It’s late. I’m driving to Palatka, Florida. I am listening to Willie Nelson’s greatest hits. I’m two hours in. Three left to go.
The trees just outside Tallahassee are weighted with Spanish moss. The highway is almost empty. Willie sings about a good-hearted woman.
I’m thinking about a boy I just met. A boy who told me to “have a good day.”
Yeah, I know. Big deal. Everyone says that. Even clinically depressed employees at Walmart tell you to have a good day.
Not like this.
It was a Dairy Queen. I stopped to get something to-go for lunch. There, I saw a child in a wheelchair, sitting in the dining room. He had no arms, no legs.
His mother was feeding him. His younger sister was wiping his mouth between bites. He wore a smile that stretched to both sideburns.
He tried to speak with his mouth full. Ice cream fell onto his shirt. His sister wiped it. He laughed. His mother laughed. His sister laughed.
I decided to eat in the dining room. I talked to the boy. He said he’d had a nice day. He’d just seen a movie with his “girls” a few hours earlier.
I finished my meal. I bid him goodbye. He wheeled his chair to me, using what I will refer to as his arms.
He held out his right arm. And even though he has no hand, I recognized the look on his face. He wanted to shake.
“Have a good day, sir,” he says.
The universe got smaller. The air got warm. And I saw sunlight flood a Dairy Queen in North Florida.
I’m back in my truck. Willie is singing. And I’m thinking about a kid.
I was twelve when my father engineered his own death. That was not a good day.
Later that same week, my friend Jason and his mother took me to a movie—to help take my mind off morbid things. I said two words all night.
We went to a Dairy Queen after the movie. I ate four ice cream cones. I don’t know why.
At the end of the night, they dropped me at the end of our long dirt driveway. My friend’s mother gave me a mournful look and said, “Have a good night, sweetie.”
Her tail lights disappear in the dark. I walked toward the house. My stomach churned. I doubled over and vomited until I couldn’t. It had nothing to do with ice cream.
Vomiting turned into crying. Crying turned into wailing. Wailing turned into falling asleep in the gravel driveway.
That was not a good night. It was not a good decade. I stopped believing in things. I went years without eating ice cream, watching baseball, or smiling.
And I sure as hell didn’t care to hear Willie sing.
But I’m not that kid anymore. And this world isn’t like it was. Yeah, I know what news channels say. Terrorism is on the rise. Inflation is making the world poor. Alabama has shut down because of the flu.
But this world isn’t bad. I have known good men and women who proved it to me by having the audacity to care. I have seen days so packed with sunshine they’d make your teeth hurt.
Today was one of those days.
Thank you for shaking my hand, Derrick. I have had a good day.
And it’s because of you.