I am not sure where he’s from, but his accent is interesting to me. Nasal. And he talks lightning fast. New Jersey maybe? Philly? I am a Florida guy, don’t know much about the nasal region of the country.

What I do know is that the old man is walking the vacant beach at seven in the morning, collecting aluminum cans from trash bins. When I meet him, I find him rifling through a trash bag in a public beach access.

He has long hair, bleached from the sun, a beard peppered with white, and his skin is the color of aged boot leather.

“Name’s Alfie,” he says.

Alfie rummages through each receptacle, cigarette hanging from his mouth. Each soda can he finds is a cause for minor celebration. He tucks the mangled cans into a homemade satchel worn around his shoulder—a Hefty garbage bag.

Since I have a gift for inquiring about the obvious, I ask what Alfie is doing.

“What’s it look like I’m doing?” he says, lifting an empty Michelob Ultra can, still leaking

its contents. “Fifty-nine cents per pound, amigo.”

I smell whiskey on his breath from ten feet away.

He’s a nice man, sociable, and an Army veteran. Soon, we are lingering on a wide, empty beach, having a conversation, chewing the fat, watching the sunup. Behind us is a large beachfront McMansion which is roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial.

Alfie tells me that today has been a great day foraging. He hit the jackpot over in Destin. Someone threw away two cases’ worth of Coca-Cola and Pepsi cans.

“The motherlode,” Alfie explains.

Then our conversation becomes more biographical. Alfie tells me about his time in Vietnam, when he was twenty.

“Me and my little brother enlisted together, on the same day. We did everything together.”

The night before they left for basic, they hit the beer joints pretty hard. It was their…

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’m at the bank. I’m standing in a line that is one hundred miles long. I’m in the rear. The line is not moving. I would rather have open heart surgery administered by Howdy Doody than to wait in line.

Through the doors, I see a woman, walking across the parking lot. I’m trotting toward the door to open it for her. This is because I was raised by women. Polite behavior was beaten into me with hairbrushes and unabridged King James Bibles. I believe in opening doors for anyone you’d refer to as ma’am, miss, or Mama.

But someone beats me to the door.

A boy in line. He is twelve, thirteen maybe. He’s here with his mother. He swings it open.

“Thank you,” the woman says, grinning.

Two more women are strolling through the parking lot. The boy flies into action. He opens the door.

They thank him. They even call him “sir.”

He likes this.

Here comes another. She’s waltzing toward the door, talking on her phone. You ought to see the surprise on her face when the kid

pulls the Open Sesame trick.

She giggles. “Aren’t you sweet?”

Yes, he is.

And I remember a time when most men were. “Gentleman,” my granddaddy would’ve called them. “Polite,” Mama would’ve called it. I call it being considerate. And I believe in such things.

Long ago, we had men who raced to the door to prove that their mothers had raised them right. They were men who wouldn’t use a four-letter word in the presence of long eyelashes, not even if you threatened them with daytime television.

But those days are evaporating. And I don’t like saying it, but the world has changed. Still, some of us remember Mama, reminding us to treat every girl, woman, and granny better than the Queen of England.

I asked the boy’s mother how her son became such a knight in shining…

I am sitting on the beach, tapping on a laptop, people-watching, developing an awesome sunburn.

As a kid, I practically lived at the beach. I always sported sunburns in the summers, and my red hair always leaned more toward strawberry blond.

But then, suddenly, there was a time in my adult life when I quit visiting the beach altogether. In fact, I went years without placing a sole on this sand.

The irony, of course, is that I live a mile from the shore. Not far from my front steps are the whitest sands in the U.S., and the most ethereal Gulf waters known to man. And yet, I rarely visit.

What does that say about me?

I’ll tell you what. It says that I have been taking this beach for granted. I’m not sure how I started doing that, but I did.

Maybe it all started after my first beach job as a teenager. I spent upwards of nine hours each day on the blinding hot sand, setting up awkward beach-service chairs, sounding a lifeguard whistle at

rowdy teenagers, and hollering at little kids who yelled “Shark!” just for the heck of it.

“We don’t have sharks here,” was the official stance we lifeguards were instructed to take with the tourists.

After that, I went through a period when something simply changed inside me. I quit visiting our shores very often and found myself forgetting about our simple beauty. In other words, I ignored what was before me. Which is classic me.

Until recently.

Something has been happening inside me. Something interesting. I have been spending more time on the beach lately. Usually, I visit in the mornings, reading a book, trying to absorb the solitude.

I don’t know what’s come over me. I don’t know what brought this change.

Maybe I’m sitting here by this water because I’m getting older, and I’m realizing I don't have that many…

They stand behind caged doors. They look at you when you walk by. They bark like their lives depend on it. Some have barked so hard they’ve lost their voices.

They miss running more than anything. I’m talking about all-out, wide-open, honest-to-goodness running. Their legs were made for this, but they can’t do it. Not in here.

The old dogs don’t even bother barking anymore. They know what awaits. One day a woman in scrubs and rubber gloves will lead them away, and they won’t come back.

Jack, the Labrador, for instance, he was ten years old, reddish colored. Nobody wanted him because of the white on his snout. He went to Heaven yesterday.

“People just don’t want elderly dogs,” a staff worker tells me. “It breaks your heart, I won’t lie.”

And Ophelia. She’s a beagle. She’s an old woman. So is ‘Bama, Pistol Pete, Chocolate, Bradley, and Miss Daisy. Abandoned dogs. Lost animals. This is their last stop on the bus ride of life.


Through the doors walks Jace. Jace is a seven-year-old boy with rosy face and blonde hair.

His parents are divorced. They live in a two-bedroom apartment, with no neighbor kids. Jace gets lonely.

“My son needs a friend,” his mother explains.

Jace walks the long corridor and looks for a pal. He sees Rip—a basset hound with so many skin wrinkles he ought to win an award. His face is long, his ears touch the floor. Rip is nine.

Jace pokes his hand through the bars.

“We ain’t supposed to let people touch the cages,” a staff worker whispers to me. “But Rip’s a sweetheart.”

Rip wanders to the door. He licks Jace.

“Mom!” says Jace. “He licked me!”

Rip stares at Jace.

In dog years, Rip is older than this boy. And he’s smart, too. You can see this in his eyes. I’ve been writing a long time, but I can’t find…

It’s morning in Alabama. I’m driving. There is green everywhere. Live oaks that are old enough to predate the Stone Age. Tin sheds. Peanut fields with perfect rows that run for miles in straight lines.

American flags are hanging from most mailboxes, horse trailers, workshops, treehouses, and semi-truck garages.

There are plenty of curves ahead, winding through the viridian landscape. They will take you past Faith Chapel Church, Providence Primitive Baptist Church, New Chapel Baptist, First Assembly of God, United Methodist Church. And a heap of other three-room meeting houses with well-kept cemeteries.

There’s the Perry Antique Store—which used to be a gas station one hundred years ago. It sits on approximately thirteen million acres of flat earth. Old men sit on its porch, chewing the fat. Watching traffic.

There are ancient mobile homes with brand new Fords parked out front. There are brand new mobile homes with ancient Fords. I pass red-dirt-road offshoots that lead to God-Knows-Where. Horses in front yards. Cattle in backyards.

Weathered brick chimneys, standing in empty fields.

Telephone poles with fading signs

that read: “I buy junk cars.”

I pass small towns, small communities. Brantley. Pine Level. Elba. Kinston is about as big as a minute, but they have a nice baseball field. Baseball is serious business in Kinston.

“Now entering Geneva County.”

I pass bumpy creek bridges—I have to slow down to drive across. There’s a crumbling red house—probably older than the late great Kathryn Tucker Windham.

Bass boats sit by the highway with for-sale signs. Farm-implement graveyards stretch clear to China.I am getting close to home. The county in Northwest Florida that sits sandwiched between the Alabama line and the Choctawhatchee Bay.

There is a man, burning trash in his front lawn. There are man made bass and bream ponds. Dead corn fields. Overgrown yards with rusty swing sets and children’s playhouses, with wood rot.

Rusty mailboxes with flags up. Pilgrim Rest Baptist…

My wife is asleep on my shoulder. She is out like a light. This is a sweet moment between husband and wife. Wait a second. Is she drooling? If she is, so help me, I will gag.

Yes. I can clearly see saliva on my shirt. My gag reflex kicks in.

But I decide not to wake her because she is sleeping too soundly. And because I enjoy watching her sleep.

Long ago, before her, I dated girls who never seemed to actually like me. One girl in particular forced me to attend a fancy New Year’s Eve party at her aunt’s house. She told me to wear a sports coat. When I showed up, she chewed me out.

“What’re you wearing?” she shouted. “You didn’t wear a tie! I told you to dress up.”

“You told me to wear a sports coat.”

“But where’s your tie?”

“You just said ‘Wear a sports coat.’ So I bought a sports coat at a thrift store.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t wear a tie.”

“I clean up pretty good, huh?”

“You’re gonna have to borrow a tie

from my uncle.”

“This is genuine Scottish tweed.”

“How could you do this to me?”

“You can’t even see the hole in the elbow, can you? This jacket smells funky.”

“Why do you always dress like a slob?”

“I think whoever wore this jacket before me must’ve died in it.”

She fitted me with a necktie. Before her aunt even served the salad, I was already in my truck on the way home. Her uncle’s necktie died a slow death on I-10.

But the woman who I married actually likes me.

We went to Charleston for our honeymoon. We had a famous time in South Carolina. Charleston is one of the most historic cities in the world—second only to Rome. On every corner you see American history. You can visit the place where George Washington…