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…

Once, I had a dog who liked to wrestle after meals. She was a good girl. After her last bite, she'd become a canine tornado. She’d bark hard, crouch low, tail wagging.

Waffle House. A year ago. I saw a dog trot through the parking lot. He looked confused. Call it my curiosity, but I went outside after him.

My father’s voice played in my head. He said: “Never chase a dog, he’ll only run from you.”

So, I squatted low and pretended I didn't care if he came or not. No here-boys, no hey-puppy-puppy-puppies. And I waited.

The folks in Waffle House must’ve thought I’d lost my mind.

He finally came. I could hardly believe it. Black hair, no collar. He wore a look that said he was on his own.

He ate it my front seat. We talked. I only knew him for one day, but I discovered he liked to wrestle.

I dropped him at a no-kill shelter, the workers talked to him in high-pitched voices and performed various acts of belly rubbing. I’ve thought about him ever since.

Dogs are part of my life. A big part. Always have been.

When I was a child, I found a lopsided plastic bag, floating in the creek. It was

December.

I waded into the knee-deep water to retrieve it. I expected the worst.

Puppies. Ten of them, looking like newborn hamsters. They were alive. I named them after books of the Bible like any self-respecting Sunday-school student.

After a few weeks, my father and I placed cardboard signs by the road which read: “Free Puppies.”

Three hours; every puppy had an owner. From Genesis to Obadiah.

Later in life, I had a dog named Joe. He was a rescue. I adopted him from a mom-and-pop shelter.

Joe was a strange animal. He slept in the bathtub, buried TV remotes in the backyard, was terrified of sprinklers, and enjoyed the taste of aged cat litter.

Odd dog. But he was mine.

One year, I had the chemically-unbalanced idea I was going to get into shape. I jogged three miles. I nearly…

You never get over the death of the man who made you. Neither do you forget a fella who told Mister Buz-ZARD jokes, swallowed his tongue for laughs, taught you to tie fisherman’s knots, how to shoot a .22, or count train cars.

It’s a foggy morning. The highways are empty. Our dog sleeps in the backseat.

The drive to Brewton is a nice one. We ride through a piece of Crestview, then Milligan. Highway 85 hits Highway 4; now you’re in the area some folks call “Heaven.”

You’ve got Baker. Think: Mayberry, only with The Gator Cafe—which should be a national landmark.

You have the cotton fields and backwoods of Munson, Berrydale, Fidelis, Dixonville—your cellphone is worthless here.

Suddenly, you’re in Alabama.

There’s Riverview—there aren’t two hundred folks in Riverview. My tool shed is bigger than the courthouse.

And East Brewton—faded single-story homes in need of paint jobs, with folks on front porches.

A bridge runs you over Murder Creek toward train tracks that cut through Brewton. Two caution arms lower. A whistle. Red lights. Bells ringing. Here comes the engine.

Say goodbye to the next ten minutes of your life.

We wait in traffic at the intersection of 31 and 41. The clacking boxcars hypnotize me. I love it. No matter how old I get, when I see a train I’m twelve.

As a boy, my father and

I were smitten with trains. We’d count boxcars when they rolled by. Once, in Tennessee, we counted 129 on one engine. That was our record.

The arms raise.

And we’re in my wife’s hometown. The remains of the old theater stand in the distance. It’s not a theater anymore, of course, it’s only a neon sign. I’ve heard stories about this theater.

“When we’s young,” said my mother-in-law. “If a boy was worth his salt, he’d take you to that theater and pay for your popcorn.”

“When we’s young,” responded my father-in-law. “I wasn’t worth my salt.”

We ride a winding road toward Union Cemetery. There must be five billion stories in the ground here.

We’re here to see my wife’s father.

We’re the only visitors today. My wife steps out of the…

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…