The hotel pool. The sun is high. All the hotel guests’ children are wearing bathing suits, excitedly scurrying into the pool so they can pee in it.

I travel for a living and stay in lots of hotels. In my short time on this planet, I’ve learned a few things about kids in hotels.

One: Never get into the pool. Two: when it’s approaching midnight, children will collectively hold a decathlon in the hallways above your room.

Three: regardless of which is your room, in the middle of the night, gaggles of kids will hold a laughing contest outside your door. Four: Every apple on the breakfast buffet has been fondled by a 5-year-old with a runny nose.

Anyway, the pool. There were two boys at the swimming pool who caught my attention.

One of them was named Ben. I know this because Ben’s little brother kept shouting it. It was always “BEN!” this. And “BEN!” that.

The little brother was missing both arms at the elbow joint. And one of his legs was impaired, too. When they arrived at the pool, Ben removed

his little brother’s prosthetics and left the paraphernalia with their towels. Then he helped his tiny brother into the pool.

“I’m scared, Ben!” said the boy.

“Don’t worry,” said Ben. “I’ve got you.”

Ben had his arms wrapped around the little boy, bear hugging him from behind. He was carrying him.

When they eased into the water, Ben was still embracing his little brother tightly, and his brother was freaking out.

“Don’t let me go, Ben!”

“I won’t.”



So Ben held his brother even tighter. In the pool, Ben carried the little boy around the shallow end until his brother calmed down. And when Ben’s brother was relaxed, Ben taught him to float on his back.

“Don’t let go of me, Ben!” said the little boy who had no arms.

“I won’t,” said Ben,…

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…

I’m looking at a lot of food right now. Acres of food. In cans, boxes, rubber containers, and plastic baggies.

There must be several jillion pallets of dry food and canned goods stored in this warehouse. And it all goes to hungry people.

“We feed people,” says Miss Rita. “Plain and simple.”

Rita is white-haired. Most of Manna’s volunteers are. Rita, like many others, comes to Manna to sort food and fill boxes for hungry people all over the Florida Panhandle.

She tells me that recipients who accept food from Manna often come to the back door so nobody will see them except Manna’s volunteers.

“There’s a lot of shame involved with not having enough food,” an employee says. “We have single moms who are humiliated because they can’t feed their kids. I’ve seen parents cry when they get bags of food.”

“Food is what makes us human. Think about it, food is life.”

She’s right. Food is more important than necessities like money, housing, transportation, clothes, shoes, or Michelob.”

While we are sorting food, someone arrives at

the back door. It is a youngish woman with a tripod cane. She is staggering to the door. She doesn’t want me looking at her when she accepts her bag of food. So I turn my head and avoid eye contact.

“God bless you,” the woman whispers as she takes the bag and disappears.

Whereupon Miss Rita takes me back to the date verification station. This is my job for today.

These gazillions of pounds of food have to individually be checked for quality.

“People donate all kinds of weird stuff,” says Rita. “Sometimes, people donate half-eaten jars of peanut butter, and I just want to slap them and say, ‘Hello, we don’t want your spit.’

Miss Rita is a short, spunky, Rhode Island native who talks with a no-nonsense accent that sounds like a firearm. I get the feeling you wouldn't…

Lake Martin is flat. Mirror flat. It is a perfect evening. The sun is low. The crickets are singing in full stereo. And I’m visiting with old ghosts.

My father would have looked at this calm water and said it was as “flat as a bookkeeper’s bottom.” Only he wouldn’t have used the word “bottom.” He would have opted for a more colloquial expression unfit for mixed company.

Unless, of course, my mother was around. In which case he wouldn’t have opened his mouth at all.

Because he was a man of few words, my father. Which is what I remember about him most. His quietness. My aunt used to say that my father once traveled with the circus, performing as a sideshow act: The World’s Most Quiet Man.

So right now, I’m taking up the family business. I haven’t said a word in a few hours. Mostly, I’ve just sipped my cold glass of Milo’s Famous Tea, and I’m happy in the company of my faded memories.

I am thinking about Granny. Granddaddy. Mama. And the man

I once called “Daddy.” I am thinking about what these people would be doing right now, if they were alive.

I know what they would be doing. My Granddaddy would be carving a figurine with his butter-yellow Case knife. My grandmother would be reading the Bible, humming hymns, and chain-smoking Winstons.

My mother would be sewing something with a hoop. My father would be shirtless—he was born shirtless. And he would be drinking something harder than Milo’s.

As it happens, I am a big fan of Milo’s tea. I go through three or four gallons each 60 seconds. And do you know why I like Milo’s?

Because they don’t try to do too much with their tea. They don’t dye it red or add weird ingredients like azodicarbonamide, diacetyl, drywall dust, or rodent excrement. They don’t flavor it with added crapola. It’s…

It’s late night. She’s driving on an empty highway. The radio is playing something lively. She’s heading toward South Carolina. A new life. A new job. A new town.

She’s got a lot going for her. She’s fresh out of college, smart, ambitious, she comes from a good family, she’s got all the support she can stand.

She’s giddy about her new job. She starts on Monday. She’ll get her own office, good benefits, the whole enchilada. She’s wondering where life is going to take her next, and she’s pure excitement.

She doesn’t see the deer jump in front of her. All she hears is the sound of crunching.

It’s over fast. She smashes into a guardrail, her vehicle tumbles a few times. There is blood in her vision, but she’s not hurt—it’s a miracle.

Her car is wrecked, she’s stuck in a ditch, but she’s alive with no broken bones. She tries to crawl out of the vehicle, but the door is jammed.

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

Her new friend says, “You’re gonna be alright.”

It’s dark. They hike toward the highway to flag a car down. When she gets to the road, the man is gone.

Here’s another:

Bill has cancer. It started as a skin problem on his back. It grew fast. It spread. Doctors operate and cut it out.

After the invasive procedure, he lies on a hospital bed, subjected to lethal doses of daytime television. Bill is beyond sad. He has no wife, no children, no immediate family to visit him. He’s never felt as alone as he does today.


He sees a child, standing by the open door. He doesn’t know how the boy got in. Only friends and family are allowed to visit—Bill has neither.

The kid must be about ten or eleven.…

Thank you for holding the door for an old woman at Cracker Barrel. You must’ve been fourteen, you were with friends. You were laughing and carrying on when you saw the old woman, pushing a walker. You jogged ahead. You beat her to the door. You held it open.

She thanked you. You yes-ma’amed her. And you made my day, kid.

My whole day.

And thanks for giving money to a homeless man in Birmingham, Alabama. You don’t know me, but I watched you. I was at a stoplight. You were outside UAB School of Medicine campus. You wore green scrubs, and carried a backpack. You gave money. Then, you gave a cup of coffee and a fast food to-go bag.

Thanks for sitting with that young girl after work. She was seated on the sidewalk outside the bar. She was waiting for her ride. It was two in the morning. She didn’t need to be alone at that hour. So you sat with her. You might not think you did much, but you did.


you for filling that backpack with food, then leaving it in a tenth-grader’s locker—anonymously. You know who you are.

Thank you for working at Children’s of Alabama Hospital. Each one of you.

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

When the hitchhiker stepped into your car, you could tell he had a mental illness. But you didn’t try to fix him, you didn’t try to be a hero, you didn’t try to do anything major. You were just nice to him. And he appreciated that.

Thanks for driving a kid named Peter to baseball practice. After his father died, his mother has been working double shifts. Peter has been babysitting and cooking supper for his sisters since his mother started working longer hours.

Peter had to drop out of baseball…

There was a book on her nightstand the evening she died. A novel. She was halfway finished. Chapter eleven.

The old woman was a great reader. Reading was her thing. Her tranquilizer. Her therapy. The old woman’s bedroom was littered with mass-market paperbacks. Adventure novels, romances, humor, cheesy books that no literature buff would be caught dead holding in public unless enrolled in the Literature-Persons Protection Program.

The old woman was an English teacher. But that’s not how her love of reading began. Her journey began during a poverty stricken childhood, when the only things to do were to read library books and play cards.

As a girl she did plenty of that. She played LOTS of cards. She knew every card game in the book. They tell me she was vicious at the poker table. Each of her adult children still owe their mother roughly $7,000,000.

When the old woman was a girl, she helped raise her family after her mother died. Those were very different times, she was the

oldest daughter. No, it wasn’t fair. But it’s what people did.

Still, she never quit reading. She kept up her education by visiting libraries. Daily visits. And when her last sibling left home, the girl enrolled in college, availing herself to a much larger university library.

On her first day of college, she took an English course. It was love at first sentence. The woman knew she wanted to become a steward of the most beautiful, most audibly pleasing, most confusing, hardest to grasp, most ridiculously illogical language known to man.

After graduation, she taught English in high school. She hated it. Most students were more interested in pinching one another’s butts than they were in Shakespeare. She got a job teaching at a junior college for a little while. She hated that, too. So she quit.

She got married, made a family. But she couldn’t stay away from…

A little girl. I see her in the lobby. She is staying at the same hotel I am staying at. She is maybe 10 years old. She has her luggage with her.

Her gait is severely uneven and labored. She is having a difficult time moving her legs. It takes her several minutes to traverse the lobby.

Her mother is with her, holding the child’s arms for support. The girl takes multiple breaks to catch her breath. She sits on her luggage now and then. She looks like she is going to puke from exertion.

Her luggage is blue and orange, with Auburn University logos plastered all over. There are burnt orange ribbons in her hair. Her T-shirt says “War Eagle.”

The little girl is not giving up. Each time she gets onto her feet, she staggers across the lobby with a determination such as I have rarely seen.

She’s getting closer to the elevators now. There is a man holding the door for the girl. He has been standing here the whole time,

waiting for her patiently.

Once the little girl is in the elevator, we are all crammed shoulder to shoulder. We are close enough to smell what each other had for lunch. Someone has been hitting the onion dip.

“What floor?” one passenger asks the girl.

But the girl struggles to speak. It’s hard to get words out. You can see her mouth working hard; nothing comes out but small groans. Even so, her mother doesn’t help her speak. She has the courtesy to let her daughter do it herself.

“S-s-even,” the little girl finally says.

We are riding upward now. When we deboard the elevator car, a few of us passengers offer to carry the girl’s bags to her room. The child labors to respond to the offers, stammers, and she eventually gets the words out.

“No, thank you,” says the girl, flatly. “I can do…

I remember an old café where old fishing boat captains used to hang out. I was a kid. I lived up the road from the joint, in a cinder-block house. I frequently walked to this greasy spoon to listen to the old men jaw.

Destin was different back then. We didn’t have 4.5 million visitors. Highway 98 wasn’t America’s largest automotive parking lot. We were small. We were unknown. We had old men.

They were vile old men. Unshaven. Unwashed. Unsanctified. Undomesticated. Unfriendly. Un-everything. They smoked Luckys and survived on bad habits. Their skin looked like chewed-up boot leather and their teeth had gone to be with Jesus long ago.

They were commercial fishermen. The real deal. A dying breed. These men did not like where the world was going, so they were always ticked off. Their favorite thing to say, “Hell, I don’t know anymore… I. Just. Don’t. Know.”

This phrase was their theme song. They said it often. But then, they were roughnecks. They did not use politically

correct language. They did not listen to Michael Jackson. They smelled like sweat. They always wore trousers—even in 280-degree weather. Their pants were stained with fish guts, Clorox, and non-synthetic motor oil.

Whenever they stood, they swore loudly as their joints crackled. Whenever they stooped, they winced in pain. They had scars all over their sun-browned forearms. Sometimes they were missing fingers. Dogs and children followed these men around.

Their stories were a joy. Namely, because they spoke of olden times. Of the way Destin used to be before it was overrun with G-strings, T-shirt shops, and zip lines.

The men spoke of old time street dances, community fish fries, dinner on the grounds, all-day singings, unsinkable Fords, and the price of gasoline.

I remember hearing them discuss the first fishing rodeo. The fishing rodeo was held here in ‘48, to attract visitors during the slow season. Harry Truman was…

“Hi, Mister Sean…” the letter began. The entire letter was penned in a neatly-written cursive such as I have never seen before.

“...I don’t know how to ask a girl I like out, to be my girlfriend, kind of. I would normally ask my grandpa about this kind of girl thing but he is dead from a brain aneurysm, and I don’t know who else to ask because it’s just me and my mom now, and Mom says just be nice to the girl and be myself and she will like me. What do you say?”

The letter was signed by an anonymous 15-Year-old boy. I’ll call him Tyler because that is his real name.

Tyler, I was raised by a Single Mother, so I can relate to what you’re going through. My mother always used to tell me the same stupid thing: “Be yourself,” she was always saying. Give me a break.

The problem is, being myself means being a complete Knucklehead McSpazatron.

To prove my point, I want to tell you about

an average adult experience I had a few days ago. An experience you are bound to have as the product of a single mother.

Recently, my wife and I were at the auto mechanic when the technician looked at us and said, flatly, “Your wheel bearings are shot.” He said this with a frown, using the same serious voice you’d use to tell someone their cherished family member had been run over by a car.

“Wheel bearings?” answered my wife. “What’s that mean?”

“Your bearings need to be machined and repacked,” the mechanic said.

My wife immediately looked to me for a response. Namely, because I am a guy. Guys are expected to respond to automotive statements made by mechanics.

We guys are expected to be manful and have some technical know-how when it comes to things like cars, trapping spiders, hiring refrigerator repairmen, discussing supernational…