“Lemme try a sample of the chicken salad,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

The elderly man at the deli counter was undecided. He looked at the lineup of cold salads behind the glass divider with a serious face.

It was the kind of face that deep thinkers wear.

“Lemme try a sample of the chicken salad,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

“It’s REALLY good,” said the cheery young woman with the hairnet. “I just made it, it’s world famous chicken salad, at least that’s what my son says. Every time I make it, I just HAVE to take a few pounds home to my son, my son LOVES my world famous chicken salad, he’s the kind of boy who just loves anything with mayo, and I try to tell him, ‘If you keep eating all that mayonnaise, you’re gonna just swell up like a big ole balloon…’”

The man interrupted, “Lemme try the broccoli salad, please.”

“Sure,” said Miss Sunshine, scooping another sample. “Do you know we put CURRY in our broccoli salad? I used to think curry was

gross, but I was wrong, curry’s good, I eat it all the time now—the broccoli salad I mean, not the curry by itself. I don’t think anyone would do that, eat curry by itself, but you never know, people do some weird things...”

The grumpy man cut her off. “That’s nice, miss, I wanna try the Waldorf salad, now.”

“Comin’ right up,” she said. “It’s funny, all the old ladies come in here and get the Waldorf salad, and I just laugh, they’re the cutest things, they come in every week to eat and talk, but if you ask my opinion, I hate Waldorf salad because I don’t like fruit and mayonnaise to EVER touch each other, that’s gross, I don’t know why anyone with half a brain would put mayonnaise and fruit together, but you know what I always say? I say, ‘Everybody has their…

Jacksonville, Florida—a car accident. A crushed car, sideways in the median. Years ago. She saw the car and pulled over

She jogged toward it. It was instinct. She opened the door. The man wasn’t breathing.

She had been working part-time at a pre-school. Pre-schools have mandatory CPR certification classes. Only a few days earlier, she had practiced resuscitating dummies in a church fellowship hall.

She pulled the man out of the battered vehicle. She found his breastbone. Thirty compressions. Two rescue breaths.

He’s alive today. A father of four. He keeps in touch.

Athens, Georgia—nineteen-year-old Billy didn’t want to get into a fistfight. He’d never been in a fight before. He saw a younger kid being beaten by two large boys. He couldn’t stay out of it.

Billy, who’d never thrown a punch in his life, pushed himself into the conflict. He fended off the two attackers, but not without being beaten-up.

Billy took the kid to the emergency room. They became fast friends. He brought the kid home

to meet his parents. The boy told them he’d been living with his uncle—who neglected him.

Billy’s parents invited the kid live with them. They fixed the guest bedroom. They bought him a Playstation. They fed him. They made him one of their own.

When Billy got married, the kid was his best man. When Billy had his first son, the kid became a godfather.

When the kid wore a cap and gown to receive a diploma, seven people stood and clapped for him.

Hoover, Alabama—Leigh Ann was your classic shut-in. She was too old and feeble to go anywhere.

Most days, she sat in a recliner watching her stories on TV. Sometimes she forgot to feed herself. She had nobody. She’d been lonely ever since her husband passed. Leigh Ann had no children.

One day, a young man who…

You’d think holding your own novel would make you feel giddy, and proud, but it doesn’t. Instead, you are reminded of how short life is.

Her name is Virginia. She is interviewing me. She is fourteen, and wants to go into journalism one day.

Virginia wanted to interview a real writer. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get in touch with any, so she called me.

Her first question: What is being a writer all about?

Jeez. That’s a tough one. I have no idea how to answer it.

I was expecting something more along the lines of: “How long does it take you to learn how to spell ‘receive’ without making mistakes?”

The truth is, Virginia, my writing career all started in a sixteen-foot camper with a bloodhound asleep on my feet. The camper was junk, parked outside Pensacola. The dog was a purebred.

I was there for work. I had just quit construction, and I had finished community college—which had taken me eleven years.

So the world was my oyster. And naturally, I took the next logical step on the ladder of academia to further my professional career. I played music in beer joints.

I’m embarrassed to

admit this. I know this isn’t what real writers do, but that’s what I did.

In the daytimes, to occupy my empty hours in the camper, I would read books. That’s when the idea hit me.

Early one morning, I was reading a book entitled—I’m not making this up—“44 Best Ever Fart Jokes and Poems.” The thought hit me like a shock of electricity.

I slammed the book shut and decided: “I’m going to become a writer! I am going to write a novel! A Western novel!

And I meant it, too. I ran the idea past my bloodhound. She wasn’t crazy about it.

“You don’t think I should write a Western?” I clarified.

She licked herself then fell asleep.

“How about a joke book?”

She sighed.

“A romance?”

She snored.

“Big help you…

I’m sitting on the beach, it’s thirty-eight degrees outside. It’s colder than a witch’s sports bra. I am sipping a beer with my wife, eating Chili Cheese Fritos directly from the bag.

As a teenager, I used to sit on this beach a lot. When I needed to think, I would sit alone, long past sunset, until I would get so cold I was no longer able to biologically have children.

Sometimes I would sit for hours after the sky went dark and stare at an endless Gulf of Mexico. The sound of wind and water does things to me.

One night, I was on the beach in the dark. I was sixteen, and I was sad because of something that truly doesn’t matter now—though, back then it felt like the end of the world.

I felt overlooked by the universe, unexceptional, and unloved. They were feelings I couldn’t shake.

I was wondering why people act ugly toward each other. I was wondering if anything existed in the distance

besides waves and foam.

That’s when I saw two shapes approaching.

Two elderly women were walking the shore, I could hear them laughing. They wore heavy jackets, wool caps, and carried backpacks. They were wiry, and athletic.

One woman was Puerto Rican, with white hair and a dark complexion. The other was from Australia. I will never forget them.

The women said they were traveling the world together on a shoestring budget. They had already visited four continents, walked hundreds of miles on foot, and relied on the kindness of strangers.

They had been sleeping in tents, riding in cabs, living out of backpacks, frequenting motels and hostels, and eating like royalty.

Then, both women sat next to me in the sand. One woman removed a hip flask. She asked if I wanted a sip.

“No thanks,” I said.

Not only…

It’s funny, what you think about in your final moments.

I’m watching a sunrise through tall Southern pines. It’s making its heavenly climb, and I’m looking right at it, sitting on the hood of my truck.

Last night, I was almost killed. I’m not joking. I was nearly hit head-on by a red truck that was driving in the wrong lane.

It was dark. I was the only one on the road. I saw headlights speeding toward me. And I mean speeding.

I expected the vehicle would get out of my way. It didn’t. I almost swerved for the ditch.

I closed my eyes. I expected a loud sound, followed by pain, maybe the voice of Charlton Heston.

What I heard was a vehicle scream by fast enough to suck the rust off my hitch.

I pulled over. My heart beat hard enough to crack my sternum. And I cried.

It’s funny, what you think about in your final moments.

I thought about the old woman from my childhood church. She was white-haired, and balding. She claimed that on the night my father died, she had a vision. She said she

saw him laughing in heaven.

For years, I was not happy about her unsolicited remarks. I don't know why.

I don't feel that way anymore. I'm glad she told me.

During my brief encounter, I also wondered if I’d wake up to abalone gates. Would I see Granny? My uncles, my aunts? My father?

Or: would I wake up as a baby squirrel, high up in a longleaf pine. A mockingbird, tweeting in a nest, maybe? Or a newborn hound, in someone’s barn? Or a hungry raccoon, nosing through garbage for some fresh loaded diapers?

I thought about my wife.

When we first married, I once told her I didn’t want her to remarry if I died. I joked, saying I wanted her to grieve me as a lonely widow. We’d laugh about that.

But last night, I was…

Soon, the whirr of spinning brushes, the high-pitched scream of a motor, the sound of water.

The last time I washed my truck was in the spring of ‘03. I remember it well because I had a violent fever and was hallucinating at the time.

The only thing I recall from that day is walking outside, without pants on, and washing my truck with a garden hose while singing “Mister Sandman.”

Next thing I knew, my wife was at home with bags of groceries in her arms and shouting, “What in God’s name are you doing?” Then, she threw me into the backseat and drove me to the ER.

“What’s wrong with him?” the doctor said.

“I don’t know, doc,” my wife said. “I left him in bed, I went to the store, and when I got home I found him eating a jar of Turtle Wax.”

“This is very bad,” said the doc. Then he snapped his fingers before my eyes. “Sean, can you hear me?”

I nodded and said, “When can I open my presents, Mommy?”

So today goes down in my

own personal history. I took my truck through an automated car wash. I don’t know what made me do it.

First, I bought some licorice at the gas station, then I purchased a ticket for the car wash.

It was great. There were big brushes spinning on hydraulic arms, and high-powered spray nozzles shooting water with enough pressure to bore holes through bricks.

And I was a child again.

It’s funny, sometimes I can’t recall what I had for supper last night, but I still remember when they built the small car wash next to the Conoco station.

I remember the bulldozers breaking ground before it was built, and the old men who stood at a distance, shaking heads in disapproval.

“A car wash,” one man grumbled. “When did people get so lazy they forgot how to use elbow grease?”

“Bah humbug,”…

These are the conversations you hear from old men with rural accents.

It’s an old cafe. The coffee cups are bottomless. The waitress wears jeans. On the walls are mounted bass and a few buck heads.

There are old men in the corner, seated around a table with mugs. These are rural men with old-world accents like your granddaddy probably had.

They are discussing crucial topics like:

“Hey, Charlie! What the hell was the guy’s name who used to date Sharon? You know, he had the big ears and always looked like he’d just sucked a lemon?”

They say things like:

“Did you hear Marilyn’s son built his house with the kitchen window facing his mama’s kitchen window so in the mornings they can wave to each other when they make coffee?”

They say:

“Looks like Mike is running for mayor again, can you believe it? That skinny-dipping stunt he pulled in high school is gonna come back to bite him, just watch.”

These are the conversations you hear from old men with rural accents.

Their reparte doesn’t follow one

line of thought. One man says something. A man across from him says something unrelated.

Everyone gets a turn. Round and round it goes, until you realize they aren’t actually talking to each other. They are simply reporting the news.

A young couple walks into the restaurant. The young man wears a work jacket and boots. He is carrying a baby-carrier by the handle. The young woman is holding his arm.

They are both so young they still squeak when they walk. They sit in the booth behind mine.

“What time do you have to go back to work?” the girl asks her young man.

“As soon as we’re done eating,” he says. “I’m sorry, I wish I had longer.”

She seems disappointed. It’s the weekend. Nobody wants Daddy to work on the weekend.

They order burgers and…