Here is a woman, I’m thinking, who’s got a room bursting at the rafters with folks. There are wrong orders to fix, grumpy customers to pacify, and employees who want to bend her ear.

The Cracker Barrel in Prattville is busy. And loud. Inside, there isn’t much in the way of elbow room. There are heaps of people eating dangerous amounts of biscuits.

And I am trying master the wooden Triangle Peg game.

The object of the game, of course, is simple. Leave the fewest pegs remaining on the triangle as possible.

Let’s say, for instance, you finish a game and only one peg is left. This means you are a NASA-level genius. Two pegs; you are moderately clever. Four pegs; your parents are first cousins.

Whenever I play the Triangle game, it’s not pretty.

I love it here. But then, I have a long history with Cracker Barrel. I’ve eaten at Cracker Barrels from Junction City to Gainesville. The food suits me.

The overhead music always has steel guitar in it.

Today, an elderly couple is sitting next to me. The man is skinny. She is frail. They are shoulder to shoulder.

The man is wearing a hospital bracelet. His entire lower

leg is in a brace. His face is bruised purple. He is resting his head onto the old woman’s shoulder.

“I love you, Judy,” he says.

She just pats his head and scans the menu.

On the other side of the dining room is a table of paramedics. They wear radios on their shoulders. Their eyes are drooping. It looks like they’ve had a long night.

I eavesdrop on their conversation, but can’t make out much. All I hear is: “I’m ready to go home.”

These men are modern-day saints.

Behind me is a young family with five kids. Four boys are tall and thick. One is not.

One child is small and slight. He has a device in his ear and a device mounted on his head. He stares at his older brother’s plate and says, “Can I have…

Earlier, I spoke to a parent who remarked: “This has been the hardest time of our lives. I wish I could take it from my son, I wish it was me who had cancer, but it feels good to see him happy today.”

Pensacola, Florida—a bunch of children played kickball against the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department.

These kids are undergoing cancer treatment, but it hasn’t affected their spirit.

A little boy steps to the plate and kicks a rubber ball with every ounce of leg muscle he has. The crowd goes wild. His mom goes wild. I go wild.

Earlier, I spoke to a parent who remarked: “This has been the hardest time of our lives. I wish I could take it from my son, I wish it was me who had cancer, but it feels good to see him happy today.”

Today is a good day. And it was a good game. The score was close.

The Sheriff’s department only lost by 39,000 points.

Huntsville, Alabama—Aria was 26. A hardworking mother trying to earn her GED. She had a full-time job to tie down, two kids, and suppers don’t make themselves.

Her homework load was overwhelming. Solving for “X” wasn’t exactly a priority.

She posted a request for help

online. A college professor in West Virginia answered her. He volunteered to help.

He tutored her over the phone. Sometimes, they would stay on the phone for three hours at a time. Their friendship took off.

The weekend before her test, he bought a plane ticket. He met her at a coffee shop with flowers.

They spent two days prepping for her exam. She passed; he took her out to dinner. Today, she’s working on her bachelor’s degree.

They have two kids together.

Spartanburg, South Carolina—a man stopped four lanes of traffic to save a dog. Traffic backed up for a quarter mile.

He squatted onto his heels and spoke in a soft voice. Cars lined up, stretching toward the horizon.

The dog finally came.

He used his belt for a leash. The dog was old. No tags. He…

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

His real name doesn’t matter. So let’s call him Steve.

Steve made a mistake. He went to prison. The details aren’t important.

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

Steve made friends with the chaplain—who discovered that Steve couldn’t read or write.

The chaplain taught Steve the basics. ABC’s, cursive, grammar. In a few years, Steve went from reading Doctor Seuss to Walt Whitman.

He enrolled in a GED correspondence course. After that: onward and upward. It took years to earn college credits through the US Mail.

He graduated with an associate’s degree.

And when the chaplain baptized Steve in a feed-trough, Steve rose from the water and hugged the chaplain.

Steve told him, “I wish I was hugging my mama right now.”

“This hug is from her and me both,” said the chaplain.

Steve’s mother passed while he was inside.

Years later, our hero joined civilian life as an older man. The world

felt like a foreign place. He found a job on a concrete crew. He grew his hair long because he could.

At work, Steve made friends with a twenty-six-year-old man who we’ll call DeRonn.

DeRonn and Steve grew close. They had deep conversations at work. DeRonn admitted that he’d once wanted to study art, but never did.

“Why not?” asked Steve.

“Because,” said DeRonn. “I dropped out at sixteen when my girlfriend got pregnant.”

A few days later, an envelope appeared in the front seat of DeRonn’s car. Inside was a little cash, wrapped with a rubber band, and a note which read:

“That’s to help pay for art school.”

That was two lifetimes ago. DeRonn is not a kid anymore. And he’s not sad, either. And as it happens, he did finish school. His degree…

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

Birmingham, Alabama—A Friday. Chadley was in a good mood. He would be twenty-one in a few days. To celebrate, he would be leaving for Orange Beach with his friends after work.

His job was in a shoe store. It was the sort of place that sold everything. His daily tasks included: stocking, manning a register, and cramming shoes on the stinky feet of bratty kids.

He couldn’t wait to clock out.

Earlier that morning, his father had given him two hundred dollars as a birthday gift. It was going to be the weekend of a lifetime.

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

The fella had crumpled dollars his hand. “Some lady gave me this money,” the old timer said. “I’d like to buy me some shoes.”

It wasn’t enough to buy a pair of flip flops.

Young Chadley looked at the man’s feet. They were bloody.

He bought

the man two pairs of shoes—expensive ones. Then, he bought the man’s lunch. Chadley spent nearly all his birthday money. Then, he tucked his remaining six dollars into the man’s hand.

Our hero never made it to the beach that year.

Panama City, Florida—a man saw a woman in a Home Depot parking lot.

The lady was silver-haired and frail, loading fifty-pound bags of fertilizer into her trunk.

He offered to help. He placed them into her car and nearly ruptured L4, L5, and S1. Then, he followed her home to unload them.

Hers was a rundown single-wide in a mobile home park. She had an overgrown lawn and moldy siding. Her porch was full of flowers that needed planting.

“Who’s gonna plant all those?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Me, I guess. My husband used to help me…

Anyway, I wish I had something magnificent to finish this with, but I’m not a magnificent kind of guy. I’m John Q. Average who is obviously coming down with a super-cold.

It’s raining cats and buffalo. I’m standing in line in the hardware store, waiting to check out. I've had a nagging cough since this morning. And, I am in a lethargic mood—somewhere between “unenthused” and “living dead.”

I hope I'm not getting sick.

There’s a girl who joins the back of the long hardware store line. She's Hispanic, holding a baby. She's buying one item.

A man lets her cut ahead of him. So does another woman. And another. And ten others in line.

Soon, the girl is at the head of the line, paying the cashier.

“Tank yoo,” she says to everyone.

Everyone waves and says something like, “No problem.”

I leave the store. I jog toward my truck through the rain. My wife calls. She wants me to pick up milk, eggs, and a bottle of vitamins.

"Not the cheap kind,” she explains.

She wants the kind that require a reverse mortgage.

The supermarket—I see a man in a wheelchair. He is in the self-checkout lane.

The man is missing both legs and one arm.

He stuffs his groceries into a gym bag. A woman is with him. He refuses to let her help him.

When it is time to pay, he reaches into a pocket and removes a credit card. He swipes, then places the card between his teeth and taps a digital screen.

The cashier inspects the man’s receipt, then says “Have a nice day, sir.”

“Oh, I definitely will,” the man answers.

And he seems to mean it.

After the hardware store, I drive across town to get a haircut. The lady who usually cuts my hair is named Julia. Julia is an artist. The only one who can tame this unruly red mop.

Julia is out with the flu.

The woman who trims my hair is new, from North Alabama. Her…

Thanks for not judging the girl who got pregnant at sixteen, but treating her like a prize. Thank you for being kind to those who don’t think the way you do. Thank you for visiting nursing homes.

Thank you for tipping your waitress too much. Even though she accidentally messed up your order, you tipped her good. Real good.

You were with your family. The waitress brought you a meal you didn’t ask for. You ate it anyway. You tipped her two twenties.

And thanks for giving that man and his son a ride home. You found them in the Walmart parking lot with a dead battery. You tried to jumpstart the vehicle five times. It wouldn’t hold a charge. So you asked where he lived.

“About an hour away,” the man said.

You drove an hour. Both ways.

Thanks for the gift baskets you bought for Miss Donna. She was in the hospital after a heart attack. You visited her room by mistake—you meant to visit your niece after her appendectomy.

You noticed Miss Donna didn’t have any visitors. She had no get-well cards, no flowers.

Someone told me what you did.

You must have spent a fortune at the florist. They delivered three

different baskets, the cards were signed with three different names. Clever.

That must’ve made her feel important. Then, you delivered a fourth basket by hand. You introduced yourself. You sat with her. You talked.

Thank you.

Thanks for letting the frantic mother use your cellphone when she couldn’t find her child. Her phone was dead, she was pure panic.

She borrowed your phone. She made a few calls. She ended up locating her son because of you.

Thanks for cutting your neighbor’s lawn after his back surgery. He’s old. For someone his age, surgery is a big deal.

Not only did you cut his lawn. You cleaned out his gutters. You went to the store to stock his fridge. You even bought him a stack of magazines. You didn't have to do that.

Thanks for holding the door for the old…

He was broke. We’re talking flat busted. He had forty-three bucks to his name. Single dad. Two kids. Life was a mess.

He found twenty bucks at a gas station. The bill was sitting on the pump, weighted with a rock. A Post-It note was stuck to the bill.

“God bless,” the note read. “Pass it on.”

About him:

He was broke. We’re talking flat busted. He had forty-three bucks to his name. Single dad. Two kids. Life was a mess.

He’d been looking for work for months. He’d taken small jobs, whatever he could find.

His family ate dried beans and rice. They’d been living in a friend’s camper. He worked every task he could drum up. Power-washing driveways, delivering papers, scrubbing toilets.

His friend’s sympathy ran out. They were evicted. He searched classifieds, filled out applications, begged employers.

They left for the city to find work. His car was on “E" before he even hit Clanton. He stopped to use the only forty-three dollars to his name. He prepaid for gas and almost vomited.

Then, it happened.

He was filling his tank. He saw twenty bucks. He tucked it into his shirt pocket. He coasted into Birmingham on fumes.

The first day

in town, he walked into a restaurant with his children. He talked to the owner. He offered to wash dishes in exchange for feeding his kids. The owner agreed.

The things a parent will do.

They slept in their car, eating from Styrofoam boxes.

The next day, he visited construction sites, hat in hand. He was met with “I’m sorry, sir."

That night, he washed dishes until midnight. His hands were pruny, his energy was spent.

He met a young Hispanic waitress. She was worse off than he was. Tips were bad, she had no husband, and four kids.

Before she left, he handed her the twenty dollars with the sticky note.

She read the note aloud. “God bless. Pass it on.” And she cried.

His two children huddled beside him in the backseat that night. He cried…

I was in a hotel room last night. I turned on the television and heard reporters say the world was falling apart. That's not all I saw. I saw crazed talk-show hosts, sex scandals, pharmaceutical commercials, and snow in Florida—as I live and breathe.

Birmingham, Alabama—the mall. Two kids. They were lost. Brother and sister. Black hair. Dark eyes. Mexican.

Keith found them. They were wandering, holding hands. They wore concerned looks. He sensed something was wrong.

“I got four kids,” says Keith. “I have a feel for these things.”

He approached them. He kept his voice cheery. He asked if they were lost. They couldn’t understand him.

No problema. Keith almost majored in college Spanish.

“Are you lost?” He asked in Spanish.


As it happened, they’d lost their father. They’d been hiding from him in the department store. They were only playing a joke, it was supposed to be a game. It became a disaster.

They were too scared to ask for help because their father wasn't legal.

Keith promised he wouldn’t alert authorities. Instead, he searched the mall.

No luck. So, he bought the kids supper. Then he gave them a ride. The little girl rode in the front seat, guiding him through traffic by memory.

Turn here, turn there, take a right at the light.

She led him straight to her aunt’s apartment. Her mother and aunt came running. Tears

were shed.

Lots of tears.

Charleston, West Virginia—Amy rode her bike to the school-bus stop. She was minding her business like a good eleven-year-old.

A boy was dropped there by his father. He was new to the neighborhood.

Something happened.

The boy had an asthma attack. His inhaler was empty. His face went pale. Amy kept calm—though, I don’t know how.

She helped the boy onto her bicycle seat. She jumped on her pedals hard.

“Hold tight!” she said.

He wrapped his arms around her while she sped to his house—a half-mile away.

Nobody was home. He couldn’t find his key. She broke a window. She gave him a breathing treatment. It worked.

They still made the bus in time.

Knoxville, Tennessee—Billy was shopping with his wife. Actually, he was…

I know dogs who need adopting, I know children who need companionship, and priests in Dothan, Alabama, who cook turkeys for the unfortunate at Christmas.

She pushes a cart in the parking lot. She is a redhead. Pale skin.

There are four Hispanic girls with her. She says something in Spanish. They all laugh. She laughs.

These are happy folks.

She met them last year. She knocked on her Mexican neighbors' front door one evening. She offered to babysit the girls free of charge, since the family was having hard times making ends meet.

Since then, she’s been watching the girls for three years. She also teaches them to read and write English.

Today, she’s teaching baking. She took them to the supermarket because they're going to make gingerbread, yogurt-covered pretzels, cookies, fudge, you name it.

Then, there's the old man. I saw him. He was walking to the public restroom, using a cane, holding a young woman for balance.

“Almost there, Daddy,” she said.

They reached the bathroom; she opened the door and followed him inside.

“No, Daddy, let me help,” I overheard her say before the door closed.

What a good daughter.

And the twenty-year-old kid, Jerod. I watched him play basketball. He was teaching other kids

to play at the county foster-child facility.

He is an orphan who grew up in foster care. He teaches them because he is them. They trust him.

“I know what it's like not having nobody,” he said. “I want’em to know somebody cares, that's all everyone needs.”

Jerod seems too young to be so wise.

And the woman. She was ringing a handbell outside the supermarket. She was tall, angel-faced. She was wearing a Santa cap, singing.

She set her bell down to relax her hand muscles.

A kid approached and asked if he might ring the bell for her.

“Knock yourself out, kid,” she said.

He rang it in rhythm, and sang. His voice was loud, and steady. He closed his eyes to sing.

People tossed money in the bucket by the handful.



...Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you wake up in the mornings and turn it on. Maybe you flip channels. Maybe you see talking heads in business suits.

I watched a fifteen-year-old boy with cerebral palsy hit a baseball. It was something else. His father pitched full-speed from the mound, just like a major-leaguer. The boy held the bat with unsteady hands.


Base hit.

The kid smacked it so hard it made the fence. His mother cheered in the bleachers. So did I.

The fifteen-year-old didn’t even run. He started to cry. So did his daddy. They held each other in the batter’s box for awhile.

“You don’t understand,” said his mother. “They’ve been working on just HOLDING a bat for years. He NEVER gets a hit.”

He did today.

Tanya—I meet her in the Walmart. She has six children with her. The oldest is pushing the cart. Two are in the basket. Three follow.

These are not her biological children.

Tanya’s been fostering for a long time. She used to do it with her husband—he died several years ago.

Her husband had been raised in the foster system. He had been passionate about fostering.

“We used to spend every dime we made on these kids,” she says. “My husband

would say, ‘If you only knew how hard it is growing up feeling like nobody wants you. I know what it’s like.’”

After his death, she carried on his tradition. And even though she’s unmarried, she welcomes new kids by the handful.

Yolanda. She is from Ecuador. She was a victim of human-trafficking. She was saved. Since then, she’s made a new life for herself. She is about to become a certified personal fitness trainer.

As part of her rehabilitation, she started spending time in gyms. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to make it her profession.

“I LOVE working out,” says Yolanda. “I take out all my angry thoughts on these machines.”

Yolanda has a boyfriend. They just got engaged last month. He is from Mexico. He is a Pentecostal preacher.

“I’m always believing,”…