Thank you for holding the door for an old woman at Cracker Barrel. You must’ve been fourteen, you were with friends. You were laughing and carrying on when you saw the old woman, pushing a walker. You jogged ahead. You beat her to the door. You held it open.

She thanked you. You yes-ma’amed her. And you made my day, kid.

My whole day.

And thanks for giving money to a homeless man in Birmingham, Alabama. You don’t know me, but I watched you. I was at a stoplight. You were outside UAB School of Medicine campus. You wore green scrubs, and carried a backpack. You gave money. Then, you gave a cup of coffee and a fast food to-go bag.

Thanks for sitting with that young girl after work. She was seated on the sidewalk outside the bar. She was waiting for her ride. It was two in the morning. She didn’t need to be alone at that hour. So you sat with her. You might not think you did much, but you did.

Thank

you for filling that backpack with food, then leaving it in a tenth-grader’s locker—anonymously. You know who you are.

Thank you for working at Children’s of Alabama Hospital. Each one of you.

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

When the hitchhiker stepped into your car, you could tell he had mental illness. But you didn’t try to fix him, you didn’t try to be a hero, you didn’t try to do anything major. You were just nice to him. And he appreciated that.

Thanks for driving a kid named Peter to baseball practice. After his father died, his mother has been working double shifts. Peter has been babysitting and cooking supper for his sisters since his mother started working longer hours.

Peter had to drop out of baseball because…

DEAR SEAN:

How do I get a girl to like me? I am a 7th-grader who goes to (blank) Middle School and I really want her to think I am cool even though I’m not one of the cool kids… I am a little chunky, but I’m really nice.

Please write me back with advice,
UNCOOL-IN-THE-7TH-GRADE

DEAR UNCOOL:

Let’s take a look at “coolness.” First, when I was your age, coolness was dependent upon a surprisingly short list of criteria.

1. Did the child in question own, or have sufficient access to, and was thereby able to use at will, without administrative or parental restriction, a Sony Walkman radio?

Secondly: Did this kid wear dorky khaki pants?

It was that easy.

The problem for me was, of course, my mother believed in the Gospel According to Khakis. She ironed my slacks with so much starch the creases could slice cantaloupes.

Thus, while other kids wore blue jeans, I wore khakis that had been—and this is very hard for me to say—purchased from Sears.

AND…

These were not just pants.

They were “Husky” pants. You might not know what that is. They were pants designed for boys who loved church potlucks. I looked like a khaki-colored Butterball ham.

So anyway, there was this girl. Her name was—never mind, it doesn’t matter. I thought she was wonderful. She was one of the “cool” kids. I wanted her to notice me.

More importantly, I wanted her to notice me AT THE ROLLER RINK.

Now, I know what a kid from your generation might be thinking: “What’s a roller rink?” I’m glad you asked. Because long ago, after the dawn of the electric lightbulb, we had big buildings that were dimly lit and smelled like body odor. We would skate for hours to such unforgettable hits like: “Do the Hustle,” “Love Train,” and “Tico Tico.”

If you were worth your salt, you asked…

A frozen yogurt joint. I’ve just finished supper. My belt is tight from eating too much pizza.

There are too many yogurt flavors to choose from in this place. Triple Dark Peruvian Fudgesicle, Very Berry Quite Contrary, Oreo Delight, Midnight Mudpie in Mississippi—shut my mouth. Of course, the Orange Julius flavor doesn’t taste too shabby, either.

Then again, artificial orange doesn’t always set well with me. When I was a boy, the doctor gassed me with orange-flavored laughing gas just before tonsil surgery.

All I remember after that is hearing nurses play Righteous Brothers music through a transistor radio while I breathed in orange fumes. Ever since then I have detested Sunkist, orange-flavored bubble gum, and I can’t hear “Unchained Melody” without breaking into a nervous sweat.

So I’m sampling yogurt flavors, and that’s when I see her. She’s twelve, maybe thirteen. She’s with her family. She is small, with red hair. I have a soft spot for redheads since God accidentally made me one.

The girl is feeding her little brother with a spoon. The boy has a

cast on one arm and a sling on the other.

“He fell,” the boy’s father explains. “He was climbing our gutter on the porch.”

“The gutter?” I say.

“The gutter.”

He broke one arm and injured his other shoulder. No sooner had he hit the ground than his twelve-year-old sister came running to the rescue. And as the story goes: she carried her brother indoors, over her shoulder. Big Sister has been caring for Little Brother ever since.

“I love taking care of people,” the girl tells me. “I’m gonna be a nurse one day.”

The girl’s mother says that her daughter has always wanted to be a nurse, from Day One. And earlier this year, before Little Brother attempted his solo flight across the Atlantic, the girl actually got her chance to be a real nurse.

It happened when her…

She reads the Bible every morning. She also smokes off-brand cigarettes. For an old-school Methodist like her, the two go hand in hand.

She’s eighty-four and frail. She digs a cigarette from a carton, her daughter lights it. The doctor says she shouldn’t smoke, but the Good Lord understands.

She tells a story.

“After my husband left us,” she begins, “I was raising my kids, doing all I could to survive. He left me with eighteen bucks in our bank account—no lie.”

Then, the worst happened. One day, she walked into work and her boss fired her.

Instead of crying, she lost her temper. She attacked him. She threw a lunch bucket at him. She landed several good slaps to his face. Her friends pulled her away. This woman, in case you’re wondering, is a regular barrel of gunpowder.

That night, she loaded her children into a station wagon and drove straight for her sister’s in South Carolina. Radio blasting. Cigarettes burning.

“I was crying,” she says. “And worried about everything, I was just sick.”

Her car

broke down somewhere outside Athens, Georgia, at two in the morning. An empty highway. Not a soul for miles.

Her station wagon sat in a ditch. Her children were in the backseat, asleep. She leaned against her steering wheel and the tears came freely. This was officially rock bottom.

Her sobbing was interrupted by the sound of transfer truck brakes, when a big rig pulled behind her with its Earth-shaking engine. Headlights blaring.

A man stepped out of the cab and walked toward her.

She recalls: “Here I was, a young woman, in the middle of nowhere, and this man comes walking up. I was pretty scared.”

He was tall. She remembers this very clearly. And older. He asked if she needed help. She told him what had happened with a nervous voice.

His smile put her at ease. He said, “Pop the…

It happened long ago, when this writer was just a kid. And even though the writer is a grown man now, even though he has a family, he’ll always be a kid when he retells this story.

The kid had a father. The father was forty-one. Tall. Handsome. Red hair. One Sunday, the kid’s family threw his father a birthday party. It was a grand affair with steak for supper. There was singing, joyous voices, card games, redneck music on a boombox, and laughing.

The kid’s mother made a cake with blue icing. The room went black, the candles were lit. The kid’s father took one breath and blew them all out. Everyone seemed so happy.

The following Tuesday, something was off. The kid noticed his old man’s face had changed somehow. Something behind the eyes was different. It was like the kid didn’t know this man anymore. How could it happen so quickly? How could the utter joy be replaced with The Blackness?

There was a fight between his father and mother. A big one.

A nuclear fight. The Hiroshima of Mom-and-Dad fights. Violence ensued. Threats were shouted. His father’s mind was not working normally. Something had snapped inside the man’s mind.

The kid’s mother pleaded. The father screamed things that weren’t making sense. The forty-one-year-old tossed furniture against walls. He hurt people. Spit frothed at the corners of his father’s mouth. The kid’s world was coming apart. All that was missing was Chicken Little.

“Daddy’s lost his mind,” was all the kid could tell his baby sister who screamed into the folds of his T-shirt.

“Call 911” shouted the kid’s mother.

There are too many things that happened on that night to write here. And besides, the goal of this writing is not to bring you down, I merely want to talk about a sickness.

The sickness I speak of is a sickness of the mind, but an…

Dan Lovette became an usher at the Baptist church on Easter Sunday, March 26th, 1961. He stood at the door shaking hands, passing out bulletins. He got a lot of funny looks because nobody knew Dan.

Weeks earlier, Pastor Lovette had introduced Dan as his older brother. Dan was a tall man with a soft voice, and rough skin. He wore a brown suit that was too small. He hardly spoke to parishioners.

He sat on the front row during sermons. After service, he smoked cigarettes behind the church. People asked the pastor questions about Dan, but the preacher was quiet when it came to his older brother.

Over the years, folks saw a lot of Dan Lovette. He could be seen pushing a mower, changing the church sign, painting the clapboards, passing out bulletins on Sundays, or cleaning the sanctuary on Monday afternoons.

Dan lived in a back room of the church, behind the choir loft. His earthly belongings amounted to one cot, a hot plate, a coffee pot,

a transistor radio, a shaving kit, and one brown suit.

Nobody can forget the Sunday that the pastor announced he would be baptizing Dan after service, this surprised people. Most fundamentalists thought it was quite strange, scandalous even, that the pastor’s own brother had never been baptized.

Even so, sixty-four church members stood near the creek, watching the tall man wade into shallow water behind his younger brother, the preacher. It was a simple ordeal. Down Dan went; up he came. Applause. Bring on the banana pudding.

But life was not all pudding and baptisms. In 1974, tragedy hit the church. The pastor was in a car accident on his way home from Montgomery, doctors thought he’d had a stroke while driving.

For weeks, Dan sat beside his brother’s hospital bed without sleep or food. He lived in a hospital room.

And on the next Sunday, Dan Lovette took the…

The sun was coming up. We rode toward Charleston, doing sixty-five miles per hour in a two-seat truck.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” said my new wife.

“Me neither.”

In my wallet was two hundred dollars cash. It was all I had. I earned it by selling my guitar, one week earlier.

My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

Well, she must not have cared because I had none. I was a blue-collar nothing with a nothing-future ahead of me. I had no high-school education. No achievements. No pot to you-know-what in, and no plant to pour it on. And not much confidence. Until her.

She unfolded a roadmap on the dashboard. My truck radio played a Willie Nelson cassette. I was married. Married. Things were looking up.

We arrived at a cheap motor-inn. She took a shower while I watched the idiot box. Andy Griffith was on.

I’d seen the episode a hundred times. Barney makes Otis jump rope to prove he’s

sober. You know the rest. Crisis. Cliffhanger. Andy saves the day. Roll credits.

I made reservations at an upscale restaurant where the waiter pulled the chairs out for you. I wore the only necktie I owned.

We ate food I could not afford. I paid a hundred bucks—plus tip. We walked the streets, arm in arm.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” she said.

Then came the sound of horse hooves. A carriage. A man stepped out and groomed his animals on the sidewalk. My wife remarked how pretty the horses were.

I asked how much he charged for rides.

“Hundred bucks,” he said.

I handed him my remaining wad of cash. “How much will this buy?”

He thought about it. “How’s ten minutes sound?”

We covered ourselves with a blanket. He carted us through the streets. We saw…

It happened on a serene Tuesday morning. Perfect weather. Clear sky. Locals saw a Boeing 757 jerking through the air at an awkward angle and speeding toward Earth.

Farmers watched in slack-jawed amazement. Commuters pulled over to see a commercial airliner bounce from the sky and slam into the ground. When the plane hit soil it sounded like the world had come apart at the bolts. A mile-high column of black smoke rose into the air. The clear sky was ruined.

Earlier that morning United Flight 93 had been due for takeoff from Newark International Airport at 8:01 a.m. But, because this is America (Land of the Free and Home of the Flight Delayed) the flight was running late.

It started out as a normal flight, the passengers and crew were chatty that morning. Forty-one ordinary people made conversations over Styrofoam coffee cups. It was the usual talk. They chatted about their kids’ soccer games. Work. The new fad diet that wasn’t making their thighs any

smaller.

In the cockpit, pilot Jason Dahl was going through his preflight stuff. He was 43, cobby build, with a smile that looked like he could have been your favorite uncle Lou. Jason always carried a little box of rocks with him. They were a gift from his son. Directly after this flight, Jason was going to take his wife to London for their fifth anniversary.

In the passenger area you had folks like John Talignani (age 74), retired bartender, stocky, cotton-white hair, a World War II vet, a no nonsense kind of guy. He was one of the millions of longsuffering, anguished souls who call themselves New York Mets fans.

You had Deora Bodley (20), a college junior. The vision of loveliness. They say she was one of those natural beauties that caused young men on sidewalks to crash headfirst into lampposts. Deora wanted to be a children’s therapist.

And Jean Peterson (55).…

It’s late night. She’s driving on an empty highway. The radio is playing something lively. She’s heading toward South Carolina. A new life. A new job. A new town.

She’s got a lot going for her. She’s fresh out of college, smart, ambitious, she comes from a good family, she’s got all the support she can stand.

She’s giddy about her new job. She starts on Monday. She’ll get her own office, good benefits, the whole enchilada. She’s wondering where life is going to take her next, and she’s pure excitement.

She doesn’t see the deer jump in front of her. All she hears is the sound of crunching.

It’s over fast. She smashes into a guardrail, her vehicle tumbles a few times. There is blood in her vision, but she’s not hurt—it’s a miracle.

Her car is wrecked, she’s stuck in a ditch, but she’s alive with no broken bones. She tries to crawl out of the vehicle, but the door is jammed.

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

Her new friend says, “You’re gonna be alright.”

It’s dark. They hike toward the highway to flag a car down. When she gets to the road, the man is gone.

Here’s another:

Bill has cancer. It started as a skin problem on his back. It grew fast. It spread. Doctors operate and cut it out.

After the invasive procedure, he lies on a hospital bed, subjected to lethal doses of daytime television. Bill is beyond sad. He has no wife, no children, no immediate family to visit him. He’s never felt as alone as he does today.

Then.

He sees a child, standing by the open door. He doesn’t know how the boy got in. Only friends and family are allowed to visit—Bill has neither.

The kid must be about ten or eleven.…

Thirty-three. There are 33 senses in the human body. All these years we’ve had it wrong, believing there were only five senses.

During my childhood, my first-grade teacher would stand before our class and lead us in a cute little song about the five senses. We’d all do a little dance and wiggle our little bottoms. And it was all lies.

Because neurologists can identify 21 to 33 senses in the human body—depending on which neurologist you ask. Senses like taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing are only the tip of the proverbial pyramid.

You have, for instance, equilibrioception: the sense of balance.

Nociception: perception of pain.

Proprioception: bodily awareness, and self-movement awareness.

Chronoception: sense of time.

Stupidception: awareness that oneself is an idiot.

I experienced the last sense when I was standing in line at the customer service desk today, where I began to feel like a Grade-A dipstick.

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of Customer Service, and I dislike making returns at department stores. Namely, because when you

return something, the process takes about as long as dental school. You can lose an entire decade standing in line.

When I got to the department store, there was a line stretching back to the Yukon Territory, and—as stipulated by U.S. Customer Service Law—there was only one register open. This register was operated by a young man who had the amiable personality of a pet rock.

When it was finally my turn the kid behind the counter asked for my receipt so that we could begin the return process.

This is where things went off the rails.

I explained that when my wife bought the item I was returning, she opted for a “paperless” transaction. Therefore the receipt was “emailed” to us. I showed him this email on my phone screen to show what I meant.

The kid informed me that he could not…