He escaped on New Year's Eve. My wife called me to deliver the news. The first thing she said was, “You're gonna wanna sit down, honey.”

“Have you seen a golden Lab?” she asked, standing on my front doorstep. “He's about this high, orange collar, I chased him through the woods yesterday, his name's Cuckoo...”

There was no mistaking that look she wore. Dog owners recognize it from a mile off. Worry mixed with rage.

She left me a with flyer featuring the picture of a yellow Labrador and telephone number. The thing hung on our refrigerator for almost a week. It sat directly between the photo of my nephew, and my wife's note which read:

"Don't drink from THE ORANGE JUICE CONTAINER or I will cut your heart out with a

melon-baller!!!! XOXO, Your Wife."

Thus, each time I'd swing open the fridge, I'd see Cuckoo smiling at me, urging me to reconsider grabbing the OJ.

As it happens, I know what it's like to have a dog go missing. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. You wonder how an animal could be so decidedly stupid to bolt off. Then you wonder how YOU could be so stupid for letting it happen. Then you just feel sick.

We lost a dog once. He slept in our bathtub. I don't know why, but…

“I can't explain it," he said. "I wasn't in this world, but a bright place that smelled like a florist shop."

Of all things, he was drinking sweet tea when it happened. It started with pain in his chest. Then his arm. He knew what it was.

His wife rushed him to the hospital. They shoved a stainless steel wire mounted to a balloon inside him and saved his life.

“I was a human science-project,” he said. “That's how my wife tells it. I don't remember anything.”

He was out of it.

He claims something happened. “I can't explain it," he said. "I wasn't in this world, but a bright place that smelled like a florist shop. I was at peace. When I

came to, the doc told me I could never drink caffeine again.”

And so, this is how it happens. One second you're watching the big game, and in the blink of an eye (snap), no more sweet tea.

He's not the first person I've talked to about this. A friend of mine has a daughter who fell from a second-story balcony and hit the ground so hard she bounced.

She was in a coma for two days. When she woke, she told…

"I can think of worse things than a house scented with boiling peanut oil.

"Mama made the best banana pudding in Alabama,” she said flatly. "She was such a good cook, one of her friends nicknamed her Betty—short for Betty Crocker.”

Well, since Betty is as good of a name as any, that's what I'll call her mother.

I have it on good authority that Betty was more than the miracle-worker of banana pudding. She was also a kitchen queen, with a knack for bread pudding, chicken and dumplings, Coca-Cola cake, and squash casserole.

“As kids," Betty's daughter went on. "We just loved it when folks had showers or parties, Mama'd start whipping up pimento cheese..."

She leaned in and got quiet.

"But we liked funerals

even better, because Mama was head of the funeral committee. Which meant she made fried chicken—she always made extra.”

If you've never lived in a small town, maybe you don't know about things like funeral committees. Imagine: twenty white-haired ladies, with sun hats and skirt-suits, who can cook circles around a chicken.

That's a funeral food committee.

Often, these ladies have enough sugar flowing in their veins, they practically bleed sweet tea.

The funeral committee's job is to help families of the deceased go up two pant-sizes.


"I didn't need another adult patronizing me, talking about kiddy things, like comic books, cowboys, or grizzly bears."

Right now, the sky looks like a blue bunch of nothingness. The same way it looked when I was twelve. Back then, I'd lay on top round bales of fescue, looking upward. If I held my head right, I could see all blue—even in the corners of my eyes.

It was enough to disorient you, and make you forget about solid ground.

Daddy died in September. A few days before he passed, I'd spent the day trying to catch crawfish in the creek. And it was during this mundane afternoon that I felt as happy as I've ever been. It took forty-eight hours for the whole world to go to hell.

Anyway, so there I was on a hay bale, looking at the sky, still in my funeral clothes. I wore Daddy's glasses—even though I had no eye trouble. I also wore his oversized sport coat.

My uncle found me laying there.

“What're you thinking about?” he asked.

I gave no response.

“Hey," he went on. "You wouldn't happen to like bears, would'ya?”

"No," I said, hoping he'd leave. I didn't need another adult patronizing me, talking about kiddy things, like comic books, cowboys, or grizzly bears.

He dug something…

"...it takes someone special to teach you how to throw fish back.."

It's hotter than Hades right now. You should feel it. It's one of those weekend mornings when the crickets are awake before nine. Even they know it's hot, and they like it.

The birds, too. There must be a gazillion different kinds, singing songs about the weekend. Bluebirds, catbirds, yellow hammers, chickadees, and whichever others live in my front yard. It's like a church choir out there—minus the organ and collection plates.

The moisture in the air has turned into steam. I can taste it. It tastes like toilet water and Floridian pine needles. I feel like I'm suffocating in a big sweaty puddle.

It's magnificent.

My fishing gear sits on the porch behind me. My wife hates seeing it by the door, but I leave it out here for reason. I want to remind myself that there are more important things I could be doing.

Then again, it could be I'm too lazy to put it away.

As it happens, I caught a several fish this weekend. Pretty ones. But I threw them all back. To tell you the truth, I don't know why I did that. That's not like me, going around liberating fish. But the older I…

“'Course at nineteen," he went on. "I didn't have no choice but to work. My girl got pregnant, and back in them days, the right thing to do was marry her.

“Both my knees are shot,” he said. “I been laying floor since I was nineteen.”

Well, nineteen was a long time ago. He's anything but a teenager now. He's got gray hair, bony shoulders, and a smoker's cough that comes out whenever he laughs.

Ask him about the flooring he's laid. He's more than happy to let you see pictures on his cellphone. Sprawling wood entryways, ceramic tile, cork, travertine, carpet, and even mosaics.

He showed me a tiled mosaic of a

sailboat in someone's kitchen. He said it took ten days to finish. The next photo: himself, smiling, on a pontoon boat.

And then, a picture of his son, holding a baby.

“That's my son and grandson," he said. "I wouldn't let my boy go into construction, like a lotta roughneck daddies do. Ain't the life I wanted for him, breaks your body down.”

As it happens, I know…

"...you deserve a medal for making it this far."

The truth is, you deserve a medal for making it this far—so does Johnny. But, all anyone gets is acid reflux and enough anxiety to stop the atomic clock. Life takes all your money, then bills you ten bucks for it.

Which is why I wish you could see the bay water right now. It’s crystal clear. Beneath the surface are millions—no billions—of trout and catfish. Each one, fearfully and wonderfully uninterested in my forty-dollar lure.

These creatures are something else. They don’t do

a blessed thing all day, but eat.

I wish you could see these trees, too. How tall they are. These things are alive.

I’m staring at an old oak right now. This tree must’ve been born around the same time as Florida itself. Its trunk is the size of a wagon wheel.

A park ranger told me once, these old oaks have survived over fifty-thousand hurricanes…

"In the tenth grade, he was nearly six-foot-two, and weighed a buck ten."

If you've ever known someone poor, there's a personality that comes with the territory. That's because not having a pot to you-know-what in changes a soul.

Arnold was poor. In the tenth grade, he was nearly six-foot-two, and weighed a buck ten. Somebody's mama had to make baseball britches special for his flamingo legs. Arnold was soft spoken, and his fastball made grown men pause their conversations.

Arnold's little brother had polio. The boy's two skinny legs didn't quite work. And

even though the boy could walk, he staggered funny. This earned him the nickname, Duck. Which wasn't an insult, but an adolescent observation.


Duck never missed a practice. He didn't play ball. But during warm-ups, when boys fielded grounders, and the coach shouted things like, “Soft hands, boys, soft hands!” Duck was there. He'd repeat whatever the coach said, word for word, only louder.

Still, Duck's primary role…

"Today, you can find the last of the old-man-people-watchers, but you have to make a long drive into the sticks. "

“This is bad traffic," said my mother-in-law, Mary. "But, I don't mind sitting. I like watching things."

"Watching?" I asked.

"Yep, like old men used to do in Brewton, they'd sit down on benches by the department store and just people-watch, tell jokes, and cuss.”

What I would've given to be people-watching. Instead, Mary and I sat in stand-still-traffic. Car bumpers touching, exhaust vapors potent enough to make you see pink elephants.

The Land Rover behind me wouldn't quit riding my tail. If he crept any closer, he would've been in my lap.

Mary went on,

“Back then, all the farmers would do their shopping on Saturdays. Daddy kept the store open late. The country ladies would drop by, bringing jams, vegetables, berries. Mama called them Daddy's lady-friends.”

She laughed.

“Sometimes, we'd spend whole evenings just eating one bowl of ice cream until it turned to soup.”

Mister Land Rover laid on his horn. He was trying to get around me. I don't know where he was going, but if he didn't get there fast,…

"Imagine you haven't slept in ten years, your washing machine explodes, your car breaks down, and now you have coleslaw running down your neck."

I'm watching a single mother right now. She's young. Her rebellious toddler is refusing to eat coleslaw. He screams. Everyone in the barbecue joint watches while the boy flings a spoonful onto her blouse. She's embarrassed.

And I can tell, just by her face, this child will never walk on two legs again.

I have a soft spot for single mothers.

If you want to know what it's like to be one, try this: imagine you haven't slept in ten years, your washing machine explodes, your car breaks down, and now you have coleslaw running down your neck.

That's a good day.

On a bad day, it's frozen pizza.

Listen, it's hard as hell in this world. I can't think of anything more difficult than navigating through it. But for a single mother, it's like trying to balance the Titanic on your nose.

These ladies survive on coffee and bad habits. They work until their fingerprints wear off. They spin and grind until they can't do anymore—and then they do more. And right around five in the afternoon, they cry in the bathroom with…