Maybe you can’t remember the last time anyone listened to you—and I mean, REALLY listened.

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.

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 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.

One summer day, she stood at a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign. It was hot. She was dehydrated. Hungry.

She’s pretty. And young. But her face looks like she’s lived a hard life.

She was homeless for a year. Nearly four hundred days of skid-row poverty.

One summer day, she stood at a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign. It was hot. She was dehydrated. Hungry.

“Ain’t never begged before,” the girl said. “Holding a sign’ll make you feel stupid, man.”

Cars passed. No donations. A policeman finally told her to move along. Before she got far, a Cadillac pulled beside her and opened its door.

The old lady inside asked her, “You on drugs, honey?”

“No ma’am, not no more,” the girl said.

“Look me in the eye,” the old woman said. “Tell me the truth.”

“I’m clean.”

And it was true. The girl had quit using, four hundred days earlier. In fact, that’s why she was homeless.

Not long before, she’d been a good student from a broken home. But after high school, she moved in with a man of corrupt habits. When she quit using

his goods, he kicked her out.

She had no car. No home. No friends. She stole a tarp from someone’s pickup truck. She made camp behind a strip mall. She ate from a dumpster, and slept on a bed of plastic bags.

Until the woman in a Cadillac.

The old woman was a strong one. Solid, with cropped hair. She fixed up a spare room, gave the girl clothes, fresh sheets, feminine-smelling soaps.

“She fed me,” said the girl. “Treated me like her kid. Kinda scared me at first, didn’t know if she was some weirdo.”

The old woman was no weirdo. She cooked suppers, complete with frilly placemats and iced teas.

They ate with napkins in laps.…

Cats are fickle and skittish. I called the cat. Which was a bad move. To whistle for a cat is like trying to lasso a rabid squirrel.

They carried flyers made from a home printer. A girl and her mother. They stood on my porch, toting a whole stack of them.

“I’m looking for HIM,” the little girl said, pointing to the flyer.

On neon-colored paper was a photo of a cat—white with black spots.

“He’s been gone two days,” added her mother. “My daughter and I are looking all over.”

This isn’t my first lost-animal case. Cats seem to find my house. I have adopted three feral cats in the last year.

I told the lady I hadn’t seen any feline.

“Thank you,” she said. “Call me if you do. Because it was kinda my fault he escaped. I'm a terrible mother.”

The flyer sat on my kitchen table with a pile of junk-mail and bills. I didn’t think much about it. Not even when my dog, Ellie Mae, whined at the back door.

When I opened the door, I saw black-and-white fur, nosing around our bushes.

I called the number on the flyer.


FOUND HIM?” were the first words of an excited mother. “I WAS SURE HE WAS DEAD!”

But cats are fickle and skittish. I called the cat. Which was a bad move. To whistle for a cat is like trying to lasso a rabid squirrel.

The animal got spooked. By the time the girl and her mother showed up, there was no cat.

The girl looked through the bushes, calling the animal’s name. She must’ve inspected every shrub, tree, and blade of grass.

The girl suggested leaving a bowl of tuna on the porch.

“He’ll be back,” assured the girl. “Trust me. I already talked to God about it.”


I woke up the next morning…

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…

I don’t do well with dares. In the fourth grade, I was double-dog dared to stand on a ladder and pee over the hood of my friend’s daddy’s Oldsmobile.


I just can’t read you anymore. At first you were cool, but now you’re a @!#$% dork. There have been tons of national events in the news... And you just ignore them… You're all busy writing about your stupid dog and @#$%.

Sometimes I just want to say, “Nobody cares about your dumb dog!”

I dare you to write me back,


I don’t do well with dares. In the fourth grade, I was double-dog dared to stand on a ladder and pee over the hood of my friend’s daddy’s Oldsmobile.

I didn’t have enough back-pressure in my nine-year-old bladder to clear the hood. My friend’s daddy nearly had a heart attack.

My mama made me peel potatoes until I was thirty.

Anyway, I just read your letter aloud to Ellie Mae. I wish you could've seen her face. She’s crushed. She wears her feelings on her collar, you know.

Today, Ellie Mae woke earlier than normal.

Most often, she rises at the crack of noon. This morning, she woke at 5 A.M. because of a persistent ear infection.

I’ve taken her to the vet six times in the last five months. I took her yesterday.

You’ll be thrilled to know the vet says her ears are getting better. He also says that her problem is just part of having long, floppy, magnificent, voluptuous, comely, silken, ears.

Then, he rubbed her belly and said, “I think Ellie is one of my favorite patients.”

His favorite.

A remark like that deserves celebration. I took Ellie to Pet Smart as a reward. She sniffed a few employee hindparts, then made friends with a Corgie named Jim.


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


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?”


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…