I washed the dogs with a hose. My wife sprayed me with a hose. We ate cornbread and pinto beans for supper. We played cards.

I left a funeral. I was driving through the North Florida rain. My dogs were in the seat behind me.

It was a monsoon on the highway. I’m talking puddles the size of Lake Gertrude. Raindrops the size of Coke bottles.

Cars ahead had hazards flashing. Traffic was crawling. I held the wheel with both hands. A man in a truck sped around my vehicle. He almost amputated my side mirror.

The man’s tires kicked up a waterfall. I almost lost control. I couldn’t see. Horns honked. Tires squealed. I pulled onto the shoulder. I was rattled.

I loosened my necktie.

I don’t often wear neckties. But my mother would rather have her toenails removed with tongs than discover her son attended a funeral with an open collar.

My hands were shaking. My stomach was sick. I was lucky to be alive.

I spotted a dirt road ahead—off the main highway. A small pathway, running into the woods. Against my better judgement I took the forest road.

It ran me through the acres of pines, over bumps and rocks.

There were deep ruts in the road. Ruts which had turned into miniature rivers of orange mud.

Thelma Lou (bloodhound) and Otis (alleged Labrador) sat at attention. They are like most dogs; they are connoisseurs of mud.

The desolate roads were unmarked, and I was in no hurry to get back on the highway. So I drove. And drove.

And it hit me: this was fun.

Furthermore, this was high-quality mud. Not that thin stuff that passes for mud on TV. This stuff was top shelf. I started smiling more than a grown man ought to.

That’s when I stumbled upon it. The Mother of All Mud Holes.

It was an empty lot, pristine mud, without tire tracks or obstacles. Only flat, sprawling soup. It called to me.

Thelma howled—which is dog-language for, “Do it, Daddy-O! Do it!” It is a…

It was four in the morning, hours of work remained, eighty thousand papers were still in the backseat, we sat on a curb. We waited for a locksmith. I placed my head in my hands.

I woke early. My back is stiff. I should be sleeping right now, but I’m not.

My mother always said this would happen. “One day,” she said. “You won’t sleep as long or hard as you used to.”

She was right. She was always right.

It is dark outside. So, I drive to the gas station. I buy coffee and a bag of sodium-free pork rinds for my dog. The coffee isn’t ready yet.

The man behind the counter is nice. He puts the coffee on and tells me it’ll be a few minutes. So I wait out front, looking at the night sky.

A man pulls up in a ratty vehicle. He jumps out and starts loading the newspaper machine with today’s edition.

“Good morning,” I say.

He smiles. His eyes are baggy. His face is tired. I recognize that face.

“Morning,” he says.

“Can I have one of those?” I ask, handing him a five-dollar bill. “They’re better when they’re fresh.”

He forces a courtesy laugh. “Just pay

the machine, dude, besides I can’t make change.”

“I don’t want change.”

He stares at me. He takes the money. He tips his hat. I get my paper.

One hundred years ago, my mother and I threw the Northwest Florida Daily News. We would wake up at two in the morning. She would drink god-awful gas station coffee every blessed day.

And each morning, she’d take one sip and say, “This coffee tastes like bathwater.”

We were service people.

In daily life, you had your regular Joes—guys who had nice cars, a single-story-three-bedroom, and two-point-five kids. And you had service people. Us.

Service people are the sort who drink bathwater coffee.

One morning, my mother and I were delivering papers to apartments on the beach. We carried large canvas bags, slung over our shoulders. My…

The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a voice that’s sweet enough to spread on toast.

Cracker Barrel—I’m eating bacon and eggs. In the background: Ernest Tubb is singing about waltzing across Texas. I’ve been on an interstate all morning.

There is an old woman at a table near ours. She was here before my wife and I arrived. Her white hair is fixed up. She is wiry, wearing a nice zebra-striped Sunday blouse.

She smiles at me.

She is alone, sipping coffee. It doesn’t take long to strike up chit-chat.

She has lines on her face, and a husky voice. She is from the old world. She calls me “sweetheart” twice in the same sentence.

And even though I don’t know her, I know her type. I’ll bet she prepares chicken and dumplings that would make clergymen consider using the Lord’s name in vain.

She tells me that for most of her life she’s been a mother and a wife.

Her husband died many years ago. She has two kids. A son, a daughter. She hardly sees either.

“My daughter and I are supposed to be having lunch today,” she tells me, looking at her watch. “My

grandbabies should be here any second. I can’t WAIT to kiss them all.”

Those lucky grandbabies.

From what I learn, the aforementioned daughter and grandchildren lead busy lives. The grandkids stay occupied with soccer, baseball, ballet, mission trips, and various special activities that require special T-shirts.

The dear woman tries to get together with them as often as she can. But schedules get in the way.

Last week, she decided to drive a few hours to attend her grandson’s soccer game. She packed her folding chair, her snacks, and arrived early.

She waited for one hour on the sidelines of an empty field. A maintenance man told her the game had been cancelled.

Nobody had told Granny.

The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a…

But then, this is how I have always been. I wanted the wrong things. And I wasted a lot of time wanting them. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret much, but I’m sorry if I missed the small things I should’ve noticed.

I am at my friend’s house, watching the ballgame. Dogs everywhere.

Otis, our new three-month-old Labrador is at my feet. He looks like a Holstein cow, only smaller, with considerably more stink.

The ballgame plays. And I am looking at a pond behind my friend’s house. There are lillies on the water, acres of them. Water lilies. The the sound of insects is louder than screaming baseball fans on television.


A hit.

The crowd goes wild. I go wild. My friend goes wild. Otis pees. And it’s time for another beer.

My friend’s wife makes soup for supper. And biscuits. Hot, buttery catheads. And we are sitting together, eating, talking, almost like family.

We are talking about everything and nothing. And I’m glad. No, not just glad. I’m glad to be here. Right now.

You might not care about this, but for my whole life, I wanted to be something else. Namely, a musician. I wanted to sing songs in important places. But I wasn’t good enough. A man

has to accept when he’s not good enough.

I had a lot of ideas for my own life. The list goes on and on, and it embarrasses me to talk about. Some ambitions were more idiotic than others.

I wanted to work in radio, for instance. My aunt always told me I had a face that was made for radio.

A man at a country music station auditioned me. He liked my voice and he let me read a few ads over the air.

The night before my artistic debut, I memorized the ads I’d been given. The next morning, I announced them over the air, using a radio announcer’s over-excited voice.

Here’s an ad I still remember—the names have been changed to protect the innocent:

“Phillips and Sons used CHEVY and PRE-OWNED FORD DEALERS, the city’s lowest prices…

Thelma outweighs Otis by at least forty pounds, and is infinitely more bulky. But I don’t want to downplay Otis’ strengths. He might be a squirt, but he is smart, a fast learner, and he can manufacture smells capable of bringing the most hardened shrimp boat captain to his knees.

The last thing we needed was another puppy.

This whole day seems like a blur. I woke up, ate breakfast, read the sports page, took a shower. And (snap!) I have two puppies. It all happened so fast, I’ve forgotten my own name.

The puppy’s name is Otis Campbell. He is black, with white socks, and a snow-white belly. He is part Labrador.

Otis has the disposition of your classic dog. Calm. Quiet. Loyal. Big eyes. He has a sixth sense for things like human emotion, basic spirituality, and how to rip stuffing from residential sofas.

It all started when my wife and I visited a puppy adoption fair today. This was a bad idea.

There were several cars in the parking lot. And inside were people from all walks of life.

A young couple in Spandex workout attire wandered the cell blocks. They poked fingers through cages. They spoke in high-pitched voices.

A red headed little boy held a terrier mutt who looked

like a malnourished Benji.

“He likes me, mom,” said the boy. “He licked me, look! He likes me.”

A young woman and her daughter sat in a kennel with a puppy so skinny you could see its skeleton. It was missing hair, and looked sick.

I asked about this dog.

“Yeah, he’s sweet,” said one volunteer. “He came to us half-starved.”

This upsets me.

There were dogs with names like “Pete,” “Sam,” “Duke,” and “Scruffy.” They watched me walk by with wide eyes and sad stares.

Many of these pups will not be adopted, the volunteers tell me. Many stay in shelters long enough to learn to prefer sleeping in concrete corners.

“Please, mom,” said the redhead again. “He’s so pretty, I promise I’ll take care of him.”

The mother shook her head. She said, “Put him down, I said…

I watched the sunrise. I was sitting in my truck, parked near the beach, eating an egg-and-cheese sandwich.

What a day. It was magnificent. Beginning with the first beam of sunlight.

The sun came up at 6:21 A.M. here in Northwest Florida. It happened the same as it does every day.

The sun woke before everyone else, got itself showered, combed its hair, ate some Corn Flakes, and made its ascent above the Gulf of Mexico.

I watched the sunrise. I was in my truck, parked near the beach, eating a breakfast sandwich.

The ball of light made the Gulf look like emeralds. I had to cover my eyes to look at the water.

Not many people talk about the sun, but they ought to. Because the sun will eventually burn this earth into a Pop Tart.

I hate to get all sciency on you—you’re looking at a 2.3 grade point average here—but scientists tell us that the sun keeps getting bigger. And one day, it will engulf the world as though it were my Uncle Tommy Lee engulfing dozens of innocent devilled eggs.

And when this colossal event happens, everything will be gone. Even devilled eggs. There will be no more trees, no grass, no skies, no more Lawrence Welk reruns. It will be lights out.

Well, actually, it will be lights ON.

You know what else? We are pretty small in the big scheme of things. The sun contains 99.86 percent of the “mass” found in the solar system. What does that mean?

Okay: imagine objects in the solar system were shrunken into miniatures. Imagine the earth were the size of a basketball. That would make the sun about the size of Bryant-Denny stadium.

The sun also makes its own gravity. Meaning: every dadgum thing in this universe sort of hovers around it—like folks at a potluck table.

In fact, if it weren’t for the sun’s gravity, the earth would shoot forward in a straight line through space.…

John emailed me. He told me a story. John was a wayward young man, with a criminal record, and a knack for falling in with the wrong crowd.

Thelma Lou sleeps on my lap. She is seventy pounds of bloodhound. She is wearing a handkerchief around her neck.

Tomorrow is a special day for her.

The handkerchief is red. We call this her “blanky” because she carries it wherever she goes. It used to be my everyday handkerchief. Now it’s hers.

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, boy. Here we go again. Not another sentimental dog story.”

No. That’s not what this is. The last thing I would ever write is a sentimental dog story. Those are dumb.

I’m writing an adventure. It’s about a tough guy named John.

John emailed me. He told me a story. John was a wayward young man, with a criminal record, and a knack for falling in with the wrong crowd.

John worked at the liquor store. Late one night, after closing shop, he was taking out the trash. He heard noise. He saw someone digging in the dumpster next door.

“Who’s there?” he hollered.

John heard quick footsteps. He saw silhouettes leap into a vehicle. He heard the engine roar. He saw a car drive away.

Then, whimpering came from the dumpster behind the supermarket.

He peeked inside.

A trash bag. It was covered in stale bread, rotting vegetables, and shredded paper.

John removed the bag. It was lumpy. And squirming. He opened it with a pocket knife. And, as John puts it: “Those puppies were no bigger than your hand.”

Newborns. Nine. Only eight were living. One puppy was not. They were black and white. They had pig-like faces. They made squeaking noises.

“Those guys left them to die,” says John. “I mean, the puppies were living, and those guys WILLINGLY wanted to change that.”

John took the puppies home. He washed the deceased puppy with dish soap—she was covered in stink and urine.…

You might not believe this, but I don’t think this world would keep spinning if you weren’t standing on it. I mean it.

Hey. Thank you for the tomatoes. I don’t know who you are, or how you got them to my doorstep anonymously. But thank you.

They are Slocomb tomatoes. The best in the known Western world. The last of the season. Red. Warm from the sun. Juicy. Have mercy.

I’d also like to say thanks to the little girl who opened the door for the boy in the wheelchair. The boy was wheeling toward the door. She raced to the door and held it open. She must’ve been nine years old, hair in ribbons.

He thanked her.

She answered, “Sure” in the voice of a little girl. But she is not a little girl. She is an incredible human being.

Thank you to the man who gave his hat to the Hispanic kid. The kid was in the open sunlight, standing beside his older sister, who held a cardboard sign. They were begging for money in Pensacola.

People drove past them. People wouldn’t even look at


But you did, sir. You gave that child your own hat. An Arkansas Razorbacks hat, of all things.

I was three cars behind you. I made a note about what you did in a little notebook in my truck. That’s what writers do. We carry notebooks. And I’d almost forgotten about what you did until today, when I found that notebook.

And thank you, Robbie. You are the right arm of my elderly mother-in-law. You drive her around town. You water every fern, scrub every dish, change every light bulb. And I’ll bet if you had a mind to, you could install brand new heating and cooling ductwork using nothing but a roll of duct tape and the Bible.

Thank you, Sylvia. Thank you for hugging my neck in the middle of a grocery store, even though we’ve never met in person before. Thank you for…

My father was tall, with a pair of blue heron legs. He would do a wind up, then kick a skinny leg outward, and pitch around his size-fourteen foot.

6:39 P.M. A bar. I am here to watch the ball game. The beer comes in tall glasses. The chicken wings are sizzling, and come garnished with a jalapeno pepper that causes serious medical damage to all who eat it.

The Braves are playing Tampa. The Braves look good this year.

I realize you might not care about baseball, and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a slow game, without much action. But it is very important to me.

My father was the kind of man who played catch with me nearly every summer night of my childhood. I remember when he bought me my first real glove. Until then, I’d been using secondhand gloves that were too big for my hand.

He oiled the new mitt with bacon fat, then wrote my name inside with a grease pencil—my father always scribbled names on things we owned. Even on shirts, hats, and underpants.

When I found the leather mitt on my dresser, it had a red

ribbon tied around it. It took my breath away.

The fact is, I didn’t have much of a throwing arm, but I could catch. And this was one of the few things I ever heard my father brag about.

“My son can catch anything,” he once said at a church picnic. “Why, if I threw a washing machine across the lawn, my boy’d find a way to get his glove on it.”

This made me so proud it hurt.

That night, my father decided to back up his claims for the fellas on the church lawn. I slid my glove over my hand.

My father was a pitcher. He could throw trick balls. He threw four-seam fastballs, two-seamers, Bugs Bunny balls, Dipsy Doodle curves, split knuckles, and a pitch he called the “Wandering John”—in which the ball would travel so slow that it would visit the…

There is a lot going on underneath that face of hers. And even though she doesn’t say it outright, I know she still misses her father, she feels like a burden on her sister.

This morning, I went to the gas station to get a newspaper, coffee, and lottery ticket. My bloodhound, Thelma Lou—poster child for moderate hyperactivity disorder—usually goes with me.

The way our morning routine usually works is simple: I buy a newspaper, maybe some powdered donuts; she steals my donuts, and eats my newspaper.

But this morning, when I walked into the gas station, something was wrong. Before I even got to the donuts, I could tell the air was tense.

The scene was this:

The cashier behind the counter was frazzled. She obviously did not know how to use the computerized cash register.

A customer at the counter was aggravated with her. There were five customers in line. They were all displaying universal gestures of annoyance.

Clearing throats. Folding arms. Tapping feet. The woman in front of me glanced at her watch. One man sighed hard enough to knock over a circus tent.

“Not-niceness.” That’s what we’re dealing with here. And it’s running rampant in today’s world.

The customers were

growing not-nicer by the minute. Finally, a man slammed his change on the counter. Another man mumbled a cuss word before storming out.

One woman shook her head and said, “Learn how to do your JOB, sweetie.”

When I got to the cashier she was too overwhelmed to say anything. Who can blame her? It’s not every day five customers behave like walking-talking jack mules.

She was a woman who looked older than she was. Her hair was blonde. She had tattoos on her arms, and on her hands.

“People can certainly be mean,” I remarked.

“Yeah,” she said. Then, she sort of broke down. She placed her head in her hands.

“I just CAN’T figure out this computer,” she said. “I ain’t stupid, I know how to do stuff, but this thing’s acting weird.”

So, I made conversation.…