I wanted to call her “Thelma Lou” after Barney Fife’s girl on the Andy Griffith Show. Because in the sitcom of life I am a lot like Barney Fife.

I’ll never forget it. One year ago, we pulled into a long dirt driveway in Molino, Florida. The grass was long. The sky was blue. A farmhouse sat in the distance.

I opened my truck door and saw a litter of bloodhound puppies running in all directions. One puppy in particular caught my attention. A girl.

She ran slower than the rest. She had paws that were ten sizes too big for her body. Her ears were long enough to be featured in a Disney animated film. Her clumsy gait was more bounce than run.

“She’s the runt,” said the man. “Can’t quite keep up with the others, bless her heart. She tries so hard.”

The puppy’s brothers and sisters had left her in the dust. They were chasing something together in a pack, but their runt sister was too far away to catch up. So she stopped and caught her breath, watching them play without her.

“See?” said the man. “She’s sorta slow, they always leave

her out, but she sure is sweet.”

I wandered toward her, talking to her in a high-pitched voice.

I come from rural people. Something within my DNA makes me use a high-pitched voice around babies, animals, and during arguments with my wife.

The dog looked at me. And because she descended from generations of rural dogs, something inside her said “attack him.”

The puppy bounded toward me like a floppy piglet. I dropped to my knees. She tackled me. She ate my hat. Then she chewed on my earlobe.

And I knew that Heaven had made her just for me.

I wanted to call her “Thelma Lou” after Barney Fife’s girl on the Andy Griffith Show. Because in the great sitcom of life I am a lot like Barney Fife. I would love to be heroic like Andy, but I’m not. If you ever…

You might meet a new friend. A lover. A kid. A feral dog. An angel. See, while I write this, the sun is about to rise, and this seemingly normal morning might actually be a spectacular day in disguise.

I’m warning you beforehand, what I’m about to say is going to seem utterly ridiculous.

Here goes:

My mother once told me that I could conquer the world if I ate a decent breakfast. The whole world. All because of breakfast.

See? I tried to warn you.

Anyway, to this very day I’m still not sure how this meal can make conquering the world possible, but my mother never lies.

I remember the day she told me, I was having a devastating morning. I was about to take an entrance exam into the sixth grade. And this was a big deal because earlier that year, I’d failed fifth-grade—which drained my confidence.

But back to breakfast.

Mama made the greasiest meal. Three eggs, cooked in fat from a Maxwell House can, bacon, potatoes, grits, and toast hearty enough to sand the hull of a battleship.

I passed my test. I made it to the next grade. And eventually, my confidence began to improve. Thusly—and I’ve always wanted to use that word—I can

only assume that breakfast played an important role.

Since then, I’ve always believed in the first daily meal. I ate a good breakfast the day I got married. A big one. That day, the waitress kept bringing me plates of pancakes.

“You must be starving, honey,” she said.

I smiled. “Thusly,” said I.

But I was only nervous-eating. Truth told, they weren’t even good pancakes—the blueberries tasted like freeze-dried goat pellets.

I also ate a big breakfast the day I got fired. My boss called me into his office and chewed me a new nose-hole. He said things so hateful I can still remember them. I quietly walked out of his office before he finished speaking.

I went to eat breakfast. I read the paper, I watched the sunrise. I had one of the best mornings I’ve had in years.…

My favorite writer was from Moreland. I read every one of his books before I hit age thirteen...

Moreland, Georgia—it is almost midnight. The stars are out by the billions. I am pumping gas at a filling station, watching them.

I like watching stars. I don’t know why. Somehow, they remind me that I am never forgotten by this universe.

A few hours ago, our plane touched down, and it felt like coming back from the moon. The South is my home, and when I’m gone too long I start to miss it.

We’ve been traveling for seventeen days—most of those days were spent out West, where humidity is a foreign word. And I missed home something fierce.

We left the airport and I started driving southward on a dark highway with windows rolled down. I passed kudzu, longleaf pine trees, and old barns.

I drove past trailer homes with lit windows glowing in the dark. And tiny churches, abandoned long ago. I passed a stray dog, wandering the highway in the dark.

If I had a nickel for every stray on these backroads.

And I pulled over here, to fill our tank in Moreland. I still have a long way to travel, but I’m close enough to be excited about seeing my front porch.

There is a gentleman on the other side of the pump, filling his tank. He drives an ugly truck. He wears boots. He shows a two-finger wave.

I return the favor.

He introduces me to the dog in his front seat.

“Her name’s Uga,” he says. “‘Cause I’m a dyed in the wool Georgia Bulldog fan.”

Nobody says things like “dyed in the wool” out West. But they say it in our part of the world.

My favorite writer was from Moreland. I read every one of his books before I hit age thirteen, and I silently declared to the Georgia stars, one summer night on my aunt’s sleeping porch, that…

I remember my mother wearing her nicest outfit to the airport. I wore my Sunday khakis.

I am thirty-five thousand feet above the rest of the world. Below me is Texas. Or maybe it’s Oklahoma. I’m on a flight back to Atlanta, sitting beside a stranger.

The stranger is from New York. Earlier, he was talking on his phone before takeoff. He was using swear words like they were basic adjectives.

Folks on the plane were beginning to stare, like maybe the stranger and I were buddies. I just smiled.

But now that we are in the air, and he’s chewing ice cubes. That’s right. Big, loud, ice cubes. And he’s listening to rap music on headphones.

You should hear the music leaking out of his headphones. I cannot repeat the lyrics because my mother raised me in a fundamentalist home with a framed picture of Billy Graham on my nightstand.

So I will substitute all swear words using names from the 1953 roster of the New York Yankees.

One of the verses to the rap song I am overhearing goes like this:

“You no good sack of Phil Rizzuto,
“Yogi Berra, Berra, Berra,
“You stupid mother Whitey Ford,
“I mean, what the Johnny Schmitz?
“What the actual Johnny Schmitz?”

Commercial flying has changed over the years. The first time I ever boarded a plane was to visit my aunt in St. Louis. I was a kid, traveling with my mother.

We flew because my father didn’t like the idea of my mother driving long distances alone. He was afraid she would get a flat tire.

Once, to prepare my mother for a road trip, he taught her to change the rear tire on our station wagon. My mother got so good at changing tires, Daddy would clock her with a stopwatch.

Her unique skills were a source of entertainment at family barbecues for years thereafter.

One time my father’s friend, Buddy, lost a…

Not only do I feel like a non-writer, Merle, but I am a late bloomer.

“Sean, every time I sit down to write, I can’t make the words come…

“Maybe it’s because I’m not any good. I got a C in my journalism class, and I feel like I’ll never be a true writer, but a big failure. What should I do?”

This question was posed to me by a twenty-one-year-old journalism major who I will call Merle.

I call him this for two reasons. Firstly, Merle Haggard is one of my favorite country singers. Secondly, this person’s name is actually Merle.

The thing is, Merle, you have more credentials than I do. I’m not what you’d call a “true writer,” either.

A true writer finds incredible stories, then polishes them into poetry. I don’t do that.

Case in point: Once, I wrote an entire column about eyebrow hair.

This proves that I am not an “author” in the traditional sense. Actually, what I am is a “talker.” Which means I can talk at great length about topics I know absolutely nothing about. Kind of like I’m doing now.

I inherited this natural gabbiness from my mother. My mother could chat with anyone or anything.

Once, when I was a boy my mother lost her prescription eyeglasses in a JCPenney and mistakenly struck up conversation with a cardboard cutout of Brooke Shields advertising tight-fitting jeans.

After Mama’s conversation, she remarked, “That was a nice young lady, maybe you’ll meet a young lady like that one day.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “That was Brooke Shields.”

“Brooke who?”


“Well, Brooke’s mother should’ve never let her leave the house in those tight britches.”

Not only do I feel like a non-writer, Merle, but I am a late bloomer.

Just last night, I was watching a baseball game. The announcer was Jeff Francoeur, a former big league right-fielder who is one of the greats.


I wish I had half this kid’s energy.

It’s a small cinder block restaurant in the middle of an American desert. “Comida Mejicana,” the painted sign advertises. We are far from town. Very far.

We park in an empty dirt area. There is only one car in the parking lot. A beat-up Chevette. Red.

I learned how to drive stick in my uncle’s Chevette as a kid. I’ll never forget the sound of my uncle, screaming from the passenger seat when I coasted down my first hill.

I never knew he could cuss like that.

I push the restaurant door open. A bell dings. A little girl comes from the back of the restaurant. She is nine years old.

An old man stands in the corner, watching her. He has skin like wrinkled paper, a white mustache, and an apron. He supervises her with a gentle smile.

The girl asks what my wife and I want to drink.

“Sweet tea,” we say.

The little girl makes a face. “Sweet tea? What’s that?”

“We’ll just take water.”

The girl

hands us menus. They are written in Spanish. I recognize a few words, most I don’t recognize.

For example: “pambazo” and “capriotada.” These seem like words my uncle might shout while speeding downhill in a Chevette.

Finally, I say to the girl, “You know what? Tell the cook to surprise me.”

“Really?” she says.

“Is he a good cook?” I whisper.


Then the girl says something in Spanish to the old man. He laughs. He pats her hair. He kisses her cheek. And if there’s anything sweeter, I don’t know what it is.

In the kitchen, I hear a stove hiss. I see the old man behind the window, cooking. The smells are heavenly. The mariachi music overhead is hard not to appreciate.

The girl is playing in the booth behind us. She…

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?”


“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.


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…