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…

After the hateful thing happened, her mother sent her to stay with cousins in Tennessee. It was only days before Christmas. It the worst period of her entire life.

She's in her car. Vehicles are parking outside the chapel. People are dressed in dark colors. Greeters stand at church doors nodding to those walking inside.

She crosses the street and makes her way in.

She is nervous. Her hands tremble. She shakes hands with the grieving family. She offers condolences. She looks at his body. She cries.

They are not tears for him.

He was no saint. In fact, he was what some folks would’ve called "no good."

He treated his first and second wife terribly. He was abusive. Unfaithful. Bad to drink. His kids were estranged. His friends were few.

He was her uncle.

As a girl, he lived with her family. She was fifteen; he forced himself upon her.

It altered her life.

After the hateful thing happened, her mother sent her to stay with cousins in Tennessee. It was only days before Christmas. It the worst period of her entire life.

It got worse when she started waking to morning sickness.

It wasn’t long before she had a daughter. The baby was magnificent, but her mother made her

put the child up for adoption.

The folks in white uniforms escorted the baby away from her. And, since good teenagers did what they were told, she let them.

But she doesn’t want your sympathy. In fact, she wants people to know that she doesn’t need it.

Years later, she met a man. He was kind. Funny. Young. He was studying to become a teacher. He encouraged her to finish her GED, go to college, to be proud of herself. He told her she was smart.

And she believed him.

She studied nursing. She studied late hours, worked clinicals. And when she earned her certificate, he was there.

They were married. It was a simple ceremony.

But on their first night as man and wife, she had a panic attack. It was a bad episode.

“Please don’t touch…

I can see my breath. My windshield is frosted over. And you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about strangers.

Spanish Fort, Alabama—there is frost outside this morning. It's thirty degrees. Even my bones are cold.

I’m in a hotel elevator with two big, black men. Very big. I'm talking six-nine, maybe. They must be four-feet wide, wearing size-fifteen boots. They’re carrying luggage.

It’s not every day you ride the elevator with two NFL defensive-tackle lookalikes.

I ask if they're famous.

They laugh.

They aren't famous. But, they ARE biological brothers who had never met one another until a few months ago.

“I’m from Cali,” says one man.

“I’m from Birmingham,” says the other.

Their mother gave them up for adoption thirty-eight years ago. They found each other on the internet. Then, they tracked down their birth parents.

Their biological mother lives in Atlanta. Their father is deceased. They visited his grave yesterday.

“It was emotional, man,” one brother says. “You don’t think a dude you never met will mean that much to you, but… He was my dad.”

“Yeah,” the other adds.

Yeah.

Today, they’re going on an old-fashioned road trip together. They’re heading to Georgia to meet their birth mother before Christmas. She has no idea they're coming.

One

brother says, “I’m ready to facilitate healing to my family.”

I ask if he'd be gracious enough to spell “facilitate” for me.

We say goodbye, they waltz through the lobby. Every eye is on them because they are giants.

In the breakfast room of the hotel: a family. The back of the mother’s T-shirt reads: “Autism is not a disease.”

They are eating. The oldest boy screams at his younger brother. He is pitching a fit, making a scene. Hands flail.

The room gets tense.

She snaps into action.

She says, “Oh my! Would you look at this? It’s past nine, and you haven’t fed your toy frog.”

The kid furrows his brow.

“I did too,” he says. “Fed him this morning.”

“Interesting,” she goes on. “Then WHY did…

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…

I know dogs who need adopting, I know children who need companionship, and priests in Dothan, Alabama, who cook turkeys for the unfortunate at Christmas.

She pushes a cart in the parking lot. She is a redhead. Pale skin.

There are four Hispanic girls with her. She says something in Spanish. They all laugh. She laughs.

These are happy folks.

She met them last year. She knocked on her Mexican neighbors' front door one evening. She offered to babysit the girls free of charge, since the family was having hard times making ends meet.

Since then, she’s been watching the girls for three years. She also teaches them to read and write English.

Today, she’s teaching baking. She took them to the supermarket because they're going to make gingerbread, yogurt-covered pretzels, cookies, fudge, you name it.

Then, there's the old man. I saw him. He was walking to the public restroom, using a cane, holding a young woman for balance.

“Almost there, Daddy,” she said.

They reached the bathroom; she opened the door and followed him inside.

“No, Daddy, let me help,” I overheard her say before the door closed.

What a good daughter.

And the twenty-year-old kid, Jerod. I watched him play basketball. He was teaching other kids

to play at the county foster-child facility.

He is an orphan who grew up in foster care. He teaches them because he is them. They trust him.

“I know what it's like not having nobody,” he said. “I want’em to know somebody cares, that's all everyone needs.”

Jerod seems too young to be so wise.

And the woman. She was ringing a handbell outside the supermarket. She was tall, angel-faced. She was wearing a Santa cap, singing.

She set her bell down to relax her hand muscles.

A kid approached and asked if he might ring the bell for her.

“Knock yourself out, kid,” she said.

He rang it in rhythm, and sang. His voice was loud, and steady. He closed his eyes to sing.

People tossed money in the bucket by the handful.

So.

This…

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…