empty and dogless house. I stumbled into an empty kitchen. Empty dog bowls sat on my kitchen floor.

I rubbed a penny while I made coffee.

I’m not used to emptiness. Every morning for the last umpteen years my mornings have been un-empty.

I would wake to a…

Heroes aren’t people on television. They aren’t celebrities who have designer clothes and silicone thighs. Neither are they the sorts of fools who use teleprompters and beg for your support. They aren’t athletes, news anchors, televangelists, pop stars, or reality-TV contestants with pink hair.

I hope you have a good day. The entire day. Start to finish. Not the Best Day Ever—that’s too much excitement crammed into twenty-four hours.

No. Just a plain old, good day.

I hope you wake up to smells you love. Like: donuts, bacon, a fireplace, or halitosis from a kitty-litter-eating bloodhound.

I hope you have nothing pressing to do. No schedule. No appointments.

We do too much, you know. Long ago, our ancestors practiced the noble art of being worthless. A lot of folks won't do that anymore.

Today, I hope you’re as worthless as a waterproof dishrag.

I hope you remember your ancestors. Your grandparents, and their grandparents—even if you’ve never met them.

I hope you think about the simple things they gave us. A hamburger with pickles. Whittling. Will Rogers. Baseball games. Pajamas. Smacking ketchup bottles. Hank Williams music playing on kitchen radios. Childhood porches.

I hope you close your eyes and recall the best pieces of childhood. The days when you played hard, and the best games happened in backyards.

I hope your smartphone quits

working—just for a few hours. I hope the absence of a digital screen takes you outdoors. I hope you hear the sounds of the earth all at once.

I hope you sit for hours with nothing but a cold drink and your best ideas.

I hope you meet someone who inspires you. A kid who’s had kidney cancer. A girl who got pregnant too young, who just finished nursing school.

A woman who lost her husband to an overdose. A child whose daddy is in prison. A hillbilly who put himself through the GED course. A homeless woman, selling parched peanuts. An EMT. A school custodian. A lonesome grandmother. Anyone who’s adopted a child.

I hope you look at them and feel proud. After all, they are the only ones worth being proud about. People like them. People like you.

Heroes…

Tony has parting gifts to send with me. He hands me a fifty-pound Styrofoam cooler. Inside is sausage, chicken salad, bologna, hoop cheese, pulled pork, honey buns, hog head cheese, and pork cracklins.

West Alabama is alive. The wide fields are painted in goldenrods. Green live oaks everywhere. A cow chews cud, watching cars on the highway. It’s a perfect day.

I should be happy.

But I haven’t been myself since my floppy-eared dog went to the Great Beyond. Ellie Mae has been gone a few days; my passenger seat never looked so vacant. I haven’t felt like talking. I haven’t even been hungry.

A road sign ahead.

“Jefferson Country Store,” it reads.

I’m in no mood to stop.

But then, I’m a sucker for country stores. The building is clapboards and tin. Rusted Royal Crown Cola signs and old posters for Nehi, Grapico, and MoonPies. A United States Postal Service sign out front. An American flag.

I pull over.

The front door is propped open. An attic fan is going. A hand painted sign advertises hoop cheese, hog head souse, and cut meats. Tony is behind the counter, taking it easy.

He recognizes me.

“Hey Sean,” he says.

Do what?

The last thing I expected to be recognized in the sticks of Jefferson.

He shakes my hand. His

wife, Betsy, hugs me. And even though I’m a stranger, they treat me like it’s homecoming. Tony offers me a burger.

“No thanks,” I say. After all, I’m not in the mood, I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself today.

Tony isn’t about to let me go hungry. In this part of the world, that’s a sin. In seconds, the grill sizzles and this place is alive.

I’m looking at this country store. My entire childhood is on these shelves. MoonPies, Star Crunches, PayDays, pickled pig feet, quail eggs, Golden Eagle syrup, ribbon cane syrup, rag bologna, and of course, red rind hoop cheese.

As a boy, my mother would carry me to a country gas station to buy me hoop cheese and a bottled Coke. For dessert, she’d give me candy cigarettes.

Today,…

There is a lot I don’t know about this world. I don’t know why society gets colder. I don’t know why families break up, why good people get cancer, or why the self-centered get promoted.

It’s early. I am on the road this morning. I stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s. I know the food’s not good for me, but Egg McMuffins and I have a long history.

There’s a man here with his daughter. They’re in the booth behind me. He talks to her with so much sugar in his voice it’s hard not to smile.

He asks if she had a fun weekend.

She tells him she doesn’t want to leave him and go live with her mother. He tells her she must go. She cries. He holds her.

“Don’t cry,” he says. “We still have weekends together.”

In a nearby booth is a group of Mexican boys. Their voices are happy. Their clothes are filthy.

A jokester in the group attempts a stunt for entertainment value. He leans backward and balances a full cup of coffee on his chin.

This is a bad idea.

A few tables over: a woman. She has a service dog. She doesn’t appear to be blind, but then what do I know?

The dog sits while she eats. A man comes out

of the restroom and pets the dog, but the dog doesn’t even acknowledge him. The animal is all business.

“Pretty dog,” the man says.

The woman answers, “He’s my everything.”

A few kids burst through the doors and stand in line. They are breathless, like they’ve just covered fifty miles on their bikes.

I wish more kids rode to town on bikes.

The man behind me is still talking to his little girl. "Your mother’s here,” he says.

A tall woman walks through the doors. She makes a beeline for the man and daughter. There is no small talk. She’s cool and collected.

They head for the parking lot. The man pops the hatch of an SUV and unloads pink backpacks, roller skates, a scooter, and flower-print luggage. The tall woman shoves things into a minivan.

A dog-food can sits in my cup holder—it holds pencils, pens, loose change, and a plastic-wrapped cigar someone gave me at an Ironbowl party five years ago.

Not long ago, I wrote this for Ellie. I won’t ever quit missing you, big girl.

 

I’m in a truck that hasn’t been cleaned in nearly two SEC championships. There is a coonhound in my passenger seat.

I stop at Chick-Fil-A. The woman at the window knows me. She knows my usual order.

“Morning, Ellie Mae,” says the girl at the window.

Other employees crane their necks out the window to greet Ellie, too.

We come here a lot.

We drive away and eat sandwiches while we ride through traffic.

Like I said, this truck is a mess. Ellie’s half-eaten jars of peanut butter are scattered everywhere. There are dog treats and bottle caps in the ashtray. Empty dog-food cans litter my floorboards.

A dog-food can sits in my cup holder—it holds pencils, pens, loose change, and a plastic-wrapped cigar someone gave me at an Ironbowl party five years ago.

On my dash: Ellie’s toy duck, a dog bowl, and a lasso—which I use for a leash.

This lasso was given to me by a five-foot Mexican man named Esteban.

I sold a lawnmower

to Esteban—that's how I met him. His wife came with him to translate. I noticed lassos hanging in the back of their truck. I asked about them.

In a few seconds, Esteban was doing rope tricks for me and Ellie Mae. Ellie liked this very much. She crouched low and barked. He twirled a flat-loop above her. She wagged her tail so hard it almost came detached.

She was a lot younger then.

Right now, I’m driving into a grass field. There must be two hundred acres of pasture before me. It’s not my land.

I’ve been taking Ellie here for years—long before I ever had permission.

I used to park at the edge of this field and hike over a fence. Then, I’d throw a plastic duck. Ellie would chase it into a small…