She shopped all day in Pensacola, with friends. Her pal left her here. She was only supposed to be here five minutes, waiting for her mother to arrive. It's been two hours. Her phone battery is dead.

Loxley, Alabama—it’s dark. I’ve been driving all night, listening to Nat King Cole sing about chestnuts. I pull over to use the little columnist’s room.

It’s cold. It snowed in Mobile last night—I could hardly believe it.

I’m jogging inside the gas station and I see her. She’s sitting on the curb, outside the truck stop. She’s fourteen, fifteen maybe. Woven hair, no coat.

I ask if everything’s okay. Her eyes get big. I know fear when I see it.

“I’m good,” she says.

Not buying it.

I hurry inside to Tinkle Tinkle Little Star. Then, I buy a hot cocoa and a coffee to the tune of four bucks. On my way out the door, she's still there.

“You want this hot cocoa?” I ask.

No answer.

She’s terrified of me. I can tell. And I don’t blame her, this world is full of dangerous people carrying cocoa.

She takes the cup, but she's not drinking it. She tells me what happened:

She shopped all day in Pensacola, with friends. Her seventeen-year-old pal left her here. She was only supposed to be here five minutes, waiting for her mother

to arrive.

It's been two hours. Her phone battery is dead.

I offer her mine.

“Won’t do no good,” she explains. “Don’t know any phone numbers by memory.”

I ask if she needs a ride. Bad move. More terror in her eyes. So I sit on the curb—several feet away. She’s not touching her hot chocolate.

I keep talking.

Talking is a trait inherited from my mother. She can talk the paint off a fire hydrant.

"Did you see the snow last night?" I begin.

"Yeah," she says. "It was really cool."

My mother has always been the only soul who can make me feel less afraid by talking.

Once as a boy, in a North Carolina emergency room, with a five-inch gash in my leg, I was so scared…

There is a round table filled with loud-talking, white-haired men. Fellas wearing boots, camouflage, and handlebar mustaches. They are men who pronounce the word “tire” as “tar.”

Brantley, Alabama—it’s the Christmas season and Main Street is decorated. Red ribbons on posts, strings of pinery, wreaths.

A few days ago, it was almost seventy outside. Today it's going to snow in Alabama.

Welcome to the South.

Muddy trucks ride through the center of town. Livestock trailers carry horses. A truck with seven thousand chicken crates on back.

I’m eating at Michael’s Southern Foods—the only eatery in town.

“Some weather,” says an old timer, sipping iced tea.

“Damn sure is,” says another.

“Yessir, saw all’em cattle was layin’ down.”

“Damn sure was.”

Things move slow in Brantley.

This restaurant is no bigger than a living room. Old floors. Old tables. Old people.

I can smell smoked pork chops and cornbread.

There is a round table filled with loud-talking, white-haired men. Fellas wearing boots, camouflage, and handlebar mustaches. They are men who pronounce the word “tire” as “tar.”

Old Timer points to the table. “We call that “The Liars Table.”

“Damn sure, do.”

This place is so charming it hurts. And it’s among the last of its kind.

A place that still serves butterbeans with more bacon than bean. Collards that

sing. Hand-patted burgers. Onion rings big enough to use as halos in a nativity scene at the Baptist church.

Through the window, I see a woman crossing the street. She’s heading for the restaurant.

Old Timer beats her to the door. He holds it open, then tips his cap to her.

You don’t see hat-tipping anymore.

But then, this place is the old world. That's because this cafe has been going since the early forties—serving almost the same menu.

“Don’t see a need to change,” says Michael, the owner. “Just want people to eat and be happy.”

And that's what he does. It’s mostly locals who eat here. Some warm a chair every day of the week.

Even during the threat of Alabamian snow.

“All I've ever done is…

The social-studies teacher was supposed to play Saint Nick, but he came down with bronchitis. I suspect foul play.

They asked me to play Santa at a school for children with disabilities. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to do it. But the woman was adamant.

The social-studies teacher was supposed to play Saint Nick, but he came down with bronchitis.

I suspect foul play.

So, I wore the fake beard. They stuffed pillows in my shirt. I wore a red jacket that smelled like Santa’s Coat of Many Onions. I was meant to look like Kris Kringle, but I resembled an Oakridge Boy.

So this marks the beginning of old age. Once you play Santa, it’s over. You might as well start drinking prune juice and use the hydraulic lift-chair at the YMCA swimming pool.

The kids lined up.

“Be enthusiastic,” the teacher reminded me.

“HO, HO, HO,” was my enthusiastic phrase. “HAVE YOU BEEN A GOOD LITTLE BOY THIS YEAR?”

Sue me.

The first kid nearly tore my meniscus. He wore thick glasses and hearing aids. It was hard for him to speak. He made up for this with a snappy attitude.

“I KNOW you’re not Santa,” he said. “Santa is

WAY handsomer than YOU."

I ask how he'd like a nice box of red dirt under the tree this year.

The next child spoke in sign language. Her teacher translated.

“She wants a four-wheeler,” says the teacher. “And a horse.”

I'll get right on it.

Another boy sits on my lap. His mother says he has motor-skill issues which happened after an accident—they don’t say anything more about this. He has dreadlocks and two black eyes.

He asks if I like cheese.

I remind him that Santa is a lover of all things high in cholesterol. This makes him happy.

“Good,” he said. “I’d rather have spray cheese INSTEAD of cookies and milk if it were me.”

I make a joke, but he doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t smile like the others. He’s sad, I can…

But he gave a lot more than holiday gifts. Once, he bought a car for a man who’d been down on his luck. A union steelworker who needed transportation. 

Christmas came early. It happened a few weeks ago. His family didn't know how long he had left. So, they welcomed in the holiday from a hospital room.

They made it a good one.

They decorated his walls. There were poinsettias, pinery, wrapped gifts, cheese balls, chicken salad, fudge. 

The visitors came and went. First, members from the Methodist men’s group—the same group he met with for thirty-some years. Rumor has it, they even sang through a handful of holiday tunes.

The rehab nurses sang along. He never moved a muscle.

A traumatic brain injury is what landed him here. He’d been standing in his kitchen, late night. Nobody knows how he fell. He hit his head on the counter. He went downhill fast.

But this isn’t about that.

His friends and family came from all parts. His grandkids. His old classmates. People gave gifts: a pair of buck antlers, camouflage suspenders, a T-shirt, get-well cards.

His brothers and sisters visited. His youngest brother brought a photo album. The black-and-white image of a boy with dead ducks in one

hand, a rifle in the other.

“God he was a good brother,” he said. “Always looked out for me, always.”

A woman visited. Mid-forties. When she was a girl, he would deliver gifts to her family on holidays. Deliveries started in the 70’s, when her father went to prison.

That holiday season, he’d drawn her name out of a hat in Sunday school class.

But he gave a lot more than holiday gifts. Once, he bought a car for a man who’d been down on his luck. A union steelworker who needed transportation.

He bought a bicycle for a young man on probation. Then, he arranged for the kid to get a job at the local supermarket. He invited the kid to suppers, and family events.

That kid is a grown man with a family of four today.

There’s the eighteen-year-old…

The man’s car had broken down. His three-person family had been walking toward the nearest gas station when weather got bad. He thanked her until he couldn’t. 

She was driving to Raleigh for Christmas. Her two kids were in the backseat. Larry, the black Lab, was riding shotgun.

She’d been on the road five hours.

Her children were quiet. Larry made powerful smells in the front seat. Foul smells which only hardened war criminals are strong enough to endure without suffering nasal trauma. 

And even though it was snowing in North Carolina, they rolled the windows down.

She was scared—though she wouldn’t admit it. Only four years earlier, her husband died by his own hands. It was ugly. Very ugly.

He’d been staying at his friend’s hunting camp. His friends found him.

Life was supposed to go on. Somehow. But it didn’t. She blamed herself. She cried with her bedroom door shut. She was hollow inside. Loneliness can be crippling.

People were kind to her, but they were too kind. A body can only stand so much sympathy.

So, she left her hometown for a fresh start. She sold her house. Her kids packed the car. And apparently, Larry had eaten a dead chipmunk for breakfast.

Five hours later, she wasn’t

sure she’d done the right thing. Moving terrified her. It was unlike her.

And maybe that’s why she stopped for a hitchhiker—which was also not like her. Three hitchhikers to be exact. A man and two children.

She pulled to the shoulder and waved. The man and kids piled into her car. Red cheeks, breathing heavy.

He was a large man with a happy face. His kids were young.

“Sorry about the smell,” she said. “Larry has an upset tummy.”

Larry demonstrated.

The man’s car had broken down. His three-person family had been walking toward the nearest gas station when weather got bad. He thanked her until he couldn’t.

“Nobody stopped for us,” he said. “We’ve been walking for half an hour, trying to wave folks down.”

She parked beside his dead vehicle and waited for…

She was six when he came into this world. He was a sick child, born to an addicted mother.

She was her brother’s protector. She wouldn’t leave him for a millisecond. She’d always been that way. Orphans usually are.

She was six when he came into this world. He was a sick child, born to an addicted mother.

He spent the first months of his life in an incubator. She watched him from behind sterile glass, praying.

When their mother was strong enough to leave the maternity ward, she did. She abandoned them.

Ten years old. She and her brother had already been in a few foster homes.

The new foster parents were good people, but it didn't matter because she wouldn't be there for long. She was moving to a new facility in a few weeks.

Her brother would stay behind.

One night, the foster-home parents took the kids to see a holiday church musical. It was the most fun the children could've had.

A choir sang, there was a manger scene, real animals on stage, costumes. Then, a potluck social in the fellowship hall.

After the performance, the girl sat in a chapel by herself. She sat, looking at stained glass.

One window bore the image of green hills, with

a blue river.

A middle-aged woman with silver hair found her, sitting in a pew. She sat beside the girl, but said nothing.

“What’s that river?” the girl asked.

“That’s the River of Life,” the woman said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a river of miracles.”

“Oh.”

The girl kept staring at the glass.

“Where’re you from, sweetie?” the woman asked.

The girl shrugged. “I don't really know.”

“Do your parents go to church here?”

“Don’t got parents.”

More silence. It was the heavy kind of quiet that makes shoulders heavy and hearts slow down.

“Can people swim in that river?” said the girl.

The woman blinked. “You must have come with Jason and Maria,” she said. “You live with them?”

“Yessum, but I’m moving next week.”

“Where?”

“They's…

They arrived at the vacant home together one evening to sign papers. It was just him. Just her. They'd changed. She’d cut her hair. He’d lost weight. They almost didn’t recognize each other. 

Their baby died. The child was beautiful. Large head, blue eyes, ribbons in her hair.

It was a few days before Christmas when it happened. Her family was in town. The house was alive with people.

Her husband placed their almost one-year-old beside him in bed for a nap. He didn't mean to fall into a deep sleep. But he did. It was the worst mistake of his life. 

They found the child wedged between the wall and the bed.

The funeral was a blur. The following days were hell on earth. She and her husband hollered at one another. She placed blame. He said hurtful things.

Sometimes, good people act ugly.

They separated. He moved into his brother’s. She moved back to Virginia. They put their house up for sale.

The house sat vacant for a year, and they didn’t speak for that long. No calls, no emails. Silence.

Until a realtor called to say they'd received an offer.

They arrived at the vacant home together one evening to sign papers. It was just him. Just her. They'd changed. She’d cut

her hair. He’d lost weight. They almost didn’t recognize each other.

A body can change a lot in a year.

They embraced. They kissed. They apologized. They talked about their late child.

They remembered.

They cried. They laid together on the living-room floor and spent the night in one another's arms. No words. Just quiet.

The next morning, they woke with stiff backs and crusty eyes. Her face was serious.

“What is it?” he said.

Her first words were: “I had this dream.”

She spoke of a girl in her dream, with blonde hair, blue eyes, running through an open field, chasing other children. The little girl ran with arms outstretched, smiling, laughing.

The child in the dream laughed, then collapsed to lie down. She stared at a sky above her and sang in a childlike hum.

And…

We were greeted at front doors by men in work boots, women in waitress uniforms, and their giddy children. Daddy would set trees in dens, and give them free smiles.

Daddy used bolt cutters to cut the chain on a livestock gate. We rode in the bed of his truck, speeding across a bumpy field.

In the pickup-bed: Daddy’s friends Willie, Stuart, and me.

“This is a bad idea,” said Willie, trying not to choke on his cigarette. “Old man Luke’s liable to shoot us for stealing.”

The truck came to a stop. It was night. We could see our breath. We looked across acres of pine trees which grew in a field of weeds.

Daddy aimed headlights at trees. In a few minutes, chainsaws screamed, men laughed. They shaped balsam firs with trimmers, and cut down nearly forty-five.

They stacked them on a flatbed in a hurry.

The next night, Daddy and I sat in the front seat, wearing Santa caps, heater blaring. Bing Crosby never sounded so good.

He handed me a clipboard. “You’re Santa’s Little Navigator tonight.” he said. “Read me them addresses.”

I read, pointing a flashlight at a roadmap. And we delivered balsam firs to every dilapidated home, ratty apartment, rusty camper, and aluminum single-wide in

the county.

We were greeted at front doors by men in work boots, women in waitress uniforms, and their giddy children. Daddy would set trees in dens, and give them free smiles.

Most people thanked him until they wore out their voices. Some cried.

Daddy would say, “Don’t thank me, thank the church.”

But the church had nothing to do with it—not officially.

The following Sunday at church, Daddy was a door-greeter. I stood beside him, shaking hands, passing bulletins.

With each handshake, Daddy said, “Care to donate to needy kids who can’t afford trees?”

People handed over bills. Tens, twenties, even a few hundreds.

After service, Daddy drove a maze of dirt roads while the sun lowered over the world. We stopped at a faded house in an overgrown field. Daddy rapped on the door.

An old man…

His children are used to fending for themselves. They’re used to preparing their own suppers, watching television alone, and tucking themselves in. But not since she started coming around.

He’s single father. A widower, to be exact. But that’s not the story here.

He waits tables for a living. And on his off-days, he works at another restaurant.

Sometimes, he works with his brother’s power-washing business for extra cash. He does handyman work, and installs home sound systems. He is a busy man.

He does it for his kids.

The money goes out the window as fast as it comes. And he’s away a lot.

His children are used to fending for themselves. They’re used to preparing their own suppers, watching television alone, and tucking themselves in.

But not since she started coming around.

Let me back up.

Nine months ago, he met her. She’s a receptionist at a doctor’s office. She was at his restaurant for her coworker’s birthday party.

He saw her and couldn’t stop looking at her.

By the end of the night, his friends in the kitchen knew he was smitten. They teased him. “Go talk to her,” they said, shoving him.

But, confidence doesn’t exactly grow on trees, and our Lone Ranger has been out of the saddle since high school.

He didn’t

know how to approach her. He was—according to his coworkers—a big, fat, hairy chicken. So, without his permission, one of the waitresses spoke for him.

“See that guy over there?” the waitress whispered into the receptionist’s ear. “He’s the best guy you’ll ever meet. He likes you, but he’s too scaredy-cat to talk to you.”

Ouch, Kemosabe.

But that’s how it started.

A little bout her: she was married once. The doctor told her she couldn’t have kids. It broke her heart, all she’s ever wanted were children.

She likes long walks on the beach, Mexican food, Trisha Yearwood albums, chocolate ice cream, and any book that wasn’t written by Danielle Steel.

They went on a first date. It lasted for sixteen hours. But they darkened no bedrooms, rustled no sheets.…

Now the kid is on my lap. Her diaper is wet, she has green snot running from her nose, and she smells like a pot of collards.

It’s a little early for a Christmas party. But who’s counting. We’re in my sister’s backyard. There are twinkling lights hanging over a fenced area. The whole family is here.

My sister’s neighbor is performing minor surgery on his Harley. It’s loud.

My mother is drinking a beer. I am, too. We are humble, working-class people. If we’re going to have a Christmas party with loud Harleys, by God, we might as well have cheap beer, too.

There is a kid running around. A girl. She is my alleged niece.

She calls me “Uncle Sean.”

My sister talks to the girl in a high-pitched voice. “Tell your Uncle Sean you love him.”

The kid remarks, “UNKO SUH WIGBSKGH SWERW
RRRRRRR HJSKDJFH.”

Close enough.

Now the kid is on my lap. Her diaper is wet, she has green snot running from her nose, and she smells like a pot of collards.

I could just eat her all up.

She looks like her mother did at this age. She has the same eyes. Same personality. It’s a get-your-hands-off-me-I-can-do-it-myself-thank-you-very-much personality.

And I’m going back in time. Decades back.

If I close my eyes, I see my baby

sister on her rump in a big hayfield. She’s five. She’s got a dog with her. An outdoor dog, with ticks and fleas.

She’s staring into space. It’s cold. She’s got yellow snot on her upper lip.

“Is Daddy really dead?” she says.

Her face is big. Her cheeks are clammy. My father’s untimely end is fresh on her mind.

“You’re gonna catch a cold,” I say. “Let’s go inside.”

“Why would Daddy kill his own self?”

“You’re gonna get fleas if you—”

“What if YOU die next? What if MAMA dies?”

And the tears come. They’re hot tears. I remember this because they were all over my chest and shoulder.

“Nobody’s gonna die,” I tell her.

“I’m scared. What’s gonna happen to us?”

“I…