Dear God,

It's me again. Actually, I don’t know what you want me to call you. For all I know, you might prefer to be called something Hebrew, Latin, German, or Cherokee. Anyway, one thing’s for sure: you’re older than the names people call you. That much I remember from Sunday school.

My mother called you, “The Lord.” My granny called you “Heavenly Father.” My uncle used to call you the "Big Guy."

Either way, I was raised in church, and I remember hearing a lot about you in the tiny chapels of my childhood.

I love those chapels. I remember plaster ceilings which leaked, and pews that creaked when people shifted weight from cheek to cheek.

And Sunday-school teachers who made you sound like an old Western sheriff who wouldn’t take any lip. Like Wyatt Earp, or the Terminator.

But that’s not you. Not at all.

And even though I don’t know a lot about you, I know a little.

I know that you’re the sun. You’re pine trees. You’re the sky over Lake Martin. The smell of baked apples Mother used to

cook. And prettiness.

You’re the look on a kid’s face when he or she catches a fish.

You are every blessed Andy Griffith Show episode ever made. You are Aunt Bee, Opie, Barney, Otis. You had absolutely nothing to do with Matlock.

You are guitar music my uncle used to pick. You’re popping noises from hickory logs in a fireplace. You’re salted butter. Roasted pecans. Bottled Coca-Cola. And loyalty from a friend.

You’ve done things. And I’m not talking about big things—everybody knows you make the earth spin and stars twinkle.

No. I’m talking about tiny things you've done. Like how you managed to let me find a wood figurine my grandfather carved. It’s a buffalo, and it's almost a hundred years old. I found it packed in an old box.

Then there’s the time I…

And I should’ve left him alone, but I didn’t. I have too much of my mother’s curiosity in me. I asked questions to get the rest of his story. I don’t like prying, but I’m not above it.

An interstate restaurant. An evening rush. The place was filled with people. There was a long wait. We’d been on the road for hours, with hours left to go.

An old man sat beside me in one of the benches out front. He had a fleshy face, cotton hair, and an Auburn University hat.

We talked while we waited for tables.

He was meeting his daughter and grandkids for supper.

“She’s coming in from Franklin,” he said. “She’s gonna stay at my house this week.”

He rocked forward and said nothing more.

And I should’ve left him alone, but I didn’t. I have too much of my mother’s curiosity in me. I asked questions to get the rest of his story. I don’t like prying, but I’m not above it.

I asked why his daughter was coming into town.

“She’s coming for a funeral,” he went on. “We’re, uhh…” He pauses. “My wife just passed.”

He was sad. I could see it in his face. Now I

really felt bad for not leaving him alone.

“Her name was Robin,” he went on. Then he stopped. He pinched his nose.

That word. “Was.”

I remember when my father died. The first time I referred to him in the past tense broke my heart. All at once, I realized that most of the other tenses would never apply to him. Present, future, and subjunctive were useless now. Once, he WAS alive. But now he wasn’t. It’s as simple as that.

“Robin was great,” he said. “She was a painter. She took it up when she turned fifty, she was so good at it, nobody could believe how good.”

She used to paint portraits of him for practice. The first paintings came out looking like monstrosities, he explained. But she got better.

He would pose for her, sometimes three,…

I’m thinking about how we honeymooned in a beat-up vehicle. And about how we painted the town red on a shoestring budget. And how this woman doesn’t mind dog hair.

Birmingham, Alabama—the mighty Vulcan statue stands over the city. He is in good shape for a man his age, but he’s looking tired.

He’s been on the job for a long time. I am beneath the statue with my wife.

There is a group of high-schoolers visiting the statue. They are loud, and animated. They laugh every few seconds.

Old “Vulky” resides on a 124-foot pedestal, he is the 56-foot tall god of fire, the largest iron ore statue in the nation. He holds a spear outward in his powerful grasp, and he isn’t wearing any pants.

The moon rises above him tonight and illuminates all 4 of his cheeks.

He was designed for the 1904 World’s Fair, and I can only imagine what spectators must’ve thought when they first marveled at this artistic achievement of the industrial age.

I point upward and marvel aloud to my wife, “That guy has a butt of iron.”

The high-schoolers ask me to take their picture. I am

handed three cellphones. The kids remind me with hand gestures how to hold a camera and actuate a flash.

They pose with arms around draped over each other, and they are grinning.

I point the camera and holler: “Say VULCAN BUTT!”

“VULCAN BUTT!” they shout, laughing.

Before the flash goes off, a boy kisses a girl who is beneath his arm. He kisses her forehead. He is young. She is young. Their noses are red from the cold, and they are bundled in jackets. Young love is beautiful.

And I am thinking about a time I had my young heart broken at this very statue, long ago. The female offender isn’t what this story is about. But you never forget heartbreak. It leaves a scar you can always touch.

I remember Young Me. The kid with red hair, who was no prize catch. He drove…

“I decided I wanted to BE a nurse because of her,” the nurse explains. “I was in a bad situation, living with my boyfriend’s family, my mom had just died. I was lost...”

I am watching Jeopardy! with an elderly woman who doesn’t know why I’m here because she has Alzheimer’s.

We are in a nursing home. She sits in a wheelchair and blurts out answers along with the TV contestants.

To be honest, Jeopardy! moves too fast for me. By the time I’ve figured out one question, the show is over, and the eighteen-year-old from Sheboygan, who designs nanotubular probes for NASA, has won twelve thousand dollars. Game over.

This elderly woman was a tenth-grade English teacher. She has spent a lifetime sharpening her brain. She taught English, literature, and poetry. She showed average children how to become above average.

I am here to interview her, but she is too engrossed.

The nurse introduces us.

The elderly woman says, “Who’re you, and where’s my blueberry yogurt?”

“This man is a writer,” the nurse explains. “Remember, I told you?”

“I don’t care if he’s Topo Gigio,” she says. “Where’s my yogurt?”

The nurse winks at me.

So far so good.

I clear my throat and

ask a question to get the conversational banter going. The woman shushes me, then shouts: “I’ll take folk music for five hundred!”

“What is ‘the Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie!’”

The nurse winks at me again and urges me to keep questioning. So I do.

“Do you play piano anymore?” I ask. “Your nurse tells me you play the—”

“What is the Treaty of Tordesillas!”

It’s impressive how this elderly woman can know so much trivia, but doesn’t always remember her own name. Alzheimer’s is a cruel enemy.

I am about to give up on the interview when one of the nearby nurses whispers a story to me. She tells me that long ago, this woman was her high-school teacher. The woman taught her to appreciate books like Catcher in the Rye, the Old Man and the Sea, and…

My cousin’s daughter is making a list of things she’s grateful for. It’s a Thanksgiving-themed assignment for school. She asked for my help. And when a kid asks you for help, it makes you feel eleven feet tall.

“It would be an honor,” I said. “Thanks for asking me.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What made you choose me?”

“Well, I was thinking maybe you could write my list while I ride bikes with my friends.”

“Wait a second. Aren’t you gonna do any work?”

“Of course,” she explained. “I’ll be your editor. Now get busy.”

Editors.

Well, I don’t mind naming items for which I am grateful. I will start by writing that I am grateful for cold weather.

Admittedly, I don’t love the weather itself, but I enjoy what the cold represents. It means November is here, it means the holidays are close, it means I have to put on my winter coat to use the toilet in my trailer home.

Gratefulness item number two: cinnamon brooms in the

supermarket. Man I love these things. I could sniff them for hours in the grocery store.

I am grateful for sweet potato pies, and Butterball turkeys that are deep fried by men who wear overalls. And for squash casserole, green bean casserole, cheese potato casserole, hash brown casserole, collards, and cornbread dressing.

Reruns of the Andy Griffith Show. My late father’s Case pocket knife. And good music.

The is the time of year when radio stations play the old stuff. Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Old Blue Eyes, and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

I am grateful for the way dogs wake you up in the morning. And for Hallmark Channel movies. Especially the cheesy movies that are about as clever as a scoop of ham salad.

The plots all go something like this:

Beautiful young business woman from…

Christmas comes earlier each year. It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that children in pirate costumes were at my front door, panhandling for candy. Now it’s Christmas lights in November.

It’s eight days until Thanksgiving. The neighbor’s house is buzzing. There are vehicles lining the street. Minivans, trucks, SUV’s, Fords, Kias.

My neighbor’s family is in town to celebrate an early holiday. His grandchildren just arrived from Georgia. They’re playing in the front yard. I overhear them screaming, “TAG! YOU’RE IT!”

“I’M NOT IT! YOU’RE IT!”

“NUH-UH!”

“YES-HUH!”

“OUCH! I’LL KILL YOU!”

“I DARE YOU TO TRY!”

“#$%!@”

“HELLLP! GRANDPAAA!”

Just yesterday, a cantankerous elderly man up the street asked if I would help hang his Christmas lights. I reminded him that it’s too early. He insisted. So, I pointed out that I’ve had two back-surgeries, one tonsillectomy, and I’m Southern Baptist.

He is Pentecostal and doesn’t believe in tonsillectomies.

It took three hours on a ladder to hang those god-forsaken lights. He stood below and preached my ear off for the entire time.

When we were through, I was sweating. He opened a garage refrigerator and asked if I wanted an ice-cold chocolate milk.

“That depends,” I said. “Is it manufactured by the Anheuser Busch Company?”

Some Pentecostals can’t take a joke.

“Chocolate milk will be fine,” I remarked.

Christmas comes earlier each year. It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that children in pirate costumes were at my front door, panhandling for candy. Now it’s Christmas lights in November.

And if you ask me, the holidays can’t get here quick enough.

My wife has already started cooking to get a jumpstart on Thanksgiving. She’s practicing. Our little home is alive with aroma. It smells like cornbread dressing, allspice, and sweet potato pie.

There are candied pecans on the counter—fresh from the baking sheet. My wife will brain any man who ventures near them. This I know from the trial-and-error approach.

A ham is in the oven. And a poundcake is in the immediate vicinity. I sampled both without permission this morning and got neutered with a melon baller.

The strain of day-to-day living is wearing her thin. She is overworked, underpaid, vehicle-less.

The transmission of her car has given out. Every day, she hitches a ride to work because she is broke.

She works hard. Too hard. And when she’s not cooking in the kitchen of the medical rehab, delivering trays to patients, she’s a full-time single mother.

Sometimes, her kids visit her at work. They get thirty minutes for supper. Her breaks are never long enough.

The strain of day-to-day living is wearing her thin. She is overworked, underpaid, vehicle-less.

One day, she meets a patient. An old man.

In the three months he’s been in rehab, nobody has seen him move or speak. Most days, he faces the window with his jaw slung open. Empty eyes.

She’s delivering food to his room. Her emotions get the best of her. She collapses on a chair and has a meltdown.

She bawls because life is unfair. Because a busted car sits in her driveway and she can’t afford to have a mechanic look at it.

The old man stirs in his wheelchair.

His facial muscles move. And in a few moments, he looks like a man who’s

never suffered a traumatic brain injury.

He stares straight at her. His eyes sparkle.

And in a voice as clear as a bell he says, “God sees you.”

Then.

His face goes slack. His eyes become hollow. His mouth falls open, he begins to drool again.

All day, she thinks about him and his words. In fact, she thinks about it so much she can’t sleep.

The next day, she’s delivering food again. She speaks to him.

He doesn’t answer. He is completely unalert. So, she tells a few knock-knock jokes.

His face cracks a slight grin.

It moves her so much that she hugs him until she is crying into his chest. She tells more jokes.

She eventually gets a strained laugh out of him.

Then, he surprises her. He hugs her with rigid…

“KABOOM! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!”

Let’s see what’s on the television tonight. It’s been a long day. I wouldn’t mind seeing something good.

CLICK.

“Good evening, America, I’m your host, Ken Barbeedoll. I hope you’re having a wonderful evening. In international news, a nuclear crisis threatens to end human life as we know it...”

FLIP.

“HAVE YOU BEEN IN AN AUTO ACCIDENT? DO YOU HAVE A CORPORATION YOU’D LIKE TO SUE? HAVE YOU EVER STUBBED YOUR PINKY TOE ON FAULTY DOOR JAMBS? I’M A PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY AT DEWEY CHEETUM AND HOWE, LET ME BE YOUR LAWYER AND TOGETHER WE CAN SUE THE FREAKIN’ PANTS OFF... ”

FLIP, FLIP, FLIP.

“I’ll kill you, so help me, I’ll kill you, and you will be DEAD when I am…”

FLIP.

“Thank you for watching season forty-nine of ‘The Vocalist’ a REALITY game show featuring judges in big chairs, sipping mandatory Pepsi products on camera and evaluating young talented artists who compete for serious recording contracts based on how tight their pants are...”

FLIP, FLIP.

“(Sitcom laughter!) But I swear, I didn’t

mean to microwave your dog. (Sitcom laughter!) It was an honest mistake. (Sitcom laughter!) Do you know how many people watch this sitcom? (Sitcom laughter!) Even though we have the worst dialogue in the history of human entertainment. (Sitcom laughter!) Our show is still ranked number one according to the Nielsen ratings. (Sitcom laughter!)”

FLIP, FLIP, FLIP.

“And in financial news, officials predict that by February, consumers will pay more for a gallon of gasoline than they would pay for a Melbourne Cup champion thoroughbred...”

FLIP, FLIP, FLIP.

“KABOOM! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!”

FLIP.

“Do you feel too normal? Do you wonder why you AREN’T depressed when all your friends ARE depressed? You’re not alone. You could be suffering from non-depression, which is a harmless condition affecting one hundred percent of happy people who DO NOT YET have…

On breaks, I would visit my truck only to find cooks, waitresses, and dishwashers, smoking cigarettes around my vehicle. They were running their hands along your silky coat.

It’s nighttime. I am writing you from your favorite beach, Sweetie. The sands go on for miles, the purple sky is cloudless. The Gulf of Mexico is so vast it hurts.

Fort Pickens National Park looks magnificent tonight.

This was our beach. At least, that’s what I’m calling it. It wasn’t literally ours. It belongs to everyone in Pensacola Beach, Florida. No, it belongs to everyone in America.

Well, actually, if we’re getting technical here, this beach belongs to the National Park Service, which is overseen by the United States Department of the Interior and is henceforth property of the U.S. government.

But, since the government uses citizen tax dollars to maintain this federal land and pay its staff of allegedly friendly park rangers a salary with benefits, yeah, this beach is basically mine.

Anyway, I’m getting off track.

When we first met, you were a bloodhound, with crooked teeth and droopy eyes. I loved you from the beginning. And this beach was your favorite place on earth.

For many years, every weekend I’d travel to Pensacola to play pitiful bar music at local dives. I didn’t earn much money, but every little bit helped. You traveled with me.

By day, I worked menial jobs. And at night I played music for people who held brown bottles and wanted to dance to “SOMETHING FUN!”

That’s what all drunken dancers say. “Hey, you with the gee-tar! PLAY SOMETHING FUN, DUDE!”

Then some guy in the crowd raises a beer and shouts, “‘Freebird!’” and laughs until he loses all bladder control.

You and I would spend the weekends camping at Fort Pickens for only sixteen bucks per night. We’d stay here together. And we’d rough it.

I cooked meals over a propane burner, and washed our plates with a waterhose. We bathed in public showers, and I did laundry in the Gulf…

Her digital recorder sat on the table. She gave me a bottled water. She also had prepared homemade pimento cheese.

I was interviewed by a nine-year-old. I’ll call her “Kay,” but that’s not her name.

Kay is my hero. Kay is a foster child who loves Auburn University football. Kay is also serious about the sanctity of the interview process. Kay wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.

Her digital recorder sat on the table. She gave me a bottled water. She also had prepared homemade pimento cheese.

It was very good cheese. However, instead of using pimentos, Kay used homegrown habanero peppers from her foster-mother’s garden. Lots and lots of peppers.

The skin on my tongue will be forevermore mutilated by these peppers. My lower intestinal tract will never be the same.

The interview was for Kay’s school. Kay was supposed to be writing about people who were fascinating. But, she couldn’t find anyone, so she wrote about me.

She pressed the button on the recorder. “Please state your name,” said Kay, her pencil poised.

“Sean Dietrich.”

“Your FULL name, please,” Kay said, preventing obstruction of justice.

“Sean P.

Dietrich.”

“What does the ‘P’ stand for, please?”

“Percivus.”

“Really?”

“No, not really, I was just trying to make you laugh.”

But Kay does not laugh or smile. Kay would make a very good poker player.

“Sean, tell me how you started writing?”

“With a pencil,” I said.

“Please be serious.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m a writer by accident, really.”

“Accident?”

“I was no good at anything else. And believe me, I’ve tried it all. I’ve worked a lot of jobs.”

“What kinds of jobs?”

“Oh boy, let’s see…. I’ve been a drywaller, a landscaper, an electrician’s assistant, a commercial framer, a house painter, an ice-cream scooper, a commercial fishing deckhand, a church pianist, and once, after a wild night in Biloxi, I was ordained.”

“Is that true?” said Kay. “Were…