Walmart. The cereal aisle. I’m browsing a wall of colorful boxes. I’m interrupted by the voice of a child. A kid is riding on the front of a buggy like George Washington crossing the Delaware. His mother is driving. His father is following.

The kid is making airplane noises.

The child is small. His joints are bony. His skin is pale. He is bald. There is a half-moon-shaped scar on his scalp. Another scar travels down the back of his neck.

He jumps off the cart. His tennis shoes hit the floor hard with a loud squeak.

“Can I buy EVERY kinda cereal?" he asks.

“You’re not going to feel like cereal after surgery,” his father says.

“Let’s wait until surgery’s over,” adds his mother. “Once you’re better, then you can have as many boxes as you want.”

The boy is younger than young. Barely out of toddlerhood. He looks sick. And the parents’ words just hang in the air.

Surgery.

Next I see his mother and father scoop him into their arms. I have to leave the aisle quickly because of the prickling behind my nose and eyes.

All of a sudden, I am in the produce section. I see a Mexican family. They are standing in a huddle, speaking rapid-fire Español.

The youngest girl—maybe 10 years old—is teaching two adult women to speak English. The girl holds an onion toward them.

“UN-yun,” she says.

They adults say, “OWN-YOAN.”

“UNNN-yunnnn.”

“OWN-EEE-OWN.”

The girl laughs. The women laugh and remark, “Qué difícil es inglés.”

Which, you know, is so true.

Next I pass two elderly women, sharing the same walker to putter through the dairy department. They are having a heated conversation loud enough to affect the climate.

“Are we out of cheese?” says one.

“How should I know? You wrote the list, Charlene.”

“Don’t snap my head off, it was just a question.”

“Don’t gimme that. You’re always blaming…

JOHN—My angel story takes place when my wife was dying, and I watched everything go downhill in a matter of months. And every night, I would hear a voice tell me “You can get through this, John.”

On the night she died, I heard that voice again. And this time it was my wife’s voice saying, “John, I’m okay. Don’t quit believing.”

LYNN—When I was a young woman someone tried to attack me during a home invasion, but the man was never able to touch me. I screamed for help and something prevented the man’s hands from physically touching me, like he was paralyzed. I know it was an angel that saved me.

BARBARA—A few weeks after my husband’s death, in a fitful sleep state, I heard my husband’s words spoken gently: “Honey, remember Psalm 30:11.” Then the voice went away.

The first thing the next morning, I looked up the verse. I found these words:

“Thou has turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou has put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.”

KATHY—It was 1977 and we had traveled from Alabama to North Dakota for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. I had twin girls—a daughter, a son, and another son on the way.

On the day we were loading the car, after the reunion, my sister asked one of the twins (Angie) to tell us about a dream she had.

Angie said, “Angels from heaven came down and brought me to heaven and I saw Jesus.”

I worried about it all the way home and for quite a while after that. But the memory of my daughter’s dream eventually faded.

Flash forward to 1978, the girls were almost 7 years old. It was a sunny day, unseasonably warm, and the girls went to play outside with friends.

Suddenly, I had an overwhelming need to look out the window. It was as though the world was standing still.…

There is one particular evening that will stand out in Carolyn’s mind forever. The evening when her husband was rounding a curve on a rural highway, with her in the passenger seat, and a disaster happened.

It was late, the night was indelible-ink black, and there was a large deer standing in the headlights, wearing that look of bewilderment on its face. Her husband’s reflexes kicked in and he jerked the wheel.

Bad idea.

The car lost traction and plunged through the flimsy guardrail, tearing down the steep embankment. The next thing Carolyn remembers is awaking upside down in her seat, suspended by a seatbelt, half conscious. Then she heard someone say her name.

“Carolyn.”

At first she thought it was her husband speaking. But when she opened her eyes she saw that he was unconscious.

And still, she kept hearing her name.

“Carolyn. Wake up.”

She turned to see a young man staring at her from behind the passenger window. He had scraggly facial hair, a plaid shirt, and a kind face.

“Come with me, Carolyn,” the young man

said.

Then he lifted Carolyn and her husband out of the car and carried them both.

She doesn’t remember much after that except that, after a few minutes, she and her husband were both safely propped against a tree, waiting for ambulances, and the young man vanished.

The first responders asked Carolyn all the usual questions. Then they asked how she managed to muscle her heavy husband out of the vehicle. She told them it was the young man.

They looked at her like she was one short thigh short of a blue plate special.

“Ma’am, there’s nobody on this highway,” they said.

Here’s another one I heard. This story came to me from a young man who I’ll call Jeremy, from Kansas.

Jeremy was babysitting his infant daughter one night while his wife was away at work. Jeremy had…

I’m watching the Braves game on TV, eating a hamburger, trying not to get my keyboard greasy.

The Atlanta Braves are locked in a treacherous battle against the Philadelphia Phillies. Both teams are fighting for a shot at the pennant, and neither team is going down without taking fistfuls of flesh and hair with them.

This column is part of my longstanding tradition wherein every year I write a handful of boring baseball columns. I do this faithfully although I’m no expert on baseball, nor am I an athlete. Also, I’m hard pressed to believe that the same ball players I care so deeply about would ever visit my place of work to cheer for me.

Even so. There’s just something about baseball.

To me, stickball is more than just an American sport. It’s not merely vivid green grass, halide lights, peanut vendors, or howling fans who have been overserved. Baseball is my past. Baseball is boyhood on a stick.

Of course the game has undergone many changes since my day. Even the

entertainment delivery methods have changed.

The TV I’m watching, for example, is about 68 inches wide, plasma, high-definition, and connected to my mobile phone. This television has the capability of answering emails, browsing the Internet, obeying spoken voice commands, and communicating with military aircraft.

When I was a kid, however, the technology of baseball was different. Our beat up television ran on unleaded and picked up one-point-two sports channels. There was WGN, out of Chicago, and TBS out of Atlanta.

The Chicago station broadcasted games wherein the Cubs lost each night by double digits, whereupon Harry Caray would sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to a stadium of clinically depressed Chicago fans at Wrigley.

But the Atlanta channel had Dale Murphy, John Smoltz, and the fighting Atlanta Braves. To us, they were America’s Team. Los Bravos. The Tomahawks. The Peach Clobbers. They were ours. And there…

I am saying grace before supper. And a lot is going through my mind. Namely, because we are eating biscuits tonight. And I love biscuits. When I am done saying this blessing, I will experience one of the best feelings on planet Earth. Which is peeling open one of my wife’s hot, handmade catheads.

Steam will rise from the soft bread to kiss me square on the nose. And I will swear I can almost hear the Vienna Boys Choir singing “Ave Verum Corpus” somewhere in the distance.

I have a long childhood history with biscuits. The day after my father’s funeral I remember awaking to find our kitchen covered in a fine dusting of Gold Medal Flour. There were old coffee cans of lard on counters, and matronly women in beehive hairdos.

The oven had transformed the kitchen into a sauna. The sound of female chatter was like the sound of geese on a pond. I sniffed the air.

Hallelujah. They were making biscuits.

After a funeral you have a lot

of food around. This happens when someone you love dies. Church ladies with solemn faces show up at odd hours to leave hot pans on your porch, or shoeboxes of fried chicken, or Tupperware containers with notecards attached to the lids.

You receive a lot of biscuits. This is because the American biscuit is not something that merely sits in a bread basket, covered with gingham. A real biscuit is true. It is something real.

Next time you eat a biscuit think of the hands that mixed the flour. Human hands that have seen their share of pain, and loss, and life. See the fingers flex when they knead lard into the ivory dough. Watch the dusty palms use an upside-down cup to stamp each one.

Verily. This is love.

The ironic thing is, after my father’s funeral I didn’t feel like eating. I had no appetite. I…

DEAR SEAN:

I’m pregnant. My husband and I have been going back and forth on name options but have no ideas. So right now I have a baby without a name. I know this is a strange request, but can you give me some name suggestions? I don’t want one of those modern names.

Thanks,
NEW-MOM-IN-GRAND-RAPIDS

DEAR GRAND-RAPIDS:

The night I was born, my mother took me into her arms and decided that she was going to name me Elvis.

My aunt recalls: “Your mama loved Elvis. Plus, you were a Capricorn, you know. Elvis and Jesus were Capricorns.”

Case closed.

In the end, my mother gave me a Scot-Irish name. But over the years I’ve wondered about how differently my life would have played out if my mother would have gone with Elvis.

PATROLMAN: License and registration, please, sir?

ME: Here you are, officer.

HIM: Do you know how fast you were driving back there…. (looks at license) Elvis?

ME: Uh-huh-uh-huh

As a writer, when you start working on a novel, the first thing you think about

are the names of your characters. In fact, names are one of the most important parts of any story. Think about it. How many pieces of classic literature do you read where the hero was named Heman Pickles?

You do, however, have to be careful when you give opinions on names you like and dislike because feelings can get hurt very easily. My mother and aunt once got into a knock-down-drag-out argument after my aunt admitted that she never liked my mother’s name.

My mother was fuming. She stood from her chair and informed my aunt that she never liked my aunt’s name, either. Things got ugly. My mother said my aunt’s name reminded her of a barefoot and pregnant hick—my aunt at the time, was barefoot, also pregnant.

So then my aunt said my mother had a bad singing voice…

A potluck. A small church. There is more food here than people. A cooler of iced tea. Casseroles out the front door. Coffee. Coke. Fried chicken.

I never met a potluck I didn’t like. Not even when I was in Kentucky and there was a casserole that allegedly had chunks of raccoon in it.

I love food, people, and cholesterol. Combining all three makes miracles happen.

The fried chicken is nothing short of spiritual. My fingers are too greasy to type. It’s euphoria on a short thigh. Lightly battered, golden brown, spiced with black pepper. I am crazy about fried chicken. In fact, you could say I consider myself a chicken enthusiast.

And this chicken is fit for company.

There is also a cream cheese dip made by an elderly woman named Miss Carolyn. It’s addictive. I’ve eaten three quarters of this dip, and am in serious need of Rolaids.

I ask Miss Carolyn what’s in this marvelous dish.

“It’s simple,” she says. “It’s called Cowboy Crack, my grandkids love it.”

This potluck is attended by people of

all ages. A little girl plays piano. She is playing “Heart and Soul.” She’s been playing this melody for ninety minutes straight. Roughly eighty-nine minutes too long.

A church lady finally drags the girl away from the piano and assigns her to kitchen work, washing dishes. The girl is not happy about this. Life isn’t always fair, kid.

The deacon at my table is an avid golfer. He is talking about golf even though I told him I don’t know the difference between a five-iron and a duck-hooked double bogey. He keeps talking just the same. So, I’m smiling, nodding, and willing myself to spontaneously combust into flames. I have always thought spontaneous combustion would be a dramatic way to go.

I take my leave. I go for seconds on the buffet line. Namely, I need more chicken, and antacids.

I meet…

Hi. We hardly know each other. And I know this won’t mean much coming from a stranger like me, but I have to say it: I’m sorry for what you’re going through.

I mean it. I am sorry. I’m sorry about the big and the little things that happen to you. I’m sorry you didn’t sleep last night. I’m sorry your back hurts. And I’m sorry about the long-term repercussions of fiscal American inflation.

Also: I’m sorry you don’t laugh as often as you used to. I’m sorry money doesn’t grow in the backyard—God help me, I am. I know what it means to work long hours and get nothing but a bloody lip in return.

I’m sorry your car won’t start. I’m sorry alternators cost more than booze-cruises to Barbados. I’m sorry that every time you get some money saved, your roof begins leaking, your water-heater goes out, your toilet backs up, or you need a root canal.

I’m double-sorry about the root canal.

I’m sorry your dog died. And for the sour feelings you get when you see the empty food-bowl on your kitchen floor.

I miss

every good dog I’ve ever owned.

I’m sorry your loved one died recently. I’m sorry grief has become a permanent part of you, and that your heart has been polished with a cheese grater.

I’m sorry the doctor said you need surgery. I’m sorry you’re diabetic. I’m sorry your entire world caved in when they said, “Ma’am, you have cancer.” I’m sorry for the undiagnosed illness that no medical people can seem to figure out.

I’m sorry you have felt sick and rundown for so long that you don’t remember what the old you felt like.

I’m sorry life doesn’t go the way we want it. I’m sorry the clock runs out too quickly, and that our bodies don’t last longer.

I’m extra-sorry for anyone who feels unimportant. I know what…

Years ago. Reeltown, Alabama. I don’t know how old the man running the vegetable stand is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it's hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world. Homegrown summer tomatoes are almost a myth.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

“I’m

a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fires and lived without electricity. When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people and to sell vegetables.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he's helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know we loves’em,” he said. “Want my whole life to belong to people who…

It was summer. I remember because my truck was covered in yellow powder. And if you don’t know the yellow powder I speak of, you might be from Ohio.

A lot of people who move to the South from other places think our biggest problems are humidity, mosquitoes, or evangelical fundamentalists. But those are nothing. We have dehumidifiers for humidity, citronella for bugs, and fundamentalists won’t bother you if you play dead or talk about beer.

No, one of our biggest pests in these parts is the Satanic tree dust that kills innocent woodland creatures and ushers in Armageddon. Pine pollen.

Long ago, I tried to start a landscaping company. It was a bad idea and a colossal failure. I bought a utility trailer and some equipment. And when pollen season hit, I put a few fliers in mailboxes.

“FIRST LAWN-CUTTING IS FREE!!!!” I advertised, and I used four exclamation points, since four is better than three.

One of my first customers was an old man. He hired me to re-sod his entire front yard during

the height of pollen season. I paid my friend Adam to help me.

Adam and I worked like rented mules. We replaced almost half an acre of centipede grass until our noses were running and our eyes were totally swollen shut.

“This pollen’s killing me,” I said to Adam.

“Who said that?” Adam answered.

While we worked, an old woman came walking out of the house. She wore a nightgown, her hair was white and messy. She wandered through the yard like she were in a daze, letting the sun hit her face. She smiled. She sneezed.

"Oh, Carl!" she shouted. "There are boys out here!"

She sneezed again.

"Boys!" she said. “Two boys!”

I was afraid this woman was going to boil us in a kettle with some toe of frog and the eye of newt.

Finally, the woman announced that she wanted…