My plane touched down in Missouri. The air was cool and sharp. The horizon was broomstick flat. It looked like rain.

In a few moments I was in a cheap rental car that smelled like an armpit. I cruised along the featureless byways of the “Show-Me State.” The state where I was born. The state where my father ended his own life.

I entered Parkville. The town where our lives went to perdition. And I remembered things.

My father used to tell a story about why Missouri is called the Show-Me State. When I was a kid, we’d ride in his rusted Ford F-100. Daddy would be eating licorice or sunflower seeds or spitting into a Coke bottle.

He said Missouri was called the Show-Me State because a politician used to go around telling other politicians to put their money where their mouths were. “Show me!” the politician would say.

Daddy used to do an imitation of a politician by growling “SHOW ME, SIR!” and waving his hands around like a televangelist undergoing a brain


I never forgot it.

The truth about the state nickname, I later discovered, is more complicated.

For starters, there are many theories on why it’s called the Show-Me State. Not just one. My father’s explanation wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t conclusive.

I did some Googling. The politician Daddy was referring to was Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, from Cape Girardeau County. The year was 1896. The congressman was a dead ringer for Missouri’s other poster boy, Samuel Clemens. He had a voice like a hammer and the personality of a heart attack.

Vandiver once shouted from the campaign platform:

“I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me! I am from Missouri! You have got to show me!”

But historians think the Show-Me nickname started earlier. One story originates in the mining…

It’s a mess, that’s what it is. When you land in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Third World International Airport, you’re walking into a battle zone.

It’s nonstop chaos. Airport professionals ride golf carts with loud beeps and flashing lights.

Hordes of business professionals below age 40, speed-walk past you, having loud conversations with their earbuds, dutifully working on their first nervous breakdowns.

Middle-aged Midwestern guys in New Balances, shoulder a tonnage of roller luggage, most of which—you can just tell—belongs to their wives.

Everyone is on their phones

I notice the elderly man across from me. He is wearing khakis and Merrells, the universal uniform of the Old Guy. He is breathing heavily. Hyperventilating, actually. His hands are trembling. He takes a sip of water and almost drops the bottle.

This man is having a diabetic episode or something, I’m thinking.

“Sir, are you okay?” I ask.

He looks at me. His eyes are rimmed pink. I can’t tell if he’s about to cry or not. “Have you ever flown before?” he asks.


“Well, I haven’t.”

He returns to his trembling.

“I’m eighty-two years old,” he said, “and I’ve never flown. I’ve

never been anywhere or done anything.”

This is a man old enough to be my father, but at this moment, he seems very childlike to me. Fear has a way of reducing one’s age.

There is a little girl sitting on his other side. She notices what’s going on. She joins our conversation. She is maybe 10.

The kid says, “What do you mean you’ve never been ANYWHERE or done ANYTHING,’ sir?”

He looks at her. Her hair is in pigtails. She could pass for the Coppertone Girl.

“I’ve only left my hometown twice,” he says. He’s getting more nervous with each word. “I’ve never done anything of note. I’ve never been anywhere.”

“Do you have a family?” the girl says.

He nods. “Four kids.”

“How old?”

“My oldest…

Things I have learned from Marigold, my blind rescue dog, a black and tan coonhound.

—There is no higher pleasure than food.

—Except licking yourself. That’s a pretty great thing.

—But still, food is better.

—Especially cheese.

—If you are lucky enough in this life to find one person to love you, you are lucky enough.

—Smartphones are purely a distraction. They do little that is beneficial. All they do is take humans away from important tasks, such as petting their blind rescue dogs and rubbing their blind rescue dogs’ bellies.

—The vacuum is the invention of Satan.

—The most fabulous fragrance you can wear is poop. Try rolling around in it sometime.

—If you can’t find any poop, consider a dead squirrel carcass.

—Do not ever miss out on a chance for love.

—The joy of simply going on a walk cannot be measured.

—If you hear a crinkling plastic bag, follow it.

—Do not trust people who aren’t dog people.

—Kids are the best kind of humans.

—If someone is extra gentle when petting the fur between your eyes, they are an extra gentle person.

—If someone is not

good to animals, they are not good.

—Just because someone beat you so hard that you lost your vision doesn’t mean you can’t see.

—Dogs don’t have to try to believe in God. God already believes in them.

—If your owner leaves his beer unattended during a televised baseball game, it’s technically yours.

—Hey. Beer is pretty good.

—It only takes one Pabst Blue Ribbon to make a 60-pound blind rescue dog completely and totally inebriated.

—When you are an inebriated dog, you do not want to walk down a flight of stairs, this is a very bad decision.

—So is trying to use the doggy door.

—Life is too short to sleep alone.

—Humans should quit checking their phones so often. It’s not real life.

—Reading glasses taste…

She met him in college. They were instant friends. Lifelong friends, actually. Not casual friends. They were joined-at-the-hip friends.

He was always there. Always around. Always there when she got home. He would be sitting at the windowsill, watching her car pull into the driveway.

His name was O. Henry because she was studying English at the State-U and she was incapable of choosing normal names like Rex or Fido.

English majors.

She found him as a stray. He was wandering on a rural highway in the middle of the night. She was riding shotgun in the car with a friend. She had been drinking at the time, after a college party. Which was why she was riding with a designated driver.

That night she saw a small shape canine dart across the road.

“Pull over,” she hollered to her friend.

The friend pulled over. It was a dog. A puppy, actually. Shivering cold in the ditch. He was so skinny you could count his ribs.

She brought him home. She fed him human food because

that was all she had in the pantry. Hamburger Helper. Ramen noodle soup. Captain Crunch. Breakfast of champs.

The college girl received a crash course in dog ownership. She learned all the tricks of the trade.

She figured out how dogs think. She learned, for example, that dogs always want to go outside when they are inside; and always beg to come inside when outside. There is no happy medium. This is life with dogs.

She learned that dogs like to chew up reading glasses, shoes, trash, socks, inorganic material, cellphones, pianos, sheetrock, important bills, laptops, etc.

She took him for long walks. She went hiking with him. He slept in her bed. He ate meals with her.

O. Henry didn’t like bad weather. So during bad rainstorms, he nestled beside her in bed and quivered.

Simply put, he was her child.

For 19…

I had a dream about him last night. It has been nearly three decades since he died, but there he was. Alive. We met in some kind of diner. A breakfast joint. Maybe this was heaven?

He was running late, I was already sitting in a booth, sipping coffee. When he arrived, his first words were: “Did you miss me?”

“No,” I said.

He studied my face to see if I was joking. He could tell I wasn’t.

I couldn’t quit staring at him. My God, it really was my father. He looked good, too. Slender, red hair, tucked-in shirt, slacks. I’d gone so long without seeing him that I’d forgotten what he looked like.

But it only takes a moment to bring it all back. I could even smell his trademarked hair oil. The day after he died I confiscated his pillow and it was covered in this same scent. I slept on that pillow for five years.

“You really didn’t miss me?” he said. There was that easy smile of his. He wasn’t offended.


I really didn’t miss you.”

He ordered a Coke. And I suddenly remembered that he always drank Coca-Cola. He never was a coffee drinker. Hated the stuff. Just one of the many things I’d forgotten.

Then I started thinking about the differences between us. There were hundreds of them.

For example: he was always well-dressed, whereas I always looked like I crawled from beneath a Chevy. He was a hard worker; I sleep in on weekdays. Everyone called him “handsome”; nobody has ever ascribed that word to me. He was a planner; there is nothing I love more than cancelled plans.

When he was alive, he expected great things from me, but I failed to deliver. From a young age I knew within my kid brain that I would never accomplish the things he hoped for me.

I’m not saying I disappointed him,…

Rural Louisiana. A tiny gas station. Rusted roof. An outdated Coors sign hangs in a window. The place looks like it’s being held together with duct tape and prayer.

I’m here on business. I’m a journalist, covering the arrival of summer in Louisiana.

There is an old guy sitting on a bench by the station door. He has a long gray beard. He wears a T-shirt which reads “Geaux Tigers.”

He greets me with a two-fingered wave, then spits into an empty Coke bottle.

“How y’all?” the man says.

“Good,” I reply.

He smiles his tooth at me.

“You ain’t from here,” he says, eyeing my license plate.

“No, sir. From Alabama.”

He spits. “Bienvenue en Louisiane,” he says.

I have no idea what this means, so I answer like an idiot by saying, “Okay!”

I’m at Pump Two, filling the van with gas. I’ve been on the road for a few days now, riding backroads.

The highways of the Bayou State are top shelf, among the best country byways in the nation. The sunshine in Louisiana is so pure it will make you


A truck pulls up next to mine at Pump Three. The doors open. Out of the backseat come four kids in baseball uniforms. They are maybe 12-year-olds. Their accents are South Louisiana. Their baseball pants are painted with dirt. They reek of little-kid sweat and hormones.

And I’m remembering a time in my life when I lived in a cheap cotton outfielder’s uniform, surviving on a diet almost exclusively made up of Paydays and Coca-Cola products.

I remember a feckless youth spent with Little League teammates, devoid of seatbelts, riding in the beds of corroded Chevy pickups, piloted by grandfathers who smoked Prince Albert.

I’m done pumping gas now. I walk inside to pay because the pump doesn’t have a card reader. These are the kinds of pumps with spinning numbers.

Welcome to Louisiana.


Baton Rouge. Waffle House. Supper time. I see him in the corner. He’s middle-aged. A little silver in his hair. He’s sitting with his son who is maybe 5. His son plays on an iPad quietly.

The man is guzzling coffee by the metric ton. He looks nervous. He’s wearing normal clothes. Levi’s. Tucked-in shirt. Square-toe boots. The uniform of the rural man.

George Strait is singing overhead. A few road-weary truckers sitting at the bar are about to fall face-first into their grits.

Then she walks in.

Everyone sees her. She is the same age as Mister Levi’s. She is brunette. She is wearing a work uniform. She evidently works at Walmart, or the DG, or some other store where you can buy romaine lettuce and 10-W 30 motor oil in the same establishment.

He stands when he sees her enter. He is definitely nervous. You can tell by the way he’s rocking on his feet. He nudges his boy.

The boy puts down the iPad and stands.

They both greet the woman like proper gentlemen. Long live Chivalry.

I get the feeling that if these weren’t Waffle House booths, the man would pull out the chair for this woman.

They shake hands.

So cordial. Strangers, apparently. The man introduces her to his son. And that’s when I notice the baby carrier beside him in the booth. I couldn’t see it before. But I see it now. There is a kid in the carrier.

The man introduces her to both kids. It’s an awkward introduction. But sweet. The woman sits across from the man and his two kids.

They are definitely strangers, I’m thinking. Otherwise she would be sitting with one of the kids. Instead, the man is squeezed into the booth with a son and a baby carrier. She sits all by herself.

She orders orange juice.

He orders chocolate milk for his boy.

I am watching their…

This is your quintessential Alabamian funeral. If you’ve never been to an Alabama funeral, it is an occasion filled with nuance. There are cultural folkways and conventions to be adhered to.

We will stand in single-file lines. We will wait to hug surviving family members and weep.

“Thanks for coming,” the family of the decedent will say.

“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” we will all reply, almost verbatim. Because this is what you do.

Then we will all go eat until we develop type II diabetes.

I walk across the parking lot with my wife. I’m wearing a blazer. My wife wears pearls. There is a light breeze that tastes faintly of salt because this is Mobile.

And everyone is waiting around. Talking, but not laughing. Mingling, but not smiling. Telling story after story.

Then I see the widow.

Her name is Michelle. Black dress. Hanky in hand. Surprisingly, she’s still standing upright. I don’t know how. She is engaged in the hugging of a million necks.

Michelle is my friend. She’s a writer

and journalist. She represents a time when printed newspapers actually existed. When newsrooms still had the occasional IBM Selectric typewriter hanging around.

A time before modern news journalists were caught in a firestorm of hatred borne from a vicious climate, ultimately finding themselves forced to degrade their craft by writing, for example, listicles. (“22 Celebrities Who Look Nothing Alike!”)

She worked for the Mobile Press-Register during its heyday. She was old school all the way. She predates Buzzfeed and TikTok. She did interviews with a legal pad. She wrote rough drafts in pencil. She had an expense account. Long live the golden age of journalism.

But she is too young to be a widow.

And yet here she stands. I can see her hugging people. I can hear their condolences. I can see people weeping. And I feel sick to my stomach seeing my…

It’s time for my regular Q&A column, the column where I address letters and answer questions instead of doing actual research. I’ve compiled the most commonly asked questions into a generic Q&A column.

Here we go:

Q: Dear Sean, I am 2,198 years old and I hate you. You have a social platform you could use to bring social change, and yet you won’t speak out against [fill in the blank]. You are a worthless, spineless worm.

A: First off. Worms are not worthless. Spineless, yes. Worthless, no.

Q: You’re still a worm.

A: Shows what you know, Mister. Worms are responsible for life on earth. They help the earth supply food which makes life on this planet possible.

Q: What?

A: You heard me. For starters, worms clean contaminated soil by a process wherein micro-organisms consume and break down environmental pollutants converting them to non-toxic molecules. This process is called “bioremediation.”

Secondly, worms break down and recycle organic matter within soil, fertilizing the earth and ensuring the topsoil is supplied with nutrients which are essential for the growing of


Q: You’re still a worm.

A: Maybe so, but have you ever seen those little mounds of dirt on top of the soil? They’re called worm castings. Literally, “worm poop.” Worm poop is the byproduct of this recycling process. This worm poop contains five-times more nitrogen, seven-times more phosphorus, and 1000-times more beneficial bacteria than the original soil, which is essential for plants to thrive. Simply put, without worm poop the organic world would cease to exist.

Q: Huh. I never knew that about worms.

A: Neither did I. I just looked it up on Google.

Q: But, what if the critical reader above had called you a “spineless turd” instead of a “spineless worm”?

A: Google has nothing positive to say about turds.

Q: Dear Sean, how do you remember interviews with people you write about? It seems…

The call came late afternoon.

“May I speak to Sean?” said the child’s voice.

Speaking, I said.

“Is this a bad time, Mister Sean?”

Not at all. And don’t call me ‘Mister,’ it’s weird.

“What’re you doing right now, Mister Sean?”

Me? Right now? Actually, I was just trying to figure out what to write about.

“How’s it coming? The writing?”

It’s not.

“You mean you have writer’s block?”

No. I mean I am having an existential crisis, I’ve been staring at a blank screen for several hours, but nothing's happening, so I’ve decided to move to coastal Canada, change my name, and take up professional lobster fishing.

“So you can’t find anything to write about?”

That is correct.

“Well, that’s kinda why I was calling, actually. My mom reads your stories to me every night before bed.”

I’m sorry to hear that. Please don’t blame me for your mother’s terrible taste in literature.

“No, I like your writing.”

In that case, please don’t blame me for YOUR bad taste in literature.

“Last night, my mom read me your latest story.”


“Yep. And I was like, ‘Mom, how can I meet Sean? I’ve got to meet him somehow.’ And she was

like, ‘Well, let me see if I can’t get in touch with him.’ And so she did.”

So how did she find me? How’d she get this number I mean?

“My mom knows everyone. She is friends with your wife's cousin’s pet-sitter’s daughter’s roommate’s boyfriend’s aunt’s dad.”

How about that.

“So anyway, I’m calling you from the hospital right now, so I’m sorry if there is a lot of background noise.”

The hospital?

“Yes. It’s busy here. The nurses come in and out of this room all the time. I never have a moment to myself. You pretty much learn to live with them.”

Which hospital are you in, if you don’t mind my asking?

“I am in…