Then, the bloodhound looked at me with wild, mildly Satanic eyes. And I realized that we were playing a game.

There are certain days in a man’s life when, for whatever reason, he has the urge to chase a runaway bloodhound up a Tennessee mountain.

This puppy, Thelma Lou, happens to be an expert at running. All it takes is the right breeze to hit her nose, and she’s off for Canada.

She was on a leash today, trotting beside me. We reached an overlook. The view was green and majestic. I remarked to myself, “Take a gander at them mountains.”

And it was during this moment of deep reflection that I noticed Thelma had chewed through her leash. All I could see were hindparts, bouncing merrily through the Greenest State in the Land of the Free.

“Don’t panic,” I told myself. “Just remain calm.”

I called her name. I shouted it firmly, but not aggressively. And I clapped. Lots of clapping. Clapping is important when calling a fugitive dog so that others nearby are sufficiently aware of what a human toadstool you are.

So I walked the

trail, looking for a dog, clapping. I heard rustling ahead, and I could see her.

I used my high-pitched baby voice: “That’sagoodgirlyesyouareThelmaLouyesyouare.”

And I was so busy calling her that I almost forgot that I’ve hiked this trail before, as a kid. I was with my father at the time.

I remember that day well. We both wore coonskin caps from a gift shop. That day, my father referred to me as Davy Crockett. I called him Daniel Boone.

We sang songs, we ate peanut butter sandwiches, we carved walking sticks. I still have those sticks.

When we hit the top of a mountain, my father looked over these very hills and whistled at them.

He said, “Would ya take a gander them mountains.”

He was a good man.

Anyway, I saw a dog in the distance. Her head was down,…

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in every subject. Her disposition got sweeter, too.

Her life was on the upswing. She dated her first boyfriend. She joined school clubs. She played in band.

And on the last…

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

Thank you for holding the door for an old woman at Cracker Barrel. You must’ve been fourteen, you were with friends. You were laughing and carrying on when you saw the old woman, pushing a walker. You jogged ahead. You beat her to the door. You held it open.

She thanked you. You yes-ma’amed her. And you made my day, kid.

My whole day.

And thanks for giving money to a homeless man in Birmingham, Alabama. You don’t know me, but I watched you.

I was at a stoplight. You were outside UAB School of Medicine campus. You wore green scrubs, and carried a backpack. You gave money. Then, you gave a cup of coffee and a fast food to-go bag.

Thanks for sitting with that young girl after work. She was seating on the sidewalk outside the bar. She was waiting for her ride.

It was two in the morning. She didn’t need to be alone at that hour. So you sat with her. You might

not think you did much, but you did.

Thank you for filling that backpack with food, then leaving it in a tenth-grader’s locker—anonymously.

You know who you are.

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

When the hitchhiker stepped into your car, you could tell he had mental illness. But you didn’t try to fix him, you didn’t try to be a hero, you didn’t try to DO anything. You were just nice to him. And he appreciated that.

Thanks for driving a kid named Peter to baseball practice. After his father died, his mother has been working double shifts. Peter has been babysitting and cooking supper for his sisters since his mother started working longer hours.

Peter had to drop out of baseball because he didn’t have a ride.…

...I miss mom-and-pop restaurants, beer joints, country stores, ice-cream shops, and side-of-the-road barbecue pits with waitresses bearing double first names. And I don’t want to lose them.

This place used to be a barbecue joint. It’s not anymore. It’s under new ownership. They’ve renovated. They have a summer beer menu with eighteen-dollar maple-bacon flavored beer.

Do what?

Years ago, this place was duct-tape on the seat cushions and a water fountain in the back. Pork sandwiches for three bucks. People asking how your mama’s doing.

Now it’s burgers made from Colombian black beans for eleven dollars. What’s next? Rapping in country music? Say it ain’t so.

“There are no hole-in-the-walls left,” my friend suggests, screaming over the music that’s playing overhead. “I think we’re seeing the end of the local dive. Everything’s going big-business corporate.”

I can hardly hear what he says over the techno music. This particular song sounds like a young woman brought a guitar to a chainsaw fight.

So, I walk to the jukebox to look for something with more fiddle. And I’m remembering when this place used to have a traditional lit-up jukebox that played Patti Page, Haggard, and Ernest Tubb.

This new juke-shaped super-computer has

a digital screen. No quarter-slot, only a credit-card reader and a keypad.

Shoot me.

“Corporations,” my friend says again. “They’re taking over the world, I tell ya.”

I hope he’s not right. Because I miss mom-and-pop restaurants, beer joints, country stores, ice-cream shops, and side-of-the-road barbecue pits with waitresses bearing double first names. And I don’t want to lose them.

I don’t know where they have gone, but I miss them enough to go look for them. I miss vinyl stool-cushions, dartboards, rotating pie-coolers, and servers who make small-talk because you look like you “ain’t from around here.”

And jukeboxes.

Daddy used to carry me to a barbecue joint that had a jukebox. For a dime, I’d enjoy “Waltz Across Texas” while I ate. The restaurant menu consisted of three things. Smoked pork, fries, and Arctic-cold beer. I was…

The wedding ceremony was in a big, old, tall, scary-looking church. When the preacherman said, “kiss the bride,” I heard sniffing from the girl beside me. I started sniffing, too.

The sun is low, the gnats are out. A barbecue grill is smoking with pecan wood. My wife is asleep in a lawn chair. She is out like a porch light.

Thelma Lou, the bloodhound, lies beside me, chewing on a two-by-four she found.

I’m cooking Chicken à la Beer Can for supper. I’m using my uncle’s secret recipe.

I remember when he would cook this chicken dish long ago. He’d smear on the seasoning, shove a Budweiser can up the carcass, and (voila!) redneck gourmet.

Pecan smoke during my childhood was always accompanied by stories. I’m talking big tales told by men with gray hair who held sweaty cans and wore jeans during the summer.

It would’ve been blasphemy to sit before a fire pit without stories.

So I need a story to go with this pecan smoke. After all, it’s part of my ancestry. Let’s see here...

I’ll tell you about this sleeping woman.

Our first phone conversation lasted nearly two hours. We were strangers then.

That night

on the phone, I hardly spoke. She used enough words for both of us. I did, however, manage to ask her to be my plus-one at a friend’s wedding in Birmingham. She agreed.

The next Friday, I wore khakis and a necktie. My mother remarked that she’d never seen me wear a necktie of my own volition.

I used cologne, too.

The cologne had been my father’s. The irony here is that my father was not a cologne man. Still, on my twelfth birthday, he gave me a bottle of French toilet water. For years, I wondered why he did this—since we weren’t toilet-water people.

I asked why he did that.

“Because,” Daddy said, “One day, you’ll be around some girl you REALLY like, and you’ll wanna smell fancy. Trust me.”

So this girl showed up at my…

She’s spent her life wondering. She wondered what color of hair he had, and what his parents named him. What kinds of foods he liked. And which sports.

She wasn’t a bad kid. She was seventeen, an all-American girl, pretty, the daughter of a Baptist pastor.

She got pregnant.

It happened so fast that it confused her. She thought she was in love. She wanted to marry him. She envisioned a small house, a decent neighborhood, shutters, hanging ferns, and a swing set in the backyard.

He told her he wanted to to have the pregnancy “taken care of.”

It broke her heart. She wanted to keep it. He pleaded with her to end it. She refused. He pushed.

He drove her to the clinic in a bad part of town. They sat in the car. She cried.

“I can’t do it,” she said.

“You HAVE to do it,” he said.

And so it went.

A big argument erupted. She jumped out of his car. He sped off.

She never told a soul about the baby.

In fact, she even managed to hide her pregnancy from her parents that summer—she left town to live with a friend and worked a summer job.

She went into labor one July night. She remembers it

like yesterday. She drove herself to the hospital.

It was a boy.

“Soon as I had him,” she said. “I wanted so bad to touch his face. That was an instinct, I think.”

But she wouldn't. She told nurses to take him away, or else she'd never say goodbye.

She called an adoption agency. She signed papers. They took the baby. She left the hospital the same way she came. Alone.

It was the hardest thing she ever did.

She grew up. She went to college, she pleased her parents. She got married to a man who loved her. She had three kids. She drove an SUV. She lived her life.

And it was a good life, she should’ve been happy.

But.

“I always hated myself,” she said. “I mean, how can anyone give up a…

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.…