Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I bear-hugged her sister, then lifted her out of the passenger seat.

A newsroom. I was in my mid-twenties. Unruly red hair. Big nose. A necktie that was suffocating me. Don’t ask me how, but I had a job interview. I was pure nerves.

I had no business being there. But then, I have a well-documented history of being in places I shouldn’t be.

“No journalism degree?” the editor said, squinting at my resume which read like a Hardee’s breakfast menu.

“No ma’am.”

“So, what’s your degree in?”

I explained that, at the time, I was in my ninth year of community college. And I was showing true potential as a promising liberal arts major.

“Aren’t you a little old to be applying?” she said. “What exactly do you want?”

It paralyzed me. I didn’t know how to answer. She waited. I made no human-like sounds. She asked me to leave.

Goodnight John Boy. Thanks for playing.

I loosened my necktie. I ordered three tacos from a Mexican dive downtown. The tacos came doused in a red sauce that would forever burn the protective lining from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

I sat on a curb.

What DID I want?

I saw a group of young men, walking the street, wearing suits and neckties. They did not look like me. They were cleancut, perfect teeth.

They probably had vocabularies which did not contain words like, “y'all,” and “twelve-pack.”

I was interrupted.

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I bear-hugged her sister, then lifted her out of the passenger seat.

And it did something to me. I discovered what I wanted.

And I’ll share it with you, if I may:

First: I want my friends to feel important. I want children to feel loved—all children. I want dogs to follow me for…

The girl told more stories. She used words that were above her age. Like: “resuscitation,” “trach tube,” and “ventilator.”

The doctor’s waiting room. Martha was sick to her stomach. These were supposed to be her golden years. But the “C” word had changed all that.

She was angry at the world. Angry at herself. And scared.

Doctors confirmed that it wasn’t serious. They operated. It was an outpatient procedure, she was cooking supper for her grandkids that same evening.

But she was anxious. The fear kept her from up at night. She couldn’t focus. She spent days, weeks, months feeling sorry for herself. It was hell on earth.

In the waiting room, a little girl sat beside her. She was the only one in the room with Martha.

The girl was reading a magazine, swinging her feet. She wore an Atlanta Braves ball cap. A brace on her leg.

Martha’s anxiety was bad, it almost swallowed her. She had to talk to someone. Anyone.

It was the usual kid-to-grown-up conversation. How old are you? How do you like school? Martha had spent a lifetime raising kids, she knew how to talk to them.

The girl was a conversationalist—which a rarity in a technological age. Martha

asked where the girl lived.

“Used to live here, in the hospital,” the girl said. “But now I live at a foster home. I don’t got me no parents.”

The girl was small. Her joints were unusually big; her limbs were hickory switches. A thin tube ran from beneath her shirt into a hip pack.

“What grade are you in?” asked Martha.

The girl shrugged. “No grade. Can’t go to school because I’ve always been in a hospital.”

“Always?”

“Since I was eighteen months.”

“Wow, that’s a long time.”

The girl set her magazine down. “Hey, know what’s cool?” she said.

“What.”

The girl held up five fingers. “I died five different times.”

“Died?”

“Yessum. Last time, I was dead for forty-nine seconds, I don’t remember it. All I saw was just white, bubbly…

Vacant churches. Abandoned service stations. Orphaned chimneys. Election signs. Crumbling barns. Longleaf forests—which never change. Heaven, I am convinced, is full of longleaf pines.

South Alabama looks good this morning. There’s a low mist on the farmland. The cattle are sleeping. The sun is not up yet. I'm driving.

It was a morning like this I first learned how to chew Red Man. My father and his friend showed me how to tuck a wad in my cheek. It tasted like raisins and kerosene.

“Whatever you do, don’t swallow,” said Daddy.

I got so sick I fell off the tailgate. He laughed and said, “If you even THINK about telling your mama, I’ll put you up for adoption.”

This is a good morning. The orange sun is still behind the trees. It’s thirty-some degrees. The grass is green, even though it’s January.

My cousin lived on a cotton farm. Long ago, I helped run heavy machinery for one weekend. The smells of the earth were enough to make a kid drunk.

It's too early and too cold to think about heavy machines.

I’m passing dilapidated mobile homes with seventy-five-thousand-dollar trucks in the driveways.
There are dogs, wandering the highway. Scrappy ones, looking for trouble.

Or love.

I’m behind a school bus. Kids are staring out the windows at me. I wave. They wave. They’re laughing, sticking out tongues.

Childhood.

I’m on a dirt road. This is a shortcut my friend showed me long ago. I’m cutting through scalped fields with dry rotted fences which are older than I am.

The road spits me onto pavement. I hope my truck caught enough red dust to make it pretty.

I pass faded brick buildings with Coca-Cola signs. I miss the days when good folks called it “KOH-kola.” I miss a lot of things.

I miss an age before cellphones. And kids who rode bikes to a best friend’s house to ask, “Can Sammy play?”

Today they text.

I pass old homes with outdoor workshops. The kind of one-room buildings where old men piddle. With workbenches…

The night-shift cashier gave him hotdogs and egg rolls—lukewarm from the warming rack. She did this instead of throwing them away. She did it because she liked Tony.

A gas station. The middle of the night. Tony stopped by this store every evening. He came for the food, and the company.

The night-shift cashier gave him hotdogs and egg rolls—lukewarm from the warming rack.

She did this instead of throwing them away. She did this because she liked Tony.

Tony. A nice homeless man with yellowed beard, gentle spirit, and dusty skin. A man who occasionally smelled like whiskey.

The two would sit on the sidewalk during the wee hours. They’d swap cigarettes, stories, laughter.

He was a spiritual man.

He told her about himself. In another life, he’d been a fella who was working his way through seminary. A thirty-something man, trying to do something worthwhile.

Then, his pregnant wife died in an interstate accident. He lost two people in one day. And he lost himself.

Anyway, Tony listened to her, too. She told him about boyfriend problems, her runaway father, and her unstable mother. She looked forward to his visits, they helped each other with late-night boredom. They helped each other period.

He gave her advice.

She brought him clothes. He gave her presents on her birthday.

One particular week, Tony never showed. She sat on the sidewalk, waiting. No signs. She felt like something wasn’t right.

She called the hospital. The voice on the phone said, "Yeah, we got a homeless guy here… Been here a few days. He belong to you?”

Tony had checked himself in. He’d told doctors he couldn’t breathe. His chest infection had become pneumonia. He was dehydrated.

She visited when she got off work. She lied to the nurses and said she was family. They knew better, but looked the other way.

She found him in a bed with tubes connected to him. She sat in the chair beside him. When his eyes opened, she handed him a greasy paper bag.

“I made these fresh,” she said.

Hotdogs and egg…

Morning is here. No sign. She’s been missing a full day now. The house is a tomb. I can’t find the gumption to even make coffee. I sit in a chair with my head between my hands.

My dog ran away. I feel like someone kicked me in the ribs.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It happened earlier. I got home to see the front door swinging in the wind. Maybe it didn’t latch.

I called Ellie Mae’s name, then listened for the sound of paws on pavement. Nothing. She'll come back, I'm thinking.

Three hours: I am sick.

Three hours, she could be anywhere. She could be across the county line. She could have wandered onto a busy highway.

“Stay calm,” I’m telling myself. Dry insanity sets in. I’m imagining bad things. Like what happened to my old dog, Joe.

Years ago, Joe dug a hole under our fence. We drove, searching until we couldn’t. I remember seeing his body after the accident. You can’t unsee something like that.

So the sun is setting. The orange sky is turning into night. My best friend is gone.

I’m searching side streets, back roads, dirt trails. I’m praying under my breath. We knock on doors. We call the sheriff, neighbors, shelters.

“Ellie Mae!” my wife shouts into the woods, until her voice sounds

like pleading.

It’s late. We’re hoarse. Eight hours she’s been missing.

We give up. We pull into our driveway. We’re silent. I skip supper. I crawl into bed with my clothes on, but can't sleep.

I toss and turn. I think about when I took Ellie Mae fishing and my boat motor gave out. I swam the boat to shore. She swam beside me.

There was the time she stole a pecan pie from my neighbor’s backyard deck. She ate the pie and the tin foil together. The foil made a reappearance the next morning.

And the time my wife brought Ellie home. She was just floppy skin and bones. Her ears were a mile long. She tackled me and fell asleep, snoring on my chest.

Her snoring has been the sound I sleep by.

Morning…

Billy Graham got baptized up the road. They dunked him in Silver lake, then ordained him in a clapboard church beneath the live oaks.

Palatka, Florida—My daddy once told me that when folks die, they go to stainless steel dining cars that serve onion rings.

That’s where I am.

Angel’s is the oldest diner in Florida. It’s a rail car made of metal and checkered floors that carries people back to 1932.

On the walls: photographs of successful gator hunts, old pictures. On the menu: the usual American fare—along with frog legs, gizzards, and chicken livers.

Waitresses in camouflage T-shirts take orders, then pass paper tickets to a man in a white apron.

The joint is crowded. I’m at the counter, sipping coffee. Some fella’s elbows are touching mine. He’s from Wisconsin, and he’s eating onion rings.

“We’re buying a house here,” he says with a mouthful. “We knew we wanted to live here after only ONE visit. This place is just so darn special, don’cha know. ”

It sure is. Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, surrounded by trees draped in moss, and porches with dogs on them.

Billy Graham got baptized up the road. They dunked him in Silver lake, then

ordained him in a clapboard church beneath the live oaks.

I visited that very church this morning. I listened for the shouting of a young Billy, still bouncing off wood floors. My father was no saint, but he loved Billy Graham.

In Palatka proper, there are old brick roads poking through paved streets, ancient storefronts, and a downhome community college.

Last night, I spoke at the Florida School of the Arts. I arrived at the auditorium early. The soundman flipped on stage lights to reveal a Grand-Ole-Opry themed stage.

“We built this just for you,” he said.

It made my eyes wet. “Why,” I asked, “would anyone do that?”

“‘Cause this is Palatka,” was the response. “We support people we love.”

Love. It abounds here. I met a woman who works at a domestic violence shelter. Her skin was midnight,…

That was not a good night. It was not a good decade. I stopped believing in things. I went years without eating ice cream, watching baseball, or smiling.

It’s late. I’m driving to Palatka, Florida. I am listening to Willie Nelson’s greatest hits. I’m two hours in. Three left to go.

The trees just outside Tallahassee are weighted with Spanish moss. The highway is almost empty. Willie sings about a good-hearted woman.

I’m thinking about a boy I just met. A boy who told me to “have a good day.”

Yeah, I know. Big deal. Everyone says that. Even clinically depressed employees at Walmart tell you to have a good day.

Not like this.

It was a Dairy Queen. I stopped to get something to-go for lunch. There, I saw a child in a wheelchair, sitting in the dining room. He had no arms, no legs.

His mother was feeding him. His younger sister was wiping his mouth between bites. He wore a smile that stretched to both sideburns.

He tried to speak with his mouth full. Ice cream fell onto his shirt. His sister wiped it. He laughed. His mother laughed. His sister laughed.

I decided to eat in the dining room. I talked to the boy. He said he’d

had a nice day. He’d just seen a movie with his “girls” a few hours earlier.

He’s eleven.

I finished my meal. I bid him goodbye. He wheeled his chair to me, using what I will refer to as his arms.

He held out his right arm. And even though he has no hand, I recognized the look on his face. He wanted to shake.

We shake.

“Have a good day, sir,” he says.

The universe got smaller. The air got warm. And I saw sunlight flood a Dairy Queen in North Florida.

I’m back in my truck. Willie is singing. And I’m thinking about a kid.

I was twelve when my father engineered his own death. That was not a good day.

Later that same week, my friend Jason and his mother took me to a…

I know you—sort of. You’re human. Sometimes you feel like you’re losing. Sometimes you feel overlooked and alone. Sometimes you talk to the sky.

These aren’t my stories, but I’m going to tell them.

Let’s call her Dana. Dana was going for a walk near her home. It was a dirt road. Her high-school reunion was coming up, she was getting into shape.

A truck pulled beside her. He slowed down. He rolled his window open, he asked if she needed a ride.

Something was wrong. It was the way he looked at her.

Before she knew it, he’d jumped out of the vehicle. She tried to get away. He overpowered her and threw her into a ditch.

She landed a few good hits to his face, but he outweighed her.

He used a pocketknife. He pressed it against her. She screamed something. She doesn’t remember which words she used, but she aimed them toward heaven.

Something happened.

His body froze. Completely. He was like a statue, only meaner. She wanted to run, but she was too scared.

That’s when she saw another man standing above her attacker. He was tall, with a calm face.

“It’s gonna be okay, Dana,” the tall man said. “Go on home, sweetie, everything’s gonna be

okay.”

Here’s another:

Jim was dying. A seventy-something Vietnam veteran with high morals, pancreatic cancer, and a two-packs-a-day habit.

Doctors said his cancer would kill him.

Treatments were hell. Jim met a man in the VA hospital. A homeless man with a duffle bag. A fellow vet.

They shared a few cigarettes. They swapped stories. They understood each other. Jim invited the man home.

The man stayed in Jim’s guest room. He stayed for several months.

He became Jim’s caretaker. He wiped Jim’s mouth after episodes of vomiting, he stayed up late during sleepless nights, he helped Jim bathe. He’d pat Jim’s back when nausea got bad, saying, “It’s gonna be alright.”

And he was there on Jim’s final day, too. He waited in the den while Jim’s family gathered around his bed.…

I was raised by women. Polite behavior was beaten into me with hairbrushes and unabridged King James Bibles. I believe in opening doors for anyone you’d refer to as ma’am, miss, or Mama.

I’m at the bank. I’m standing in a line that is one hundred miles long. I’m in the rear. The line is not moving.

I would rather have open heart surgery administered by Howdy Doody than wait in line.

Through the doors, I see a woman, walking across the parking lot. I’m trotting toward the door to open it for her.

This is because I was raised by women. Polite behavior was beaten into me with hairbrushes and unabridged King James Bibles. I believe in opening doors for anyone you’d refer to as ma’am, miss, or Mama.

But someone beats me to the door.

A boy in line. He is twelve, thirteen maybe. He’s here with his mother. He swings it open.

“Thank you,” the woman says, grinning.

Two more women are strolling through the parking lot. The boy flies into action. He opens the door.

They thank him. They even call him “sir.”

He likes this.

Here comes another. She’s waltzing toward the door, talking on her phone. You ought to see the surprise on her face when the kid pulls the Open Sesame trick.

She giggles. “Aren’t you sweet?”

Yes, he is.

And I remember a time when most men were. “Gentleman,” my granddaddy would’ve called them. “Polite,” Mama would’ve called it.

I call it being considerate. And I believe in it.

Long ago, we had men who raced to the door to prove that their mothers had raised them right. They were men who wouldn’t use a four-letter word in the presence of long eyelashes, not even if you threatened them with soap operas.

But those days are evaporating. And I don’t like saying it, but the world has changed.

Even so, some of us still remember our Mama, reminding us to treat every girl, woman, and granny better than the Queen of England.

I asked the boy’s mother how her son became such a knight in…

I was good at feeling sorry for myself. After my father died, I’d turned wallowing into a fine art.

I was a young man on a date. We were eating at a dive restaurant. We’d gone on exactly four dates. She didn't care for me.

I was an awkward-looking babyface who hadn’t washed his truck in fifty years. Her family belonged to a country club.

I had movie tickets in my pocket. After dinner, we were going to the movies. That was the plan.

I ordered the burger. She got the chicken salad. Things were going famously between us.

After supper she said, “I don’t think we’re fit for each other…”

I asked her why, of all possible times, she waited until after I paid for her chicken salad to tell me this.

She said she wanted to date someone who was (and I quote) “doing something with his life.”

She hitched a ride home with her sister. I never saw her again.

I drove home through the dark. I parked in my mother’s driveway. I turned on the radio and felt sorry for myself.

I was good at feeling sorry for myself. After my father died, I’d turned wallowing into a fine

art.

My sister came walking out the front door. Barefoot. She was a nine-year-old. She had a button nose, sun bleached hair.

“Why’re you sitting out here?” she said. “Why aren’t you coming inside.”

She’s always been nosy. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to my kid sister about the finer points of why I had two orphaned movie tickets in my pocket.

But then, this wasn’t just a sister. This was my friend. During our father’s funeral, she'd been a five-year-old, bouncing on my hip.

And I was her brother—who slept on her bedroom floor for six years. After my father’s funeral, she was afraid to sleep alone.

The nine-year-old crawled into my passenger seat and said, “What’s wrong? Where’s your date?”

I turned the radio dial to fill the silence. The…