Somewhere in Georgia. The gas station pump had a TV in it. All gas station pumps have TVs now.

If you buy gas in America, you have to watch loud commercials, selling everything from smartphone apps to foot powder. And in true TV-commercial fashion, the ads are roughly the same volume as a nuclear weapons field test.

So there I was, pumping gas, trying to ignore the ad for hemorrhoid cream, when I noticed a car pull beside me. It was an old-model Nissan. Lots of rust. Dings everywhere. The car made more noise than a tambourine salesman riding on railroad tracks.

A guy stepped out. He was big and portly. He wore a thick white beard. The tips of his mustache were waxed. He wore red, from his head to his foot. His eyes, how they twinkled. His dimples how merry. His radio was playing “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

He stood beside me, pumping gas, checking his phone, and he saw me looking at him.

“Hi,” he said.

I could not find the words. “Are you…?”

He nodded.

“You mean

the real…?” I said.


He was on his way to Atlanta for a gig. He would be visiting a group foster home. I asked what it would be like, visiting all those kids.

He shrugged. “They’ll sit on my lap. They’ll tell me what they want. They’ll ask if they can pull my beard. I’ll give them a candy cane.”

“Is it real?”

“I don’t use fake candy canes.”

“I meant your beard.”

“One hundred percent Santa.”

I asked what sorts of things kids in orphangaes request for Christmas. He said it’s been the same wishlist every year. Only the names of the children change.

“Last year,” he said, “a little boy asked if I could ask God to let his mother into heaven after her overdose.

“I had a girl cry on my shoulder and beg…

The man in the nursing home began his story in a slow, weak voice. He was in his wheelchair. Facing the window.

I was 30, writing an assignment for a community college class. Creative writing. The nurse at the main desk said she knew of a man with a Christmas story worth telling.

And he told it well.

“It was a cold night,” he began. “The snow falling wasn’t snow-snow. It was more like white bricks. It wasn’t a ‘white Christmas.’ It was a hard one.”

The year was 1938. The place was Avondale, Alabama.

It was the apex of the Great Depression. Although that’s not what people called it back then. They simply called them “hard times.” And they were hard. Bone hard.

The family lived in a ratty apartment. There were four of them. A mom. A dad. Two kid brothers. They were hard up.

The two boys were good kids. Obedient. Well-behaved. Freckled. Their paw worked at the textile mill. Their mother did too. In fact, in a few years, the

boys would be working at the mill also. Kids worked at mills in those days. Different times.

What the boys wanted that year were bicycles. But family Christmases were pretty lean. When you can hardly afford enough beans to feed two growing boys, you don’t buy bicycles.

The boys, for example, ate ketchup soup for dinner. The parents frequently ate oxygen casserole.

One year, for Christmas, the boys were out collecting scrap tin to raise money for their bikes.

As I said, different times.

When the boys finally raised enough gathering tin, they went directly into town to exchange their tin for cash. On the way home, something happened.

They found something. A roll of money. It was 10 one-dollar bills, wrapped in a rubber band. It was lying in the street. In the gutter.

In 1939, $10 was worth $200. At least. It was more…

There was a knock on the door.

At the time, I was helping my cousin erect his Christmas tree. His wife was lending moral support by playing on her phone, occasionally pausing to administrate.

“Can you answer the door?” asked my cousin.

I opened the door. There were five or six children on the porch. They were dressed in warm clothes. One girl wore a furry hand-warmer. Another boy wore an oversized stocking cap. One kid’s sweatshirt read, “Dear Santa, less junk from the Dollar Store this year, please?”

“Can I help you?” I said.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” they sang. Their mothers were on the sidewalk, videoing with phones. The kids sang two verses, although technically, not at the same time.

“No Girl Scout cookies?” I said.

“Would you like to hear another song?” said the spokeschild.

“You know any Skynyrd?”

“How about ‘Angels We Have Heard On High?’”

They sang beautifully. Then, they followed it up with “Away in a Manger.” My cousin happened to have some leftover Halloween candy in a bowl. I

offered candy, but the kids refused, since their little brother can’t have any. He’s a diabetic. Although this was not his main illness.

Instead, they told me they were raising money for Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The youngest choral member presented a repurposed baby-wipe container—a plastic cylinder with a slot in the top labeled, “Donations.” You could put coins, cash, or checks inside. “And my mom takes Venmo,” he added.

My, but times have changed.

The kids are doing this on their own because one of their little brothers spent a long time in the hospital—he’s the one who can’t have sugar. His life was saved by doctors at Saint Jude.

In case your were wondering, Saint Jude sees 8,600 kids per year. From all 50 states. They have 77 beds for those needing hospitalization. They have 5000 employees and counting. It…

A small bar. The Christmas decorations were already up. Thanksgiving wasn’t but a few days deceased, but the halls were officially decked.

I got a burger and a tall beer. The beer came in a mug the size of a flowerpot. The burger was more breadcrumbs than beef. An old food service trick.

He was sitting at the bar. Young. Cleancut. The full face of youth. His head was peering into his glass. As though glass were going to talk back. It didn’t. Glasses rarely do.

“Last night, I asked Erin to marry me,” he said to the bartender.

The bartender, a woman comfortably in her 60s, leaned on the bar. Back in the days when you could smoke in Alabama establishments, this woman would’ve most certainly been doing so. They knew each other, apparently.

“You finally asked?” the barkeep said. “Oh, baby. What’d she say?”

“Well, that’s the thing. What I was thinking? I should’ve never asked her. What right do I have? We’ve only been dating five months. Erin could find a guy WAY better than me. There’s

no doubt. I don’t mean that I’m a bad guy, but she’s way out of my league, we both know that.

“She’s beautiful, she’s sweet. Every place I take her, all the guys are usually pretending to be looking at something in her direction. She’s smart, she just told me she wants to go to school to be a nurse someday. Did you know that? She doesn’t have any money to do school because her mom and dad kicked her out when she was eighteen.”

I prepared to take a bite of my burger when I noticed something unusual. My burger had a hair in it.

“She has two kids now,” he said. “Same daddy. I have no business taking on kids. Do I?

“I’m almost thirty. And I can’t believe I’m even considering it. I have no idea what…

I recently saw a man in a gas station scream at a cashier. The cashier was a young girl. She made a mistake and overcharged him for gas. The man lost it. I watched the whole thing happen. He stormed out of the convenience store and sped away, leaving skid marks.

She was embarrassed.

“Oh, man,” she said. “I really screwed up.”

“No you didn’t,” said a nice man standing in line. “He did.”

Be nice. That’s what my mother always told me. And I never knew her to be wrong. This was her highest aspiration for my life. She wanted me to use a soft voice, good manners, and to treat people the way I’d treat Pope Francis.

Admittedly, I have failed her many times. There was the time I was watching the Iron Bowl at a tavern in Columbus, with friends. I was seventeen, but I managed to sneak into the joint.

There was a man at the bar in an Auburn T-shirt who kept shouting ugly things to my pals. When he tossed

a glass of beer into my friend Arnold’s face things went crazy.

Arnold weighed a buck five, soaking wet, and had a stutter, he could not seem to defend himself. It took three of us to pry the man loose.

The rowdy hit me beneath the jaw so hard I bit my own tongue and said a word that is not approved by the Southern Baptist Convention™.

In the heat of the moment, I sat on the man’s chest because I didn’t know what else to do. That wasn’t very nice. My other friends joined me. Three of us sat on him like we were waiting for the three o’clock bus. My mother would’ve disowned me.

The bartender, a graduate from the University of Auburn, splashed a glass of ice water in the man’s face and shouted “You schnoz-whistle! People like you give us…

The names aren’t important. The story is.

It was Christmas Eve. Lydia was newly divorced. Her husband had decided he wanted a 20-something college student, bleached hair, size 2. Lydia was 43, mother of two, and she couldn’t compete.

Lydia was driving in a beat up Toyota, with her two kids in back. The car was loaded with baggage, aimed toward Wisconsin, where her people were from.

She was somewhere around Central Kansas when the blowout happened. It was awful. The loud popping noise. The loss of steering power. She muscled the vehicle to the snowy shoulder and wondered what in the H-E-Eleven she was going to do.

Her oldest, Eric, was entertaining his 5-year-old sister, Laney, in the backseat.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” he said.

The car came to a wobbling stop. Mom was already pressing her head against the steering wheel and weeping. The spare was beneath three metric tons of crap. And she had never changed a tire in her life.

The rural highway was empty. There were no cars passing them by. Christmas Eve

in the country is a quiet affair.

“We’re going to have to change the tire.” she said.

“Okay,” said Eric.

Eric. A former Boy Scout. Not only did Eric know how to change a tire. He knew how to give mouth-to-mouth. And he has also earned his wood-carving, carpentry, and survival badges. No big deal.

Eric was getting luggage out of the trunk when the truck came swerving. He never saw it. The lights of the Toyota were off. In hindsight, this was a big mistake on Lydia’s part. Turning her lights off on a rural highway.

They heard the screech of truck tires. The sound of a boy screaming. The impact. He was thrown a long way.

The driver of the truck hadn’t seen the car. And Eric had not seen the truck.

When the EMTs got to the boy, he was…

Dear God,

It's me again. Actually, I don’t know what you want me to call you. For all I know, you might prefer to be called something Hebrew, Latin, or maybe you don’t want to be called anything at all.

Anyway, one thing’s for sure: you’re older than the feeble human names we humans call you. That much I remember from Sunday school.

My mother called you, “The Lord.” My granny called you “Heavenly Father.” My uncle used to call you by your first, middle, and last name whenever he smashed his thumb with a hammer.

Either way, I was raised in a staunch church, and I remember hearing your name in the tiny chapels of my childhood. The preachers loved to talk about heaven, and how nearly impossible it was to get there. And about hell, and how easy it was to go there.

And our Sunday-school teachers, who made you sound like an old Communist dictator who was always sentencing people to everlasting damnation. After a while, I thought of you in much the same way

I thought about, for example, the Terminator.

But that’s not you. Not at all.

And even though I don’t know a lot about you, I know a little. Above all, I know what you aren’t. And I also know where I can find you.

I know that you’re the sun. You’re the starlight. You’re the pine trees. You’re the sky over Lake Martin. The smell of baked apples Mother used to cook. You are prettiness. You are the feeling of Christmas. The warmth of a family reunion.

You’re the look on a kid’s face when he or she catches a fish. The feeling a child gets when he or she has just been adopted.

You are every Andy Griffith Show episode ever made. You are Aunt Bee, Opie, Barney, Otis. You had absolutely nothing to do with Matlock.

You are guitar music…

Nurses. I’m grateful for nurses, foremostly. At some point in your life, no matter who you are, or how much money you make, you will have an intimate healthcare experience with a nurse.

A nurse might save your life. They might administer a barium enema. Either way, you will feel their warm hands on your body. And you will be grateful.

But the real question is why. Why do nurses do what they do? Every single day they do it. The pay isn’t THAT good. The schooling is brutal. The clinicals are medieval torture. But nurses choose to be nurses. And most can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

And teachers. I am also thankful for teachers. College. High school. Grade school. Kindergarten. The pay is crap. But the hallways of heaven will be lined with educators.

Dogs. I’m thankful for dogs. Not just my dogs, but your dogs, too. At this stage of my life, dogs are my closest and most trusted allies. My closest friends have always had flea problems.

I am thankful for

my human friends, too. Close friends are rare. In fact, they are almost mythical. In your lifetime you have a better chance of finding Bigfoot than you do a best friend. If you have three or four REALLY good friends you are wealthy. If you have more than that you are delusional.

I am grateful for beer. I grew up fundamentalist. In my youth, being in possession of a six-pack was right up there with a conviction for distributing snuff films. But I love beer. Always will.

Also, cheese.

Kids. I am grateful for children. Whenever you start to think our world is going straight to hell, start paying attention to kids. Because they aren’t.

Black coffee, made by someone other than me.

Waffle House hashbrowns at two in the morning.

Ferns that hang on porches.

Books. Especially randomly found books, from obscure places like…

Mrs. Herrington’s, Mrs. Talon’s, and Mrs. Anderson’s third-grade classes sent me their Thanksgiving lists. They came via snail mail. Most were written in pencil. A few were in crayon.

BILLY (age 8)— I am thankful for God. Without him we wouldn’t have any football.

JOSH (9)—I’m thankful for Alabama because it is a wonderful place to live and Alabama is home to the only confirmed incident of a meteorite striking a human person, named Ann Hodges, in Oak Grove, 1954.

MARY (8)—I’m thankful that my mom lets me stay home from school when my grandparents are in town because I love them so much.

TORY (9)—I love my phone because I use it to read books and reading is a superpower.

CHRISTOPHER (8)—My dad is what I’m thankful for most. He almost died because of diabetes.

PERCY (9)—I am thankful for tacos at school.

LUANN (8)—I am thankful for my dogs and my horses and especially Rain who is my horse who I ride.

BJ (8)—I am thankful for my teacher because she gives me good grades.


(9)—I am thankful that my family is together again and my dad is living with us again.

BRIANA (9)—I hope my mom will come back home and stop doing drugs.

ANDREW (10)—I love my brother and I miss him a lot. He’s not with us anymore because he is with Jesus.

LILY (8)—I am thankful for the bike my dad bought me so I can blow off steam and quit making mom upset with me.

YVONNE (8)—I am grateful for all the things God has given to us all. The big stuff and the little stuff he gives us so far, is what I am thankful for most, you know. My favorite thing is my family because I love it when we’re all here for Thanksgiving and eating with each other and everyone is doing stuff. Yay!

TAYLOR (9)—my dads in jell…

There is a little girl in my house. She is 11. She is currently playing piano in my office. She is blind, so she plays by feel. She has no idea what she’s doing on the instrument. But she actually sounds pretty good.

I do not have kids. I’m not a smart man, but I am sharp enough to know I’d make a bad dad. So this is unique, having a kid in my house.

Today is a flawless November day. Leaves are falling. The air is dry. My windows are open. Thanksgiving is just around the corner. And it feels like it.

Becca has been staying at our house for a few lazy days this weekend. My wife and I are sort of like Becca’s crazy aunt and uncle. I don’t know how this happened.

I never thought I’d be the crazy uncle who perpetually smelled like Tiger Balm and was always telling children to pull his finger. But there you are.

In her time here this weekend, we’ve gone for lots of walks,

Becca and I. Becca usually holds my hand and does all the talking. Somehow, she knows that I have no idea what I’m doing with kids. She can sense that I am not paternal material. But she doesn’t hold this against me.

I was a bar musician whose youth lasted way too long. I grew up in dim lit rooms, filled with smoke, clinking glasses, and Willie Nelson ballads. I used to have a ponytail, for crying out loud.

But Becca doesn’t seem to care. She treats me like I’m a real adult. Which is her first mistake.

Consequently, Becca has done a lot of adultish talking since she’s been here. She has talked about everything from moon rocks to the Battle of Gettysburg. From the invasion of Pearl Harbor to Zacchaeus who—come to find out—was a wee little man and a wee little man…