Good teachers have X-ray vision. They know which students will be pediatricians, lawyers, pipe-fitters, and which little hellcat wrote the F-word on the boy's restroom wall.

Pace, Florida—today, the town is suburbia, but once it was Small Floridatown, USA. Think: men in camouflage, women in pearls, millworkers.

Schoolteachers.

Seventeen-year-old Jena was a good student. She had more ambition than her one-horse rural world could hold.

“In my first literature class assignment,” says Jena. “I wrote that I wanted to move far, far away from home and be a pediatrician.”

But good teachers have X-ray vision. They know which students will be pediatricians, lawyers, pipe-fitters, and which little hellcat wrote the F-word on the boy's restroom wall.

When Jena's teacher handed back her essay, it read:

"Dear Jena, I don't think you're supposed to be a doctor. I think you're supposed to be a teacher."

What nerve. But then, teachers are like that.

After high school, Jena attended the University of Florida.

"We exchanged a lot of emails once I left her classroom," says Jena. "She really cared."

But she was more than caring. The woman was pure love.

Four years and fifteen million essays later, Jena graduated. And just like her teacher predicted, she became an educator.

Jena

made the five-hour drive back to Pace to visit the old classroom.

It was a school day. Class was in session. Jena walked the halls to room 221. She pressed her ear to the door. A familiar voice with a thick drawl was reading aloud to the class.

Jena slipped into a seat on the back row to listen. When class was over, she stood before the teacher's desk like old times.

Before she could say anything, her teacher handed her a binder.

"What's this?"

"I made it for you," her teacher said.

Jena thumbed through it, starting with the first page. Every letter and email they'd ever exchanged.

And on the last page: an essay written by a restless seventeen-year-old who once wanted to "move far, far away."

When Jena read it, Niagara Falls.

Anyway, I'm getting…

The day of his funeral, people with phony grins lined up to shake my hand, saying things like, “Your daddy was just sick...”

We had a bench by our pond. A pine-log bench. It sat near the edge of the water. Daddy called it the Thinking Bench. I remember the day he built it—using only a sharp axe and cuss words.

It's funny, how I can remember things like benches, but not the last words he ever said to me.

Weeds grew around his bench. He trimmed the grass using a jack knife. Cody, his Lab, would sit beside him.

One December morning, when the weather was unusually cold, I found him there. He'd been sitting all night. He wasn't moving. Eyes open. There was a thin layer of frost on his back and shoulders. His red hair stiff from the cold.

Mama ran outside with a blanket. He didn't want it.

“You could'a froze to death," she said. "You need serious help."

"Help doing what?" he'd say with vinegar in his voice.

He didn't trust shrinks. Besides, nobody seemed to know what professional help was. Fewer understood depression. Back then, these were modern ideas used by folks who ate snails

at dinner parties.

Daddy was the kind who made log benches. The kind who liked to sit.

Toward the end of his life, you could find him sitting in his workshop, shirtless. Lights off. No music. Staring.

Or: on the hood of his truck, parked on fifty acres. Leaning against his windshield. Or: in the corner of the barn, on the floor, knees pulled to his chest. Eyes pink and wet.

“What's wrong, Daddy?” I'd ask.

He'd wipe his face. “I don't know, dammit.”

“Will he be okay?” I'd ask Mama.

“I don't think so,” she'd say, giving honest answers—she was through pretending. "He needs help."

The day of his funeral, people with phony grins lined up to shake my hand, saying things like, “Your daddy was just sick...”

I heard that a million and three times. It offended me. These people…

...He told me about marching from Selma to Montgomery as a young man. About Doctor King. About getting arrested during the riots.

I don't know his real name, but his friends call him Bubba. He has skin darker than walnut, and a white fuzzy beard.

I met him once. He raises bluetick hounds on a farm with his son, selling them to gun-dog lovers everywhere.

In the short time we talked, he told me about marching from Selma to Montgomery as a young man. About Doctor King. About getting arrested during the riots.

Nice man.

Then, there's the elderly woman I met outside Opp who raised sixteen kids. Sixteen. Her hair, still as red as copper.

She lived in a twelve-by-twelve shed her son made into an apartment—complete with flat-screen television and AC.

Her son told me, "In a big family, we used'a compete for Mama's attention. Man, I feel so lucky she lives with me."

Don—an old man who weighs a buck ten. Maybe less. He runs a mechanic shop out of a barn in North Florida. Auto collectors come from all over for him work on rare vehicles.

"Started this business after I got outta prison," he said. "Was

in the pen four years."

I asked why they locked him up.

"Mary Jane," he answered.

Lydia. She is Birmingham's June Cleaver—Scarlett O'Hara accent. Her nineteen-year-old daughter contracted a rare disease while on a mission trip in Africa. She died suddenly.

Lydia is flying out this week to retrieve her daughter's body.

“When you have a daughter," she said. "You imagine your little girl will get married some day. You never think this will happen."

John, from North Georgia. He's a man who shoots dove and deer on weekends. Once, he was a high-powered attorney. Today, he works part time at Home Depot so he has time to care for his wife with MS.

John said, "Having so much time with my wife is a privilege. Mostly, we watch a lotta Netflix."

Why am I telling you this? Because.

I overhead…

Why is it I have plenty of money when it comes to buying fishing rods, new clothes, or beer? But a man needs supper, and all I can say is, “Sorry, pal.”

Pensacola, Florida—it's raining. Hard. I wish I had a few bucks to give the man standing at the stop sign. He goes from car to car, holding an open stocking cap.

The fella in the Lexus throws in some loose change. The driver of the Altima donates a buck.

Then he raps on my window.

I remove my wallet. Empty. I used all my cash for a tip at a Mexican restaurant.

“I'm sorry, sir,” I tell him. “I'm out.”

“Hey man,” he's saying. “Don't apologize. I should be the one who's sorry, I've never done this kinda thing before. It's frickin' humiliating. God bless.”

This bearded man looks just like my late father.

The rain is coming down harder. The light turns green. I want to say more, but the line of vehicles blows by him.

I can't think about anything else after I leave. Maybe because he looked like he hadn't eaten. Maybe because he had those familiar green eyes.

Damn me, for not having cash. Why is it I have plenty of money when

it comes to buying fishing rods, new clothes, or beer? But a man needs supper, and all I can say is, “Sorry, pal.”

My mama would be proud.

I pull into a gas station. I ask the cashier where I can find an ATM. She shrugs. So I ask how I can get cash off my card. She says she can't help me, their machine is broken.

I leave. I ride to the nearest supermarket. I can't see taillights ahead because of the rain. The long walk from my truck is like swimming across the Mississippi.

“Credit or debit?” the cashier asks.

"Debit," says Mister Soaked Britches.

I get forty bucks. The girl behind the counter tells me to “Have a nice day,” with as much sincerity as it would take her to scratch her hindparts.

I drive back to the stoplight where…

I can't think of a happier place than this ratty Baptist hall with water spots on the ceiling. This is as close to Heaven as you can get without sleeping in a pinewood box.

I attended a potluck in the sticks. It was for a funeral. The man who'd passed was a deacon. An elderly man I once knew who used to call me Critter.

I never figured out why.

The covered dish supper took place in an ancient fellowship hall. Linoleum floors. Cheap Christmas decor. Upright piano.

I can't think of a happier place than this ratty Baptist hall with water spots on the ceiling. This is as close to Heaven as you can get without sleeping in a pinewood box.

I grew up in a place like this.

Consequently, I realize not everyone knows what I'm talking about here. For example: my pal Dan, from New York. His family never darkened the doors of a church. For socialization, his father joined a bowling league.

Dan once asked, "What're covered dish suppers?"

Allow me to walk you through one, Dan.

For starters: imagine you're a chubby redhead with a proclivity toward barbecued ribs. Your mama makes you wear a necktie, then she wets your hair with spit.

Now imagine card-tables weighed down

with all the artery-clogging poultry permissible by county law.

A few greatest hits on the buffet:

Chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, fried backstrap, potato salad, Jell-O salad, ham salad, chicken salad, creamed corn, ambrosia, and some unidentifiable mayonnaisey deal with raisins.

While you fix a plate, elderly women with beehive hair-dos observe you. Their job is to keep the line moving with horsewhips.

“How 'bout some tea?” one says, filling your plastic cup.

Or, she might say, “How 'bout leaving some damn chicken livers for the rest of God's children you greedy little cuss?”

At the tables, you'll find white-haired men in button-downs and steel-toed boots. Good men, who cheerfully give up their seats to anyone wearing makeup.

And every potluck has a prayer.

Take, for instance, the one I attended. The pastor—an eighty-three-year-old—asked the blessing. He used old words folks…

"I learned a long time ago, you only get one shot at making a kid feel important, so you'd better go big."

His first Christmas was in the neonatal intensive care unit. His mother was an alcoholic. She brought him into this world premature, then abandoned him.

He spent his first months in a Plexiglass box.

They say he was a strong kid, cheerful. Much smaller than others his age. He was a cracker-jack at school, smart, respectful toward foster parents—he's had several.

Early on, they discovered he liked animals. Dogs and cats, especially. When he turned fifteen, his foster parents, Michael and Debbie Gaynor, let him volunteer at an animal shelter.

“Basically,” said Michael. “We just wanted him to do what he loved, no matter what that was.”

A shelter volunteer remarks, “We gave him all the not-so-fun chores, because he made them fun. He'd talk to animals like they were people, he really cared.”

He cared, all right. One day, somebody dropped off a stray. The dog was uncontrollable, with a bloody gash, bearing its teeth at anyone who came close.

Except him.

In only a few minutes the kid managed to calm the dog

and guide it into a kennel. He sat with the dog a few hours, soft-talking.

That was when the shelter manager contacted her friend, a veterinarian. She told her about the exceptional teenager. She arranged a meeting.

The next morning, the doctor stopped in. They hit it off. She offered the kid a job at her clinic. It was a paying gig.

He spent two years helping vaccinate rowdy cats, rubbing the tummies of sick puppies.

Christmas was around the corner. So was college. His foster parents conspired to make the holiday a good one.

In secret, they signed him up for federal tuition scholarships. They called the veterinary clinic where he worked. The doc pulled a few strings at a local university and managed to get him accepted into an animal science program for freshmen.

For icing on the proverbial cake: Michael put money…

One morning, she fell from the top. Her fingers got caught in the chicken wire. It was serious and bloody. She lost two fingers and severed a tendon in her thumb.

She is old. And she tells a story of the old days. Back when the world was a different place. Electricity was a luxury. Suppers were cooked on iron stoves. Men tipped hats to ladies.

Things have changed.

She was a nice-looking child. I saw the photo that proves it. Big smile. Blonde curls. And like three quarters of Alabama at the time, she lived on the rural route.

As a young girl, her morning routine was feeding chickens, then helping her mother fix breakfast. She'd run outside, climb over the chicken fence, and gather eggs. Her mother warned her not to scale the tall fence, but nine-year-olds do not listen.

One morning, she fell from the top. Her fingers got caught in the chicken wire. It was serious and bloody. She lost two fingers and severed a tendon in her thumb.

Throughout childhood, she became good at hiding her mangled hand. Often, she kept a fist to conceal her missing parts. When she got old enough to like boys, they did not return

the favor.

One year, her high school threw a Sadie Hawkins dance—where girls invite fellas. She cooked up enough courage to ask a boy. He turned her down. So she tried another. Same response. No takers.

That hurt.

Life went on. When she was in her twenties, she accompanied her father to the hardware store—a place men lingered to talk gossip. It was a pleasant porch, covered in brown spit.

That's where she met him. He was sitting with the others. He rose to his feet when he saw her. He was eleven years her senior. A war veteran. Tall. Skinny. Sandy hair.

She kept her hands in her dress pockets.

He smiled at her. She smiled back. That weekend, he called on her—and in those days that meant calling her father.

He picked her up. They took in a movie. He gave her royal treatment.…

It was a dog collar. Orange, with a gold tag. The tag was the shape of a bone, with "Milkbone" etched on it.

Early December, our dog had puppies in the barn. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why the litter came out white—our dog was black. The puppies looked like cotton piglets.

All except one.

One was black and white spotted—like a Holstein cow. After much deliberation, I named him Milkbone. Daddy thought the name lacked punch. But he agreed to let me keep Milk as my one and only Christmas gift.

Before Milk was old enough to open his eyes, I'd watch him nurse beneath the heat lamp. He'd crawl around on his belly like a slug, nosing for his mother.

When he finally pulled his eyes open, I'd like to think I was one of the first things he saw.

Sappy. I know.

For Christmas, Milk spent the holiday on my lap. He wore a small bandanna around his neck, sitting at attention while everyone opened gifts. Then Daddy handed me a box.

"What's this?” I asked.

“Santa felt sorry for you,” said Daddy.

It was a dog collar. Orange, with a gold tag. The

tag was the shape of a bone, with "Milkbone" etched on it.

Daddy beamed. “That silly name is official now.”

In the following months, Milk got bigger. He was a healthy specimen. His paws were ten-sizes too big for his lanky frame.

His was a good life. All he ever did was pee and make apple butter.

Together, Milk and I wandered all over God's creation. He slept on my bed. I fed him scraps from my plate. He was the kind of dog who kept a few paces behind me at all times. And you can't train dogs to do that. They either do or they don't.

A few years went by. One day, while riding the school bus home, the worst. Somebody pointed out the window and screamed.

“LOOK!” the boy hollered.

It was lying in the dirt road. Something…

We walked to the porch and beat on the door, Daddy carried the balsam fir in a bear hug. A man answered.

Daddy came home with a dozen trees strapped and loaded on his truck. He had a bagful of gifts in the passenger seat.

He rolled his window down.

“Better hurry,” he yelled to me, spitting sunflower seeds. “Got a lot to do tonight.”

I sat in the front seat with my hands on the heater. The radio played Nat King Cole. No matter how old I get, I'm hard pressed to recall fonder memories.

We rounded the corner into a mobile-home park. It was dark. People had decorated homes with Christmas lights of every color.

We pulled into a driveway with no lights. Daddy brought out two Santa hats. Mine was too big. So was his.

He read from a clipboard. “First delivery is Billy Adams," he said.

So, I dug through the bag for boxes addressed to Billy.

We walked to the porch and beat on the door, Daddy carried the balsam fir in a bear hug. A man answered.

Daddy asked, “You Mister Billy Adams?”

The man looked uneasy, so Daddy explained the whole thing. About how our

church donated trees and gifts to people who signed up to receive help during the holidays. He used plenty of charm to get his point across.

The man looked offended. “My name isn't Billy," he said. "I didn't sign up for help, and I don't need no damn tree."

Then he slammed the door.

Daddy put his boot in the door jamb. “But Mister Adams, maybe your wife signed you up.”

“Impossible. She's dead."

“Well,” Daddy said, peeking inside. “Looks like you ain't got a tree, seems to me you could use one."

"Don't want a tree."

"And we got presents, too. Nothing fancy, just a bunch'a fruitcakes.”

A blatant lie. The boxes contained no fruitcakes, only heavenly confections that our church ladies baked. Brownies, cookies, and God's gift to mankind: fudge.

“I don't want presents," the man said, pushing…

“Can you believe someone threw him away?” she said. "He was a dumpster baby.”

Christmas morning. We served food at a mission.

Well, not me, exactly. My wife and in-laws dished out green beans and turkey while I washed dishes in back with the other indentured servants.

I'll be truthful, I'd never done anything even remotely charitable on Christmas morning—unless you count marching in the holiday parade with the Boy Scouts, tossing out coozies.

The woman washing dishes beside me was in her fifties. She was quiet, small, country. She didn't have much to say except for, “This plate goes over there,” or an occasional, “You call that skillet clean, dummy?”

Dishwashing is not my strongest skill.

A boy came into the kitchen. He was young. Black. Gigantic. They hugged. She removed her yellow gloves and kissed him on the forehead.

“This is my son,” she introduced me.

He almost broke my hand. He must've been fifteen. But he was the size of a fifty-year-old pecan tree.

She sent him back to the front-lines where he shoveled mashed potatoes to people with long beards and ratty jackets.

“Cute kid,”

said I, scrubbing a fifty-gallon soup pot.

“Can you believe someone threw him away?” she said. "He was a dumpster baby.”

And in case I didn't know what that was, she explained. As an infant, someone found him in the dumpster of a Mexican restaurant. Nobody knew how long he'd been there.

The day she met him, she happened to be volunteering at the mission thrift store when they brought him in. She'd never done any volunteer work before. She'd signed up as a way to meet people and cure her empty-nest syndrome. She was divorced. Her kids were grown.

“It was an accident that I was even there, I was supposed to be out of town, visiting family, but my car broke down."

Some ladies were giving the baby a bath in the break-room sink. He had tomato sauce all over him. She said…