Dear Malcolm,

I received your handwritten letter in the mail yesterday. It was written so incredibly well. And I wanted to take a moment to write you back. One writer to another.

I wish I had your penmanship. For a fourteen-year-old, you impress me. My writing looks like something that came from the backend of a chicken.

I was excited to hear about your new adopted parents, and how much you love your home with your new adopted siblings. I hope you are happy there. It sounds like you’ve had many good foster parents along the way. I know you miss them.

You mentioned that you recently got a typewriter. I hope you get years of use out of it. I have always been a typewriter man. In fact, the rough draft for this letter is being written on an old Lettera 32. I thought it was only fitting.

So let’s get down to writing business. You asked how to write a story. And even though I don’t have any real advice (since

I have no idea what the heck I’m doing) I can tell you a story of my own.

When I was in community college I took a night course with a bunch of military guys. The classes were held on a military base in a double-wide trailer. We were all adults, and I was the only non-military person in the room.

One night our teacher told us to write a five-hundred-word essay about something we found interesting, then we would read it aloud in class.

And I had a private meltdown. Something interesting? I couldn’t think of ANYTHING interesting. My life was not interesting. And to make matters worse, this was a classroom full of military personnel. Some had traveled to Europe, Japan, Hawaii, out west, back east, up north, around the globe. One man had been to Antarctica.

The farthest I had been was Texarkana.

So…

A gas station. It is 102 degrees outside. I came here to pump gas and—God willing—buy some Chili Cheese Fritos. I’m wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves.

That last sentence is something I wouldn’t have written four months ago.

In fact, if you were to tell me four months ago that everyone in the whole world would be wearing face masks and latex products, I would have laughed you off your barstool, then told you to buy me another beer.

But here we are. Everyone in the store is wearing a mask. Young, middle-aged, and elderly. Women wear masks that match their outfits. Children wear masks that look like they were manufactured in Candyland.

This world is a very different place. What a difference four months can make.

There are several of us waiting to checkout, but we’re not moving because an old man is holding up the line.

He is drenched in sweat, trembling, and confused. He counts his change on the counter. He is buying a Coke, but he’s having a hard time communicating with the cashier.

I

can’t blame him. Surgical masks have changed basic person-to-person communication. Conversations are nearly impossible. And people do not shake hands anymore.

I saw an old friend yesterday and we both resisted the urge to pump hands. It was weird. This is the first time I’ve lived in a world where grown men touch elbows instead of using hearty handshakes.

You definitely wouldn’t have touched elbows four months ago.

The old man is still having problems. Bless his heart. He is every old man you’ve ever known. He is slightly unshaven, wearing rumpled khakis, and a ball cap with a battleship embroidered on front.

Finally, the cashier says, “Sir, don’t worry about the money. You can have the Coke. It’s on me.”

The man stares at her. “Huh?”

“I said it’s free.”

The cashier further demonstrates her point by physically…

I am going to hell. When I tell you what I’ve done you will nod and say, “Yep, he’s definitely getting a top-of-the-line condo on the Lake of Fire.”

Truthfully, I’m not sure how it happened. All I know is that a devilish impulse can strike out of nowhere, and it can ruin a man’s soul forever.

I learned this from one of my grade school teachers, Mrs. Michaels. She was a committed Pentecostal woman with a beehive hairdo who smelled like bath powder.

She told us that it was easy to end up in hell. All you had to do was listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd or play Dungeons and Dragons board games. And before you knew it, (snap!) it was everlasting pitchforks.

My downward spiral into depravity happened this afternoon when I was driving past my neighbor's house. I saw something in his vegetable garden. Something gleaming in the midsummer sun. Bright red fruit, hanging from sacred vines.

Tomatoes.

I pulled into my neighbor’s vacant driveway. I glanced both directions. The residential street was

empty. There were no witnesses.

The first thoughts of sin entered my mind. And an eerie calm settled onto the world, like the stillness before a tornado. I went in for a closer look.

Throughout my life I have met a lot of people who hate tomatoes. I’ve never understood this. My friend Ryan, for instance, wouldn’t touch tomatoes. He was the kind of kid who would only eat spaghetti topped with melted American cheese, which just shows you what kind of guy we were dealing with.

For years we couldn’t convince Ryan to so much as sniff a tomato. Until one day, I still don’t know how we did it, we finally got him to eat some canned tomatoes.

Moments after eating them, we discovered Ryan was deathly allergic to canned tomatoes. His lips began to swell. An ambulance was called. Sirens blaring. The…

To the couple I saw getting married on the beach:

Congratulations. And thank you for allowing me, a total stranger, to throw rice at you as you left the public beach.

I was out for a sunset walk, barefoot, when an older woman in a fancy dress grabbed me and several beachgoers and asked if we wanted to throw Kraft Minute White Rice at you. What a treat.

We tossed rice by the handful while the wedding guitarist played the song “All You Need is Love.”

And I thought it was the perfect song for your big day.

The thing is, some people will tell you that you need more than love. They’ll tell you that you need money, a few cars, a three-bedroom-two-bath, a good job, great insurance, a dependable beer refrigerator, IRAs, etc.

Which scares a lot of young people away from getting married. But I’m glad it didn’t scare you two. Because marriage is the most fun you’ll ever have. Even more fun that throwing rice at strangers.

Once you’re hitched, you will learn big

things. You’ll learn how to argue in the middle of Piggly Wiggly. You will understand that being “right” doesn’t mean jack squat. You’ll learn how quickly money vanishes. And you’ll finally understand what your mother meant about sharing.

Actually, that’s the best part about marriage. The sharing. It actually enhances day-to-day life, like a super-powered magnifying glass. I don’t know how it works, but it does.

I’ll explain what I mean:

I once visited the Grand Canyon by myself. I stopped by the Big Ditch. I snapped a few pictures, and hung out awhile. To be perfectly honest, it was uneventful. Don’t get me wrong, the view was incredible, but I had nobody to share it with.

A few years later, I took my wife to the Grand Canyon. This time the grandeur was amplified by 4,750,000 times. Same view; different experience.

A Birmingham art museum. I was younger. I had driven four hours to get here. I was wearing my nice clothes. And I was very excited. This was one of the high points of my life.

I had money in my pocket and a ticket stub for the exhibit.

I’ve never been what you’d call an “art-exhibit guy.” People in big cities probably go to exhibits all the time. But the only art I ever knew were the drawings on the boys restroom wall drawn by Bobby Carmichael. And those weren’t exactly pictures of the apostles.

I was giddy in that museum lobby. The whole day took on a dreamlike quality.

“Pinch me,” I said to the elderly woman ahead of me in line.

The woman laughed. She was leaning on a walker. She was from Massachusetts.

“When he died,” she said. “They made his studio into a museum. It’s not far from my house. Toured it once. If you ever go to Massachusetts, you should see it.”

“Maybe one day,” I said.

This was the first and

only art exhibition I had ever attended. And to me, it wasn’t just an exhibit. This was seeing an old friend.

Throughout my lifetime I had spent a lot of time admiring his paintings, which once graced the covers of the “Saturday Evening Post.”

And as silly as it sounds, this artist got me through some hard times.

“My husband met him once,” the old woman went on. “Said he was a real nice man.”

Our single-file line was hedged with velvet ropes. I was wearing my fancy jeans. My hair had just been cut by a classy barber in Mountainbrook who charged me thirty bucks. It was highway robbery.

But it’s not every day you go to an art exhibit. I was really putting on the dog.

A museum employee unlatched the velvet rope. People emptied into the gallery. Each wall…

You are amazing. Yes, I’m sure you know this, but it’s hard to imagine just what a miracle you truly are.

Your daily life is pretty normal. You make your bed, go to work, and eat lots of potato chips. But you’re totally unaware that you are a rare occurrence in nature.

If we were to diagram how you came to exist, it would boil down to a bunch of statistics and things often found written on the pages of school textbooks, like: “hypotenuse,” “halocarbon-14,” “periosteum membrane,” and “Mister Weinstein’s science class is so boring that I am literally going to die.”

So it’s probably good not to spend too much time thinking about what a miracle you are. Because if you thought about it too often you’d get cocky.

You’re alive. That’s what matters. What’s the point in talking about it? What’s the big deal?

Well, the big deal is this: You are here. Right now. You actually get to exist in the cosmos for a brief blip upon the timeline of the universe. And this is very—I repeat—very rare.

The exact circumstances that formed you predate your mother and father. They predate your ancient ancestors. They reach back to your prehistoric great-great-granddaddies and great-great-grannies who managed to stay alive long enough to make babies.

But I’m out of my league here. I’ll be the first to admit, I know nothing about science or math. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I didn’t fail Mister Weinstein’s science class. (I did.)

Let’s take a look at the simple probability of your life. We’ll start with your dad meeting your mom. That seems easy enough, right?

Nope. It wasn’t easy. Do you realize how statistically uncommon it is for two people to meet? You’re looking at odds of one in 20,000.

Basically, imagine your mom going to a baseball stadium and introducing herself every male in the seats to…

Lately people have been sending me what I would call “rants.” These are often writings found on social media. They are usually written by angry folks who are upset about random hot-button topics, which I won’t mention here because I don’t want anyone throwing a brick through my window.

The writers of internet rants always end things by stating something corny like: “Just my two cents.” But when you consider that they’ve just written at least six pages of text, it comes to more like $12.50.

The thing is, people read these things. Then, they get mad enough to sit down and write their own social-media rants. Once these rants have traveled to the outer reaches of cyber universe, my aunt Eulah sends them to me.

I don’t know why I read these things, but I do. Ever since the coronavirus epidemic started, I have been sucked into well-written tirades penned by people who probably mean well, but who are too mad to do well.

I just finished reading one rant that was about surgical masks.

The author was furious about the issue. The thing must have been one hundred paragraphs long. And the scary thing is: I actually took the time to read it.

So I’ve decided to write one, too.

Hey, why not? Everyone deserves to express their own disgust. Besides, complaining has become fashionable. Some people are so incredibly good at griping that they have become famous for it.

So the first thing I would like to complain about is children.

That’s right. I’m not holding back. It’s every man for himself. I’m complaining that childhood doesn’t last long enough. And this really frosts my shorts.

Do you remember being a kid? It was great. The world was ten times bigger, flowers were more fragrant, and time seemed to last infinitely longer.

Here’s a fact: A single year in Kid World actually lasts for about two decades.…

DEAR SEAN:

Will you write about your dogs or some kind of animal for my daughter? My daughter loves animals and she’s going through a really hard time, not just with all the coronavirus stuff, but recently her dad (we’re divorced) moved away and remarried someone who has three little girls. It’s been really hard on my daughter. Her little heart is broken.

Thanks,
HEARTBROKEN-IN-ST.-LOUIS

DEAR ST. LOUIS:

Meet Lula Bell. To the rest of the world, she’s just a feral cat. But she and I are deeply in love.

My wife and I named her. And to be honest, we probably shouldn’t be allowed to name cats because we like double names too much.

My friend from New Jersey recently informed me that double names are considered “country.”

I take offense to this. People in my family have a long history of double names. I have uncles and cousins named Ray Ray, Tommy Lee, Amy Jo, Willy Sue, and of course José Jesús Luís Ramirez who married into the family.

My mother was even going to name

me John John since my father’s name was John. I am glad this never happened.

But getting back to Lula Bell. Not only was she was feral, she also had a broken leg. It was bad, too. It looked like it had been mangled in a dogfight or a car accident. It was covered in scars.

The vet looked at the chewed up limb and said Lula would be messed up for life. There was nothing we could do. She might even die.

That’s probably why the poor girl was skittish. Pain will do that to a creature. Lula Bell wouldn’t let anyone come within fifty feet of her. Not even if you were offering her fresh trout. I actually tried this once.

Lula simply wanted you to set the food down, then back the heck off, punk.

Often I would…

A little breakfast joint. The waitress is wearing a mask. I wear a mask. The few customers are wearing masks. All God’s children got masks.

Waylon Jennings is singing on an unseen radio. The whole place smells like bacon and lemon-scented Lysol.

A construction worker beside me is sipping from a mug. He is not wearing his mask per se, it sits atop his head while he drinks coffee. It looks almost like he is wearing a little sunbonnet.

“More coffee?” says the waitress. Her own mask impedes her speech, so it sounds like she’s saying, “Mmm kpfff?”

The waitress is wearing rubber gloves. After she touches his cup for the refill she removes her gloves, throws them into the garbage, and gets a fresh pair.

“Thanks,” he says.

“You’re welcome, darlin’.” she says.

A little boy sits at the counter a few seats from me. His mask has licensed cartoon characters on it. He lifts the mask before each bite, then pulls it back over his face to chew.

“Take your mask off to eat, honey,” says his

mother.

“But,” says the little kid, “I like wearing it.”

This is a very different world than I’m used to.

The bell on the door dings. Three workmen come walking into the joint. They are not wearing masks. They are wearing work clothes, ball caps, and they are covered in sweat.

“Masks,” the waitress says to them. At least, I think she’s the one doing the talking. I can’t see her mouth moving.

The men dig surgical masks out of their pockets, wrap them over their faces, and apologize. They all sit in a booth with Sunbonnet Guy, who is apparently their pal. They browse the menus.

After a few minutes, one of the men starts talking about his daughter. It’s a brief conversation, but from what I gather, his daughter has just been released from the hospital. She’s had some…

I was a kid when I saw Charlie Daniels play. At least I think it was him. I could be mistaken. I remember sitting in the cheap seats of the dim Nashville auditorium to see the Grand Ole Opry.

My father was whistling, two-fingered. That’s the funny thing about the Opry. Even though it was a place for seeing a show, it wasn’t a place where people were quiet.

No sir. An Opry man didn’t merely applaud the Statler Brothers, Grandpa Jones, or the immortal Sarah Cannon. This was a place where a man put both fingers into his own mouth and whistled like he was calling horses.

That night my father was eating something. Peanuts I think. But he still managed to whistle between every song, and after every joke. Fingers in the mouth.

The irony is that he was a bad whistler. Some whistlers could shatter glass, but my father sounded like an asthmatic jug player.

That night, I was so enamored with the guy playing a fiddle onstage that I

tried a two-finger whistle, just to show my support. I managed to spray spit all over the lady in front of me.

She gave me a dirty look and I apologized, but she was not buying it.

The guy with the violin was large. Big brown beard. Sunglasses. He looked like a Pentecostal deacon wearing a silverbelly cattleman’s hat, and a belt buckle bigger than a hub from a Studebaker.

Looking back, I hope it was Charlie Daniels because Charlie played a tune that became an American fixture in those days. It was a song that everyone’s daddy listened to while changing the oil or fixing the bathroom sink.

I am of course talking about a song that involves the Devil going down to Georgia, looking for a soul to steal.

It was a country song that my Bible-slapping mother hated so much that she would have…