“I’d suggest getting your affairs in order,” the doctor told the older woman.

The doc said this with no emotion. He just looked at his shoes because apparently he couldn’t bear to meet her eyes.

“Are you telling me that I’m dying?” she said.

No answer. Just a nod. Then more medical jargon.

The news hit her like a runaway boxcar. She went home and almost had a nervous breakdown. She was about to hyperventilate. She needed to think. Needed to lower her heart rate.

Must breathe. Must sit. Must keep it together. Inhale. Exhale.

Music. That’s what she needed right now. Something—anything—to distract her from the fear. She turned on the old wooden GE radio sitting in the kitchen and closed her eyes.

The music blasted through the linoleum room. Dean Martin sang about silver bells, and Der Bingle sang about dreams involving glistening treetops and white Christmases. She cried upon her enamel breakfast table.

Death. She wasn’t ready to die. She had raised four kids alone after her husband left her years ago.

She was the single mom you’ve

seen a million-and-five times in public. The mom who clips coupons from the Sunday paper, who works three jobs, who sews denim patches on the butts of Little League uniforms.

Now her children were grown and she was, what, on her way out? It was a cruel joke, she told God. Cruel and disgusting. And it was beneath him.


Her old radio crackled and hissed with static.

Then the music stopped. Then static. Then music. Then the reception was garbled with snowy interference and the receiver started picking up a station in Spanish.

She smacked the radio. Which only made her cry harder. So she smacked the radio again. And again.

And again.

The static was replaced by the voice of an obnoxious radio preacher blaring through the tweed speaker. And although she cannot recall the sermonizer’s exact…

The sky above Surry County, North Carolina, smells of burnt wood and heavy soot tonight. The atmosphere is hazed with a melancholy brown smoke and the forest is eerily calm. The chestnut oaks and the pitch pines creak from the dryness of the air.

And a wildfire on Pilot Mountain rages on. The fire started Saturday.

From a distance, the top of the mountain looks like a glowing ember of Kingsford charcoal. Three hundred acres have been consumed, and that number will have grown by the time you read this.

Andy Griffith was born and bred in Surry County, just 14 miles up the road in the hamlet of Mount Airy, otherwise known as Mayberry.

Pilot Mountain State Park is a magnificent place. The Yadkin River, one of the longest rivers in the Old North State, weaves directly through the pine-choked corridor of the park before easing its way into South Carolina.

There are trails here with overlooks pretty enough to compromise the well-being of a cardiac patient. On a clear day you

can stand atop Pilot Mountain and see halfway to Fiji.

Simply put, this is God’s country.

Meanwhile, atop this 2,421-foot flaming quartzite rock, fire crews work incessantly, battling wind changes and dry conditions, trying to contain hell.

These are men and women who will likely receive no public recognition for their bravery. Which isn’t unusual in their line of work. Firefighters, like all public servants, are accustomed to being overlooked.

One of my longtime friends is a career fire medic. He says, “We fly under the radar. I won’t say that we’re overlooked, but most people don’t really stop and think about what we do. But hey, it’s okay, we’re not doing this for the press.”

Right now, there are 29,705 fire departments in the Lower Forty-Eight. There are roughly 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S., an estimated 93,000 are female. The Forest Service employs…

Somewhere in Georgia. The hotel lobby is festooned with Christmas decor and holly, and the place smells like a cross between a cinnamon bun and a bottle of industrial ammonia.

My wife and I are checking out of our room. We are in travel mode. We need to get on the road. Need to keep moving. Need to put miles behind us.

But right now my wife apparently has other plans. Because she is standing at the front desk having an in-depth conversation with the hotel receptionist. They are laughing and carrying on while I stand around waiting like a wart.

In exactly one hour and forty-five minutes the Iron Bowl will be on television, the century’s biggest rivalry football game, and I’m going to miss it because my wife is having a heartfelt conversation with a total stranger, talking about—I am not joking—cute baby clothes.

I wander toward the lobby’s TV which is blaring with gameday sports commentary. I watch and I wait for my bride.

After thirty seconds of watching the football pundits, I realize something: The intelligence

of the sports commentators has really gone downhill in recent years.

COMMENTATOR: “...Bob, we know for certain that whoever scores the most touchdowns in today’s matchup will absolutely, without a doubt, become, ultimately, the winner of today’s game...”

I don’t want to be exposed to this.

But because I’m stuck here, I sit on the lobby sofa to watch.

Seated on the couch beside me is a little girl with curly blond hair. She is watching TV, too.

“Hi,” I say. “Is this seat taken?”

She says nothing at first. She only looks at me briefly, then back at the television. Shy.

“Hi,” she chirps.

She is done talking now.

“Did you have a happy Thanksgiving?” I ask because I have the obnoxious gift of gab.

She turns to look at me. I can see a large scar on the…

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have no Christmas tree,” said the waitress, placing a hamburger on the table before me.

I was in North Georgia, in a restaurant attached to a gas station. My waitress’s name was Sharon. I know this because her name tag said “SHARON.”

“No tree?” I said, lifting the top bun to make sure everything was okay under the hood.

“Nosir. Didn’t get no presents, neither. My mama worked too hard to spend money on that kinda stuff. Mama paid bills and bought food.”

She passed me the Heinz for my fries. I used the butt of my palm to spank the bottle until it repented.

My server was middle-aged, with hair that was straw colored, and she wore a sweatshirt with the name of a local high school on it.

“So,” I said, “no trees and no gifts, how did your family celebrate?”

She smiled. Her teeth were blindingly white, perfectly straight—a credit to her genetics, her dental care professional, or her prosthodontist. She had a great smile.

“Celebrate? Shoot. We didn’t.”

“At all?”

She shook her head and started jingling the change in her apron. “Not until I was nineteen.”

“Why nineteen?”

“That was the year Mama died. Mama died in an accident coming home from work. It was awful. Worst day of my life. Drunk driver got her. Had to raise all eight of my brothers and sisters after that. My dad was a deadbeat.”

She looked off as though she were posing for a Renoir.

“Know what I did that first Christmas?”

“Pray tell.”

“Well, we couldn’t afford no tree. But out in our shed we had cans of old green paint, ‘cause our trailer was green on the outside. So I cleared a place in the living room and I painted a tree on the wall.

“Then we all made flowery ornaments and stuff from pieces of tin foil,…

This is Maria’s story. Why she entrusted it to a hapless boy columnist like myself is beyond me. Either way, our story begins in a humble cafeteria, filled with homeless people.

They are all here for the free annual holiday meal. All who enter are given hand sanitizer and hot cocoa.

Maria volunteers here. She has been helping serve hot meals all week, and she volunteers here year round. This volunteering tradition started many years ago. It’s a long story.

When she was a kid her late father was an alcoholic. But when Maria hit age 13, he got sober. Her father started attending AA meetings and won his life back. The main thing her father learned from these support group meetings was that (a) each meeting had donuts, which increased your pant size considerably, and (b) helping others is the only thing worth doing with your life.

Oh, how she misses him.

The mess hall is overrun with people who are dressed in ragged clothing. Some suffer from mental illness, some are

addicted, others have breath that is 190 proof.

Maria stands behind the sneeze guard, dressed in facemask and hairnet. She serves them all steaming helpings. She is cheery, fun, and she flirts with the old guys because they get such a kick out of this.

One elderly man smiles at her. “Maria, I wish I were twenty years younger, I’d marry you.”

She throws out a hip and says, “And just what would YOU know about marriage, Mister Dan?”

“Hey, I know a lot. I’ve had three very successful marriages.”

She cackles. She gives him an extra helping of green beans and reminds him to behave.

Another old guy shuffles toward her. He wears a leather hat and a large backpack. His pants have gaping holes, he reeks of ammonia and body odor. She dishes his plate. The man’s eyes become pink and wet when he sees…

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Yeah, I know most folks would choose Christmas as their favorite, but not me. Namely, because I was a chubby kid, and we chubby kids preferred our holidays to center around cholesterol.

In my family, the ladies would get started preparing many days in advance for the big calorie party. You’d see females dusting countertops with flour, working tirelessly on butcher blocks, wielding surgically sharp cutlery, and threatening to neuter any male who came within fourteen feet of her range oven.

The house would be a symphony of chopping sounds, cabinets slamming, and the roar of Briggs & Stratton twelve-horsepower hand-mixers. Christmas simply could not compare.

At Thanksgiving the food spread was sinful enough to qualify for an R rating. We had heaps of refined carbohydrates, wads of saturated fat, volcanoes of gluten, and fruit pies that were completely obscured by Reddi Whip.

Whereas at Christmas all I got was khakis.

Our childhood home would also be inundated with loud family members. Sometimes there were people loitering in

our house who I’d never even met.

“Come say hello to your cousin Hilda,” my mother would say, matting my hair with her own spit.

Cousin Hilda was ninety-four years old, a complete stranger to me, and she talked at length about the disruptive nature of kidney stones to anyone within earshot.

All day the walls of our little house would throb with the sounds of human voices. And even though our family was decidedly dysfunctional, it was pretty fun.

My uncle would sit on a sofa, reading the newspaper, sipping Pabst, yelling at his kids. He did this even though his kids were, for example, in their late forties.

Other uncles and male cousins would hang out in the driveway, trying to look masculine. This is a typical male activity at Thanksgiving—driveway standing.

Driveway standing is not a difficult sport to engage in. It goes like…

The Billy Graham Library is just a barn, really. A big barn, mind you. An elaborate, 40,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art barn, plopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, complete with a bookstore, gift shop, food court, and a mechanical animatronic talking cow á la Disneyland.

But a barn nonetheless.

Billy Graham is buried on these grounds. His wife Ruth lies beside him. The remains of gospel singer George Beverly Shea rest here also.

William Franklin Graham Jr. was born and raised only a few miles from here. His memorial library hosts upwards of 200,000 annual visitors, ranging from U.S. presidents and dignitaries, to third-grade field trips and Midwestern retirees in Reeboks.

Today, the place was packed.

You can say what you will about the man, you can even attempt to muddy his good name. But even years after his death, Billy still pulls them in.

I remember when Billy Graham would come on TV. In our house, life completely stopped. My father would quit piddling in the garage. My mother would unchain herself from her stovetop.

Granny would

sit on the sofa, poised before our Philco console television, legs crossed. I sat on the floor six inches from the glowing screen since I was the family remote control.

And we would watch America’s pulpiteer preach to packed arenas in New York City, L.A., Paris, Germany, and Budapest.

“God loves you!” Billy would shout, pointing that spindly finger at the camera. “He loves you, and you, and you…”

And since I was nose-to-nose with the TV, his message always felt particularly personal.

At the close of his sermons when George Beverly Shea would sing “Just As I Am,” Granny would say, “Turn it up!”

I’d crank the volume and Granny would sing every word without ever dropping the cigarette from the corner of her mouth.

Truthfully, as a boy I didn’t know the difference between Billy Graham and God himself. Not until Jimmy Williams…

M. Judson Booksellers is located downtown Greenville, South Carolina, right on Main Street. This is your quintessential bookstore, complete with comfy chairs, hardwood floors, and high-brow autobiographical material authored by Willie Nelson.

I walked inside and was immediately greeted by The Smell.

You know The Smell. It is the sacrosanct aroma found inside all establishments that peddle the printed word. I could live on this smell. It is the fragrance of libraries, bookstores, and newsstands. The smell is one part paper, one part soy-based ink. The scent is a narcotic for book nerds.

Oh, how I love books. I love them too much.

I was a dropout, you see. Not long after my father’s funeral I simply decided to quit going to school. We were rural people. Back then it wasn’t unusual for a kid to stop showing up for class. Happened all the time.

Today, of course, you couldn’t get away with such idiocy. You try dropping out today and you’ll end up in juvenile hall, chained to a desk, forced to read Tolstoy. Currently, there

are even laws in some states where dropouts cannot receive driver’s licenses.

Times have certainly changed. Because back in the day if you quit school, nothing happened. Nobody made a fuss. And so I willingly became a loser.

And that’s the thing about dropouts. They don’t like themselves very much. I realize I’m generalizing here, but almost every dropout I’ve ever met feels one of two ways about themselves:

They are either deeply ashamed, or they are falsely arrogant. Both attitudes are creeks shooting from the same ugly river. A river named Inferiority Complex.

Many dropouts also feel one of two ways about books: They either love them, or they avoid them like head lice.

I’ve worked alongside dropouts on construction jobsites who had severe aversions to books, refusing to use them for anything but leveling imbalanced tables and killing cockroaches.

And then,…

Greenville, South Carolina, is already gussied up for Christmas. There is a bite in the air. The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance make the town look downright Rockwellian.

This is a baseball city. Fluor Field sits on Main Street, home to the Greenville Drive, a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The ballpark is a mini-replica of Boston’s Fenway Park—right down to its ginormous green outfield wall.

The gates are closed today, baseball is out of season, but you can almost imagine the sound of 6,700 ballpark fans roaring wildly as they stand in line to use the men’s room.

Outside the ballpark is a life-sized bronze statue of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Joe is depicted at the plate, bat over his shoulder, eyes glancing above centerfield.

I am at the statue now, talking to an old guy in a ratty Clemson hoodie who sips something from a Styrofoam cup. He wears fingerless gloves and asks passersby for money.

“Yo, man,” was the old fella’s opening introduction to me. “I need to eat. I’ll

probably die tonight if I can’t eat.”

Then he lit a cigarette and answered a call on his Bluetooth headset.

I give him a few bucks. In exchange he tells me a story.

He jerks a thumb toward the statue. “That’s Shoeless Joe. Best ball player to ever live. Born and raised here in Greenville.”

“That so?”

“You dang right.”

An underweight Santa impersonator is posing for pictures across the street. A busker sings “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and sounds like a cat with its tail caught in a box fan.

And my tour guide is just getting warmed up.

“Joe Jackson used to own the liquor store on Pendleton Street. You ever heard’a Joe Jackson, man?”

I nod. Of course I’ve heard of Shoeless Joe. My granddaddy was a boy when the infamous “Black Sox” World Series scandal occurred.…

The nursing home was done up for Thanksgiving. There were stuffed turkeys on bookshelves, twinkly lights on the nurse’s station, and one of the cafeteria workers wore a puritan hat shaped like a traffic cone.

I was here to make an appearance at the book club.

The nurse buzzed me through the front doors. She gave me a name tag.

“They’re ready for you,” she said. “Follow me, please.”

We walked past a hallway adorned with colorful artwork. One wall featured a dozen tempera-paint handprints on individual sheets of construction paper. The handprints were decorated to look like turkeys.

“Art therapy,” the nurse explained. “Our residents just did fingerpainting. I’ll be cleaning paint off the ceiling till June.”

I felt vaguely like I was touring a kindergarten classroom. All that was missing was a portrait of George Washington and the class hamster.

She led me to the garden area where a small group of elderly people sat in a semicircle beneath the North Florida sunshine, waiting for yours truly. They were seated in folding chairs, wheelchairs, and roller walkers.

“Okay,” announced the nurse.

“Let’s give today’s guest author a warm welcome.”

When the deafening applause from my six-person audience finally died down, club meeting was in session.

It bears mentioning that I don’t get many requests for in-person book club visits anymore. I used to, but these days most book clubs prefer internet video calls.

I faithfully fielded questions from club members. The inquiries about my book came in all shapes and sizes.

“Your chapters were too short,” said one man.

“You bounce around topics too much,” said another. “I couldn’t follow your writing.”

Another woman weighed in. “The print was too small. I had a headache five minutes in. I couldn’t finish your book.”

I smiled.

Another lady cheerfully added, “Did you bring any peanut butter?”

And then it was time for lunch.

On my way out, I listened…