FAYETTEVILLE, N.C.—Earl’s dog died Saturday afternoon. It was a dark day. Nobody wants to make the decision to put their dog down.

Blue was his name. He was a Lab mix. Earl found Blue with his wife 14 years ago. Their kids had left home to find careers and make families. Empty Nest Syndrome set in. The retirees were lonely, a little aimless, and bored.

Blue was a welcome member of the family. In some ways, he was a four-legged child. They took him to obedience school. They cleaned up his accidents. They let him sleep in their bed.

When Blue was seven, Earl’s wife, Mary, died of breast cancer. That’s when Earl’s world changed.

A man who loses a wife is a ship in a storm with a busted hull. There are some things a man needs in life, and a partner is one of those things. Mary was his compass, she could guide him through rough seas with her eyes closed. She took care of him. She fed him. Now all

he had was Blue.

So Earl and Blue did everything together. They rode in the car, went on walks, ate supper, and went through a coronavirus quarantine together.

Earl has been staying indoors following quarantine orders to the letter. North Carolina has been hit hard by COVID-19, and Earl hasn’t taken any chances.

It’s been difficult. Earl used to socialize a lot. He would visit the grocery store and chat with clerks. In the evenings, Earl used to hang out at different restaurants for supper. Waitresses would talk sweet to him and he would tip them well. Being a widower is lonely.

But when the world shut down and everyone began wearing masks, his social life came to a stop, and there was nothing left to do but sit inside and watch TV with Blue.

“We ate a lotta frozen food, and I read a lot of…

I am on the beach with my wife. I am under the umbrella, my wife is in the open sun. I haven’t visited the beach in a hundred years. We have been quarantined for at least that long.

We are social distancing, sitting almost as far away from the water as you can get. The nearest beach goer is about a mile away.

I used to work on the beach. One summer, I got a job in Destin, Florida. I was a lifeguard-slash-beach-attendant. The industry term was: “chair setter-upper.” Or: “rented mule.”

My main job was to set up umbrellas and chairs, and to make sure everyone’s radio was cranked up loud enough so that others would complain to the lifeguards about it.

You learn a lot about people when you watch them on a beach, which is what I did for nine hours per day.

One time, there was a family of Germans on my beach. They were mostly elderly people. Mid-70s, maybe.

Germans are finicky, they don’t like wearing wet swimsuits

after they’ve been swimming in the Gulf. So every time the old man would emerge from the surf, he would remove his Speedo.

He did this nonchalantly, as though sliding out of a Speedo before a couple hundred spectators was just another day at the office. Then his wife would hand him a dry Speedo, and he would cram into it. Whereupon his wife would fully strip and do the same thing. Gravity had not been kind to these people.

That was a bad day to be a beach-attendant-slash-lifeguard.

I also had to deal with Young Drunk People as a lifeguard. When young people visit the beach, federal law requires them to bring 50 cases of beer per young person and a boombox capable of shattering windshields.

Drunk young people also love to invent creative ways to consume alcohol. As in: “Hey, y’all! Watch me drink beer…

You have always been there for me. Whenever summertime would roll around, you were always there. In fact, in my book, you WERE summer. Summer couldn’t happen without you.

Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of other great memories about summer. There are precious few memories, for instance, more wonderful than ball games on a radio; or the sounds of distant children laughing; or crickets singing; or third-degree sunburns strong enough to damage your liver.

Even so, nothing compares to you.

Maybe it’s all a matter of body chemistry. Maybe you and I just work well together. Maybe your pH and my chemical makeup fit together like puzzle pieces. I don’t know. Truth be told, I don’t even know what pH is.

All I know is that when I was growing up, I would slice you with a kitchen knife, place you on white Bunny bread, and slather you with mayonnaise. Then I would eat you. And if I wasn’t wearing your seeds and juices all over my T-shirt afterward, I had

done it wrong.

Other times I would pluck you right off the vine and eat you like an apple. You were warm from the sun, and your vines were fuzzy.

My mother could grow you better than anyone else in the county. She had a garden that seemed like it was about the size of a rural school district. Then again, that was back during childhood, everything seemed bigger then.

Mama had so many plants that she was collecting five-gallon buckets of ripe ones every single morning. We were giving you away to neighbors, coworkers, strangers, and anyone who could fog up a mirror.

There was so much fruit coming off your vines that we set up a little vegetable stand at the end of our driveway. I sat behind a folding table all summer, watching people pay good money to buy you.

They would stuff cash…

I used to know an old man named Bill, he was my neighbor. I think he was in his late 80s when I knew him, but I don’t remember now. He was soft spoken, he sort of reminded me of Jimmy Sterwart.

He loved caramel-flavored coffee from a gas station up the road. It came from a fancy machine and was sweet enough to rot your jaw. Sometimes we would drink this stuff together. The coffee was so sugary I could hardly choke it down.

I remember one day, he and I were sharing one such coffee in his kitchen while his grandchildren were playing Pictionary. Thus, between the words of our heartfelt conversation, kids were shouting: “A CAT!” “A DRAWBRIDGE!” “LEONARDO DICAPRIO!” “SHUT UP!”

During that conversation, Bill said to me something I will never forget. He said: “I think the key to being happy is having something to look forward to.”

Sometimes words hit me just right and make perfect sense. This was one of those instances.

Anyway, I have always

been very interested in what elderly people believe the key to happiness is. I’m always asking old people questions about happiness because we young people sure as Shinola don’t know a thing about it.

Just yesterday I was walking through my neighborhood. I passed a youngish woman who was jogging while having an animated cell phone conversation. Here is a verbatim quote from the conversation:

“I’m sick of working for a cheap firm, I want my freaking BMW.”

That’s the problem with young persons. They think BMWs will make them happy. But when you ask an old person what makes them happy, they usually point to a photograph of their children, then ask you to refill their glass of Metamucil.

Bill said he was in his 60s when he discovered this trick of finding things to look forward to. His discovery came during a vacation to Hawaii.

The old woman is sitting on her porch in an average residential neighborhood. I am standing at a distance, interviewing her. She wears a cotton blouse. Floral print. Thick glasses. Surgical mask.

The yellow flies are killing me. One bite from a yellow fly makes my body parts swell up like the Michelin Man. I hate yellow flies. In fact, on my list of most hated things, yellow flies are among my top three items. Right beneath tomato aspic, just above telemarketers and pop-country.

This is the first interview I’ve done in a few months. I’ve been quarantining like everyone else, I haven’t left my house to do much more than get the mail.

There was a time when I was interviewing and writing about new people every day. Then the virus hit and suddenly, here I am, wearing the same pajama pants for 64 days straight.

Anyway, the woman I’m interviewing is 90 years old. We are keeping a 20-foot distance. I’m here because I am a sucker for a good story.

She

is a mother of three. She lives with her daughter, who is her caregiver. Her daughter admits that occasionally taking care of her mother is exhausting work.

“But at least I ain’t in a nursing home,” the old woman says. “Least I’m with family.”

She is no stranger to hardship. Before she was born, three of her brothers came down with the Spanish flu from the 1918 pandemic. They almost died.

“My parents called it the plague, we didn’t call it the flu, not until years later.”

When she was a girl, she lived in Southern Kansas. And in the 1930s, parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas turned into a giant eroding bowl of dust. In other words, it was a veritable hell on earth.

I don’t have the education nor the knowledge to explain the Dust Bowl era here, but I can…

I am on camera. There is a film crew standing around me. They are all wearing surgical masks. This is my first day out of quarantine, and we are shooting a screen test for a commercial. Each member of the crew is holding important equipment like cameras, light reflectors, enormous microphones, boom stands, chocolate glazed donuts, etc.

The first thing they tell you when you’re on TV is that you have to “act naturally.” No matter what kinds of off-the-wall things a director tells you to do, no matter what kinds of skimpy clothes they make you wear, acting naturally is key.

But otherwise, when you’re on a video shoot, basically all you do is say the same line all day until the words are floating in your subconscious and you aren’t sure how to say them anymore. The sentences get jumbled in your mind and start coming out wrong.

For example, there are 39,021 wrong ways to say these 6 words: “Call for a free quote today!”

DIRECTOR: Aaannnddd… Action!”

ME:

Call quotes for today!

DIRECTOR: [bad word].

Also, the director is always giving explicit instructions for my facial movements. “Gimme that wide SMILE!” “No not THAT smile! The other smile! Show me all your teeth!” “Raise your eyebrows!” “We’re selling insurance, not caskets!”

In a lot of ways, being on TV is like being in the third-grade musical from hell. You know how at school performances parents are always frantically whispering from their seats in the audience, reminding their children to smile, stand up straight, and quit digging in their underpants? Well, it’s the same way on camera, only the person reminding me not to dig in my pants is a man in a safari shirt who deeply respects Sidney Pollack.

“Don’t walk so stiff!” says the director. “And try to sorta swoop your head when you say, ‘auto insurance.’ Is that food on your shirt? For crying…

One of the first things you learn when you become a dog-person is that normal people look at you funny when you talk about your dog too much.

This is usually because these people have normal healthy lives, with real kids, real jobs, and retirement plans.

Well, I never had any of those things. I spent adulthood working crummy jobs. I don’t have kids. And retirement is a three-syllable word used in Charles Schwab commercials during baseball games.

The highlight of my workdays was coming home to find the silhouette of a bloodhound in our front window. Her name was Ellie Mae.

In her heyday, Ellie was obsessed with a cat in our neighborhood named Dexter. Dexter was born of Satan and had eyes like the kid from the movie Poltergeist.

Dexter would torment Ellie by visiting our backyard and sitting right in Ellie’s food bowl as if to say, “Look! My butt is on your food! How do you like that?”

And thus, Ellie became transfixed with Dexter and his feline butt. Ellie

would sometimes spend entire days at our window, keeping track of all the illegal activities Dexter committed in our yard. She would turn circles, whimpering.

Dexter would make eye-contact with Ellie through the glass. He would stare her down until she hurled herself against our window hard enough to shatter it.

Dexter was a professional competitor when it came to games between canines and felines.

There was the time, for instance, when I drove to the bank. Ellie came with me. She waited in my truck with the engine running. I ran inside. I was writing a deposit slip when the teller pointed out the window and shrieked.

“Your truck!” she hollered.

My vehicle was rolling into a flower bed.

I sprinted through the parking lot and when I reached the truck, I realized that my crazed bloodhound had knocked the gearshift out of park. She…

It’s Mother’s Day. We are in the car. I have a bouquet in my lap. My wife is driving. I’m listening to Johnny Cash sing “A Boy Named Sue” in honor of the occasion.

I have a long history with this song on Mother’s Day. For one thing, my mother’s name is Sue. She loves any song with the name “Sue” in it, such as: “Peggy Sue,” or “Wake Up Little Susie,” or “Runaround Sue.”

She does not, however, care for “A Boy Named Sue” because it has two cuss words in it.

I sing this song at a lot of my shows because I like Johnny Cash. But I never sing the cuss words. When I get to the part with the swearing, I always change it to something like: “Son of a Baptist.” Which makes the song very mom-friendly.

I sang this song for a bunch of Methodist ministers at a retreat once. My substitute swear word got a standing ovation. Since it went so well, I decided to try singing

it at a Baptist church. Someone slashed my tires and set fire to my car in the church parking lot.

But anyway, it’s a sleepy Sunday. There isn’t much traffic on the roads. There is a quarantine on and people aren’t going to church this Mother’s Day. Which feels very weird.

For every Sunday of my life there have always been clusters of cars parked at Baptist and Methodist buildings. And on Saturday nights, when the Catholics used to get together to do whatever the heck Catholics did on Saturday nights, there were cars parked there, too.

One time, when I was a kid, several of us boys eavesdropped on a Catholic mass, peeking through the windows to see what went on in there. The priest filled the chapel with a strange fragrant smoke and people were closing their eyes and singing a song.

My cousin Ed…

I’m going to call her Linda. Linda has health issues. She can’t walk very well. She has been using a pair of lightweight forearm crutches since her childhood.

In her lifetime, Linda has had more surgeries than you can shake a catheter at. Which is why Linda never got married because, in her own words: “I think I was just way too much to handle.”

The elderly woman doesn’t come out and say it because she doesn’t have to, living alone is not how anyone envisions their life.

Even so, don’t feel sorry for her. She hates it when people feel sorry for her. Besides she doesn’t live alone. More on that later.

Long ago, when she was stuck in a hospital bed as a kid, Linda decided that she wasn’t going to wallow in self-pity, but would make the best of her life.

When she got older, she got her own apartment, and a good job at junior college, working in the office. She was well-loved. Linda has always been well-loved.

She is a quirky woman.

She dresses with her own unique fashion sense. Sometimes she wears different colored pieces of clothing that deliberately clash.

One former college kid remembers: “Linda was always her own person. We were all just drawn to her.”

Another former student said, “I would always visit Linda between classes and tell her about my problems with boys. She listened really well.”

One morning, Linda was 58 years old, she was on her way into the office when she saw a young female student in the parking lot. The 19-year-old girl—let's call her Mary—was sitting in her car with the windows down, sleeping in the driver’s seat.

“Her belly was out to here,” said Linda, making the shape of a pregnant stomach. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this chick is prego.’”

She was very prego.

Almost nine months, to be exact. The girl said that she…

There is a faint smell of smoke in Walton County this morning. It’s a little hazy, but not too bad. I can see charred pine trees and an ocean of black soot.

Walton County is my home. My first kiss was on the shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay. My first beer was in a camper outside DeFuniak. I met my wife here.

Ours is a diverse county. You’ve got your ultra-elite, who live on the beach, drive Land Rover Autobiographies, and have New England accents. And you have guys like me, with two rusted fishing boats in his front yard, and a fence that has needed replacing since the Carter administration.

A few nights ago, a Walton County Sheriff's Department cruiser sped down our street, past my rusty boats and old fence, and into my driveway. Blue lights blaring. Kicking up gravel. A deputy in a county uniform beat on our door.

“Fire,” was the deputy’s first word. The officer pointed into the distance. “It’s coming this way.”

I looked at the horizon. Just above the treeline was a

cloud of brown smoke rising into the sky like something from a bad horror movie.

“Hurry,” the deputy said.

My wife and I spent the next 10 minutes running through our house, shouting things to each other.

“WHAT ABOUT OUR WEDDING PHOTOS?!”

“WHERE’S MY COMPUTER?!”

“DID YOU SHUT THE GARAGE?!”

“Hurry,” the deputy pointed out.

I’ve never been given 10 minutes to choose my most essential possessions. It was a bizarre scenario. I mean, what DO you choose?

Here’s what we chose: Wedding photos, four homegrown tomatoes, my favorite hat, one change of clothes, two books, a mounted fish, vitamins, a block of cheese, a white-noise machine, my mother’s handmade quilt, beer.

We crammed our dogs and belongings into our vehicles. I was barefoot. My wife wore pajamas.

Walton County uniforms were barricading our streets. No cars were coming in. Traffic…