That was not a good night. It was not a good decade. I stopped believing in things. I went years without eating ice cream, watching baseball, or smiling.

It’s late. I’m driving to Palatka, Florida. I am listening to Willie Nelson’s greatest hits. I’m two hours in. Three left to go.

The trees just outside Tallahassee are weighted with Spanish moss. The highway is almost empty. Willie sings about a good-hearted woman.

I’m thinking about a boy I just met. A boy who told me to “have a good day.”

Yeah, I know. Big deal. Everyone says that. Even clinically depressed employees at Walmart tell you to have a good day.

Not like this.

It was a Dairy Queen. I stopped to get something to-go for lunch. There, I saw a child in a wheelchair, sitting in the dining room. He had no arms, no legs.

His mother was feeding him. His younger sister was wiping his mouth between bites. He wore a smile that stretched to both sideburns.

He tried to speak with his mouth full. Ice cream fell onto his shirt. His sister wiped it. He laughed. His mother laughed. His sister laughed.

I decided to eat in the dining room. I talked to the boy. He said he’d

had a nice day. He’d just seen a movie with his “girls” a few hours earlier.

He’s eleven.

I finished my meal. I bid him goodbye. He wheeled his chair to me, using what I will refer to as his arms.

He held out his right arm. And even though he has no hand, I recognized the look on his face. He wanted to shake.

We shake.

“Have a good day, sir,” he says.

The universe got smaller. The air got warm. And I saw sunlight flood a Dairy Queen in North Florida.

I’m back in my truck. Willie is singing. And I’m thinking about a kid.

I was twelve when my father engineered his own death. That was not a good day.

Later that same week, my friend Jason and his mother took me to a…

I know you—sort of. You’re human. Sometimes you feel like you’re losing. Sometimes you feel overlooked and alone. Sometimes you talk to the sky.

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 caretaker. 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.…

I was raised by women. Polite behavior was beaten into me with hairbrushes and unabridged King James Bibles. I believe in opening doors for anyone you’d refer to as ma’am, miss, or Mama.

I’m at the bank. I’m standing in a line that is one hundred miles long. I’m in the rear. The line is not moving.

I would rather have open heart surgery administered by Howdy Doody than wait in line.

Through the doors, I see a woman, walking across the parking lot. I’m trotting toward the door to open it for her.

This is because I was raised by women. Polite behavior was beaten into me with hairbrushes and unabridged King James Bibles. I believe in opening doors for anyone you’d refer to as ma’am, miss, or Mama.

But someone beats me to the door.

A boy in line. He is twelve, thirteen maybe. He’s here with his mother. He swings it open.

“Thank you,” the woman says, grinning.

Two more women are strolling through the parking lot. The boy flies into action. He opens the door.

They thank him. They even call him “sir.”

He likes this.

Here comes another. She’s waltzing toward the door, talking on her phone. You ought to see the surprise on her face when the kid pulls the Open Sesame trick.

She giggles. “Aren’t you sweet?”

Yes, he is.

And I remember a time when most men were. “Gentleman,” my granddaddy would’ve called them. “Polite,” Mama would’ve called it.

I call it being considerate. And I believe in it.

Long ago, we had men who raced to the door to prove that their mothers had raised them right. They were men who wouldn’t use a four-letter word in the presence of long eyelashes, not even if you threatened them with soap operas.

But those days are evaporating. And I don’t like saying it, but the world has changed.

Even so, some of us still remember our Mama, reminding us to treat every girl, woman, and granny better than the Queen of England.

I asked the boy’s mother how her son became such a knight in…

I was good at feeling sorry for myself. After my father died, I’d turned wallowing into a fine art.

I was a young man on a date. We were eating at a dive restaurant. We’d gone on exactly four dates. She didn't care for me.

I was an awkward-looking babyface who hadn’t washed his truck in fifty years. Her family belonged to a country club.

I had movie tickets in my pocket. After dinner, we were going to the movies. That was the plan.

I ordered the burger. She got the chicken salad. Things were going famously between us.

After supper she said, “I don’t think we’re fit for each other…”

I asked her why, of all possible times, she waited until after I paid for her chicken salad to tell me this.

She said she wanted to date someone who was (and I quote) “doing something with his life.”

She hitched a ride home with her sister. I never saw her again.

I drove home through the dark. I parked in my mother’s driveway. I turned on the radio and felt sorry for myself.

I was good at feeling sorry for myself. After my father died, I’d turned wallowing into a fine

art.

My sister came walking out the front door. Barefoot. She was a nine-year-old. She had a button nose, sun bleached hair.

“Why’re you sitting out here?” she said. “Why aren’t you coming inside.”

She’s always been nosy. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to my kid sister about the finer points of why I had two orphaned movie tickets in my pocket.

But then, this wasn’t just a sister. This was my friend. During our father’s funeral, she'd been a five-year-old, bouncing on my hip.

And I was her brother—who slept on her bedroom floor for six years. After my father’s funeral, she was afraid to sleep alone.

The nine-year-old crawled into my passenger seat and said, “What’s wrong? Where’s your date?”

I turned the radio dial to fill the silence. The…

The stress of college-level football was enough to break the kid’s neck. They were hard practices, hard tackles, and an even harder coach. He gave his best, but it wasn’t enough. Five days.

Halftime—the National Championship game is underway. Alabama is down. Publix is quiet this time of night. Employees are stocking shelves. I’m here for a roast-beef sandwich, or else I might starve.

The boy behind the sandwich counter looks tired. He’s scrubbing the deep-fryer with a wire-brush.

He is tall—over six-five I’d guess. Mid-twenties. His shoulders are too big for his golf shirt. He’swearing a hairnet.

“Roll Tide,” he remarks, pointing to my Alabama cap.

He’s soft-spoken, he has a happy face, and he calls me, “sir” too often. I order a foot-long on white.

He starts talking football, using terms that are above my head. He’s discussing scrimmages in detail. He knows the names of Alabama’s managers. He can name plays, players, and coaches from every major university in the Southeastern Conference.

I ask how he knows so much about college ball.

“Used to play for Bama,” he says. “Was a quarterback for five days. Cheese on your sandwich, sir?”

“Swiss. And you don’t have to call me sir.”

He spreads mayo on my bread and explains how his high-school career was pure electricity. I

won’t list stats here, but let’s just say he was poetry in shoulder pads.

He caught the attention of college scouts. They plucked him from small-town oblivion and brought him to the institution in Tuscaloosa.

“Was like winning the lottery,” he goes on. “My childhood dream was to play ball, but it was tough... Lettuce and tomatoes, sir?”

“Please, don’t call me sir.”

“Sorry, sir.”

The stress of college-level football was enough to break the kid. They were hard practices, hard tackles, and an even harder coach. He gave his best, but it wasn’t enough. Five days.

“The pressure messed with my head,” he said. “I finally realized I wasn’t any good. I kinda quit believing in myself.”

Well. Even though I’ve never played football, he and I aren’t very different. For most of my…

Long ago, we sat in this same booth. I wore this same jacket. Same shoes. Same everything. I was younger.

Baker, Florida—the Gator Cafe has a full parking lot. There are horse trailers, utility vehicles, trucks with red clay on the tires.

Inside is your all-American eatery. The kind of place where you can get a decent burger, or fried catfish.

My wife sits across from me in a booth. We’re having a conversation. It's probably a good one. But the truth is I have no idea what we’re talking about. I am too caught up in the past right now.

Long ago, we sat in this same booth. I wore this same jacket. Same shoes. Same everything. I was younger.

That day, we were on our way home from Birmingham. We were tired.

Only the night before, we’d fallen asleep in a hotel bed, holding each other. Bouts of anxiety were mixed with moments of sleep. Every few minutes, we'd wake, press our foreheads together, cry, sleep, repeat.

They put her in one of those gowns. Before they wheeled her back, she squeezed my hand and said, “I’m scared.”

“There’s nothing to be scared of,” I lied.

The waiting room was Purgatory. There

was an old woman in the chair beside me. She was knitting. I asked what she was making.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m only doing this to keep from worrying myself sick.”

Right.

And since I didn’t have any yarn, I spent the waiting hours watching a hospital television.

I wasn’t in my body. I was ten miles behind my own eyeballs, thinking about the woman I married.

A woman who loved pink until one day she decided she didn't want to like pink anymore.

“You can’t CHANGE your favorite color at your age,” I explained to her.

“I can do whatever I want,” she pointed out. “It’s my life.”

And she did. She hates pink now.

This woman wasn’t like other women. She had a loud voice, strong opinions. She stopped her car for turtles that…

Even so, I know funerals. Like anyone else, I’ve been on both sides of this receiving line. At my father’s funeral, I shook hands with a million kindhearted people, and heard a million kindhearted stories.

“He was a good man.” That’s what people are saying today. Those are the words to use on a day like today.

There are some who say things like, “He’s in a better place.” Or, “He’s at rest.”

Variations on a theme. What they really mean is: “He was a good man.”

And from what I understand, Frank Cotten was.

This is Brewton, Alabama. This visitation is a big one. There are so many folks in the receiving line it looks like a Friday night game.

They tell me the white-haired man in the casket was football.

A long time ago, they started calling him “Coach.” It became his first name. He was a principal, a city councilman, a Baptist, he sold Fords. He was good.

His son gave a speech:

“When Dad was on city council, one Christmas Eve some guy in town called to chew him out about the city's late trash pickup. And Dad just listened without saying a thing.”

Later that same Christmas Eve, Coach drove to the disgruntled citizen’s house and picked up the trash.

A good story.

But then, good stories are abundant today. Even the white-haired preacher has a few knee-slappers.

I would share them, but that’s not my right. I didn’t know the man.

Even so, I know funerals. Like anyone else, I’ve been on both sides of this receiving line. At my father’s funeral, I shook hands with a million kindhearted people, and heard a million kindhearted stories.

And, I’ve waited in long lines to tell stories of my own.

Like when my friend died at age fifty-one. The healthiest man I knew. After his diagnosis, he was gone in a matter of months.

I stood in line for forty-five minutes just to hug his wife’s neck.

While I waited, I did what everyone does. I thought up meaningful words. I tried to find a way to say something heartfelt.

I…

He became a difficult child, rebellious. Lost. By thirteen, he found himself in an after-school program for rowdy kids, led by a woman.

He was twelve years old. He’d had more than a few foster parents. He bounced from foster homes like a tennis ball.

Sometimes, it seemed like he lived out of a suitcase.

In his world he was ancient. People don’t adopt older kids. They want younger, cuter kids. Not those on the edge of puberty.

That year, his fosters forgot about his birthday. None of his teachers mentioned it, either. He bawled into his pillow. He felt so alone it stung his chest.

When everyone went to sleep that night, he walked out the door and decided not to go back. He didn’t know where he was going. Twelve-year-olds seldom do.

He wandered through a dark neighborhood for hours. He sat on a curb. He got scared. He turned around and headed for home. The police found him first.

They transferred him.

He became a difficult child, rebellious. Lost. By thirteen, he found himself in an after-school program for rowdy kids, led by a woman.

She was outgoing. She talked too much. She smiled too much. She helped the

kids make art, and taught them to sing in four-part harmony. She read books aloud.

He resisted her. He was disobedient, quiet. So, she approached him one day with soft words.

And, she handed him a scrapbook. “Here,” she said. “I brought this especially for you.”

“Me?”

Inside were hundreds of Polaroids. The pictures all had the same girl in them. The girl was doing all sorts of things. The beach, amusement parks, playing, grinning, running, wearing graduation gowns.

The girl in the pictures aged with each photo. In the newer photos, she was riding scooters, visiting Paris, cheering at horse races.

“Those are pictures of me,” she said.

“You?”

She told him she’d grown up in foster care. She told him about the counselor who suggested she make a scrapbook of her life when she was just a little girl.

A loud crash. A bounce. She’s going downhill. She's rolling. Her car is really rolling.

It’s late. She’s driving. She's on her way home. There's something in the road. She hits it. She swerves. She loses control of the car.

A loud crash. A bounce. She’s going downhill. She's rolling. Her car is really rolling.

She screams.

And in this moment, she’s thinking, “I wish I could tell my children I love them.”

Funny. In critical moments, nobody says to themselves: “I wish I had better retirement options.”

She's tumbling down an embankment toward an icy river, thinking simple things.

Like the day she slid a ring onto her husband’s finger and promised to love him until death.

She thinks about holding her newborn daughter. The same daughter who was born with an extra digit on her left hand. A “supernumerary finger” doctors called it.

She thinks about how she nicknamed her daugher “Six.” And how the name stuck, even after surgeons removed the appendage.

She remembers her son. And Little League games. And the day after school, when he told her that he’d found hair in his armpits.

One second. That’s all it takes. One second to relive her entire

life.

How strange. Only a minutes ago, her life felt permanent. And now, it’s too damned short.

Her car hits water. She is upside down, dangling. Blood in her eyes. She is too beat-up to even cry. She is falling in and out of sleep.

The water is above her head. Then it's touching her hair. Then her forehead. Then her eyebrows. Her nose.

In her stupor she manages to say one word before she's submerged. It’s a word which, despite what some claim, has nothing to do with politics, war, or religion.

“God.”

She swallows a lot of water. The world goes black.

Then.

Sharp sickness in her gut. It is overwhelming. A burning in her lungs. A headache which feels like she’s had an argument with a hammer.

“I’m alive,” she’s thinking.

It’s my thing. Some folks make conversation about weather. I coerce complete strangers into telling me love stories.

A young man sits across from me in a restaurant. It’s a meat-and-three place, with napkin dispensers on the tables.

The young man is with a girl. They’re holding hands. She’s staring at him, he's staring back. And even though my wife begs me not to, I ask how they met.

It’s my thing. Some folks make conversation about weather. I coerce complete strangers into telling me love stories.

The girl asks me to repeat myself. Her voice is uncommonly loud. He tells me that she is deaf.

“Our parents introduced us,” he explains. “We started as friends, and then...”

They're newlyweds. He is signing while he speaks.

Dinner arrives. Our food is terrible.

A few weeks ago, I met an older couple in a movie theater. White hair. Steel-rimmed glasses. They were leaning on each other like high-schoolers.

My wife begged me not to make conversation with them.

But their hair was so white.

The man said they've been married fifty years. They realized long ago that they couldn’t have children. It was a harsh blow.

But they're grateful for this today, he told

me. Because during their forties, a young woman in their town died, leaving behind a five-year-old.

That five-year-old became their daughter. Today, she has a family of her own.

“Some things are meant to be,” he tells me.

I met a twenty-year-old boy. He was a newlywed. We shared a bench at a mall in Birmingham while our wives shopped. I asked about his wife.

He’s been with her a long time already. Her brother and father died when she was not yet a teenager. She wasn’t sure she’d ever survive it. He made sure she did.

“I’ve loved her since I was nine,” he said.

They eloped last month against his parents wishes.

Parents don’t know everything.

I got an email from a man. He’d been with his girlfriend eight years. She wanted to…