DEAR SEAN:

My mother died last Saturday...

Write back to me, please, I really hope you read this and get back to me…

I just don’t know what I’m going to do now.

Thanks,
ALL-ALONE-IN-THE-WORLD

DEAR ALONE:

For a moment, let’s pretend.

Okay, ready?

Go.

You’re a twelve-year-old boy. It’s the day after your father’s funeral. Family swarms your home. They cook for you. They clean for you. They bombard you.

That night, instead of sulking—which you REALLY want to do—you sit around a campfire with uncles and cousins. The fire blazes, and you wish you weren’t there. You wish you could be somewhere else.

That’s when you notice a cow is standing behind you, near the fence.

Someone stabs the fire with a stick, sparks shoot into the night.

You are as alone as a kid can be. Earlier that day, at your father’s visitation, you shook a lot of hands with very nice people. But these folks don’t understand you.

They can’t understand. They have normal

lives. And after your father’s service, their normal lives resume. They take off neckties and dress shoes, but your life is just beginning.

This is what you’re thinking.

But around this campfire, nobody gives you time to be alone with your thoughts. Instead, your uncle tells a story about driving to Georgia, and how the bumps on the roads almost rattled his RV into nuts and bolts.

Another uncle tells the story about when he was three, he tried to hammer a nail into his brother’s head like one of the Three Stooges.

What’s wrong with them? How can anyone make jokes at a time like this?

While they talk, you are staring at the cow near the fence, and you feel like she’s the only one who understands you. Maybe you’re losing your mind,…

The man at the register wears a grim face and says, “My niece just lost her husband, she’s got two kids.”

Kentucky. A gas station. This joint looks like it’s about to fall down. Tin roof. Dusty parking lot.

I step inside and shake the cold from my jacket. The first thing I hear is the laughter of old men.

There are four white-hairs seated around an electric heater. They wear plaid. They stare at me long and hard.

This general store is perfect. Wood floors, lopsided ceilings, tall shelves.

Their belly laughs fills the room. And if there’s a better sound on the planet than old men laughing, I don’t know what it is.

This place is part hardware store, part grocery store, part tourist trap. You can buy a bag of corn feed, a jar of mustard, or get a T-shirt that bears the phrase: “My folks got lucky in Kentucky.”

The old boys are talking in a familiar way. They chuckle between every sentence. I overhear them while I am walking the aisles and I have almost forgotten why I’m here. I’m too engrossed in the conversation between

men who are solving the world’s problems.

“Can I help you?” one old man says to me.

Coffee. That’s what I’m here for. The hotels I have been staying at for the past few days have served coffee that was an affront to the human race. I’ve sipped water from frog ponds that had more flavor.

“Coffee?” one man says. “Shore thang.”

The old man walks to a low shelf. I follow him.

“Folgers,” he mumbles. “Got it right here.”

“Thanks,” I say.

He glares at me with a smile. “Where’re you from?”

“Me? Oh, I’m from th—”

“NO! WAIT!” he says, holding up his hands. “Don’t tell me, I’m good at this game.”

He adjusts his hearing aid and asks me to say something else.

“You want me to say something else?” I…

I am on my way to Kentucky. I can see mountains in the distance.

My uncle always told me the Bluegrass State was a beautiful place, but his words didn’t do it justice.

I remember him telling me about his visit to Fort Knox:

“Gah-lee,” he said. “I wish I had just one of them gold bricks, then I could finally pay off my above-ground swimming pool.”

Well, I’ve never been to Fort Knox, or seen any gold bricks. But then, I’ve never been to Kentucky before today.

I’m driving, on my way to tell a few stories, play music, and God-willing, entertain some people in the microscopic community of Grand Rivers—a town about the size of a walk-in closet.

My blinker makes a clicking sound.

I exit the interstate. I pull over at a rest area to stretch my legs. My lower back is complaining. My wife and I have been in four states today.

I am feeling excited. I can’t put my finger on why I’m

so giddy, but I am. Maybe it’s because Fort Knox is close, and there are enough gold bricks in this state to pay for a million above-ground pools.

Or maybe it’s because I don’t actually belong here.

You see, I’m underqualified. I am so average it would startle you. I never thought I would travel anywhere beyond, say, the outer limits of Paxton, Florida.

I was a quiet kid. The kid who enjoyed music, books, and sarcasm. I was the young man who drove an ugly truck with multicolored Christmas lights wrapped around his bumper because he loved Christmas.

I was the fella voted most likely to play the accordion. The kid voted most likely to never leave town.

And I never have. When I was in my late teens, my friends were all graduating high school, going on senior trips, applying…

On my sixteenth birthday my mother bought me a telescope for a gift. It was a big, white telescope with a wooden tripod.

The stars are out tonight. Thelma Lou, the bloodhound, stops to stare at the them. She sits for several minutes, looking up.

I’ve never seen a dog do that.

“What’re you looking at, girl?” I say, squatting beside her. “Are you looking at stars?”

Thelma Lou keeps staring upward.

I don’t blame her. The sky above is so magnificent I can hardly stand it. Stars are so bright they look like they might fall from the sky and land on me.

My mother says when I was a toddler I liked stars so much I would stand outside, staring upward, wearing a numb look—like my cornbread wasn’t done in the middle.

When I was thirteen, after my father died, I would sit on the porch and make wishes on stars. I wished for all sorts of things. Fast cars, money, a big-screen TV, Barbara Eden.

And I wished to be happy.

I was the most awkward and chubby thirteen-year-old you ever saw. My hair was pure copper. Today, red

hair might be the rage, but back then it was as stylish as a cold booger on a paper plate.

To make matters worse, my mother bought my pants at Sears. I wore “Husky” pants, sold in the back of the store, where chubby boys were routinely executed.

And if anyone doubted I was overweight, my pants bore an actual label on the hindparts which stated: “Husky.”

I did not care for myself.

Still, the males in my family promised I would undergo a transformation one day.

“One day,” my uncle said, “you’ll have a growth spurt, and get skinny, like we all did, just keep your chin up.”

But it wasn’t happening fast enough.

So I took matters into my own hands. My friend, Davis, suggested trying a diet he found in Popular Mechanics Magazine.

The diet consisted…

I was at a place that served good burgers and cold beer. There was a Labrador running around, begging from customers. Dolly Parton’s voice was overhead.

The old man beside me was eating a burger.

“You aren’t from around here,” he said.

“No sir,” I said. “Just stopped for supper.”

“Well, you picked a good place, they got decent food.”

Things went silent. The gentle quietness that passes between two patrons at a bar is sacred. You don’t interrupt a man and his ground beef. It’s irreverent.

The Labrador showed up at our feet. The old animal sat right on his haunches. He wagged his tail when the old man made eye-contact.

“Dadgum dog,” he said. “What’s a dog doing in here anyway?”

The old man removed a piece of bacon from his hamburger and tossed it to the dog. The dog ate it in one bite. Fido indicated he was willing to go for two.

You can tell a lot about a man by the way

he treats a dog. And you can tell even more by the way the dog treats him back.

My grandfather used to attract local dogs and small children. They followed him wherever he went.

So he’s originally from Chattanooga—the old man, not the dog. I don’t know where the dog is from. We pump hands and introduce ourselves.

A long time ago, he was an EMT. He spent the better half of his life saving people in the backs of ambulances.

“Started in EMS back in the early days,” he said. “Back when we had low headroom vehicles that looked like white hearses.”

The dog is still staring at him.

The old man tosses the stray a few French fries.

“Yeah,” he went on, “I’ve seen a lot in my time.”

When he was a young man, he…

She was a tough woman. Forty-some years ago, she was a single parent who'd raised her daughter into adulthood on nothing but pennies and late shifts.

She and her daughter were tight. They lived together until her daughter was in her twenties.

Then, her daughter got pregnant by a man who did a disappearing act.

The pregnancy was a painful and complicated one.

Doctors said something was wrong. When her daughter went into labor, things got ugly. They say there was a lot of blood.

It was a boy. The baby almost died, but he pulled through.

Her daughter didn't.

It was a small funeral. She said goodbye to her daughter and stayed until the end. She watched a front-loader dump fresh soil over an expensive casket.

She could've been angry. Angry with doctors. Angry at the deadbeat who got her daughter pregnant.

Angry at life. Or at God.

But she had a newborn, there wasn't time for anger. Instead, she fed him, bathed him, and stayed up late, whispering into his ear. She changed dirty diapers, sang

to him, and taught him to speak.

She smoked cigarettes and rocked him to sleep on the front steps, watching the moon.

She wasn’t a young woman. She had gray in her hair and lines around her eyes. She wasn’t far from retirement age, but she was lightyears away from retirement.

She joined a local Methodist church. Not because she was spiritual, but because they offered free daycare. She dropped the boy there while she worked a day shift.

They say she received weekly church assistance—brown sacks of baby formula and groceries.

She was a mother all over again. She did all the maternal things. She packed sack lunches, paid for field trips, attended PTA meetings, and hollered at baseball games.

And during the high-school years, she took an extra job at a supermarket to pay for all the pleasantries that teenagers…

We came bearing gifts. Nothing fancy, it was a T-shirt with Andy Taylor and Barney Fife on the front, with the words “Nip it in the bud!” in bold print.

I showed up to a nine-year-old’s birthday party. I was with my friend, Chubbs. I felt strange being there.

I knocked on the door.

A blonde boy answered only to find me and Chubbs standing on the porch, singing an energetic rendition of “Happy Birthday,” while doing the Tango.

Before we finished dancing, Chubbs said, “Quick! Dip me!”

The crowd went wild.

We came bearing gifts. Nothing fancy, it was a T-shirt with Andy Taylor and Barney Fife on the front, with the words “Nip it in the bud!” in bold print.

The shirt was an extra-large because that was the only size the novelty store had in stock. And it was either the Andy T-shirt, or a shirt which read: “F.B.I. Federal Bikini Inspector.”

A few months ago, Bailey’s mother emailed to tell me that her son likes me. She told me he listens to my podcast each week, and reads my stuff even though some of the words are too big.

I was touched.

Bailey removed the T-shirt

from the gift bag and held it against his shoulders. The thing hung down to his feet.

“Look, Mom!” he shouted. “It’s a shirt with weird guys on it!”

“Sweetie, that’s Andy and Barney,” his mother explained.

“Barney?” The kid frowned. “But, where’s his purple dinosaur suit?”

His mother asked me not to share too much of their story, and I won’t. But I will tell you that Bailey’s parents divorced last year, and it was traumatic. The stress has made Bailey sick. He has developed medical problems because of the anxiety.

“He internalizes everything,” his mother told me. “It’s been a rough year.”

Anyway, the party was nice. I sat on Bailey’s back porch with his friends to watch a talented husband-and-wife magician duo from Birmingham. The magicians dazzled the crowd.

During their performance, they selected Chubbs as…

Listen, I’m not a particularly smart man, friend. But then, you don’t have to be smart to know what I know. Life evaporates. It rises toward heaven so quick that you’re lucky if you catch a glimpse.

DEAR SEAN:

My dad died last year and I just don’t really know what to do with myself anymore. I know your dad died when you were my age I think, so how do I be like normal again?

Really hope you write back,
FOURTEEN-IN-VIRGINIA

DEAR FOURTEEN:

I’m the wrong guy to ask about normalcy. I haven’t been normal since the third grade when I peed my pants onstage at a school assembly.

Even our school nurse remarked, “That child’s one rung short of a step ladder.”

She was right. But then, I don’t believe in “normal.” It’s a made-up word. And not that it matters, but I don’t believe in magic beanstalks, pop-stars, Florida Powerball, high cholesterol, or daylight saving time, either.

Years ago, while driving through South Alabama, I saw something. It was an overcast day and the world was colorless. My wife and I had just left a funeral. There was a sadness over our vehicle.

We rode through miles of farmland. My wife yelled, “LOOK!”

I glanced out the window. It was spectacular. I pulled into a cow

pasture. We stepped out. We ran through acres of cow pies and green grass.

A rainbow.

And so help me, the colors were touching the ground. The tail was diving into the dirt like a spotlight. I’d never seen anything like it.

The cows watched us with big eyes while we behaved like six-year-olds. We took turns swatting the colors. I don’t know exactly why we did this, but I would’ve regretted not doing it.

Here’s where it gets somewhat magical.

The colors disappeared when I got too close. They reappeared when I took several steps back.

Closeup, they were gone. Far away; voila! The colors were there, but not always visible.

Eventually, the sun came out and the rainbow vanished completely.

We hiked back to the truck. I took in a breath of morning air and…

Clemson scores. Alabama is falling behind. This is difficult to watch. Our team is making mistakes.

The NCAA National Championship. Alabama is playing Clemson in a fight to the death. I am in a living room with my elderly mother-in-law, Mary, preparing to watch the big game.

Mother Mary sits beside me, sipping seltzer water. Mother Mary is eating ice cream. Mother Mary is hard of hearing.

The phone rings.

She answers the phone.

“HELLO?!” she hollers into the phone. “YES! THAT’S RIGHT! WE’RE WATCHING THE GAME! HOW ARE YOU, EDNA?”

Brief silence.

“OH, ISN’T THAT NICE?”

Kickoff.

I’m tuning her out and focusing on the television. This is, quite possibly, the most pivotal game of all time. These are the best teams in the—

“HAAAAAAAH! IS HE STILL ALIVE? OH, I REMEMBER WHEN HE WAS A YOUNG MAN, HE WAS HANDSOME! REMEMBER WHEN HE USED TO WEAR THOSE BASKETBALL SHORTS! REMEMBER? THOSE REALLY TIGHT SHORTS? LORD HAVE MERCY, I DIDN’T HATE THOSE SHORTS.”

Shoot me now.

“YES! THAT’S RIGHT! THEY WERE SUCH SKIMPY SHORTS FOR SUCH A WELL-BUILT, STRONG BOY!”

The Lord is my Shepherd…

Clemson scores. Alabama

is falling behind. This is difficult to watch. Our team is making big mistakes.

“UH HUH! I JUST SPOKE WITH BEVERLY YESTERDAY! YOU KNOW SHE HAD THAT GOITER CUT OFF HER NECK LAST WEEK? DO YOU KNOW THE DOCTORS CUT IT OPEN AND FOUND SOME TEETH AND HAIR INSIDE IT? BLESS HER HEART!”

This game is tense. In fact, I am so nervous, I am about to make a puddle from all the stress. But the important thing to remember here is—

“OOOOOHHH NOOOOOOOOO! SHE DID?! REALLY? OH, GOD LOVE HER! I HEARD SHE HAD HIP SURGERY! HOW IS SHE? OH, SHE IS? THAT’S WONDERFUL! ISN’T SHE JUST THE SWEETEST THING? BUT A LITTLE BIRDIE TOLD ME HER POTATO SALAD TASTED LIKE FERTILIZER!”

Halftime.

Alabama is still behind. Their defense has been drowning. We are falling. I don’t…

I am hiking a trail in the North Floridian woods. My dog is beside me. The longleaf pines go on for miles. I am here to walk my dog, take in the fresh air, and, God-willing, pull a hamstring.

The weather is cool and dry. The sky is so clear you can touch it.

A young couple is ahead of me. I have been trailing them for a mile and I have formed some opinions about them.

For one: they are in love, I can tell by the way they hold hands and lean onto each other.

Second: they are in fantastic shape—I have been trying to keep up with them and I am exhausted.

My dog and I pass a swamp. There is a sign beside it that reads: “Beware of alligators.”

I pause to observe. After a few minutes, I see something in the water. It’s a dark shape that sort of looks like a shiny log.

We keep walking.

Gators don’t scare me.

Once, I lived in an apartment that had a pond behind it—actually, it was more of a drainage ditch. There was a hand-painted warning sign next to it that read:

“YALL MEMBER BOUT THE GATORS.”

Rumors claimed that a gator once crawled out of the pond and ate a Yorkshire Terrier named Izzy. Everyone in the apartments retold this horrific story, but nobody knew if it were true.

Until one day, when my uncle came to visit. I came home one evening to find him out back, sitting on an upside-down five-gallon bucket, holding a fishing rod with a raw chicken breast hooked on the end.

“Are you outta your mind?” I said.

“Ssshhh,” he said. “I wanna see if there’s really a gator out here.”

There was. After an hour of tempting fate, the thing came crawling out of the water faster…