(This was back in June.)

The Coffee Tree is this combination coffee shop/bookstore in Huntsville, pretty much off the beaten path as far as tourists go, and I had high hopes for it. I went in. It was like an old general store, with wainscotting and turned posts and mint-green paint. I was served by a man whose slowness was part of his charm. All the tables were mismatched; there was a sign advising you to watch your step as you entered the bookstore-half of the place; a black, painted iron bell hung over one table. The man talked me into New Orleans-style iced coffee and a chicken salad sandwhich on a croissant, and I sat under the bell.

One part of the room was set off with a half-wall: about twenty ladies, red-hat-clubbers without the hats, were playing mah-johngg. The sound of dimes crashing against the inside of the wooden boxes punctuated the pickety-clack of the tiles.

After a few minutes, the man came up to me, reached over my head, and rang the bell. The women all stopped their games and sang “Happy Birthday” to one of their number, without hesitation. The man brought out a tiny, yellow cake with a single candle, but I don’t think the woman stopped to eat it. They were all out of the place within two minutes.

After I’d finished eating, I went over to the bookstore side. It was run by a sloppy-looking man in an identical t-shirt, but his slowness was a matter of control manipulation rather than gentility. The bookshelves were half-empty and populated mainly by romances. The paint was old, and everything was covered in dust.

The split personality of the South, n’est-ce pas?

Monte Sano Park is set on top of a hill over Huntsville, high enough over the surrounding area to make my ears pop. To get there, I had to drive past ordinary houses, at least, houses ordinary for Huntsville: brick and wood. How do you make a house in Hunstville? Brick! and Wood! How to you make a different kind of house in Huntsville? Wood! and Brick!

I expected to be driving past the ritzy parts of town, to be honest — it’s been my experience that any kind of state park = nicer houses, or ones that give you the impression of paranoia and inbreeding. Or all of the above. Anyway, I thought I was lost for the longest time, even though I could see the signs, because the houses looked just like every other house I’d seen.

The park was filled with old stone everything. Old stone walls. Old stone buildings. Old stone gates. I drove past a few places until I got to an overlook: and then I had to stop, even though there was nobody around for quite a ways except for a guy in a truck. Not the kind of thing I would worry about, but the air was so hot and heavy and still, and the leaves were so smothering, and the view from the edge was full of quiet hills and still trees and so little else that I felt as if I could scream at the top of my lungs and never be heard, except by the incessantly calling birds. I have no idea what kind of birds they were, but it felt like a Hitchcock movie’s worth of them, just out of sight. So anyway it creeped me out that there was a guy with a truck. The truck was running with the windows up, and he was facing away from the edge. There was a cover on the back of the truck, the kind made of heavy plastic with a lock on it, and I could only think you could hide a body back there…

The trails were all marked with space shuttles, and under the enormous trees was a dense underbrush. As with everywhere in Hunstville off the main drag, there was a sense that nothing had changed since 1950 at the latest. At the very latest.