The man tells us that his daughter rode her bike through the mud. “She just learned to ride last week,” the man adds. “She’s growing so fast.”

A small town. Early evening. My cousin and I are taking a walk through an older neighborhood. It’s sunset, children are outside for the final hours of dusk.

It’s funny. It only seems like yesterday that my cousin and I would attend summer Vacation Bible School as children. We’d play games. Smashing balloons, balancing eggs on spoons, running three-legged races.

When we got older, we volunteered as VBS leaders, too. It was a lot of hard work, I remember that much.

But I also remember when six-year-old Mattie Nielsen hugged me so hard she almost choked me.

Little Mattie said, “I LOVE YOU MISTER SEAN!”

I was too stunned to even answer her. I asked why Mattie loved me.


That poor, misinformed child. Nobody “hires” you to teach VBS. You sort of get “sentenced” into it.

On our walk, we pass neighbors. A man is washing a small, pink bicycle with a hose.

We wave.

He waves.

The man tells us that his daughter rode her bike through the mud. “She just learned to ride last week,” the

man adds. “She’s growing so fast.”

We keep strolling.

We pass an old man on a porch. He’s smoking a pipe. I can smell it. You don’t see tobacco pipes much anymore. His grandson is with him.

“Ready for football season?” my cousin shouts to them.

“War Eagle!” man and grandson holler.

“War Eagle!” my cousin answers, elbowing me.

I am silent. I was born during the third quarter of Bear Bryant’s farewell Liberty Bowl. I don’t War Eagle.

We walk past kids and adults who are in their yard, playing—tossing Frisbees toward metal baskets.

“What game is that?” my cousin asks them.

“Frisbee golf,” says a man. “It’s kids versus adults, the kids are beating us silly.”

Soon we are long past the residential area, on a dirt road. We pass barns…

She tells me that she is still recovering from ankle surgery. Her injury happened a few weeks ago when she was lifting a potted plant on her patio. She tripped over her dog. Her ankle shattered. She fractured a bone in her wrist, too.

The grocery store is packed with tourists. And I mean packed. There are hundreds of them.

And I am stuck in a cluster of middle-aged men who wear neon-colored swim trunks and flip flops.

You could say that I’m here against my will. My wife sent me on a very important shopping mission to buy:

1. salsa
2. Neosporin

And because no household can survive for more than forty-eight hours without salsa or the miraculous properties of Neosporin, here I am.

The middle-aged men in the checkout line are laughing and carrying on. They are wearing Margaritaville T-shirts, and their skin is a deep reddish-tan.

I can spot a Beach-Tourist-Dad tan a mile away. It’s all in the nose region.

Middle-aged male tourists, you see, rarely apply sunscreen to their noses—don’t ask me why. Thus, on a typical beach vacation, a Beach Dad often resembles the captain of Santa’s sled team.

As it happens, it’s a good thing Beach Dad isn’t ACTUALLY steering Santa’s sleigh because Beach Dad also drives like a clinically insane stuntman.

Sometimes, you can see Beach

Dad weaving his minivan through heavy traffic while singing along with a Jimmy Buffet greatest hits album, nearly causing ten-car pile ups.

But getting back to the grocery store. There’s a small boy standing in the checkout aisle behind me. He’s pushing a wheelchair with a woman in it. The woman is mid-seventies. She has a cast on her ankle.

There is also a teenage girl with her. The three-person clan is a nice-looking one. And because they are only buying sodas and popsicles, I insist they cut in line.

The boy wheels the woman ahead of me. The older woman thanks me.

I ask where they’re from.

“Arkansas,” she says. “These are my grandkids. We’re down here for two weeks.”

She tells me that she is still recovering from ankle surgery. Her injury happened a few weeks ago…

My friend’s daughter came marching through the house with Thel trailing her—well, actually, Thel was dangling from her shirttail.

Thelma Lou ate a Bible.

No, wait. Let me back up. Thelma Lou ate an heirloom Bible. In fact, she ran through a hayfield with a Bible in her mouth.

That’s right. Read that again if you need to.

It bears mentioning: I have seen some big things in my day. I’ve seen a man survive two hundred amps of electric shock. I’ve seen the world’s biggest ball of twine in Cawker City. I’ve shaken the hand of a man who played bass for Hank Williams. And once, in Freeport, Florida, I watched Chubbs Anderson lie down in the center of the main road for forty minutes after midnight without a single car rolling by.

But I have never seen a dog carry the Good Book in her mouth.

It all started at my buddy’s farm. My pal’s place is a secluded spot with a few wooden sheds, pastures, and some cattle.

His place is perfect for dogs who need to stretch their legs, and it’s located a convenient four and a half hours away from my


When we arrived, I opened the door and Thel became a dematerialized black-and-tan streak, moving at the speed of sound. She was running to greet one of her canine friends.

Enter Boobie.

Boobie (a derivative of “Boob”) is an eight-month-old bluetick hound with more energy than a nuclear power facility.

His name was originally “Boo,” but my friend’s two-year-old daughter kept putting a “B” on the end of the name. “Boob” became “Boobie.” And on special occasions: “Bobbie Boobie Boo.”

The day started off good. Together, Boobie and Thelma Lou had a big time. I sipped sweet tea and caught up with a friend, and watched my dog engage in positive, character-building canine activities, including:

Digging, running, chewing on the bare legs of defenseless children, chewing residential siding, chewing tin cans, chewing automobile tires, urinating on flowers, eating the aforementioned flowers, and…

Anyway, not long ago, I was playing accordion at a Cajun music concert. I saw a man in the audience who kept smiling at me. There was something about him. He stood beside the plywood stage, eyes on me.

This is stupid. I can’t believe I’m telling you this. But last night, our band was on stage. Lights were flashing. People were dancing. The tune was “Hey Good Lookin’.” My buddy, Doug, was singing.

And I was squeezing an accordion.

So there. I’ve finally said it. I play accordion.

For years I’ve been pretending to be an average civilian, sometimes even flat-out denying that I own a thirty-two bass Weltmeister, but it’s time to admit the truth:

I play the lamest instrument ever conceived—with the exception of the bassoon.

I started playing as a boy. Before me, my grandfather played. Back in Granddaddy’s day, the accordion was not just “an” instrument, it was “the” American instrument. The accordion caused ladies to swoon, men to fall into jealous rages, and caused international spies to jump through glass ballroom windows.

Once upon a time, the accordion was exotic and elegant. You could watch primetime television and see stately gentlemen like Myron Floren, grinning at the camera, wearing a four-hundred-pound apparatus strapped to his chest.

But times have changed. Most folks don’t even

know who Myron Floren is.

Today, accordion-playing ranks on the “lameness scale” somewhere between identity-theft and dentistry.

Anyway, not long ago, I was playing accordion at a Cajun music concert. I saw a man in the audience who kept smiling at me. There was something about him. He stood beside the plywood stage, eyes on me.

He was white-haired and used a walker. His daughter was beside him. After the show, he approached me.

“I used to play the accordion,” he said.

His whole body was shaking from Parkinson’s.

The man went on, “I played when I was in the Army. Started with piano, but I wanted to be like Myron Floren, so when we were in Germany, I bought one.”

He taught himself to play. He’d stay up until the wee hours, practicing with a radio.

“I was…

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.

“We came to Alabama on our way Florida,” she said. “I wasn’t gonna do it, I was scared, but my kids were like, ‘Come on, Mom, we wanna see where you grew up.’”

She is on a road trip right now. She has covered a lot of miles in the family minivan. She wears a scarf over her bald head. And she’s excited.

She’s moving back home.

“I’ve been away for thirty years,” she says. “I don’t call it ‘home’ anymore, and I’ve even lost my Alabama accent.”

She drives the van with her two teenage girls in back. Ahead of them, her husband drives a moving truck. They crossed the Alabama state line a few minutes ago.

Her husband called her cellphone just to say, “Welcome home, darlin’.”

In the last week, they’ve passed the whole world at eye-level. The plains of Texas, the hills of Oklahoma, the greenery of Arkansas, the Mississippi Delta. They’re ending with the Yellowhammer State.

They’ve taken their time, hitting all stops along the way, doing roadside tourist things. They had family pictures beside a sixty-six-foot tall neon soda bottle.

They visited the Arkansas birthplace of Walmart.

They met an Ozark couple who dresses possums in Biblical costumes for riveting reenactments of the Last Supper.

They took kayak

rides on the Pascagoula. They ate ice cream in hotel rooms. They splashed in hotel pools.

She’s still recovering from chemo, but she is all smiles.

After a three-decade absence, she stepped foot in this state for the first time a few months ago. That’s what started it all.

“We came to Alabama on our way to Florida,” she said. “I wasn’t gonna do it, I was scared, but my kids were like, ‘Come on, Mom, we wanna see where you grew up.’”

Growing up. Yeah, about that. She had a bad childhood. Her mother and father died in a car accident when she was a teenager. She fell into small-town oblivion, and after that and never found her rhythm.

It’s the same old story. Another high-school grad from a small town shakes the dust off her boots and…

This is a country church. There’s a carport behind the chapel—a church van parked beneath it. And a cemetery behind that. And a hayfield behind that. And cows behind that.

A church potluck in the country. I’m a visitor with a bloodhound named Thelma Lou. Thelma is begging for food from anyone on this church lawn by using her hidden super-power.

Very, very big eyes.

People feed her left and right. A ten-year-old girl gives Thelma two cheeseburgers and a drumstick. I ask the girl why she does this.

She answers, “Just look at those eyes.”

She’s got a point.

This is a country church. There’s a carport behind the chapel—a church van parked beneath it. And a cemetery behind that. And a hayfield behind that. And cows behind that.

Tonight this place is buzzing. Boys throwing baseballs to fathers. Grannies chasing toddlers.

There’s music. A makeshift band is serenading a line of people at a buffet table. I’m standing in line with folks who all pronounce “‘nanner puddin’” and “tater salat” the right way.

I’ve met people tonight.

One woman hugged me and said, “Did you know that my Shih Tzu is named Dolly Parton?”

I did not.

I meet a man named Jeremiah, who wears a bowtie and suspenders. Jeremiah is late seventies, an elderly version of Bernard P. Fife.

Jeremiah tells me his first wife passed sixteen years ago. He still misses her. Then, he shows me his left hand.

He wears a brand new gold ring.

“Just got married to a younger woman,” he says. “She’s practically a baby!”

His new wife is two months and four days younger than he is.

A child runs, hollering, laughing. The kid crashes into me so hard I almost spill my plate. His name is Chris, and he’s playing football with his brother.

Chris hands me the football. “Throw it!”

I’ve never been able to throw a spiral. I lob the ball like guy who couldn’t play competitive shuffleboard on an AARP cruise. The ball flops…

By the time you read this, she’s already in Pigeon Forge, married, on a summer honeymoon. She’s been so excited about it she hasn’t been able to sleep.

She lives in a forty-foot single-wide trailer with her brother. She’s in her early thirties, but seems older.

And wiser.

It’s a nice place. Decorated. Frilly curtains. Laundry hangs in the backyard. Photographs on the coffee table. A few scented candles.

Her younger brother is making a sandwich in the kitchen. He’s skinny, tattoos cover his arms. He walks into the living room.

He hugs her before leaving and says, “Love you, Sissy, I’m working late tonight.”

To him, she is more mother than sister. She raised him. She did all things mothers do: diaper changing, wiping hindparts, and she’s washed enough laundry to populate the county landfill.

Her mother died when she was nine. She and her brother lived with their grandfather in this single-wide.

“I remember when I was thirteen,” she says. “I realized it was up to ME to be a mom.”

On the wall is a photograph of her grandfather. She’s in the photo, too. She is young, blonde. She stands behind the old man—arms wrapped around his neck.

“Cancer,” she tells me. “He was seventy.”

He was diagnosed when she

was a sophomore. She cared for him during the last few years of his life.

On his final day, she drove him to the emergency room because he couldn’t catch his breath.

In a hospital bed, he told her, “I’m so sorry, baby. First your mama left you, now I’m leaving you.”

Those were his last lucid words.


I’m not here to write something that makes you feel sorry for her. She’s too exceptional of a person for pity. I’m writing about something else.

She met someone.

He is a fireman-paramedic. When they were first introduced, he asked her on a date. She refused.

“I’d never BEEN on a date,” she says. “I was so awkward and just so nervous that he would even ask me.”

He persisted. She gave in. He…

She wore black. She covered her woven hair in a scarf she made from a shirt found in his closet. Her son wore starched clothes she’d bought and ironed earlier that day.

She was hired to help him. He was elderly, house-bound, stuck in a recliner.

She was young, a single mother, poor.

She and her son lived in a poor, rundown apartment with rodent issues. She worked two jobs to keep the refrigerator stocked.

On her first day, she rolled into the old man’s driveway on fumes. Her car had rust on the fenders, an axle that made noise.

The old man fell in love with her—it would’ve been hard not to. Maybe it was her midnight skin, or the way she hummed when she worked. Maybe it was how she wrapped her woven hair in colorful homemade scarves.

She was a hard worker. She changed sheets, shopped for groceries, made breakfasts, lunches, and suppers.

She helped him use the bathroom. She eased him into showers. She scrubbed his backside. She combed his hair. She did his laundry. She folded his clothes while daytime TV gameshows ran in the background.

He talked.

He told her more than he’d told anyone. He talked about old days. About a war he fought. About jobs

he worked. About his late wife. About losing his only son.

She listened to him. No. She did more than listen.

She heard him.

And when he’d cry—which happened often—she held him the same way she would’ve held her son.

He enjoyed her son. Jemiah was the boy’s name. Jemiah wore poor-boy clothes, his shoes had holes in them.

The child liked to read, and write make-believe stories on construction paper. He wrote a story about the old man. It had illustrations of a white-haired man in a magical recliner that could fly.
Jemiah titled it: “My Friend Anthony.”

The old man kept it on his nightstand. It had been a long time since anyone called him friend. He read through it time and again.

His end came early one evening.

She was leaving his house for…

So I’m watching her work at the stove right now. She has no idea I’m writing this. My bloodhound is on my lap, a TV is blaring.

I’m watching my wife cook. She’s frying okra in an iron skillet. A dog lies in my lap. The television is playing. My life ain’t bad.


Three’s Company is on. I don’t care for Three’s Company.

“Turn it up,” my wife says.

She likes this show. I don’t know what she sees in it. I’ve never cared for the trials and tribulations of Jack Tripper. I’m an Andy-Griffith man, myself.

John Ritter is no Andy Taylor.

Anyway, cooking. This is what my wife does. It’s how she’s put together. If you’ve never met her, there are only two things you should know about her:

1. she talks with a loud voice.

2. don’t ever touch her plate.

On our honeymoon, we went to a greasy burger joint in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the kind of place with a jukebox, and burgers so thick they cause cardiologists to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm.

I made a serious attempt to steal an onion ring from my wife’s basket. It was the first and only

time I ever attempted such an act. And even though it happened long ago, I never regained mobility in my left hand.

Food, you see, is important to her. It’s what she does.

I’m not saying she’s a hobbyist. I’m saying that when we first met, she’d already completed culinary school with flying colors and worked in a kitchen. She doled out orders, stocked inventory, and balanced budgets.

A “chef de cuisine” is what they’re called. She knew all there was to know about beurre blancs, chèvre cheese, semi-rigid emulsions, and beef bourguignon.

When we were dating, she cooked supper a lot. On one such occasion, she asked what I wanted for supper.

I really wanted to impress her with worldly culinary wisdom. I felt it important to appear to be a man of sophistication when…