John emailed me. He told me a story. John was a wayward young man, with a criminal record, and a knack for falling in with the wrong crowd.

Thelma Lou sleeps on my lap. She is seventy pounds of bloodhound. She is wearing a handkerchief around her neck.

Tomorrow is a special day for her.

The handkerchief is red. We call this her “blanky” because she carries it wherever she goes. It used to be my everyday handkerchief. Now it’s hers.

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, boy. Here we go again. Not another sentimental dog story.”

No. That’s not what this is. The last thing I would ever write is a sentimental dog story. Those are dumb.

I’m writing an adventure. It’s about a tough guy named John.

John emailed me. He told me a story. John was a wayward young man, with a criminal record, and a knack for falling in with the wrong crowd.

John worked at the liquor store. Late one night, after closing shop, he was taking out the trash. He heard noise. He saw someone digging in the dumpster next door.

“Who’s there?” he hollered.

John heard quick footsteps. He saw silhouettes leap into a vehicle. He heard the engine roar. He saw a car drive away.

Then, whimpering came from the dumpster behind the supermarket.

He peeked inside.

A trash bag. It was covered in stale bread, rotting vegetables, and shredded paper.

John removed the bag. It was lumpy. And squirming. He opened it with a pocket knife. And, as John puts it: “Those puppies were no bigger than your hand.”

Newborns. Nine. Only eight were living. One puppy was not. They were black and white. They had pig-like faces. They made squeaking noises.

“Those guys left them to die,” says John. “I mean, the puppies were living, and those guys WILLINGLY wanted to change that.”

John took the puppies home. He washed the deceased puppy with dish soap—she was covered in stink and urine.…

You might not believe this, but I don’t think this world would keep spinning if you weren’t standing on it. I mean it.

Hey. Thank you for the tomatoes. I don’t know who you are, or how you got them to my doorstep anonymously. But thank you.

They are Slocomb tomatoes. The best in the known Western world. The last of the season. Red. Warm from the sun. Juicy. Have mercy.

I’d also like to say thanks to the little girl who opened the door for the boy in the wheelchair. The boy was wheeling toward the door. She raced to the door and held it open. She must’ve been nine years old, hair in ribbons.

He thanked her.

She answered, “Sure” in the voice of a little girl. But she is not a little girl. She is an incredible human being.

Thank you to the man who gave his hat to the Hispanic kid. The kid was in the open sunlight, standing beside his older sister, who held a cardboard sign. They were begging for money in Pensacola.

People drove past them. People wouldn’t even look at


But you did, sir. You gave that child your own hat. An Arkansas Razorbacks hat, of all things.

I was three cars behind you. I made a note about what you did in a little notebook in my truck. That’s what writers do. We carry notebooks. And I’d almost forgotten about what you did until today, when I found that notebook.

And thank you, Robbie. You are the right arm of my elderly mother-in-law. You drive her around town. You water every fern, scrub every dish, change every light bulb. And I’ll bet if you had a mind to, you could install brand new heating and cooling ductwork using nothing but a roll of duct tape and the Bible.

Thank you, Sylvia. Thank you for hugging my neck in the middle of a grocery store, even though we’ve never met in person before. Thank you for…

My father was tall, with a pair of blue heron legs. He would do a wind up, then kick a skinny leg outward, and pitch around his size-fourteen foot.

6:39 P.M. A bar. I am here to watch the ball game. The beer comes in tall glasses. The chicken wings are sizzling, and come garnished with a jalapeno pepper that causes serious medical damage to all who eat it.

The Braves are playing Tampa. The Braves look good this year.

I realize you might not care about baseball, and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a slow game, without much action. But it is very important to me.

My father was the kind of man who played catch with me nearly every summer night of my childhood. I remember when he bought me my first real glove. Until then, I’d been using secondhand gloves that were too big for my hand.

He oiled the new mitt with bacon fat, then wrote my name inside with a grease pencil—my father always scribbled names on things we owned. Even on shirts, hats, and underpants.

When I found the leather mitt on my dresser, it had a red

ribbon tied around it. It took my breath away.

The fact is, I didn’t have much of a throwing arm, but I could catch. And this was one of the few things I ever heard my father brag about.

“My son can catch anything,” he once said at a church picnic. “Why, if I threw a washing machine across the lawn, my boy’d find a way to get his glove on it.”

This made me so proud it hurt.

That night, my father decided to back up his claims for the fellas on the church lawn. I slid my glove over my hand.

My father was a pitcher. He could throw trick balls. He threw four-seam fastballs, two-seamers, Bugs Bunny balls, Dipsy Doodle curves, split knuckles, and a pitch he called the “Wandering John”—in which the ball would travel so slow that it would visit the…

There is a lot going on underneath that face of hers. And even though she doesn’t say it outright, I know she still misses her father, she feels like a burden on her sister.

This morning, I went to the gas station to get a newspaper, coffee, and lottery ticket. My bloodhound, Thelma Lou—poster child for moderate hyperactivity disorder—usually goes with me.

The way our morning routine usually works is simple: I buy a newspaper, maybe some powdered donuts; she steals my donuts, and eats my newspaper.

But this morning, when I walked into the gas station, something was wrong. Before I even got to the donuts, I could tell the air was tense.

The scene was this:

The cashier behind the counter was frazzled. She obviously did not know how to use the computerized cash register.

A customer at the counter was aggravated with her. There were five customers in line. They were all displaying universal gestures of annoyance.

Clearing throats. Folding arms. Tapping feet. The woman in front of me glanced at her watch. One man sighed hard enough to knock over a circus tent.

“Not-niceness.” That’s what we’re dealing with here. And it’s running rampant in today’s world.

The customers were

growing not-nicer by the minute. Finally, a man slammed his change on the counter. Another man mumbled a cuss word before storming out.

One woman shook her head and said, “Learn how to do your JOB, sweetie.”

When I got to the cashier she was too overwhelmed to say anything. Who can blame her? It’s not every day five customers behave like walking-talking jack mules.

She was a woman who looked older than she was. Her hair was blonde. She had tattoos on her arms, and on her hands.

“People can certainly be mean,” I remarked.

“Yeah,” she said. Then, she sort of broke down. She placed her head in her hands.

“I just CAN’T figure out this computer,” she said. “I ain’t stupid, I know how to do stuff, but this thing’s acting weird.”

So, I made conversation.…

Years after he died, I found a penny with his birthdate. It reminded me of him. A man who once loved me enough to jog beside my bike, even though I inevitably disappointed him.

Tallassee, Alabama—what a night. I’m in a tiny town. An ancient theater. I am standing where Hank Williams stood. I’m about to sing and tell stories to an audience.

I’m clutching a penny so hard it leaves a mark on my palm. The penny bears the birthdate of my late father upon it.

It was in this room that The Drifter himself once performed to a full house, singing through a tin-can microphone.

The Mount Vernon Theater hasn’t changed much since Hank. It is your all-American brick building. A ticket booth, folding seats, stage, velvet curtains.

I’m a kid in an opry house. What a night.

Anyway, one reason I’m here is to record the fiftieth episode of our podcast show.

Fifty episodes might not sound like much of an achievement—and it’s not, really. But if you’re me, it’s a big deal.

Nobody expected much out of me when I was a kid. Take, for example, the day my father taught me to ride a bicycle. He jogged beside my

bike, holding my seat for balance, cheering, “You can do it!”

Then he released me. I rolled forward. I wobbled. I fell. I tumbled. I bled. My mother gave me ice cream for supper.

I wanted to please my father so badly. I wanted to pedal a bicycle, then shout, “LOOK DADDY! I DIDN’T FALL!” But all I could do was skin my knees, and look like a clown doing it.

Years after he died, I found a penny with his birthdate. It reminded me of the man who once loved me enough to jog beside my bike, even though I inevitably disappointed him.

But right now I’m not disappointed about a thing.

I can see the audience through the curtains. And I am overcome. I’m clutching this penny tight. What a cotton-picking night.

The Goat Hill String Band…

“But it didn’t matter,” she goes on. “My family don’t want me. My parents couldn’t handle me marrying Guatemalan.”

A Mexican restaurant. Suppertime. I’ve been traveling. Earlier today, I spoke to a roomful of Presbyterians.

They were emotionally stiff. Only one gentleman in the audience laughed. His name was Davidek. Davidek is from the Czech Republic. Davidek laughed because he doesn’t understand English.

In fact, he only knew two English words: “Thank you.” Davidek shook my hand and said “Tankyou tankyou, tankyou,” nearly nine hundred times.

I pull off the highway. This joint is small. It borderlines on a dive. The stool cushions are torn. There’s a funny smell. A television above the bar.

My waitress is not Mexican. She is from North Tennessee. Her drawl is so mountain-thick it’s music. She has red hair and freckles. She is twenty-two.

It’s a slow night. Servers are playing on phones. The cooks are bored. My waitress is a talker.

“Where’re you headed?” she asks.

“Lake Martin,” I say.

“Oh dude, I LOVE it there, that’s where we went on our honeymoon. I SO wish we could move there.”

“You’re a long way from

Tennessee. How’d you get this far South?”

“Oh, we been here three years. We came after my husband got laid off, I was pregnant. My husband needed a change of scenery.”

“What’s your husband do for a living?” I ask.

She points to the kitchen. “Right now? He works here. That’s him, cooking in back.”

The Hispanic man waves a spatula at me.

She laughs. “He’s one semester away from being an engineer. We’re so proud.”

“He must be smart. I can’t add more than two numbers at once.”

“He is. And I just started college, too, end of last year. Only taking a few classes ‘cause I’m busy all day with my daughter.”

She removes a cellphone. She shows me a photo of a toddler with a ribbon on her auburn head, a feeding tube…

Then, I saw him fingerpick the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I never knew this man, I knew him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It’s a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn’t. It’s more than that.

You probably never met Ricky Edenfield. But you would’ve liked him. He played a banjo downtown, Crestview, Florida. He was a big fella, thick-bearded, with a personality so jolly he made Santa look like a jerk.

I saw him play. I remember it like it happened a few days ago:

“Whatcha want me to play?” he asks a few kids.

Somebody’s mother asks, “Do you know ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’”

“Know it?” He laughs.

He knows it. And he plucks through it like a man whose beard is on fire.

That’s my memory of him. He played this music like he belonged in a different world. An older one.

The world your great-grandparents came from—long before twenty-four-hour news channels and cellphone-based entertainment.

He was homeless for a long time, and it was hard on his body. He used a wheelchair. Once, he even died on the operating table from a collapsed lung.

But he was a cheery son of a banjo.

He had a way of looking at you that made

you feel seen. And you’d wonder about things for a few minutes while he played. Big things. Universal things.

Like: why are people homeless? And: is anyone truly without a home?

“I ain’t homeless,” Banjo Bear once told me. “Got me a mansion. A nice one. It just ain’t down here.”

Then, I saw him fingerpick the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I never knew this man, I knew him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It’s a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn’t. It’s more than that.

It’s a rural church, with wood floors. Where preaching is more like shouting, and the pastor rolls up his sleeves to pray for folks. Where miracles happen, but not the big kind. The little kind. Everyday miracles like babies, marriages, and second chances.


Lady is brown, with long floppy ears and a calm face. She is reserved, and she is thick in the middle. She has white around her snout, and two eyes that seem wise.

The woman was walking her dog on the sidewalk. I saw them. She had a Cocker Spaniel, it was wearing a red vest. The dog was well-behaved.

I love Cocker Spaniels. Long ago, I had one.

“Her name’s Lady,” the woman said. “She used to be a service dog, but she’s not anymore. She’s retired.”

Lady is brown, with long floppy ears, and a calm face. She is gentle, and she is thick in the middle. She has two eyes that seem wise.

Lady’s quite an animal. Her previous owner passed from a stroke in 2017. Lady was eleven when it happened. This woman has owned Lady ever since.

“She’s a good girl,” said the woman. “But she likes to be really doing something, you know, working. I don’t have any jobs for her to do though, so I just invent games for her.”

And at the end of every day, Lady crawls on the woman’s lap. She rests her head on the woman’s tummy while

she reads a book before bed. Lady usually falls asleep before anyone else.

Lady also gets up a lot earlier than the others in the family. But she makes no sound. She only waits by her new mother’s bed, sitting at attention, until everyone else wakes up. Old habits die hard.

This dog looks just like a friend I had once.

My old Cocker Spaniel was just like this one. One day, she just showed up on my porch, covered in knots and burrs. She was one of God’s own saints, sent to earth to show me what it means to slow down, eat more saturated fat, and take longer naps. She was my friend when I needed a friend.

We spent the rest of her life together. She would wait for me in the windowsill every evening. Whenever my truck would pull into the…

She helped the girl find herself. She helped the child become a woman. She helped the woman become a mother.

She was a pretty girl. A teenager. Dark skin. Black hair. And alone. She was standing in the canned soup aisle of the supermarket. Scared.

Miss Wilma—which isn’t her real name—was an elderly woman, reaching for a can of chicken broth from the top shelf.

She was going to make chicken and dumplings. It was a recipe that had been passed down from her great grandmother. It was a recipe which, women in her family claimed, could cure yellow fever, and croup. And on one occasion in Mount Dora, Florida, 1969, it prevented divorce.

The girl reached the top shelf for the old woman. She was a tall girl. Seventeen, almost eighteen.

A pang in Wilma’s gut told her something was wrong. There was something in the girl’s face. The girl looked terrified.

She started talking to the girl. Their conversation led Wilma to ask where the girl’s mother was.

“I don’t know,” the girl admitted. “I think I lost her.”

But the girl hadn’t lost her. The mother

had left.

The girl’s mother had disappeared from the state, and left her daughter in the supermarket. The girl had been looking for her mother for hours.

“Why haven’t you asked for help?” asked Wilma.

“Because I don’t wanna get my mom in trouble,” the girl said.

Wilma was going page the woman over the supermarket intercom, but the teenager begged her not to.

“But,” said Wilma. “What’ll you do? How will you get home?”

The girl shrugged. “Ain’t got no home.”

The girl was from Jacksonville. But truthfully, she was from everywhere. She’d been living in a car with her mother, roaming highways since her early days. Her mother had a talent for falling in with the wrong people—which is how the woman had kept a drug habit going. Motels, RV parks, public shelters, those were her homes.…

At club meetings, members store cellphones in a locked safe. Their mothers serve pimento cheese sandwiches and juice boxes. And the kids talk about, say, Leo Tolstoy.

The sun rose over the Alabamian highway, and it was pure majesty. The sound of birds was music. I was on my way to speak to a book club.

I don’t usually speak to book clubs, namely because I’m no good at it. I’ve found that avid readers are smarter than I am. Most often, it goes like this:

A man in steel-rimmed glasses stands and asks a question like: “What was your subjective motivation within the pretext of the outlined apparatus of your—dare I suggest?—almost quasi-static prose?”

I usually just mumble something about current tax laws, take a sip of water, and say my closing remarks:

“It’s been a bona fide treat, folks. A bona fide treat.”

Then it’s off to KFC for some bona fide supper.

This book club, however, is different. These are thirteen-year-olds.

A girl named Claire emailed me several weeks ago. She told me their group of friends formed a club that reads books instead of playing with phones.

At club meetings,

members store cellphones in a locked safe. Their mothers serve pimento cheese sandwiches and juice boxes. And the kids talk about, say, Leo Tolstoy.

They are smart kids. They read authors like Robert Frost, Carson McCullers, Walt Whitman, and one redheaded writer whose truck has needed new brake rotors since 2002.

I arrived in a residential neighborhood of manicured lawns. I wasn’t sure whether I should wear my tweed jacket with the elbow patches. I decided against it.

Their mother invited me inside. I shook hands with kids and parents. A kid named Brad held his hand out and said, “Cellphone, please, sir.”

He locked my cellphone in a fireproof safe with the other phones, then showed me to the den. The living room was full of kids sitting on the floor.

The round table started by discussing the Mark Twain book they’d…