Her funeral was not well attended. She didn’t have time for friendships during life. She wasn’t a churchgoer, a country club member, or a PTA mother. She was rough hands, high morals, and low on sleep since 1972.

The newspaper didn’t say much about her. It listed visitation times and the year she was born.

It could’ve said more.

It could’ve said that she was a single mother who worked three jobs sometimes. Or that she never missed work.

She’d been a receptionist, a cashier, a waitress, a factory employee, a custodian, a disciplinarian. She’d cleaned houses for cash under the table.

She was above nothing, below no one.

Her skin was dry from too much smoke and caffeine. He hair was wiry. She was beauty wrapped in service uniforms.

There are pictures. Black-and-whites photos of a slender teenage girl who became a mother of three.

A photograph: she’s bouncing a child on her hip, holding the hand of her oldest. She’s wearing a fast food visor.

Another: she’s sitting in a miniature train, it’s Christmas, a baby in her lap. Two older kids are in the picture. Her hair practically screams 1970’s.

That photo was taken just before her husband died.

Her kids don’t remember him. They don't remember the hell she endured after him.

All they recall is her. Her, standing

before a closed casket. Her, pumping hands with a hundred wearing black.

The night they laid him in the earth, the kids slept, but she didn’t. She was up all night, staring at her checkbook register.

She must’ve burned through half a carton, worrying herself.

Before his body was cold, she hustled a job for herself. She walked into a car dealership and begged. They gave her work. She answered phones, made coffee, cleaned toilets, mopped the showroom floor.

It didn’t pay well, so she took babysitting gigs. She worked at a grocery store. She waited tables at a restaurant. She put together CB radio circuit boards on an assembly line. She sewed women’s clothes.

She put her son through college. She bought braces for her daughter. She pieced money together from dry air.

Her…

I’m about to walk onto a stage and tell the story of what you just read. There are friends in the audience. My wife is here. She’s been with me fifteen years.

I’m backstage. A small theater. There is a band playing. I am about to go onstage next.

There’s a man in headphones, running a large soundboard which is roughly the size of a ‘62 Buick Skylark. Randy is his name. He will broadcast this on local radio.

I’ll be telling stories to an audience. My goal here is to avoid excessive amounts of audience booing and flying vegetable debris.

I have no idea what the hell I’m doing here.

Six years ago, I was laying a floor for an elderly couple in a single-story house. I was covered in thin-set mortar.

That day, I was cutting tile when my hand slipped. I sliced my index finger to the bone. Blood everywhere. I saw stars.

They drove me to the ER. I sat in a waiting room, holding a blood-soaked towel on my finger.

The doctor was young. He brandished a needle the size of a toothpick.

He said, “You might wanna hum a few bars of your favorite song, pal.”

“Huh?”

“Singing,” he said. “Takes the mind off pain, and this is really gonna

hurt.”

The nurse gave me a washrag to bite down on. I explained that it wasn’t really necessary, I didn’t need any—

“ALL MY EXES LIVE IN TEXAS…”

Twenty-five stitches. I was out of commission. I was miserable. I was going to have to get someone to finish my work, losing money I didn’t have.

The next morning, my wife woke me.

She was wearing work clothes and boots. “C’mon,” she said. “I’m going to work with you.”

I taught her how to use a wet saw. She cut tile; I laid it. Between us, we had three good hands. You’ve never seen a woman like mine.

After work, we ate supper at KFC. And I’ll be honest with you, I was miserable with my own life.

I hated tile-laying, cleaning gutters, and wiring ceiling fans.…

Listen, I’m not a particularly smart man, friend. But then, you don’t have to be smart to know what I know. Life evaporates. It rises toward heaven so quick that you’re lucky if you catch a glimpse.

DEAR SEAN:

My dad died last year and I just don’t really know what to do with myself anymore. I know your dad died when you were my age, I think, so how do I be, like, normal again?

Really hope you write back,
FOURTEEN-IN-VIRGINIA

DEAR FOURTEEN:

I’m the wrong guy to ask about normalcy. I haven’t been normal since the third grade when I peed my pants onstage at a school assembly.

Even our school nurse remarked, “That child’s one rung short of a step ladder.”

She was right. But then, I don’t believe in “normal.” It’s a made-up word. And not that it matters, but I don’t believe in magic beanstalks, pop-stars, Florida Powerball, high cholesterol, or daylight saving time, either.

Years ago, while driving through South Alabama, I saw something. It was an overcast day and the world was colorless. My wife and I had just left a funeral. There was a sadness over our vehicle.

We rode through miles of farmland. My wife yelled, “LOOK!”

I glanced out the window. It was spectacular. I pulled into a cow

pasture. We stepped out. We ran through acres of cow pies and green grass.

A rainbow.

And so help me, the colors were touching the ground. The tail was diving into the dirt like a spotlight. I’d never seen anything like it.

The cows watched us with big eyes while we behaved like six-year-olds. We took turns swatting the colors. I don’t know exactly why we did this, but I would’ve regretted not doing it.

Here’s where it gets somewhat magical.

The colors disappeared when I got too close. They reappeared when I took several steps back.

Closeup; gone. Far away; voila. The colors were there, but not always visible.

Eventually, the sun came out and the rainbow vanished completely.

We hiked back to the truck. I took in a breath of morning air and I felt…

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I bear-hugged her sister, then lifted her out of the passenger seat.

A newsroom. I was in my mid-twenties. Unruly red hair. Big nose. A necktie that was suffocating me. Don’t ask me how, but I had a job interview. I was pure nerves.

I had no business being there. But then, I have a well-documented history of being in places I shouldn’t be.

“No journalism degree?” the editor said, squinting at my resume which read like a Hardee’s breakfast menu.

“No ma’am.”

“So, what’s your degree in?”

I explained that, at the time, I was in my ninth year of community college. And I was showing true potential as a promising liberal arts major.

“Aren’t you a little old to be applying?” she said. “What exactly do you want?”

It paralyzed me. I didn’t know how to answer. She waited. I made no human-like sounds. She asked me to leave.

Goodnight John Boy. Thanks for playing.

I loosened my necktie. I ordered three tacos from a Mexican dive downtown. The tacos came doused in a red sauce that would forever burn the protective lining from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

I sat on a curb.

What DID I want?

I saw a group of young men, walking the street, wearing suits and neckties. They did not look like me. They were cleancut, perfect teeth.

They probably had vocabularies which did not contain words like, “y'all,” and “twelve-pack.”

I was interrupted.

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I bear-hugged her sister, then lifted her out of the passenger seat.

And it did something to me. I discovered what I wanted.

And I’ll share it with you, if I may:

First: I want my friends to feel important. I want children to feel loved—all children. I want dogs to follow me for…

The girl told more stories. She used words that were above her age. Like: “resuscitation,” “trach tube,” and “ventilator.”

The doctor’s waiting room. Martha was sick to her stomach. These were supposed to be her golden years. But the “C” word had changed all that.

She was angry at the world. Angry at herself. And scared.

Doctors confirmed that it wasn’t serious. They operated. It was an outpatient procedure, she was cooking supper for her grandkids that same evening.

But she was anxious. The fear kept her from up at night. She couldn’t focus. She spent days, weeks, months feeling sorry for herself. It was hell on earth.

In the waiting room, a little girl sat beside her. She was the only one in the room with Martha.

The girl was reading a magazine, swinging her feet. She wore an Atlanta Braves ball cap. A brace on her leg.

Martha’s anxiety was bad, it almost swallowed her. She had to talk to someone. Anyone.

It was the usual kid-to-grown-up conversation. How old are you? How do you like school? Martha had spent a lifetime raising kids, she knew how to talk to them.

The girl was a conversationalist—which a rarity in a technological age. Martha

asked where the girl lived.

“Used to live here, in the hospital,” the girl said. “But now I live at a foster home. I don’t got me no parents.”

The girl was small. Her joints were unusually big; her limbs were hickory switches. A thin tube ran from beneath her shirt into a hip pack.

“What grade are you in?” asked Martha.

The girl shrugged. “No grade. Can’t go to school because I’ve always been in a hospital.”

“Always?”

“Since I was eighteen months.”

“Wow, that’s a long time.”

The girl set her magazine down. “Hey, know what’s cool?” she said.

“What.”

The girl held up five fingers. “I died five different times.”

“Died?”

“Yessum. Last time, I was dead for forty-nine seconds, I don’t remember it. All I saw was just white, bubbly…

I was in a hotel room last night. I turned on the television and heard reporters say the world was falling apart. That's not all I saw. I saw crazed talk-show hosts, sex scandals, pharmaceutical commercials, and snow in Florida—as I live and breathe.

Birmingham, Alabama—the mall. Two kids. They were lost. Brother and sister. Black hair. Dark eyes. Mexican.

Keith found them. They were wandering, holding hands. They wore concerned looks. He sensed something was wrong.

“I got four kids,” says Keith. “I have a feel for these things.”

He approached them. He kept his voice cheery. He asked if they were lost. They couldn’t understand him.

No problema. Keith almost majored in college Spanish.

“Are you lost?” He asked in Spanish.

“Si.”

As it happened, they’d lost their father. They’d been hiding from him in the department store. They were only playing a joke, it was supposed to be a game. It became a disaster.

They were too scared to ask for help because their father wasn't legal.

Keith promised he wouldn’t alert authorities. Instead, he searched the mall.

No luck. So, he bought the kids supper. Then he gave them a ride. The little girl rode in the front seat, guiding him through traffic by memory.

Turn here, turn there, take a right at the light.

She led him straight to her aunt’s apartment. Her mother and aunt came running. Tears

were shed.

Lots of tears.

Charleston, West Virginia—Amy rode her bike to the school-bus stop. She was minding her business like a good eleven-year-old.

A boy was dropped there by his father. He was new to the neighborhood.

Something happened.

The boy had an asthma attack. His inhaler was empty. His face went pale. Amy kept calm—though, I don’t know how.

She helped the boy onto her bicycle seat. She jumped on her pedals hard.

“Hold tight!” she said.

He wrapped his arms around her while she sped to his house—a half-mile away.

Nobody was home. He couldn’t find his key. She broke a window. She gave him a breathing treatment. It worked.

They still made the bus in time.

Knoxville, Tennessee—Billy was shopping with his wife. Actually, he was…

Vacant churches. Abandoned service stations. Orphaned chimneys. Election signs. Crumbling barns. Longleaf forests—which never change. Heaven, I am convinced, is full of longleaf pines.

South Alabama looks good this morning. There’s a low mist on the farmland. The cattle are sleeping. The sun is not up yet. I'm driving.

It was a morning like this I first learned how to chew Red Man. My father and his friend showed me how to tuck a wad in my cheek. It tasted like raisins and kerosene.

“Whatever you do, don’t swallow,” said Daddy.

I got so sick I fell off the tailgate. He laughed and said, “If you even THINK about telling your mama, I’ll put you up for adoption.”

This is a good morning. The orange sun is still behind the trees. It’s thirty-some degrees. The grass is green, even though it’s cold.

My cousin lived on a cotton farm. Long ago, I helped run heavy machinery for one weekend. The smells of the earth were enough to make a kid drunk.

It's too early and too cold to think about heavy machines.

I’m passing dilapidated mobile homes with seventy-five-thousand-dollar trucks in the driveways.
There are dogs, wandering the highway. Scrappy ones, looking for trouble.

Or love.

I’m behind a school bus. Kids are staring out the windows at me. I wave. They wave. They’re laughing, sticking out tongues.

Childhood.

I’m on a dirt road. This is a shortcut my friend showed me long ago. I’m cutting through scalped fields with dry rotted fences which are older than I am.

The road spits me onto pavement. I hope my truck caught enough red dust to make it pretty.

I pass faded brick buildings with Coca-Cola signs. I miss the days when good folks called it “KOH-kola.” I miss a lot of things.

I miss an age before cellphones. And kids who rode bikes to a best friend’s house to ask, “Can Sammy play?”

Today they text.

I pass old homes with outdoor workshops. The kind of one-room buildings where old men piddle. With workbenches…

The night-shift cashier gave him hotdogs and egg rolls—lukewarm from the warming rack. She did this instead of throwing them away. She did it because she liked Tony.

A gas station. The middle of the night. Tony stopped by this store every evening. He came for the food, and the company.

The night-shift cashier gave him hotdogs and egg rolls—lukewarm from the warming rack.

She did this instead of throwing them away. She did this because she liked Tony.

Tony. A nice homeless man with yellowed beard, gentle spirit, and dusty skin. A man who occasionally smelled like whiskey.

The two would sit on the sidewalk during the wee hours. They’d swap cigarettes, stories, laughter.

He was a spiritual man.

He told her about himself. In another life, he’d been a fella who was working his way through seminary. A thirty-something man, trying to do something worthwhile.

Then, his pregnant wife died in an interstate accident. He lost two people in one day. And he lost himself.

Anyway, Tony listened to her, too. She told him about boyfriend problems, her runaway father, and her unstable mother. She looked forward to his visits, they helped each other with late-night boredom. They helped each other period.

He gave her advice.

She brought him clothes. He gave her presents on her birthday.

One particular week, Tony never showed. She sat on the sidewalk, waiting. No signs. She felt like something wasn’t right.

She called the hospital. The voice on the phone said, "Yeah, we got a homeless guy here… Been here a few days. He belong to you?”

Tony had checked himself in. He’d told doctors he couldn’t breathe. His chest infection had become pneumonia. He was dehydrated.

She visited when she got off work. She lied to the nurses and said she was family. They knew better, but looked the other way.

She found him in a bed with tubes connected to him. She sat in the chair beside him. When his eyes opened, she handed him a greasy paper bag.

“I made these fresh,” she said.

Hotdogs and egg…

Morning is here. No sign. She’s been missing a full day now. The house is a tomb. I can’t find the gumption to even make coffee. I sit in a chair with my head between my hands.

My dog ran away. I feel like someone kicked me in the ribs.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It happened earlier. I got home to see the front door swinging in the wind. Maybe it didn’t latch.

I called Ellie Mae’s name, then listened for the sound of paws on pavement. Nothing. She'll come back, I'm thinking.

Three hours: I am sick.

Three hours, she could be anywhere. She could be across the county line. She could have wandered onto a busy highway.

“Stay calm,” I’m telling myself. Dry insanity sets in. I’m imagining bad things. Like what happened to my old dog, Joe.

Years ago, Joe dug a hole under our fence. We drove, searching until we couldn’t. I remember seeing his body after the accident. You can’t unsee something like that.

So the sun is setting. The orange sky is turning into night. My best friend is gone.

I’m searching side streets, back roads, dirt trails. I’m praying under my breath. We knock on doors. We call the sheriff, neighbors, shelters.

“Ellie Mae!” my wife shouts into the woods, until her voice sounds

like pleading.

It’s late. We’re hoarse. Eight hours she’s been missing.

We give up. We pull into our driveway. We’re silent. I skip supper. I crawl into bed with my clothes on, but can't sleep.

I toss and turn. I think about when I took Ellie Mae fishing and my boat motor gave out. I swam the boat to shore. She swam beside me.

There was the time she stole a pecan pie from my neighbor’s backyard deck. She ate the pie and the tin foil together. The foil made a reappearance the next morning.

And the time my wife brought Ellie home. She was just floppy skin and bones. Her ears were a mile long. She tackled me and fell asleep, snoring on my chest.

Her snoring has been the sound I sleep by.

Morning…

Billy Graham got baptized up the road. They dunked him in Silver lake, then ordained him in a clapboard church beneath the live oaks.

Palatka, Florida—My daddy once told me that when folks die, they go to stainless steel dining cars that serve onion rings.

That’s where I am.

Angel’s is the oldest diner in Florida. It’s a rail car made of metal and checkered floors that carries people back to 1932.

On the walls: photographs of successful gator hunts, old pictures. On the menu: the usual American fare—along with frog legs, gizzards, and chicken livers.

Waitresses in camouflage T-shirts take orders, then pass paper tickets to a man in a white apron.

The joint is crowded. I’m at the counter, sipping coffee. Some fella’s elbows are touching mine. He’s from Wisconsin, and he’s eating onion rings.

“We’re buying a house here,” he says with a mouthful. “We knew we wanted to live here after only ONE visit. This place is just so darn special, don’cha know. ”

It sure is. Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, surrounded by trees draped in moss, and porches with dogs on them.

Billy Graham got baptized up the road. They dunked him in Silver lake, then

ordained him in a clapboard church beneath the live oaks.

I visited that very church this morning. I listened for the shouting of a young Billy, still bouncing off wood floors. My father was no saint, but he loved Billy Graham.

In Palatka proper, there are old brick roads poking through paved streets, ancient storefronts, and a downhome community college.

Last night, I spoke at the Florida School of the Arts. I arrived at the auditorium early. The soundman flipped on stage lights to reveal a Grand-Ole-Opry themed stage.

“We built this just for you,” he said.

It made my eyes wet. “Why,” I asked, “would anyone do that?”

“‘Cause this is Palatka,” was the response. “We support people we love.”

Love. It abounds here. I met a woman who works at a domestic violence shelter. Her skin was midnight,…