I saw him carrying an armful of packages. They were giftwrapped, stacked like a miniature pyramid.

He was trying to open the door with his foot.

“Hold on,” I said. “Let me get the door for you.”

He stepped backward and thanked me.

Then he slipped on wet tile. Thankfully, he did not fall. He caught himself by using me for balance, but dropped all his packages in the process. The gifts survived without sustaining any major injuries. And so did he.

That’s when I realized I knew this man.

We used to go to church together. We sang in the Baptist choir, once upon a time. He was a tenor. I sang bass.

Tenors and basses are vicious enemies from birth. The two groups have a longstanding feud. This dates back to the Revolutionary War, when American Colonies fought for independence against Great Britain, and also against Britain’s bloodthirsty allies, the Three Tenors.

Our choir was god-awful. During our choir practices, we basses would blame the elderly

tenor section for our less than optimal sound. Things often got ugly.

“Hey!” one of the basses would yell. “Adjust your hearing aids, old farts! You’re on the wrong page!”

“Why don’t you kiss my big, hairy treble clef!” a tenor would holler.

“You first, Grandpa Walton!”

“Aw, your mother’s Episcopalian!”

And a brawl would break out. The altos would be forced to break up the fight with fire hoses and horsewhips.

Being a Baptist can be fun.

Anyway, I helped him carry his gifts to his car, even though we are sworn enemies.

I learned a little about him, too. He is seventy-four. He’s in very good shape, he still sings in the choir. These gifts are for his granddaughter.

The girl is twelve. Her parents got divorced last year. She’s been caught in the horrible crossfire that accompanies…

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

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. Not exactly.

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

He treated his first wife 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…

When I was ten, I sat at a campfire with my Little League teammates, and I saw a shooting star. I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. I wished for endless cheese.

December 13th—there is a meteor shower tonight. That’s what they tell me. They say it will be a good one.

I am on a porch, waiting to make a Christmas wish on a falling star. But it’s raining.

If this rain ever lets up, I know what I’ll wish for first:

I am going to wish for a lifetime supply of cheese.

Laugh all you want. But when I was ten, I sat at a campfire with my Little League teammates and I saw a shooting star. I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. I wished for endless cheese.

My buddies cackled. They told me I’d wasted my wish.

“You poop monger!” My buddy Allen said, “You should’ve wished for MORE WISHES! That way you could have all the cheese you wanted.”

Consequently, until that day, I had never heard of a “poop monger.” I’ve never heard of one again, either.

My friend Reynold reasoned, “You should’ve wished for endless MONEY, then you could’ve BOUGHT all the

cheese in the world!”

“Yeah,” my cousin remarked. “And girls would automatically like you because you’re rich. That’s always a plus.”

Well, hooey.

I wanted cheese. Not wishes. Besides, I’ve never been very good with money or girls.

Cheese is my game. I could live on smoked Gouda. I could bathe in melted Swiss and use spray cheese for hair conditioner.

Growing up, whenever we ran out of cheese, it was like the Great Depression in my house. I would lie on my side for forty days and forty nights, praying for a miracle.

Tonight, if I see a second falling star, I will also make another Christmas wish. This one is equally important.

I will wish for you and me to have our best day ever.

You might think I’m joking, but I’m serious about this…

The little girl talked too much. That’s what teachers said about her. On the first day of class, they moved her to the front of the room because of this.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t stop talking. It was that she couldn’t. It was involuntary. A reflex. A superpower.

Her smile is another of her gifts. It’s a quirky smile passed down from her mother. Her mother had a lazy eye and saw double. Whenever her mother smiled for cameras, she tilted her head to correct her vision.

The little girl picked up this habit. Today, she can’t smile without leaning left.

She joined the workforce at age twelve, waiting tables. By her teenage years, she worked at a nursing home.

In high school, she met this fella. He was wild, he liked to party. His major hobbies included Budweiser and ice cream. And she loved him.

They would marry. And they would make a life for themselves. The young man would work labor jobs until

he became a steelworker. She too, would put in long hours to pay bills.

In her early twenties, she was fed up with small paychecks. She wanted to go to school. It was an outlandish idea, but she enrolled anyway.

She passed her classes with flying colors. And when she finished her degree, she decided she wasn’t finished.

“I wanna go into the medical field,” she told her husband.

“Do what?” he said.

She took classes, but they were hard, and demanding, and expensive. The science courses were torture. So, she used her superpower.

She talked. She made conversation with the smart students and the teachers. They helped her through. In a few years, she was a therapist. Bona fide.

Her husband was on the front row of her graduation, clapping hard.

By thirty, she tried to get pregnant. But no luck.…

We were going through the motions, doing what regular people are supposed to do during December. Gifts, festive music, cheap decor, blah, blah, blah.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died three years ago this February, and I know you grew up underneath the same shadow with your father. My son is fourteen, I’m afraid he will never have any joy whatsoever again.

More than anything, I want his Christmas to be awesome, but I am at a complete loss. Does it ever get any better?

GRIEVING-AT-CHRISTMAS

DEAR GRIEVING:

Decades ago. The downtown was decorated with tinsel and little plastic bells hanging from streetlamps. Santa and his reindeer were strung across the rooftops of Mainstreet.

The fiberglass Santa had his right hand outstretched in a perpetual wave to passerbyers. Though, something was very wrong with Santa. Very, VERY wrong.

But more about that later.

Anyway, I was in town with my mother. We were shopping for the holidays.

My father had died a few years earlier. My mother was not the woman she used to be. She was sad. So was I.

Also, I had gained roughly fifteen pounds that year

because I was, and still am, an emotional eater. This is why football season continues to wreak havoc on my body. Also, I have had a lifelong love affair with Chili Cheese Fritos.

That holiday season felt like torture. Everyone else was happy, but not us. We couldn’t laugh, joke, or crack smiles.

We were going through the motions, doing what regular people are supposed to do during December. Gifts, festive music, cheap decor, blah, blah, blah.

That day in town, my mother turned me loose in the department store. I had fifteen dollars to spend on friends, foes, and kin.

Oh, how times have changed. Today, fifteen bucks wouldn’t even buy an iPhone charger.

I wandered through the store with no idea how to spend my money. After all, why should I care about stuffed animals, jars of pepper jelly, barrels of popcorn,…

I was eleven. I was invited to try out for the Christmas community choir. A lady visited our church to conduct the auditions.

I had been practicing for three weeks, learning the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

My father, the welder, took me to the audition after work. Before it was my turn to sing, he gave me a pep talk.

“Knock it outta the park,” he said. “Like Mickey Mantle, you hear?”

I sang for the lady in the wire-rimmed glasses who held the clipboard. She was less than impressed with me.

“Stop singing!” she shouted, interrupting my song. “We’re looking for something else, I’m sorry. Next please?”

My father stormed forward from the back of the church. He looked like he was on his way to pick a fight with an umpire.

“Now wait a minute, Lady,” he said. “I demand you let my boy finish his song. He’s been working on it for weeks. What kind of heartless woman doesn’t let a kid finish his song?”

The woman’s mouth dropped

open. She looked at my father like he’d lost his mind.

She sat down and asked me to sing it again. I cleared my throat. I sang. I did much better than before. It wasn’t a home run, per se, but more like an outfield triple.

I got the part.

I was fifteen feet tall. Until that day I’d never done anything special with my life—unless you counted the noises I could make with my armpits. I was a chubby kid with awkward features, I was neither handsome, nor athletic.

But now, I was a soloist.

It took months of preparation to get it right. Each day after school, I would rehearse for my mother in the kitchen while she made supper.

On the night of the performance, my father arrived home an hour late. He wheeled into…

My wife grew up in this town, and that’s my connection to it. These people adopted me long ago, when nobody else would.

Brewton—it’s cold and wet in South Alabama. Forty-nine degrees. In this part of the world, that’s cold enough to cancel school and make snow angels in the mud.

Last night, the town was supposed to pepper the sidewalks with luminaries—little paper bags with candles in them. But it was too wet.

It’s too bad. You ought to see those lights. They line Evergreen and Belleville and take your breath away.

Last year for Christmas, I strolled down Belleville Avenue with my wife to see the luminaries, I marveled at how beautiful they were.

There was a live-action nativity at the Methodist church. Children played the roles of Mary, Joseph, and stable animals. One kid was dressed like a cow with the biggest set of udders you’ve ever seen.

My connection to this city is my wife, she grew up here. Long ago, these people sort of adopted me, when nobody else would.

I’m in town for an early Christmas celebration with her family today. I stop at Walmart to

buy a few things before the party.

I see someone I know in the produce section. They shout my name. I hug their neck. We talk.

I see two more people in the meat department. More conversation, more hugs. More talking.

In the beer aisle, I see five people I know. But we don’t even make eye contact. These are my fellow Southern Baptists.

I stand in the checkout line, and I’m behind a woman who I know from Pensacola. She is from my childhood. The mother of a good friend of mine. I’m surprised to see her in Brewton.

“What’re you doing in town?” I ask her.

“My husband’s family lives here,” she says. “What about you?”

“Same.”

“You know,” she goes on, “they say everyone in the world has SOME kinda connection to Brewton.”

And I…

He’s single father. A widower, to be exact. But that’s not the story here.

He waits tables for a living. And on his off-days, he works at another restaurant.

Sometimes, he works with his brother’s power-washing business for extra cash. He does handyman work, and installs home sound systems. He is a busy man.

He does it for his kids.

The money goes out the window as fast as it comes. And he’s away a lot.

His children are used to fending for themselves. They’re used to preparing their own suppers, watching television alone, and tucking themselves in.

But not since she started coming around.

Let me back up.

Nine months ago, he met her. She’s a receptionist at a doctor’s office. She was at his restaurant for her coworker’s birthday party.

He saw her and couldn’t stop looking at her.

By the end of the night, his friends in the kitchen knew he was smitten. They teased him. “Go talk to her,” they said, shoving him.

But, confidence doesn’t exactly grow on trees, and our Lone Ranger has been out of the saddle since high school.

He didn’t

know how to approach her. He was—according to his coworkers—a big, fat, hairy chicken. So, without his permission, one of the waitresses spoke for him.

“See that guy over there?” the waitress whispered into the receptionist’s ear. “He’s the best guy you’ll ever meet. He likes you, but he’s too scaredy-cat to talk to you.”

Ouch, Kemosabe.

But that’s how it started.

A little bout her: she was married once. The doctor told her she couldn’t have kids. It broke her heart, all she’s ever wanted were children.

She likes long walks on the beach, Mexican food, Trisha Yearwood albums, chocolate ice cream, and any book that wasn’t written by Danielle Steel.

They went on a first date. It lasted for sixteen hours. But they darkened no bedrooms, rustled no sheets.…

I’m thinking about the wonderful things my father never experienced. Like all the things my wife and I have done these last years.

Milton, Florida—brick buildings. Old houses. Cute storefronts.

My wife and I roll into town early. The Imogene Theater is our destination for the evening. I’m here to tell a few stories at a benefit for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida.

Everyone tells me this theater is haunted, but I don’t buy it. I was raised by evangelicals. Believe in ghosts? We didn’t even believe in two-piece bathing suits.

This old opera house has been standing since 1912. Hank Williams played here once. So did Roy Acuff, and Minnie Pearl. My late father would’ve danced a jig if he’d known I was taking the same stage as Hank.

Anyway, they say the ghost’s name is Miss Imogene. She roams this auditorium, along with many others.

The stories are all alike. Some report hearing things, some claim to see a girl wandering the balcony. Paranormal enthusiasts around the nation believe this theater is a gathering place for metaphysical beings.

But not me. That’s kid stuff.

I am given the dime

tour of the old hall. There are tall ceilings, stunning acoustics, and ornate woodwork. There is a rope and pulley system outside, once used to hoist steamer trunks for vaudeville performers.

“Here’s your dressing room,” the man says, flipping a lightswitch. “Can you believe Hank changed his clothes in this VERY room?”

“Really?”

“Yep. Hey, maybe he’s even in this room with us now.”

The hair on the back of my neck stands straight up.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I tell the man.

“Good,” he says. “Then you won’t mind if I leave Hank in here with you? He’s been getting in my way all day.”

Soon, I am in the dressing room alone. I’m thinking about things.

Mainly, how thrilled my father would have been to know I was in a room where Minnie Pearl once did…

There she is. Yeah, it’s definitely her.

I haven’t seen her in years. She’s standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket, scooping mixed walnuts and pecans into a bag.

Nat King Cole Christmas music plays overhead. It smells like Santa Claus’ aftershave in this grocery store.

She couldn’t possibly remember me. I was the quiet man in the rear of her speech class. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.

Like most in her class, I was petrified of public speaking. So were my peers.

My first speech was one I’d like to forget. I delivered a torturous five-minute monologue on the proper way to prepare Pop Tarts.

When I finished, she gave a smile that seemed to say, “I hate my life.”

I was an adult male with two jobs, a wife, and a back surgery. I tried my best in her class. And she rewarded me for it.

I’ll never forget her for that.

My classmate, Gary, was a lot like me. He worked menial jobs, he had daughters, bills. We complained

in the breezeway before classes together.

Gary had a stutter—a crippling condition that embarrassed him. Simple conversation was difficult, sometimes almost impossible. Finishing a sentence could take ten minutes.

And when she paired students for final projects, she placed us together.

We worked on our speeches one evening at a sports bar. We set up shop in a booth on a Saturday night and watched the Alabama-Georgia game while scribbling speech notes on paper.

Gary purposed we make our speeches on the crisis facing modern paternity in a national economic holocaust.

“Yawn,” said I. “Let’s speak about baseball, America’s greatest pastime, or stock-car racing, or the ever-elusive, yet highly-documented and indisputably-real Bigfoot.”

We finally agreed on writing about our parents. I don’t remember much else that night, except that our notebooks had beer-stains.

And: Alabama lost to Georgia,…