My friend was long past crying about it, and I knew exactly how that felt. My father had passed two years earlier. There comes a moment when you've wept as much as you ever will. Anything after that is just for show.

Now this is a pretty night. Not at all like a normal one. This is the kind you can only see when you're standing in the middle of nowhere.

I've seen folks raised in the city stand on fifty acres and say, “Lord, I had no idea there were THAT many stars up there.”

There are.

I remember hiking along the pond bank with my friend. His father died when a piece of sheetmetal cut open his leg. He bled to death and left three kids behind.

My friend was long past crying about it, and I knew exactly how that felt. My father had passed two years earlier. There comes a moment when you've wept as much as you ever will. Anything after that is just for show.

Anyway, that night, we were supposed to be doing boy things. Gigging frogs, wearing our headlamps, chatting about girls, sneaking beer from the fridge. We did nothing of the sort.

In fact, we hardly spoke. Neither of us felt much like talking about childish things.

I waited for

my pal to speak, but he just flipped off his headlamp and watched the sky. So, we stood there in the dark. And that's when we saw it. It shot from one end of the sky to the other. It moved so fast it looked like a long white streak.

“You see that?” he asked.

I did.

As it happens, it was the first shooting star I ever saw. Daddy told me about them, that if you wished on one, you'd get what you asked for. But since I'd never seen one, I didn't make a wish.

My friend did.

“What'd you wish?” I asked.

His face got serious.“Something for you."

"Me?"

"Yeah. I wished all the folks in the world, who're like you and me, wouldn't feel sad no more."

I didn't have the heart to tell him that it doesn't work…

She's hell with a quilt. She gives them as gifts. We've never been able to talk her into selling them. But I do not believe a single newborn within ten-miles of her has ever gone quiltless.

She produced so much child-sized cowboy finery, she learned to do it without patterns.

My wife cleaned out our closet. On the top shelf, she found an old pair of cowboy chaps. Next to it: a faded quilt which I retired many years ago. Once, the quilt was dark brown and forest green. Now it's khaki and celery-colored.

I smelled it and took in a lungful of dust. I remember when Mama made it for me, and how long it took her.

As a girl, she made her own clothes. She'd walk into town, peek into the Weaver's shop window, then go home, fire up the sewing machine, and duplicate them.

During my own childhood, half my wardrobe was handmade. A lot of my closet was Western wear. She'd use discarded bolts of fabric to make costumes which would become legendary in three counties.

She produced so much child-sized cowboy finery, she learned to do it without patterns. She could close her eyes and whip up a pair of wooly chaps (snap) just like that.

But it was more than this. She did nearly

anything she thought would make me happy. Namely: biscuits. After working two back-to-back shifts, she'd get home in the wee hours, smelling like commercial disinfectant. She'd cook the biggest breakfast you ever saw and watch me eat myself sick.

Then, after doing dishes, she'd fall facefirst onto the bed and sleep straight through supper.

But her sewing. The woman has sewn everything for everybody. She's taken in tuxes, let out dresses, made denim quilts from blue jeans, and even made Barbie clothes. She's rescued wedding dresses from ruin, and sewn the split crotch of an eighty-year-old Baptist minister's trousers.

While he wore them.

Throughout my life, she's altered millions of my slacks—since God made my legs too long. When I hit college, she mended my scuffed work clothes, knitted hats to keep me warm, and even darned my socks. When I got married, she upholstered chairs, beds, sofas, pillows, and…

I've sat in Bryant-Denny stadium and gone deaf. I've visited nursing homes and heard stories from the elderly—who know exponentially more than I do. I've laid good dogs in the dirt...

Obnoxious loud-talkers who sit at bars, rank right up there with dogs who lift their legs on your welcome mat.

Take, for instance, the fella at the bar beside me. He launched into a well-rehearsed speech about his world travels. First, the Alps. Then, Belgium, France, Italy, South Africa, Timbuktu.

By then, people at the bar had cleared out.

He asked me, “You done much traveling?”

I shook my head and said, "No, but I've woken up in a cattle pasture."

Loud-Talker rolled his eyes. “See?” he went on. “Now THAT'S your problem. You can't find your true-self unless you TRAVEL!”

So, I paid my tab and traveled my true-self

outside.

The truth is, I've never owned a passport, never stepped foot in Canada, and the closest I've come to self-discovery was South Texas in July, where I saw a real mirage.

I'm uninteresting on paper. I concede. But I regret nothing.

My life hasn't been bad. After all, I've known exceptional people. Like my friend who I'll call, Alan. Alan has no face. Nothing but eyes and pink flesh. This happened when he woke up in a burning mobile home. Pieces of the smoldering ceiling fell on his face…

You feel lucky to have ridden that stupid, god-forsaken, miserable, gas-guzzling, misfiring, ugly, rusted, old, leaky, loud, tractor. Lucky.

I'm watching a boy drive a John Deere, in the distance. At least, I think it's a boy, he's too far away to tell.

I know this kid. I can't see him, but I know what kind of clothes he's wearing, I know how he talks—he uses words like, "ain't," too often. And he gets up early.

I once overheard some folks speculate on why the rural-minded start work so early. One person thought it was to avoid the heat. Another suggested that the Bible commands it.

But if you ask anyone I grew up with, they'd tell you it's because their fathers made them. And these early risers are the kind who say the word, "ain't," too often.

It might go like this:

Before the stars have disappeared, you're still half-asleep, wearing work boots, and you are not a happy customer. It's dark. And since you're too young for coffee, you get lukewarm Coca-Cola.

The barn stinks. The tractor is louder than the Second Coming. And even though you're not old enough

to have a learner's permit, you steer this Ford Model 2N, built during World War Two, until your hindparts go numb.

You watch the morning sky change from purple, to gray, to rose-colored. Then: full sunlight.

The engine makes you deaf. You couldn't hear your own ideas if you had any. You pay attention to the rows you're cutting. Whenever you veer off-line, you cuss yourself.

You look backward at your house. It never occurs to you that one day they'll sell this place. Or that the new owners will let the surrounding fields go to weed.

Then, you grow up, move away. You spend a lot of energy convincing people you aren't a dumb hick—cleaning up the way you talk. You quit saying, “ain't,” and stop slicing the cuffs of your jeans with pocketknives.

It works for a while. You convince yourself you've forgotten that life.…

Beautiful. It was an understatement. I'd never seen anything more breathtaking in all my life. Not even a sunrise.

“Hurry up!” Miss June said. “It's happening!”

I came running toward the porch as fast as my chubby seven-year-old legs would take me. “I'll protect you, miss!” I shouted, holding on to my cowboy hat, waving my pistol.

“You don't need to protect me,” she said. “Just hurry, we don't wanna be late!”

I sat in the front seat of Miss June's Cadillac—no seat-belts—staring out the window, my Smith and Wesson holstered around my waist. On my chest: a gold star.

These were the days before iPhone games and juice boxes. If I wasn't wearing a cowboy hat and packing a six-shooter, I was rescuing a maiden from peril, shouting, “I'll

protect you, miss!”

Which is what cowboys do.

Anyway, folks my age might not be as technologically brilliant as today's youth, but we did know how to play dead whenever someone shot us. Which must count for something.

The hospital was a sterile-smelling place. When I walked into the delivery room, I met the smallest thing I'd ever seen—except for frogs. Once, I'd shoved nearly four bullfrogs into my pockets. And then, while sprinting toward the house at top speed, I tripped and fell.

Only one frog survived.

After…

We crawled out of the passenger side, into the ditch. My ears rang, my shoulder was a mess, my eyes wouldn't focus. The two of us sat in the tall grass, silent.

The last thing I remember before the wreck was Jamie singing along with Garth Brooks on the radio. She gave it all she had. I watched her belt out lyrics while I drove along the interstate. Her singing voice: a mixture between Gomer Pyle and a 1953 Buick Skylark.

It was sunny, it felt like the whole world was on fire. We'd just finished camping in Pelham, Alabama. And, after a small spider had found its way onto Jamie's bedroll, she swore off tents for good. And sleeping bags. And husbands.

So, there we were on the interstate. The truck hit us from behind. My wife choked on

the Garth lyrics and flung toward the windshield. I lost control.

He hit us again. On the side.

We spun.

The impact crushed my side of the cab. My windshield turned into shaved ice.

This sent our vehicle sliding into oncoming traffic. It took a quarter of a millisecond for my wife to glance out her window and see a semi-truck honking at us. We screamed, since that's all we could do.

Garth Brooks kept singing.

To tell you the truth, I don't remember much else except a baseball-bat-type sound, accompanied by…

I remember my pal's daddy saying, "It's the damnedest thing, when you're dying you pray for lots of miracles—what you get is lots of people.”

We're at a gas-station-barbecue-joint, a wooden shack that's seen better days. We're the only ones in the place. The waitress serves me tea in a pickle jar which still has the Vlasic label on it.

You don't see that sort of thing anymore.

The truth is, I come from a long line of quart-jar aficionados. My grandaddy sipped a jar on weekends, holidays, fishing trips, and baby dedications. My father also had a collection for special occasions—stored in the shed rafters above the tractor. I wasn't supposed to know about those.

I did.

Once, my friend and I sampled the contents. We climbed into the rafters. He took a swig and

coughed.

“It burns,” he said.

A few seconds later, he fell off the beam onto the dirt. When I asked if he was alright, he laughed, saying, “I never felt gooder!”

That kid is a missionary now.

It doesn't end there. My environmentally-minded wife carries a quart-jar of water in her purse—instead of a plastic bottle. Once, to be funny, I drew three X's on the front.

During a church service, in Wetumpka, Alabama, a ravenous case of cottonmouth overcame her. She unscrewed the lid, then turned it upside…

“...Of tearful partings, how they left you here below. Will the circle be unbroken?...”

The morning after my father passed, my aunt opened every window in the house. She said it was to let his spirit escape.

So, I peeked my head outside.

All I saw were my uncles' two beat-up motorhomes rolling into our driveway. They parked in the tall grass, strung power cords into the barn, extended awnings.

That night, they built a campfire, then sat looking at the stars. Now and then, one uncle would stab the fire, sending a spray of sparks into the night.

Instead of conversation, someone brought out a guitar. In his raspy voice—which sounded like a bloodhound with sinus issues—my uncle sang, “Amazing Grace,” and,

“When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” When he sang, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” he was nearly overcome.

I didn't understand the song, or what kind of circle he meant. I'm not sure he did either, because when I asked about it, he lit a fresh cigarette and said, “It's the mystery of life, boy.”

Mysteries.

Like the way clouds keep reproducing out of thin air. Or: what makes a heart beat—and what makes it stop? How a fire works, and why politics feels like a poke to the eye…

Anyway, it's not because my life is wonderful, or because I'm naturally happy. My life hasn't always been so wonderful. And I'm not exactly the giddiest little sailor God ever created.

I'm looking at the bay water right now. A storm is blowing in. It looks like heaven is fixing to open up.

Vacationers in the cabin to my right are doing the same thing I'm doing. The man is on his porch, wearing a bright red Georgia Bulldog T-shirt, smoking a cigarette.

Watching.

The family in the cabin to my left is from Auburn, Alabama. The back of their truck, smeared with pictures of tigers and eagles. He's on his porch, too. He's sipping a cup of something that's supposed to be coffee. But I'd bet good money it's hair-of-the-dog.

“Good morning,” says Georgia.

“Good morning,” I'm saying.

Auburn says nothing—his

morning isn't so good.

Well mine is. And I'm just going to come right out and say it: I feel grateful. I don't know why, to tell you the truth. I suppose a man can't control the way he feels, sometimes.

Neither good nor bad.

Anyway, it's not because my life is wonderful, or because I'm naturally happy. My life hasn't always been so wonderful. And I'm not exactly the giddiest little sailor God ever created.

But I'm grateful for things. Things like puppies, geckos, and stocked coolers. For…

It's when kisses taste like salt, when you expect your dance partner to sweat through their clothes. It's when you go swimming with your dogs in the creek, and let the warm water swallow you.

Our air conditioner went out. And if I were to tell you that it's hot, I would be making a gross understatement. It's not hot. It's sweltering—that's what my mama calls it.

Our bedsheets feel like they're made of industrial wool. I smell like the raw side of a mule. My wife has sweat rings under her sweat rings. Our dog looks suicidal.

I don't know how the old-timers did it, before window-units. I remember my grandfather saying, as a boy, he'd sit beneath his house with his dogs. He'd practice guitar; they'd pant.

His mother would lower lunch through the loose floorboards—crumbled cornbread in a jar, doused with buttermilk.

“All food ought be cold during the dog days," he'd say. "Tea, tomatoes, cucumbers, potato salad, watermelon, slaw...”

Summer food.

And then there were summer Sundays. “Church was awful," my grandfather said. "Cramming a bunch of folks into one hot little chapel, everybody sweating. It's enough to make you believe in Hell."

Even so, Hell happened to be his favorite season of the year. I asked him how this could be, when only hours earlier, I'd seen two trees fighting over a dog.

He said, “We didn't notice the heat,…