These aren’t my stories, but I’m going to tell them.

Let’s call her Dana. Dana was going for a walk near her home. It was a dirt road. Her high-school reunion was coming up, she was getting into shape.

A truck pulled beside her. He slowed down. He rolled his window open, he asked if she needed a ride.

Something was wrong. It was the way he looked at her.

Before she knew it, he’d jumped out of the vehicle. She tried to get away. He overpowered her and threw her into a ditch.

She landed a few good hits to his face, but he outweighed her.

He used a pocketknife. He pressed it against her. She screamed something. She doesn’t remember which words she used, but she aimed them toward heaven.

Something happened.

His body froze. Completely. He was like a statue, only meaner. She wanted to run, but she was too scared.

That’s when she saw another man standing above her attacker. He was tall, with a calm face.

“It’s gonna be okay, Dana,” the tall man said. “Go on home, sweetie, everything’s gonna be

okay.”

Here’s another:

Jim was dying. A seventy-something Vietnam veteran with high morals, pancreatic cancer, and a two-packs-a-day habit.

Doctors said his cancer would kill him.

Treatments were hell. Jim met a man in the VA hospital. A homeless man with a duffle bag. A fellow vet.

They shared a few cigarettes. They swapped stories. They understood each other. Jim invited the man home.

The man stayed in Jim’s guest room. He stayed for several months.

He became Jim’s caregiver. He wiped Jim’s mouth after episodes of vomiting, he stayed up late during sleepless nights, he helped Jim bathe. He’d pat Jim’s back when nausea got bad, saying, “It’s gonna be alright.”

And he was there on Jim’s final day, too. He waited in the den while Jim’s family gathered around his bed.…

A beer joint. In the sticks. A cinderblock building. There were beat-up trucks parked in a dusty parking lot. No sign. Only a small Pabst Blue Ribbon marquee indicated this was a place where a man could break a dry spell.

My companions were old enough to be my grandfathers. I accepted their invitations to attend their private waterhole.

“We don’t want anyone to know it’s here,” said one old man whom I will call Billy. Although that is not his name.

“Otherwise, people will ruin it,” said Billy’s cohort.

It was a dank place. A lot like the place where Miss Wanda sold me my very first beer when I was 14.

Yes, I realize 14 is way too young to consume libation. I also realize that if Wanda had done such a thing today, she would be rotting beneath Tutwiler Prison. But those were different times.

Wanda gave me an ice-cold Miller High Life in exchange for a song played on my guitar. She asked me to sing to the barroom because—how’s this for irony?—

her mother heard me sing in church once.

I sang “Hello Walls.” I tried to make my voice do like Faron Young’s voice did.

Billy opened the door. The old men assumed their barstools. The place smelled like someone’s crawl space.

There was a tiny plywood stage in the corner. An old guy with a ponytail was picking and singing Vern Gosdin’s “Set’em Up Joe.”

I ordered a Miller High Life, just to see if the spirit of Wanda lived on.

“We don’t carry High Life,” said the bartender. She was young and full-faced. But in a pleasing way.

My two partners ordered Bud Lights. I ordered a Budweiser. The girl called out. “I need two Bud Lights and one beer!”

The other bartender was nicknamed “Tiny.” He weighed roughly 250 lbs., and his arms were the size of fire hydrants. He used…

Dear Bryson,

When we first heard you had cancer, you have no idea how many people began praying for you. Then again, you might have an idea. Either way, there were a lot of us.

We were praying night and day. Day and night. Every single morning at breakfast. Each dinner. You were in our hearts. You were in our minds. You worked your way into our souls.

That might sound a little creepy, but it’s true. You are a fighter.

And now you’re starting school. Your first day of seventh grade. And I am thrilled to hear it. Because, you see, when I first got your grandmother’s letter about how you were suffering from an aggressive cancer, I read her words and wept. Because at the time, you see, I was going through a very difficult period in my own life, physically.

The doctor wasn’t sure whether I had cancer or not. They wanted to check me out. Do a bunch of tests. It scared the Shinola out of me.

I am a

wimp. A big baby. I am nothing compared to you, Bryson.

Because there you were. Showing me what real bravery looks like. You were facing the devil. Head on. You were fighting.

I found myself checking you out on Facebook a lot. I read all the updates, and comments people were writing to you. I read all the words of encouragement. All the prayers.

I saw pictures of you with your head shaved. Your face was puffy from the medication, and you looked pretty tired. But you were always smiling. I don’t know how.

You gave me strength, Bryson. Really. Just knowing what you endured, and all that you suffered, you imparted actual strength to me.

So when your grandmother wrote to me yesterday, asking me to give you some words of advice before you started the seventh grade, I chuckled. Because I felt the strong…

Canterbury Methodist Church. Mountain Brook, Alabama. I was running late. I jogged through the parking lot. On the way to the door, I was greeted by a woman carrying a plate of sugar cookies. Her mane was white. She wore tennis shoes.

I tugged the door open for her.

“We’re so glad you’re joining us today,” she said.

“Proud to be here, ma’am.”

I was led through the bowels of the church. Past the framed pictures of blond Jesus. I entered a multi-use room where a gaggle of mature belles were gathered.

They were all knitting.

“Welcome!” said Miss Gerri.

She walked toward me with arms outstretched. Her hair was blazing white, tinged with the faintest traces of a bygone redhead. Her skin was freckled. Her smile was enormous. She gave me a hug.

Miss Gerri smelled good. Why do older women always smell so good? What sort of perfume do older women wear? Chanel? Estée Lauder? Lady Stetson? Opium? It’s like they all got together one day and agreed on the perfect smell.

It is a smell that reminds you of someone

who loves you. Someone who cherishes you. Someone who cares. A grandmother maybe. Or a favorite aunt. It is a smell deeper than mere perfume. I wish I could bottle this smell.

“We are the Knit Wits,” said one woman. Her eyes never left her needles. “We’re a knitting club. We make prayer shawls, but we also make clothes and hats for the homeless people.”

“Knitting is fun,” said another.

“It’s very therapeutic,” someone added.

“Rosie Greer used to do needlepoint.”

“Robin Williams used to knit.”

“Russell Crowe knits, too.”

“I would drink Russell Crowe’s bathwater,” said another.

They passed around a plate of sugar cookies. A woman named Anne was sitting beside me. She removed her latest knitting creation, a prayer shawl she has been working on for the past several months.

These prayer shawls are…

DEAR SEAN:

My doctor says I have depression. I am 81 years old, and I don’t have any friends to cheer me up at my retirement home. I’m just not very social, and I’m pretty much all alone right now. What should I do?

I’m tired of being depressed. I realize you don’t have time to answer an old woman, but I like the way you write.

Puh-leeez write back if you can,
FRIENDLESS-IN-CLEMSON

DEAR CLEMSON:

Look. You don’t want advice from me. You know more about life than I ever will.

Moreover, if I gave you advice, your life would fall apart. One time, I gave my cousin some advice with his ex-wife and he actually followed it. And now he lives in a refrigerator carton.

Even so, I can tell you something with complete certainty. After having wrestled with depressive tendencies for my short lifetime, I have learned one thing about human beings.

We are social animals.

Read that last sentence again. Write it on your bathroom wall. Say it over and again to yourself. Because

when we get depressed, no matter what the reason, we tend to withdraw. And this is the worst thing anyone can do.

I know you don’t like to think of yourself as an animal, but you are. And just like all animals, you need six crucial things to survive. Food, water, shelter, sleep, air and access to an iPhone. And as a human animal, you have an important seventh need:

The need to party.

I’m not joking. As humans, it’s important for us to pile up together sometimes, to laugh in group settings, and to drink potent beverages made from malted barley.

Not all animals on the planet are social like us. Koalas, for example, are non-social animals. So are bears, skunks, sloths and platypuses.

But you are not a skunk. Neither are you a sloth. And a platypus, if you’ll…

There is something about being on a mountain. Something invigorating. Something exhilarating. It makes me think of heaven.

I am standing on a mountain right now, staring at forever. The trappings of society are miles below me. There is no rank or status up here. No schedule. No spam email. No 24-hour news channels.

The foothills of the Appalachians are before me, sprawled out like a giant green quilt. The whole of Jefferson County is behind me. And my problems seem so small up here. Like itty bitty gnats. Only uglier.

Oak Mountain State Park is the largest park in Alabama, and it’s about the size of a small continent.

This park was supposed to be a national park. That was the original idea. They were going to call it Little Smoky Mountain National Park. It was going to be ridiculously cool. But then Pearl Harbor happened. America went to war instead. And the idea fell through.

But the park turned out ridiculously cool anyway.

So people are always surprised when I

take them to Oak Mountain. They always say the same thing: “I didn’t know you had this kind of beauty in Alabama.”

Because most people only know the Alabama they see on TV. I can’t tell you how many outsiders I meet who think Alabama is nothing but hicks and swamp bogs.

Outsiders have some mental image of Alabamians as toothless, barefoot hillbillies sitting on the porches of 42-foot Fleetwood doublewides, cooking squirrel, polishing their Remingtons, watching NASCAR. Which is an unfair stereotype. We also watch football.

Oak Mountain is tucked within the Appalachian foothills. You’re looking at 9,940 acres of oaken woodlands and several mountain lakes. In the 1930s, this place was built with the same hands that built Yosemite. The Civilian Conservation Corps put their heart and soul into this land. And you can tell when you hike these trails.

Although truthfully, I am not a…

It’s nine at night. Ron is rolling over the dark Appalachians, traveling 70 mph. He’s bound for Kentucky. We’re talking on the phone.

He’s a security guard at a department store in Florida. He just got time off so he can travel to Kentucky to help with disaster relief.

“I’m a fifth generation Kentuckian,” he says. “I been away from home for thirty years. But it’s like my daddy always said, we take care of our own.”

So far, the flood in Kentucky has killed 25 people. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said he expected the death toll to continue to rise. Among the dead are six children. Four of which were swept away from their parents’ grasp in the floodwaters.

Some say it was the worst flood in Appalachian history. Certainly it is the worst flood this generation of Kentuckians has ever seen.

At least 33,000 have no electricity. Mudslides have made roads impassable. Hundreds of businesses and homes have been wiped off the map. Or swallowed.

Many people are still missing. Elderly people with

dementia. Young fathers and mothers who never made it home from work. And lest we forget, the multitudes of pets.

And yet, the destruction isn’t the story here. Because even though the Eastern portion of the state has turned into mud soup, the Kentucky spirit hasn’t.

“These people are tough as rocks,” said one EMT. “I’ve never seen nothing like it. These people are rescuing their ownselves. Makes me proud to be a Kentuckian.”

There have been around 98 reported rescues by emergency crews. There have been exponentially more conducted by ordinary civilians and neighbors.

The Samaritans have been arriving from all parts of the state. They call them the Bluegrass Navy.

They are men and women in all-weather hunting gear, towing fishing boats. Guys in camo caps, driving Fords and Chevys, who usually skin bucks or gut bass on the weekends.

These are people…

It’s morning. I’m parked at a community ballpark, eating a breakfast sandwich.

I made the mistake of turning on the radio. It’s nothing but horrifying news, greasy politics, shouting evangelists, and music that sounds like a choir of chainsaws with chest colds.

Radio off.

I see a boy in an oversized helmet, he’s on the field by himself. A man pitches underhand to him. The kid swings. After a few strikes, he hits a home run. It arcs clear over the fence.

Meet William. He’s the 9-year-old who hit the ball, and he hit that thing harder than Roy Hobbs.

Right now, William is very happy. You can see it on him. He’s running the bases. His legs are skinny, his face is all smiles. William has Down syndrome, and his tender heart is the size of four U.S. states.

This morning, his father has been teaching him to use a bat. Will’s mother is the only one in the bleachers.

“I didn’t expect Will to be so amazing,” his mother says. “Did you see him hit that ball?”

I can sort of relate to what Will must be feeling. The first time I ever hit a baseball over the fence was the only time it ever happened. It was the apex of boyhood.

I was about William’s age. I was moderately chubby, unathletic, I liked pocket knives, pork products, endurance napping, and I wore Superman underpants.

I was no Johnny Bench, but I liked the game.

I remember when my father handed me the bat during a game. It was top of the eighth. My T-shirt bore the name of a local gas station. My white pants had a patch sewn on the seat á la my mom.

Daddy said, “Keep. Your. Eye. On. The. Ball.”

I swung. It was pure luck. The thing sailed like the S.S. Minnow. Over the fence. Home run. And the image I remember…

I fell into a time warp. I can’t remember how it happened. But it did. I was sucked backward 53 years.

I pulled off State Highway 160 in Hayden, Alabama. I wheeled into a sleepy Sunoco gas station. The parking lot was full of mud-caked Fords, and guys in work clothes drinking Gatorades. The front window of the convenience store said, “Ice Cold Coca-Cola Sold Here.”

I pushed the door open and walked inside the old country store. And I fell into the 1960s.

The smell of fried chicken hit me like a groundswell. The gal behind the sneeze-guard was selling 8-piece meals, fried potato wedges, Mexican rice, and some kind of fruit cobbler so good it’s probably illegal in three states.

The menu on the wall was an old lightbox menu. There was a wait.

The men in line for lunch were the prototypical blue-collars I come from. They wore steel-toes and ratty denim. They had black smears on their faces, and dirty hands. They looked like they had just

gotten out of the mines, just left the steel mill, or just finished laying beads on column splices.

On my way to the bathroom, I realized this was not just a convenience store. Not in the sense that we know them today.

Today, you walk into a gas-station store littered with futuristic slushy machines and those roller grills turning sausages and eggrolls which predate the Carter administration.

This wasn’t a place like that. This was a sure-enough general store. This place was more akin to the mercantile your mama sent you to, riding on your bicycle, whenever she was out of cornmeal.

This was the kind of place that could cover all your domestic needs in one fell swoop. You could buy a pound of roofing nails, a Stoffeur’s lasagna, a squeegee, and a Baby Ruth, all in the same trip. Throw in some Navy plug for your old…

I am going to hell. There is no getting around it. I stole something. I am not proud of this. I am ashamed to even write these words.

Before I say anything else, it’s important for you to know that I am not a thief. I was raised in a moral home. I was a Boy Scout. And whenever I leave public restrooms, I sometimes wash my hands.

But a man can only take so much temptation before he succumbs to pure evil.

Yesterday, I was walking past my neighbor’s house. It was a serene, sunny day. In the side yard of my neighbor’s house is a large tomato garden. The garden is unprotected. Unfenced.

There must be 40 tomato plants out there. These plants produce more tomatoes than any rational human being could ever eat.

I stood before my neighbor’s garden, staring at the giant tomatoes, rotting on the vines.

I gazed upon the tall stalks and saw the plump things, glistening in the sunlight and the Devil started talking to me.

“Whoa, check out those tomatoes,” said

Beelzebub. “It’s be a shame to let them go to waste.”

I told the Devil to get behind me. So he did. He got right behind me and pushed me straight into my neighbor’s garden.

There I was. Standing before a row of suggestive tomato plants. I glanced both ways. Nobody was around.

So I stepped a little closer to take a look. No harm in taking a look, right?

“Right,” said the Devil.

“After all, looking and sinning aren’t necessarily the same thing, right?”

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” said Lucifer.

I touched one of the ripe beefsteaks and felt a cold thrill shoot through me. I cupped my hand around its supple base. The thing weighed as much as a Chrysler. It was warm. And so soft.

My mother used to grow tomatoes. One of her…