She was four when Daddy died. The morning of his death, I sobbed alone on our back porch. She crawled onto my lap. “Don’t cry,” she said.

I was the second person to hold her. Daddy said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t drop her.”

She looked like a white bullfrog. She smelled like vanilla and grass clippings. I promised I’d take care of her forever.

That was harder than it sounded. This girl grew into a kid who did reckless things.

She used to leap off round hay bales, flapping her arms, yelling, “CATCH ME!”

She liked to see how long she could hold her breath underwater. She climbed trees that were too high. She ate too much bacon.

Her first word was, “NO!” Her second word was “NONONO!” She used these words when I tried to force an oyster past her lips.

She pitched a fit.

I’d never known anyone who didn't like oysters. They were the food of our forefathers. Our ancestors consumed oysters when they learned the War Between the States was over.

She was four when Daddy died. The morning of his death, I sobbed alone on our back porch. She crawled onto my lap.

“Don’t cry,” she said.

I did anyway.

We took

care of each other. I did her laundry and taught her how to fry bacon. And when our dog had puppies, I showed her how to hold them—there’s an art to handling newborn pups.

Once, I rented a library book on French-braiding. She let me practice until her hair resembled overcooked spaghetti.

She tried out for the school play. I attended her audition. She was nervous, and the smug drama teacher told her she had no talent.

I’m a quiet man, but I wasn't that day. I called the teacher a greasy communist who didn’t love the Lord.

Throughout her high-school years, she worked different jobs. Once, she worked in an ice-cream shop. Each day, I’d clock out of my job and visit her.

When the store was slow, she gave me ice cream for free—with Heath Bar…

“You’re fat.” That’s what someone told five-year-old Mallory Slayton.

The little girl stood in line to get her face painted. It was a sunny day at a local fair. Lots of laughing. Games. Cotton candy.

Then some clown makes a remark about Mallory. The day went downhill. Five-year-old hearts break easily.

As it happens, sophomore hearts break just as easily.

“You’re a lard ass,” said a few cheerleaders to Lois’ daughter.

The insults hit her like a virus. Lois says her daughter can hardly walk past a mirror without glancing sideways and saying, “I’m fat.”

Her daughter has since lost thirty pounds. She quit eating square meals. The girl is exhausted from malnutrition, she doesn’t perform well in class. She’s a wreck.

Well, I don’t know when the powers that be decided pretty had to be puny. But it offends me.

And not that it matters what I believe, but the most vivacious woman I ever knew had white hair, fried her chicken in reused peanut oil, and answered to: “Granny.”

Yeah, I know. Modern-day wisdom says beauty is in Victoria’s Secret

catalogs, fragrance commercials, and music videos featuring models who aren’t wearing enough to fill-up a pasta fork.

But that's not beauty. It's an affront.

Beauty is Karlee. A young girl whose mother died when her brother was an infant. Karlee rocked him to sleep each night. She taught him to ride a bike. She cooked suppers. She sat front-row at his wedding.

Beauty is Lydia. She put herself through college. She cleaned condos, waited tables, worked as a custodian. She raised three girls in a double-wide home, attending night classes. A knockout.

Mary Wilson—single mother of an autistic child, proud owner of an ‘89 minivan with a bad transmission. A smile-a-holic.

And Donna—strong woman who works overtime at Winn Dixie so her son can attend football camp. She’s hoping he gets a scholarship. Gorgeous.

My mama, who couldn’t…

The funeral director killed the lights. I left. I don't remember ever feeling more alone.

The day of his visitation I went into his closet. I selected his tweed jacket, his necktie. I even wore his reading glasses.

I was twelve.

His clothes were too big. His glasses gave me a headache. His jacket came to my knees. I looked like a damn fool.

There was a matchbook in one of his pockets. On the front it read: “Drink Royal Crown Cola.” The matchbook looked ten lifetimes old.

I kept it in my left palm while I shook hands with a line of visitors.

The first hand I took belonged to Mister Bill. He worked with Daddy. He had tattooed forearms like he’d been eating too much spinach. He smelled like cigarettes.

“I loved your dad,” he said, sniffing.

Next: an old woman in a flowery hat. They said once she'd hit middle-age, she’d lost her hair—and her mind. She was a bird in the world.

She told me about a dream. “Saw your father in Glory,” she said. “He was laughing, wearing white, and eating dinner with Abraham Lincoln.”

After her: a

girl I grew up with. My first kiss. We were six. She threatened to rub poison ivy on my face if I didn't let her kiss my lips. I gave in. At the visitation, she hugged me and cried.

That hurt.

And my uncle. He wore overalls and necktie. He was the same man who taught me to play guitar, cuss, and chew tobacco. When he hugged me I could hear his heavy wheezing.

An accident in a fertilizer factory weakened his lungs. He wheezed even worse when he cried.

Then: my baseball team, the Boy Scouts, women’s Bible-study groups, old friends, new friends, strangers, distant family. My third-grade teacher. The mailman.

It was a god-awful day.

When the room cleared, I stood alone. The funeral director sat in the rear pew. He told me, “Take your time, son, there's no hurry.”

At the register, the waitress asks how his night’s been. She is only making polite conversation, but he answers, “Awful. Almost got killed on the interstate, changing my own tire. Those kids probably saved my life.”

Waffle House is quiet this time of night. I’m on my way home. I still have a few highway hours left ahead of me. I’ve been listening to Conway Twitty for an hour. I need a break.

I order a hamburger and a chocolate milk.

There is an older gentleman in the booth behind me. He is small, gray-haired. He wears a white button-down with black smudges on the front. A loosened necktie.

With him are three Mexican boys. They are teenagers, wearing T-shirts and boots, squeezed into a booth.

“Order WHATEVER you want,” he tells them, in a slow voice. “Please, it's on me.”

They speak a few words in Spanish, waving their hands. I can’t understand them, but I happen to speak fluent hand gestures. They’re saying: “No.”

One kid says, in broken English, “You no need pay for us.”

The man says, “It’s the least I can do. I owe you big time.”

The boys talk among themselves, rapid-fire. They agree on ordering T-bones and Coca-Colas. The man orders the same.

And because it’s been awhile since I’ve had a

Waffle House T-bone. I flag my waitress.

“Is it too late for me to change my order to a steak?” I whisper.

“Sure thing,” she says. “You still want chocolate milk?”

You bet your waffle-iron I do.

The boys eat their steaks in record time. The youngest of the group—who is somewhere around twelve years old—is still hungry.

The two older boys shovel leftovers onto his plate. He cleans all three bones.

A good time is had by all.

My Waffle-House T-bone is even better than I remember. Tender. Greasy. But then, I’m not surprised. I have always been fond of Waffle-House fare.

Once, at the ripe age of sixteen, I took Vanessa Spurton here on a date. She seemed disappointed when we pulled into the parking lot. It was our first and last evening together. The…

They don’t often play on Government Street. Today, they're hoping to earn enough to buy supper.

Pensacola, Florida—this is an era when the town is cobblestones, iron balconies, and men in straw skimmer hats.

A trolley rolls down Palafox. Ships in the bay have smokestacks. It's hot outside.

Young Albert is a trumpet player. He has talent. His father, the attorney, calls him lazy. He says music is a dead-end profession.

He says Albert won’t amount to anything in this world if he plays music. So, the boy works loading crates in the harbor.

On weekends, he plays with the Salvation Army Band to keep his lips in shape. They’re a good band, they play hymns in front of the bank on Government and Palafox to raise money for the poor.

The other side of Government Street:

A couple shuffles the sidewalk. Man and woman, middle-age, dressed in ratty clothes. They have accordions strapped to their chests, and tin cups with rattling with coins. They wear darkened glasses.

They are blind.

They don’t often play on Government Street. Today, they're hoping to earn enough to buy supper.

The woman sings tunes she’s learned from the radio. She has

a good ear. She can hear a melody once and play it.

Albert and the band take a break to rest their mouths and replace fluids. The fellas remove jackets and fan themselves.

This is Northwest Florida. The sun can melt a man like candle wax.

“Ssshhh,” says Albert. “You hear that?”

Everyone listens.

“I hear it,” says Trombone.

“Sounds like an accordion,” adds Bass Drum.

The band is a curious lot. They go investigate.

Albert stops walking. He listens to the music, then presses the mouthpiece against his lips to play along. French Horn finds a part to play, too. Snare Drum, Fluglehorn, and Tuba do the same.

Soon, the boys have joined the blind woman’s song. Together, they play a secular melody—which has been strictly prohibited by the Official Salvation Army Rulebook, section 207-A, paragraph 3.

She falls into my daily routine. We become friends. I talk to her. She listens. She’s gentle and humble at heart, the only of my dogs who likes watching baseball with me.

She’s a pretty girl. Sophisticated walk. All business. She’s trotting a dirt road, wearing a purple collar, no tags.

I’ve seen her here for a few days now. I have a feeling she’s far from home.

I call to her, but she’s skittish.

I finally negotiate her into my truck. But not because I am skilled in canine dialect—I am not. It's because I bribe her with raw, room-temperature hamburger. She pees on my seat cushion. She is old.

I take her home.

She’s white, but covered in mud. She hates baths—this I discover the hard way. I turn on the garden hose; she breaks away and runs for Nolensville, Tennessee.

I am able to coax her to return with more ground beef. She eats another pound. This dog is going to land me in the poorhouse.

I scrub her with Dawn dish soap. I have seen television commercials featuring eco-activists washing baby ducks rescued from Gulf oil-spills. They use Dawn.

I call her Bobby Jo Gentry.

Then, I dial the vet and ask what I ought to do.

The lady on

the phone laughs. “Just love her,” she says. “You might never find her owner, might have to keep her.”

Bobby Jo becomes part of my life for a week. She sleeps with my dogs in my bedroom. I buy a forty-dollar dog bed, a neon-orange collar, and canned food for elderly animals.

She gains weight. There is nothing I like more than fat dogs in orange collars.

She falls into my daily routine. We become friends. I talk to her. She listens. She’s gentle and humble at heart, the only of my dogs who likes watching baseball with me.

A knock on my door.

It’s a weekend, midday. I am listening to Atlanta play Milwaukee while in my office.

I look out the window. An unfamiliar car in my driveway. Jehovah’s Witnesses, maybe. I am prepared to answer…

Then, a call from dispatch. A single-vehicle accident on County Road 606. Pilot Chad Hammond checked the weather. There was a stiff fog rolling in.

Troy University—one year ago. It’s raining hard. The bleachers in Sartain Hall Gymnasium are filling with people.

Outside the gym: a Haynes Life Flight helicopter parked on the pavement. There are fire trucks, police cruisers, and five-hundred acres of ambulances.

They’ve come from Coffee, Pike, Covington, Dale, Elmore, and Montgomery County. They’re here to honor their own.

On the free-throw line are three caskets draped in American flags. Most in attendance wear EMS blues, flight suits, and class-A uniforms. Many are on-call.

There’s an audio recording playing on the sound system. It fills the room with the last radio transmission for Haynes Life Flight 2—which crashed eighty miles south of Montgomery, days earlier.

“November-Nine-One-One-Golf-Foxtrot,” dispatch says to the deceased. “We show you departing with four souls onboard, we’ll take it from here…”

If there are dry eyes in the county, they aren't living right.

The accident happened during the wee hours of Saturday. The helipad crew at Troy Regional Medical Center was having a quiet night.

Then, a call from dispatch. A single-vehicle accident on County Road 606. Pilot Chad

Hammond checked the weather. There was a stiff fog rolling in.

He made a judgment call, then radioed back, saying something like: “Copy that, dispatch, we’ll take it from here.”

The three-person crew loaded supplies, working together like a symphony. First responders are a family. They log twenty-four-hour shifts together, laugh together, cook together, they get on each other’s nerves.

That night, their bird clipped along the Coffee County fog searching for wreckage. They found it. They touched down, loaded the critical patient—Chad probably helped with the stretcher.

“Chad was a helluva a pilot,” says one first-responder. “Lotta pilots don't help load patients, but he did.”

And it would be his last time.

The funeral is interrupted.

A radio sounds in the back row. It's loud. A few fire-medics slip out the door. Sirens blare. It's a noise everyone in…

The young woman interrupts, “Cut it short, it's way too long.” Then, she returns to the sitting area and sits beside me. The barber trims the man’s mop with commercial hedge-clippers.

He’s sitting beside me. We’re both waiting for haircuts. His hair is thick, pure white. His beard is shaggy. He’s got skin like old boot leather.

There’s a woman with him, she’s in her late-thirties. Maybe forty. She is wearing a Pizza-Hut uniform.

The barber calls out, "I’m ready for you, sir,” while sweeping clumps of blonde hair from his recent victim.

The woman helps the old man to the big chair. He holds her arm. The barber asks what kind of haircut he wants.

“D-d-d-d...” the old man struggles to say. “S-s-s...” He’s working hard to make words.

But nothing.

The young woman interrupts, “Cut it short, it's way too long.” Then, she returns to the sitting area and sits beside me. The barber trims the man’s mop with commercial hedge-clippers.

“What about the beard?” the barber asks. “You want it trimmed, too?”

The old man stammers so hard, his face contorts. He looks like he’s in pain. His heart is there, the words aren’t.

The young woman hollers, “Give him a shave. He needs it.”

She leans backward into her seat and

takes a deep breath. She sighs, closes her eyes. She is too young to be so tired.

Her phone rings. She walks outside to answer it. She paces the sidewalk, flinging hands in the air, talking into the mouthpiece. Whoever she's yelling at is getting an earful of words.

A customer enters. When the barbershop door opens, I can overhear her outside. She’s saying, “Can't this wait? I've been working all day...”

She’s outside for a good while. When she returns to her seat, she has a red face—she's sniffing, wiping her eyes.

When the barber finishes, he removes the old man’s cape and spins him toward his reflection. He gives him a hand-mirror. The old man’s hand shakes so violently, he drops it.

Then, he tries to form words, but can't.

The young woman springs…

“It changed me,” says Steve. “Used to, I’d hear about kids with cancer and think, ‘That’s awful,’ and just go on about my day. Not after Cody died.”

Dothan, Alabama—three years ago today. The television is playing in Steve Hardwick’s living room. It's one of those home-shopping channels.

Steve is the fella in the recliner. He has a perpetual smile. White goatee. He is the kind of man who parks a Harley in the garage.

The television advertises a KitchenAid mixer. A miracle-appliance made for bread, pizza crust, pasta, sausage, baklava, schnitzel, pedicures, cutting residential lawns, filing taxes, and whipping up poundcake.

Steve turns the volume down.

“Betcha I could make a few cakes with that thing and raise a few hundred bucks for Cody Hayes,” he says.

Cody Hayes.

The boy from Ashford. Seventeen. A hunter, Jeep-rider, a ‘Bama-cheering, camo-hat-wearing kid with leukemia.

It was an impulsive thought.

“I’d never even met Cody,” Steve tells me. “Only saw pictures on Facebook.”

Steve's idea was simple. Sell poundcakes; raise money.

He bought the mixer. Then, the thick-framed man baked one hundred cakes. He titled the fundraising effort, “Cakes for Cody.”

He hoped to drum up few hundred bucks. But it didn't go as planned. He raised nine grand.

Then Cody passed.

“It changed me,” says Steve. “Used to, I’d hear about kids with cancer and think, ‘That’s awful,’ and just go on about my day. Not after Cody died.”

No.

Steve started more fundraisers: Cakes for Libby. Cakes for Conner. Cakes for Paresia. Cakes for Paisley. The list is long. But not long enough for Steve.

He says, “These families need money bad, I hear lotta sad stories. One parent told me they almost lost their home.”

Late one night, while Steve sat in his chair, he received news of another cancer-death. A girl. It stabbed at him.

“Thought to myself, ‘I’m tired of people forgetting about these kids who die.’”

So, he launched a different kind of fundraiser. The next day, he met with city commissioners, county officials, and the mayor. This was bigger than poundcake. It…

Her grief got interrupted. It was a phone call, midday. A high-pitched voice on the other end of the line. A five-year-old in Oklahoma.

The doctor told her she couldn’t have kids. It made her feel broken. Like a busted washing machine. That is, until she met a man with a daughter.

She launched into being a mother.

Motherhood suited her. The little girl's name was Ella, she came from her husband’s first marriage.

His previous wife disappeared years earlier, turning him into a single father overnight. Some said the woman left because of drugs. Others said she was certifiable.

But none of that mattered now because Ella had a new mother.

The wedding was in a courthouse. After signing the wedding certificate, the happy couple ate lunch at a steakhouse.

"We both had that honeymoon glow," she said. "It was all I thought it would be.”

Eight months into marriage, the glow got snuffed out. Her husband was on his way home from Atlanta. They believe he fell asleep at the wheel. His car caught fire. He didn't make it.

“I pretended like I was strong,” she said. “But it was a lie. The whole time, I was like 'Why God, why? I didn’t even

get a full year with him.'”

Why.

Her grief got interrupted. It was a phone call, midday. A high-pitched voice on the other end of the line. A five-year-old in Oklahoma.

“Hello ma’am,” said the voice. “Did my dad die?”

The words hit her like a stiff slap.

The little girl’s name was Sandra. His ex-wife had told nobody about her birth. One September day the woman dropped Sandra at a friend's house and said, "I'll be back in a few days, honey."

She never returned.

Our heroine couldn’t sleep for two nights. She thought about Sandra, even though she'd never met her. She re-dialed the Oklahoma number one night.

“Would you like to meet your older sister?” she asked the five-year-old.

Sandra said yes.

She used her vacation time and drove with Ella from Alabama to Oklahoma.…