The old truck was rusted. Its cab round. The whole thing full of soft edges, sitting in the weave of long dried grass. No place for a key inside—a button someone pushed long ago, before they went somewhere over the grass then fresh with cows ambling through and gnawing it close. A boy kissed a girl on the new leather. Someone called him a punk though no one knew then about the punks we are now—how that word came to mean toughness turned to mutilation, for some, then commodified and back round again. The toll we pay to feel anything, for feeling too much.

    Back then there was just a boy kissing a girl who would leave him one day because he was poor and she more educated and these things come to matter more than kisses and getting lost in touch. As unbelievable as that can be. A boy who went out to that field and stole a watermelon that rode in the back of the truck with them, waiting for later, while they watched East of Eden at a Drive-In.

    They beat him that night, for being with her, for what he stole that she gave. For what they suspected. He'd dropped her off and walked her to the door of her beautiful house. He got away from the beating like a fast sly animal and hid beneath bushes, not breathing, branches breaking around him, until they were gone. Bleeding he made it through that night and married her anyway and they had a child, a brother I never met.

A String of Catfish

When I saw the dough I thought she was making pancakes, but it was too white and I realized, biscuits, of course, not even homemade anymore but from a can she’d popped open. I remembered the blackberries in the freezer. I cooked them with sugar. We ate and she told stories suspicious about why I’d come back after so many years, but it was just for those stories, to hear how I’d come flying out of the chicken coop backwards after sneaking inside, trying to fetch an egg, to remember the taste of fresh milk, a kitten catching milk from a stream in the air, to see the place I lived when I was first born, the house with those lace curtains, the woods where my father played and all my life had told me stories about. His brother threw a pitch fork and caught him in the thigh. I remembered the sting of piss ants clinging to my toes. I used a poker in the fireplace to make the warmth brighter. I loved the flying ashes. I held my daughter a little and rocked even though she was really too big to hold like that. My uncle came to the house and I was looking through a box of pictures. As a child I looked so tough holding a string of catfish above my head standing in a chair while that string reached to the floor. I asked but he wouldn’t let me take them and make copies. Maybe he’d figure something out. He didn’t want to lose the pictures. I helped him rake the leaves and he spoke in Bible verses and reminded me that so had my grandfather. I told him I didn’t know if I could live in Mississippi again but I was missing home, and he told me, no, that the way I thought, a white girl who would march for MLK, who didn’t believe in a gender for God, it wouldn’t be the whites that would kill me but the blacks. I was remembering being….

I was remembering being four beside a pond, not knowing the difference between me and the little black boy who waved from the other side, my uncle teaching me how to hook a worm and toss the line out just so. I was watching my grandmother listen to the magnolia leaves and blossoms in the wind. I was realizing all the ways I’d never look my uncle in the eyes again.


She was thinking of beauty, sitting out there on her steps with the stars illuminating the desert world silver all the way to the mountains. Yucca, mesquite, rocks and barbed-wired fences sparkled beneath that light. If you stared, you could see inside the shadows. Her son, head hung beneath that blue cap and cigarette dangling, had gone home crying. She’d sent him, promised: tomorrow I’ll start calling doctors. He’d come over with her granddaughter who’d left before he did, one home close enough to another to walk. The child had been dressed as a lamb, with grand coal eyelashes and a tail with a fuzzy end, for a play at school. She, the grandmother, hadn’t been invited. Watching the child leave she’d thought of sheep in The Bible, how some believed blind following was the way to God. The world was heaven—that’s what her own mother had believed. On earth we get our heaven. On earth we get our hell.

On TV someone was yelling about a fumble. Usually she cared but the dark of the house was nice, the remote next to her hand. She pushed the button and it was so quiet she could hear telephone wires buzzing from pole to pole, carrying messages.

She thought of calling her children. One son’s wife had a beeper she didn’t need. A little grown dog who fit in a teacup and used the litter box like a cat.

The son who’d left crying was her oldest, a man who drank too much but worked hard and was successful. Everyone had been worried about his liver for a long time. Out there in the desert she remembered his horrified face when she'd asked him to touch her. “Feel,” she had said, guiding his hand to the soft cotton of her blouse, beneath to her breast. The horror had deepened with what followed. You haven’t told Dad? Bigger than a golf ball, not as big as an orange. Flicking ashes out into the desert, he’d recited references that meant nothing, really, to either of them. She knew important measurements would be discussed in terms of stages. Stages used to be such innocent things, steps taken, needs no longer needs.

She closed her eyes against the memory of his crying and opened them to the starlight turning the desert to a heaven of light and shapes.

Darlin' Neal's story collection, Rattlesnakes and the Moon, was a 2007 finalist for the GS Sharat Chandra Prize and a finalist for the New Rivers Press MVP Award. In the last two years, her work has been nominated six times for the Pushcart Prize, and appears in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Puerto del Sol and numerous other magazines. Her nonfiction piece, "The House in Simi Valley," which first appeared in storySouth, has been selected for the forthcoming anthology, Online Writing: The Best of The First Ten Years and Wigleaf chose her short story, "Red Brick," which appeared first in Smokelong Quarterly as one of the top fifty short shorts on the web in 2008.  She is assistant professor of creative writing in the University of Central Florida's MFA program.

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Darlin’ Neal

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