While I write this, my wife is watching the evening news. The Barbie Doll on the TV screen is saying that the economy is in trouble, the government is crumbling, and mankind is dangling by a thread.

Pensacola, Florida—Dodge’s Convenience Store. Friday afternoon. This is the kind of gas station with greasy fried chicken that's not half bad.

In the long line ahead of me: a young couple. They are sweaty, dressed in white clothing, covered in paint splatters. The woman is holding a toddler.

On the counter, the man places two energy drinks and a large box of chicken. He removes his wallet. He has no cash.

“Never mind,” he tells the Dodge’s cashier, “I’ll just put everything back.”

A old woman in line behind them removes her wallet and pays.

He thanks her.

She says, “Nah, don't thank me.” Then, she leaves.

Montgomery, Alabama—a very nice restaurant. Mary is in her car, applying makeup before meeting her boyfriend.

She sees two boys at the valet desk, wearing matching golf shirts.

An old man with a long beard shuffles the sidewalk. He has a backpack on his shoulder. He walks past the boys.

They holler, “Sir, wait!”

One kid runs inside. He returns with a take-out box. The man thanks them.

Mary watches the man walk on ahead, sit on the pavement, and eat with

his hands.

Mary has to re-apply mascara.

Jacksonville, Florida—an older man finds a cat in his neighborhood. The cat has a bloody stub where her right ear once was.

He takes her to the vet and gets the wound dressed. The cat sleeps on the man’s recliner. He names her.

One morning, before he’s even made coffee, he notices something beneath his easy chair.

He crawls on his hands and knees to look. Four newborn kittens.

“I’m a dad,” he writes me.

A granddaddy is more like it.

Shreveport, Louisiana—Anne is a young widow. Her car is giving her fits.

She takes it to a garage. The mechanic says it’s an expensive problem. She’s better off getting a new vehicle.

One of the young mechanics overhears this. He takes Anne aside.

It was my first major failure, and it was a crushing blow. On the last day of class, the teacher kept me late.

I was a below-average student. A mediocre baseball player. I tried out for the football team twice. Rejected twice.

I was chubby—built like a summer squash. I talked too much.

I failed fifth grade.

It was my first major failure, and it was a crushing blow. On the last day of class, the teacher kept me late.

She called me to her desk. “I’m really sorry to tell you this…” she said.

The liar. She was a hateful woman who disliked me from the moment she laid her beady little turkey eyes on me.

I sat on the school curb and cried.

I’d decided I would join the circus, or perhaps get certified to empty Port-a-Johns. Maybe then, I could avoid begging outside shopping malls.

The school janitor found me sitting. He was a young man. Tall and lanky. He was a different bird. Some kids made fun of him.

They said things like: “He’s three aces short of a deck.”

Others called him worse.

He sat beside me on the pavement while I waited for Mama to arrive.

“It's the last day of school,”

he said. “You oughta be happy.”

I told him what happened.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he showed me a magic trick with a quarter.

I was in no mood. I’d seen tricks like that before. I was far too old to believe coins came from behind my ears, anyway.

So, he quit trying and said, “You ain’t stupid.”

I asked him, kindly, if he’d leave me alone. Besides, the jury had spoken. I had the intellect of an Allen-wrench.

He wouldn't leave. He only did more magic tricks.

Finally, he said, “You know, I’s born with my birth cord wrapped ‘round my neck. My old man called ME stupid.”

He went on to explain he was partially deaf, and how school had been a struggle. He'd dropped out after eighth grade. He admitted he could…

I'm a sucker for the flag. Always have been. At Boy Scout camp I helped fold the flag—a job of congressional importance.

They are raising a flag over a new bank building. I can see them doing it while I sit at a stoplight.

Folks in business suits cut a red ribbon with giant scissors. A group of Junior ROTC uniforms stand around the flagpole. A photographer. It's a small ordeal.

I'll bet there's free finger food inside.

I'm a sucker for the flag. Always have been. At Boy Scout camp I helped fold the flag—a job of congressional importance.

The week before camp, my pal and I practiced folding bed sheets in the backyard.

Mishandling such obligations is a grievous offense in the Scouts—second only to horse thievery and using the “S” word on the camp bus.

The year before, there had been an incident. Kevin Simpson and Jerry Miller had taken to arguing over a certain brunette during the flag ceremony. While they folded, tempers flared.

Stars and Stripes hit the dirt, and a fight ensued. One of the Scoutmasters had to be revived with cold water.

Kevin and Jerry, as I understand, are still peeling potatoes

in federal prison.

I folded my first flag on a June morning. Birds made noise. Cold dew hung in the air. Myriads of khaki uniforms gathered. I don't think I've ever felt so responsible.

Thirteen folds. Then, I marched the flag to the Scoutmaster. He took it, and I gave a three-finger salute.

He whispered, “Look behind you, son.”

I turned to see hundreds of freckle-faces in the camp, all saluting in my direction Serious faces. A few Scoutmasters were veterans. They saluted with as much sincerity as any boy ever had.

Some things stick with you, I guess.

Junior ROTC raised the flag over the bank. The wind caught it and hurled it over the building. The word majestic comes to mind.

A state trooper on the highway shoulder showed full-salute. The truck in front of me rolled down windows and hollered.…

Well, I don't know exactly what I am today. But whatever it is, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this without the kindness of people like I just told you about.

I tried to piece my daddy back together after he died. At least the best parts of him. I looked for him in others.

I suppose it’s only natural, trying to find substitutes for things you lack—and people you miss.

People like Lyle, who lived not far down the road. Folks called him Smiley. He was the same age my father would’ve been. We became friends.

Once, he asked me to watch the World Series with him at a local bar. I hadn’t watched the Series with a partner since childhood.

A fella at the bar asked if we were father and son. Before I could answer, Lyle had his arm around my shoulder, saying we were. Then he ordered chicken wings.

I ate until I got sick.

Jim was white-haired, and old enough to be my grandfather. He was from lower Missississippi and talked with a soft-drawl. He introduced me to tomato gravy on biscuits.

He was the first man other than my daddy to tell me he loved me. I didn't know how to answer, so

I said nothing.

Jim has Alzheimer's now. I visited him a few months ago. He doesn’t remember me.

Davey—the alcoholic. Once upon a time, he taught music theory at Auburn University. He smoked Winstons, and a tobacco pipe.

He lived on Campbell Street, in the woods. His apartment was nothing but walls of books and ashtrays. We worked construction together, painting houses.

Once, during a drunken episode, I found him crying on his porch.

He said, “I want you to go to college and make something of yourself, Sean. Promise me you'll do something with your life.”

I enrolled the next morning. When I earned my degree, I thanked Davey publicly. They buried him in Opelika.

My father-in-law. He had a loud voice and a perpetual grin. He gave me things—drills, lawnmowers, ratchet sets. He took me fishing. He told fantastic jokes…

The boy had been picking vegetables in a commercial hothouse earlier that day. He was a rookie laborer. He'd touched his face—the pesticides burned his eyes and skin.

I don't know why I'm telling you this. It was years ago. I was younger.

Church service was held in double-wide trailer on a Saturday night. I didn't want to go, but I'd promised a friend I would.

The trailer had seen better days. It was an ugly room, mildewed, with harsh lighting and linoleum floors. There must've been a hundred Mexicans inside.

And one pale-skinned redhead.

The band played for an hour. Fast, Latin music. Brown-skinned grandfathers danced with little girls. Someone's great-granny wanted to dance with me.

It was unlike any religious gathering I've ever been party to.

My friend, the drummer, was Mexican, born in the States. We became friends when we'd worked as trim carpenters.

I also knew the guitarist. That night, he wore ostrich-skin boots and a silk suit. Chucho was his nickname. He was born in La Ciudad.

After the music, the deacons prayed for a boy with a burned face. His face was one big rash.

My friend leaned over and translated.

The boy had been picking vegetables in

a commercial hothouse earlier that day. He was a rookie laborer. He'd touched his face—the pesticides burned his eyes and skin.

Elders placed hands on his red cheeks and prayed. A woman rubbed ointment on him. He moaned.

He didn't even look sixteen.

Then, the church passed around milk jugs with the tops cut off. People filled them with quarters and dollar bills.

While the preacher hollered a sermon in Spanish, he worked himself into tears. I had no idea what he was saying. But he said it with such sincerity, it didn't really matter.

During the sermon, his wife emptied the jugs onto the floor and counted cash. She filled Ziploc bags with ones and fives, then passed them to people in the seats.

Those who accepted the baggies held strong faces. A few touched their foreheads and made the Sign of…

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.