Heroes aren’t people on television. They aren’t celebrities who have designer clothes and silicone thighs. Neither are they the sorts of fools who use teleprompters and beg for your support. They aren’t athletes, news anchors, televangelists, pop stars, or reality-TV contestants with pink hair.

I hope you have a good day. The entire day. Start to finish. Not the Best Day Ever—that’s too much excitement crammed into twenty-four hours.

No. Just a plain old, good day.

I hope you wake up to smells you love. Like: donuts, bacon, a fireplace, or halitosis from a kitty-litter-eating bloodhound.

I hope you have nothing pressing to do. No schedule. No appointments.

We do too much, you know. Long ago, our ancestors practiced the noble art of being worthless. A lot of folks won't do that anymore.

Today, I hope you’re as worthless as a waterproof dishrag.

I hope you remember your ancestors. Your grandparents, and their grandparents—even if you’ve never met them.

I hope you think about the simple things they gave us. A hamburger with pickles. Whittling. Will Rogers. Baseball games. Pajamas. Smacking ketchup bottles. Hank Williams music playing on kitchen radios. Childhood porches.

I hope you close your eyes and recall the best pieces of childhood. The days when you played hard, and the best games happened in backyards.

I hope your smartphone quits

working—just for a few hours. I hope the absence of a digital screen takes you outdoors. I hope you hear the sounds of the earth all at once.

I hope you sit for hours with nothing but a cold drink and your best ideas.

I hope you meet someone who inspires you. A kid who’s had kidney cancer. A girl who got pregnant too young, who just finished nursing school.

A woman who lost her husband to an overdose. A child whose daddy is in prison. A hillbilly who put himself through the GED course. A homeless woman, selling parched peanuts. An EMT. A school custodian. A lonesome grandmother. Anyone who’s adopted a child.

I hope you look at them and feel proud. After all, they are the only ones worth being proud about. People like them. People like you.


Tony has parting gifts to send with me. He hands me a fifty-pound Styrofoam cooler. Inside is sausage, chicken salad, bologna, hoop cheese, pulled pork, honey buns, hog head cheese, and pork cracklins.

West Alabama is alive. The wide fields are painted in goldenrods. Green live oaks everywhere. A cow chews cud, watching cars on the highway. It’s a perfect day.

I should be happy.

But I haven’t been myself since my floppy-eared dog went to the Great Beyond. Ellie Mae has been gone a few days; my passenger seat never looked so vacant. I haven’t felt like talking. I haven’t even been hungry.

A road sign ahead.

“Jefferson Country Store,” it reads.

I’m in no mood to stop.

But then, I’m a sucker for country stores. The building is clapboards and tin. Rusted Royal Crown Cola signs and old posters for Nehi, Grapico, and MoonPies. A United States Postal Service sign out front. An American flag.

I pull over.

The front door is propped open. An attic fan is going. A hand painted sign advertises hoop cheese, hog head souse, and cut meats. Tony is behind the counter, taking it easy.

He recognizes me.

“Hey Sean,” he says.

Do what?

The last thing I expected to be recognized in the sticks of Jefferson.

He shakes my hand. His

wife, Betsy, hugs me. And even though I’m a stranger, they treat me like it’s homecoming. Tony offers me a burger.

“No thanks,” I say. After all, I’m not in the mood, I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself today.

Tony isn’t about to let me go hungry. In this part of the world, that’s a sin. In seconds, the grill sizzles and this place is alive.

I’m looking at this country store. My entire childhood is on these shelves. MoonPies, Star Crunches, PayDays, pickled pig feet, quail eggs, Golden Eagle syrup, ribbon cane syrup, rag bologna, and of course, red rind hoop cheese.

As a boy, my mother would carry me to a country gas station to buy me hoop cheese and a bottled Coke. For dessert, she’d give me candy cigarettes.


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.

A dog-food can sits in my cup holder—it holds pencils, pens, loose change, and a plastic-wrapped cigar someone gave me at an Ironbowl party five years ago.

Not long ago, I wrote this for Ellie. I won’t ever quit missing you, big girl.


I’m in a truck that hasn’t been cleaned in nearly two SEC championships. There is a coonhound in my passenger seat.

I stop at Chick-Fil-A. The woman at the window knows me. She knows my usual order.

“Morning, Ellie Mae,” says the girl at the window.

Other employees crane their necks out the window to greet Ellie, too.

We come here a lot.

We drive away and eat sandwiches while we ride through traffic.

Like I said, this truck is a mess. Ellie’s half-eaten jars of peanut butter are scattered everywhere. There are dog treats and bottle caps in the ashtray. Empty dog-food cans litter my floorboards.

A dog-food can sits in my cup holder—it holds pencils, pens, loose change, and a plastic-wrapped cigar someone gave me at an Ironbowl party five years ago.

On my dash: Ellie’s toy duck, a dog bowl, and a lasso—which I use for a leash.

This lasso was given to me by a five-foot Mexican man named Esteban.

I sold a lawnmower

to Esteban—that's how I met him. His wife came with him to translate. I noticed lassos hanging in the back of their truck. I asked about them.

In a few seconds, Esteban was doing rope tricks for me and Ellie Mae. Ellie liked this very much. She crouched low and barked. He twirled a flat-loop above her. She wagged her tail so hard it almost came detached.

She was a lot younger then.

Right now, I’m driving into a grass field. There must be two hundred acres of pasture before me. It’s not my land.

I’ve been taking Ellie here for years—long before I ever had permission.

I used to park at the edge of this field and hike over a fence. Then, I’d throw a plastic duck. Ellie would chase it into a small…

So, I called the dentist to cancel. “Cancel?” the lady on the phone asked. "Is everything okay?"

I wrote this for Ellie Mae last year. I hope she can read it. I miss you, Ellie. 


I'm parked near the bay, eating salted peanuts, watching a hound dog swim.

I shouldn't be here. I'm an adult. I have a busy schedule to maintain. I have errands, a grocery list, a dentist appointment this afternoon. I also have a coonhound who likes water.

So, I called the dentist to cancel. “Cancel?” the lady on the phone asked. "Is everything okay?"

“Yes ma'am, it's just that my dog wanted to go swimming.”

No answer.

Yeah, I know I'm batty. But Ellie Mae lives for this bay, and it's been a while since I took her swimming. Which isn't fair. God gave her webbed paws the size of basketballs. Swimming is her birthright.

Today, when she saw the bay water through my truck windows, she howled until I stopped the truck.

I'm a softy.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this. The fact is, folks from my side of the tracks have entertained themselves by watching bird-dogs

since the earth cooled. All my best friends have had fleas.

When she crawls out of the water, she shakes. I toss the duck again.

She lights out after it.

I like wet dogs. I keep beach towels in my truck for such occasions. And treats. And leashes.

We're joined at the hip. It's no exaggeration to say she likes to keep me within sniffing distance.

Once, while I was repairing our roof, Ellie Mae attempted to crawl the ladder behind me. She got stuck. It took an hour to get her down.

Another story: once, I found Ellie chewing something in our driveway. In her paws was an open packet of Beech-Nut tobacco.

I hollered at her.

She paid me no mind.

I let her alone. Because the first rule of dog ownership: never touch a hound while…

And this humble friend is all alone tonight, asking for a gift from On High. I want to experience the life we had together just one more time. Even if only for a few moments. I want to do it all over again.

Dear Ellie Mae:

You spent half your life in my truck passenger seat. There wasn’t a trip that you didn’t sit beside me. That seat was yours.

Is yours.

And we used to play in the water together. Remember that? It was your favorite thing. I’ve never had a dog love water like you did.

After each swim, you’d jump in the passenger seat and get the truck upholstery wet. God. That’s a good memory.

The truth is, I can’t feel anything right now. I’m numb all over. And sick. My eyes are hot and swollen. I can’t breathe. It feels like the world has turned to ash, and the sky has become rock.

I’ve been crying. I even got down on the floor and moaned. And sobbed. And wailed. I made a fool of myself.

I’m writing you because I don't know what else to do, honey. I can’t talk to you anymore, and you were Daddy’s little listener.

I’m hoping for a miracle of Heaven. I’m hoping that somehow these words get to you. I

hope God sends them upon the wings of angels—I am begging him.

I just want you to know how much I love you. And even though we will not be together anymore, I am grateful.

I’m grateful we belonged to each other. I’m grateful it was me you loved. Grateful it was my truck seat you claimed.

I suppose you’ll have a new hip tonight. New ears. And a new set of young bones, too. And guess what? That means you’ll be able to wrestle again.

Isn’t that great? We used to wrestle. Remember how you loved to wrestle after supper?

I do.

We’d roll on carpet until you were exhausted. We sure knew how to play, didn’t we?

Ellie, honey. Now listen good. I don’t have long, and I may never…

So I hold her. And I smell her. She has a unique smell, one I’d recognize anywhere. And it might sound silly, but I’m sniffing her fur because that’s the Dog Way. It’s how they love.

The veterinary emergency room is slow today. A few cats. A few dogs. And I wish we weren’t here.

Ellie Mae, my bloodhound, is not well. She is at my feet. She doesn’t want to move. I can tell she’s in pain.

I can’t stand seeing a dog in pain.

On the floor beside her is another sick dog. An elderly golden retriever named Bart. Old Bart is a giant with a white face and brown eyes. He’s a sweet boy.

His owner is an elderly woman. She is crying—head in hands. I understand that Bart has come to the end of the road. Decisions were made.

The old woman is petting him. “Good boy, Bart,” she says. “Good boy.”

The vet tech calls Bart’s name. He can’t stand on his own legs, he’s too weak. It takes a few people to lift him. I can tell he’s embarrassed by this. Who ever said dogs don’t have pride?

They walk Bart to the Back Room.

I hate this place.


doctor says Ellie Mae is in bad shape. There is a lot of blood in her stools, she’s running a fever. She won’t eat. I offered her Virginia ham this morning, she didn’t want it. Hell must be frozen over.

This is the animal who once stole a pork tenderloin from my neighbor’s open grill. She ate the tin foil and everything.

“This is serious,” says the doctor. “I won’t lie...”

Serious. I cried some. I didn’t want Ellie to see me. So I forced a straight face.

Long ago, Ellie took her first camping trip with me. She was young. She was all legs, ears, and hair—just like me.

She slept in my bed. She ate what I ate. She even went to the public showers with me. You should’ve seen the looks we got when we…