I’m a kid. I am in bed. Mama is up late. The kettle on the stove is whistling. The sound wakes me. I look at the clock, it is two in the morning.

I walk downstairs to see my mother at our dining table. The tabletop is scattered with paper, envelopes, an empty mug, and a calculator.

She leans over a mess of bills that might as well be a tablecloth. She punches numbers on the calculator and makes a grimace. I know my mother. I know that look.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

She runs her fingers through her hair. “Oh, I’m just robbing Peter to pay Paul, go back to bed.”

“Who’s Paul?”

“Paul Newman, who else? Now go to bed.” She buries herself in her hands.

“Have you been crying, Mama?”

“I’m not crying, now go to sleep.”

“But, I can’t sleep.”

“Upstairs, now!”


She points at me. “I don’t wanna hear about your ‘but.’ I want you to go to bed.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Well,” she says with a sigh. “Then just pretend to sleep, I don’t care what you do. Go upstairs

and count your blessings.”

This is what all Baptists do. We do not count sheep, or listen to meditative sleep instructional CDs by Deepak Chopra. That stuff is for Methodists.

“Blessings?” I say to my mother with my trademarked rebellious tone. “WHAT blessings? We’re probably gonna STARVE to death aren’t we?”

I don’t know what has come over me, talking like this. I storm upstairs, slide beneath the covers, I stare at the ceiling. I can’t sleep because life has dealt my family nothing but lemons. And I’m worried. We have limited means, tall debts, and a car that leaks oil like a colander. And now my mother is having to pay this Paul fella.

My mother comes into the bedroom. She sits beside me. She touches my hair and doesn’t say anything.

“Listen up, class!” The ninth-grade teacher is using her powerful, no-nonsense voice. “Eyes up front! I want everyone to hush and give Mister Dietrich your full attention.”

It is a weekday afternoon. I am staring into my computer webcam. I am a thousand miles away from their classroom, on a video conference call with Mrs. Barry’s ninth-graders.

I see my face on the computer monitor. I resemble a doe staring into the highbeams of an oncoming Peterbilt semi.

“Hi,” I say.

I am greeted with mumbles. I don’t know what it is about ninth-graders, but they are expert mumblers.

Mrs. Barry is unsatisfied with this communal muttering. “I couldn’t hear you, class.”

The class repeats the greeting, and they sound like grim robots. “Hello, Mister Dietrich.”

I don’t like it when they call me Mister Dietrich. I have spoken in many schools over the years, teachers always insist on students using this salutation. “Mister Dietrich” makes me sound like the defendant.

I can tell the kids are bored. I briefly consider whipping up some “technical difficulties” on my end

and signing off. But a deal is a deal. And I promised to speak to Mrs. Barry’s class of remedial students, most of whom are falling behind in their studies.

We are supposed to be talking about English. The students have prepared written questions, which they will recite from index cards, addressing the giant head on the projector screen.

My giant head.

A boy stands. He reads his question. “I like your story about church potlucks. What’s your favorite casserole?” He sits.

I clear my throat like a guy under oath. “Chicken divan casserole.”

The class gives no response. Crickets. I am dying.

So I expound upon the finer points of the finest chicken-curry casserole to ever be perpetuated by the fundamentalist women of my childhood, then I invite more questions.

A girl stands. “How long did it take to grow…

Someone once told me that in northern Ohio ice cream is religion.

That might sound utterly silly to city mice, but if there is one thing I know it’s that in the rural parts, ice cream always follows life’s big benchmarks.

Think about it. Where do you take Little Leaguers after winning the game? Ice cream.

Where do jayvee offensive linemen bring their first dates? Ice cream.

Where do you go after high-school band concerts? What do you eat at the county fair? What do you serve with your birthday cake?

It doesn’t matter what the question is, the correct answer is always ice cream.

Geauga County, Ohio, happens to be a leader on the American ice cream front. Recently the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation held a statewide ice cream battle to locate the best ice cream in the Buckeye State. Geauga County ranked in the top five.

The King Kone ice cream stand became the pride of the county by earning fourth place in the state. The owners, Gail and Mitch Hewitt,

opened their salt-of-the-earth business eight years ago. Their slogan was simple:

“May all your memories be sweet.”

Geauga County is your classic pie slice of Americana, with roughly 400 square miles of hayfields, small townships, pickups, and shiploads of annual rain. Geauga County receives more rainfall than any county in northern Ohio; nearly four feet per year.

Population-wise, Geauga is tame; about 94,000 folks. Twenty percent of the county is Amish. The other 80 percent is currently stuck in standstill traffic behind a horse-drawn carriage.

Also, Geauga County was home to one of the great ice cream connoisseurs of our time.

His name was Dan McClelland. Dan passed away last Wednesday from a brain tumor, but you would have liked Dan. Everyone did.

He was 67, nice looking, with an easy smile, and a deep affection for his grandchildren, dogs, and the national pastime of sweetened frozen…

Jacob was a foster child. He grew up in the Foster Pinball Machine. Birth to graduation. He was never adopted by a family.

He and I weren’t close friends, but we knew each other. I lost track of him at age fifteen. He moved away to a group home.

We got in touch a few years ago and I expected to learn he had a wife and kids, but that wasn’t the case. Instead Jacob has animals.

Six dogs, three cats.

I don’t think Jacob would mind me saying that he marches to the beat of his own tuba.

He’s had little choice in the matter. His childhood was spent bouncing from family to family, looking after himself, remembering to eat regularly. It was a hardscrabble childhood.

Today he leads a good life. He’s a restaurant cook, he likes to hike, camp, and he’s had the same girlfriend for ten years.

Yesterday, we talked about all his animals.

“I dunno,” he said. “Just love animals.
Growing up, I was never allowed to have any. And I had so much love

I wanted to give.”

Jacob found his first dog after work one night. It was late. A stray black Lab was sniffing trash cans behind a restaurant. The dog bolted when it heard footsteps.

So Jacob tried to coax it with food. The dog wasn’t interested. Then Jacob resorted to heavy artillery.

Raw ground beef.

No dog, not even Benji, can remain civilized in the presence of a raw hamburger. Jacob left an entire package on the pavement then backed away slowly.

The dog still wouldn’t come. So Jacob gave up and piled into his car to leave.

But before he wheeled away, he glanced in his rear mirror. The dog was eating a pound of sirloin in one bite.

“Started feeding him every day,” Jacob said. “I just wanted him to know somebody cared.”

And you already know…


Do you ever write anything not about gooey, syrupy love?



I have a story for you.

It starts with a woman who pulled her Chevy Blazer alongside an ordinary Georgia gas pump. There, she noticed a teenage girl seated on the curb. Head resting against the pump.

It was the early 1980s. Blondie was still on the radio. Crimped perms were still a thing. Aqua Net hairspray was obscenely over used.

The girl at the gas pump was late teens, wearing a sweat-laden sundress, and eating an ice cream cone.

The woman in the SUV wasn’t sure whether to approach the girl and offer assistance, or whether the girl even needed help.

What was obvious, however, was that this vagrant child was on foot.

The woman thought for a few moments. Conventional wisdom says you’re not supposed to approach vagrants or down-and-outters. “Be cautious” is the mantra of all responsible suburban people.

So the woman in the SUV was telling herself to be smart. “You don’t know this young woman. She could be dangerous. Be cautious.”

The woman pulled alongside the

pump and lowered her window. “You okay?”

The girl nodded and gave a quiet, “Yes, ma’am.”

But something just felt wrong.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“My boyfriend’s supposed to come get me,” the girl said, blowing her nose, dabbing her eyes.

Oh, yes. Something was definitely wrong.

“How long have you been waiting here, sweetie?”

“Since six this morning.”

The woman turned to look at the horizon. The sun was sinking behind the treeline and dusk was approaching. “You’ve been waiting here all day? Where is he?”

The girl finished her cone, then stood to stretch. She placed a hand on the small of her back and extended her very, very pregnant belly.

So apparently the girl was eating ice cream for two.

“I don’t know where he is, ma’am. He just…

He sits beside me on the bench beneath a clear sky outside the doctor’s office. My wife is having a routine checkup.

The guy and I are spaced apart. He wears a mask. I wear a mask. Occasionally he lowers his mask to take a draw from a vaping pen before exhaling a cloud that smells like Chanel No. 5.

He is bone thin. He is late-50s. His skin is all freckles. His ratty ballcap reads, “Presbyterianism: Est. 33 A.D.”

He inhales. Holds. Exhales. Then speaks. “S’posed to be nasty weather tomorrow.”

And already I know where this conversation is going.

Floridians have been cussing the weather since our ancestors first crawled from their prehistoric caves to get their real estate licenses.

The weather is an easy subject in the Alligator State because it’s common ground. Everyone experiences weather. Everyone gets sick of weather. To discuss weather is a grand tradition. And like all traditions, there are obligatory phrases often exchanged between participants.

Such as: “Hot enough for ya?” “Supposed to come up a storm.” And the all-time classic: “We could shore use

the rain.”

This is the stuff that makes us human.

The old man opens with an old standard: “S’posed to rain sideways this week.”

I play my role. “We could use the rain.”

Although technically we don’t need rain. Last week it rained like a son of a gun; my yard had two feet of standing water and became one with the Choctawhatchee.

The man uncrosses his legs. “You here to see the doc?”

“No, my wife’s seeing him. You?”

“Waiting on my wife to finish her checkup. Had my own appointment last week.” He thumps his chest. “Doc says I’m good to go.”


He sucks on his pen again and laughs. “Nice to be told I’m healthy for once. I’m used to hearing the opposite.”

I take the bait. “Really.”

He tugs his shirt collar…

I’m sitting on the Walton County beach, I am sipping a beer with my wife, eating Chili Cheese Fritos directly from the bag. She is hogging the bag.

The spring-break teenage rowdies have finally gone home and the median age of our town population has risen to over age fifty again.

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…

“You must be Sheen,” said the old man, extending his hand. “You here for the lawnmower?”


We were somewhere outside Andalusia. I was young. I was there to buy a used lawnmower from the Thrifty Nickel ads. I was in kind of a hurry, so the quicker we cut bait the better.

The old man had a firm handshake. “Was it a long drive, Sheen?”

“Couple hours.”

We stood in a rural Alabamian field, 40-some miles from the Florida line. The man wore jeans and scuffed Double-H boots. He was mid-70s. Lean. His summerwear cowboy hat was hard, like plastic. He reminded me a little of my late father. Only older.

I released his hand and clarified. “My name isn’t Sheen, it’s Sean.”

“But the way it’s spelled...”

“You’ll have to take that up with my mother.”

My Irish name has long been a source of confusion for the elderly, who find the name too modern for their sensibilities. The truth is my name is the ancient Gaelic version of “John,” which was my father’s name. And it is all

I have left of him.

Also, not to be picky, but my name dates back to 1066, predating most of today’s modern names, such as, for example, Larry.

“Name’s Larry,” said the old man.

I told Larry I was in a hurry, and I needed to buy the lawnmower and skedaddle.

He beamed. “Okay then, let’s go get your mower, Shantell.”

We started walking to his barn, when he gestured to a green pasture and said, “My granddaughters are out riding today.”

As if on cue I could hear horses before I saw them. The bass notes of heavy hoofs fell hard upon the earth. I felt the vibrations beneath my boot heels.

Next, I saw two young women on horseback, in the faroff, moving at full gallop. One rode a buckskin; the other rode a chestnut. The girls…

BIRMINGHAM—There is an American flag flapping outside my hotel. A slight breeze lifts the banner while the sun rises over Magic City.

A hotel janitor with dreadlocks is standing beside me, we’re watching the flag flap while I drink my morning cup.

Two hundred and forty-four years. That’s how long the colonist’s colors have been flying from flagpoles like this. I bet the early colonist’s worst critics never saw that coming.

They are brilliant colors. To watch the 13 battered stripes flutter in open Alabamian daylight, putting on their morning matinee, never fails to move me.

“Pretty ain’t it?” says Jefferson County’s leading custodian.

I nod.

He cracks the tab on an energy drink. “My daughter’s in Girl Scouts. She folds’em sometimes. Flags, I mean.”

I’m not sure why he’s telling me this, but I grin anyway.

“How old is she?”

“Leaven. And sassy.”

“She get that trait from Mom or Dad?”


We’re quiet for several minutes.

Then: “Yeah. She practices folding flags with my mom sometimes, for Scouts. They use a big ole bed sheet so they don’t drop it. My daughter always be shooing me away, saying, ‘Daddy, get out the



He sips. “Sassy.”

And I’m thinking about how our flag was designed by New Jersey congressman Francis Hopkinson in 1777, first stitched by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross. And 244 years later Girl Scouts are still folding them into tight triangles.

He makes a professional inquiry. “So how’s your stay with us, sir?”


“Good, good.”

My hotel is nothing fancy, it’s your basic highway-side deal. But it’s clean. There’s even a continental breakfast featuring the American traveling-man’s greatest hits. You have your expired yogurt cups, English muffins suitable for usage in hockey tournaments, and “egg-like” omelettes that glow in the dark.

And, of course, there’s complimentary carbonic acid which someone mislabeled coffee.

“She sells cookies,” he says.

“Come again?”

“Scout cookies. My daughter sells’em.”

This story isn’t mine, but I’m going to tell it like I heard it. I first heard it from an old man who drove a Ford. And I have a soft spot for old Ford men.

So there he is. The old man is driving. He sees a car on the side of the highway. A kid stands beside it. Hood open.

The man pulls over.

He’s America’s quintessential old man. He drives a half-ton Ford that he’s been babying since the seventies. He changes the oil regularly, waxes it on weekends. The candy-apple red paint still looks nice.

He looks under the kid’s hood. He can see the problem right away, (a) the transmission is shot, and (b) it’s not a Ford.

Fixing it would cost more than the vehicle.

The kid is in a hurry, and asks, “Can you give me a ride to work? I can’t afford to lose my job.”

So, the old man drives the kid across town. They do some talking. The man learns that the boy has four children, a young wife, and a disabled

mother living with him. The boy works hard for a living. Bills keep piling up.

It rips the man's heart out.

They arrive at a construction site. There are commercial framers in tool belts, operating nail guns. The kid pumps the old man’s hand and thanks him for the ride.

“Take care of yourself,” the man tells the kid.

The kid takes his place among workmen, climbing on pine-framed walls, swinging a hammer.

The old man decides to help the kid. He doesn’t know how. Or why. But it’s a decision that seems to make itself.

That same day, he’s at a stop light. He sees something. An ugly truck, sitting in a supermarket parking lot. A Ford.

A for-sale sign in the window.

He inspects it. Single cab. Four-wheel drive. Low mileage. The paint is flaking. Rust…