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American Coming of Age Happy

At the Backdoor Diner, there was never any good reason to order something other than the banana pancakes with chocolate chips for breakfast according to Earl. But then, people didn’t always do what you expected them to, and almost never did what Earl expected them to.

“Hey Earl, more coffee,” shouted Mr. Denkins above the din. Earl plunked down the heavy plastic bin full of dirties, and went over to the sideboard to retrieve the coffeepot.

“Earl, next time, finish what you’re doing before you go for the coffee,” Smithers coached. “Ol’ Denkins can wait another minute for his refill. The old hoot.” 

“Aw Smitters, it’s no bother,” replied Earl with his lopsided grin.

No matter how much training Smithers gave Earl, he was always too eager to do whatever was asked of him resulting in a pile of inefficiencies as long as your arm.

Earl’s school learning had stopped early when they realized that he wasn’t reading the words on the page and the numbers all looked the same to him. But he had a heart of gold and everyone knew that, except for Betty Jo who seemed to only have eyes for Warren from the Stop n Shop over in Bergen.

Earl had just bussed his last table when Mrs. Petersen burst through the backdoor pushing baby James in her stroller.

“Earl, I need to run across the street for a few minutes to get my hair done. There’s a last-minute cancellation and I want to grab it. I haven’t had my hair done since this sweet boy was born and this is my chance to feel human again! Would you mind keepin’ an eye on him?”

“No. You go right ahead.”

“You’re a doll. This won’t take long.” Turning her attention to her soon to be abandoned baby, Mrs. Peterson added “I just changed him and he’s not due to eat for another hour or so, so he should be fine.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Earl plopped himself at an empty booth and positioned the stroller facing him. When Smithers came out from the back with a tray of pies to restock the dessert case, he couldn’t resist a rib “Hey Earl, didn’t know you was a Daddy! Did you finally convince Betty Jo to go round with you?”

“Very funny,” replied Earl mimicking a hearty laugh at his own expense, immediately eliciting a gurgle from Baby James. “Don’t you encourage him,” Earl chided the baby, which prompted more giggling. Delighted with the baby’s response, Earl exaggerated different facial expressions, drawing more laughter.

When the baby tires of goofy facial expressions, Earl makes funny noises. It works at first, but then the baby tires of that too, and the laughter subsides as quickly as it began, and in nanoseconds the party is over and Baby James begins to howl.

“Hey, little guy, I know, I’m not that funny but you don’t have to cry about it,” he says softly as he scoops up the baby in his arms and paces back and forth over the black and white tiles, bouncing the baby up and down to shush him. This only increases the volume and Earl begins to panic as the inconsolable infant wails.

Hitting on an idea, Earl places Baby James back in his stroller and fishes out a partially melted chocolate bar from his pocket. Unwrapping it, Earl dabs his finger in the chocolate he places a bit in the baby’s mouth. The crying stops, and the baby’s eyes widen as big as saucers. He purses his lips, asking for more. Earl laughs, “You like that huh? Pretty good stuff,” he says as he places more chocolate in the baby’s mouth.

The baby is making his way through Earl’s chocolate bar when Mrs. Petersen returns from her hair appointment. Seeing his mother, the baby smiles with his gummy toothless mouth which is full of chocolate.

“Oh no! Earl! Did you give the baby chocolate?”

“Yes ma’am. He loves it. He started crying and it was the only way I—”

“Earl! He only drinks formula. He can’t have solid food yet. He’s too young.”

Earl, who had been a hero only moments earlier, turns into the villain and slumps off with his eyes cast downward.

Without a word, Earl grabs his coat from its hook in the back and heads out the back door. When he returns to work the next day, Earl is feeling better, the incident with the baby totally forgotten, until Smitters teases him.

“Hey where’s that baby of yours?”

Earl doesn’t answer. All day long, he serves people heart-stopping portions of pie, and refills their coffee cups until his shift is over, but he says little. On the way out, he hears Smitters joking with a customer.

“Yup this weekend, I’m finally gonna fix that front door. Customers are gonna come in the front, just like at them fancy places.”

That’s when Earl gets his idea. The front door has been busted for as long as he can remember and Smitters has been talking about fixing it for just as long. Earl hops on his bike and heads over to the hardware store, to buy a new spring, a striker plate, and some putty. He has the rest of the tools he needs at home.

Earl bikes home with a smile stretching from one ear to the other for the first time in days. He’s gonna surprise Smitters by beating him to it and fixing that door! When Earl returns that night, he sets out all his tools and points his yellow camping lantern at the door. He could turn on the lights but he wants this to be a surprise.

Just as he begins to work, a police car pulls up.

“Hey Earl, whatcha doin?’ asks Officer Jim.

“I’m gonna surprise Smitters by fixin’ his door.”

“Well, that will be a surprise! Need any help?”

“Nope. I wanna do it all by myself.”

“You’re a good man,” Officer Jim says before turning on his flashers and heading out of the parking lot.

The repair job turns out to be not that hard. In fact, after greasing the door with a little WD40 and installing the new spring, the door swings easily on its hinge. Almost like it was never broken. Earl puts up a huge sign commemorating the new door, beckoning patrons to use the front door of the Backdoor Diner. I can’t wait for Smithers to see it, he thought as he rode off on his bike.

Earl loved riding his bike almost as much as he loved working at the Backdoor diner. The town was still small but the number of cars had multiplied to the point that there was congestion everywhere. Eventually the city council came up with a plan to make a labyrinth of one-way streets and that is when Earl opted for the freedom of his bike and ditched his car altogether. He could still borrow one if he needed to, but he found he never needed to.

Earl rode down Main Street heading east, turned right on Nottingham, and ended up at the reservoir. It was a warm summer evening and perfectly still. A shooting star streaked across the sky directly in front of Earl’s line of vision. Another followed. When another star traced a vein through the sky, it started to feel like some sort of sign from the universe. That is, if you believe in that type of thing, which Earl did not.

The next morning Earl got up early and raced to the Backdoor so he could see the look on Smithers face when he saw the working front door. Instead of being pleased, Smitters yanked the new sign off the front of the building and kicked a metal bucket across the parking lot.

“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” asked Smitters.

“I thought you wanted the door fixed. So people could come in the front.” Anyone else would have been exasperated, but Earl simply clarified the way he saw the situation without letting any anger or frustration enter into it.

“Come on inside Earl. Let’s have some coffee before the customers start showing up.”

Earl slid into the third booth, his favorite, and waited while Smitters poured them coffee.

“Look Earl, I’m sorry I lost my cool back there. It’s just that we’re called the Backdoor Diner. What would people think if they could just walk through the front door like any other place?”

A confused look settled on Earl’s features which prompted Smitters to continue. “Let me put it another way. What is special about this place Earl?”

Earl brightened, knowing the answer to this one. “The banana pancakes with chocolate chips.”

Despite himself, Smitters laughed. “Well yup, I guess they are. But what’s special about this place is you come in the back door. It’s like a secret club, something no one else has. All our customers are part of that club. It’s special.”

Earl thought hard, narrowing his brows and focusing on the possibilities. “I guess you’re right. I cain’t think of any other place you come in through the rear.”

“That’s right and what would happen if someone did come in through the front?”

“People would prolly stare.”

“Exactly and they wouldn’t be a part of this little club, would they?”

Earl was starting to see the light. “Smitters, let me ask you som'pin. Was that door even broken?”

“It was. Ten, maybe fifteen years ago. But I fixed it right up ‘cause I didn’t wanna get a fire violation. Sheriff’s office is mighty strict about that, specially with places that can have grease fires.”

“Anyone else know? Or just you and the Sheriff?”

“Well you know now Earl, so don’t be tellin’ anyone.”

 Late that night Earl takes his bike out and rides alone in the night. It is dark and there are very few street lights, but Earl maneuvers his way around the uneven sidewalks and unpaved potholes. Despite the lack of illumination, he’s so familiar with the streets, he can probably ride with his eyes closed. He decides to try it, closing his eyes and feeling nothing but the wind on his face.

Earl has peddled to the corner where the florist, Stemtations, meets on Old Pine Road when the sound of squealing tires causes him to open his eyes. The high school kids must be at it again, joyriding around town at 2 o’clock in the morning. The acceleration reaches his ears, along with the braking, skidding and finally crashing. Earl races his bike over to the direction the of the impact, finding the car has flipped. He phones the Sheriff, then launches into a one-man rescue mission.

Two people are in the car and he needs to get them out in case the whole thing combusts. He uses his bike tools to cut the seatbelt from the passenger. The passenger is moaning, but Earl drags his heft on the pavement away from the car. There must be broken bones, but moaning means he’s conscious and Earl knows it’s a lot easier to treat a broken bone than a burn victim.

Next, he rushes to the driver’s side, but the door is jammed. As he climbs through the passenger side, the sirens from the ambulance make their way towards him. He can’t make out who the driver is, but recognizes the passenger as Betty Jo’s little brother. Earl accompanies the Sheriff and the ambulance to the emergency room where the Sheriff takes his statement.

The next day at the Backdoor, the accident is the talk of the town. As Smitters and Earl are closing up for the evening. Betty Jo walks over and throws her arms around Earl’s neck.

“Earl, I cain’t thank you enough for saving my brother’s life. If you hadn’t come 'round, why, I hate to think what would have happened.”

Smitters nudges Earl, cueing Earl to recognize what Smitters calls ‘his opening’.

“Betty Jo, any chance you want to go for a spin with me?” asks Earl.

“With you Earl? Why, you don’t even have a car.”

“Don’t need one Betty Jo.”

“You think I’m gonna get on the bicycle of yours? You only got one seat.”

“Well Betty Jo, I’m pretty handy with tools, just you ask Smitters.”

From his backpack, Earl pulls a round wooden disc that snaps onto the back of his bike and is fitted with a cushion. He pats the cushion with his hand assuring Betty Jo it’s a comfy ride. “Hop on up Betty Jo. I’m gonna take you for a spin and you’re never gonna wanna get off.”

And with that, Smitters watches Earl and Betty Jo ride off into the sunset. Or at least Earl’s version of it.


April 15, 2023 03:43

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49 comments

04:20 Apr 17, 2023

This is really endearing character and the idea of it being the backdoor café and the front door being quietly fixed for the fire code is the kind of texture that let’s you walk in and get comfy in a story.

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Wally Schmidt
06:25 Apr 17, 2023

Thanks so much for you lovely comments Anne. Glad you could stop by this town for a visit. We'll see you next time at the Backdoor.

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Amanda Lieser
01:32 May 04, 2023

Oh bless Earl’s heart!! Wally I adored the setting you chose and how you interpreted this prompt. I loved the way this story was quintessentially small town details like the way everyone just knows each other. My favorite line: Earl, who had been a hero only moments earlier, turns into the villain and slumps off with his eyes cast downward. I loved it because it feels so real-parents rightfully have a very specific idea of how they want to care for their kids and innocent gestures can go south.

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Zack Powell
20:47 Apr 20, 2023

Forgive the lateness of this comment, Wally. I've been on vacation and am just now getting to everyone's stories. And, as always, I'm ecstatic to see you've posted something this week. Reading your stories is a little like opening a Christmas present a day early. And what a nice present this was. I love "small town" type stories. You know the kind, where everyone knows each others' names and histories and such. There's a quaint, cozy vibe to those narratives, and that's the feeling I got reading this. It helps that Earl is incredibly endear...

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Wally Schmidt
05:02 Apr 21, 2023

Whenever you comment on one of my stories it feels like taking a cool drink on a summer day. It's instantly refreshing, and soothes the soul. When I was writing the dialect I was thinking about you and Deirdra and I thought if I could write a single sentence as 'true' as either of you can, I will be satistied. I obviously have a long way to go, but I don't want to shy away from trying. I got really stumped trying to figure out how to spell 'something' in Earl-ese. I ended up with 'som'pin'. I can hear the characters 'talk' but trying to tran...

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Zack Powell
06:09 Apr 21, 2023

I'm glad you get something out of my gibberish. I never know if what I write make sense, not in my stories and especially not in my comments, so that's reassuring. I didn't wouldn't put myself in the same category as Deidra, though. She's on a whole other echelon when it comes to writing that feels honest and "true." Also, for what it's worth, I thought you did a wonderful job at it here. Earl felt like a genuine person, and I wouldn't have been surprised to hear you say he's based off someone you know/knew. He felt that real to me. Truly. ...

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Ruth Porritt
04:36 May 06, 2023

My apologies for jumping into this conversation. @Wally: I also "hear" characters talk. Yes, the difficult part is transcribing exactly what they are saying. (as well as deciding how they will say something) Next, I also rue editing mistakes that I make. (for my short fiction writing, it can take up to a year for me to 'omit needless words' and to correct most of my grammatical errors) However, I love the process of listening to different characters. It's highly enjoyable.

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Helen A Smith
11:40 Apr 27, 2023

Hi Wally like the well-meaning character of Earl, even if he always doesn’t grasp what’s needed and misses the point as the “back-door/front door incident shows. He tries to do his best in life and is kind and that’s what counts. If only there were more people like that, the world would be a happier place. “A confused look settled on Earl’s features” and other great lines convey his character well. I like the “small-town feel of the place where everyone knows each other (though in reality this can have its drawbacks too). You make this dine...

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Jack Kimball
12:32 Apr 19, 2023

Small town Flannery O'connor feel to this Wally. I think you could take this setting and character to about anywhere. Even reminded me of Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. I would be interesting to take this character's limitations and layer an advantage on top, like he is the only one seeing the answer to a mystery, perhaps, and no one believes him. Anyway, great job on building a character!

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Ruth Porritt
04:41 May 06, 2023

Hello Wally and Jack, Yes!! Flannery O'Connor! 😀 That is one of the small-town stories (from American literature) that this story feels like! I adore Flannery O'Connor's work. (Particularly, the story about the woman with the wooden leg.)

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Marty B
03:51 Apr 19, 2023

I like the comfy, small world feel of the story- where everyone knows each other and there are no secrets. Those are hard places to live for many people who want privacy and want the option to change their reputation, or a chance to stretch out their ambitions. Except for Earl. Almost buddha-like in his lack of desire, and so, his lack of suffering. Earl has no ambition, nor memory for a slight. Earl lives in the present, and hot damn- I am jealous!

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Susan Catucci
13:57 Apr 18, 2023

This is such a sweet, heartfelt tale, Wally. I enjoyed the visit to Earl's world. I wouldn't mind a return visit. Your writing here reminds me of Fannie Flag's Whistlestop Cafe - very dear people living real lives with their own flavor profile. Loved it, actually. Nice work!

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Wally Schmidt
03:39 Apr 19, 2023

So appreciate your take on Earl's world and am humbled by your reference to the Whistlestop Cafe. Thanks for reading Susan. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Richard E. Gower
00:00 Apr 18, 2023

I am a sucker for diners and for a heartwarming story with a happy ending. You scored 100% on both counts.-:) Cheers! RG

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Wally Schmidt
01:31 Apr 18, 2023

Diners are a national treasure as far as I'm concerned. Thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts!

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Richard E. Gower
23:05 Apr 18, 2023

Roger that regarding diners. When aliens come to Earth, diners will be one of the items they will choose to take back with them. -:) RG

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23:59 Apr 17, 2023

I just finished reading all of Eudora Welty's short stories and was kind of sad (because I'd finished them) then I read your story and all the heart, excellent writing, and joy returned. I always read a story written by someone who likes my own, and I'm looking forward to reading more of yours. Love your style and insight. xo

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Wally Schmidt
01:33 Apr 18, 2023

Patricia- thank you so much. That may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing and I couldn't be more humbled

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RJ Holmquist
22:34 Apr 17, 2023

I love Earl and the Backdoor. I'd stop by and ask Earl for a ride on his fancy detachable seat!

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Wally Schmidt
01:34 Apr 18, 2023

And he'd take you for a ride in a heartbeat!

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Chris Miller
19:43 Apr 17, 2023

Hi Wally, Lovely, sweet story. I like the gimmick for the diner, and that it was a standing joke which was lost on Earl. "Stemtations" is a brilliant name for a florist and a lovely way of adding to the town's character.

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Wally Schmidt
20:26 Apr 17, 2023

Thanks so much for reading Chris. Yes, Earl is very literal which makes him fun to write about. I wanted the setting to be a co-character with Earl, so I'm glad you appreciated it

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17:55 Apr 17, 2023

Very sweet story!

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Wally Schmidt
21:03 Apr 17, 2023

Thanks for stopping by and reading!

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Michał Przywara
00:53 Apr 17, 2023

Enjoyable and sweet :) Earl doesn't really think things through - when he has an idea of helping someone out or doing a good deed, he rushes into it immediately. Thankfully, this pays off immensely with the accident. It seems like he can be frustrating, but it's also hard to stay mad at him. "When the baby tires of goofy facial expressions" - the story seems to change tense here, from past to present. It flips a couple more times throughout the story. There's a good small town feel established in the story, and while we only spend a fe...

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Wally Schmidt
06:23 Apr 17, 2023

I think the long histories with each other is part of what makes small towns special (and sometimes annoying) so I'm glad that came across. Here I wanted a 'we take care of each other' vibe. Thanks for your thoughts Michal. Always appreciated.

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08:58 Sep 05, 2023

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Ruth Porritt
04:26 May 06, 2023

Hello Wally, thank you for your kind comments about 'Him'. (my favorite work from my Reedsy page) Now, I am working on editing it. I just read your latest piece, and it's the kind of thing I like to read. (Do you have a background in studying/reading American literature?) Your tale reminded me of so many American writers that I have enjoyed. (through the years) I would also enjoy a novel about the characters from this story. Last, where are you from? I am from America, but I currently live and work in China. (in a smallish town) Have ...

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Ruth Porritt
04:26 May 06, 2023

Hello Wally, thank you for your kind comments about 'Him'. (my favorite work from my Reedsy page) Now, I am working on editing it. I just read your latest piece, and it's the kind of thing I like to read. (Do you have a background in studying/reading American literature?) Your tale reminded me of so many American writers that I have enjoyed. (through the years) I would also enjoy a novel about the characters from this story. Last, where are you from? I am from America, but I currently live and work in China. (in a smallish town) Have ...

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Wally Schmidt
03:39 May 08, 2023

Ruth glad to hear you enjoyed the stories. I am drawn to small towns where people are genuine and go about life with all their flaws exposed, but also with hearts as big as the moon. I am currently working on a book, but for the most part, it takes place in my native France. I reside temporarily in California but we plan to move back in a few months. I've visited China a few times and found the culture (and food!) fascinating. Where are you and what is your book about?

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Ruth Porritt
07:48 May 10, 2023

Hello Wally, Yes, I am a big fan of your writing. Truly! :) I also like small towns for the reasons you've mentioned. (My husband is from England, and is always confused when we go to a small town in America, and end up having a 20 minute conversation with friendly business people. :) I am originally from Ohio, though I haven't live there full-time, for many years.) I also enjoy writing about the darker side (in fiction work) of a lot of small towns. When everybody knows everybody, gossip travels quickly. Also, many people in small towns c...

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Mary Bendickson
17:56 Apr 16, 2023

Um...banana pancakes with chocolate chips. Sunday brunch anyone? Loved the 'backdoor idea'. Cozy story.

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Wally Schmidt
06:12 Apr 17, 2023

I'll get the mimosas ready!

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Rebecca Miles
09:39 Apr 16, 2023

This has such a sweet small town feel to it Wally; it has a really believable sense of a community where everyone knows everyone and anecdotes are on offer at every street corner. Earl is loveable through and through. Perfect Sunday morning read for me!

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Wally Schmidt
16:20 Apr 16, 2023

Thanks Rebecca. I was going for the cozy small town vibe. Do you have any news about Anne Marie? If so could you lmk.

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Michelle Oliver
02:39 Apr 16, 2023

Cute story Wally, I could absolutely adore Earl. He’s helpful, kind and so generous with his time efforts

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Wally Schmidt
23:47 Apr 16, 2023

So glad you loved Earl. I was hoping he'd jump off the page and into people's hearts. Thanks for reading.

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Michelle Oliver
23:54 Apr 16, 2023

It was successful, he was life a breath of fresh air. And your ending was hopeful and sweet. So much to love in your story.

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Amanda Aanestad
22:24 Apr 15, 2023

I love Earl! He is adorable. I feel like he'd be the type of person you could never be angry with, even if he screws everything up. At one point I would have thought these names were a little too country cliche, until I visited Goldsboro, NC and was immediately greeted in the thickest country accent by a waitress named Mary Jo. So I love the overly country cliche vibes of this story because it's genuinely how some small towns are! Looking forward to reading more of your work!

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Wally Schmidt
01:48 Apr 16, 2023

Your experience in NC is interesting and I agree, it seems a little too cliche, but at the same time there is such a genuine warmth and friendliness, it's hard not to be drawn to it. I loved NC too when I visited a few years back, I may not have nailed the dialect in the story, but in my head I heard southern voices. Sometimes when I read southern dialect, it is so thick I have a hard time reading it. I knew I didn't want to go that far, so this was my middle ground. Thanks for reading about Earl. Readers bring him to life.

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