DECATUR—Right now I’m onstage at the Princess Theater. People in the audience are looking intently at me as though I am wearing thong underwear. This is what it feels like to perform.

The Princess is one of those theaters that’s expressly American. The tall neon marquee is unforgettable, towering over the wet streets of Second Avenue. Photographers come from all over to take the marquee’s picture because everyone loves art deco theaters.

This building was originally a livery stable back in 1887. Which means that this floor was once covered in, literally, millions of fresh horse apples. This gives me chills.

In 1919 they renovated the building, turning it into a vaudeville playhouse and silent picture theater. Soon, the floor was no longer covered in horse excrement, but popcorn. The theater entertained mostly kids who screamed at a silver screen while an elderly woman, probably named Miss Ida Mae, played an upright piano along with a Charlie Chaplain flick.

Throughout history some big acts played the Princess. Ray Charles once performed here, so did

Glenn Miller. They all stood where I am standing. That’s kind of cool.

In honor of this occasion, I’m playing my old crummy guitar. It was built in 1919, the same year this room was resurrected.

I got this guitar from a trim-carpenter in Houston who found the guitar shattered in a dozen pieces. He was not a guitar maker, just a run-of-the-mill carpenter. He glued it back together the best he could, but he admits he did a sloppy job. I didn’t care. I’ve been playing it ever since.

It’s not a valuable guitar. For its whole life it’s been a low-grade instrument owned by a list of no-name street performers. In other words, it’s a glorified piece of junk.

But I’ve always liked pieces of junk. Because when junk lasts for a hundred years, it’s no longer junk, it becomes archeology. There’s something to…

He’s a normal guy. A normal guy who cashed his entire paycheck last month for charity. He did it because he was ahead of his bills—for once.

At first, he was going to put the money into savings, but something made him do otherwise. Call it a gut feeling.

He’s a part-time truck driver and a night-shift security guard. He’s a dad with two daughters—he sees them mostly on weekends.

The first person he gave money to was a woman at his daughter’s daycare. The woman’s car had duct tape covering her passenger window.

“Here,” he said to her. “Someone told me to give you this.”

A hundred big ones.

The lady almost lost it. He didn’t expect the reaction—which was unrestrained hugging.

His next victim was an old man in a supermarket parking lot. The man was placing flyers beneath windshield wipers.

Our hero dug into his pocket.

The old man only looked at the money with big eyes. “Are you with the company who hired me?” he asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “Here. The boss told me to give this to you.”

The farmer’s

market, downtown—he wandered the booths of honey jars and fresh breads with his daughters.

A teenage boy and girl were playing guitars. They had CD’s for sale. They had young voices and real talent.

But nobody was buying. People only walked by them.

He dropped a tip in their bucket. Then, he bought their whole box of CD’s. The teenagers were so overcome they forgot how to hold their guitars.

And, for the next few weeks, he searched for people to give money (and CD’s) to. He tipped waitresses too much. He tossed money at men holding cardboard signs. He even tipped his mailman.

Then, it happened. He was at a uniform-supply outlet. He was on the job, making a delivery.

The woman was hard to miss, she had kids with her. She was buying…

Today is a big day for him. He stands before his mirror, adjusting his collar, fixing his white hair until it’s just so. He’s thinking of her.

She always took care of him. He was used to having her do all the little things. Not just the laundry and cooking. Any trained dog can learn to do his own laundry. It was things like stocking his favorite snacks in the pantry, always refilling his prescriptions, or remembering to replace the toilet paper.

Above all, he says he misses having her beside him in bed. King beds don’t feel the same without the weight of another person beside you. A bed can feel like a tomb when you sleep alone.

Her dog, Martin, misses her too. The first day she didn’t come home, he took Martin on a walk and the loneliness was overwhelming. This Labrador was her friend.

Martin sleeps beside him at night now, in her old spot. But it’s just not the same.

He’s switched to using instant coffee because he can never remember

to set the coffeemaker. Besides, he doesn’t see the point of making a full pot for just one person. It’s funny how dependent a man can become on another. He says he hasn’t made his own coffee in half a century. Or eggs. He can’t figure out how to flip them without breaking the yolks.

He says, “Nobody tells you that you’re going to be afraid a lot when you lose your wife. You know, even though you’re the man of the family, and always have been, she was kinda your strength.”

He’s adapting though. In the last few years he’s come to truly enjoy his daily walks with Martin. They follow the same route she used to take through the neighborhood. When he gets home, he and Martin eat lunch. Then they piddle.

He says the memories of her don’t hurt anymore, they…

Mother Mary is eating barbecued brisket with me. It’s a Saturday night. She is seated at the table, her walker sits parked beside her. Her makeup is fixed. Her hair is white with a tinge of blue. She wears pearls.

Pearls. For barbecued brisket.

I first referred to my mother-in-law as “Mother Mary” eons ago, when I was at her house watching a televised baseball game. The reason I called her this was because you don’t want to call your mother-in-law by her first name unless you want to end up in Hell.

I remember the San Francisco Giants were playing the Washington Nationals. My father-in-law and I were watching Barry Bonds at the plate. My father-in-law, Brother Jim, couldn’t stand Barry Bonds.

Brother Jim came from the era when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were household names. A time when all American boys, no matter which state they were from, loved the lanky Yanks.

I should stop here and explain. To me, my father-in-law only ever went by one nickname: “Brother Jim.”

I gave him this title because this is what we fellow Baptists called each other. We reserve the title “brother” for members of the clergy, deacons, elders, or police officers who pull us over.

The joke of course was that Brother Jim Martin was definitely not a clergyman. He used words that could make sailors blush, and he was always deeply concerned about football-game point spreads in a way that made you wonder if more was at stake than simply team pride.

Anyway, Brother Jim looked at Barry Bonds on the screen and said, “I can’t stand this joker!”

And I agreed. Barry Bonds was part of a generation of over-muscled baseball players that almost ruined professional baseball for me.

Not long ago, you’d turn on the television to watch an average game and it looked like a bunch of greased up professional wrestlers were playing wiffle…

There are a lot of people at this backyard party. Adults, kids, dogs, cats, toddlers wearing poopy diapers, politicians, etc. One little boy runs around screaming. Another child is—if I’m not mistaken—shoving mud up his nose.

My mother and I are in the corner together, nursing SOLO cups. This is a belated surprise birthday party for my little sister.

We’re all awaiting her arrival. My mother and I are sharing memories. You know how that goes:

Remember when we…?” Or “How about that time when we all…?” And you sort of stroll down Memory Lane together, hooking arms.

There was the time when you had the flu one Christmas. The time you almost broke your arm falling from a treehouse, picking mulberries. The childhood church potlucks when four different women would bring casseroles with the cornflakes on top. God bless that wondrous recipe.

I’ve said it before, but the world would be a better place if more women made that humble potato-cheese-cornflake casserole.

My mother is holding a Miller Lite in her hand while we talk.

This is a modern miracle.

When I was growing up, she did not even allow cough syrup in the house. She was the sort of woman who closed her eyes during “Rock of Ages,” and during Ronnie Milsap songs, and would douse the Sears catalog with gasoline and set it on fire before I saw it because it contained ads for women’s underwear.

I never thought I would know the pleasure of sharing a Miller Lite with my mother. I always wanted to share a beer with my father, but I never got the chance.

A child runs past us. The kid has dark smears on his face. If that isn’t mud up his nose, I don’t want to know what it is.

Memories can be fun to rehash. But I haven’t always felt this way. It’s taken a long time to enjoy my…

This morning I woke up to an inbox flooded with emails regarding something I wrote yesterday about hope. These were all deeply personal, heartfelt messages.

There were a few emails about divorce. Three were from people losing spouses to dementia. One older lady even sent an email detailing the many orthopedic benefits of going without a bra.

And forty-two emails were about suicide.

Here are a few sample sentences from the letters:

“I was gonna take my own life when I was sixteen… But my best friend called and told me she was thinking of me.”

“My father died by his own doing and I almost died the same way when I was depressed, but my family stepped in… I’m on medication now.”

“We never said the word suicide in my house after my brother died…”

“Well, personally, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my bra. For me, the benefits of going braless are simple, no indents from painful wires or straps on your back fat…”

The truth is, I don’t like talking about

suicide any more than I like talking about underwire bras and back fat. For one thing: I’m male. For two: My life has been tinted by suicide.

My father took his life when I was a kid. I grew up thinking about this issue a lot and it got to a point where I wanted NOT to think about suicide ever again.

In fact, this is the reason I spent a lot of time reading humor when I was a boy. Humor is not just slinging jokes and one-liners. It’s a way of looking at the world without losing your mind. It’s sharing the worst moment in your existence in story form, then breaking the tension in the room with a flippant remark about not wearing a bra.

I say all this to tell you that suicide is a very personal subject to me. And…

I saw him across the crowded restaurant with his elderly parents. They didn’t look like they’d aged a bit. But he did. His face was lean, his skin was wrinkled, he was gaunt. And he still had his trademark sense of humor.

I told him I hardly recognized him.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s this new diet I’m on, it’s called being sick, the weight just falls off.”

This is not his best joke, I’m not sure whether I should laugh.

Then he gave me the real story. It’s a long one, I don’t have room to tell it all. He became very ill with an autoimmune disease. Doctors said he was dying. His parents were braced for the worst. His mother and father became his caregivers.

His parents tell me that for two years, they did a lot of talking to the sky, asking for help.

Doctors still can’t explain how he was cured. Maybe it was the treatment. Maybe it was something else. They aren’t sure. All anyone knows is that one day he woke up better.

No traces of illness are left.

“Now all I have to do is gain weight,” he tells me.

I have another friend I wanted to tell you about. I grew up with him. We once went to Mardi Gras together when we were young men—which is another long story that I don’t have time for. Let’s just say that I almost ended up as a permanent smear on a New Orleans sidewalk.

A few years ago my friend had the worst year of his life. His marriage sort of fell apart. His wife left him and took their son with her. Next he lost his business, then his money. He became suicidal.

One night, while asleep on his brother’s sofa-sleeper he had decided that he was going to end it all on the following day. He had even worked out how he…

There is a ghost in this house. That’s what she tells me. She talks to him a lot. They were married fourteen years. He gave her three kids. You don’t just quit having conversations with someone that important. Even after they’re dead.

She is an early-forties mother. Her days revolve around cleaning. It seems like cleaning up after her three children is all she ever does.

She wakes up, cleans, makes coffee, cleans, cleans, cleans, then gets her kids ready for school because otherwise they’d sit around in their filthy underwear eating Pop-Tarts all day and playing on phones. Also, she cleans.

And somehow at the end of each day, even though she’s worked a full shift, she manages to make Hamburger Helper. Then she vacuums some more.

This is her life ever since her husband died. Her kids depend on her for everything. She packs their lunches, walks their dog, and takes them to soccer practice.

You get a sense that her kids don’t understand how much she actually does for them. Children usually

don’t. I was the son of a single mother. I still can’t comprehend the sacrifice.

One needs money for a field trip, another for a band uniform, and her oldest dropped his cellphone into the toilet at school and needs a new one. And through it all she still finds time to scrub baseboards and keep her house immaculate.

“I like cleaning,” she says. “It’s therapeutic. When my husband died, all I did was clean and talk to him. Sometimes we’d talk and clean until late at night.”

He never says anything back, but she swears that he’s here. She tells me this without even the slightest trace of irony.

Her home is a madhouse. During our interview, her kids clomp up the stairs, down the stairs, then up again. The sounds of their feet are like cinder blocks falling from a second-story balcony. She…

I am at a writer’s conference. I’m about to make a speech on a stage before a roomful of writers. Real writers.

These are the kinds of dedicated, rugged, field-journalism professionals who if they were stranded on a deserted island with nothing to eat would be experienced enough to start diagramming sentences.

I don’t even know if I remember how to diagram a sentence. Certainly, I diagrammed in grade school, but mostly because of peer pressure. Those were wild times, everyone was sneaking off and diagramming in those days.

Truth be told, I have a hard enough time figuring out how many syllables are in words. On the first day of kindergarten our teacher taught us to clap out syllables.

“TA-BLE!” she’d say, clapping, “that has two syllables. PI-A-NO! That has three.”

This is a deceptively simple game. The teacher gave me the word “fire” to clap out before class. I dare you to try it. I’ve always understood “fire” to have two syllables. Just like “chair” and “floor” and “is.”

But anyway, I don’t feel

confident enough to talk to these writers. Namely, because I don’t really know what I am. I don’t consider myself to BE anything other than consistently late.

I’ve never known what I am. In fact, this has been one of the main issues of my lifetime. You could call it sort of an existential unsolved math equation. What am I? I ask my wife this all the time. She usually smiles and says, “Take out the trash and we’ll talk about it later.”

There’s a lot of pressure on people today to figure out what they are. Have you ever noticed that people at parties always ask the same two questions when they shake your hand? They ask what your name is, and they ask what you “do.”

“Hi, my name’s Joe,” says Joe Mercedesbenz, chewing the olive from his Manhattan. “What do you…

MONTGOMERY—A barbecue joint. An old place with faded walls and perfect Boston butts. A TV above the counter shows footage of helicopter-crash wreckage. The headline reads “Kobe Bryant Dies in Helicopter Crash.”

The young woman behind the bar turns the volume up. It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon, there are no customers in the restaurant but me and my wife.

The news reporter says, “...NBA legend was killed this morning in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of the passengers aboard including Bryant’s thirteen-year-old daughter...”

“Oh no,” says the girl behind the counter, covering her mouth.

The cook and a dishwasher have come out of the kitchen to watch. Everyone is silent.

The TV reporter goes on, “Kobe Bryant was forty-one years old…”

When I pay my tab the cashier remarks, “He was so young.”

“Too young,” the cook says.

“Way too young,” adds the dishwasher.

This is what all people say when a young man dies. It’s a ritual of sorts. My father also passed away when he was forty-one. People said this millions of times. Always in this exact way.

Anyway, the

cashier hands me my change and I know it sounds silly, but the first thing I usually do is inspect the pennies in my pocket change.

“What’re you doin’?” she asks.

“Looking for pennies.”

“Why?”

“Old habit.”

She looks at me funny.

The penny thing is kind of a weird story. Maybe too weird for your taste. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you stopped reading right here.

But ever since boyhood I’ve had a knack for finding special pennies. Don’t misunderstand me, I never find any real money in the form of dollar bills, blank checks, or winning scratch-off tickets. Just pennies. And each time I find one, I always check the penny’s date.

I come from a long line of superstitious people who believe that a found-penny’s date means something. Namely, it means…