I've been coming to this place for many years. And every time I visit, it makes me high. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the paper mill.

Brewton, Alabama, 6:02 A.M.—I’m sitting in Aunt Cat’s kitchen, sipping coffee.

She's not my blood aunt. She is my wife’s aunt. Even so, I have called this woman “Aunt Cat” for a long time now. Referring to her as otherwise would be an affront to aunts worldwide.

Aunt Cat and I are talking. She's in pajamas, I have bed-head hair. We’re at her kitchen table, using quiet morning-voices. The early sun is coming through the windows.

It’s nice weather. There’s a train whistle in the distance. Bird sounds outside. There is a calico kitten in Aunt Cat’s lap.

I am happy. My surrogate aunt and I chat about everything and nothing. About family. About jelly jars. About mothers-in-law. About last night’s small concert downtown.

Last night, my band played in Brewton. It was big fun. Mister David hauled giant speakers downtown. He strung miles of cable, and set up colored lights.

Some folks sold boiled peanuts. Suzy had baked goods for sale—her handmade bread is good enough to make a grown

man fan himself with a church bulletin.

There were local vendors with tents. Not the trendy sort of merchants—like you'd find at hippy suburban farmers markets. No. These were men who would wear jeans and red suspenders to their own funerals.

Aunt Cat put out a spread, of course, at her house. Ham sandwiches, cheese trays, caramel poundcakes, cookies, you name it.

After the informal concert, I hugged necks. Old friends asked how my mama was doing. One woman brought me a poundcake. Miss Connie brought a cooler of beer for the band.

I received three Baptist church invitations, two Methodist, one Presbyterian.

At the end of the night, Miss Connie sat beside me on my vehicle bumper.

We watched families carry lawn…

We tour the sleepy community. I see old cotton gins, peanut processing plants, chicken houses, soybeans, cattle, live oaks suffocated in Spanish moss.

Goshen, Alabama—I am on a dirt road. Above me is a canopy of shade oaks, stretching to Beulah Land. I am surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland.

With me is Darren.

Darren is mayor of Goshen. He is young, but he has gray in his sideburns. He is a paramedic, a captain for Troy Fire Department, a volunteer firefighter for Pike County, and he cuts grass for a living.

“This is a tiny town,” says Darren. “You gotta do lotta jobs to make ends meet.”

Town Hall sits off the highway. It’s a brick building—small as a Waffle House. The place doubles as a senior center and cafeteria.

On weekdays, the kitchen serves complimentary country fare: fried chicken, okra, collards, and potato salad.

“Lotta our residents are old,” says Darren. “It’s important for us to take care of our own.”

I meet one such elder. Mister Jimmy—a man with hair like snow and a voice like ribbon cane syrup. He shows me black-and-white photos from Goshen’s glory days. He tells stories.

“Did Darren tell you about Goshen’s claim to fame?”

No sir, not

yet.

They show me a ledger book with yellowed pages and loose binding. It contains jail records, dating to the nineteen-hundreds. If anyone ever spent a night in Goshen’s one-room drunk tank, it’s written here.

Darren points to a page. The cursive handwriting reads: “Hank Williams, 1943.”

“Public drunkenness,” remarks Mister Jimmy. “Hank used’a travel with a medicine show, playing music. He was known to have a wild time.”

When Mister Jimmy was freckled and barefoot, he saw Hank several times. The string band would play atop a flatbed trailer. The whole town would turn out.

“Goshen’s always been close-knit,” says Mister Jimmy. “Used’a have street parties. We’d rope off roads, have covered-dish deals, country dances.”

Country dances. Potlucks. Traditions which have faded in parts of the Southeast.

But not here.

Darren takes me for a…

“After all these years,” she said. “I’ve learned to never give up hope. Even when there ain’t nothing left to hope in. Hoping is how a body stays alive, I think.”

Small-town Alabama in the early sixties. A period of horn-rimmed glasses, Coke fountains, and Johnny Cash on the radio waves.

She married her high-school sweetheart. They did the things adolescent couples do. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder at drugstore counters. They argued loud enough to wake neighbors.

They tried to make a family. But couldn’t.

“Oh, did we try,” the old woman says. “Doctor told me I could take a brand-new ovulation kinda pill, but I never did, I didn't trust doctors.”

Years went by. They kept trying. No luck.

She goes on, “Finally, doctor just come out and tell me, ‘You just CAN’T have children, honey.’ That was pretty hard to deal with.”

They gave up on the idea of family. They grew apart.

“We were fighting a lot,” she says. “We were just kids our ownselves.”

And things got worse. Their relationship went south. He slept in the guest bedroom. They ate suppers alone. They separated.

After a quiet divorce, they went their own ways. He left

town for Montgomery, she stayed.

“We parted friends,” she says. “But secretly, I's hoping he'd come back.”

But he didn't. And the hits kept coming.

Six years later, she lost her mother to kidney problems. Only one year thereafter, her father developed pneumonia. He spiraled downward. She admitted him to a hospital. He died there.

They buried him next to her mother.

“I lost both parents in almost four hundred days,” she said. “It felt like a big joke God was playing on me. I gave up hope.”

Her ex-husband attended her father’s funeral. It had been a long time since she’d seen him. They embraced. She nearly ruined his shirt with tears.

She asked him to stay. He…

My father-in-law, Jim, drove the truck. I sat in the passenger seat, eating my weight in roadside-stand boiled peanuts.

Highway 31—a long time ago. I don’t remember which tropical storm it was. But the weatherman said it was going to be bad.

So, my wife, my in-laws, and I left town for the safety of Keego, Alabama.

My father-in-law, Jim, drove the truck. I sat in the passenger seat, eating my weight in roadside-stand boiled peanuts.

My wife and mother-in-law rode in an Oldsmobile ahead. Both vehicles were loaded with every wedding photo, heirloom, and piece of fine China my mother-in-law owned.

We drove through rural Alabama, watching the peanut fields fly past at sixty miles per hour. Weather reports blared on the radio.

My father-in-law turned down the volume.

“Tell me about your daddy,” he said.

It was a straightforward question. But for me, it was an uncomfortable one. I stuttered through a few words.

Brother Jim said, “I don't mean to pry. Ain’t gotta talk about him if you don’t wanna.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. It was that I usually didn't. In fact,

I'd gone so long not talking about Daddy, sometimes it was like he’d never existed.

That’s just the way death works sometimes.

I tried to open my mouth and say something, but nothing came out.

Brother Jim said nothing in return. He ate boiled peanuts from a plastic IGA bag. The truck got silent.

“My daddy used to take me fishing,” I finally said.

It was a pathetic, and juvenile thing to say. It didn't sound very adultlike. I felt ridiculous for saying such a thing. I might as well have said: “Little Seanie make a poopie, mommy.”

But Brother Jim made no response. He only ate peanuts.

“What I mean is,” I went on in my…

“I taught writing, you know,” she says. “I was a middle-school teacher in East Brewton, nearly all my life. I taught’em, graded’em, and sent’em up.” Miss Jacque had students from all walks of life. The well-off. The not-so-well off. And those living in poverty.

Brewton, Alabama—Camp 31 Barbecue. A place with pine on the floors, pine on the walls, pork on the plates.

It’s Tuesday, lunchtime. I’m sitting with Miss Jacque. She is a slight, older woman. She has bright blue eyes, and when she opens her mouth, South Alabama comes out.

“You’re a writer, huh?” she says.

“I’ve been called worse, ma’am.”

“I taught writing, you know,” she says. “I was a middle-school teacher in East Brewton, nearly all my life. I taught’em, graded’em, and sent’em up.”

Miss Jacque had students from all walks of life. The well-off. The not-so-well off. And those living in poverty.

She has stories about underprivileged students that would make a grown man leak saltwater.

We are interrupted by our waitress.

Our server asks if we need refills on iced tea. Miss Jacque nods. The girl fills our glasses and leaves the pitcher on the table. She gives Miss Jacque a hug.

Miss Jacque’s face loses four decades.

When the waitress walks away, Miss Jacque remarks:

“She used’a be in my class, long time ago. She was a rowdy one, but I sure love her.”

Miss Jacque seems to have a lot of love. In fact, she would’ve taught school forever if she could have. But time caught up with her.

Every cowgirl has to hang up her lasso eventually.

The day after her farewell party, she realized retiring was harder than she thought.

“I was slap miserable. It was horrible. I got so dadgum bored I about died. I’m too old to be bored.”

Too old. Though I do not learn how old she is, exactly. Miss Jacque is a sophisticated belle. And the time-honored rule is: any Alabamian woman who does not disclose her…

T-minus one minute until eclipse time. And here I am, writing you. Ellie Mae and I are about to step outside and view the magnificent event through twenty-dollar NASA-approved plastic glasses. The moon will block the sun—it will be horrifying and pretty at the same time.

Monday, 1:29 P.M.—my coonhound is at my feet. The eclipse is seven minutes away. I am reading emails.

Rhonda writes:

“Dear Sean, I’m at a Georgia rest stop, typing on my phone… I just had to tell someone that I finally DID IT!”

She did it.

She left the man who’s been abusing her for thirteen years. He broke her cheekbone once. He busted her neck a few months ago.

“For a long time, I kept saying, ‘He’s not a bad guy,’ And I defended him... Yeah, I know, I’m the dumbass stereotypical victim, right?”

Wrong. She’s no stereotype. She’s a graduate from the University of Alabama, a nice-looking girl, and one tough biscuit.

And now she’s free.

She made the drive to South Carolina to watch the eclipse with her sister.

Meet Jaden—he writes to say that he just got married to Yasmine.

Jaden is twenty-one. So is Yasmine. They wanted to go somewhere special for their honeymoon. They scheduled time off work, reserved a hotel room, saved money. Two days

ago, their car broke down.

“My wife and me both don’t have parents,” says Jaden. “That’s part of why we understand each other. My dad’s dead and my mom’s in jail. Yasmine never met her real parents...

“This was supposed to be our for-real honeymoon, during the eclipse, but now we’re making it a stay-cation. We’re a little disappointed… But I want her to know that I’m so blessed and grateful and I really love her, can you give Yasmine a shout out?”

Yes.

Then there's Charles:

“Hey Sean, just want to invite you to my eclipse party if you’re near Little Rock, Arkansas, it’s going to be awesome!”

Charles has no legs. He…

He thought about her all day. She reminded him of his own daughter. Something came over him. He laced his shoes and hit the neighborhood streets.

Birmingham, Alabama—I’ll call him Denny. Denny lived in a rundown part of town. His was a rundown house with plywood over a busted window.

He drove a truck for a living, he supported his four-person family. But families aren’t cheap, and driving a semi isn't exactly a rich man’s job.

One evening, Denny came home to an empty house. He found a note on his refrigerator. His wife had left him for another, and taken his kids.

It was a cruel blow.

He was in a sad state for the following year. He says he contemplated ending it all with a bottle of pills.

“Just couldn’t,” he said. “Gott’em to my mouth a couple times, but didn’t have the guts.”

One weekend, a knock on his door. It was a little girl. She was looking for a dog.

“He’s a brown Lab,” she said. “His name’s Bo, and he’s kinda fat.”

Denny told her he hadn’t seen any Labs. Her face grew long. She thanked him and walked away with her

head down.

He thought about her all day. She reminded him of his own daughter. Something came over him. He laced his shoes and hit the neighborhood streets.

He spent the weekend walking house to house, asking neighbors if they’d seen a chocolate-colored dog. He estimated that he knocked on seventy doors. Seventy.

He developed blisters on his feet and a sore lower back.

He was met with a string of sorry-haven’t-seen-hims. And he was about to give up, until he knocked on a door in a neighborhood that was a few miles away.

A woman answered. She told him a stray came into her yard days earlier. A brown dog. She’d carried it to a no-kill shelter.

Denny…

She was a mother all over again. She did all the maternal things. She packed sack lunches, paid for field trips, attended PTA meetings, and hollered at baseball games.

She was a tough woman. Forty-some years ago, she was a single parent who'd raised her daughter into adulthood on nothing but pennies and late shifts.

She and her daughter were tight. They lived together until her daughter was in her twenties.

Then, her daughter got pregnant by a man who did a disappearing act.

The pregnancy was a painful and complicated one. Doctors said something was wrong. When her daughter went into labor, things got ugly. They say there was a lot of blood.

It was a boy. The baby almost died, but he pulled through.

Her daughter didn't.

It was a small funeral. She said goodbye to her daughter and stayed until the end. She watched a front-loader dump fresh soil over an expensive casket.

She could've been angry. Angry with doctors. Angry at the deadbeat who got her daughter pregnant. Angry at life. Or at God.

But she had a newborn, there wasn't time for anger. Instead, she fed him, bathed

him, and stayed up late, whispering into his ear. She changed dirty diapers, sang to him, and taught him to speak.

She smoked cigarettes and rocked him to sleep on the front steps, watching the moon.

She wasn’t a young woman. She had gray in her hair and lines around her eyes. She wasn’t far from retirement age, but she was lightyears away from retirement.

She joined a local Methodist church. Not because she was spiritual, but because they offered free daycare. She dropped the boy there while she worked a day shift.

They say she received weekly church assistance—brown sacks of baby formula and groceries.

She was a mother all over again. She did all the maternal things. She packed sack lunches, paid for field trips, attended…

I have two dates accompanying me tonight. My mother-in-law—who holds my arm for balance. I’m carrying her purse. And my wife—who walks ten steps ahead of us at all times.

This is a small restaurant. A meat-and-three, where waitresses wear T-shirts. Where your iced tea never falls below the rim of your glass. Where catfish is fried whole on the bone.

I have two dates accompanying me tonight.

My mother-in-law—who holds my arm for balance. I’m carrying her purse. And my wife—who walks ten steps ahead of us at all times.

The dress code is summer weekend casual. I'm wearing jeans. My dates are wearing pearls, pumps, and ruby lipstick.

They always do. In fact, I’ve never seen them exit the house in anything they wouldn’t want to be buried in.

We order a round of teas. My dates scan the menus without conversation. When our server arrives, my dates have questions.

“Is your tartar sauce made with DUKE’S?” asks my wife.

“Are there REAL ham hocks in your collards?” asks my mother-in-law. “I don’t like those ham-flavored packets.”

“What’s in the potato salad?” asks my wife. “If I even LOOK at a stick of celery I start gagging...”

“Are your French fries STEAK

fries, or shoestring?”

“What kind of cake do you have tonight?”

“Where’d you graduate high school?”

“What's your social security number?”

The server looks to me.

“I’ll have a barbecue sandwich, ma’am,” I say.

Two more women enter the restaurant. They have white hair, and they are also sporting pearls. They sit behind us. They speak with accents that are soft and sophisticated.

As fate would have it, my two dates know them—sort of.

Miss Marjorie and Miss Sarah are from Hartford, Alabama. My mother-in-law is from Brewton.

And since South Alabama is one large family tree with lots of strings of pearls hanging from its branches, they…

Today is a good day. I'm about to sing Ellie Mae a song and make her wear a pointy hat. And she'll look at me like I'm not right.

I’m in a truck that hasn’t been cleaned in nearly two SEC championships. There is a coonhound in my passenger seat.

I stop at Chick-Fil-A. The woman at the window knows me. She knows my usual order.

“Morning, Ellie Mae,” says the girl at the window.

Other employees crane their necks out the window to greet Ellie, too.

We come here a lot.

We drive away and eat sandwiches while we ride through traffic.

Like I said, this truck is a mess. Ellie’s half-eaten jars of peanut butter are scattered everywhere. There are dog treats and bottle caps in the ashtray. Empty dog-food cans litter my floorboards.

A dog-food can sits in my cup holder—it holds pencils, pens, loose change, and a plastic-wrapped cigar someone gave me at an Ironbowl party five years ago.

On my dash: Ellie’s toy duck, a dog bowl, and a lasso—which I use for a leash.

This lasso was given to me by a five-foot Mexican man named Esteban.

I sold a lawnmower to Esteban—that's how I met him. His wife came with him to translate. I noticed lassos hanging

in the back of their truck. I asked about them.

In a few seconds, Esteban was doing rope tricks for me and Ellie Mae. Ellie liked this very much. She crouched low and barked. He twirled a flat-loop above her. She wagged her tail so hard it almost came detached.

She was a lot younger then.

Right now, I’m driving into a grass field. There must be two hundred acres of pasture before me. It’s not my land.

I’ve been taking Ellie here for years—long before I ever had permission.

I used to park at the edge of this field and hike over a fence. Then, I’d throw a plastic duck. Ellie would chase it into a small pond. And I’d pray I didn’t get caught by the landowner.

Eventually, I did.

One sunny day,…