Blake Kilgore

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The Letter

Back in 1991, when I was eighteen, I left home for the summer to work selling educational books for the Southwestern Company. I packed clothes, a few books, a journal, a Bible, and an anthology of love notes from my girlfriend (one to be read each day of the summer) in the back of my car. I drove to Nashville, Tennessee, for training, and ultimately to Elon, North Carolina, where I was to live for the summer. Lulled by promises of the opportunity to make enough cash to pay off college in a little over ten weeks, I had unwittingly signed up to become a door-to-door book salesman.

What can I say, I was green.

Anyhow, it was brutal. I made a sale my first day, a profit of about sixty dollars, which was decent back in 1991. I sold nothing else for nearly three weeks and had to borrow money for food and rent. It took me over a month to move into the black for my troubles. Eventually I made out ok, but I never had the salesmanship or ethical ambiguity that allowed me to sell things to people that they would never use (like children’s books for college-bound seniors or chemistry books for toddlers). Others sold our entire catalogue to everybody, and they did make a truckload, even if their souls paid the difference. Who knows?

Anyhow, this story is not about making money ripping people off, but about an investment of time that did pay dividends. About halfway through the summer, after two of my three door-to-door salesmen roommates, also duped, quit, I had a life-changing encounter.

I worked my way street to street, evaluating the people who lived there, zeroing in on families with children. I was best at selling our children’s books because I thought they were a good value. I bought three extra sets at cost to sell once I returned home. They’re probably still wrapped in cellophane somewhere in my mother’s attic.

Anyhow, on a particularly hot morning in late July, I passed a small home with a covered porch. Sitting on the porch was a young man enjoying his breakfast. I knew he did not have children and did not wish to disturb him, so I briskly walked past his home. But he called out, asked me to come back and sit with him at his table.

Had I eaten this morning, he asked. Usually, I skimped on breakfast so I could eat a real meal at lunch, take a long break, and read the love letter for the day. On this day I was hungry, so the prospect of a hot breakfast was grand. Surprisingly, over the course of the summer, quite a few complete strangers shared their table with me. I don’t know if this would still be the case with the weird goings-on in the world today, but back then it was encouraging to encounter such hospitable folks.

I joined the gentleman, and he brought forth coffee, orange juice, eggs, toast, jam, bacon, and sausage. A real feast, especially for a starving college student far from home. We talked over the next hour while I savored the meal, and I learned that Mr. Kean was handicapped by cerebral palsy. He didn’t own a car because he couldn’t drive; nevertheless, he rode the bus to work each weekday and made enough money to live by himself in a house he owned. For a young kid unsure of how I was going to make it in the real world, he was inspiring.

Mr. Kean was a religious man, and we talked about faith. He told about his love for Jesus, and that he believed he only survived by the Providence of God. Far away from everything I knew, including church, I felt alone. His faith gave me hope, a sense of goodness, purity.

After an hour passed, I became restless, not because I wanted to leave, but because I didn’t wish to overstay my welcome. Sensing my discomfort, Mr. Kean asked me what I had in my bag. What was I selling?

Here was this good man, who had given me breakfast, and I certainly did not wish to take a dime of his money. Plus, I didn’t really think I had much that would be of any interest or use to him. I tried to dodge the question, said it didn’t really matter.

But he refused my avoidance, said I was out here, away from home, working to try to make honest money, and he wanted to support me if he could. I told him about everything we had, downplaying each item of our catalogue, hoping to remain free from depriving my host of his meager funds. When I finished, he asked if I had any books for children, if I had any Christian books, and indeed, we had a collection of bible stories for children. He asked to see my sample, and after perusing it for several minutes, asked to buy one, explaining that his mind sometimes didn’t work in a very complicated way, and he had found that he enjoyed children’s stories. I offered to give him the sample, but he refused, demanding to pay. I ended up charging him at cost. I grudgingly took his check, and after thanking him for such a fine breakfast and uplifting fellowship, departed.

I’d like to say that I visited him often after that and we developed a deep and abiding friendship. But I did not see Mr. Kean again. Soon I finished up my work for the summer and took the long trek back to Oklahoma and my family and girlfriend. Once back in school, I was lost in love and, to a lesser extent (much lesser), study, so I forgot all about the breakfast encounter.

February 17, 1993, I turned twenty-one. This is a little embarrassing, but I spent the day alone in a quiet house. I rented a couple of movies, had my first drink (I know, amazing—hey, I was a good Baptist), ate five roast beef sandwiches for five bucks from Arby’s and treated myself to a half gallon of chocolate milk for dessert. Gross, I know. Made me sick, and I blamed it on the alcohol, which bought me several more years of easy sobriety. More importantly, I was depressed. My girlfriend had broken up with me after three years, and it was debilitating. Our campus was so small that every nook and cranny was shaded by happier times, now lost. She had a new boyfriend, who she would end up marrying. A good man, I am sure; he became a preacher. But I was in a sad state and had contemplated suicide. I was serious, had specifically planned the where and how.

But on that day, two things happened. First, against everything in my being, I reached toward my Bible lying on the windowsill, turned to the Psalms, and began to read. David’s weeping prayers from his place of desperation awakened hope in me, and I struggled through the day. Then, trudging toward my mailbox, the second thing happened, a gift and a mercy—a letter.

It was from the Southwestern Company. Now, I was sick of these letters. I had been getting mail from them ever since that summer of ’91. They were asking me to work again. I survived that summer, and there was no way in hell I was going back. I had gotten so many of these requests that I began trashing the letters without even reading them. But for some reason, on my twenty-first birthday, poised to foolishly end my paltry existence, I paused, opened the letter, and slowly read the contents.

It was an official-looking letter, but something was different; it informed me that the company was merely passing along a letter they had received from a customer, who was looking to contact me. Then turning the page, there it was, a handwritten letter from Mr. Kean.

Sadly, I have moved nearly twenty times since that day, and at this writing, I have not found the letter. Essentially, it was a thank you card. I had taken the time to talk, to eat breakfast, to share the morning sunshine and a good book. These things were blessings from him to me, yet he was gracious, said how much it meant, how I had lifted his soul and renewed his hope in people. His faith had been stirred and he was able to press on.

He was the one who saved me.

Some people don’t believe in miracles. I have never seen the lame suddenly walk or the dead brought to life. But I will tell you that on my twenty-first birthday, when I was alone, drowning in a deep well of sorrow, hanging over the edge of the abyss, that letter from a humble and good man was a lifeline, a grace.

And for me, it was a miracle.

Blake Kilgore is the author of Leviathan (2021), a collection of poems that wrestle with doubt. A wanderer, he’s from the South and Midwest and now the Northeast. Blake teaches history and coaches basketball during the workday, and tries his best to care for and serve his wife and four sons when he goes home. His writing is forthcoming in Common Ground Review, and has previously appeared in Fare Forward, Vita Poetica, Amethyst Review, and other fine journals. 

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Image is in the Public Domain.


  1. I love that story. Sometimes one just never knows the impact of kindness. That is one reason we should focus our lives on goodness and kindness.

    I remember your stories of that summer. One time you told me you encountered an impromptu street group singing and joined in. The guys were impressed with you voice and harmonizing. You said they were singing in your face and smelled like beer! What a summer that was!

    Take care. Love you Blake!


  2. What a beautiful and beautifully written story. Please consider presenting it on The Moth. I am so glad you were the recipient of that timely letter.


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