They say he sat beside his wife’s bed the morning she passed. He told her, “It’s alright to leave, baby,” right before her final sigh.

He was every old man you’ve ever met. And he wanted to go fishing. Doctors said it was a bad idea, but his son disagreed.

“Doctors don’t know everything,” says his son John. “Daddy wanted to fish, so by God, we took him.”

You should’ve seen it. A sunny day. Four men escorting an old man down the dock. They lowered him into a 14-foot camouflage boat.

The old man held them for support. He mumbled something to them. Nobody understood. The strokes had slowed his mouth down.

The men used ratchet straps to make an improvised seatbelt for him. And away they went.

The old man had been fishing here ever since the invention of red mud.

“Feesing heah wuh mah bess gurl,” the old man said through a contorted mouth.

His daughter translated for her kids: “Granddaddy says he used to fish here with his best girl.”

Granny. His “best girl.” When she was alive, they came here. The old woman loved fishing as much as he did.

The old man wanted a beer. He demonstrated this by reaching

for the cooler. His daughter held a can to his mouth. Beer ran down his chin.

Everyone cheered.

“Don’t tell Daddy’s doctor about this,” John said.

The boat was in motion. The motor trolled. The old man was smiling. Familiar feelings were in the air.

“I remember when Daddy took my middle-school boyfriend out here,” his daughter said. “I knew how to bait my own hook, my boyfriend didn’t. Daddy got a kick outta that.”

She also remembers a senior who once came calling on her. He drove a muscle car and wore too much leather. Her father greeted the kid on the porch, polishing his iron.

“Reckon you’d better keep a’driving, son,” her father told the kid.

The old man was something else. He was funny. He was clever. He was the best our land had to offer.…

My cousin’s ‘82 Ford was riding the two-lane highway. We were listening to our childhood hero on the radio. Willie Nelson was singing “You Were Always on my Mind.” We were seventeen.

We were on our way to Atlanta to visit a friend who had just graduated. Our friend’s father was throwing the mother of all parties. He was taking a bunch of his son’s friends to see a Willie Nelson concert.

You have never met a bigger Willie Nelson fan than the author of this column. I’m crazy about him.

In fourth grade, I had a homemade Willie Nelson lunchbox. My mother had painted the portrait of Willie onto one of my father’s old tool boxes.

Also, I know all the words to most of Willie’s tunes, and I still cry whenever I hear “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” since my mother decidedly failed in this regard.

Anyway, the sun was shining, on Highway 29. When we reached Grantville, we passed a

man who was changing his tire on the shoulder of the road.

We drove straight past him.

After a few miles of silence, we started feeling disgusted with ourselves. So we turned around.

We found the old man in a bad state. His tire was flat, and so was his spare. He was elderly. One side of his face was paralyzed, maybe from a stroke.

“I’ll never make it in time,” the old man kept saying. “I’m so late.”

“Late for what?” we asked.

The man shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now, the party starts in forty-five minutes, I’ll never make it to Columbus.”

I looked in in the backseat of his truck. It was filled with boxes of baby items. A stroller, still in a cardboard box, infant clothes on hangers, toys galore. In his truck bed, he had dozens of…

“Lemme try a sample of the chicken salad,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

The elderly man at the deli counter was undecided. He looked at the lineup of cold salads behind the glass divider with a serious face.

It was the kind of face that deep thinkers wear.

“Lemme try a sample of the chicken salad,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

“It’s REALLY good,” said the cheery young woman with the hairnet. “I just made it, it’s world famous chicken salad, at least that’s what my son says. Every time I make it, I just HAVE to take a few pounds home to my son, my son LOVES my world famous chicken salad, he’s the kind of boy who just loves anything with mayo, and I try to tell him, ‘If you keep eating all that mayonnaise, you’re gonna just swell up like a big ole balloon…’”

The man interrupted, “Lemme try the broccoli salad, please.”

“Sure,” said Miss Sunshine, scooping another sample. “Do you know we put CURRY in our broccoli salad? I used to think curry was

gross, but I was wrong, curry’s good, I eat it all the time now—the broccoli salad I mean, not the curry by itself. I don’t think anyone would do that, eat curry by itself, but you never know, people do some weird things...”

The grumpy man cut her off. “That’s nice, miss, I wanna try the Waldorf salad, now.”

“Comin’ right up,” she said. “It’s funny, all the old ladies come in here and get the Waldorf salad, and I just laugh, they’re the cutest things, they come in every week to eat and talk, but if you ask my opinion, I hate Waldorf salad because I don’t like fruit and mayonnaise to EVER touch each other, that’s gross, I don’t know why anyone with half a brain would put mayonnaise and fruit together, but you know what I always say? I say, ‘Everybody has their…

You’d think holding your own novel would make you feel giddy, and proud, but it doesn’t. Instead, you are reminded of how short life is.

Her name is Virginia. She is interviewing me. She is fourteen, and wants to go into journalism one day.

Virginia wanted to interview a real writer. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get in touch with any, so she called me.

Her first question: What is being a writer all about?

Jeez. That’s a tough one. I have no idea how to answer it.

I was expecting something more along the lines of: “How long does it take you to learn how to spell ‘receive’ without making mistakes?”

The truth is, Virginia, my writing career all started in a sixteen-foot camper with a bloodhound asleep on my feet. The camper was junk, parked outside Pensacola. The dog was a purebred.

I was there for work. I had just quit construction, and I had finished community college—which had taken me eleven years.

So the world was my oyster. And naturally, I took the next logical step on the ladder of academia to further my professional career. I played music in beer joints.

I’m embarrassed to

admit this. I know this isn’t what real writers do, but that’s what I did.

In the daytimes, to occupy my empty hours in the camper, I would read books. That’s when the idea hit me.

Early one morning, I was reading a book entitled—I’m not making this up—“44 Best Ever Fart Jokes and Poems.” The thought hit me like a shock of electricity.

I slammed the book shut and decided: “I’m going to become a writer! I am going to write a novel! A Western novel!

And I meant it, too. I ran the idea past my bloodhound. She wasn’t crazy about it.

“You don’t think I should write a Western?” I clarified.

She licked herself then fell asleep.

“How about a joke book?”

She sighed.

“A romance?”

She snored.

“Big help you…

I’m sitting on the beach, it’s thirty-eight degrees outside. It’s colder than a witch’s sports bra. I am sipping a beer with my wife, eating Chili Cheese Fritos directly from the bag.

As a teenager, I used to sit on this beach a lot. When I needed to think, I would sit alone, long past sunset, until I would get so cold I was no longer able to biologically have children.

Sometimes I would sit for hours after the sky went dark and stare at an endless Gulf of Mexico. The sound of wind and water does things to me.

One night, I was on the beach in the dark. I was sixteen, and I was sad because of something that truly doesn’t matter now—though, back then it felt like the end of the world.

I felt overlooked by the universe, unexceptional, and unloved. They were feelings I couldn’t shake.

I was wondering why people act ugly toward each other. I was wondering if anything existed in the distance

besides waves and foam.

That’s when I saw two shapes approaching.

Two elderly women were walking the shore, I could hear them laughing. They wore heavy jackets, wool caps, and carried backpacks. They were wiry, and athletic.

One woman was Puerto Rican, with white hair and a dark complexion. The other was from Australia. I will never forget them.

The women said they were traveling the world together on a shoestring budget. They had already visited four continents, walked hundreds of miles on foot, and relied on the kindness of strangers.

They had been sleeping in tents, riding in cabs, living out of backpacks, frequenting motels and hostels, and eating like royalty.

Then, both women sat next to me in the sand. One woman removed a hip flask. She asked if I wanted a sip.

“No thanks,” I said.

Not only…

Soon, the whirr of spinning brushes, the high-pitched scream of a motor, the sound of water.

The last time I washed my truck was in the spring of ‘03. I remember it well because I had a violent fever and was hallucinating at the time.

The only thing I recall from that day is walking outside, without pants on, and washing my truck with a garden hose while singing “Mister Sandman.”

Next thing I knew, my wife was at home with bags of groceries in her arms and shouting, “What in God’s name are you doing?” Then, she threw me into the backseat and drove me to the ER.

“What’s wrong with him?” the doctor said.

“I don’t know, doc,” my wife said. “I left him in bed, I went to the store, and when I got home I found him eating a jar of Turtle Wax.”

“This is very bad,” said the doc. Then he snapped his fingers before my eyes. “Sean, can you hear me?”

I nodded and said, “When can I open my presents, Mommy?”

So today goes down in my

own personal history. I took my truck through an automated car wash. I don’t know what made me do it.

First, I bought some licorice at the gas station, then I purchased a ticket for the car wash.

It was great. There were big brushes spinning on hydraulic arms, and high-powered spray nozzles shooting water with enough pressure to bore holes through bricks.

And I was a child again.

It’s funny, sometimes I can’t recall what I had for supper last night, but I still remember when they built the small car wash next to the Conoco station.

I remember the bulldozers breaking ground before it was built, and the old men who stood at a distance, shaking heads in disapproval.

“A car wash,” one man grumbled. “When did people get so lazy they forgot how to use elbow grease?”

“Bah humbug,”…

These are the conversations you hear from old men with rural accents.

It’s an old cafe. The coffee cups are bottomless. The waitress wears jeans. On the walls are mounted bass and a few buck heads.

There are old men in the corner, seated around a table with mugs. These are rural men with old-world accents like your granddaddy probably had.

They are discussing crucial topics like:

“Hey, Charlie! What the hell was the guy’s name who used to date Sharon? You know, he had the big ears and always looked like he’d just sucked a lemon?”

They say things like:

“Did you hear Marilyn’s son built his house with the kitchen window facing his mama’s kitchen window so in the mornings they can wave to each other when they make coffee?”

They say:

“Looks like Mike is running for mayor again, can you believe it? That skinny-dipping stunt he pulled in high school is gonna come back to bite him, just watch.”

These are the conversations you hear from old men with rural accents.

Their reparte doesn’t follow one

line of thought. One man says something. A man across from him says something unrelated.

Everyone gets a turn. Round and round it goes, until you realize they aren’t actually talking to each other. They are simply reporting the news.

A young couple walks into the restaurant. The young man wears a work jacket and boots. He is carrying a baby-carrier by the handle. The young woman is holding his arm.

They are both so young they still squeak when they walk. They sit in the booth behind mine.

“What time do you have to go back to work?” the girl asks her young man.

“As soon as we’re done eating,” he says. “I’m sorry, I wish I had longer.”

She seems disappointed. It’s the weekend. Nobody wants Daddy to work on the weekend.

They order burgers and…

I crawl out of bed. I walk downstairs to see my mother at our dining table. The tabletop is scattered with paper envelopes and a calculator.

I am in bed. Mama is up late. The kettle on the stove is whistling. The sound wakes me. I look at the clock, it is two in the morning.

I walk downstairs to see my mother at our dining table. The tabletop is scattered with paper, envelopes, and a calculator.

She leans over a mess of bills that might as well be a tablecloth. She punches numbers on the calculator and makes a grimace. I know my mother. I know that look.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

She runs her fingers through her hair. “Oh, I’m just robbing Peter to pay Paul, go back to bed.”

“Who’s Paul?”

“Paul Newman, who else? Now go to bed.” She buries herself in her hands.

“Have you been crying, Mama?”

“I’m not crying, now go to sleep.”

“But, I can’t sleep.”

“Upstairs, now!”

“But...”

She points at me. “I don’t wanna hear about your ‘but.’ I want you to go to bed.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Well,” she says with a sigh. “Then just pretend

to sleep, I don’t care what you do. Go upstairs and count your blessings.”

This is what all Baptists do. We do not count sheep, or listen to meditative sleep instructional CD’s by Deepak Chopra. That stuff is for Methodists.

“Blessings?” I say to my mother. “WHAT blessings? We’re probably gonna STARVE to death aren’t we?”

I don’t know what has come over me, talking like that. I storm upstairs, slide beneath the covers, I stare at the ceiling.

I can’t sleep because life has dealt my family nothing but lemons. And I’m worried. We have limited means, tall debts, no father, and a car that leaks oil. And now my mother is having to pay this Paul fella.

My mother comes into the bedroom. She sits beside me. She touches my hair and doesn’t…

Over the years, the baby grew considerably bigger. She turned into a girl. She could could run faster, jump farther, yell louder, and arm wrestle better than any cowboy I ever knew.

I was three years old when I officially became a cowboy. I’m not joking. I had a pair of aluminum six-shooters and a horse head on a broomstick to prove it.

I would ride through fields, straddling my horsey-stick, smacking my hindparts and shouting, “Giddyup, Trigger!”

Also, though you might not know this—and I don’t mean to brag—I have saved the world on three separate occasions. And I was also the best man at Tonto’s second wedding.

Sure, I dabbled in other professions like, for instance, the second grade. But no other calling suited me. I was meant to be a modern day drifter. And you can’t change who you are.

Some are born to be doctors and lawyers and such. Others are born Roy Rogers.

When I turned seven, I was at the height of my cowboy career. I’d just done a stint as a lawman in Dodge, with Marshal Matt Dillon and Chester Goode. Then, I was offered a job working with my hero, Roy Rogers.

He’d just fired Dale, his previous sidekick. Roy admitted to me that he was getting tired of Dale always nagging him to take out the recycle bin.

So you see, I had big plans. I was going to ride all over creation with Roy, shoot bad guys, strum songs, and be in charge of Trigger’s gluten-free diet. It was going to be great.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

One day, while I was riding the lonesome trail, Miss Anne called me to the hacienda for cheese sandwiches and apple juice—Miss Anne was my babysitter.

“Come on, Sean!” she called. “Something big has just happened!”

The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital, in a maternity ward, and I was holding an infant. A real live baby girl.

Cowboys, you’ll note, don’t know much about newborns. Not unless…

“My grandkids are coming to town this week,” she says. “Wanna make sure they have enough food.”

The woman in the checkout aisle is small, white-haired. Her cart is full, mounding with Gatorade, Cheetos, and ice cream sandwiches.

I love ice cream sandwiches.

She is bent at the waist, her joints are as thin as number-two pencils. She is struggling to push her cart.

I offer to unload her buggy. She thanks me and says, “Aren’t you a sweet little Boy Scout?”

A comedian, this lady.

If I am lucky enough to see old age, I will be a comedian.

She’s out of breath, leaning on her basket. If I didn't know any better, I'd guess her back is killing her.

“My grandkids are coming to town this week,” she says. “Wanna make sure they have enough food.”

This explains the Mountain Dew, the Goldfish, and the ice cream sandwiches.

We talk. Grandma is friendly. No. She is perfect. Dressed to the nines, hair fixed. It is nine in the morning, she is bearing pearls and ruby lipstick.

She is the American grandmother. Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine, frozen in time. The kind of woman whose lifelong occupation is

to keep stomachs full while wearing matching blouse and shoes.

When the cashier finishes scanning, the old woman thanks me. I offer to take her groceries to the car. She tries to pay me.

No ma'am. I’d rather sell my soul to Doctor Phil for thirty pieces of silver than take your money.

I roll her cart toward the parking lot. She holds the buggy’s side.

I suggest she grab my arm. She does, and for a moment, I am ten-foot tall and Kevlar.

She has an economy Ford. The trunk is tiny. I have an idea: I ask her to let me follow her home and unload her groceries.

It’s too much. Too personal, too fast. This embarrasses her.

“No thanks,” she says. “I’ll have my grandkids unload when they get here tomorrow. My grandkids, they’re visiting me…