My phone rings. I answer it.

“Hello,” the young voice says. “Is this Sean Deet… Deet... ”

My last name has always been a source of frustration for telemarketers and non-German speakers. I help the poor girl out. “Sean Dietrich,” I say.

“Thank you, Mister Dietrich. I’m writing something for my school newspaper and your wife scheduled this interview for us. Is now a good time?”

“I have all the time in the world. Can I ask your name?”

“Oh, shoot. Sorry, yes. My name’s Lindsey.”

“Hi, Lindsey.”

Long silence. The sound of rustling papers. An electric pencil sharpener.

“What grade are you in, Lindsey?”


“Fire at will.”

“Um… My first question is, what do you like about writing?”

A very good question. In fact, I have done more than a few interviews, but I rarely get straightforward questions like this. I have to think for a few moments about how to answer.

Finally, I say, “I guess I like how it makes me feel, the act of writing, I mean. I can’t explain it. Writing is fun.”

Bill Shakespeare eat your heart


She says in a whisper, “How… It... Makes… Him… Feel...”

“And I also like meeting new people who I get to write about. I enjoy meeting people.”

“...Meeting… New… People…”

More silence. Followed by paper sounds. The noise of a child clearing her throat.

“Are you happy with your life, Sean?”

This child is aiming straight for the jugular. She’s asking existential questions right off the bat. Questions I don’t know whether I have answers for. Besides, what is happiness, really? Is this a yes or no question? Or is it a matter of percentages? Is anyone ever truly happy? If so, do they stay that way forever, or only for a few weeks? I mean, I know some who have everything they want—health, stuff, money, family, success, a pasta maker—and they still want more.

It’s late morning in Brewton, Alabama. Sunlight peeks over the trees. A distant train whistle whines. The scent of the nearby paper mill stinks up the air. My wife and I are driving through her little hometown, watching the brick storefronts and begonias go by. I am crazy about small towns.

But I don’t see a town today. You know what I see?

I see part of my adult life. I see the time Hurricane Ivan made landfall here. I see the summers I went fishing on Keego Pond with my father-in-law, when he squeezed fish bladders and made them pee on me.

I see one the first dates my wife and I had at Jalisco’s Mexican Restaurant, where I had one too many margaritas and started singing “People Will Say We’re In Love” from “Oklahoma!” right in the dining room. A few people applauded. I made five bucks in tips.

That’s what I see.

When you’re young, nobody tells you that you don’t marry a girl. Not really. You marry her family. You marry her

community. You marry her circle of friends. You marry this young woman’s life.

When I married Jamie Martin, I inadvertently married a whole township. Back then I didn’t know it was possible to marry an incorporated Alabamian community, but there you are. And this little town turned out to be her gift to me.

I didn’t come from a stable home. I didn’t have a warm and fuzzy Hallmark Channel movie childhood. But my wife pretty much did, and she shared it with me as easily as someone splitting a pizza.

So when I visit this place, one of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store, or the catfish joint, or a beer joint, and listen to people tell stories about my wife’s childhood.

I love imagining her in pigtails, without her front teeth, with skinned knees, and dirt on…

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a nuthouse. I’m in the boarding area awaiting my delayed plane.

I exist in that numb mindspace you’re in when your aircraft has been delayed for—get ready—seven hours. You become a zombie. You lose the will to go on. You grow to despise vending machines.

Pretty soon you get to the point where you realize you would have been better off walking home.

I am jolted from my thoughts when I am tapped on the shoulder. I turn to see a young man who is an oak tree, towering over me. He is maybe six-nine. His shoulders are Paul Bunyan; his face is “Leave It to Beaver.”

“Do you dip?” the kid says.

I am confused. “Beg pardon?”

“You look like someone who dips. You know, tobacco?”

The giant hands me an unopened tin of snuff. I stare at the container with the bewilderment of a guy who just woke up with his head stapled to the rug. Immediately I start looking around for Alan Funt and the “Candid Camera” crew.


“Well,” he

says, “my dad dips, and you look like my dad, only older. This is a brand new can of Skoal, but I don’t need it anymore because I’m going to basic training tomorrow.”

So he presents the tin. “Here.”

I have to shake my head and laugh because (a) I am not overjoyed about being profiled as a snuff dipper, and (b) who’s he calling old?

“Sorry,” I tell him, “I don’t dip snuff.”

Although I come from people who do. In fact, the first time I ever tried snuff was in the Little League dugout. Randy Matthews snuck some wintergreen snuff from his granny’s sewing kit. When I went to bat I accidentally swallowed my chaw. They had to revive me with defibrillator paddles.

Still, I’m sensing that this kid isn’t really concerned about snuff. I have this gnawing…

I am turning off Interstate 76 onto two-lane highways that cut across the countryside of Adams County, Pennsylvania. It’s remote out here. Think wheat fields and ramshackle barns. I’m visiting Gettysburg National Cemetery today, but it feels like I’m traveling toward the earth’s edge.

I am accompanied by loud thundering noises.

A convoy of deafening Harleys, classics, scramblers, and Softails rush past my vehicle. The pack leader looks like Dennis Hopper gone to seed. He gives me a two-fingered salute then tests the limits of the known sound barrier.

It was bike week here in Gettysburg. Swarms of motorcycles gathered in this nationally important borough to honor our history by having daily poker runs, tattoo contests, bike shows, chrome parades, burn outs, and of course, bikini contests.

One local merchant says, “The bikers are real polite and all, but I wish them ladies would put on more clothes. Some gals are way too old to be ‘advertising the goods,’ if you know what I mean.”

I enter the park, drive

around for several minutes, and finally find a parking spot between two custom choppers that cost more than my house.

At first glance, Gettysburg National Military Park feels like any other national park. Lots of kids in oversized sunglasses. Middle-aged people in white sneakers. Young parents pushing strollers, food stains on their crumpled clothes, wearing looks of metaphysical exhaustion. And of course, bikers.

But in many ways this park is unlike any other. Not only is this the resting place of 6,000 veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam, this is a battleground where more than 150,000 soldiers clashed during the War Between the States. Where 10,000 were killed and mortally wounded.

When they transformed this place into a cemetery, Abraham Lincoln attended its dedication and gave a little speech you probably heard about.

The Lincoln Address Memorial stands front and…

I am standing in a long line with every single tourist in Philadelphia. It’s hot. Humid. I am sweating through my drawers.

There must be hundreds of us here, loitering in the heat, waiting outside Jim’s South Street to buy a Philly cheesesteak. Every time our line starts to move forward, it turns out to be a false alarm and we actually end up shuffling backward, a little closer to West Virginia.

I hate lines. I detest them. But part of the human condition is to wait in lines. Lines are what we do. You visit post offices, airports, DMVs, funeral homes, you’re going to stand in lines. After you die you will wait in line to enter the pearly gates. Please have a valid photo ID and two forms of identification ready.

Nevertheless, I am a dutiful tourist, and all tourists visit Jim’s.

“You gotta eat a cheesesteak at Jim's!” is what the Philadelphians tell you. And I’m sure they’re right. But they forget to explain that the line of tourists outside Jim’s is longer

than the line to the women’s restroom at a Mary Kay convention.

Even so. Here I am.

I’ve had a great time in Philly over these last days. Not only have I learned some history and seen pretty things, but I have received substantial parking tickets and almost totaled my rental car thrice.

The highpoint of my expedition was definitely the historic walking tour, led by a guy named Casey.

Casey made my whole Philly visit worth it. If you ever take a historic tour here, get Casey to be your guide. He’s a high-school teacher by day, historian by night. He’s the kind of down-to-earth guy who doesn’t just expertly tell the story of Philadelphia, but he also does the voices.

Casey had me laughing, reflecting, nodding thoughtfully, and constantly thinking to myself: “I hope the police don’t put a boot on my…

Somewhere in Philadelphia. The breakfast joint is packed this morning. I’ve been on the road for several days. I’m running dangerously low on saturated fat. I coasted into the City of Brotherly Offensive Driving on fumes. I need steak and eggs. Stat.

I slide into a booth. I’m carrying a paperback mystery novel and my reading glasses.

I always travel with paperbacks because you never know when you’re going to be stuck waiting somewhere. Like right now.

I am waiting for my server to notice me. There is only one waitress in this crowded joint, and she is currently dealing with a thousand-and-one tables. So I read.

The waitress finally approaches my table, she looks tired. She is lean and her wiry arms are covered in intricate tattoos.

“Choo readin’?” she asks.

I put the book down. “Oh, it’s a mystery.”

“So, you sayin’ I gotta guess?”

“No, I mean it’s a mystery novel.”

She nods, then removes her pen. “Well, how about your order? That a mystery, too? Or are you gonna hurry up and tell me?”

This is exactly why I visit

diners. Nobody banters like this in franchise restaurants. In fact, in most fast food joints they don’t even have the courtesy to smile at you after they spit in your food.

I order a T-bone-and-eggs plate and a coffee. That’s when the real show begins. My waitress calls my order to the kitchen using genuine Philadelphia diner speak. Which sounds something like:

“Yo! Pull a cow bone! Drop a hash! Three eggs bullseye, and I want’em lookin’ at me! Burn a couple shingles, grease the trousers, light up the pig, and gimme a cup’a mud!”

She returns to me. She rests an arm on my booth seat. “So what’s it about?”


“Your book, Sherlock, what’s the big [bleeping] mystery?”

“Well, it’s complicated. And I don’t want to spoil it for you in case you read…

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is nothing but cornfields, barns, and grain silos. Amish buggies periodically clop down the old roads. The four-beat gaits of the high-stepping strutters sounds like overwound metronomes.

Tonight I’m attending a garden party in the country. Before the guests arrive, I’m helping with odd jobs, setting up tables, loading coolers. My work partner this evening is 82-year-old Miss Annie.

You’d like Miss Annie. Everyone does. She is a woman who tells me upfront that she can see angels.

“Really?” I reply.

“Oh, yes. Mmm hmm. Angels.”

Miss Annie weighs maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. She wears an Amish head covering, a long black skirt, and Teddy Roosevelt glasses. She was Amish for most of her life, and it shows. Her voice has a Germanic lilt. She speaks in a singsong way. Like a Bach prelude minus the organ.

“Actual angels?” I say, stocking a cooler. “You don’t mean the ones in Los Angeles?”

“Real angels. Mmm hmm. Yes. I see them.”

“What do they look like?”

“Like angels.”


“Oh, yes.”

“Long white bathrobes?”

“Mmm hmm.”

All afternoon she

has been saying things like this. You never know what she’s going to say or do next. Earlier, for instance, radio music was playing and Miss Annie put down her broom, lifted the hem of her skirt, and began to buck dance. I haven’t seen a woman buck dance since my granny died.

“I have always loved to dance,” she says. “When I was sixteen, we Amish kids would sneak off and have barn dances. We would dance all night long to records.

“Oh, I loved it. When someone’s parents would find us, we’d run and hide in the fields. But it was fun.”

Miss Annie lived in the Amish community from the end of the Great Depression until ‘94, after her husband died. When she decided to leave the Amish she was in her mid-fifties.

She was…