When my father died, my mother took to saying “thank you” a lot more. Those two words were her favorites. If you would’ve asked me, I would’ve told you that she said them too much.

Freeport, Florida—Nick’s Seafood Restaurant sits right on the bay of my youth. This place is only a hop, skip, and a jump from my mother’s place. My family is here to eat supper tonight.

And I am feeling grateful.

The sun is getting low, and the clouds are making scattered formations across the Choctawhatchee Bay. There are a hundred muddy trucks in the dirt parking lot.

This is an old place. Old timers used to come to this same building to buy oysters by the bushel, before it was a seafood joint. Not so long ago, I used to fish these bay shores with buddies—before my voice dropped.

My mother is walking across the parking lot. She is wearing a beach dress and flip flops. Flip flops. As I live and breath.

This woman used to wear very different clothes. Hospital scrubs, service clothes, fast-food uniforms.

Once, when I was a young man, we went to Cracker Barrel for Thanksgiving supper. The restaurant was about to

close. I had just gotten off work, my mother still wore her work clothes, and my sister was playing the triangle-peg game.

That night, when our food arrived, my mother bowed her head and said in a soft voice, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you...”

She followed it with an “amen.”

This woman believed the best way to start each day was with a “thank you.”

When I was a child, each morning before school my mother made me engage in a bizarre, semi-Pentecostal ritual. I would stand before my bed—half awake, wearing nothing but my skivvies—and my mother would make me touch my toes and say, “Thank you, Lord, for my feet!”

Then, she’d make me reach for the sky and say, “Thank you, Lord, for my hands!”

And so on.

Then, she would sing “I’m so…

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

Last week, I played music and spoke to a room of white-haired women. It was a dim-lit bar, with decent onion rings, heavy burgers, and waitresses who call you “sweetie.” Not exactly the place you’d expect to see the White-Haired Beauties of America.

But they were here. Ladies from all walks of life held glasses of beer and wine. A few had canes and walkers. A few got too loud. I was entertainment.

Eighty-two-year-old, Jo, approached me first. She wore a white blouse with houndstooth scarf. She asked if she could buy me a beer. I yes-ma’ammed her.

“Don’t yes-ma’am me, boy,” she said. “I’m trying to hit on you. Ruins the excitement.”

We sat at the bar together. She fired up her vaporizer cigarette.

“Doctor says I shouldn’t smoke,” said Jo. “But still I smoke two a day. One in the morning, one at night, and I vape until my throat’s raw.”

Jo is an M-80 firecracker. She is from rural Alabama and she sounds like it. She is a writer, a poet, an artist, and

a shameless flirt.

She told stories, of course.

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

By the time she had worn out her butterscotch vaporizer, she was talking about her husband.

“I miss him so much,” she said. “He was a precious man, the best thing in my life. You look a little like he did.”

There was another woman. Ella.

She was eighty-nine. She asked if the band would play “Tennessee Waltz.” We played it at an easy tempo.

She slow-danced with her son. He was careful with her. When he dipped her, she was nineteen again. That’s when he blew out his back.

Ella’s husband died when she was forty. She never remarried.

“Always had me a few boyfriends,”…

When the first sliver of light showed, the girl shot to her feet and ran along the beach, waving arms in the air. So did the others.

I’m writing this in the early morning. The birds are asleep, the crickets, too. The sun is about to rise, and it’s going to rise just for you. There is a faint glow behind the trees. Just wait. It’s coming.

I received a letter this morning from a girl I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is eighteen. She told me about herself.

She wrote:

“I feel ugly and I know that’s why I’ve never had a boyfriend... I probably never will have one. People don’t like me, and I’m worried that nobody will ever love me.”

Sweet Caroline.

Here’s another letter from a man we’ll refer to as “Elvis”—because that’s what he wanted to be called. Elvis is forty-four.

He wrote:

“My ex-wife broke my heart… Why is it I end up trusting somebody and they break my heart, and instead of hating THEM, I dislike MYSELF somehow? I don’t like myself...”

And this beautiful young woman:

“I have an arteriovenous malformation… Which is why my arm doesn’t work, and now it’s moving to my leg. The

malformation started small, but has grown to the size of a tennis ball, giving me daily seizures and other obstacles…

“The hardest part about all this is being forgotten. I used to have a lot of friends before my diagnosis, but now...

“I get that people are busy, but is life really about being busy?”

Well, I hate to disappoint these good people who’ve written me, but they’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.

The only thing I can possibly think to tell these good folks is about what happened to me during my seventh-grade year.

First, a little background: my seventh-grade year was shaping up to be a good one. Often, in the school cafeteria I’d have my pals laughing until milk spilled from their noses and they lost control of…

Her brother will make a full recovery, her parents tell me. And one day, he might even pitch in the major leagues—if all goes according to the plan. But until then, he has Big Sister.

A frozen yogurt joint. I’ve just finished supper. My belt is tight from eating too much pizza.

There are too many yogurt flavors to choose from in this place. Triple Dark Peruvian Fudgesicle, Very Berry Quite Contrary, Oreo Delight, Midnight Mudpie in Mississippi—shut my mouth.

Of course, the Orange Julius flavor doesn’t taste too shabby, either.

Then again, artificial orange doesn’t always set well with me. When I was a boy, the doctor gassed me with orange-flavored laughing gas just before tonsil surgery.

All I remember after that is hearing nurses play Righteous Brothers music through a transistor radio while I breathed in orange fumes.

Ever since then, I detest Sunkist, and I can’t hear “Unchained Melody” without breaking into a nervous sweat.

So I’m sampling yogurt flavors, and that’s when I see her. She’s twelve, maybe thirteen. She’s with her family. She is small. She is a redhead.

I have a soft spot for redheads since God made me one.

The girl is feeding her little brother with

a spoon. The boy has a cast on one arm, and a sling on the other.

“He fell,” the boy’s father explains. “He was climbing our gutter on the porch.”

“The gutter?” I say.

“The gutter.”

He broke one arm and injured his other shoulder. No sooner had he hit the ground than his twelve-year-old sister came running to the rescue.

And as the story goes: she carried her brother indoors—over her shoulder. Big Sister has been caring for Little Brother ever since.

“I love taking care of people,” the girl tells me. “I’m gonna be a nurse one day.”

The girl’s mother says that her daughter has always wanted to be a nurse, from Day One. And earlier this year, before Little Brother attempted his solo flight, the girl got her chance to be a real nurse.…

Thank you for hugs from small-town women who talk with soft drawls, and aren’t afraid to tell me they love me. Watch over my mother-in-law while she attempts to eat too much fried food without a qualified member of the clergy standing nearby.

This is a small restaurant. A meat-and-three, where waitresses wear T-shirts. Where your iced tea never falls below the rim of your glass. Where catfish is fried whole on the bone.

I have two dates accompanying me tonight.

My mother-in-law—who holds my arm for balance. I’m carrying her purse. And my wife—who walks ten steps ahead of us at all times.

The dress code is summer weekend casual. I’m wearing jeans. My dates are wearing pearls, pumps, and ruby lipstick.

They always do. In fact, I’ve never seen them exit the house in anything they wouldn’t want to be buried in.

We order a round of teas. My dates scan the menus without conversation. When our server arrives, my dates have questions.

“Is your tartar sauce made with DUKE’S?” asks my wife.

“Are there REAL ham hocks in

your collards?” asks my mother-in-law. “I don’t like those ham-flavored packets.”

“What’s in the potato salad?” asks my wife. “If I even LOOK at a stick of celery I start gagging…”

“Are your French fries STEAK fries, or shoestring?”

“What kind of cake do you have tonight?”

“Where’d you graduate high school?”

“What’s your stance on foreign commerce?”

“What’s your social security number?”

The server looks to me.

“I’ll have a barbecue sandwich, ma’am,” I say.

Two more women enter the restaurant. They have white hair, and they are also sporting pearls. They sit behind us. They speak with accents that are soft and sophisticated.

As fate would have it, my two dates know them—sort of.

Miss Youth Dew and Miss Dignified are from Anytown, Alabama. My mother-in-law…

After months of hard work, the girl is on her feet and proud. And she ought to be, she’s a walking ray of sunshine.

I ran into the grocery store. I was in a hurry. I walked the aisles with groceries beneath my arms.

And it happened. I got recognized in the dog-food aisle.

I was busy trying to decide between beef chunks with gravy, or lamb with rice. A family of five walked toward me. They stopped. They stared.

The oldest daughter said, “You’re Sean!”

I looked in both directions. I was just about to explain that I had already filed for an extension this year when she hugged me.

Mother hugged me next. Then Brother. Then Father. Then Granny joined the clot.

“I can’t BELIEVE we’re meeting you here,” said the teenage girl. “It’s JUST like your stories. Oh my God, are you gonna change my name when you write about me, too?”

I made a series of unintelligible mumbles.

“I want you to call me something really crazy,” she went on. “Like Scarlett O’Hara or something.”

Admittedly, this name is a little overdone, but an overall good choice if you ask me.

Granny piped into the conversation: “Hey, I JUST read what you wrote

about Chick-fil-A, only a few minutes ago.”

Right. It bears mentioning: the subject of Chick-fil-A has been a hot topic in my inbox today. I’ve received approximately—and this is a low estimate—six hundred thousand messages regarding a misinterpreted sentence I wrote about Chick-fil-A.

I don’t have time to explain here, but let’s just say that some of the emails have been less than kind. Some have been downright scary.

Readers like Dan from Georgia, for instance, wrote: “If you were up in Georgia, I’d take your [bleeping bleep] behind the woodshed and wear your [bleeping bleep] out. LOL.”

Hey, thanks for the letter, Dan. You sound like a fun guy. LOL.

But thankfully, the folks in the grocery store didn’t want to scalp me with cheese graters. No, these were kind hearted people, from Alabama.

“I think…

But, a “hater?” No, sir. I don’t hate anything, nor any establishment, nor any person. And I don’t hate angry readers who tell me to go straight to… Well, you know.

DEAR SEAN:

You are a hater, so I hate you. Seriously, I’m finished with you. I’m disappointed in the negative statement you made yesterday about Chick-fil-A!

You wrote [quote]: “...we played [music] at the grand opening of a Chick-fil-A. I’m not proud of that.”

I was mortified when I read that you actually hate Chick-fil-A... And all I can say to you is... [bleep, bleep, bleepity bleep].

It’s been real,
TIME-TO-QUIT-SEAN-DIETRICH

DEAR TIME-TO-QUIT:

Hi. How’s your day been going? I hope you are well.

Listen, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but I’m reading your letter while eating a Chicken Biscuit, sitting inside a Chick-fil-A. That’s right, I’m in a booth at THIS VERY MOMENT, writing you.

In fact, I just read your words aloud to the woman sitting next to me. Louisa, is her name. She has an eight-year-old daughter with her.

After I read your words, Louisa’s daughter remarked: “Wow, that person needs a nap.”

Her words, not mine.

Anyway, maybe you don’t know this, but my mama worked at Chick-fil-A when I was young. To make ends meet, Mama made waffle fries, scrubbed kitchens, mopped

the floors, and wore a uniform. My sister worked here, too.

This place was good to my family. And by “good,” I mean: they helped us survive. Hate them?

Do what?

Why, if you ask me you couldn’t find better fried chicken if you looked in Aunt Bee’s skillet.

Admittedly, I don’t know anything about the organization. But I DO know that during my youth, I’d visit Chick-fil-A to see Mama’s smiling face. And those memories are plated in gold.

Oh, but you didn’t want to know that. You wanted to be angry. So okay. Let’s talk about the sentences you didn’t like:

“...we played [music] at the grand opening of a Chick-fil-A. I’m not proud of that.”

Journey through time with me, friend. Let’s travel backward several years.

[Cue…

I am lucky. I’ve spent most of my life as a thick-headed fool. And sometimes, I wish I could go back in time and have a serious talk with Young Me. If I could, I know exactly what I’d tell him.

I’m throwing a barbecue. I invited a few friends over for the holiday celebration. A few turned into a lot. Now I am surrounded.

And I am happy.

I don’t want to get mushy, but I couldn’t be happier if I won the Florida Powerball. There are two kids playing catch in my front yard. People are reaching into coolers full of ice.

One bloodhound is running around—off leash. And one toddler named Grayson is running around—Grayson is wearing a leash.

And I’m standing at a grill. I’m wearing a ten-gallon hat, and an apron my friend bought me.

The apron was a gag gift, it reads: “Never use gasoline to light a grill.”

Friends.

There’s no need for this apron. But aprons help me appear like I actually know what I’m doing. And it’s important to look like you know what you’re doing when cooking raw meat for several innocent bystanders.

The truth is, I am not a good cook. I’m a writer and an accordionist. And writer-accordion-players are only good at bouncing checks, and using-way-too-many-hyphens-in-one-long-sentence.

Case and point: long ago, my wife bought

me a grill when we first got married. And before I tell you the rest of this story, I should also explain that it was one of those K-Mart jobs, with an instruction booklet written in Mandarin.

The grill didn’t cooperate. So, like any responsible American problem solver, to light the grill I resorted to using an acetylene blowtorch and gasoline.

Thus, the apron.

Since then, my friends have never let me forget about those foul tasting hamburgers. Neither will they let me forget about the following day, when I attend my cousin’s baby dedication with hairless forearms and no eyebrows.

But today, I’m not worried about food because I’m here with friends. I’m feeling nostalgic.

I’ve known some of these people for a long, long, long time. And they’ve been good to me.

Take…

He would rub salve on my sunburns every summer—I spent three quarters of my life sunburned. Redheads are like that, of course. Fair-skinned people like me can’t mention the sun without blistering. 

There was a ghost in the car with me. It surprised me that he showed up, it’s been a long, long time. But I am glad to see him.

I ask what the occasion is.

“Oh,” he says. “I just came to say ‘hello.’”

The ghost looks just like me. Or rather, I look like him. We are close in age—he was only forty-one when he died.

I still miss him.

Anyway, he and I drive past prairies and cotton fields. The sky has never been so blue. The music on the radio has never been better. Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits.

Salve to the ears.

My father used that word a lot. “Salve.” There was no such thing as “ointment,” “balm,” “Mentholatum,” or “Vaseline.” To him, everything was salve.

He would rub salve on my sunburns every summer—I spent three quarters of my life sunburned. Redheads are like that, of course. Fair-skinned people like me can’t mention the sun without blistering.

A lot of redheads are also allergic to poison ivy. In fact, I can’t bear to talk about this subject. I’m sorry I

even brought it up.

My father would rub salve on all my rashes. He was every bit as redheaded as I was. Every bit as fair.

I’m passing Kinston, Opp, Elba, and Brantley.

I pull over at a gas station. I buy black licorice, Coca-Cola, and hot dogs. He loved black licorice. He loved hotdogs.

Funny, I forget most of the things he hated, but I remember what he loved.

On the road again. There’s not a cloud for miles. His arm is dangling out the window. Mine is too. Willie is still singing. I’ve already finished my Coke and dog. He hasn’t touched his.

Luverne, Rutledge, Highland Home.

He’s not telling stories today. So, I’m remembering some of my own.

I remember the time I fell off the tire swing and knocked the wind out…

Anyway, this town has changed. Once upon a time, Destin was a sleepy fishing village. It had one traffic light—two at the most. It wasn’t swallowed by chain restaurants. There were only a few dives, a Shell Station, and the docks on the harbor.

It’s night and I am on a beach in Destin, Florida. I am sitting on the shore, watching the mighty Gulf of Mexico. It never stops moving.

Never.

A few hours ago, I was in a beach bar having dinner with an old friend. He looked good. He’s a family man now, with a good job in Birmingham. Two kids. A nice wife. I haven’t seen him in decades. Not since we were ugly young men, operating nail-guns together.

Long ago, we had things in common. His father left before he was born. Mine died when I was a boy.

Back then, we had the same idea on life. Namely: that life wasn’t fair.

We had fun tonight. There was a band playing top-forty hits. The lead guitarist sang “Brown Eyed Girl” like a donkey with a sinus infection. And people danced.

My friend and his wife ordered fruity drinks and two-stepped until they were sweaty. I said Goodnight Gracie and left early.

On my way home, I stopped here. And the memories came back by the metric

ton.

This used to be my beach. I haven’t been here in years. We lived a few streets over. Our family’s old block house was yellow. And tiny. I slept on a pull-out sofa. My sister slept with my mother.

I would sit on the back porch steps when I couldn’t sleep, and look at the night. And I’d wonder things. Important things.

Things like: why does the Pope wear pointy hats? Who invented drive-thru liquor stores? Is it bad luck to be superstitious? And why does it seem like life is out to get me?

Anyway, this town has changed. Once upon a time, Destin was a sleepy fishing village. It had one traffic light—two at the most. It wasn’t swallowed by chain restaurants. There were only a few dives, a Shell Station, and the docks on the harbor.

But progress…