I got a call from Michelle Johnson with an offer to start writing a column in this magazine. My first book had just been published, and when the phone rang I was literally staring at a blank computer screen, trying my very hardest to think of a second book. I didn’t know much about writing columns, but I knew they were shorter than books. She didn’t have to ask twice.
Since then I have fallen hard for columns. Every month I’ve loved our conversations about coyotes and gas station etiquette and the surprising satisfaction in a breakdown at Wal-Mart. There have also been, apparently, many talks about lights. I’m foggy on those, but I do remember discussing snake sticks. Have you made yours yet? The word in the country is that the warm winter means the snakes are out. Remember, your boots can never be too high and there is never a good reason to put a snake inside your hat.
Now it’s time to tell two last stories. Then I am going to tap my lights and make like a tree. If that doesn’t make sense now, then it will soon. Hopefully.
Story one. A few years ago I was playing outside with my son when a strange car pulled through the gate and parked at our house like they owned the place. I was searching for what to say and reflecting on the sign at our neighbor’s house — “We don’t call 9-1-1” — when the gentleman in the car kindly called out, “Do you live here?”
I didn’t answer. Because in case of an attack, I didn’t live here. But in the case of Publishers Clearing House, I most definitely did.
As it ended up, the man had grown up in the house that used to stand where our current one does. He just wanted to come by and see the land that had made him, as he said, the person he is today. I told him to roam and pick up pecans and do whatever he wanted, and while I watched him wander off toward the river, I tried with all my might not to think of my own boys coming back to our house someday because I didn’t want to blubber and cry.
Instead I thought about how we become the people we are going to be and whether it’s possible to pinpoint the moments when that happens.
Story two occurred recently, last night in fact, as I was driving home from Waco along the familiar corridor of Highway 6. There are times that highway makes me crazy, but last night it was dark and peaceful. I was one in a line of about eight cars making the long haul out to the country.
I was thinking about writing this last column and how something as small as one phone call can make a huge difference in the person we will be. Then I remembered when a good friend said to me, “I never realized how obsessed you were with light until I read your columns.” It was a surprise to me; I didn’t realize it either. But last night I finally believed her observation because I felt right at home as I made that march, one in a long line of lights.
Highway 6 is where I learned to say thank you by tapping the brakes to flash the lights.
For a long time, when drivers let me pass I would wave. But my back window is always covered in caliche dust, so no one could see the gesture. Now I just tap the lights. It’s how I say: “Thank you. You’re awesome. And maybe I’ll get to see you again on the road soon.”
So now, after seven years, I want to leave by sending you a flash of one of my favorite things.
I hope if I show up here unexpectedly in the future you won’t shoot.