The gas station is quiet today. I pull in and keep the radio running. The announcer is talking about two tropical storms heading for the Gulf Coast.

Where the storms will land, nobody knows. The meteorologists have taken to calling the two approaching systems “dueling storms.”

As of this morning, the storms are veering for Texas and Louisiana. That could all change tomorrow.

The announcer says: “...And the dueling storms could combine in a rarely seen natural occurrence, circulating together, and the catastrophic destruction would be…”

There is a woman at the pump beside me. She is Latina, with a backseat full of children. I ask what she thinks about the storms. Just to get a feel for what people are thinking.

She has a red surgical mask and a soft voice. “Oh, I never know what to think. I don’t feel right hoping for storms to go somewhere else. That would just mean it’s gonna hurt other people. So I don’t know.”

I notice a crucifix hanging from her rearview mirror.

She’s right. A hurricane is coming.

It’s going somewhere. Someone’s losing a house. Hoping for such a storm to avoid me personally seems like a selfish thought.

The woman goes on, “So I just pray for everyone to be safe. This is what I tell my kids. We pray maybe for the storm to weaken.”

On my other side, a man is tying lumber to his truck, pumping diesel. No mask. I ask what his thoughts are about the dueling storms. At first he ignores me. He’s not exactly Joe Friendly.

Finally, he says, “I don’t care what happens, dude, as long as it’s not hitting me.” Then he drives away.

Funny. Ask two people, and you will get two different answers.

The cashier behind the gas-station counter has an even more distinct outlook. She is tall, wiry, with a surgical mask bearing the Wonder Woman logo.


I’m watching the Weather Channel with my mother-in-law. Right now, there are two back-to-back tropical storms heading straight for our Gulf Coast.

Count them. Two.

Here is an actual quote from a weatherman:

“When two storms are similar in strength, they tend to orbit a common center, almost appearing to ‘dance’ together. Sometimes these hurricanes can end up forming a super hurricane...”

You do not want your hurricanes dancing together.

“This has not been a good year,” says my elderly mother-in-law.

No, it certainly has not.

The first thing Gulf Coast people do when a hurricane is brewing is telephone each other. We call everyone we can think of. The conversations all go the same:

“What’re y’all gonna do?”

“Don’t know. What about y’all?”

“Still waiting.”

There is a strange anxiety surrounding hurricanes where I’m from. There is also a weird thrill that accompanies them. I can’t explain it. You’ve never felt more alive than when a hurricane is brewing in your backyard. And you’ve never felt more unsure about what to do.

A long time ago my wife and I evacuated for

a storm, but my elderly mother-in-law insisted on staying to ride it out. When the storm hit, it landed only a few miles east of our city.

Meanwhile my wife and I were safe, 262 miles away, watching live footage of our hometown getting pommeled. We called my elderly mother-in-law to check on her.

She answered the phone in a very calm and collected voice, saying, “Get me the [deleted] out of here.”

The thing about an oncoming hurricane is, you never know whether you should evacuate. You watch news channels nonstop, but it doesn’t help you make a decision. Because nobody on TV ever tells you flat-out: “Get out of town.”

Even so, you can’t look away from the tube. You’re always hoping they’ll give you some actual, solid information. During every weather update you crank…

Hello, Melanie,

In your recent letter to me, you told me most of your life story. Thank you for that. I read the whole thing. All 792 pages.

You mentioned that you were “screwed up” more than a few times. I won’t cite examples because your words to me are private, but I had to write you back.

I know your parents’ divorce has been hard. And I know you’ve been going through a lot, getting ready for college.

But I don’t think you’re screwed up. Actually, I think you’re swell. I would even add that you’re pretty cool. Also, your letter weighed 42 pounds.

If you ask me, being “screwed up” is just a matter of perception. Have you ever seen 1,000 identical store bought tomatoes? They’re completely uniform, they have no personality, and they taste like red clay dirt.

But homegrown tomatoes? They’re misshapen, multi-colored, lopsided, and totally screwed up. And everyone knows lopsided tomatoes taste like heaven.

People are the same way. We humans are complex, uniquely shaped biological beings, capable of incredible feelings, empathy, wit, kindness,

and unbelievable body odor.

Here’s something. In only a few millionths of a second, a human brain can compute the trajectory and velocity of a speeding softball aimed at its face.

I bring this up because you mentioned that you played first base on your softball team in your letter. I think on page 349.

Well, it only takes an average ballplayer’s brain five gazillionths of a millisecond to send electrical impulses to his or her arm to make that important catch.

That’s not screwed up. That’s a scientific wonder.

Since we were talking about baseball, do you know what I think is interesting? This: who invented baseball? And I don’t mean which PERSON invented it. I’m talking in a big-picture kind of way.

Because here’s what I know. Baseball didn’t just appear out of nowhere. A flock of people…

It was a nice ceremony, as those things go. Though it was a little weird seeing the congregation wear masks like invaders from another galaxy. But, hey, this service wasn’t about them. This was a country wedding.

The day was about two people who stood behind a hayfield, under an outdoor arbor. They were surrounded by live oaks, creeping vines, and a beautiful grove of professional photographers.

Granny was wearing more than just a medical mask. She wore clunky protective battle gear. Huge yellow gloves, plastic face shield, and an oxygen canister. When she crawled out of the SUV’s backseat in the parking lot it reminded me of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk.

But this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirit. And the bride promised me the day would be fun when she invited me. She was hellbent on this.

I don’t usually cover weddings. For one thing, I live in a wedding capital of Florida. Anyone from the Panhandle has seen so many weddings they can lip sync with the preacher.

Personally, I have worked dozens of jobs

involved with the wedding industry. I’ve been a caterer in a bowtie who takes your empty plate and asks if you want another champagne. I’ve been in the band, playing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” or “Mustang Sally.”

I’ve tended bar. Which is misery. Many people have no idea how hard it is tending bar for a party. If you want to know what it’s like, imagine that you are a fire hydrant at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Everyone visits you. Sometimes all at once. People scream their drink orders without waiting their turn. Some get impatient. And impatience spreads like a virus among the wicked.

“Hey, pal, how ‘bout my PBRs?!” “No, I wanted ONE olive in my martini, dummy!” “Beefeater? I don’t drink Beefeater gin, you boob!” “Hello? Where’s my beer?” “Easy on the cranberry juice!”

It is heart-endangering…

I was there by accident. It was night when I pulled onto the old beach road without even thinking. I guess my brain was on autopilot.

This used to be the way I took home every night. Back when my family lived up the street in a little yellow house. I live in the next town now.

I parked near the beach and hiked to the water. Just because.

The humid Gulf air has its own taste. One that stays with you. It smells like oysters and Coppertone.

You can’t really see anything on a beach at night, but there is a mysterious feeling you get when standing on a shore in pitch darkness. It almost feels like standing on the doorstep of heaven.

The Gulf’s prairie-like flatness is downright eerie. And if you look at this water long enough you will get disoriented.

Soon, it will seem like water and sky is all there is. All there ever was. And you’ll forget all about the gaudy real estate around you.

You’ll start to remember when

this was all just dunes. Back when the fishing rodeo was the biggest thing in town, and stoplights were a myth.

I saw a young couple walking on the beach. Hand-in-hand. They removed their surgical masks and made conversation. I said hello to them, but they didn’t hear me.

You can’t hear anything on a beach. It’s too loud. One of the things I love about it.

As it happens, I once stood in this exact spot when I suffered my first case of heartbreak. I was hardly a teenager. I stared across this dark water at constellations and wished God would’ve made me better looking. I felt like the ugliest boy on earth.

I also visited this shore the night before I got married. It was bitter cold because it was December. Even though I was overjoyed about my upcoming day, I felt…

I dial the number. The phone is ringing. It keeps ringing. And ringing. Click. A woman answers. It’s a youngish voice. We exchange greetings.

“Am I too late?” I ask.

“Nope, right on time, Miller is right here, waiting for you with his pen and notepad ready.”

I’ll admit it upfront. I’m not having the greatest day today. I didn’t sleep well last night. Also, we ran out of coffee and had only decaf in the house. That’s what I’m drinking now. Worthless decaf.

But I promised a young man I’d do a phone interview for his homeschool assignment. So there you are.

I don’t know anything about him, but his email seemed so sincere.

I hear the sound of a little kid breathing on the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Miller. Sorry I’m a little late calling, I got tied up this morning.”

“You did? Doing what?”

“Well, if you must know, I was walking my dog and she ate something funky. And then I discovered that all we had was decaf. Not the greatest day. It’s a long story. Do you have a dog, Miller?”

“Well, no, but

my grandma has a cat, Jilly Billy, we named her that ‘cause we don’t know if she’s a boy or a girl.” Then the kid changes gears. “I’m gonna record this interview with your permission. But before we start, I just wanna say thank you.”

“For what?”

“For, I dunno, just talking to me.”

Next, I hear the sound of a soda can cracking open. And the noise of a satisfying slurp.

“Let’s begin,” says Miller.

“Fire away.”

“What’s it like to be a writer?”

This is probably not a good day to answer this question. I’m a little too decaffeinated. Also lately I’ve been a rollercoaster of emotions when I think of how turbulent the world is right now. “It’s great.”

I hear the noise of a young person scribbling notes…


I sent you a letter a few weeks ago about my dad’s funeral and I was really hoping you’d write me back because I’m a wreck. Did you receive it?



I did get your letter. And I was sorry to hear about your father’s death. I actually wished I could’ve attended the funeral, but we’ve never met in person before so that would have been pretty weird. Besides, this is a pandemic going on. So I’ll just say this:

Your dad loved you.

No, I never knew your father, but after your letter, I feel like we’re friends. And I think it’s important to keep hearing that he loved you because death should only be about love. So should life.

Society gets death all wrong. We make it into something it’s not. Sometimes we make life’s final ceremony into sadness, organ music, and black dresses. But death is more than that.

Nobody tells you that death can be perhaps the most beautiful life event there is. Certainly, it’s tragic. Yes, it’s a sad thing. I’m sure as heck

not saying we should all break out the party hats.

What I mean to say is that death is not hideous, or shameful, or ugly, or dark. It is remembering something beautiful.

It is the Grand Canyon, slowly being chipped away by the Colorado River. It is a supernova, exploding in the far-off like a million balls of lightning.

A man’s life can seem so ordinary here on earth. But after he dies his entire existence becomes amplified beneath a huge magnifying glass, and everyone suddenly realizes that this man was not ordinary.

That can’t be all bad.

My father’s death was the most profound moment in my early life. And when the crashing breakers of grief died down, I realized something: I’d never really looked at my father’s life in its entirety.

I’d only…