For example: I moan a lot when fighting a super-cold. Moaning is how men communicate effectively with their brides when they have sniffles. 

It's a beautiful day outside, I think I'll sit down and write my obituary. This is because I’m dying.

My nasal cavities are full of a thick, gelatinous-like substance which you could pave parking lots with.

According to the doctor, and I quote: “You just have a common cold, bud.” His medical license ought to be revoked.

This is not “just” a cold. It’s Purgatory.

Bud.

And I know exactly where this deadly strain came from. It happened when my wife and I were on the way home last week.

I was sitting in a barbecue restaurant, minding my business, sipping my Budweiser, humming with the Christmas music playing overhead.

There was a girl. A toddler. The girl’s mother was carrying her. They'd just returned from the bathroom. Green snot rolled down the girl’s lip, she was hacking like a veteran coal miner.

This kid was bad news.

When they walked by, the girl stared into my eyes. She drew her head back, then coughed right at me. I felt it on my face.

Then she grinned. Her thin

lips curled over her vicious little teeth. The deed was done. And now my body feels like it was used as a trampoline by the Budweiser Clydesdales.

The first thing you should know is that I am a man. And this means I am not a good sick person.

For example: I moan a lot when fighting a super-cold. Moaning is how men communicate effectively with their brides when they have sniffles.

We say: “Moooohh, uuuuugghh.” Which means: “I feel rather ill.”

And there’s: “Ooooh, aaagh, gaaawww.” When said with tears, means: “Sweetie, would you buy Gatorade, a Snickers, and a comic book on you way home?”

And: “Aaah sheeeeeezzz!” Often said with flailing gestures. This means: “I have exactly sixty minutes left to live.” Or: "The remote is four inches out of my reach.”

Anyway, when my wife gets sick,…

I am ashamed to admit, several years ago I almost quit believing in Santa. That year, he and I had a misunderstanding involving a Yeti cooler and a scratch-off ticket. 

I’m holding a letter from Newt (7 years old, Olney, Illinois). “Dear Sean of the South,” Newt writes. “Can you to tell me if Santa is real?”

The letter is signed, “Newt of the North.”

Here’s what I know, Newt:

I am ashamed to admit, several years ago I almost quit believing in Santa. That year, he and I had a misunderstanding involving a Yeti cooler and a scratch-off ticket.

He mistakenly brought me a pair of khaki Dockers instead.

But that has all changed, Newt.

Last Christmas Eve, I stayed up late watching “A Christmas Story”—a movie which was a classic before it got remade it into a live-for-TV-musical hosted by Ferris Bueller.

Then, I heard something.

It was a loud crash on my roof. I went outside. I live in the woods, so it gets dark here. But I could see him. The Man in Red. On MY roof.

Before I go any further, Newt, it’s important to realize something about my house. It’s on wheels. Your parents might call this a “mobile home,” or a “single-wide.”

Those are outdated, non-politically-correct

terms, and in some circles, offensive. We prefer to call them “tornado magnets.”

Anyway, Santa had—get ready for this, Newt—mistakenly thought my bathroom air-vent was a chimney. He had tried to jump through it. Bad idea. His lower half was dangling in the skylight above our john.

Kris Kringle, you’ll note, is a big boy. And my home is a ‘93 model—not built to withstand hurricane-force windbearing loads.

So, I did what any sensible man would do, I called my buddy Lamar.

Lamar is a part-time eBay seller who lives up the road in the ‘87 Fleetwood Mobile Manor. He’s good people. He came over immediately. He brought his deer spotlight and a stocked cooler.

We tried to pull Santa free, Newt. But nothing worked.

“That boy ain’t goin’ nowhere,” observed razor-sharp Lamar.

So, we waited.

Santa…

Phone calls trickled in for nearly a decade. All kinds. All hours. People with problems. Men whose wives left. Children who were grieving parents. Heartbroken teenagers.

I met her when I was a boy. It was a double-dog dare. I drew the short straw—I have a history of drawing the short straw.

She was standing outside the supermarket, ringing a bell, wearing a Santa hat. I’d heard my mother say she was a little “off.” My father called her plumb nuts.

“Merry Christmas,” she said. She handed me a dollar bill, smacked my hindparts, then shook her bell.

I ran back to the gang. They hollered, “Did she give you a dollar? Did she smack your hiney? Is she REALLY crazy?”

Yes. Yes. Not sure.

We inspected the George Washington. On it were hearts, drawn in red marker. And red words: “For prayer, call this number…”

She must’ve handed out mountains of those bills to folks coming and going. People all looked at her with confused looks.

When I hit college, I had to write a semester paper on misunderstood people who were “different.” Miss Martha was the first who came to mind.

I found the old woman through a friend of a friend. The

woman’s daughter answered the phone and said, “Mama’s been gone for years now, but I can tell you about her.”

It went like this:

She worked as a custodian. And one December, she volunteered to be a bell-ringer.

Her first day, she ran into a young man who said he was depressed. She took the man aside and prayed with him for an hour. Before they parted ways, she wrote her number on a piece of paper and said, “Call me, anytime.”

The man never called. He took his own life days later.

It changed her. She started cashing paychecks into one-dollar bills, scribbling her number on them.

“Mama,” her daughter asked. “Why not write your number on plain paper?”

“Folks throw away paper,” she said. “Nobody throws away a dollar.”

She was right. Phone calls trickled in for nearly a…

Before we married, the girl and I came here on vacation. A beach cottage. Her family made me one of their own. Her brother took me fishing. Her daddy cooked. The girl’s mother made me sleep upstairs in a locked bedroom. She made the girl sleep downstairs, fully clothed, wrapped in chains, King James Bible strapped around her heart.

The pines are flying past my truck window. Tall pines. Port Saint Joe pines. The sky above them is wide. And high.

They say Texas has nice skies. I’ve been to Texas. I got so lost in Texarkana I had to spend the night in a police station.

I prefer Port Saint Joe.

The woman in my passenger seat is sleeping. We’ve been together a long time. Long ago, on our first unofficial date we drove this highway, under this same Port Saint Joe sky.

That night, I hadn't meant to drive so far, but we couldn't stop talking long enough to figure out what else to do.

Before we married, the girl and I came here on vacation. A beach cottage. Her family made me one of their own. Her brother took me fishing. Her daddy cooked.

The girl’s mother made me sleep upstairs in a locked bedroom. She made the girl sleep downstairs, fully clothed, wrapped in chains, King James Bible strapped around her heart.

After suppers, we took beach walks. We held hands. Kids were catching

hermit crabs with flashlights. The stars did their thing. We talked. And talked.

And talked.

We talked on this same beach after our wedding. On birthdays. Holidays.

After my back surgery, too. My backside bore an eight-inch scar and bandages which she changed every few hours.

We came here after her father died. She did more crying than talking.

And after I graduated college as an adult. We stayed in an economy room that smelled like expired Gorgonzola and cat poop.

We talked until sunup.

I wrote my first novel here. I wrote my second novel here, too. They aren’t good novels, but they're mine.

I worked on them from morning until dark. I survived on Conecuh sausage, Bunny Bread, and Budweiser. I had the time of my life.

Me. A man who laid tile, hung sheetrock, threw sod, and played…

They also have the Dead Lakes—the Eighth Wonder of the Southern World, ranking somewhere between the Everglades and Talladega Speedway. A magnificent lake with two billion swollen cypresses.

It’s Christmastime in Gulf County. And I’m lost in a rural place. Another era.

This is small-town living.

A brick courthouse that would make Barney Fife jealous. A small Presbyterian church. No traffic lights in town, not even a caution light. At least, I didn’t see one.

And even if there were any, I don’t see the po po anywhere.

“Oh we got deputies alright,” one local remarks. “Ain’t like when we’s growing up. Back then, we had ONE city cop. His name was Preacher. And he was mean.”

Here, there are three main places to eat: Hungry Howie’s, Subway, and the Corner Cafe. I don’t do Howie’s.

The Corner Cafe is your quintessential local joint. Good breakfast. Burgers fit for self-respecting Southern Baptists. This place doesn't keep regular hours.

“You never know when he’s open,” someone says. “He only opens when he feels like it.”

I love it here.

There’s an ACE Hardware. It’s small. The sign reads: “Christmas Trees, ammo, hay, huntin’ stuff, tupelo honey.”

This is the tupelo honey capital of the

world. The honey here is not just a big deal. It’s a denomination. This town has more bees than Birmingham has Polo shirts.

Today, I bought six jars. In fact, I’m chewing honeycomb right now.

They also have the Dead Lakes—the Eighth Wonder of the Southern World, ranking somewhere between the Everglades and Talladega Speedway. A magnificent lake with two billion swollen cypresses.

Downtown has the sheriff’s sub-station. It’s a two-room deal. Years ago, the building was a donut shop.

You might want to read that last sentence again.

There’s the Dixie Dandy—a grocery-store-slash-gas-station which sells anything from hot food to WD-40.

An old woman tells a story.

“Once, there was this gentleman, a’comin’ through town,” she explains. “He was just a’driving to court. His fuel light started a’blinking, had to…

He phoned his neighbor, who spoke Spanish. The neighbor translated: “Her husband left her. She says she’s been living in the woods...”

The Christmas season. A desolate road. Georgia. It was late. Cold.

He was driving home from work. Windows cracked, smoking a cigarette. He was a lonely old man. No kids. No family.

He was a rough man. He lived in a lonely house. His lonely lawn was overgrown. He’d been married once, long ago. It didn’t work out. In his younger days, he had his share of problems with a bottle.

He heard hollering through his window.

He pulled over. He walked into a dead field, following the sound.

It was a girl, brown-skinned, holding a baby. She was delirious. She moaned. She was burning hot with a fever. The baby was screaming.

He carried them to his vehicle. He drove them home. He laid her in his bed. He held a cold rag to her forehead. He gave her red Gatorade.

She mumbled in a language he didn’t understand.

He phoned his neighbor, who spoke Spanish. The neighbor translated: “Her husband left her. She says

she’s been living in the woods...”

“Husband?” the old man remarked. “She doesn’t even look eighteen.”

More Spanish.

“She’s sixteen.”

Her husband had been fired from a factory job. Times got hard. He left. She was homeless overnight.

She’d moved into a tent made from a blue tarp. She was living in the woods, eating food from garbage cans—which had made her sick.

For nine days, the old man stayed beside her bed. Mornings, afternoons, nights. He made chicken soup. He spoon-fed her. He bottle-fed the baby.

He prayed aloud. And when he was done talking to God, he would tell her stories—though she was half-delirious, and unable to understand him.

She was weak. He helped her use the restroom. He cleaned her accidents. He changed the sheets. He kept fluids running through her.

And one afternoon, while…

Imagine: you’re a hard working couple who can’t seem to make ends meet. Times get hard. Money runs out. So does good fortune. The lights get shut off. And just when things can’t get worse, they do. Your car breaks down and becomes a steaming pile of horse fertilizer.

The downtown is decorated for Christmas. There are red ribbons, wreaths on doors, there’s a big tree on the square.

This is a small town. If you were to get a running start, you could toss a football from one side to the other.

Meet Christy.

She’s a phlebotomist at the doctor’s office. She handles needles, blood, patients. She’s your quintessential small-town girl. Pretty. Smart. Never met a stranger.

She has three teenagers. She loves sports. She is a Florida Gators fan—bless her heart.

Not long ago, Christy met a woman, walking on the side of the road.

She stopped the car. She gave her a ride.

The woman was down on her luck. She told Christy about herself. It was the same sad story you’ve probably heard before.

Imagine: you’re a hard working couple who can’t seem to make ends meet. Times get hard. Money runs out. So does good fortune.

The lights get shut off. And just when things can’t get worse, they do. Your car breaks

down and becomes a steaming pile of horse fertilizer.

Your two-year-old and newborn are hungry. Food gets expensive. You’re doing everything you can to keep your family from losing weight.

It was almost too much for Christy to hear.

The woman said her husband had been walking to work ever since the car broke down.

The woman had been scraping pennies together to buy dried goods from the Dollar General store.

Christy had heard enough.

She called her friend, Brandi. Together they decided to do something. Christy posted a plea for help online. Her request was straightforward:

"If anyone has any suggestions, contact me...”

Did they ever.

The offers started flooding in after a few minutes. Her phone nearly exploded. People offered rides, groceries, gifts, diapers, toys, baskets, clothes.

And, even though I can’t…

To the teenagers in small towns who can’t wait to get out of Dodge, to spread their wings. To adults trapped in big cities, who are sorry they ever felt that way.

To the man I saw, pushing a stroller in the Piggly Wiggly. The girl in the stroller must’ve been twelve. She was well-behaved.

She greeted everyone she saw with happy moans and labored waving.

I stopped to say hello.

Her father quit pushing the stroller. He touched the girl’s face and whispered, “Can you say, ‘hello’ to the man?”

It took a lot of energy for the girl to say it. Her voice was magnificent. “H-H-H-iii,” she said.

“Hi, darling.”

To the young man on the bench outside the gas station. He held his cellphone to his ear. He kept saying into the phone: “Is she gonna be okay?”

He had a puffy red face. Nose sniffing.

“Please tell me she's gonna be okay,” he said.

The gas-station clerk sat beside him. She lit a cigarette and placed her arm around his shoulder.

To the old woman, out for a walk in her neighborhood. Her therapist was beside her. Her gait was labored.

She winced with each step.

The therapist said, “You can do it, Helen.”

Helen did it.

To the woman who wrote me. The same woman who buried her husband and son two years ago. Who feels guilty because she’s fallen in love with another man and his ten-year-old daughter.

To the old fella playing guitar in downtown Pensacola, on the street. His guitar had burn marks on it. He was grinning at passerbyers, plucking holiday music.

To the teenagers in small towns who can’t wait to get out of Dodge, and spread their wings. To adults trapped in big cities, who are sorry they ever felt that way.

To anyone homesick at Christmastime. To those missing old friends, old stomping grounds, old fishing buddies, family tables. To grandparents.

To children grieving fathers. To mothers grieving babies. To people who’ve ever grieved…

I once swore that I would never write something like what you’re about to read. In fact, I can’t stand those who talk about what they do with their money.

This story isn’t about how I got four hundred dollars—even though I did. Four hundred big ones. Unexpected.

Anyway, I want to say this beforehand:

I once swore that I would never write something like what you’re about to read. In fact, I can’t stand those who talk about what they do with their money.

But then, it WASN’T my money. So, why not.

I gave a hundred bucks to the cable guy. He was as country as fiddlesticks. He showed up with his wife. I saw them working in my yard, burying cable together.

“She works with me,” he explained. “She’s a good worker. We can take twice the jobs as a team, make twice the money. I love her so much.”

I shook his hand. He could feel the folded paper bill in my palm. I wished him a Merry Christmas.

The workman across the street got a hundred, too. He was repairing my neighbor’s sewage line. The brown, foul-smelling water puddled around him, saturating his jeans with stink.

I recognized him. We used to work together in a past life.

We shook hands.

I asked how he’s been.

“Got four kids, man,” he said. “A good wife, good job, great benefits. And after awhile, you get used to coming home, smelling like $#!* water.”

How about that.

I left a hundred in his toolbox.

And the old man in Pensacola, standing on Cervantes. Cardboard sign. Long beard. He smelled like whiskey and cigarettes.

I rolled down my window at the stoplight. I handed him a folded, green paper-football. I started to drive away.

“Hey, sir!” he yelled. “Think you accidentally gave me a hundred.”

“No,” I said. “Someone accidentally gave it to me.”

He shouted a God-bless-you while I drove away.

And the waitress. I ordered eggs, bacon, toast. What I got was a patty melt. I ate it, no complaints.

She realized her mistake later. She…

My English teacher said, “I think you could be a novelist one day.” I remember the exact day she said that. I almost cried after class.

I am in the auditorium of my old school. The community-college band is playing Christmas music.

This is where I became the me I am today.

It's your typical community college. The brick campus used to be only a couple of buildings, a few trailers, and a tennis court. It’s bigger now, but not much.

Students hail from Crestview, Freeport, DeFuniak Springs, Red Bay, Mossy Head. Some even live in Fort Walton—God help them.

When I was a student, it was Okaloosa-Walton Community College—and people were still listening to cassette tapes. Today it’s Northwest Florida State College.

Everything is different now. Tonight, I am seated among college-age kids, and I feel like an old man. A few of the students called me “sir.”

That hurt.

The band played “Mister Grinch,” “A Child is Born,” and even sang “Jingle Bells.” They wore Santa hats and made the season bright.

I couldn’t concentrate on the music because I was swatting memories like gnats.

This place is my alma mater—sort of.

About me: I didn’t go to high school. It’s a long story. But after my father died, my mother and I worked menial jobs.

While friends attended pep rallies and football games, I didn’t.

Anyway. Big deal. The point is, I DID eventually attend school—as an adult. Right here.

And this place—humble as it may be—was the biggest thing I’d ever done in my little life. The microscopic junior college became part of me. In fact, for many years this was my second home.

Here’s how my days went:

Leave the construction site at 2 P.M. Get lunch.

2:15 P.M.—eat sandwich while steering with my knees toward class

2:30 P.M.—social studies.

4:00 P.M.—music class.

5:15 P.M.—college algebra; somebody please stab me in the throat with a slide-protractor.

6:45 P.M.—English.

8:00 P.M.—supper from the gas station. A cold, plastic-wrapped burrito, pork rinds, and a tall, ice-cold, infinitely thirst-quenching, Budweiser.

Saturday-mornings—creative writing classes. The…