It was below 20 degrees in Illinois. And it was snowing. The library was closing for the night. The last of the runny-nosed schoolchildren had left the building, and all the hardbound books were fast asleep.

Elderly Martha was about to lock up when she found the cardboard Frito-Lay box beside the front door. The box was making noise. Whimpering noises.

The old woman edged in closer for a better look. She opened the flaps.

There were seven puppies inside. One of the pups was cotton white, the rest were copper red. Their tiny bodies were cold, and she wasn’t sure they were all alive. The creatures were huddled together so tightly she could barely wedge her hand between them.

Martha lifted the box into her arms, carried it inside, and she yelled for Juan, the custodian.

Enter Juan. Juan is 68 years old, with silver hair, a wizened face, and a five-foot frame. His English is weak, but his heart is extra-large. His name tag says “Jonathan,” but nobody knows why

it says that.

The truth is, nobody knows much about Juan inasmuch as he only has a five-word vocabulary. Rarely does he say anything but the word “yes.”

“Help me, Juan,” said Martha. “I need your help.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

The old man rushed to the basement and retrieved space heaters from storage. He brought several clean towels and a few pillows. Soon, Martha and Juan were tucked in the corner of the library, poised before a semicircle of heaters.

They wrapped the animals in swaddling rags, and massaged the puppies to keep them warm.

The solitary white puppy was not moving. So Juan held this one against his chest and kissed its little head. The old man closed his eyes and offered prayerful words to the ceiling.

Martha wanted to tell the old man that this would do no good, she was certain the animal was dead.…

The man was ordering a beer from the bartender when I noticed him staring in my direction.

“You’re that writer, ain’t you?” he said.

That depends.

“On what?”

On whether you’re with the IRS.

“Brother, have I got an angel story for you. It’s divine providence that I’m running into you like this. I’ve been wanting to tell this story to you, but ain’t had the courage to email.”

Does that pickup line work on all the other girls?

“Tell me something, Mister Writer. When you was a little bitty kid, what was the scariest thing you could think of?”

That’s easy. My fifth-grade teacher.

“No, I mean something much, much scarier than that.”

My fifth-grade teacher holding a King James Bible.

“Losing your home, man. That’s the scariest thing that can happen to a boy. Home is everything, man. That’s where your life is. You ain’t got no home, ain’t got no life. And, well, that’s what happened to my family. I was ten years old when we were evicted.”

Wow, that must’ve been hard.

“More than hard. Was like watching life fall apart. I mean, think

about it. In normal life you wake up, you eat your Cornflakes, take a shower, get dressed, right? None of these things can be done when you’re living in your car. And that’s where my family was living, in our car.”

You’re kidding.

“Wish I was. After my dad lost his job, me and my two sisters and my mom and my dad were living in our ‘77 Ford for one whole year.

“Dad drove from place to place, slept in whatever parking lots we could. My mom had leg problems from polio, and couldn’t work regular jobs, so it was up to my dad. Poor man couldn’t find a job to save his life.”

So what happened to your family?

“What happened is my dad took gigs doing crapola work for…

Hank got home from work late. His 1969 Buick Riviera—metallic blue—rolled into the carport of a nondescript one-story-one-bath in Suburbia, USA. He stepped out of his car. He stretched his back.

It was nighttime. The moon was out.

He was tall, lean, with salt-and-pepper hair. More salt than pepper. He wore a tan suit and a striped necktie because this was the uniform of the American desk jockey.

In his den, Hank found his son and daughter sitting cross-legged before a glowing television screen, their two noses practically smooshed against the tele-tube glass.

Hank’s wife was perched on the edge of their sofa, smoking Camels, her eyes focused on the RCA console.

“Hi,” said Hank.

“Ssshhh,” his wife said.

She didn’t say “Hello.” Neither did she say, “Hi, honey, how was work?” It was just “Sssshhh.”

“Sorry I’m home late,” he said. “Traffic was just—”

“Sssshhh,” everyone said in unison.

He left the den and entered the vinyl kitchen. He placed his briefcase onto the enamel kitchen table. He retrieved an Old Milwaukee from the Kelvinator refrigerator.

In the oven

was his Swanson TV dinner, baking on low heat, still boiling in its volcanic-lava gravy. He took one bite of his unevenly heated turkey-and-mashed-potatoes and the roof of his mouth was ruined forevermore.

This food reminded him of the MRE field rations he ate when he was in Italy, fighting Hitler. Except, the field rations tasted better than this flash-frozen slop.

He returned to the den to find his family still rapt before the screen.

He said, “What are you all watchin—”


The voice on the TV sounded like it was coming from a walkie-talkie. The voice said: “This is Houston, Roger. We copy. And we're standing by...”

His family was lost within the black spell of the boob tube. He didn’t understand these people. How had they let technology invade their lives like this? Look at them. They…

I am backstage, about to tell stories onstage. A man with a name tag and a clipboard announces, “Ten minutes to showtime.”

I am tuning my guitar, hoping I won’t stink tonight.

This is what all performers think about before they go onstage. They say silent prayers that all go, more or less, the same way.

“Dear God, don’t let me suck.”

It’s easy to stink at storytelling because there is no school for such things, so you don’t know if you’re getting it right. Which leads me to ask: “What am I doing with my life?”

I am still unclear on how I started telling stories for a living. The only education I have in storytelling came from elderly men who wore Velcro shoes and wore their slacks up to their armpits.

I have always had a soft spot for old men. From childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body. I never fit in with peers, and I never wanted to. This was only made worse

by the fact that I was raised as a tee-totalling fundamentalist who was forbidden from touching NyQuil.

As a young man, I would find myself in a crowd of teenagers who were smoking cigarettes, sipping longnecks, far from parental eyes, and for some reason, nobody ever offered me any real chances at sinning.

I would have appreciated the opportunity, but they viewed me as different. It was as though I were elderly.

Once, as a joke, my friend Jordan handed me a lit cigarette in front of everybody. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a wimp, so I took the biggest drag I could. I almost died from a coughing fit. My friends howled until they peed.

Thus, I was blacklisted from social situations. I was the old man of the group. During social scenarios, I would generally hang in the corner, drinking prune…

The letter came from a 19-year-old student named Margaret.

“Dear Sean,” she began, “I want to attend [Blank] University, but I am forced to attend [Blank] Community College where I am receiving very little advice on how to actually BE a professional writer… All my podunk professors seem to do is grade papers and get excited over college football. Should I change schools?”

I’m going to stop you right there, Margaret.

First off, I seriously doubt that the only thing your professors get excited about is college football. There is also college baseball.

Secondly, you probably don’t mean to belittle your teachers by calling them “podunk,” but it isn’t fair to discredit your community-college professors simply because they don’t teach at a prestigious State U.

There is only one difference between community-college professors and big-boy-university professors, and it can be summed up in one simple word: Medical benefits, baby.

As we can see, math is not my strong suit. But then, there is a valid reason for this. I went to

community college. This means that during all my math-class exams, most of my adult classmates were busy changing their babies’ poopy diapers directly on their desks. So I was distracted.

Still, I am a proud juco grad. It took me 11 arduous years to get through county college, and I appreciated each golden hour spent at my alma mater.

During my time at school, my college went through a series of name changes. The institution began in 1963 as Okaloosa-Walton Junior College. Years later it changed to Okaloosa-Walton Community College. Then the school renamed itself Okaloosa-Walton College, before it finally morphed into Northwest Florida State College. Meaning, I currently hold degrees from four institutions.

The fact is, when I was your age, Margaret, I would have given my left kidney to attend a major university. I wanted this more than anything. But now that I’m older, I realize that…

I prayed for you tonight. Before bed. I’m serious.

I don’t get down on my knees or do anything crazy like that. I don’t kneel. Namely, because if I knelt I wouldn’t be getting up again without the assistance of EMTs.

So you might be wondering what I prayed for. Well, that’s easy. I prayed for you to laugh. That’s how I start every prayer for you.

I can’t know what you’re going through right now, nor how badly you hurt. But I know one thing: there is no better feeling than laughter.

I prayed this for Robert and his wife, Cynthia, who have practically been living at the oncologist’s office recently. I pray this for my cousin Cosby, and for my cousin Bentley, to laugh so hard they spill their beers.

I prayed for Sherry, and her husband, Lyle, my surrogate parents—they know why. Please help them to laugh, God.

I prayed for the family of the guy down the street—the ambulance was at their house today, and everyone was in the yard weeping as a

covered gurney was wheeled away.

Also, I pray tomorrow will be better than today.

I don’t care if today was a decent day, I pray tomorrow is off the chain. I pray that you have a brief moment of awareness tomorrow, as you eat your PBJ, or your Swiss Cake rolls, wherein you say to yourself, “Man, this is a pretty good day.”

I pray this for my friend Loe, who just lost her nephew. And for Regina, whose grandson has been fighting for his life. I pray this for Mark, whose dad is now on hospice care. For Laney (6 years old) whose dog died. And for Jon (15) who has his very first date with his very first female on Friday.

And normalcy. That’s a big one. I also pray for you to have some normalcy.

There is no sensation more…

Mama lived on 1st Street in the old cinderblock house. Hers was the place with the blue shutters, the scraggly live oaks, and the iron gnome on the front porch we nicknamed The Shin Killer.

I knocked on the door. My sister answered.

My kid sister was 14. Rosy cheeks. Sun-bleached hair from too much time on a bicycle. All tomboy. She still dressed in clothes with grass stains, and she still smelled like a kid, too. All kids have that trademark scent.

My new wife was standing on the doorstep with me. We were both carrying wrapped gifts with yellow ribbons.

“Happy birthday, kid,” I said to my sister.

Her cheeks were redder than normal. Her eyes were bloodshot, like she’d been crying. She bolted from the door, covered her face, and ran away.

I’m not the brightest bulb in life’s marquee, but I had a feeling something was wrong.

I walked into the kitchen. Mama’s house was one of those houses where you had to walk through the kitchen to get anywhere. The TV in the back

room was blaring “Oprah” at a volume loud enough to affect bird migratory patterns.

Mama was banging in the kitchen loudly. She slammed cabinets, clanged pots, and muttered angry words beneath her breath.

“Hey, Mama,” I said.

She slammed a cupboard.

Mama’s kitchen was every fundamentalist kitchen you’ve ever seen. More linoleum than wood. Window over the sink. And porous walls that smelled like 200 hundred years’ worth of chopped onions, giblet gravies, fried chicken thighs, and pecan pies rich enough to short circuit a grown man’s endocrine system.

My mother leaned against the sink and began sobbing. She was covered in flour, and her hair was out of place.

“Your sister and I had a fight,” she said. “I lost my temper.”


The ancient Frigidare hummed a middle C, Oprah Winfrey gave way to a Toyota commercial, and Mama’s…

Morningtime. Grand Chute, Wisconsin. It’s cold in America’s Dairyland. Last night it got down to negative 4 degrees. Tomorrow night it’s supposed to drop into the negative double digits.

The streets in Outagamie County look like iced-over freezer shelves, and the Starbucks has resorted to serving coffee on a stick.

Grand Chute is a smallish town about half an hour south of Green Bay. The place is chock-full of nice people, good food, an Old Navy, and a shipload of Lutheran churches—in a six-mile radius there are over 30 Lutheran congregations. That’s a lot of hotdish.

Our story today, however, takes us to one of Grand Chute’s residential areas, on Stewart Avenue. A two-mile street lined with modest split-levels, ranches, and dated brick homes.

It’s nothing fancy. It’s your all-American neighborhood. Think: blue-collars and working-class Packers fans who bleed green and Schlitz.

Visit the street in the early morning and you won’t see much activity. Maybe a schoolbus, a couple Fords idling, mailboxes topped with snow, and a scant few plastic-wrapped “Post-Crescent” newspapers in the driveways

of those who still care about the printed word.

But if you pay close enough attention, you will see the trademark of suburbia itself lining the curbs.

The green garbage bin.

The waste-management bins are everywhere. It was garbage pickup yesterday. The multitudes of plastic bins parked by the road this morning are empty. Which means someone has to walk them back to the house. Uphill. Through the snow. In sub-zero temperatures.

Enter Dick Pontzloff.

Dick is your quintessential old guy. He’s 75 years old and he dresses the part. He wears saggy sweatpants, oversized parka, stocking cap, and even though it’s barely above zero, he doesn’t wear snow boots. Instead he wears lace-up Merrell boat shoes á la Jimmy Buffet.

Each morning at 8 a.m., the bootless old man comes pedaling down Stewart Avenue, whistling a happy tune. He dismounts, unfolds his kickstand,…

Danny and the boys arrived late to the nursing home. They were running behind schedule because of traffic on I-65. But they were here, and that’s all that mattered.

And they brought their instruments.

“We’re all waiting for you, Danny,” said the nurse, leading the band toward the rec room.

Residents filled the day-use room, wall to wall. There were dozens of wheelchairs, O2 canisters, and a corral of roller-walkers stabled near the door like Appaloosas on the open range.

Residents had donned their Sunday best. Old men wore ballcaps with KOREA and VIETNAM embroidered on the fronts. Old ladies sported oversized tennis shoes and hairdos which hadn’t changed since the Johnson administration. Everyone’s hearing aids were cranked up.

The musicians set up near the spinet piano. Then Danny introduced the band over the mic.

There was Roger on the drums. Roger is no spring zucchini, he’s been playing the skins since Buddy Holly was a household name.

Albert was on double bass. I asked how long Albert has been playing the upright. His only

response was, “I have underpants that are older than you.”

And of course, there’s Danny, playing his collector’s item candy-apple-red Country Gentleman guitar, which is worth about as much as an amphibious aircraft carrier. Danny’s mother bought him this guitar in 1960. “My mom gave me this guitar for my thirteenth birthday,” he said.

The band opened with a few easy numbers. Just the classics. “Summertime,” by Gershwin. That always gets the collective heart rate up. Then “Fly Me to the Moon,” the older crowd loves that one.

One man in the front row became so excited that he began to shout, “I have to pee!” Whereupon the rowdy stood and attempted to demonstrate this for his fans just before the nurse escorted him from the room.

The band followed this with “You’re Not Mine Anymore,” by Willie Nelson. A song which debuted in 1954,…

This week. Houston, Texas. The package showed up at noon on Tuesday. The UPS man rang Michael’s doorbell and propped a large box against the door.

Twenty-two-year-old Michael shuffled to the door, leaning on his forearm crutches.

Walking is no easy chore for Michael. He has cerebral palsy. He has only been living on his own since November.

It was a major life adjustment, getting his own pad, but so far he loves it.

“I basically survive on Ben and Jerry's,” says Michael. “Sometimes I eat ice cream for all three meals. I’ve gained 14 pounds.”

His mother is so proud.

Lately, Michael has been living largely, and trying new activities he never thought his condition would allow. Such as playing guitar.

He’s been taking lessons for months now. His current guitar is an inexpensive pawn-shop instrument that, when strummed, sounds about as melodic as a skillet being beaten with a dead squid.

But that all changed this week.

Michael opened the anonymous parcel on his porch and inside was a top-of-the-line Martin guitar. I asked Michael how much money

a Martin of this caliber would cost.

“Well,” says Michael. “Let’s just say it’s worth a lot of ice cream.”

He still has no idea who sent the instrument. Mom and Dad didn’t send it. Neither did his grandparents. And none of Michael’s friends have enough cash to buy a gift like this, let alone pay their own car insurance.

“I want to thank whoever sent this gift,” Michael wrote in an email. “Maybe you can thank the anonymous person for believing in me.”

Meantime, up in Western Pennsylvania, where it’s colder than a witch’s Playtex clothing accessory, they accumulated about nine inches of snow this week.

On Monday, Coach Brian DeLallo at Bethel Park High School near Pittsburgh told his football team that their daily workout was scratched.

“Due to the expected severe weather,” Coach posted online, “Monday’s weightlifting…