He used to play make-believe with me when I was little. Daddy would wear a cowboy hat and play Old West Saloon. I was Wyatt Earp; he was Billy the Kid.

Colorado Springs—I’m standing on Pikes Peak, fourteen thousand feet above sea level. I’m looking at the world from a mountaintop.

Twenty-four years ago we scattered Daddy’s ashes here. He came packed in a cardboard box. I was a child.

The day we turned him loose, I prayed for something grand to happen. Maybe a gust of wind, a big cloud, or even snow. I’d heard it can snow on Pikes Peak during the summer.

That’s what I wanted. I wanted nature to deliver something. But there were no gusts. No clouds. No snow. Only hot sun.

Anyway, my father’s death happened suddenly. I was twelve. And this view takes me to that age again. The scenery up here is breathtaking. I can see clear to Kansas, and the sun is shining so hard it burns me.

The altitude is getting to me. There are tiny sparks in my vision. The EMT at the visitor’s center told me this means I am in oxygen debt.

Twenty-four years. It’s been so long since

he’s been gone that I often forget his face. I have to open a photo album to remember.

I have a favorite photograph. A faded Polaroid. He’s wearing his denim, his boots, and his work jacket. He’s all iron worker.

I loved him.

He used to play make-believe with me when I was little. Daddy would wear a cowboy hat and play Old West Saloon. I was Wyatt Earp; he was Billy the Kid.

We’d have gunfights at high noon. Our living room became the showdown at O.K. Corral. I would take him down with a cap gun. I was the best shot in the West. He would grab his gut, then fall on the floor.

Then, I would jump on his chest. He would kiss me on the forehead. He’d say, “That’s my little cowboy.”

How could a…

Thelma Lou interrupts me. She doesn’t want me to think. She wants me to play.

I just crossed the border into New Mexico. I’m only three hours from Colorado Springs, where I’ll visit my father’s resting place.

And I am lost. Not poetically, but worse. Literally. My GPS quit working a few minutes ago. I’m running blind.

Still, after two days of driving across the eerily flat Texas dirt, it’s nice to finally see some eerily flat New Mexico dirt for a change.

My wife is asleep in the passenger seat. We are traveling with two dogs: my late bloodhound, Ellie Mae,—God rest her soul—her ashes are in a cedar box, riding on my dashboard.

And my other dog, Thelma Lou—a twelve-week-old bloodhound whose bladder is the size of a zipper pea.

Thel sits in my lap while I drive, staring out my windshield. We are wandering across the Middle of Nowhere. This two-lane highway is bumpy, and jagged. In front of me: prairie. Behind me: prairie. There are no cars for miles.

But I’m enjoying the drive. So is the puppy. And I’m remembering


Mostly, I’m remembering the dog in the box. She was the sort who rode shotgun. Always shotgun. Even when my wife was in the car, Ellie would sit between us. If you rolled down the window, she’d poke her head out. Her long ears would flap in the wind.

Ellie was my friend. She was born in Georgia, raised in the Panhandle of Florida. She loved all things that hounds love: pine trees, children, long walks on the beach, raw sewage, Lawrence Welk.

I think Ellie would’ve liked the West.

Thelma Lou certainly likes it. She is taking in the view like it’s the first time she’s ever seen earth.

She wears a look I can’t explain—like she’s thinking very, very hard. And all of a sudden, my vehicle smells like four-day old cabbage. Gurgling sounds come from Thel’s…

After she laid him to rest, she couldn’t figure out what to do with herself. So here she is, with her barbecue pit-master nephew, serving brisket.

I’m in the Texas Panhandle. I wish I could tell you where, specifically, but I don’t know. Outside Amarillo.

There are no landmarks. No trees. No water. Just dirt, wind, and prairie. I am at a rundown barbecue trailer, parked outside a filling station. I am ordering food. My wife is waiting in the vehicle with our bloodhound.

The woman at the window is a gray-haired sweetheart.

When I first arrive, she is smoking a cigarette out front. When she sees me, she moseys into the trailer. I’ve always wanted to use that word—“mosey.”

She gives me a Texas barbecue lesson. Her voice sounds like a tuba.

“Our barbecue’s different than your Southern style, baby,” she says. “You need to know that.”

Fair enough. Since I am a Southerner, I ask her what the regional differences are.

“Oh, lotsa differences. Mainly, in Texas we actually know how to cook.”


“Also,” she adds. “We don’t care ‘bout side dishes like y’all do.”

Say it ain’t so. Side dishes are sacred to people in my parts. In

fact, each year local heathens visit Southern Baptist barbecues simply to eat their yearly requirement of coleslaw.

The fourth time I got baptized, for instance, I ate so much coleslaw I had to ask the congregation for forgiveness the following Sunday.

I order a pulled pork sandwich.

“Pork?” The old lady gives a hoarse laugh. “We don’t do pork. This is Texas. Brisket.”

“Okay,” I say. “A brisket sandwich, then.”

“No sandwiches, neither. Brisket.”

I order brisket and ask for extra sauce on the side.

“No sauce,” she says. “Brisket.”


So I’m eating brisket that’s wrapped in foil. And we are having a conversation.

Beneath the woman’s rough skin is a lady who was born in Amarillo. She married a man in the military. She saw the whole world with him. Top to…

Anyway, I’m not a boy anymore. I’m braver, and I’m happier, and I’ve learned a lot about me. I’ve known happiness in many different forms. And kindness. Today, I am a grown-up. A skinny, long-legged redhead with freckles.

Louisiana—I’m driving a sunny highway. The weather is perfect. The cane fields are brilliant green.

I am going to visit my father’s grave.

I still have a long way left to go—four more states left, to be exact.

Louisiana highways are jagged. When I was eighteen, I drove these highways to Dallas in a ‘79 Ford. The uneven roads were so bad they nearly rattled my truck apart and gave me permanent drain bamage.

Daddy rests fourteen thousand feet above sea-level in Colorado. His ashes are part of a mountainside. We scattered him when I was a boy. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t been back since.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve meant to visit, but I haven’t. I don’t know why.

My father was a stick welder. He traveled wherever work was good. Work led him to Colorado, as a young man. He lived there in a trailer. He always said he loved that period of his life.

He used to talk about those days and tell me

things that I was too young to understand:

“Every man needs to find himself,” he once told me. “And that mountain’s where I found me. When I die, it’s where I wanna be scattered.”

He only said it in passing, but it was stenciled into my mind.

Mama said he lost weight in Colorado. She said he ate a steady diet of canned beans and beer. When Mama went to visit him, she said he was so skinny he only needed one back pocket.

She tried to fatten him up, but that was impossible. Daddy was a long-legged, red headed sack of bones. He had freckles that weighed more than he did.

I was angry with him after he pulled his own curtain. I wasn’t furious, mind you. I felt the same kind of anger you’d feel when you bite your tongue…

One day, a maintenance man arrived to fix a damaged, leaky ceiling in the boy’s bedroom. He was an older man. The kind of man who couldn’t be quiet even if his life depended on it. A happy fella who talked too much and laughed at his own jokes.

His older brother sang to him. Every night before bed. That might sound strange to you. But it was what they did before bed. Singing.

They lived in a foster home. His brother was more than a brother. He was mother, father, friend, guardian, bunkmate.


His brother helped him dress for school, tied his shoes, and taught him to stand up for himself on a playground.

And it was his brother who kept the memories of their mother alive. He talked about the way she used to read stories, make sugar cookies, eat too much ketchup on fries.

His brother was hit by a car while walking home from school. The funeral was small. Only a few social workers, and friends.

The boy was in shock. He quit speaking altogether. He quit caring. His foster parents didn’t know how to reach him, so they sent him to another facility.

He was the youngest in the new place, and found it hard to fit in with the others. He spent time alone.

He looked out his window,

remembering the sound of his brother’s singing voice.

One day, a maintenance man arrived to fix a damaged, leaky ceiling in the boy’s bedroom. He was an older man. The kind of man who couldn’t be quiet even if his life depended on it. A happy fella who talked too much and laughed at his own jokes.

The boy liked him. They made fast friends.

For a full day, the man stood on a ladder replacing sections of damaged drywall, chatting up a blue streak.

The boy started talking, too. And once the child started, he didn’t stop. He talked about football heroes, favorite movies, monsters, dinosaurs, fast cars, fire trucks.

About his late brother.

The old man just listened. He listened so intently that his one-day ceiling repair job took three days.

He let the boy help him work. The kid…

So I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for. I hope you have a few loyal friends. I hope that while reading this, you feel warm for a few minutes.

I almost didn’t write this. Every time I typed a sentence, I felt like I’d written something incredibly stupid. Then, I’d hit backspace and mumble words not fit for network television.

But, I’ve typed this far, I might as well keep going.

See, I think about you sometimes. It’s not deep thought, mind you. After all, I’ve never met you. But for all I know you are just like me.

Namely, I wonder if you ever feel alone. I wonder if you think you’re drifting through this world by yourself. I know what this feeling is like.

When I was a teenager, we once lived in a twenty-six-foot trailer, right after my father passed. I wondered if anyone would ever take care of us again. When you lose someone, you think about things like that.

At the trailer park, there was an elderly couple named Tom and Norma. Tom smoked three packs per day, and did maintenance work on trailers in the park.

One day, I helped him repair a hot water heater.

He had a cigarette hanging from his lips.

Tom said, “You know, you ain’t the only one.”

“Huh?” I said.

“You ain’t alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“My daddy died when I’s your age. And so did lots of people’s daddies. You ain’t alone.”

I’ve never forgotten that.

Some people are obsessed with happiness. They want to feel so giddy that their toenails fall off and their cheek muscles pop. That’s fine, I guess. But happiness doesn’t last long. It never does.

One moment it’s here; the next, it’s heading back to wherever it came from.

But being UN-alone, now that’s something better than happiness. A fella could get used to feeling like that.

I hope you feel that way. I hope you figure out how UN-alone you are.

Like the woman…

After supper, Andrea brings a slice of key lime pie for dessert. She stabs a candle in the top. She lights it. We sing “Happy Birthday.”

The seafood joint is busy. There are people everywhere. We are waiting for a table. It’s Mother Mary’s 78th birthday.

The place is overrun with beach tourists. These are typical American families. Families with husbands who drive hundreds of miles in minivans, with screaming children, angry wives, incontinent dogs, and moderately Satanic mothers-in-law.

Studies have proven that mothers-in-law are the leading cause of beer among North American males who own minivans.

But not my mother-in-law.

I’m lucky, I guess. She’s different. She hails from Brewton, Alabama, and she is more sophisticated than a napkin ring. She’s the sort who wears pearls to check her mailbox.

She is in good spirits tonight. Her hair is fixed, her makeup is perfect, her walker has just been WD-Fortied. Her hearing aid batteries are brand new.

Our waitress is named Andrea, I happen to know her. She is a good woman. When Mother Mary sees Andrea coming, she tells my wife, “Jamie, I want to order the alligator.”

But it’s hard to hear in this loud room. Jamie asks: “What’d you say, Mother?”

Mary adjusts her hearing aid. “Say that again, Jamie, I couldn’t hear you.”

“I said, ‘What was that you said, Mother?’”

Mary smiles. “I said, ‘Say that again, Jamie, I couldn’t hear you.’”

“I KNOW that’s what you said, Mother, I wasn’t asking you about that.”


“It’s time to order food.”

“You did what?”


“My feet? They hurt something awful, I believe it’s time for a little toenail trim.”




Andrea, I’ll have a beer please.

We start with an appetizer of alligator. Mother Mary loves alligator. She takes a bite and says, “You know, alligators eat so many humans, isn’t it empowering to eat one of them for a change?”

“Empowering. Yes, ma’am,” I say.…

Another day; another shooting. One group of people screams at a another. It’s hard to tell the difference between nice folks and the other kind. It’s difficult to know what to believe.

She lost her best friend. It happened yesterday.

He was a good boy. Fourteen years old. He was always beside her. When she ate supper. When she watched television. When she used the restroom. He even slept on the floor near her bed.

He was a Labrador, and then some. The biggest in his litter of twelve. His shoulders were wide, his neck was a column of muscle.

He wasn’t a playful dog, but he was happy. He was gentle. He liked children, chewing, lying in the sun, he loved tomatoes. He enjoyed walks, but only short ones. He seemed to go crazy over “Downton Abbey.”

He could eat more than any dog she’d ever seen. He was a garbage disposal with a tail.

When she worked nights in a commercial kitchen, he waited for her to get home. She’d arrive after work, he would be seated at the front door, squealing.

She would bring him things from work. The spoils of her occupation. Fish guts, lamb

fat, chicken gristle, and sacred ground beef.

And he loved her for it.

But she owed it to him—and then some. He’d seen her through hard times. He knew her emotions like a roadmap. He knew when she was sad, happy, or angry before anyone else did.

When her father died, he crawled on a sofa and placed his hundred-pound body in her lap. It almost crushed her.

“I love you,” is what he was actually saying. Which is the only thing dogs know how to say—except: “Feed me right now or I’ll poop in the kitchen.”

He was with her when she lost her job. He was with her when she moved houses. He was with her when she passed a class, certifying her as a teacher. He was with her when her mother was ill.

Yesterday, she took him to the vet.…

“People thought I’s crazy,” the old woman says. “They all told me: ‘You’re not even married, you don’t have kids, you don’t even know what you’re doing. But I told them all where they could—”

Winn-Dixie—they remodeled this store not long ago. It’s something else. A little too fancy, if you ask me.

I’ve been shopping here since the old days. Back then, it was your average supermarket. Linoleum floors, decent beef, clinically depressed cashiers.

Today, they have deli counters that sell salmon sushi. I’d rather lick the restroom floor than eat salmon sushi.

The woman behind me in the checkout line is old. She is frail, with white hair, and big glasses. She is every American granny you’ve ever seen. I’ll bet the closest she ever came to sushi was a wild night at the Baptist clothing swap.

She is holding onto her daughter for support.

Her daughter is Hispanic—black hair, dark skin, late fifties. The two women couldn’t look more different.

They have a full cart. They have purchased all the usual supermarket fare. Chicken, tuna cans, jars of peanut butter, Duke’s mayonnaise, Colonial Bread, and enough paper towels to sink the U.S.S. Uruguay.

We make friends.

The old woman tells me about herself.

She adopted her Hispanic daughter when the girl was three. The toddler had been abandoned at a shopping complex. The child didn’t understand English, and she was sick with a chest infection.

“She almost died,” the old woman says. “I had to do something to help.”

The old woman met the girl at a foster facility. Some of the her church friends used to visit local foster homes to give attention to needy children.

“There were only a few of us who did that,” the old woman goes on. “We were so young. We’d hold the babies, play games, read stories, sing to’em sometimes. You know, mom stuff.”

Mom stuff.

“Kids need touching to survive,” the lady adds. “It’s been proven. Look it up.”

I’ll have to do that.

Anyway, she couldn’t put the toddler…

She’s a woman. So help me, a woman. She has a husband, a daughter, a good job. I don’t know how she survived our sad childhood without getting hurt. God knows, it wasn’t easy.

I was the second person to hold her. Daddy said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t drop her.”

She looked like a white bullfrog. She smelled like vanilla and grass clippings. I promised I’d take care of her forever.

That was harder than it sounded. This girl grew into a kid who did reckless things.

She used to leap off round hay bales, flapping her arms, yelling, “CATCH ME!”

She liked to see how long she could hold her breath underwater. She climbed trees that were too high. She ate too much bacon.

Her first word was, “NO!” Her second word was “NONONO!” She used these words when I tried to force an oyster past her lips.

She pitched a fit.

I’d never known anyone who didn’t like oysters. They were the food of our forefathers. Our ancestors consumed oysters when they learned the War Between the States was over.

She was four when Daddy died. The morning of his death, I sobbed alone on our back porch. She crawled onto my lap.

“Don’t cry,” she said.

I did anyway.

We took care

of each other. I did her laundry and taught her how to fry bacon. And when our dog had puppies, I showed her how to hold them—there’s an art to handling newborn pups.

Once, I rented a library book on French-braiding. She let me practice until her hair resembled overcooked spaghetti.

She tried out for the school play. I attended her audition. She was nervous, and the smug drama teacher told her she had no talent.

I’m a quiet man, but I wasn’t that day. I called the teacher a greasy communist who didn’t love the Lord.

Throughout her high-school years, she worked different jobs. Once, she worked in an ice-cream shop. Each day, I’d clock out of my job and visit her.

When the store was slow, she gave me ice cream for free—with Heath Bar…