The older man behind the cash register wore a University of Alabama lapel pin on his apron. And, in rural accent, he said, “Nervous about the game?”

The University of Alabama took the field against the Georgia Bulldogs this afternoon for the SEC Championship football game. Tensions were high in our town.

I ran into a man at the gas station who wore a Bulldogs T-shirt. We pumped gas beside each other.

“‘Bama sucks,” he said, pointing at my Alabama shirt.

“Roll Tide,” I remarked.

Then he started laughing.

“Aw, I’m just kidding,” he went on. “I know Alabama doesn’t suck, but I sure hope they do tonight.”

I told him I would pray for his eternal salvation.

During kickoff, I was still running errands. In fact, I was standing in a long supermarket checkout line. I counted eight shoppers in line who were watching the game on their phones.

And when the Bulldogs scored their first touchdown, a Georgia fan shouted at his phone, “YES! TAKE THAT, ALABAMA!”

There was an old woman ahead of me. She wore teased white hair, pearls, and an Alabama jersey. She turned to me and whispered, “Do you mind watching my cart while I go beat that man’s ass?”

So I

bought supplies for the evening. Namely, beer, chips, boiled shrimp, and chicken wings.

The older man behind the cash register wore a University of Alabama lapel pin on his apron. And, in rural accent, he said, “Nervous about the game?”

“If I was any more nervous,” I said. “I’d have to call the incontinence hotline for support.”

“Me too,” he went on. “Just don’t forget, there’re three kings in this world. The Good Lord, Elvis, and Nicholas Lou Saban Jr.”

He scanned my groceries.

And that’s when it dawned on me. This poor man was stuck at work during the big game. I asked him about it.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a bummer, but nobody would work tonight. I wish I were at home, having a beer with my son, we are huge fans. But since he’s been gone,…

His mother died when he was six. His childhood was a lonely one. He’d been raised by his father—a man who worked too much.

No brothers. No sisters. He was a quiet child. So quiet, kids at school wondered if he even existed.

He got older and became a quiet fourteen-year-old. He had a hard time making friends. Most nights you could find him alone at home after school, eating fast food before a glowing TV screen.

She was his neighbor. She was old and feeble, with an oxygen machine. She lived in an ancient home and she stayed inside it.

She was not friendly. In fact, she was downright hateful. Most people avoided her. Especially kids. She would chew up children and spit them out.

She spent her days stuck in an easy chair, staring at windows, watching people walk the sidewalk.

One day, she and the boy started to talk.

She was on her back porch, with her nurse when she saw him pass her.

"Get up here,” she said to him, puffing a cigarette.

“Introduce yourself to me.”

And, even though nobody saw it coming, their friendship blossomed. He opened like a camellia. He talked to her about everything. He spoke about life, about day-to-day things, and what he'd seen in the news.

They became fast friends. They stayed that way through the years.

Her lawn was overgrown; he’d cut it. The siding on her home was rotting; he’d repair it. She taught him to love books. He taught her to be nice.

By his early twenties, he was helping care for her. He called to check on her often. He grocery shopped. He brought in the mail. He carried her to appointments.

And each year for Christmas, he bought her a balsam fir. A live one. He’d place it in her living room, front and center, decorated.

Her face would grow fifty-years younger when she saw…

And just like that, a bad day has become a good day. He unfolds the bill. He looks at Abe Lincoln’s stoic face. Even old Abe seems happy about this particular holiday blessing.

Birmingham, Alabama—the 1970’s. The hairstyles are ridiculous. Fashions are even worse. It’s Christmastime in the Magic City.

Early evening. A young couple arrives in town to visit family. They are working-class poor. He is overworked and underpaid. She is too.

Still, things are looking up. Even though it’s hard making make ends meet, they have each other.

It hasn’t been a great day. But it’s going to be. They just coasted into a Magic City on magic gasoline fumes. They have enough magic cash for the return-trip home, but that’s about all the magic they have left.

They wander into Bruno’s supermarket. They are shopping on a shoestring budget.

The music overhead is Bing Crosby. “Silver Bells” is the tune.

She pushes a cart. He follows. They are only buying necessities. No fancy stuff.

He listens to the music on the intercom. He lets his mind wander while Bing sings:

“Strings of street lights,
“Even stop lights,
“Blinkin’ red and bright green,
“As the shoppers rush home with their treasures...”

He sees something that interrupts his daydream. It’s a five-dollar bill, lying

in the aisle. Crumpled. Nobody is around. He looks both ways.

He bends to pick it up. This is the ‘70’s, five bucks can do a lot. It can buy six gallons of gas, or canned goods for a few suppers.

“Honey look!” he says.

And just like that, a bad day has become a good day. He unfolds the bill. He looks at Abe Lincoln’s stoic face. Even old Abe seems happy about this particular holiday blessing.

“Wow,” she says. “Aren’t you lucky?”

Luck isn’t the word. It’s a blessing from On High. Magic, even. It’s a sign that things are going to get better. That’s what it is.

But it’s short lived. Something’s wrong. There’s a pang in his stomach. He can’t keep this five dollars. He doesn’t know why.…

My first day ringing the bell, I raised nine dollars for children with cancer. It was for a program through our church to buy gifts for children in the cancer ward.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It’s chilly. The department store parking lot is filled with cars.

A woman rings a bell, standing beside a green bucket. She’s raising money for kids with cancer. She wears a Santa hat and sings “Joy to the World.”

I put a few bucks in the bucket. It’s not much, but every bit counts. Ringing a bell for donations is rough work.

Once, I rang a bell outside a supermarket. I was a pathetic, skinny, nineteen-year-old Southern Baptist wearing a stocking hat.

I stood beside a bucket from morning until late afternoon. Hardly anyone noticed me. A few smiled, some tossed in pennies, but most pretended I didn’t exist.

My first day ringing the bell, I raised seven dollars for a program at our church that bought gifts for children in the cancer ward. Seven lousy bucks.

That night, Brother James, looked at my stack of quarters and said, “Don’t feel too bad about it, son, lotta people are busy.

They ain’t bad people, just busy.”

But I did feel bad about it. I had met some of the pediatric cancer patients. They were normal, happy, fun-loving kids with hairless heads and big hearts. For some of them, it would be their last Christmas. I wanted to know that these children would get a few gifts from a fat man in a red suit.

I decided not to give up. One night, I went to my uncle for advice.

He listened to my problem without responding. And after I vented my frustration, he smiled, patted my shoulder, and said, “Reach into my cooler and get me another beer.”

He popped the tab. “I think the key here, Sean, is to reee-lax. You’ve done all you can do, that’s all that counts. You want a beer?”

“But,” I explained to my uncle. “I’m only nineteen…

I was offended. No matter how many times I swore that I didn’t destroy the aforementioned flowerbed, she refused to believe me. Then, she told me in no uncertain words that I was a “loser.” This hurt me. So, I said a few ugly things in return.

Point Clear, Alabama—Christmas here is merry and bright. I am in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, writing you. The place is decorated to the nines. Pinery everywhere. Red ribbons. Twinkly lights.

I have always wanted to stay at this elegant place, but I have never been able to get past security. I am here to speak for an Alfa Insurance conference to seventy insurance professionals.

This is the swankiest hotel I’ve ever been in. My room has a wine refrigerator, starched sheets, and complimentary cucumber mint shampoo. The bath towels and bathrobes are so thick you can hardly get your suitcase closed.

There is an older man sitting on a bench across from me. He is sipping coffee and reading the morning newspaper. I notice him. He is well dressed, and slender. He looks familiar.

Finally, the man lowers his paper and glares at me.

He says, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“That’s funny,” I say. “I was wondering the same about you.”

The next thing I

know, he’s sitting beside me. He says, “Wait a minute, are you Sean of the South?”

“That depends. Are you with the IRS?”

“Hey! You used to date my daughter a long time ago!”

Somebody please knock me unconscious with a cold chisel.

Suddenly, I remember him.

His daughter and I never actually “dated,” per se, but we went out once or twice. It was not a love connection. But what I remember most was a terse disagreement we had.

It’s a long story, but his daughter believed wholeheartedly that I ran over her mother’s marigolds with my truck.

I was offended. No matter how many times I swore that I didn’t destroy the aforementioned flowerbed, she refused to believe me. Then, she told me in no uncertain words that I was a “loser.” This hurt me. So, I said a few ugly…

She was a waitress. A widowed young mother with a four-year-old daughter.

Her shift was almost done. She was tossing garbage into a dumpster behind the restaurant. She heard something. Whimpering.

She saw a shape in the shadows. She saw four legs. Long ears. It was a stray, and it was hungry. She almost turned around and went back inside. But she didn’t.

The last thing she needed in her life was a dog. She was too busy with a daughter to be bringing home more responsibility. But when this dog looked at her...

Well, you know how dogs are.

She fed him leftovers. The old boy ate his food in only a few bites, and he didn’t run when she pet him.

He was brindle-colored, with a white face. He let her place a leash around his neck. She was going to take him to the shelter, the first thing in the morning, that’s what she told herself. But once she brought him home all bets were

off.

Her daughter named the dog “Dave.”

They placed Dave in the shower. They used expensive shampoo on him, and lavender conditioner. Dave sneezed when they blow-dried him.

That night, she didn’t sleep much. She could see Dave’s silhouette in the darkness, staring at her. She caved.

“You wanna get in bed with us, Dave?”

She patted the bed once. He was beside her before she patted a second time.

“I’ve never really been a dog person,” she tells me. “But Dave just looked at you with that face, and you just fell in love. You know how dogs are.”

Yes. I do.

Dave wore a green collar. He loved to run. They tell me when he was off his leash he could sprint all the way to China and still make it home in time for supper.

That Christmas, Dave…

When I was a boy, I read the newspaper with my father. He would point to the text and teach me to pronounce the words of columnists.

I love this time of year. Holidays, food, and college football. The Iron Bowl is upon us. I’m going to a friend’s place for the game. I will be the only University of Alabama fan amidst twenty-nine Auburn University sympathizers in “War Eagle” T-shirts.

I have time to kill. I stop at a small bookstore. The kind with narrow aisles, and off-the-wall books.

I am a book guy. I am crazy about bookstores. I even like the way they smell. I have always wanted to be a maker of books. It was my earliest ambition until I discovered cheese. Then I wanted to dedicate my life to cheese.

When I was a boy, I read the newspaper with my father. He would point to the text and teach me to pronounce the words of columnists.

“What’s a columnist?” I once asked.

“Someone who writes for a paper,” he said.

“What about?”

“Oh, everything and nothing.”

Everything and nothing. Some phrases you don’t forget. This is

one such phrase.

The Christmas before he died, my father gave me a gift. It was a hardback book of American newspapermen like Mark Twain, O. Henry, Ambrose Bierce, and Will Rogers. When I asked him what it was about, he said, “Stories about everything and nothing.”

They were glorified columns, and I read the book so often the pages went limp.

A few years after his passing, I wrote my first attempt at a column. I was a teenager. It was ridiculous copy, written longhand on yellow legal paper. It was about nothing, really. It was meant to be a humorous commentary about Thanksgiving spent with unstable family members.

I sent it to a small newspaper via snail mail. Every morning thereafter, I ran to the end of the driveway to be the first to search the pages. The paper actually ran it.

There…

It was December. Christmas was around the corner. He found a five-dollar bill on the ground. And during his era, he might as well have won the Florida Powerball.

This is not my story. I am hearing it for the first time, just like you.

He is the one who tells it. He is old. He is in a wheelchair. He is carving a piece of basswood with a pocket knife. He speaks in a drawl so thick it’s poetry.

There are children around his feet. A few third graders, a fifth-grader, a fifteen-year-old, and one red headed writer who still watches Saturday morning cartoons. Occasionally.

The old man is telling stories. That’s what old men do. They are inherently good at this.

The man removes a five-dollar bill from his pocket.

“See this?” he says.

The kids nod.

The redhead nods.

Age has slowed his speech down. But not his mind.

“Why, I remember when five dollars was like a hundred bucks,” he goes on. “Back when times were hard.”

The Depression. A time when America was on the brink. He tells a story about the tail end of these lean years. He

was six. A rural towhead. He wore ragged clothes.

His shoes had given up the ghost and went barefoot most of the time—even to preaching.

“That’s what poor folks did,” he explains. “Our feet were always bare.”

It was December. Christmas was around the corner in the humid South. He found a five-dollar bill on the ground. And during his era, he might as well have won the Florida Powerball.

He ran home to give the money to his father.

“LOOK WHAT I FOUND, DADDY!” he shouted.

But his father didn’t want the money.

“Son,” his father told him. “It would be wrong for me to keep that money. Lotta folks need it worse than we do.”

But how could that be? They ate beans for supper. His brother worked labor jobs for chicken feed. His mother took in wash.…

Alabama, 1963—it was chilly. It was gray. A skinny Christmas tree sat in the corner of his rundown home, undecorated. No gifts.

His wife was a secretary. He punched a clock, wore leather gloves, and moved steel for a living.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly unusual story. They worked from can to can’t. They sweat for dimes. They ate beans, rice, and white bread.

They had seven kids. Money was hard to hold on to with seven hungry tummies.

And, on the day she found him home from work early, sitting on the steps, she knew things were about to get worse.

His face was red and puffy. He couldn’t find the words. They’d fired him. His supervisor had delivered the news without warning.

His wife held him like a child.

“What're we gonna do?” he said.

“We're gonna believe,” she told him.

But he worried until he lost sleep. Then he worried harder.

The next day, he drove a dilapidated Ford through busy streets with the classifieds beneath his arm. His eldest son rode shotgun.

The boy watched through the windows while his father begged

foremen for grunt work.

“Daddy,” said his son. “We gonna starve?”

“No, son,” he said. “But we might lose a little weight.”

After three weeks of job hunting he had, in fact, lost weight. They say he wouldn't eat suppers.

The once strong steelman; an unemployed shell, skipping lunches and dinners to save money. Rejection takes a toll.

Christmas morning.

He woke to a tree with a family seated around it. There were newspaper-wrapped packages beneath the branches. Each gift had the word, “Dad” written on it.

His eldest made a picture book from construction paper and cardboard.

His daughter had given him a cigar.

His youngest gave him five quarters which he’d saved in a piggy bank.

A black-and-white family photo—colored with crayons. A sock-monkey doll, stuffed with newsprint. An aluminum ring. Shoelace bracelets.…

When I lost my job, you were there. When I wrote my first book, you were there. When I lost my thirteen-year-old bloodhound. When I accidentally walked into an elderly woman’s hotel room to find her half naked.

Thanksgiving Eve, and I am writing you. I know you’re probably with family. Maybe Granny is with you. I don’t want to interrupt.

I only wish you knew how much you’ve changed my life. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that.

You see, I’ve been writing to you for four years. Just about every day. It’s one of the longest gigs I’ve ever had.

It started as a whim, now it’s life.

I’ve written from all sorts of places. The mountains of North Carolina, the hills of Arkansas, the Texas plains, the Arizona red rocks, the Rockies, beer joints in South Alabama.

You might not know this, but when I started this column—if you call it that—I didn’t like myself too much. And I didn’t like the pathetic jobs I worked.

I worked swinging hammers, running power drills, playing music in beer joints, and in Baptist churches. And I was tired.

But that changed the day I met you. And you can tell Granny I said that—in case she‘s

reading over your shoulder.

I remember the exact day I decided to write you. I was laying tile in an old man’s house. A thought shot through my brain. It was a flash, but sometimes flashes mean things.

I thought: “What if I write a blog? Yeah, I could do that.”

Usually, these ideas enter in one ear and slide out the other. But that day I got excited about it. I went home and wrote a 250-word column. To you.

And that’s when we met.

You became everything to me. From then on, wherever I traveled, I thought of you.

I wondered which sorts of things you might care about, what kind of day you were having, whether you needed to laugh. So I tried. I tried to make you smile. I fail a lot. But I…