Alabama was playing Illinois. It would be the Bear’s farewell game. I was born during the fourth quarter.

I was born during an Alabama game. I have a Polaroid photograph of my father wearing scrubs and surgical cap.

The photo is faded. He’s eating spaghetti, nose pressed against a television which sits in the corner of a delivery room.

It happened like this: my mother called him from her delivery-room phone. He was at work.

“I’M IN LABOR!” she said in all caps.

And, like any proud, soon-to-be father, he jumped in his truck and broke the sound barrier to get to the hospital in time for kickoff.

Alabama was playing Illinois. It would be the Bear’s farewell game. I was born during the fourth quarter.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. My father passed twelve years later.

I don’t want to talk about the particulars because this is New Year’s Day. And while I write this, Alabama has just won the Sugar Bowl.

The day after my father’s death, I quit watching sports altogether. Even baseball. In fact I didn’t do much after he died, except stare. I was good at staring.

One day, my uncle arrived on our porch with tickets in

hand. “You wanna go to a football game?” he said.

“No,” was my response. I was a very busy boy, I had a lot of staring to do.

My mother shoved me out the door. “He’d love to go,” she pointed out.

It was a long drive. We picked up my friend, Danny, who had irritable mouth syndrome—he could talk the wires off telephone poles.

Thus, we sat on my uncle’s tailgate while Danny talked. And talked. And talked. And it was the worst day of my life, second only to my first colonoscopy.

My uncle stood at a grill, poking a hamburger.

“How ya want your burger?” he asked. “Medium-well, or boot leather?”

Danny cackled.

I didn’t crack a smile.

You can’t blame an uncle for trying.

Throughout the game, Big Mouth Danny…

As a newlywed, I tried opening a landscaping business. I sunk my savings into commercial mowing equipment. Business was bad. On weekends I’d print hundreds of flyers and shove them in mailboxes.

It's New Year’s Eve and I'm writing you from a cold front porch in Eclectic, Alabama. Over the last years, I’ve written from some interesting places. Barbecue stands, hotel lobbies, airplanes, hurricane shelters, Episcopal beer festivals.

Funny. If you would’ve told me five years ago I’d be writing at all, I would’ve called you clinically insane. This is because most of my life’s dreams have died slow, agonizing deaths.

As a boy, I wanted to be a pianist—I don’t talk about that very often because it seems silly now. I’ve played piano since age nine. Once, I competed in a piano competition. I wore a suit and played before a large theater.

My hands were trembling. The other contestants backstage were kids from big cities who spoke with New-York accents.

One kid shook my hand and said, “I’m gonna blow you out of the water, sucker.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said I.

“Aw, your mother sniffs your underpants, loser.”

I came in last place.

As a newlywed, I tried opening a landscaping business. I sunk my savings into commercial mowing equipment. Business was bad.

On weekends I’d print hundreds of flyers and shove them in mailboxes.

“FIFTY PERCENT OFF!” the flyers read. “CALL NOW!”

Pretty please. With sprinkles on top. My business folded.

I did handyman work. I laid floors, hung drywall, renovated bathrooms. I tried to do this on my own, doing odd jobs. Disaster.

I played music in rundown bars. Not fancy tourist joints. I played ugly rooms, for folks who tipped a buck to dance to “Crazy” one more time.

I’ve even worked in a few churches.

I’d rather push-mow Jordan-Hare Stadium.

After I finished community college as an adult, I applied to three major universities. The idea was to do something with my life. Writing, perhaps.

I received three response letters. Here’s one from Tallahassee: “Dear applicant, we regret to inform you that whereupon reviewing your…

So here I am. It’s thirty-two degrees, the night is purple. Ellie is sniffing the ground, making zig-zags. I let her off-leash.

There is ice on the ground. I'm walking a dog on the shore of Lake Martin at three in the morning. I’m wearing pajamas, boots, and a queen-sized comforter.

A few minutes ago, Ellie Mae—coonhound and award-winning talk-show host—woke me by whimpering.

I suggested strongly that she go back to sleep.

Whimpers.

“Go to sleep,” I strongly suggested.

Bark.

Bark.

Bark.

So here I am. It’s thirty-two degrees, the night is purple. Ellie is sniffing the ground, making zig-zags. I let her off-leash.

“Hurry up,” I plead.

But alas, instead of making tee-tee, she walks—if you can believe this—into cold lake water, paws-deep.

There goes my night.

Anyway, New Year’s is one day away, which makes me happy and sad.

Happy—because time keeps going forward and everything changes. And sad—because time keeps going forward. And everything changes.

Still, this is my favorite time. When everything resets itself. Even people.

I got a hand-written letter from a man in county prison. Let’s call him, Dave. The letter was written on notebook paper, with hand-drawn artwork covering the envelope.

“...Do you think people get second chances?” Dave writes. “Even

after we really flubbed up (not the word Dave used), can we start over again? Or is this just a lie we tell ourselves?”

I’ve been thinking about that letter. I’ve carried it in my pocket for weeks.

I carry a handful of letters with me. One is from a man who wrote me about his late wife. One is from a fifteen-year-old named Myrick. Another is from a nine-year-old, “Griffy of the South”—who shares my birthday. Another from a twelve-year-old girl whose mother died too young. I'm not sure why I'm telling you this.

Maybe it's because I'm so cold I can't feel my brain. Maybe it's because my dog has lost her mind and is wading in the Arctic Ocean.

A few years ago, I brought in the New Year in…

As I live and breathe. You might not know this, but that is my word. A long time ago, my father gave it to me. I’m not sure if Webster’s Dictionary has been made aware of this yet. But they’re working on it.

It’s my birthday. I’m at a gas pump at a Walmart. It’s a fancy pump, with a digital television screen mounted in it. Please Lord, bring back the days before gas pumps had flatscreen TV’s.

There is a brief commercial on the screen, then a news advertisement. Then, an ad for birth control. Birth control. On a gas pump.

Then: the Word of the Day. Elevator music plays. A word appears on the screen.

The word is: “loquacious.”

As I live and breathe. You might not know this, but that is my word. A long time ago, my father gave it to me. I’m not sure if Webster’s Dictionary has been made aware of this yet. But they’re working on it.

I remember the night I was given that word.

A man got home from work late. He called his nine-year-old into the garage. The man laid beneath a Ford, changing engine oil. His denim shirt hung on a workbench.

“Go reach into my shirt pocket,” the man called from beneath the car.

In the denim pocket was a piece of paper with several words

in sloppy handwriting.

“Read’em,” said the work-a-holic.

“What’re these big words?” the boy asked.

“Just read’em.”

The boy crawled beneath the vehicle with his father to read them. The boy could see the man’s face in the glow of his hanging shop light. The man’s cheeks were covered in oil smudges. His auburn hair was a mess.

The kid rubbed motor oil on his own cheeks and messed up his own red hair because he wanted to look like the man.

“A fella NEEDS a big vocabulary if he’s gon’ do something with his life.”

Said the man who once wanted to go to college but took up steelwork instead. The man who didn’t WANT to climb on skyscrapers, but did it anyway.

“Go on, now,” he said. “Read me them words.”

The first word…

An old woman and her daughter sat at the table beside mine. The woman was in a wheelchair, with messy hair. And talkative.

It’s the day before my birthday and it’s cold in Coosa County, Alabama. Lake Martin never looked so good.

You won’t care about this, but fifteen years ago I didn’t know my purpose on this planet. Today, I’m middle-aged, and I still don’t know—only, now I have a bad back.

This morning, I ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel, it should be noted, doesn’t have the greatest biscuits, but in a pinch they’ll keep you alive.

An old woman and her daughter sat at the table beside mine. The woman was in a wheelchair, with messy hair. And talkative.

“That man needs to shave!” she hollered.

Several people in the room giggled.

Cute, I was thinking, looking around the for an abominable snowman.

“He needs to SHAVE!” she shouted again, this time in my general direction.

“Mama,” gasped her daughter. “Be nice.”

I smiled at the old woman. And that’s when it hit me. This lady was yelling about me.

I am the Bigfoot.

And I became a middle-schooler again. It was like a bad dream, only without the corduroy pants and the Barry Manilow music.

The woman’s

daughter apologized. But I told her it wasn’t necessary.

The old lady went on, “Your face looks like a big, fat bear!”

Precious memories. How they linger.

Eventually, she calmed and I finished breakfast in peace. She, more or less, forgot about me—until I stood to leave. Then, she noticed me again.

Her old passions reignited.

“Go shave your dumb face!” she hollered.

The daughter whispered to me, “I’m SO sorry, my mother has no filter.”

I got into my truck and took a few breaths. I looked into the rearview mirror.

I don't know what that woman might be going through. Maybe she's not in control of her mind. Maybe she's had a traumatic experience involving too much hair.

Either way, all I could see in my mirror was a…

The first time she visited the nursing home, she was three-foot-tall, delivering Christmas gifts. It was her idea. She left an armful of packages for people she worried the world had forgotten.

The Crestview Rehabilitation Center is a nice nursing home. Not fancy. The cafeteria is like any other. White walls. Fluorescent lights.

It’s Bingo day. You can smell excitement in the air—or maybe that’s meatloaf. The residents in wheelchairs are ready to play.

There isn’t a single strand of brown hair in this room. Except for Railey’s hair. 

Railey is calling bingo numbers over a microphone. She’s seventeen; your all-American high-school honor student.

She aced her ACT’s, plays volleyball, wants to be an engineer, and is sharper than a digital semiconductor. She’s going places.

Places like nursing homes.

“B-four,” Railey calls.

Folks inspect bingo cards. A lady cusses from her wheelchair.

“Railey comes here a lot,” her mother says. “Now that she’s got her license, she rides her truck up here all the time.”

She comes because she been coming here since she was a ten-year-old.

Railey has no relatives here.

The first time she visited, she was three-foot-tall, delivering Christmas gifts. It was her idea. She left an armful of packages for people she worried the world had forgotten.

By age eleven, Railey was speaking at local church services, suggesting

that folks visit the elderly more often. She was asking for donations.

“I pretty much guilt-trip them,” Railey said earlier. “Just trying to get’em to donate. I gotta do what works.”

It works. She’s been delivering holiday packages to five area nursing homes. Her gift-giving operation grew so big that her stepfather bought an enclosed trailer to stockpile all the presents.

I asked Railey’s mother what sorts of gifts she buys.

“You’d be surprised at simple things these folks want. Lipstick, perfume, DVD’s... Once, someone wanted Cheese balls.”

“N-forty-two,” says Railey.

“BINGO!” a woman yells.

False alarm.

Railey might be seventeen, but she is older than I am—at least inside. There’s something inside her that’s bigger than a run-of-the-mill seventeen-year-old. Bigger than Okaloosa County itself.

“There was this old lady…

If you’re still reading, I’m still proud of you. For the little and the big. For making toast without burning the house down. For telling your boss you won’t work weekends. For forgiving someone who hurt you.

I’m going to say this now: I’m proud of you.

That’s it. You can stop reading here if you want. I know you're busy. So take the kids to karate class, scrub your bathroom mirror, schedule a dentist appointment, wash your dog, live your life. Just know that I'm proud of you.

The thing is, I don’t think we tell each other how special we are. I don’t think people get enough handshakes, back-pats, or five-dollar beer pitchers.

So I’m proud of you. For not giving up. For eating breakfast. I’m proud of you for remembering to breathe. Really.

I’m also proud of Billy. He emailed me. He’s forty-nine. He’s been working in construction all his life, and he couldn’t read until three years ago.

His friend gave him reading lessons every morning on the ride to work. And on weekends. They practiced on lunch breaks.

Billy started with elementary school books. This year he read the Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes Stories.

He reads aloud sometimes, during lunch break to the fellas. He said he’s been practiced reading the same stories so many times, he’s almost memorized

them.

I’m proud of Leona, who had the courage to check into addiction rehab last week. She’s a young woman, and she needs someone to be proud of her. So I guess I’ll have to do.

I’m proud of her aunt, too—who is helping to raise Leona’s daughter with Down’s syndrome.

And Michael, who just asked Jessica to marry him yesterday—on Christmas morning. He squatted down onto one knee in front of seventeen family members, one woman, and her three children.

He gave Jessica and each of her children a ring.

He said, “Will you be my everything, forever and always?”

Jessica’s oldest—Brooke, age 11—got so excited she blurted an answer before anyone else.

“YESYESYESYES!” Brooke said.

I’m proud of Boyd, who got his first job as an electrician. And Lawrence, for…

The whole town came for the shindig. There are people from all parts. Old and young, rich and rural. Small towns support their own.

Port Saint Joe—the community Christmas concert is in the old movie theater. We’re talking old-old.

Eighty years ago, this place used to have a balcony, folding seats, velvet curtains, a silver screen. Today, there is a plywood stage where Clark Gable’s face used to be projected.

The whole town came for the shindig. There are people from all parts. Old and young, rich and rural.

Small towns support their own.

I’m in the back row. There’s an old man beside me. He wears plaid. There is a golf-ball-sized wad in his lower lip. He’s spitting into a plastic Coke bottle.

The opening act is a fiddle band. They're pretty good. Gramps is singing along with the music—between spits.

“Love this song,” he shouts to me.

Gramps must’ve forgotten to change the batteries in his hearing aids.

The musicians sing several. One Christmas melody after another.

With each one, Gramps says, “Oh, I love this song.”

There aren't many Gramps doesn't like.

The local choir is next. Before they open their mouths, I see that they’re Baptists. I know this from the way they walk.

I grew up Southern

Baptist. We have a special gait. We walk this way so that we can recognize our fellow Baptists in the liquor store and avoid them.

Gramps taps his foot. He spits on offbeats.

“Used to sing in church choir,” he says. “My wife’n I were in choir together back in Georgia. She had a purty voice.”

He’s singing along gently. People start looking.

My wife gives me the stink eye. She whispers through grit teeth, “Shut up or I’ll divorce you.”

“I’m NOT the one singing,” I point out.

“Then wipe that smile off your face.”

Wives.

The next song: “O Holy Night.” I am powerless against this melody. The song takes me over. Now I am singing with the old man in a whisper.

Gramps is a perfect tenor. I sing…

It’s sitting at your tree, your foster home, Above your very bed. In hospice rooms, where nurses smile, Though loved one’s eyes are red.

It’s Christmas Eve night,
All the world’s at rest.
Ghosts and ancestors of yore,
Watch us act our best.

Families of the world,
Have tabletop manger scenes,
And writers use the word “yore,”
Though we don’t know what it means.

So eat a cookie, and smile,
And put your cellphone down,
Talk to those who love you,
And family out of town.

Kiss a baby, pet a dog,
Help with kitchen chores,
And when you ask the dinner blessing,
Find a way to use the word “yore.”

Each family—even if it’s broken,
Each kid—no matter how sad,
Should find a way to smile at Christmas,
Though life is sometimes bad.

Life can be bad, you know.
It’s not smiles and mirth for all.
There are boys who live too far from town,
To learn to play baseball.

There are girls without mommies,
Boys without their dads,
Mothers with empty purses,
Working hard for what they have.

I was

one of these.
And I’m betting you were, too.
Nobody gets life easy. No.
No matter what they do.

So I shall think of them,
The same way fire takes to logs,
I will think of the addicted, the homeless, the battered,
And unadopted dogs.

Because there is something bigger, way up yonder,
Something grander, something good.
I don’t know its name,
I just know it’s gravely misunderstood.

But it's understood on Christmas,
Because tonight it’s in the air,
Thank heaven it’s in stars and memories,
And family photos by the stairs.

It’s in tales I hear of Granny,
Killing hens with a cleaver,
The story of Uncle John,
Trapping that pesky beaver.

The stories of my daddy,
Running barefoot through the snow,
When…

Merry Christmas. That’s the phrase of the day. We’ve used it a hundred times within the last few hours. But today, it doesn’t mean what it usually means. It means more.

Dothan, Alabama—the day before Christmas Eve. It’s a humid 74 degrees outside. I’m sweating.

Welcome to South Alabama in December.

I’m in a truck with a coonhound, a hospice nurse, and an unruly Episcopalian. My wife is our driver. We’re delivering cooked Christmas turkeys to anyone who makes eye-contact with us.

My delivery partner is Katie—nurse and highly-decorated comedian. We’re appearing on doorsteps in rough parts of town. Homes with rotten clapboards, blue tarps on roofs, and old sofas on porches.

We enter an apartment. It’s a cracker box filled with cigarette smoke and concrete floors. A nine-year-old girl named Zion lives here with her granny. Her hair is in cornrows.

Granny is on an oxygen tank, smoking a Menthol Slim.

“Hi, Zion,” I say.

She’s shy.

So, I hand her a turkey as big as her granny. She hugs the foil-wrapped thing.

“Merry Christmas,” whispers Zion.

The purest words I have ever heard.

We deliver to an elderly man who has two teeth. He’s tall, skin like rawhide. He’s sitting on a recliner in his driveway.

We hand him a turkey; his face is a lightbulb.

“May Kissmuss,” he says.

Same

to you, sir.

We deliver to the government housing apartments. It’s a rough neighborhood. And I mean rough.

Think: glass pipes sitting on coffee tables, and six-year-olds playing with broken toys.

“Merry Christmas,” one little girl says.

Her siblings say the same.

That’s the phrase of the day. We’ve used it a hundred times within the last few hours. But today, it doesn’t mean what it usually means. It means more.

Anyway, this turkey operation didn’t happen on its own. The past few days have been a highly orchestrated hell for those planning it. Raising money, buying supplies, training volunteers, making lists, phone calls, and of course, the cooking.

You’ve never seen so many cooked birds. There are approximately—this is only an estimate—seventeen hundred gazillion trillion turkeys.

Harry…