Arizona is a different place than I’m used to. People here talk differently, they dress differently, they do different things.

I am enjoying a rural Arizona morning. I am on the patio of a rental house. The birds are greeting the day.

Beside me is a dog. A neighborhood stray maybe. The dog is white, and he smells like a billy goat. I place my hand on his head. He is smiling.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

No answer.

I’m good at naming dogs. It’s a gift. Show me a dog, and I’ll name it.

“You look like a ‘Duke’ to me. Do you like that name?”

He does not. He sneezes at it. And this is a shame because I’ve always thought Duke was a perfect dog name.

Next door is an old woman working in her backyard garden. I can see her through the fence. She is dressed in a nightgown, white-haired, she is barefoot, smoking a cigarette.

Arizona is a different place than I’m used to. People here talk differently, they dress differently, they do different things.

Yesterday, for example, I saw a young lady in a grocery

store wearing a golden leotard with turquoise hair. Her husband was dressed like a wizard.

Even so, people are people, no matter where you are. Leotards and all. All humans have the same basic needs. To love. To be loved. And to eat lots of cheese.

The elderly neighbor woman is digging holes, planting things. Her son is helping, but she is not friendly to him.

“Mom, why’re you planting whole apples?” he says.

“Because I like apples, dumbass.”

“You don’t expect them to actually grow do you?”

“No.”

“Then why plant them?”

She throws a shovel at him.

This is what I’m hearing right now.

On the street before me, I see a man in a cowboy hat, walking. On his shoulder he is carrying a lizard. A very big lizard.

Like I said.…

When Ellie Mae started to get white fur around her snout, I took to calling her my old lady. She liked that.

One of the first things you learn when you become a dog-person is that normal people look at you funny when you talk about your dog too much.

This is usually because these people have normal healthy lives, with real kids, real jobs, and retirement plans.

Well, I never had any of those things. I spent adulthood working crummy jobs. I don’t have kids. And retirement is a three-syllable word used in Charles Schwab commercials during baseball games.

The highlight of my workdays was coming home to find the silhouette of a bloodhound in our front window. Her name was Ellie Mae.

In her heyday, Ellie was obsessed with a cat in our neighborhood named Dexter. Dexter was born of Satan and had eyes like the kid from the movie Poltergeist.

Dexter would torment Ellie by visiting our backyard and sitting right in Ellie’s food bowl as if to say, “Look! My butt is on your food! How do you like that?”

And thus, Ellie became transfixed with Dexter and his feline butt. Ellie would sometimes spend entire days at our window, keeping track of all the illegal activities Dexter committed in our yard. She would turn circles, whimpering.

Dexter would make eye-contact with Ellie through the glass. He would stare her down until she hurled herself against our window hard enough to shatter it.

Dexter was a professional competitor when it came to games between canines and felines.

There was the time, for instance, when I drove to the bank. Ellie came with me. She waited in my truck with the engine running. I ran inside. I was writing a deposit slip when the teller pointed out the window and shrieked.

“Your truck!” she hollered.

My vehicle was rolling into a flower bed.

I sprinted through the parking lot and when I reached the truck, I realized…

“We just wanted people to know we loves’em,” he said. “Want my whole life to belong to people who just need to know someone loves’em.”

Two years ago. Reeltown, Alabama. I don’t know how old the man running the vegetable stand is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it's hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world. Homegrown summer tomatoes are almost a myth.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

“I’m a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fires and lived without electricity. When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people and to sell vegetables.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he's helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know we loves’em,” he said. “Want my whole life to belong to people…

The priest recited the Liturgy of the Eucharist. People formed a single-file line to drink out of a chalice.

A few years ago I attended my first Catholic mass in a busy church outside Birmingham. It was Easter Sunday. I sat in the nosebleed section.

People greeted me with the words, “He’s risen.”

And because I was not raised under a rock, I answered with: “He’s risen indeed.”

I was not reared Catholic. I was born into a fundamentalist family with a mother who sometimes prayed in tongues over our meatloaf.

But after my father died, I learned that he had been raised Catholic. He went to Catholic school, he played Catholic baseball.

He didn’t talk about it. I never knew that version of him.

All I knew was a man who did not dance at wedding receptions for fear the pastor would catch him.

There in the Catholic cathedral, the priest announced, “He is risen.”

“He’s risen indeed,” said the congregation.

I was an outsider in the room. The priest recited the Liturgy of the Eucharist, people formed a single-file line to drink out of a chalice.

Easter

Sundays in my family were nothing like this. My father was an usher at our little church. He’d stand by the front door and hand out bulletins that advertised upcoming Baptist church events.

For example:

—Thursday fundraiser, dinner on the grounds. Bring a covered dish.

—Young men’s Bible study, 6 P.M. Bring a covered dish.

—Women’s Sunday school class is holding an upcoming prayer vigil against beer. Bring a congealed salad.

—Men’s group is recruiting for its annual mission trip to Biloxi.

On Easter, my father always gave folded bulletins to those approaching. He would say, “He is Risen.”

And any Baptist worth his salt would answer with, “He’s risen indeed.”

Most who attended our church on Easter were only visitors. They came twice per year. My father called them “nosebleed Baptists.”

I never heard…

I love the American West for the same reasons all grown-up boys love it. Because in my mind, I have galloped imaginary horses along these ranges a million times.

The red rocks of Sedona are tall and warm. When you hike them, you can’t help but notice how unusual they are.

Our house in Florida is ten feet below sea level. We do not have rocks except for the ones my cousin’s kids painted to raise money for a church trip to Wilsonville.

My wife and I have been hiking this mountain since morning. It’s almost suppertime. We have another hour left on the trail.

We pass a man who is sitting on a rock. His beard is white, he looks too old for this terrain. He is breathing heavy. His daughter is seated next to him.

“Dad, do you need to check your blood pressure?” she keeps asking.

The old man is trying to catch his breath and cannot answer.

“Dad? Answer me.”

He removes his Gilligan hat and reveals a bald head. He surveys the miles of colored rock and sagebrush. There are tall orange mountains. Long khaki walls. Two-toned skyscrapers of cinnamon and white

chocolate.

He starts to laugh at the view.

“Well,” he says. “It sure as hell ain’t Iowa. You definitely don’t see this sorta thing on the farm.”

“Dad,” says his daughter. “There’s no shame in turning back.”

“Good,” he says. “Then YOU turn back. I’ve been hiking for hours. I’m getting to the top if it kills me.”

He’s been a farmer all his life. He’s never gone anywhere or done anything famous, he tells me.

The most notable thing he ever did was grow a contest-winning pumpkin the size of a tractor tire. That, and he married a lovely woman who gave him the best years of his life.

He misses her. She always wanted to see Hawaii, Alaska, Florida, and Arizona, but it never happened. She never left Iowa. She passed several years ago unexpectedly, and he wishes…

Our beloved Braves are locked in battle with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and we are the only two in the joint who root for them.

Arizona—I am a long way from home, watching the Atlanta Braves play baseball on a television in a sports bar. I am waiting for my wife to finish shopping so we can go to dinner.

The man next to me is from Georgia, but he’s been living in Phoenix for nine years. He asks what I do for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

“Really?” he says. “That’s cool. What do you write?”

“Aviation engineering manuals.”

“Really?”

“No.”

We share pretzels from a glass bowl. Two strangers from the Southeast, meeting in a state where cactuses grow. Where waiters have never heard of sweet tea.

Our beloved Braves are locked in battle with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and we are the only two in the joint who root for them.

My friend’s elderly mother is ill. He’s leaving for home in a few days to see her. It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.

He shows a picture on his phone. A photo of a young woman and her two boys, both wearing plaid pants. Hello 1970’s.

“That’s her,” he says. “My dad bailed on us, she raised us by herself.”

I could show this man similar photos on my phone. Photos from my own broken childhood, after my father died. I could tell him I half know how he feels.

I could tell him about the first time someone called my mother a “single mother,” and how it turned my stomach. But I won’t. Because writers don’t talk, they listen.

“Mom gave us everything,” says my friend. “Me and my brother got whatever we wanted, even though she couldn’t afford nothing.”

My mother did the same thing. I could tell stories about the sacrifices she made. But like I said. Writers.

Our conversation comes to a pause. The Braves are at the plate. Josh Donaldson is at bat.

“C’mon Josh!” we are both shouting at the…

Before Clark lost his hair, he had a head of blue-black, just like the superhero.

Clark was a cool kid. He had a bald head, brown eyes, and a nice smile. Clark was not his real name. But they said he liked Superman. So “Clark Kent” it is.

Before Clark lost his hair, he had a head of blue-black, just like the superhero.

When his parents found out he was sick, it nearly knocked the life out of them. But they say Clark didn’t get bothered by it. Nobody knows why. Maybe he was too young to be afraid.

Maybe he was made of steel.

Anyway, I don’t know much about pediatric oncology, but his diagnosis was bad. His mother called it a “death sentence.” His doctors were not hopeful.

But that’s not the story here.

One afternoon, on their way home from a medical appointment Clark saw a man walking the shoulder of the highway. He was near an overpass.

The man was dark-skinned, with white hair, holding the waist of his blue jeans to keep them from falling.

“Stop

Mom!” said Clark.

His mother stopped the car. Clark rolled the window down and asked the man why he was holding his pants like that.

“Lost my belt,” the man said. “And these pants are too big.”

Then, the man asked Clark’s mother for money. That’s where she drew the line. She refused to give cash to a stranger. She rolled up the windows and drove.

“We can’t just leave him,” said Clark. “He needs our help.”

Clark begged his mother to give money. Her only response was “no.”

Her son finally convinced her to stop at Walmart. They bought a belt, some sweatpants, and a few T-shirts. Then, they bought a sandwich from Subway.

They found the man beneath the overpass again. Clark gave him a plastic bag full of goodies. The man was overcome.

So days turned into…

I wonder what happened to hat tipping.

I was a boy. We were in a supermarket parking lot. I held my mother’s hand. We saw an old woman walking into the store ahead of us. She was frail, with a scarf wrapped around her white hair.

My mother pushed me toward the door. I knew what she wanted me to do.

“Be a gentleman,” she said.

And somehow, I knew what this meant. It meant I was to rush ahead of the woman and open the door for her. And when the woman thanked me, I knew which two words my mother wanted me to say.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Supermarkets did away with swinging doors a long time ago. They replaced them with automatic doors and the age of chivalry suffered another blow.

Today, the only way to open a supermarket door for an approaching female is to jog ahead, wave your hands in front of the electronic sensor, and shout, “Hurry!”

If she’s feisty, she’ll slide past you like she’s stealing third.

Being a gentleman was a big deal in my family. I never knew exactly what a gentleman was, per se, but I knew what he was supposed to do.

For starters, a gentleman always washes his hands before supper.

My mother never even had to say the words “wash your hands.” Instead, she would wear a stern face and say, “Hands, Mister.”

And that was enough. I knew if I appeared at her table with dirt beneath my fingernails I would be dragged behind the porch and shot.

My mother also believed a gentleman should walk on the curb-side of a sidewalk when accompanying a woman, or when letting her pass.

This was an odd rule. I never understood it until years later, strolling through Atlanta. I was with several of my friends. A young lady was approaching on the sidewalk. She wore a yellow…

We watched, shaking our heads, biting our lips, and a few of us wiped our eyes.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire and the world watched it burn. The only word that comes to mind is “tragedy.” A real tragedy.

I never got to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though, I had a chance once when I was nineteen. A girl I was dating from Dothan was going to France on scholarship. She asked me to go with her.

It was a bad idea. I am a small-town American who has never traveled overseas. The idea of leaving U.S. soil makes me break out in hives—I wouldn’t survive the Turkish toilets.

I told her to send me a postcard. I never saw her again.

But I always wanted to go. In fact, there are only a few things I’d like to see in person before I die:

The World Series. The Dixie Belle Riverboat. And the spires of Notre Dame de Paris.

I guess I missed my chance.

Today, my wife and I were riding through the Arizona wilderness after spending

a weekend at the Grand Canyon. The local radio station interrupted George Strait to announce that Notre Dame was on fire.

My wife turned up the volume. A reporter with a heavy French accent said:

“Ze greatest relic of our civilization is engulfed in flames.” The announcer’s voice broke with emotion. “It is a tragedy, people, a true tragedy…”

My wife covered her mouth.

We pulled over at a burger joint outside Flagstaff, not far from historic Route 66. And in the all-American diner we watched the corner television broadcast a scene from Hell.

A flaming cathedral roof, falling to pieces. Dante’s Inferno.

“I been there once,” said our waitress, filling my coffee mug. “My family’s Italian Catholic, we saw the cathedral last year and my grandpa was holding my hand all along the tour, crying at the relics.”

“We’ve been there,…

Hey, you don’t know me, but I herd you needed some in couraging so I wanted to write you.

My name’s Sean—please to meet you—I just failed the fifth grade.

I’m serious. I just up and failed school this year. It’s a long story, but I feel pretty dumb bout it.

Anyway, Teacher said we was supposed to write how we talk when we write letters, so that’s what I’m doing. Thing is, I probably shouldn’t, cause Mama said I use the word “ain’t” too dang much.

I promised her I wouldn’t use it no more. Unless, course, I half to, on count a I can’t think of a better word.

Anyway, I really want to be a writer when I grow up, but I don’t know if it’s ever gonna work out, cause I’m obviously not very smart. But I’m trying to keep my chin up bout it.

Whenever I start to feel crappy bout my own self, from failing fifth grade, Daddy said I should look in a mirror and say:

“World. You ain’t seen nothin yet.”

Well, I feel kinda dumb doing that, but he says it works pretty good. And he’s usually right.

I ask Mama about writing tips all the time since I’m plannin to be a writer. She helps me a lot. Mama went to college and she knows more than your average mama. She said I got a long way to go.

For one thing, she tole me to quit using the word “Mama” whenever I write about her. Stead, she says I should use the word “Mother,” cause she didn’t raise no hick.

And she thinks I need a dictionary cause I dont spell to good.

So it was my own fault I didn’t do good at school, I didn’t get good grades. But the main reason is cause math hasn’t never…