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…

I was at a truckstop, eating breakfast. It’s a good feeling to eat eggs in a room full of handle-bar mustaches.

I feel good. Maybe it’s the way the sun is hitting this farmland I’m driving past. The scalped fields. The blue skies.

Or maybe it’s the way my waitress kept smiling at me this morning.

I was at a truckstop, eating breakfast. It’s a good feeling to eat eggs in a room full of handle-bar mustaches.

Shaniqua was my server. It was on her nametag.

“I’m happy today,” Shaniqua said. “Just told my husband he gonna be a daddy. He started crying. He's a big ole Teddy bear.”

She was pure euphoria.

I wish I would’ve had a wallet full of fifties.

Maybe it’s the semi-truck, carrying pallets of bricks, ahead of me in traffic right now. There’s a giant tarp. It’s tattered, flapping in the wind. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The driver must know this because his hazards are on. He’s driving slow—probably looking for a place to pull over.

God love him.

There’s a sticker on his bumper which reads: “How Am I Driving?” and a phone number.

I dialed the number before I hit Pintlala, Alabama.

“Hello,” the woman’s voice says.

“Yeah, I’d like to report that one of

your drivers is quite exceptional.”

“You wanna what, sir?”

“That’s right, just wanna inform you that one of your drivers deserves a fat raise.”

More silence. "Is this real?”

“It is.”

“Okay, I'll write it down, sir.”

“Happy New Year, ma'am.”

She'd already hung up.

Maybe it’s the way my dog is sleeping in the passenger seat. She’s snoring.

Why can’t I be more like a dog? It takes so little to satisfy them. A belly rub, dry food, a quick roll in a foul-smelling substance, and (snap!) euphoria.

I love that word. Euphoria. For years, I used it wrong. I thought it was a continent that Napoleon conquered after he sailed the Ocean Blue in 1897. But I know what the word means now.

It…

Alabama was playing Illinois. It would be the Bear’s farewell game. I was born during the fourth quarter.

I was born during an Alabama game. I have a Polaroid photograph of my father wearing scrubs and surgical cap.

The photo is faded. He’s eating spaghetti, nose pressed against a television which sits in the corner of a delivery room.

It happened like this: my mother called him from her delivery-room phone. He was at work.

“I’M IN LABOR!” she said in all caps.

And, like any proud, soon-to-be father, he jumped in his truck and broke the sound barrier to get to the hospital in time for kickoff.

Alabama was playing Illinois. It would be the Bear’s farewell game. I was born during the fourth quarter.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. My father passed twelve years later.

I don’t want to talk about the particulars because this is New Year’s Day. And while I write this, Alabama has just won the Sugar Bowl.

The day after my father’s death, I quit watching sports altogether. Even baseball. In fact I didn’t do much after he died, except stare. I was good at staring.

One day, my uncle arrived on our porch with tickets in

hand. “You wanna go to a football game?” he said.

“No,” was my response. I was a very busy boy, I had a lot of staring to do.

My mother shoved me out the door. “He’d love to go,” she pointed out.

It was a long drive. We picked up my friend, Danny, who had irritable mouth syndrome—he could talk the wires off telephone poles.

Thus, we sat on my uncle’s tailgate while Danny talked. And talked. And talked. And it was the worst day of my life, second only to my first colonoscopy.

My uncle stood at a grill, poking a hamburger.

“How ya want your burger?” he asked. “Medium-well, or boot leather?”

Danny cackled.

I didn’t crack a smile.

You can’t blame an uncle for trying.

Throughout the game, Big Mouth Danny…

As a newlywed, I tried opening a landscaping business. I sunk my savings into commercial mowing equipment. Business was bad. On weekends I’d print hundreds of flyers and shove them in mailboxes.

It's New Year’s Eve and I'm writing you from a cold front porch in Eclectic, Alabama. Over the last years, I’ve written from some interesting places. Barbecue stands, hotel lobbies, airplanes, hurricane shelters, Episcopal beer festivals.

Funny. If you would’ve told me five years ago I’d be writing at all, I would’ve called you clinically insane. This is because most of my life’s dreams have died slow, agonizing deaths.

As a boy, I wanted to be a pianist—I don’t talk about that very often because it seems silly now. I’ve played piano since age nine. Once, I competed in a piano competition. I wore a suit and played before a large theater.

My hands were trembling. The other contestants backstage were kids from big cities who spoke with New-York accents.

One kid shook my hand and said, “I’m gonna blow you out of the water, sucker.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said I.

“Aw, your mother sniffs your underpants, loser.”

I came in last place.

As a newlywed, I tried opening a landscaping business. I sunk my savings into commercial mowing equipment. Business was bad.

On weekends I’d print hundreds of flyers and shove them in mailboxes.

“FIFTY PERCENT OFF!” the flyers read. “CALL NOW!”

Pretty please. With sprinkles on top. My business folded.

I did handyman work. I laid floors, hung drywall, renovated bathrooms. I tried to do this on my own, doing odd jobs. Disaster.

I played music in rundown bars. Not fancy tourist joints. I played ugly rooms, for folks who tipped a buck to dance to “Crazy” one more time.

I’ve even worked in a few churches.

I’d rather push-mow Jordan-Hare Stadium.

After I finished community college as an adult, I applied to three major universities. The idea was to do something with my life. Writing, perhaps.

I received three response letters. Here’s one from Tallahassee: “Dear applicant, we regret to inform you that whereupon reviewing your…