Dear Thelma Lou,

When I first brought you home, I couldn’t quit saying, “You’re the sweetest puppy I’ve ever known.”

I would do this for hours, speaking in a high-pitched voice like a certifiable lunatic.

But I couldn’t help myself, it was true. You actually are the sweetest puppy I have ever known.

Tonight, we are apart. You’re sleeping in a veterinary clinic instead of with me.

I don’t want you to worry about anything. It’s just a small, harmless tumor on your eyelid, nothing serious, doctors say you’ll be fine.

Tomorrow morning, the surgeon will sedate you, you’ll go to sleep, they’ll snip the tumor. Voila. Before you know it, you’ll be eating cat poop again.

But nighttime is the hard part. You’re in a cage, and I’m not with you. I’m writing you because I want you to know I’m thinking about you.

And you shouldn’t be scared because—and you might not know this, Thel—though we are apart, we are actually together.

Distance might separate us, but distance is

not real. Nothing can separate love. I know it sounds crazy, but hearts do not know the difference between miles and minutes.

I first came to believe this when I was seventeen.

One night, I was on a truck tailgate in a hayfield outside Freeport, Florida. I was eating barbecue, looking at the sky, missing someone I once loved.

And it all sort of hit me at once. I don’t know what hit me, exactly, all I can tell you is that “it” hit me.

I can’t explain it. If I could explain it, then it wouldn’t be the real thing.

But when this moment happened I saw something—and I swear it on Bear Bryant’s grave. It was a shooting star.

Suddenly, I felt warm all over. It was as though I were surrounded by…

I’ll keep this short. That way, you can get back to making coffee, trimming your eyebrows, or scrubbing oil stains off your driveway with a wire brush. So here it is:

Don’t be mean.

This three-word phrase doesn’t come from me. A six-year-old named Lacy offers it to you.

I met Lacy this weekend. When I saw her, she was bald, pale, and she wore pink cowboy boots.

Her father told me that Lacy is in remission. Doctors expect her to make a full recovery, but it’s not smooth sailing yet.

“We’re different people ever since it happened,” her father adds. “We’re treating every day as a gift, you know?”

I lowered myself to Lacy’s eye-level. At the time, she was eating a butterscotch lollipop and reading a magazine upside down. I was hoping to get a few words of wisdom—on the record.

“Lacy,” I said. “Do you have anything you’d like to tell my friends?”

She removed the candy from her mouth and said, “FRIENDS? WHAT FRIENDS? I DON’T SEE THEM!”

“Well,

they’re not here.”

“ARE THEY HATCHIBABIES? I LOVE HATCHIMALS!”

“No,” her brother explained. “He’s speaking figuratively.”

“COOL, THEN I’LL SPEAK SPANISH! WATCH!” Lacy began talking in Pig Latin and picking her nose with both thumbs.

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish,” her brother said.

“Sucker!” said Lacy, then she laughed until she was nearly unconscious.

We got off track a little, but I was eventually able to get a few remarks from Lacy once she stopped digging for gold.

“Lacy,” I said. “Let me put it like this: if you could tell people one important thing, after all you’ve gone through, something super important, what would you tell them?”

She thought long and hard.

“Well,” said the wise girl. “I would say I got a SUPER big booger on my finger, do you wanna…

If you can believe it, he isn’t even nervous. And why should he be? He’s driven thousands of miles in his lifetime. What’s a few more?

He’s sixty-two. He’s driving a Ford on the interstate. This is a big deal.

I know what you’re thinking: since when is driving on the interstate a big deal?

When the interstate is Atlanta 285.

Also, he hasn’t been behind the wheel in three years. Not since a botched surgery—which was when his life went downhill.

There were complications, which led to other complications, and recovery has taken time. He has a hard time moving his legs and feet, he uses a walker. It left him with crippling pain.

He became a bona fide shut-in. His only window to the outside world is his adult daughter—who lives all the way in Union City.

His lovely daughter helps him almost every day. And even though she has been pregnant, about to have her own family, she still labors without complaint.

Anyway, earlier this particular evening his daughter called. She had an announcement.

“Dad,” she said. “I had the baby.”

When he heard the news, he was so overcome he couldn’t form words.

“Dad?” came her voice on the phone. “You still there?”

No answer. He was crying.

But they weren’t happy tears, they were

of self disgust. He despised himself. He hated being lame, and he hated burdening his family.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Fathers weren’t supposed to load their daughters with caregiving responsibilities.

“Dad?” she said. “You there?”

His lips quivered, he breathed heavy. “I thought you weren’t due for two weeks,” he said.

“I wasn’t, but… Surprise.”

He choked back more tears.

“I’m sending Danny,” his daughter went on. “He’s coming to pick you up in a few minutes.”

“No!” he shouted. “Don’t bother!”

“What?” she said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I said don’t bother!” he spat at her, “I don’t wanna come!” Then he slammed the phone.

He couldn’t explain why he was so angry.

The man sidled his walker toward his recliner…

Miss Lola places casserole dishes on the table. She forms neat rows. The table is full. There is enough Southern fare here to sink the U.S.S. Humdinger.

Close your eyes and imagine heaven’s own Golden Corral franchise. That’s what this fellowship hall is.

There are old women everywhere. They are buzzing through the room making sure things happen.

Miss Lola walks with a hunched back and resembles the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. She makes coffee in the Baptist Bunn machine.

The church roof has just been replaced. The fellowship hall was supposed to be renovated, but they ran out of money.

“New roof is expensive,” remarks Miss Lola. “The other ladies wanted new appliances and new floors, but all we could afford was the new roof and refrigerator.”

For supper, Miss Lola sits beside me. She eats slower than it takes to read the unabridged version of Gone With the Wind.

“Who fried this chicken?” someone asks.

“Ruth,” Miss Lola says. “But hers ain’t as good as mine.”

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition

prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

“This chicken's too soggy,” she adds. “Mine was never soggy.”

The macaroni and cheese is equally as magnificent. It comes from Miss Lola’s niece, who just turned fifteen.

The kid used her grandmama’s recipe and made the old woman proud.

When Miss Lola finishes eating, she hobbles between tables. She wears a blue apron. She gathers used paper plates and silverware from people who have finished eating. Some servants never quit.

After supper, the room empties. People leave for the sanctuary. Save for a few women. Those who stay behind are mostly gray and white.

I stay, too. I collect trash and fold chairs. Miss Lola and I fold tables and nearly amputate three of my favorite fingers.…

Her name was Ellie Mae. She had a black face with two tan eyebrows that moved with her every expression. Ellie rode shotgun in my truck each day of her life.

I was at a wedding last week. There was a small reception with cocktail weenies, cheese plates, and an ice sculpture.

Instead of a DJ, there was a band from a local high school. They had long hair and various chains on their body parts. Their music was a cross between 80’s progressive punk, and a nitroglycerine truck colliding against a 747 taxiing on the tarmac.

In the middle of the evening came my favorite portion of any wedding reception: when the tipsy brother-of-the-bride gains control over the microphone.

Others took the stage after him and began sharing memories, offering toasts.

One gentleman picked up the mic and delivered a memory about being a college roommate of the groom. Four hours later, he finally got around to his toast.

Next, a young woman took the stage and read a speech that was written on a stack of notes the size of a term paper.

Then, the father of the bride told

a story about when the bride was a girl. It was a sweet memory. He talked especially about a beloved member of the family, a deceased Redbone Coonhound named “Turkey.”

The man talked about this dog as though it were a blood relative, he covered the highpoints of their lives with the dog.

He talked about all the times that Turkey begged at the table, or when Turkey learned how to “load up” in the truck, leaping into the passenger seat.

The times spent walking through the woods with Turkey beside them. And the day Turkey died.

I listened, but I wasn’t thinking about Turkey. I was remembering a black-and-tan bloodhound I once loved.

Her name was Ellie Mae. She had a black face with two tan eyebrows that moved with her every expression. Ellie rode shotgun in my truck each day of her life.

When I…

That same year, he bought several swing-sets for needy families in town. They were delivered anonymously. He did the same with playhouses, trampolines, bicycles, and baby formula.

My mail-lady handed me a stack of mail and said, “Looks like mostly bills.”

Then, she lit a smoke and we talked about a whole lot of nothing. Namely: the weather. Though we do have some things in common. For example, we both have too many bills.

Good talk.

When she left, I opened my stack of mail. She was right. Bills. Coupons, real-estate flyers, a Bass Pro catalog, and a gift certificate for a free chiropractic consult in a bad part of town.

And one thick envelope from Georgia. A three-page letter.

The author of the letter is ninety. She has stunning penmanship. Her name is Louise. I've never actually known a woman by this name. But I wish it would make a comeback.

“I am not good on your Facebook,” Louise begins. “I still write letters...”

I wish more people would.

She’s from the old world. Her husband was a blue-collar. A grease-covered face who smiled at her just right when she was eighteen.

He was rowdy, but he settled down the moment he slipped a ring

on her finger. Rings do that sometimes.

“A minister came through our church," she said. "I brought Joey to listen to a quite captivating speaker...

“And though my husband was less than impressed with Methodism as a whole, the minister made it through to him..."

The holy-roller did more than make it through. He talked about one thing in particular that evening: anonymous acts of charity. And for some reason—call it good timing—her husband took the idea seriously.

At lunch after church, he wrote a Bible verse on the back of a business card—one which he carried in his wallet for many years. It was the only Bible reading she ever saw him do.

The verse:

“...A man who has two coats is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise."

That same…

Sometimes, I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know where I belong. I’ve gone through much of life wondering what I am, and why I am. I’ve wondered a lot of things.

Now entering Alabama. I am riding behind a log truck. It’s your all-American log truck, stacked with pines that wobble with each bump in the road.

On the truck bumper is an “I-heart-Alabama” sticker.

We’ve crossed the state line into the Yellowhammer State. So far, I’ve driven past nineteen Pentecostal churches, eight Methodist chapels, and I’ve lost count of the the Baptist meeting houses.

We stop at lunch joint. I park next to an old pickup truck. It is a Ford F-100. Lawrence County tags, mud on the fenders. There is a black Lab in the front seat. My father had a truck just like this.

The restaurant is busy, George Strait is singing overhead.

My waitress is originally from Chelsea, Alabama, and she sounds like it. She brings us extra cornbread just because that’s what people from Chelsea are like.

I pay my tab. There’s a gift shop near the register.

A pair of baby-sized cowboy boots catches my eye. I almost buy them

for my infant niece, but my wife talks me out of it because my niece will only outgrow them in seven days or less.

So, I buy a University of Alabama jumpsuit instead.

We are back on the road. The countryside looks good today. We see big golden fields of dead grass, mobile homes with chimneys poking from the tops, billowing smoke. And cattle.

Farm equipment dealers on every corner, used RV lots, discount fireworks stands, and a hundred thousand barns that hold the history of the world within them.

I pass shotgun houses with the eighteen wheelers parked in the driveways. Many have freezers on porches, with loveseats beside the screen doors.

In the distance, I see a pile of burning trash behind a two-story house. It’s tended by a man in overalls, stabbing the fire with a rake. He throws a mattress atop…

The man at the register wears a grim face and says, “My niece just lost her husband, she’s got two kids.”

Kentucky. A gas station. This joint looks like it’s about to fall down. Tin roof. Dusty parking lot.

I step inside and shake the cold from my jacket. The first thing I hear is the laughter of old men.

There are four white-hairs seated around an electric heater. They wear plaid. They stare at me long and hard.

This general store is perfect. Wood floors, lopsided ceilings, tall shelves.

Their belly laughs fills the room. And if there’s a better sound on the planet than old men laughing, I don’t know what it is.

This place is part hardware store, part grocery store, part tourist trap. You can buy a bag of corn feed, a jar of mustard, or get a T-shirt that bears the phrase: “My folks got lucky in Kentucky.”

The old boys are talking in a familiar way. They chuckle between every sentence. I overhear them while I am walking the aisles and I have almost forgotten why I’m here. I’m too engrossed in the conversation between

men who are solving the world’s problems.

“Can I help you?” one old man says to me.

Coffee. That’s what I’m here for. The hotels I have been staying at for the past few days have served coffee that was an affront to the human race. I’ve sipped water from frog ponds that had more flavor.

“Coffee?” one man says. “Shore thang.”

The old man walks to a low shelf. I follow him.

“Folgers,” he mumbles. “Got it right here.”

“Thanks,” I say.

He glares at me with a smile. “Where’re you from?”

“Me? Oh, I’m from th—”

“NO! WAIT!” he says, holding up his hands. “Don’t tell me, I’m good at this game.”

He adjusts his hearing aid and asks me to say something else.

“You want me to say something else?” I…

I am on my way to Kentucky. I can see mountains in the distance.

My uncle always told me the Bluegrass State was a beautiful place, but his words didn’t do it justice.

I remember him telling me about his visit to Fort Knox:

“Gah-lee,” he said. “I wish I had just one of them gold bricks, then I could finally pay off my above-ground swimming pool.”

Well, I’ve never been to Fort Knox, or seen any gold bricks. But then, I’ve never been to Kentucky before today.

I’m driving, on my way to tell a few stories, play music, and God-willing, entertain some people in the microscopic community of Grand Rivers—a town about the size of a walk-in closet.

My blinker makes a clicking sound.

I exit the interstate. I pull over at a rest area to stretch my legs. My lower back is complaining. My wife and I have been in four states today.

I am feeling excited. I can’t put my finger on why I’m

so giddy, but I am. Maybe it’s because Fort Knox is close, and there are enough gold bricks in this state to pay for a million above-ground pools.

Or maybe it’s because I don’t actually belong here.

You see, I’m underqualified. I am so average it would startle you. I never thought I would travel anywhere beyond, say, the outer limits of Paxton, Florida.

I was a quiet kid. The kid who enjoyed music, books, and sarcasm. I was the young man who drove an ugly truck with multicolored Christmas lights wrapped around his bumper because he loved Christmas.

I was the fella voted most likely to play the accordion. The kid voted most likely to never leave town.

And I never have. When I was in my late teens, my friends were all graduating high school, going on senior trips, applying…

On my sixteenth birthday my mother bought me a telescope for a gift. It was a big, white telescope with a wooden tripod.

The stars are out tonight. Thelma Lou, the bloodhound, stops to stare at the them. She sits for several minutes, looking up.

I’ve never seen a dog do that.

“What’re you looking at, girl?” I say, squatting beside her. “Are you looking at stars?”

Thelma Lou keeps staring upward.

I don’t blame her. The sky above is so magnificent I can hardly stand it. Stars are so bright they look like they might fall from the sky and land on me.

My mother says when I was a toddler I liked stars so much I would stand outside, staring upward, wearing a numb look—like my cornbread wasn’t done in the middle.

When I was thirteen, after my father died, I would sit on the porch and make wishes on stars. I wished for all sorts of things. Fast cars, money, a big-screen TV, Barbara Eden.

And I wished to be happy.

I was the most awkward and chubby thirteen-year-old you ever saw. My hair was pure copper. Today, red

hair might be the rage, but back then it was as stylish as a cold booger on a paper plate.

To make matters worse, my mother bought my pants at Sears. I wore “Husky” pants, sold in the back of the store, where chubby boys were routinely executed.

And if anyone doubted I was overweight, my pants bore an actual label on the hindparts which stated: “Husky.”

I did not care for myself.

Still, the males in my family promised I would undergo a transformation one day.

“One day,” my uncle said, “you’ll have a growth spurt, and get skinny, like we all did, just keep your chin up.”

But it wasn’t happening fast enough.

So I took matters into my own hands. My friend, Davis, suggested trying a diet he found in Popular Mechanics Magazine.

The diet consisted…