I’ve been writing you every day for four years. You’ve brought me back to life, whether you know it or not.

The first thing I ever wanted to do was be on the radio. I decided this when I was seven. I went to see the Grand Ole Opry with my father. The lights. The steel guitars. The cowboy hats.

I didn’t want to sing on the radio. I wanted to introduce the bands, shake hands with folks in rhinestones. I wanted to hug Minnie Pearl’s neck.

My father said it was a good dream, especially the part about Minnie Pearl.

“Anything’s possible,” Daddy once told me.


By fifth grade, I’d expanded career interests, since ANYTHING was possible. I wanted to be a writer. Maybe even a journalist.

But fifth grade was when life fell apart. I flunked school, which did a number on my mind.

Kids who flunked were doomed to live in vans and visit KFC’s just to lick other people’s fingers.

In seventh grade, things got worse. My father died. I dropped out of school altogether. I never attended high school. It’s not something I’m

proud of.

I played a lot of music during that period. By fifteen, I was playing weddings, church socials, feed-store openings, and shoe-store clearances. I played a lot of funerals, too.

Once, I played a Pentecostal funeral. A woman spoke in tongues while I picked “Peace in the Valley.”

I’d never heard such.

The preacher told me to nod and shout “Thank you JEE-ZUSSSSS” when I heard the thus-saith-the-Lords.

In my twenties, I worked construction and played music in the evenings. I played in establishments my mother would have preferred I hadn’t.

I also played piano for a Baptist church on Sundays. That didn’t last long. But that’s a long story I don’t have room for. I will, however, simply say that some Baptists object to playing in beer joints.

Which is no surprise. The Baptists I grew up…

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

Birmingham, Alabama—A Friday. Chadley was in a good mood. He would be twenty-one in a few days. To celebrate, he would be leaving for Orange Beach with his friends after work.

His job was in a shoe store. It was the sort of place that sold everything. His daily tasks included: stocking, manning a register, and cramming shoes on the stinky feet of bratty kids.

He couldn’t wait to clock out.

Earlier that morning, his father had given him two hundred dollars as a birthday gift. It was going to be the weekend of a lifetime.

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

The fella had crumpled dollars his hand. “Some lady gave me this money,” the old timer said. “I’d like to buy me some shoes.”

It wasn’t enough to buy a pair of flip flops.

Young Chadley looked at the man’s feet. They were bloody.

He bought

the man two pairs of shoes—expensive ones. Then, he bought the man’s lunch. Chadley spent nearly all his birthday money. Then, he tucked his remaining six dollars into the man’s hand.

Our hero never made it to the beach that year.

Panama City, Florida—a man saw a woman in a Home Depot parking lot.

The lady was silver-haired and frail, loading fifty-pound bags of fertilizer into her trunk.

He offered to help. He placed them into her car and nearly ruptured L4, L5, and S1. Then, he followed her home to unload them.

Hers was a rundown single-wide in a mobile home park. She had an overgrown lawn and moldy siding. Her porch was full of flowers that needed planting.

“Who’s gonna plant all those?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Me, I guess. My husband used to help me…

“So I fought,” he said. “You know, you just tell your body, ‘Fight, man.’ Maybe you win, maybe you lose. But all you can do is fight.”

The band was all right. They played to a crowded joint of people who’d clocked out for the weekend. Folks who needed something greasy to eat and cold to drink.

Band members had gray hair, Western-style shirts, hats, boots. The whole nine yards.

“They’re here every Friday,” said the bartender. “Aren’t they awesome?”

The jury’s still out on “awesome.” But their hearts were in the right places.

“At least they play REAL country,” the bartender went on.

We can agree on that much. They played classics. And classic country is a dying art. You can’t look at a superstar who wears $1400 boots and eyeliner and call him country.

The men on this stage looked like they knew how to operate nail guns.

A kid was bussing tables. He was early twenties. He set his tub beside me and watched the band.

I introduced myself.

He said he likes old-fashioned country music. His brother is the one who taught him to like antique songs about cheating hearts, boys named Sue, and wooden Indians.

He tells me

he started listening to records a lot when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“That’s why I got this puffy face,” he explains. “All the pills I’ve taken make me like this.”

The chemo hasn’t helped either.

He was in the hospital for a month, once. He was fighting infection upon infection. His brother bought a portable record player. Together, they listened to classics.

Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard. Music.

“I dunno,” he told me. “Those songs just make me feel good all over.”

In the hospital, he started taking guitar lessons from his brother. He liked guitar better than playing games on his phone, or watching daytime TV.

“Plus, I didn’t know if I was gonna die or not,” he added. “I was doing bucket-list stuff, I guess.”

I guess.

His parents…

I’m talking shindigs of Biblical proportions. Barns with long tables. Fried chicken, barbecued pork, potato salad, and biscuits rich enough to violate federal trade regulations.

I stopped to buy a lottery ticket at a joint on the Florida-Alabama line.

Yeah, I know the lottery is a fool’s game, but I have a longstanding tradition of doing foolish things.

The man at the counter was sipping from a red SOLO cup, chewing ice. On the radio, Loretta Lynn sang. I bought three Powerball tickets and a Coke.

The man said, “Powerball’s up to three forty-eight.”

That’s 348 million bucks. And even though I’m no mathematician, I’ve been thinking about what I’d do if the universe ever gave me that much money.

That’s what writers do, you see. We stare into space, thinking long and hard about things that will never happen just in case they do. If you do it right, people think you’re working.

First: I would buy a farm. A big one. Not for livestock. This would be sprawling countryside, live oaks, and ponds.

Then, I would build hundreds—no thousands of cabins. Little ones, with porch swings, and scenic views. I would call

this operation, “Ellie Mae Farms,” since it will need a name, and my coonhound, Ellie Mae, is sleeping on my feet while I write this.

Yes, here at Ellie Mae Farms, we believe in three things. Foster kids, foster dogs, and saturated fat. Every summer, we’ll welcome kids without parents, who don’t think anyone gives a cuss about them.

We give lots of cusses at Ellie Mae Farms.

We’ll have colossal breakfasts. Any dish you can think of. Bacon, eggs, Conecuh sausage, omelettes, ten-foot-tall glasses of orange juice.

They will send out the local news choppers just to cover our breakfasts.

Our staff will be school teachers. We’ll pay them triple—no ten-times what teachers get paid today. Not only will they teach, they’ll receive five months paid vacations, benefits, complimentary massages, and monthly beer allowances.

And don’t forget our…

On the day we got Daddy from the funeral home, he came packaged in a cardboard box. He didn’t believe in urns. He was a tight-wad, even for his own funeral.

It was nice weather. I was on a boat with a friend, hoping to catch a few bream. The fish, of course, knew this and conspired to avoid me.

My friend was sipping beer. Willie Nelson serenaded us from a battery-powered pocket radio. We saw a bass boat in the distance.

It was a nice boat. The kind that costs an arm and a liver.

Four people were onboard. Two men, one boy, and a woman. They were dressed in Sunday clothes. The woman held what looked like a vase. She emptied it overboard. Dust fell into the water.

The boy’s face was in his hands. I’ll never forget him.

My friend bowed his head. I turned off the pocket radio. We were quiet. And I was decades backward in a memory.

In this particular memory, I’m thirteen. I’m in the mountains. The air is thin. My mouth is dry. I am cold.

I’m not my normal happy boyish self. But then, I hadn’t been happy since my father


Dead. He was dead, I kept telling myself. I couldn’t believe it.

On the day we got Daddy from the funeral home, he came packaged in a cardboard box. He didn’t believe in urns. He was a tight-wad, even for his own funeral.

His brown box sat on a counter. The funeral director had my mother sign a dotted line. And that was that.

A man’s entire life, stuffed into a box. Once, he was a tall, slender man who taught me how to gut fish.

Now he was UPS parcel.

We kept his ashes in the shed since nobody wanted his remains indoors. My mother said his spirit needed to escape. I sat with him a lot.

One year later, we found ourselves on the mountain I told you about. We overlooked the whole world. My uncle sliced…

“But I was tired of feeling beneath everyone else,” she said. “I had no confidence, and I had no idea how to make things better.”

She’s older. Her skin is weathered, but her eyes are still sharp. She says that for most of her life she thought she was trash.

“Growing up, I never thought much of myself,” she said. “Guess when your daddy says you ain’t nothing, you believe it.”


Her parents were poor. Her father was bad to drink. Her mother was bitter. Life was no cakewalk.

She had her first boyfriend as a sophomore. He was a real winner. He degraded her, called her names. She got pregnant as a junior. He disappeared. She dropped out.

By nineteen, she was pregnant again by another man who treated her even worse—who also left her.

But her life didn’t stay as sad as it sounds. No sir. In fact, that’s why I’m writing this.

During her mid-twenties, fate smiled on her. She got married to a good man who thought she hung the moon. He had two kids; she had two kids. They shoved their families together and manufactured happiness

by the bucketful.

He laid concrete. She worked in a restaurant.

They were barely making enough to survive, but money’s not everything. Some things are more important. Like happiness, family, and whether you like your own reflection.

“But I was tired of feeling beneath everyone else,” she said. “I had no confidence, and I had no idea how to make things better.”

One day after work, she got her answer. She was picking up her children from the Methodist church’s after-school program.

In the parking lot, she met a woman who was like her. Same callused hands. Same smoking habit. They hit it off. They talked about things, about their kids, their husbands, about everything.

The woman said she was graduating college that same week.

“It’s taken me ten years to graduate,” the woman admitted. “Had to take classes little by little.…

DEAR SEAN: I will babysit your dog (Ellie Mae) if you ever need. I would do it for free. I’m ten and mature.


I’ve worked in a hotel, cleaning rooms off and on since the eighties. I’m approaching sixty-four. I’ve been working all my life for my kids…

My kids are grown and finished with college, but I didn’t know what to do with myself when they left, so I still work even though I don’t have to.

I keep working so I can encourage young people that they can make it through the same crap I went through.


My son died six years ago… In the middle of my grief I started volunteering at a place that delivers groceries to local families who are low-income.

I don’t know why I’m writing you, but I want parents to know that there’s life after your child dies.


I work in a grocery store. A woman came through my line and told me about your website. I wrote your name on receipt paper. When I emptied my pockets that evening, I saw the receipt, and figured it couldn't hurt to check out your website.

I got inspired to write a poem about my late big brother. He

passed on Christmas of 2017.

“...My brother.
You are gone, but you are not far away.
At the end of each day,
You are my last thought.
You are on the other side of my fear,
I have nothing to fear...”


I will babysit your dog (Ellie Mae) if you ever need. I would do it for free. I’m ten and mature.


I’m getting my GED this year. Dude, I’m almost forty, it’s harder than I thought.

Someday I really want to go to college, but I look at all the work ahead of me and don’t know if I have what it takes.

I’m not a kid anymore, I hope this isn’t a dumb…