The little girl talked too much. That’s what teachers said about her. On the first day of class, they moved her to the front of the room because of this.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t stop talking. It was that she couldn’t. It was involuntary. A reflex. A superpower.

Her smile is another of her gifts. It’s a quirky smile passed down from her mother. Her mother had a lazy eye and saw double. Whenever her mother smiled for cameras, she tilted her head to correct her vision.

The little girl picked up this habit. Today, she can’t smile without leaning left.

She joined the workforce at age twelve, waiting tables. By her teenage years, she worked at a nursing home.

In high school, she met this fella. He was wild, he liked to party. His major hobbies included Budweiser and ice cream. And she loved him.

They would marry. And they would make a life for themselves. The young man would work labor jobs until

he became a steelworker. She too, would put in long hours to pay bills.

In her early twenties, she was fed up with small paychecks. She wanted to go to school. It was an outlandish idea, but she enrolled anyway.

She passed her classes with flying colors. And when she finished her degree, she decided she wasn’t finished.

“I wanna go into the medical field,” she told her husband.

“Do what?” he said.

She took classes, but they were hard, and demanding, and expensive. The science courses were torture. So, she used her superpower.

She talked. She made conversation with the smart students and the teachers. They helped her through. In a few years, she was a therapist. Bona fide.

Her husband was on the front row of her graduation, clapping hard.

By thirty, she tried to get pregnant. But no luck.…

I was eleven. I was invited to try out for the Christmas community choir. A lady visited our church to conduct the auditions.

I had been practicing for three weeks, learning the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

My father, the welder, took me to the audition after work. Before it was my turn to sing, he gave me a pep talk.

“Knock it outta the park,” he said. “Like Mickey Mantle, you hear?”

I sang for the lady in the wire-rimmed glasses who held the clipboard. She was less than impressed with me.

“Stop singing!” she shouted, interrupting my song. “We’re looking for something else, I’m sorry. Next please?”

My father stormed forward from the back of the church. He looked like he was on his way to pick a fight with an umpire.

“Now wait a minute, Lady,” he said. “I demand you let my boy finish his song. He’s been working on it for weeks. What kind of heartless woman doesn’t let a kid finish his song?”

The woman’s mouth dropped

open. She looked at my father like he’d lost his mind.

She sat down and asked me to sing it again. I cleared my throat. I sang. I did much better than before. It wasn’t a home run, per se, but more like an outfield triple.

I got the part.

I was fifteen feet tall. Until that day I’d never done anything special with my life—unless you counted the noises I could make with my armpits. I was a chubby kid with awkward features, I was neither handsome, nor athletic.

But now, I was a soloist.

It took months of preparation to get it right. Each day after school, I would rehearse for my mother in the kitchen while she made supper.

On the night of the performance, my father arrived home an hour late. He wheeled into…

My wife grew up in this town, and that’s my connection to it. These people adopted me long ago, when nobody else would.

Brewton—it’s cold and wet in South Alabama. Forty-nine degrees. In this part of the world, that’s cold enough to cancel school and make snow angels in the mud.

Last night, the town was supposed to pepper the sidewalks with luminaries—little paper bags with candles in them. But it was too wet.

It’s too bad. You ought to see those lights. They line Evergreen and Belleville and take your breath away.

Last year for Christmas, I strolled down Belleville Avenue with my wife to see the luminaries, I marveled at how beautiful they were.

There was a live-action nativity at the Methodist church. Children played the roles of Mary, Joseph, and stable animals. One kid was dressed like a cow with the biggest set of udders you’ve ever seen.

My connection to this city is my wife, she grew up here. Long ago, these people sort of adopted me, when nobody else would.

I’m in town for an early Christmas celebration with her family today. I stop at Walmart to

buy a few things before the party.

I see someone I know in the produce section. They shout my name. I hug their neck. We talk.

I see two more people in the meat department. More conversation, more hugs. More talking.

In the beer aisle, I see five people I know. But we don’t even make eye contact. These are my fellow Southern Baptists.

I stand in the checkout line, and I’m behind a woman who I know from Pensacola. She is from my childhood. The mother of a good friend of mine. I’m surprised to see her in Brewton.

“What’re you doing in town?” I ask her.

“My husband’s family lives here,” she says. “What about you?”

“Same.”

“You know,” she goes on, “they say everyone in the world has SOME kinda connection to Brewton.”

And I…

He’s single father. A widower, to be exact. But that’s not the story here.

He waits tables for a living. And on his off-days, he works at another restaurant.

Sometimes, he works with his brother’s power-washing business for extra cash. He does handyman work, and installs home sound systems. He is a busy man.

He does it for his kids.

The money goes out the window as fast as it comes. And he’s away a lot.

His children are used to fending for themselves. They’re used to preparing their own suppers, watching television alone, and tucking themselves in.

But not since she started coming around.

Let me back up.

Nine months ago, he met her. She’s a receptionist at a doctor’s office. She was at his restaurant for her coworker’s birthday party.

He saw her and couldn’t stop looking at her.

By the end of the night, his friends in the kitchen knew he was smitten. They teased him. “Go talk to her,” they said, shoving him.

But, confidence doesn’t exactly grow on trees, and our Lone Ranger has been out of the saddle since high school.

He didn’t

know how to approach her. He was—according to his coworkers—a big, fat, hairy chicken. So, without his permission, one of the waitresses spoke for him.

“See that guy over there?” the waitress whispered into the receptionist’s ear. “He’s the best guy you’ll ever meet. He likes you, but he’s too scaredy-cat to talk to you.”

Ouch, Kemosabe.

But that’s how it started.

A little bout her: she was married once. The doctor told her she couldn’t have kids. It broke her heart, all she’s ever wanted were children.

She likes long walks on the beach, Mexican food, Trisha Yearwood albums, chocolate ice cream, and any book that wasn’t written by Danielle Steel.

They went on a first date. It lasted for sixteen hours. But they darkened no bedrooms, rustled no sheets.…

I’m thinking about the wonderful things my father never experienced. Like all the things my wife and I have done these last years.

Milton, Florida—brick buildings. Old houses. Cute storefronts.

My wife and I roll into town early. The Imogene Theater is our destination for the evening. I’m here to tell a few stories at a benefit for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida.

Everyone tells me this theater is haunted, but I don’t buy it. I was raised by evangelicals. Believe in ghosts? We didn’t even believe in two-piece bathing suits.

This old opera house has been standing since 1912. Hank Williams played here once. So did Roy Acuff, and Minnie Pearl. My late father would’ve danced a jig if he’d known I was taking the same stage as Hank.

Anyway, they say the ghost’s name is Miss Imogene. She roams this auditorium, along with many others.

The stories are all alike. Some report hearing things, some claim to see a girl wandering the balcony. Paranormal enthusiasts around the nation believe this theater is a gathering place for metaphysical beings.

But not me. That’s kid stuff.

I am given the dime

tour of the old hall. There are tall ceilings, stunning acoustics, and ornate woodwork. There is a rope and pulley system outside, once used to hoist steamer trunks for vaudeville performers.

“Here’s your dressing room,” the man says, flipping a lightswitch. “Can you believe Hank changed his clothes in this VERY room?”

“Really?”

“Yep. Hey, maybe he’s even in this room with us now.”

The hair on the back of my neck stands straight up.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I tell the man.

“Good,” he says. “Then you won’t mind if I leave Hank in here with you? He’s been getting in my way all day.”

Soon, I am in the dressing room alone. I’m thinking about things.

Mainly, how thrilled my father would have been to know I was in a room where Minnie Pearl once did…

There she is. Yeah, it’s definitely her.

I haven’t seen her in years. She’s standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket, scooping mixed walnuts and pecans into a bag.

Nat King Cole Christmas music plays overhead. It smells like Santa Claus’ aftershave in this grocery store.

She couldn’t possibly remember me. I was the quiet man in the rear of her speech class. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.

Like most in her class, I was petrified of public speaking. So were my peers.

My first speech was one I’d like to forget. I delivered a torturous five-minute monologue on the proper way to prepare Pop Tarts.

When I finished, she gave a smile that seemed to say, “I hate my life.”

I was an adult male with two jobs, a wife, and a back surgery. I tried my best in her class. And she rewarded me for it.

I’ll never forget her for that.

My classmate, Gary, was a lot like me. He worked menial jobs, he had daughters, bills. We complained

in the breezeway before classes together.

Gary had a stutter—a crippling condition that embarrassed him. Simple conversation was difficult, sometimes almost impossible. Finishing a sentence could take ten minutes.

And when she paired students for final projects, she placed us together.

We worked on our speeches one evening at a sports bar. We set up shop in a booth on a Saturday night and watched the Alabama-Georgia game while scribbling speech notes on paper.

Gary purposed we make our speeches on the crisis facing modern paternity in a national economic holocaust.

“Yawn,” said I. “Let’s speak about baseball, America’s greatest pastime, or stock-car racing, or the ever-elusive, yet highly-documented and indisputably-real Bigfoot.”

We finally agreed on writing about our parents. I don’t remember much else that night, except that our notebooks had beer-stains.

And: Alabama lost to Georgia,…

The musician: refers to everyone as “man.” Even women and innocent children.

1:12 A.M.—I’m in a motel room. It’s a rundown motel with a queen bed that’s about as soft as industrial plywood.

The place smells like mildew. I found a cockroach under my pillow. I named it Bill. I told Bill to get out of my bed and sleep in the bathroom.

The whole world is asleep. I am eating a tuna salad sandwich, watching a holiday special on TV.

I just got in from playing music. I haven’t played with my buddies in awhile, and I didn’t realize how much I missed the old band.

Lately, I have been writing and traveling so much I haven’t gotten to see them. But it all came back to me tonight.

The joint was like every waterhole you’ve ever visited. Neon signs, graffiti in the men’s bathroom, good burgers, a bartender who calls everyone “pal.”

The patrons in this glorified shack were salt-of-the-earth people. They were shouting over each other, laughing, eating. The characters were all the same, but with different

names.

The manager: perpetually mad at the world.

The waitress: tired.

The loud man at the bar: a traveling sales rep.

The musician: refers to everyone as “man.” Even women and innocent children.

I sort of grew up in places like this. These are my people. I was eighteen when I started playing music for a living. In my daytime hours, I would work construction. At nighttime, I would play in spots like this.

On Sundays I would play at church.

The first night I ever played in an actual beer joint was for a Christmas party. I was nervous. People were smoking cigarettes, wearing holiday hats. There were bouncers at the doors. Folks were dancing, holding their belt buckles.

I was raised as a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist. The only dancing I’d ever seen was in a Gene Kelly movie—my mother…

This is going to be glorious. You can feel it. You might write your best stuff ever today.

You are a writer. You open your laptop. You’re inspired today.

This means you might write something profound that will change the way you see the world, life, and the nature of love. But then you suddenly realize that this can never happen.

Because you have dogs.

You can’t write today because you can’t concentrate. The dogs are making too much noise, scratching at the back door.

So you let them outside.

When you get back to your keyboard, you sit to write something.

This is going to be glorious. You can feel it. You might write your best stuff ever today.

You’ve already got the story. You’re going to write about an elderly veteran you interviewed in Georgia, who has dozens of miniature American flags in his front yard. Now THAT’S a good story, and in it you’ll include—

Scratching.

Just forget about the noise and keep writing.

Scratching.

Pay no attention to them. Focus, Grasshopper.

Scratching.

You let the dogs inside.

They bound indoors and begin to play

so hard they knock over a coffee table. Then, even though your Labrador is fully neutered, he becomes so overcome with romantic feelings he attempts a marital act upon your bloodhound.

Your bloodhound sprints to the back door with a love-crazed miniature Lab riding piggyback on her hindparts. A brawl ensues.

So you let them outside.

Finally. Peace and quiet.

You place your fingers onto the keyboard, but you can’t remember what you were going to write about.

Think, man.

“Hey, I’ve got it,” you say. “I’ll write about the leather chair in the corner.”

Granted, it’s not the most inspired idea you’ve ever had, but maybe it will work.

After all, that chair has memories. It was your mother’s. You remember when she used to sit and read her Bible in…

For supper, my mother made oyster dressing like she did every year. Some years it was oyster stew. And I’d always eaten this Christmas fare without asking what the oversized gray boogers were.

I found a box of Christmas decorations in my attic. It’s filled with old trinkets and ornaments from childhood.

There’s the ornament I made in pre-school—a petrified gingerbread man who’s missing half of his face.

An ornament from fifth grade—a miniature Bible, splayed open to the book of Hebrews. It reads: “It is appointed for man to die once, then comes judgement.” A little uplifting treasure from a fundamentalist childhood.

And there’s the clay figurine I made for my father. It is an uneven lump, supposed to be man, eating oysters. But it looks more like a cow eating a ball of gray-colored mud.

I remember when I brought it home in my bookbag. I remember how the sun was in the early afternoon.

I remember my father was seated at the head of the table, asking what I learned in class.

Mama interjected, “Show Daddy what you made in school today.”

I presented him this clay atrocity. He looked at it and said, “What is it?”

“What’s it look like?” I said.

“A Jersey cow

eating a rock?”

“No,” I said. “It’s you, and you’re eating an oyster.”

“Why’re my nostrils so big?”

“Teacher told us to explore symbolism.”

“That means I’m a Holstein?”

“It means that we can make our parents look like whatever we want.”

“So you made me a cow?”

“No, I made you a cow-BOY, see the little hat?”

“I look like a hot-air balloon with a face.”

He hung it on the tree and tapped it with his finger to make it sway. “That’s a big oyster I’m eating,” he remarked.

Oysters are a tradition in my family.

That following Christmas, we awoke early. He wore the robe my mother made for him—he did not wear a robe any other day of the calendar year. Among my gifts were a few records, slacks, some…

It was raining on the highway. Icy rain. She had everything she owned in the back of her SUV.

It was a few weeks until Christmas. She was leaving, going back home to live with parents. Her life was a wreck, she’d given up hope that it would ever be any different.

It had been five years since her husband’s death, but it still hung over her like a long shadow.

Three car lengths behind her:

He was driving a green truck. He was from a different state, on his way to Tennessee, to accept a job in the English department of a community college.

He didn’t notice her brake lights because of the rain.

Crunch.

It was not serious. Her airbag didn’t even deploy. She was in shock, but not hurt.

He helped her out of the vehicle. He led her to the median. She sat on the highway shoulder with her kids. When her surprise finally started to wear off, she let her eyes focus on him.

“W-W-Who are you?” were her

first words.

“I’m the guy who hit you,” he said. “I’m really sorry about this, ma’am.”

“Okay,” was all she could manage to say.

“I really didn’t mean to run into you, it was all my fault.”

“Okay.”

“Are you gonna be alright, ma’am? You’re just in shock, I think, that’s all it is.”

“Okay.”

“Should we call our insurance companies or something?”

Then, it all fell upon her. She began to cry. “My insurance is expired,” she said. “They’re probably gonna arrest me.”

He held her. It had been a long time since she’d been held by someone.

“We’ll work this out,” he said. “I’ll pay for it. We don’t have to call the police, as long as you’re okay. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay.”

The rain…