It’s overcast. I’m on the wide porch of a friend’s house, chewing the fat on a vacation weekend. The house is perched on a little main road which cuts through a nondescript small town.

There are sounds of kids laughing and playing. Easy traffic. A dog barking. Lawnmowers running. A distant radio.

My wife is inside with everyone else, small bursts of laughter come from indoors. I’m on a rocking chair counting cars.

This is an old porch. The kind my father used to sit on. I can almost see his ghost, shirtless, reading baseball box-scores. Or carving a pine stick without any real reason for doing such.

And all of a sudden I see vehicles. Lots of them. A chain of wheels and bumpers that stretches backward to the tree line.

The first car is a police cruiser—lightbar flashing, driving at a dirge-like pace. Another patrol car follows. Then comes a slow-moving, extended Cadillac, black, with funeral curtains, and chrome fenders. The Caddy is followed by the world’s longest procession of traffic, each car with its

high beams on. A gazillion headlights. Maybe more.

The cars are soon flanked by a railroad crossing. The train is about to run. The barricades close, and the procession’s lead car slows to a halt at the gate.

The faroff whistle sounds out train-whistle code—two long, one short, one long. Earth rumbles beneath the diesel locomotive’s power. The motorcade begins to accumulate more vehicles behind the Cadillac while waiting for the train to pass.

There’s a man on the porch of the house next door to me. He's within spitting distance.

“A funeral,” I hear him say to his grandson over the din of the passing train as he opens his front door.

They step off their porch together to stand barefoot in the front yard while cars pass and the procession gets longer.

“Why’re we standing here like this, Grandpa?” says the…

DEAR SEAN:

I know you have more important questions, but I’ve seen pictures of you wearing a cowboy hat and want to ask if you think it’s stupid for me to wear one? My brother says I will look stupid.

Thank you,
14-YEAR-OLD-IN-TAMPA

DEAR TAMPA:

Your brother doesn’t love the Lord.

I am a Resistol hat man myself. And it is my firmly held opinion that we need more kids in this world wearing behemoth headgear and dressing up like Willie Hugh Nelson.

Our nation’s forebears wore broad-brimmed, high-crowned hats; from the Pilgrim days to Burt Reynolds. Even the pope has his own enormous hat. So why shouldn’t you?

Take me. I’m no cowboy. Not even close. I am what you’d call a middle-aged homeowner with a 30-year-fixed mortgage. I don’t own a horse or live on a ranch, although my wife says my truck smells like a substance common to barnyards. But none of this matters because the main reason I wear a cowboy hat is this:

It works.

For years I worked on construction and

landscaping crews. We baked out in the sun all day, and ball caps didn’t cut it. In Florida, baseball hats are about as useful as ejection seats in a helicopter.

With a standard ball cap your neck and lower face remain exposed. And speaking as a card-carrying fair-skinned redhead who can develop third-degree sunburns in a movie theater, I need total coverage.

The second reason I wear the big hat is because I come from rural people, cattle people, livestock auctioneers, VFW bingo champions, and septic-tank installation specialists. These men wore tall hats with wide brims, and there was nothing unusual about it.

I received my first cattleman’s hat when I was very young and I never took it off. I have early photographs of myself wearing a diaper, sucking my thumb, and sporting a Resistol hat for my mother’s Bible study…

You’ve never heard of him. And neither had I until this morning when I received an email from a woman who I’ll call Matilda. She told me about a man she knew years ago.

He was living in his car, parked in a big-box superstore parking lot near the interstate. He was mid-40s, tap-water blue eyes, olive skin, he spoke only Spanish with a strong Argentinian accent.

His dwelling was a beat-up two-door ‘80s model Honda CR-X, which is perhaps the ugliest automobile ever manufactured in the history of mankind save for the Ford Pinto. With a close third being a ‘92 Buick Skylark I once owned.

Nobody really knows how he arrived in the parking lot except that his Honda went kaput one night. He managed to push the CR-X into the store entrance, and after that it was home sweet home.

Each night he would lie beneath his Honda with an electric lantern and a Chilton auto repair manual, turning a ratchet, but never getting closer to actually

repairing anything.

To avoid suspicion, he regularly pushed his hunk of vehicular repulsiveness into different parking spaces. Sort of like a game of musical Hondas. But management never ran him off because everyone liked him. In fact, the security guards helped him push the car.

Matilda says, “The employees got used to him being around, he was the first person to say good morning to me every day.”

Honda Guy quickly became a minor legend among employees. There was the night when a stranger placed a garbage bag full of puppies into the store’s Dumpster. Honda Guy saw it happen. He rescued nine newborn hounds and nursed them to life in his backseat. Later he walked several miles to deliver them to a shelter. He kept one puppy for himself.

There was the time an elderly woman’s car broke down. It happened when the temperature was over 100 degrees outside.…

I am on a video call using my laptop. I stare at the blank screen waiting for my virtual host to arrive.

Meantime, I see the miniature version of my prodigious Mister Potato Head face on my monitor. I am trying to ignore the fact that I look like I’ve been sleeping under a porch for the last several decades. I try to fix my hair, but I only make more fall out.

I’m having a rough morning.

The conference call is joined by another entity, but no image yet. Then comes the voice. An adult woman speaks. “Hello? Can you see us?”

“No.”

“How about now?”

“Still no.”

“Hold on. Anything?”

“Nada.”

The sound of technological fiddling. “Wait... This stupid... Freakin’ camera… I need to... Get my…” Crashing noise. Followed by: “Anything?”

“No.”

I sympathize with tech confusion. I don’t jibe with the digital effluvia of modern life. No matter how I try, I cannot feel warm and fuzzy about video calls, GPSs, or applying signatures to PDF files. These are dark arts.

I bought my first cellphone when I was a

grown man with a mortgage. Back then mobile phones were novelty devices roughly the size of cinderblocks, you had to carry them in leather holsters like Little Joe Cartwright. We’ve come a long way.

Suddenly, a face appears on my screen. A mother seated beside a 12-year-old girl. The mother scheduled this call last week as a surprise for her daughter.

Both ladies are wearing strings of pearls.

“Hi!” they say with a wave.

The girl is first to speak. “These are my grandmother’s pearls, they’re not real, they’re Majorica, she let me borrow them for this, I read your story about how your mother-in-law always wears pearls.”

My mother-in-law would be monumentally proud. Eighty-one-year-old Mother Mary wears pearls and poppy-red Color Envy matte lipstick to check her mailbox.

The mother straightens her daughter’s necklace and says,…

On Sunday mornings long ago I would walk into the clapboard church early, a few hours before service, to find the old woman sitting on the piano bench, warming up the Mason & Hamlin.

Her fingers were twisted with arthritis. Her hair was freshly blued. She was a walking advertisement for the Estée Lauder bath powder product line.

I was the church’s pitiful guitarist. They let me play acoustic beside the venerable pianist during the clapping songs. We played uptempo tunes like:

“I got a home in Gloryland that outshines the sun,
“I got a home in Gloryland that outshines the sun,
“Way beyond the blue…”

I wasn’t a great guitarist, I contributed very little in the way of talent. But the old woman once told me: “It don’t matter how little you have, as long as you give it away.”

So I gave it away. Although I’m not sure many wanted it. I would arrive at the church carrying my heavy guitar case, before the people showed up, slip in the

back pew, and listen to her finger through a Debussy piece by memory. “Clair de Lune.” Eyes closed. Channeling old Claude.

She was my friend, and she proved it a few times.

One time someone in the congregation got peeved because I showed up to play guitar wearing blue jeans and a button down that wasn’t starched like marine-grade plywood. It was the old pianist who defended me against the fundamentalist fashion police.

And there was the time I invited four of my landscaping coworkers to Wednesday night's meeting to see me play. Four of my Mexican friends showed up wearing neon work shirts and grass-stained boots and sat right up front.

The preacher intercepted my friends and guided them to the back pews so their collective appearance wouldn’t be distracting for others.

It was the old woman who gave that young minister a verbal dressing…

He bought his son a new truck for a graduation gift. Well, actually, the truck isn’t new, it’s a 2008 Silverado 1500, lightly used, with only 72,000 miles. Not a bad deal.

As soon as they bought the vehicle the first thing they did was take it for a long ride along the smooth, scenic rural highways of Alabama. Disney World for Chevy and Ford owners.

The graduate and his dad piled into the front cab and tore out for the hinterlands. Graduate at the wheel; Dad in the passenger seat, gripping the chicken handle. University of Alabama sticker on the bumper.

The graduate did all the things guys are supposed to do when they purchase a truck. He lightly let go of the wheel at medium speed to make sure the steering didn’t pull. He gave the gas pedal a workout.

He made sure the radio was working, although they couldn’t find any theme music. American radio went downhill a long time ago. There was a time when you could hear

Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, or Spade Cooley on the airwaves. Today, nobody even knows who those guys are.

The graduate kept his window down. The fields of peanuts and cotton whipped by at fifty-five. The kid draped his hand out the window and made an airplane with his flat palm.

They stopped at a gas station. His dad got pork rinds and coffee. The graduate got spicy ghost-pepper beef jerky, the kind that will wreck a man’s bowels for the next nineteen years. Young man’s food.

“Can I drive?” said Dad, sounding like a young man himself.

“Sure.”

So they switched places. Dad took the wheel and draped his flat palm out the window and made an airplane too.

And he thought about the graduate beside him. A boy who is older than the others in his graduating class. A kid who finished school much later than scheduled…

I'm sitting with my Methodist mother-in-law in the living room. We are replaying old memories like worn out records. There is a ballgame playing in the background. Braves are winning.

She sits in her wheelchair, nursing a nightly glass of Metamucil. I am sitting in a fold-up rollator walker, drinking one of her Ensure meal replacements. Chocolate.

The white-haired woman gets a sly look on her face and says, “Do you remember that one time…?”

There is mischief in her voice. And I already know where she’s going with this. Even so, I prod. “What ’one time?’”

“Oh, the time I came over to your house, unannounced, several years ago…?”

I knew we were going here.

“You mean the time you saw me naked?”

She laughs and sips her fiber supplement. “That would be the instance of which I speak.”

I might as well tell you the story now that we’ve brought it up. And I'm sorry if this is offensive because I consider myself a sincere gentleman. I mean it. I open doors for ladies, watch my language, and

I don’t slouch.

But the truth is—and I can hardly say it—my mother-in-law has indeed seen me wearing nothing but the Joy of the Lord. And I mean the full biscuit.

Don't make me repeat myself.

It happened years ago. And the violation occurred right in my own house. I'm forever traumatized. In fact, just writing about this causes unpleasant feelings to start swimming inside me, some of which date back to middle-school gym showers.

I can't really explain how it happened. All I know is that one moment I'm waltzing across my empty house after a shower, enjoying the invigorating springtime air, then (WAM!) a peeping Thomasina is standing in my kitchen.

“Mother Mary!” I squealed—but in a masculine tone. “How'd you get in here?”

“I have a key, ding-a-ling.”

"Please don't use that word."

She handed me a…

The old woman is lying in a hospital bed in her living room. The hospice nurse sits in the corner keeping an eye on her. Today is a big day.

“Is he here yet?” asks the patient.

“He’s coming,” says the nurse. “Your daughter said he texted, his plane just landed.”

“How much longer?”

“You know how traffic is.”

These are the final stages of her life. She was an English teacher once. She taught high-schoolers to read Hemingway, Clemens, and Steinbeck. And how to love them.

Local students said her class was the best thing about their one-point-five-horse town. Especially when she used to get students to reenact “Huckleberry Finn.” The English teacher always played the part of Huck while wearing cutoff overalls, straw hat, and painted freckles.

The old woman says, “What time is it now?”

“Same time as when you asked thirty seconds ago. Relax, Miss Adeline. He’s coming.”

She is hazy from medication. “What if he changed his mind?”

“Miss Adeline.”

Forty-three years ago the English teacher’s husband was unfaithful. He had been having a relationship with her

best friend for years. It ruined her. Their marriage shattered like plate glass and their family split in two. The Leave it to Beaver image died. And June Cleaver traded in her pearls.

“Miss Adeline. How’s your pain level? You comfortable?”

The old woman tries to swallow. “I’m thirsty.”

“I’ll get you some water.”

The nurse leaves. And the old woman is left with memories. Some good. Some not. She never remarried. She never spoke to her ex-husband again, either. Not once.

She never used his name, never acknowledged him. She moved to a different part of the state. He moved across the country. They have been strangers for four decades. But that was a long time ago. And pancreatic cancer has changed her perspective.

Then a doorbell rings.

“That’s him,” says the old woman. “Maybe this was…

DEAR SEAN:

I’m afraid cause its my schools dance party and what should I do about a boy who I like? I dont think hes even going to ask me about the party if no one does something quick.

We are supposed to have are dance partners all ready but I don’t. So should I wait so he can ask me, or can I ask him since I’m a girl?

My grandma said ask you since my parents are not alive anymore.

10-YEARS-OLD-IN-GEORGIA

DEAR GEORGIA:

You have a crisis on your hands. This is serious. But before I say anything else, let me first clarify what your letter says so I can make sure I understand correctly:

1. You are 10 years old.
2. There is a school dance.
3. You want to go.
4. With a cute boy.
5. And you want him to invite you.
6. But he’s a guy.
7. And guys are too busy picking belly-button lint to realize what’s going on.
8. Which is

exactly how I spent my entire school year when I was 10 years old.

All this has you conflicted. On one hand, you want to go to the dance with this boy. On the other, girls don’t traditionally ask boys to dances—although this rule never made sense to me.

So basically you’re stuck.

Well, the first thing I can tell you is try to get used to it. Because it won’t be the last time.

I stress this because when you get older you’ll be tempted to feel bad about yourself when you get confused about romance. Someday your heart might get broken and you’ll want to point the blame at yourself.

I don’t know why, but we tend to blame ourselves when something doesn’t work out. And when we’re lonely, it’s easy to think we’re not good-looking enough, or popular enough, or wearing…

This isn’t my story, it’s his. He talked, I listened. And I tried to quiet the skeptic who lives inside my brain.

The tale takes place at night. There are hardly any cars on an old two-lane highway near the Louisiana-Texas line.

He is a middle-aged ironworker, walking the shoulder with a sack over his back. An army duffle bag, olive drab. The same pack he’s been carrying since Korea.

The steelwalker’s personal life is a mess. He’s left his home and his kids. He cries a lot. He has pushed away his family. He’s isolated himself. And he’s tired. Tired all over. Tired of being alive. Tired of… Everything.

But he likes to walk highways. And he particularly loves the Milky Way, which is his travel companion this evening.

In most cities you can’t see the “River of Heaven,” as it was known in ancient Japan. There’s too much skyglow in urban places.

Last year when he was working the iron in Detroit, he never saw the Milky Way, the bright city lights obscured it. He did a stint walking

skyscrapers in Tulsa, too. Couldn’t see stars there, either.

But in quiet parts of Texas, the ribbon of the Milky Way eases through a pristine purple sky and puts on a perfect show. Yes, tonight is a perfect night.

And if all goes according to his plan, this will be his last night alive.

A truck stops beside him. The brake rotors grind, blue exhaust coughs from a tailpipe. A white-haired guy in a crushed cattleman’s hat kicks open the door and says, “Need a lift, pal?”

“Nah thanks, I’m alright.”

“You sure? Be glad to carry you somewhere.”

The ironworker thinks about the stranger’s offer. His feet are sore. His knees aren’t what they used to be. He glances at the sky one last time. “Hell... Why not.”

He throws his bag into the bed and crawls into…