When I was a boy, I read the newspaper with my father. He would point to the text and teach me to pronounce the words of columnists.

I love this time of year. Holidays, food, and college football. The Iron Bowl is upon us. I’m going to a friend’s place for the game. I will be the only University of Alabama fan amidst twenty-nine Auburn University sympathizers in “War Eagle” T-shirts.

I have time to kill. I stop at a small bookstore. The kind with narrow aisles, and off-the-wall books.

I am a book guy. I am crazy about bookstores. I even like the way they smell. I have always wanted to be a maker of books. It was my earliest ambition until I discovered cheese. Then I wanted to dedicate my life to cheese.

When I was a boy, I read the newspaper with my father. He would point to the text and teach me to pronounce the words of columnists.

“What’s a columnist?” I once asked.

“Someone who writes for a paper,” he said.

“What about?”

“Oh, everything and nothing.”

Everything and nothing. Some phrases you don’t forget. This is

one such phrase.

The Christmas before he died, my father gave me a gift. It was a hardback book of American newspapermen like Mark Twain, O. Henry, Ambrose Bierce, and Will Rogers. When I asked him what it was about, he said, “Stories about everything and nothing.”

They were glorified columns, and I read the book so often the pages went limp.

A few years after his passing, I wrote my first attempt at a column. I was a teenager. It was ridiculous copy, written longhand on yellow legal paper. It was about nothing, really. It was meant to be a humorous commentary about Thanksgiving spent with unstable family members.

I sent it to a small newspaper via snail mail. Every morning thereafter, I ran to the end of the driveway to be the first to search the pages. The paper actually ran it.


It was December. Christmas was around the corner. He found a five-dollar bill on the ground. And during his era, he might as well have won the Florida Powerball.

This is not my story. I am hearing it for the first time, just like you.

He is the one who tells it. He is old. He is in a wheelchair. He is carving a piece of basswood with a pocket knife. He speaks in a drawl so thick it’s poetry.

There are children around his feet. A few third graders, a fifth-grader, a fifteen-year-old, and one red headed writer who still watches Saturday morning cartoons. Occasionally.

The old man is telling stories. That’s what old men do. They are inherently good at this.

The man removes a five-dollar bill from his pocket.

“See this?” he says.

The kids nod.

The redhead nods.

Age has slowed his speech down. But not his mind.

“Why, I remember when five dollars was like a hundred bucks,” he goes on. “Back when times were hard.”

The Depression. A time when America was on the brink. He tells a story about the tail end of these lean years. He

was six. A rural towhead. He wore ragged clothes.

His shoes had given up the ghost and went barefoot most of the time—even to preaching.

“That’s what poor folks did,” he explains. “Our feet were always bare.”

It was December. Christmas was around the corner in the humid South. He found a five-dollar bill on the ground. And during his era, he might as well have won the Florida Powerball.

He ran home to give the money to his father.

“LOOK WHAT I FOUND, DADDY!” he shouted.

But his father didn’t want the money.

“Son,” his father told him. “It would be wrong for me to keep that money. Lotta folks need it worse than we do.”

But how could that be? They ate beans for supper. His brother worked labor jobs for chicken feed. His mother took in wash.…

Alabama, 1963—it was chilly. It was gray. A skinny Christmas tree sat in the corner of his rundown home, undecorated. No gifts.

His wife was a secretary. He punched a clock, wore leather gloves, and moved steel for a living.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly unusual story. They worked from can to can’t. They sweat for dimes. They ate beans, rice, and white bread.

They had seven kids. Money was hard to hold on to with seven hungry tummies.

And, on the day she found him home from work early, sitting on the steps, she knew things were about to get worse.

His face was red and puffy. He couldn’t find the words. They’d fired him. His supervisor had delivered the news without warning.

His wife held him like a child.

“What're we gonna do?” he said.

“We're gonna believe,” she told him.

But he worried until he lost sleep. Then he worried harder.

The next day, he drove a dilapidated Ford through busy streets with the classifieds beneath his arm. His eldest son rode shotgun.

The boy watched through the windows while his father begged

foremen for grunt work.

“Daddy,” said his son. “We gonna starve?”

“No, son,” he said. “But we might lose a little weight.”

After three weeks of job hunting he had, in fact, lost weight. They say he wouldn't eat suppers.

The once strong steelman; an unemployed shell, skipping lunches and dinners to save money. Rejection takes a toll.

Christmas morning.

He woke to a tree with a family seated around it. There were newspaper-wrapped packages beneath the branches. Each gift had the word, “Dad” written on it.

His eldest made a picture book from construction paper and cardboard.

His daughter had given him a cigar.

His youngest gave him five quarters which he’d saved in a piggy bank.

A black-and-white family photo—colored with crayons. A sock-monkey doll, stuffed with newsprint. An aluminum ring. Shoelace bracelets.…

When I lost my job, you were there. When I wrote my first book, you were there. When I lost my thirteen-year-old bloodhound. When I accidentally walked into an elderly woman’s hotel room to find her half naked.

Thanksgiving Eve, and I am writing you. I know you’re probably with family. Maybe Granny is with you. I don’t want to interrupt.

I only wish you knew how much you’ve changed my life. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that.

You see, I’ve been writing to you for four years. Just about every day. It’s one of the longest gigs I’ve ever had.

It started as a whim, now it’s life.

I’ve written from all sorts of places. The mountains of North Carolina, the hills of Arkansas, the Texas plains, the Arizona red rocks, the Rockies, beer joints in South Alabama.

You might not know this, but when I started this column—if you call it that—I didn’t like myself too much. And I didn’t like the pathetic jobs I worked.

I worked swinging hammers, running power drills, playing music in beer joints, and in Baptist churches. And I was tired.

But that changed the day I met you. And you can tell Granny I said that—in case she‘s

reading over your shoulder.

I remember the exact day I decided to write you. I was laying tile in an old man’s house. A thought shot through my brain. It was a flash, but sometimes flashes mean things.

I thought: “What if I write a blog? Yeah, I could do that.”

Usually, these ideas enter in one ear and slide out the other. But that day I got excited about it. I went home and wrote a 250-word column. To you.

And that’s when we met.

You became everything to me. From then on, wherever I traveled, I thought of you.

I wondered which sorts of things you might care about, what kind of day you were having, whether you needed to laugh. So I tried. I tried to make you smile. I fail a lot. But I…

Dear God,

It's me again. Actually, I don’t know what you want me to call you. For all I know, you might prefer to be called something Hebrew, Latin, German, or Cherokee. Anyway, one thing’s for sure: you’re older than the names people call you. That much I remember from Sunday school.

My mother called you, “The Lord.” My granny called you “Heavenly Father.” My uncle used to call you the "Big Guy."

Either way, I was raised in church, and I remember hearing a lot about you in the tiny chapels of my childhood.

I love those chapels. I remember plaster ceilings which leaked, and pews that creaked when people shifted weight from cheek to cheek.

And Sunday-school teachers who made you sound like an old Western sheriff who wouldn’t take any lip. Like Wyatt Earp, or the Terminator.

But that’s not you. Not at all.

And even though I don’t know a lot about you, I know a little.

I know that you’re the sun. You’re pine trees. You’re the sky over Lake Martin. The smell of baked apples Mother used to

cook. And prettiness.

You’re the look on a kid’s face when he or she catches a fish.

You are every blessed Andy Griffith Show episode ever made. You are Aunt Bee, Opie, Barney, Otis. You had absolutely nothing to do with Matlock.

You are guitar music my uncle used to pick. You’re popping noises from hickory logs in a fireplace. You’re salted butter. Roasted pecans. Bottled Coca-Cola. And loyalty from a friend.

You’ve done things. And I’m not talking about big things—everybody knows you make the earth spin and stars twinkle.

No. I’m talking about tiny things you've done. Like how you managed to let me find a wood figurine my grandfather carved. It’s a buffalo, and it's almost a hundred years old. I found it packed in an old box.

Then there’s the time I…

And I should’ve left him alone, but I didn’t. I have too much of my mother’s curiosity in me. I asked questions to get the rest of his story. I don’t like prying, but I’m not above it.

An interstate restaurant. An evening rush. The place was filled with people. There was a long wait. We’d been on the road for hours, with hours left to go.

An old man sat beside me in one of the benches out front. He had a fleshy face, cotton hair, and an Auburn University hat.

We talked while we waited for tables.

He was meeting his daughter and grandkids for supper.

“She’s coming in from Franklin,” he said. “She’s gonna stay at my house this week.”

He rocked forward and said nothing more.

And I should’ve left him alone, but I didn’t. I have too much of my mother’s curiosity in me. I asked questions to get the rest of his story. I don’t like prying, but I’m not above it.

I asked why his daughter was coming into town.

“She’s coming for a funeral,” he went on. “We’re, uhh…” He pauses. “My wife just passed.”

He was sad. I could see it in his face. Now I

really felt bad for not leaving him alone.

“Her name was Robin,” he went on. Then he stopped. He pinched his nose.

That word. “Was.”

I remember when my father died. The first time I referred to him in the past tense broke my heart. All at once, I realized that most of the other tenses would never apply to him. Present, future, and subjunctive were useless now. Once, he WAS alive. But now he wasn’t. It’s as simple as that.

“Robin was great,” he said. “She was a painter. She took it up when she turned fifty, she was so good at it, nobody could believe how good.”

She used to paint portraits of him for practice. The first paintings came out looking like monstrosities, he explained. But she got better.

He would pose for her, sometimes three,…

I’m thinking about how we honeymooned in a beat-up vehicle. And about how we painted the town red on a shoestring budget. And how this woman doesn’t mind dog hair.

Birmingham, Alabama—the mighty Vulcan statue stands over the city. He is in good shape for a man his age, but he’s looking tired.

He’s been on the job for a long time. I am beneath the statue with my wife.

There is a group of high-schoolers visiting the statue. They are loud, and animated. They laugh every few seconds.

Old “Vulky” resides on a 124-foot pedestal, he is the 56-foot tall god of fire, the largest iron ore statue in the nation. He holds a spear outward in his powerful grasp, and he isn’t wearing any pants.

The moon rises above him tonight and illuminates all 4 of his cheeks.

He was designed for the 1904 World’s Fair, and I can only imagine what spectators must’ve thought when they first marveled at this artistic achievement of the industrial age.

I point upward and marvel aloud to my wife, “That guy has a butt of iron.”

The high-schoolers ask me to take their picture. I am

handed three cellphones. The kids remind me with hand gestures how to hold a camera and actuate a flash.

They pose with arms around draped over each other, and they are grinning.

I point the camera and holler: “Say VULCAN BUTT!”

“VULCAN BUTT!” they shout, laughing.

Before the flash goes off, a boy kisses a girl who is beneath his arm. He kisses her forehead. He is young. She is young. Their noses are red from the cold, and they are bundled in jackets. Young love is beautiful.

And I am thinking about a time I had my young heart broken at this very statue, long ago. The female offender isn’t what this story is about. But you never forget heartbreak. It leaves a scar you can always touch.

I remember Young Me. The kid with red hair, who was no prize catch. He drove…