They stand behind caged doors. They look at you when you walk by. They bark like their lives depend on it. Some have barked so hard they’ve lost their voices.

They miss running more than anything. I’m talking about all-out, wide-open, honest-to-goodness running. Their legs were made for this, but they can’t do it. Not in here.

The old dogs don’t even bother barking anymore. They know what awaits. One day a woman in scrubs and rubber gloves will lead them away, and they won’t come back.

Jack, the Labrador, for instance, he was ten years old, reddish colored. Nobody wanted him because of the white on his snout. He went to Heaven yesterday.

“People just don’t want elderly dogs,” a staff worker tells me. “It breaks your heart, I won’t lie.”

And Ophelia. She’s a beagle. She’s an old woman. So is ‘Bama, Pistol Pete, Chocolate, Bradley, and Miss Daisy. Abandoned dogs. Lost animals. This is their last stop on the bus ride of life.

Then.

Through the doors walks Jace. Jace is a seven-year-old boy with rosy face and blonde hair.

His parents are divorced. They live in a two-bedroom apartment, with no neighbor kids. Jace gets lonely.

“My son needs a friend,” his mother explains.

Jace walks the long corridor and looks for a pal. He sees Rip—a basset hound with so many skin wrinkles he ought to win an award. His face is long, his ears touch the floor. Rip is nine.

Jace pokes his hand through the bars.

“We ain’t supposed to let people touch the cages,” a staff worker whispers to me. “But Rip’s a sweetheart.”

Rip wanders to the door. He licks Jace.

“Mom!” says Jace. “He licked me!”

Rip stares at Jace.

In dog years, Rip is older than this boy. And he’s smart, too. You can see this in his eyes. I’ve been writing a long time, but I can’t find…

It’s morning in Alabama. I’m driving. There is green everywhere. Live oaks that are old enough to predate the Stone Age. Tin sheds. Peanut fields with perfect rows that run for miles in straight lines.

American flags are hanging from most mailboxes, horse trailers, workshops, treehouses, and semi-truck garages.

There are plenty of curves ahead, winding through the viridian landscape. They will take you past Faith Chapel Church, Providence Primitive Baptist Church, New Chapel Baptist, First Assembly of God, United Methodist Church. And a heap of other three-room meeting houses with well-kept cemeteries.

There’s the Perry Antique Store—which used to be a gas station one hundred years ago. It sits on approximately thirteen million acres of flat earth. Old men sit on its porch, chewing the fat. Watching traffic.

There are ancient mobile homes with brand new Fords parked out front. There are brand new mobile homes with ancient Fords. I pass red-dirt-road offshoots that lead to God-Knows-Where. Horses in front yards. Cattle in backyards.

Weathered brick chimneys, standing in empty fields.

Telephone poles with fading signs

that read: “I buy junk cars.”

I pass small towns, small communities. Brantley. Pine Level. Elba. Kinston is about as big as a minute, but they have a nice baseball field. Baseball is serious business in Kinston.

“Now entering Geneva County.”

I pass bumpy creek bridges—I have to slow down to drive across. There’s a crumbling red house—probably older than the late great Kathryn Tucker Windham.

Bass boats sit by the highway with for-sale signs. Farm-implement graveyards stretch clear to China.I am getting close to home. The county in Northwest Florida that sits sandwiched between the Alabama line and the Choctawhatchee Bay.

There is a man, burning trash in his front lawn. There are man made bass and bream ponds. Dead corn fields. Overgrown yards with rusty swing sets and children’s playhouses, with wood rot.

Rusty mailboxes with flags up. Pilgrim Rest Baptist…

My wife is asleep on my shoulder. She is out like a light. This is a sweet moment between husband and wife. Wait a second. Is she drooling? If she is, so help me, I will gag.

Yes. I can clearly see saliva on my shirt. My gag reflex kicks in.

But I decide not to wake her because she is sleeping too soundly. And because I enjoy watching her sleep.

Long ago, before her, I dated girls who never seemed to actually like me. One girl in particular forced me to attend a fancy New Year’s Eve party at her aunt’s house. She told me to wear a sports coat. When I showed up, she chewed me out.

“What’re you wearing?” she shouted. “You didn’t wear a tie! I told you to dress up.”

“You told me to wear a sports coat.”

“But where’s your tie?”

“You just said ‘Wear a sports coat.’ So I bought a sports coat at a thrift store.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t wear a tie.”

“I clean up pretty good, huh?”

“You’re gonna have to borrow a tie

from my uncle.”

“This is genuine Scottish tweed.”

“How could you do this to me?”

“You can’t even see the hole in the elbow, can you? This jacket smells funky.”

“Why do you always dress like a slob?”

“I think whoever wore this jacket before me must’ve died in it.”

She fitted me with a necktie. Before her aunt even served the salad, I was already in my truck on the way home. Her uncle’s necktie died a slow death on I-10.

But the woman who I married actually likes me.

We went to Charleston for our honeymoon. We had a famous time in South Carolina. Charleston is one of the most historic cities in the world—second only to Rome. On every corner you see American history. You can visit the place where George Washington…

Ever since I wrote a column about angels last week, the stories just keep coming. They arrive in my inbox every morning by the bucketful. Here are a few:

BILL—1978, it's morning rush hour and I'm headed to UAB for class. I hit a large patch of oil, lose control of my car, somehow cross four lanes of traffic without being hit, bust through the fence at Elmwood Cemetery, hit a tombstone that weighs over a ton, and total my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.

I'm not wearing a seat belt (remember, it's 1978), yet I am completely unhurt.

1980, 2AM, I am home on leave from the Navy, headed to my parents’ house. I'm approaching a railroad crossing that doesn't have signals. Suddenly, I hear a shout. A voice.

“STOP!”

So I slam the brakes. My car stops, a loud whistle blows, a single light appears from the woods, and a few seconds later a train rushes past. I'm shaking so badly that I can barely grip the gear shift.

1993, afternoon, the Warrior River. I’m about to water ski. An overwhelming feeling tells me to put on my life jacket, a feeling I simply can't ignore. This feeling was unlike any I'd ever had. It was so strong that it was like I'd actually heard it. As I snapped that last strap of my life jacked, the most horrible accident began to unfold. An accident that caused death and sorrow beyond imagination. An accident that I will not describe here.

I should have been killed, but I wasn't. I was terribly injured, but many attribute my survival to that life jacket.

So, if you see me raise four fingers sometime, know that it will always represent those three specific times God absolutely, positively saved my life. And the fourth finger? Well, that's for all those times that I never knew about.

KIT—In the 1970s I was staying with a friend…

I’m watching the ballgame with a ghost this afternoon. Braves versus the Brewers. The ghost visits during important games like this.

He doesn’t drink beer or eat peanuts anymore—since he’s only a memory. Still, I put out a bowl of parched peanuts just the same.

He used to eat the heck out of peanuts. He’d crack them open and make a string of jokes that weren’t even funny. The ghost is notorious for ridiculous jokes.

But he’s not shelling peanuts tonight. And no jokes. He is sitting on the sofa beside me. Legs crossed. Hands folded behind his head.

He never ages. That’s one of the perks of being a ghost. He looks the same as when he died. Skinny. Lanky legs. He is loose built, and all freckles. He places his size-thirteen bare feet on my coffee table.

“Get your feet off that,” I say.

“Why?” he says. “I’m a ghost.”

That’s not the point, it’s the principle.

So we’re watching TV halfheartedly. We’ve got too much to talk about to focus exclusively on the game. It’s been a long

time since I last saw him.

This is a good series. The ghost and I are pulling for the Braves. I'd rather lick a billy goat between the eyes than see the Bravos lose to the Brewers. But you can’t have everything.

The ghost wears an Atlanta ball cap.

Funny story about his hats. When he was alive he owned a million ball caps, but had never paid for a single one. This is because he was a steelworker who dangled from iron rafters, welding. Often, he worked on roller coasters.

People lose hats on roller coasters.

Once, he took me to an amusement park during business hours. He unlocked a chain link fence to a secure area beneath a roller coaster. When the roller-cars made their upside-down loops, it rained ball caps. Fifteen or twenty hats fell, every…

I was watching cable news today, they said this was the most challenging time in our national history. They said that circumstances have never been this bad. They said we’d be lucky to make it through these hard times in good enough shape to bury.

They said a lot of things.

Well, I got to thinking about “they” today. Who are “they,” anyway? “They” are everywhere. You can’t get away from “they.”

They are always talking at you. They are always making predictions. They are always telling you about things that are going to happen.

They are your invisible critics who love telling you what you can and cannot do. They are the voices that make quick judgments, and pretend to know the score. They’re everywhere, and they never shut up. You’ve heard them before.

“They say not to eat eggs…”

“They say to avoid butter.”

“They say you should sing ‘Happy Birthday’ three times while washing your hands in the sink…”

“They say, with your kind of cancer, your chances of survival are bad.”

“They say you might never get your

life back after the big mistakes you made.”

“They say you’re done for.”

“Hold up. Wait a second. They’re now saying butter and eggs are good for you.”

They, they, they.

You can’t get away from them. Their voices penetrate your brain from every angle. And if you ever start to actually concentrate about what they’re saying, you’ll discover something important:

They are full of beans.

They have no idea, they don’t know you, they don’t know how you’re made, or what kind of uncharacteristic strength lies within you. In fact, they don’t know jack diddly.

They said that Gerald would never recover from the chemo treatments that nearly killed him. They also said he was going to die before age 40. Gerald is 89 today, and healthy. And I wonder what “they” would have to say about…

Nighttime. I’m driving a two-lane highway. I like two-lanes. I like old fence posts. Old barns. I like all sorts of things. I like driving. It puts me at ease.

You have no reason to care about this, but I used to worry a lot. I still do, but I worried more back when I was a kid. After my father passed, I was afraid of everything.

Confession. As a boy, sometimes I’d lie in bed and feel so scared I couldn’t catch my breath. I don’t know what I was afraid of exactly. I suppose nobody tells you grief feels just like fear.

So I was afraid. Plain and simple. Afraid
of almost everything. Afraid my family would die. Car accidents were another particular fear. I was afraid of vacant houses, doctors, hurricanes, tsunamis, realtors, two-percent milk, etc.

Of course, it wasn’t like this before my father pulled his own plug. Once upon a time, I played baseball, ate ice cream, and fished in creeks, carefree.

Fear has a way of taking over. At night, I’d wonder if death was going

to swallow me whole. Irrational, I know. But young boys aren’t rational.

But getting back to night driving. When I was fourteen, I’ll never forget when my friend and I snuck out of Saturday night prayer meeting. We were there with his grandmother. She was a sweet, white-haired woman who memorized Bible verses and smoked Winstons like a tugboat.

I remember when my pal leaned against his grandmother’s car and jingled her keys which he’d taken from her purse.

“Wanna go for a drive?” he said.

“Right now?” I said.

“Why not?”

“Um, it’s prayer meeting?”

His smile was a wild one.

I didn’t want to. I was—you can probably guess—too afraid. I was afraid we’d wreck. Afraid we’d wake up in county lock-up with orange jumpsuits and a roommate named Bad Bart McThroatslicer.

But my friend…

Black and white vector illustration of river landscape. Bank of the river with reed and cattail. Sketchy style.

This old house. There is something about it. I have memories here. Too many. Leaving those memories behind is going to be tough.

Yeah, I know a house is just an inanimate object without a soul or personality. Believe me, I get that. There’s nothing magical about lumber and shingles. A house is just rooms, electrical outlets, lightbulbs, and a few broken toilets.

But then, sometimes—sometimes—a house is more than that. Sometimes a house is a home. And this house was one such home to me.

I’m thinking about all this while looking at my late mother-in-law’s half empty home.

Currently, all my mother-in-law’s things have been packed away, her drawers exhumed, her belongings placed into cardboard boxes for safekeeping.

Right now we are temporarily staying here, but soon this house will be a tomb. Soon, the estate-sale people will take over from here and sell these things. It’s hard to believe that bargain hunters will fill this home, buying all items that remain. It’s hard to picture my mother-in-law’s china sitting in someone else’s cupboard.

If you’ve

ever wanted to reflect on the temporal nature of your life, look around your house and visualize a bunch of yard-salers placing bids on your rocking chair, your flatscreen, or your Frigidaire. There you are.

Over the past weeks, my wife has been cleaning closets and sifting through eighty-some years’ worth of her mother’s belongings. We have poured over every black-and-white photo album, tried on every feathery hat, read every old newspaper clipping, played every Bobby Vinton LP, and cried in every room of this home. All the while, we were sort of ignoring the inevitable:

This is it. These are the last moments we’ll spend in this home. The end.

So we have eaten our nostalgic dinners at my mother-in-law’s dining table, amidst a house that is strewn apart, retelling old stories, and reminding ourselves of olden times.

This residence is…

It is raining. It has rained all day. My wife is making chicken soup because soup goes with rainy weather. It’s been a lazy, wet, boring, sleepy day. My wife has had the soup simmering since breakfast.

“The secret to good soup is plenty of time,” my wife told me earlier. “Time equals flavor.”

I liked that phrase so much I had to write it down on a legal pad. The same pad I am using to write you. I made a note to work that clever little sentence into this column.

“Time equals flavor.” That’s good.

Anyway, my dogs have been cooped up because of the weather. Around ten o’clock, they finally went stir crazy and started a professional wrestling league in the den.

So I left for the quiet porch with my legal pad. I have been here all day, listening to rain.

Once, I was in New York City. It rained downtown. It didn’t faze the city buzz. Life kept moving. Horns kept honking. People kept racing from Point A to Point B.

But here in the

woods, a good rain stops everything. In this weather, our small world becomes lethargic.

I can smell my wife’s soup from here. She made it from a chicken we bought from our friend, Lonnie. Lonnie is a strange hippie who names all his animals. Apparently, the chicken’s name was “Daisy” before the bird met its end.

My wife likes to know these things before she buys chicken. She likes to know the bird had a good life, and if possible, a Christian name.

Once, Lonnie tried to sell us a frozen chicken he had named “Mary.” My wife wouldn’t take it because Mary was her mother’s name.

The rain keeps falling.

I take a break from writing to read a book. It’s not high-brow literature. I’m a little embarrassed to tell you what I’m reading.

It is Minnie Pearl’s book…

Little did I know that after I wrote a column on angels a few days ago, my inbox would become a veritable explosion of stories about angels.

Throughout these last days I have been reading so many angel stories that I haven’t had time to do anything else, such as eat or bathe.

Truthfully, I was going to write something different today, but if there is one thing I’ve learned by reading all these emails and messages, you can’t talk too much about miracles.

CHARMIE—I want to tell you my angel story. I rarely tell it because—well, you know—people look at you funny.

I was camping, just me and my cocker spaniel, in a remote campground in Washington State. It was a beautiful day. I was sitting at the picnic bench, enjoying the sunshine when a loud carful of several drunk guys stopped in front of my picnic table and started saying disgusting things to me.

No one else was around and it was frightening. I was praying like crazy. “Ok, God, what do

I do?”

Suddenly one of the guys starts approaching me, but stops and screams, “Santa Madre de Dios!” And they all saw something behind me and became so afraid that they ran away.

I was scared to look over my shoulder, expecting a grizzly bear or something. But there was nothing. I don't know Spanish except that I knew that “Madre de Dios” means Mother of God.

An angel protected me from a horrible fate.

JANIE—It was 1981, I was 17 years old when I started dating my future husband. We went on a fall picnic to Kings Mountain outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.

I needed to use the restroom but we didn’t want to pack up and move our stuff, so he stayed with our picnic while I walked to the restrooms. As I got to the facility, I saw a man leaning against the…