MEMPHIS—About a year ago, we went to visit Elvis. My wife and I showed up on Elvis’ property around lunchtime and bought passes for the Graceland Mansion Tour. And I’ll admit, we were both excited to see the Hall of the Great King.

Elvis, you see, was a household name in my childhood home.

My father was an Elvis fan, my mother was a fan, and I had a cat named “King.” We had decorative Elvis ceramic plates hanging in our kitchen. My father knew all the words to “The American Trilogy” from the “Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite” album.

I myself once dressed up like the King for Halloween.

Though, my costume left something to be desired. My mother believed in saving money and making costumes from household items.

Thus, I wore my mother’s satin bathrobe with sequins sewn on it, and she had rubbed black shoe polish in my hair. Her original idea had been to send me trick-or-treating with a guitar, but we

had no guitar. So my father gave me a garden rake instead.

When I knocked on my first door, I played a C chord on my rake, then twirled the belt of my mother’s robe.

Our neighbor, Mister Jimmy, almost swallowed his tobacco.

So for the Graceland tour, we joined a clot of people who were buzzing with our same enthusiasm. We were all poised and ready for the touching, profound, and purely American, once-in-a-lifetime experience—a self-guided iPad tour narrated by former Full House supporting actor, John Stamos.

We toured the first floor of the ten thousand square foot home of Elvis Aaron Presley, listening to our headphones. And this house had it all.

The Trophy Building—a room filled with gold records.

The Racquetball Building—a full bar with a racquetball court attached.

The Pool Room—a full bar with a pool table attached.…

It is always good to chase a healthy salad with something like cheesecake.

A meat-and-three restaurant. I am sitting in a booth, eating fried catfish. George Strait is on the radio overhead, singing about Amarillo.

There is a man pushing a wheelchair into the restaurant. There is a boy in the chair. Thirteen, maybe fourteen.

The kid does not quit moving his body. He rocks back and forth.

The man parks the boy’s chair at a table. He opens a menu for the boy. The child grins so big he almost cracks a tooth.

“I WANT SALAD, DAD!” the boy says.

“Salad?” his father answers. “Don’t you want chicken, or steak?”

“SALAD, SALAD, SALAD!”

“You’ll get it all over yourself.”

“SALAD, SALAD!”

The waitress arrives and the man tells her he will have one fried catfish platter, and one Cobb salad.

“SALAD!” the boy says again.

Father and son have a conversation. The father speaks with an indoor voice, but the boy speaks loud enough to blow out the windows.

“I’M GETTING SALAD, DAD!”

“I know.”

“SALAD!”

His father shushes

him, then asks, “How was therapy today?”

“IT WAS GREAT, DAD! I’M GETTING SALAD!”

“What kinda things did you work on today?”

“WE WORKED ON MUSCULAR FLEXIBILITY!”

“That’s great, how did you do?”

“I GOT THE GOLD STAR, DAD!”

“Another gold star? Let me see it.”

The boy works very hard to show the star to his father, but he has a difficult time moving his hands. Finally, the boy manages to touch his collar and display the bright sticker.

“SEE?” says the boy. “PRETTY GREAT, HUH?”

“It sure is,” says his father.

Their food arrives, and all of a sudden I realize I have been too busy watching to even eat my catfish. And I love catfish.

The boy is barely able to eat, it is exhausting to watch him struggle. But this…

DEAR SEAN:

Today I will lay my husband to rest, he died from sudicide which happened while our daughter was home with him, I don't know what tomorrow, next week, or the next month will bring, I know I have to be strong for her, I want to just crumble into a ball, I don't know what to expect, she is very angry, I just keep thinking of the word “Steel Magnolia.”

I don't know what to do.
HELPLESS

DEAR HELPLESS:

The morning after my father took his own life, I sat on our porch to watch the sunrise. I was a boy.

Inside our house, all the “Steel Magnolias” were buzzing around, cooking funeral food. The smells coming from the kitchen were beautiful. So was the sunlight.

Why is it that sunny days come at the wrongest times?

Don’t get me wrong. I need the sun. I have an addiction to sunlight. Without it I am a miserable mess. And I am not exaggerating.

A doctor once told me this is a real condition. He said that when some people become sun deprived, they go through a kind of biological depression. Some have it so bad they have to relocate to Florida to deal with it.

Well, I already live in Florida, and this is not a sure-fire cure. Sometimes we don’t see the sun for weeks in the Panhandle.

Once—I am serious about this—we went eight days without the sun. And worse, this overcast spell happened to coincide with the funeral of my friend’s mother. My friend’s mother took her own life.

It was bad. My friend’s father found her in the bathroom.

When my friend called, it was almost too much for me to hear. It took me back to childhood, to a time when the preacher said my father had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.…

A young couple in a Taurus pulls in. Dirt on the fenders. The boy is tall and skinny. His pants are too big. She’s pregnant.

GEORGIANA, ALABAMA—Kendall’s Barbecue is not just a barbecue joint. Inside this tin-roofed place is God’s own kitchen. The pulled pork here is nothing short of Biblical.

And today I need a little pork. I’m on my way to a memorial service.

I pull over for lunch. Large pulled pork. Extra pickles. I’m eating in my truck with windows down.

It’s hot outside.

A young couple in a Taurus pulls in. Dirt on the fenders. The boy is tall and skinny. His pants are too big. She’s pregnant.

There are three kids with them—all redheads. God help those children.

The young man is covered in sweat and dust.

They get their bag of food and head toward the car. He helps kids into carseats. He kisses each on the forehead.

The woman says to him, “Hurry, come quick! Feel him kick!”

He comes to her. He presses an ear to her swollen belly. His face lights up. He kisses her.

Then, they share a look.

After they leave, an older man orders at the counter. He has white hair, overalls, sweat spots on his shirt.

When he gets his

paper bag, he takes it and walks to his truck. There is a dog in his vehicle.

While the man eats in his driver’s seat, I see him through his window. His mouth is moving, and he’s smiling.

I’ll be dog if he isn’t talking to that pup.

When he finishes, he stuffs a tobacco pipe with his thumb, cracks the window, and lights it. The dog gives the man a lick on the cheek. This makes the man smile.

Which makes me smile.

Next: a heavyset man orders food. He has broad shoulders and thick arms. He is with an elderly woman who uses a cane.

He orders. She sits in the shade.

“Mama,” he says to her. “You want tea?”

She does.

He helps her to a picnic table. She…

My wife is asleep on my shoulder. She is out like a light. This is a sweet moment between husband and wife.

Wait a second. Is she drooling? If she is, so help me, I will gag.

Yes. I can clearly see saliva on my shirt. My gag reflex kicks in.

But I decide not to wake her because she is sleeping too soundly. And because I enjoy watching her sleep.

Long ago, before her, I dated girls who never seemed to like me. One girl in particular forced me to attend a fancy New Year’s Eve party at her aunt’s house. She told me to wear a sport coat. When I showed up, she chewed me out.

“What’re you wearing?” she shouted. “You didn’t wear a tie! I told you to dress up.”

“You told me to wear a sport coat.”

“But where’s your tie?”

“You just said ‘Wear a sport coat.’ So I bought this at a thrift store.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t wear a tie. You’re gonna have

to borrow one from my uncle.”

“This is genuine Scottish tweed.”

“How could you do this to me?”

“This jacket smells funny.”

“Why do you dress like a slob?”

“I think whoever wore this jacket before me must’ve died in it.”

She fitted me with a necktie. Before her aunt served salad, I was already in my truck on the way home. Her uncle’s necktie died a slow death on I-10.

But the woman who I married actually likes me.

We went to Charleston for our honeymoon. We had a famous time in South Carolina. Charleston is one of the most historic cities in the world—second only to Rome. On every corner you see American history.

You can visit the place where George Washington slept, or where Thomas Jefferson hung out, or where Garth Brooks…

There are too many things to name. You couldn’t even begin to make a complete list. You wouldn’t know where to start. The world is too big...

Andy Griffith. He would definitely be near the top of my list. I can’t think of many things better than Andy and Barney.

Next would be barbecue. In fact, it’s a toss up between Andy and barbecue.

Some of the best pulled pork I’ve ever had was at Tin Top Barbecue Restaurant, in Columbiana, Alabama. If you ever visit, tell them Sean sent you. They will look at you funny and say, “Who in the Sam Hill is Sean?”

Also, I love pictures of my friends. I recently had a picture taken with a buddy. When I saw the photo, I noticed how old I look. And it was a bittersweet feeling. It was a feeling that, perhaps, I need to cut back on carbs.

Laughter from a child. Especially a child who considers you to be their favorite non-parental adult. Like my niece, Lily.

Cowboy hats. I love them. As a child, I admired cowboys so much that I started collecting cattleman hats. My wife says I

own WAY too many, and is threatening to have a neighborhood bonfire.

Good T-shirts. They’re hard to find. I don’t want slogans printed on them, or brand names. I just want a plain color, loose collar, and I need it to be soft. Maybe a few peanut butter stains on the chest.

Dogs who sleep all day. I love lazy dogs. In fact, you could say that I aspire to be one.

Typewriters, fresh newspapers, the sounds of lawnmowers in the distance, Hank Aaron, Shirley Jones singing “Goodnight My Someone,” John Wayne, and black-and-white photographs.

Garlic, cooking in a skillet. Homegrown heirloom tomatoes. Conecuh Quickfreeze sausage. The fuzzy storyboards from Sunday school class.

A good book. One that’s written by someone who isn’t trying to impress you with five-dollar words.

The color yellow.

Lamps with shades. I am serious about that. I cannot…

Somewhere in West Florida. A hot, humid night. An outdoor concert. There are people on a large grassy lawn, cross-legged on blankets. The stars are out. So are the crickets.

I am onstage. Our band is playing “Still the One” because my wife is sitting in the front row.

“Still the one, that makes me strong,
“Still the one, I wanna bring along,
“We’re still havin’ fun, and you’re still the one…”

There is a five-year-old girl in the audience, dancing the Floss. The girl teaches me this dance. I try to follow her. It’s not pretty. I have never looked more Baptist than I do when attempting to dance the Floss.

Long before I started writing, I worked almost every job there was. I worked construction, retail, food service, landscaping, and once—this is hard to admit—I dug ditches.

My official job title was “lead culvert installation supervisor.” I made that title up myself.

But no matter what my job, after I clocked out, I would play music for money at local establishments with friends.

In my life, I have played piano in a gazillion joints with various bands, for all occasions. We’ve played skating rinks, weddings, bar mitzvahs, beer joints, churches, and shoe store clearances.

People ask how I started playing piano. And I tell them, it was my ninth birthday. My parents had a small family celebration.

My mother decorated my birthday cake with piano keys—because she knew how much I liked Ray Charles, Ronnie Milsap, and the blonde gal on the Lawrence Welk Show who played ragtime.

After I blew out the candles, my father said, “Wanna go down to the basement?”

That was weird for him say. I hated our basement. It smelled funny down there, and there was a lot of skink poop behind the water heater.

Even so, we went. My father…

Princess Pink opens gifts, using both hands. The wrapping paper doesn’t stand a chance.

I’m in a Mexican restaurant. I’ve been driving. I’m tired. I’m here to enjoy cold beer and something salty.

Earlier, I tried visiting the joint up the road. The place has allegedly good barbecue. I left after three seconds. They had a band that only knew two volume levels: loud, and nuclear holocaust.

So I’m here.

Behind my booth are children. It’s a birthday party. There are at least fifteen. They sit around a long table which is mounding with gifts. They holler and laugh.

A few wear pointy hats. I didn’t know kids wore pointy hats anymore.

My waitress brings my beer, and I overhear all the Top-40 hits of childhood happening behind me.

“Gross, you eat boogers?”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

“My dad could beat up your dad.”

“COOTIES!”

How have we come this far as a civilization, and still not eradicated cooties?

Then, parents hush kids. Children's voices run quiet. A mother walks to the door and looks through the glass.

"Here she comes,” the woman says to her group. “Get ready.”

There is a pregnant pause. I am holding

my beer with both hands, watching the door.

The door opens.

Children scream “Happy Birthday!” loud enough to break stained glass. Then, applause.

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

Her father helps her to the table, holding her arms. The girl sits and covers her face. She’s blushing.

“YOU GUYS!” she says.

Her smile is bright enough to tear the cotton-picking world in half.

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents sing. Every able-bodied patron sings. I sing. And for a moment in time we are eight years old again.

Princess Pink opens gifts, using both hands. The wrapping paper doesn’t stand a chance.

“Tell her what gift you gave her,” the princess’…

The smell of chicken soup is strong, wafting through the cracks in the windows and beneath the doors. Suppertime approaches, and I am getting hungry.

It is raining. It has rained all day. My wife is making chicken soup because soup goes with rainy weather. It’s been a lazy, wet, boring, sleepy day. My wife has had the soup simmering since breakfast.

“The secret to good soup is plenty of time,” my wife told me earlier. “Time equals flavor.”

I liked that phrase so much I had to write it down on a legal pad. The same pad I am using to write you. I made a note to work that clever little sentence into this column.

“Time equals flavor.” That’s good.

Anyway, my dogs have been cooped up because of the weather. Around ten o’clock, they finally went stir crazy and started a professional wrestling league in the den.

So I left for the quiet porch with my legal pad. I have been here all day, listening to rain.

Only one week ago, I was in New York City. It rained downtown. It didn’t faze the city buzz. Life kept moving. Horns kept

honking. People kept racing from Point A to Point B.

But here in the woods, a good rain stops everything. In this weather, our small world becomes lethargic.

I can smell my wife’s soup from here. She made it from a chicken we bought from our friend, Lonnie. Lonnie is a strange hippie who names all his animals. Apparently, the chicken’s name was “Daisy” before the bird met its end.

My wife likes to know these things before she buys chicken. She likes to know the bird had a good life, and if possible, a Christian name.

Once, Lonnie tried to sell us a frozen chicken he had named “Mary.” My wife wouldn’t take it because Mary is her mother’s name.

The rain keeps falling.

I take a break from writing to read a book. It’s not high-brow literature. I’m a little…

A Little League game. The crickets are out tonight. So are the yellow flies. And the mosquitoes. Welcome to West Florida. If the insects don’t get you, the snakes will.

The game just ended. The Little Leaguers are doing what every boyhood team has done since the creation of mud. They form a single-file line, walk past the other team, and give high-fives.

They say “Good game,” to each player.

The kids mumble this with the same sincerity it would take to scratch their hindparts. But the point is: they say it. And I hope this tradition never dies.

I was not a good athlete. I was a chubby child with red hair, my only gift was sarcasm. Also, I could make noises with my armpits.

Our third baseman—who I’ll call Gary—was a true athlete. Sports seemed easier for Gary than for others. He was all business when it came to baseball.

Once, my cousin Ed Lee brought a package of Red Man chew to

the field. During the seventh inning, he gave every boy a pinch. But Gary wasn’t even interested. He was only there to play.

“Keep it in your cheek,” my cousin told us. “Whatever you do, don’t swallow your spit.”

When I got up to bat, I was in a stupor.

“What’s wrong with you?” said the coach, who also happened to be my father.

I took one swing and spun so hard that I swallowed the tobacco. That was a pretty bad day.

That was the same game when Gary hit a grand slam. My father was so proud that he lifted Gary onto his shoulders and marched him around the field.

I disliked Gary for this. I disliked him a lot.

Because I could never impress my father the way Gary always did. Gary could swat anything with a bat—including some…