e was a cheerful kid, with a razor-sharp sense of humor, and a wide waistline. We were both unfortunate enough to love fried chicken.

The week after my father's funeral, my buddy drove to my house in his mother's blue station wagon. I took one look at his chubby babyface and laughed. “You're too young to drive. We'll get in trouble.”

“Trouble's my Latin name. Now get in.”

We parked by the creek. Together, we sat on the hood, throwing pebbles. Finally he said, “You know, my daddy left us when I was born.” He lobbed a rock as hard as he could. “Bastard even wrote a letter, blaming me.” He turned to look me in the face. "Me."

And that was the only time I ever heard him speak of his father.
His first job was at a skeet range. He let me in free, and we shot clay pigeons all day long. We shot so often, my right shoulder will never be

the same.

We drank some of our first beers together. We had our first barroom fight, side by side, in a real beer-joint. Which might've been a rite of passage, if it hadn't been so humiliating. I had my cheeks polished by a sweet old woman in a pink sweatshirt.

We fished together, cried over girls who'd flattened our hearts. And it was he who read my first story, a pathetic piece of writing, and said, "Man, this is the best thing I've ever read."

It was the kindest lie anyone's ever told me.

This year, children will sit on my buddy's knee, explaining what they want for Christmas. They'll tug his fake beard, and he'll wink and give one of those laughs. The same laugh his own daddy never got to hear.

No sir.

I couldn't think of a better Santa Claus.

 nursing home Christmas isn't exactly pretty. There aren't many lights, nor much pinery. Some elderly folks wear holiday sweaters, others wear their breakfast.

Amy, who works at one such facility, says, “In here, it never feels like Christmas. Mostly, our folks don't know what date it is. Besides, holidays are about family, and these people never see theirs.

”A ninety-three-year-old in a wheelchair parked himself by the window. His hands rested in his lap. He couldn't hear worth a damn, but his mind was still there. “I have seven kids,” he said. “Three are farmers, just like me.” He grinned a tooth at me. “I hope they have happy lives.

Then, he looked out the window.

A slender woman shuffled along, wearing neon pink pajamas. She sat on the sofa, to stare at the Christmas tree, lit up and covered in tinsel. “I love Saint Patrick's day,” she told me. “Don't you, Ben?”

“Me? I'm not Ben, ma'am.”

She stared at me

and squinted.

I offered my hand. “I'm Sean.”

“I'm sure you are. But I wish you were my Ben.”

And then there's Mister Roberts, a gentleman in suspenders. He sat down at the supper table. “Hey,” he shouted at the server. “Why is my Jell-O red and green?”

“Mister Roberts, it's the Christmas season.”

He brightened up. “That means my daughter will visit me. I'll get to see my grandkids.”

“Your grand-babies are grown," the server explained. "Remember, they're busy with families of their own nowadays. They might not come this Christmas.”

Her comment didn't faze him. He folded his hands and bowed his head to say grace. "Dear God, please let my kids visit me this Christmas."

Yes Lord, please.

If it's not too much trouble.