So Many Highways

  1. Starting Out

THIS IS A STORY about belonging. This is a story shaped by my companionship with my dog, Catfish. This is a story about a need to rescue, a story seeking words to remedy voicelessness, a story of mothers and children. It is the story of how addiction betrays and drains us and how we keep on loving, about the terror of letting go. It is a story about how we might become lost, the miraculousness of not becoming lost. By the end of this telling, I have become a grandmother with a little girl living in my first house. We are beginning. There are new dogs and Catfish is a memory that still fills me with solace and longing. If there is a heaven, I hope to walk there with him again like we walked all over this country together.

There are so many places where this story could begin, so many highways. Let’s start on I-10, head from Tucson to Alamogordo. That’s what I did when I finished my MFA at the University of Arizona in the ’90s, with all the things that belonged to my twelve-year-old daughter and I packed in a container on top of the car and in the trunk, lodged around crates containing our beloved cats, the black cat and the calico, Boo and Gettie. Everything we owned except for a few larger things my brother had hauled for us a month earlier, to store until we were ready. We leave a couch, our beds. I am optimistic about being able to refurnish. The plan is to stop in Alamogordo and then get on I-20 to head for Mississippi because there are some things I want to find out.


Virginia Neal, maiden name Albritton.

When I get to Alamogordo, they upgrade the U-Haul for free and I regret what I abandoned to save money and space but I am moving forward as I look back. I am a person who wants to belong but I also know how much I need to learn to let go. When my daughter and I pick up the U-Haul, we have to tie boxes and chairs to the walls so they don’t rattle around too much in all that empty space. We nestle kitty crates back there for Boo and Gettie. We keep the air conditioning up high and the window cracked behind us. We tow my Mitsubishi behind. All up the mountains, through Cloudcroft and on down through Hobbs and through barren West Texas, all through the green of East Texas and Louisiana, I worry about getting in a tight spot and having to back up, which will mean I have to unhook the car and hook it back up. After we rest in Jackson, where I was born but my family never lived, we’ll go to the house in Brookhaven where Daddy was born and talk to his mother sitting on that porch with the magnolia blossoms and leaves falling around us. We’ll go visit my mother’s sisters in Summit. I’ll find out about my mother. I’ll find out about my grandmother’s sister, Lavelle, who had been institutionalized in the State Mental Hospital for most of her life. I want the stories of the women who came before me. Gathering them is the plan.

I set out on the road wanting to discover who shot my mother when she was seventeen, shot her in the head and took so much of her story away in that moment. All my life I had been given shards of the truth and lies and misrememberings and I believe if I have answers to what happened in this singular moment, it will bring some wholeness. I want to understand the what and why of the secrets. Then she and I might be free of something. I might know how to protect my own daughter and my younger brothers from the insidious workings of those secrets. That moment in my mother’s life took so much of her power away. I have come to believe a mother’s power might transform both daughters and sons, and that power comes from finding a narrative of truth, finding a pattern for those shards that even allows for what might forever be missing.

Cloudcroft Tunnel near Alamogordo

Cloudcroft Tunnel near Alamogordo.

We have almost made it out of Texas when my daughter says, “Mom, it’s not your mother’s lost childhood you are looking for, it’s your own.” Looking at the highway rolling under that U-Haul with that giant steering wheel in my hands, I realize I have been talking about where I lived when, trying to remember the order of memory. I realize the puzzle contains shards of my own memories and that the wholeness I seek is a sense of home. I imagine getting somewhere and writing from some solitary place, some room of my own in Mississippi, but my transience isn’t yet over. Finding ways to make enough money to live for me will be a departure from writing. People I love will start making choices that break my heart to the point where I cannot find my voice.

We cross state lines into Mississippi when I become unable to judge distance. Instead of halting at stoplights, I keep finding myself in the midst of intersections. We are so close to where we were headed, to the apartment just north of Jackson, but we have to stop for the night. In the morning I realize there is no way out of the parking lot except backing up or unhooking and re-latching the tow dolly. A man walks over to us, gets in the U-Haul and starts grinding everything toward a jackknife until my daughter and I holler at him and he quits. I manage the unhitching process and get us on the road again. We only have around 60 more miles to go.

In the city of my birth, my daughter will commit her life to drugs. In time, I will stop begging for help, will need to do something when I feel helpless besides rescue animals. One day she will head out for the Northwest and be gone for a long time. As a surprise she will leave one final cat in our house on Fortification Street in Jackson. There are four survivors in the house and then that note and another kitten in a room I hoped she’d love, but my daughter has gone out the window again. This time, she’s gone all the way to Olympia, Washington where she will hide in a dorm while her older friends attend college classes. I will start sending food and not money most of the time. We will have been in Mississippi about four years when she goes to Washington. The note she leaves with the kitten says simply, “I know you will give her a good home” but I take the kitten to a vet known as a great cat fancier and expert. He even has a radio show dedicated to call-in cat questions. I place the calico in the hands of a welcoming receptionist who promises he will be all right. I turn and walk straight out that door. For me, he is one too many. Soon I rent another U-Haul and head to Hattiesburg to begin working on my doctorate. I want to be able to write again.

Catfish in Taylor

Catfish in Taylor.

So this is the context of the story then. I wanted to belong somewhere but I kept walking into hurdles and having proving myself. After my doctorate, I lived in Taylor, Mississippi while holding a three-year instructorship at Ole Miss. I spent a year as a visiting professor at James Madison University, a year freelance-teaching creative writing in California while my partner, Brian, worked in Oakland. I taught for a year in Mississippi Valley State and lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, then worked as an instructor for a year at Clemson. And then I found the right place, the tenure track job in Orlando teaching at the University of Central Florida. Every single one of these places except Greenwood I had my daughter come back to me, and we tried to find help. I wanted to belong somewhere but I kept moving as I’d done all of my life.

All during these years I kept trying to help my daughter, to find help for my daughter. My two youngest baby brothers went in and out of prison, their troubles also drug related. In time, I started wanting to return to New Mexico, to go back to places where I lived, feeling like the whole state was home. I was searching for my mama’s story, for my own story, for ways to help the young ones, but in all of this I was mostly restless trying to find home. I am telling this story from so many places, trying to understand what having lived there means. I want each place to mean something.


Catfish in Oakland.

When I left the Southwest for Mississippi, I wanted to listen to my grandmother, daddy’s mama, telling stories on the porch, but she was so paranoid when I asked questions that I stopped. I wanted to find out about my mother. She lived for 55 more years after someone tried to murder her, 55 years longer than anyone had believed was possible. While working on this book, I lost her to cancer and out of everything I found out, I only wish I could talk to her over coffee, on the phone or sitting on that couch again, about anything no matter how trivial, just hear her voice.

This is mainly a story about grief and there is no straight line to telling it but I am gathering the pieces, all the slivers and shards that I can. I am making something of them.



Indian Harbour Beach.

2. Fort Pierce: Seashells

WHEN YOU DISCOVER your lungs are filled with nodules that might be inoperable cancer, you hear your voice traveling out near the ocean, gently calling the dog. You are not worried about the approach of children, his biting, an angry parent on the dog beach having him put to sleep to prove that point, only some animals are dangerous, humans are more important. Those lies.

He won’t hurt them now. He is loose but he is listening, tuned to your sounds.

Your disembodied voice calling over the roar of those waves, those gulls, the ache in it for this moment that you cannot keep, a passing thought.

How did your aunt’s voice sound to her before she fought? At last gasping and never giving in, making death rip her away, clawing until her the final breath. Your grandmother, Daisy, your aunt’s mother, waited in a hospice until she could catch a ride on a passing tornado. You and your aunt had been sitting at the bedside before that storm, when your aunt said,”We’ll never know what made her like she was.”

Daisy kept fighting, even after having so many years, years your aunt thought she would have, but she believed that life was only a dream, so she didn’t claw her way out. She waited for that tornado when she could take off riding another dream and leave people wondering if she’d been dropped along the way so she might haunt her own house.

You want those years. Your voice. The dog that runs to you and sometimes doesn’t, that constant tugging, leash or not, that pure communion, that sacred cord, something more than trust.

You take those seashells from the sand and clear water to make frames for mirrors, jewelry boxes for treasures for your nieces, your precious far-away nieces. Make them gifts you can construct from a place you want to call home.

You wish to be tethered to something solid, to be able to punch as hard as you can, as you could, a child who almost every time won the game of tether ball, your wrists red and bruised, while you stood determined in dry mountain air to make the ball circle and circle and tighten into place to win. You remember Jemez. The cliffs loomed tall and red all around. Zuni. You learned to make pottery from the dirt.

You want it to be like that wreck your first love took you on, tumbling off the side of the mountain, the car caught dangling from a tree. You were lifted out into the arms of the father of your child, only he wasn’t a father then and he wasn’t gone, abandoning his child, then dead in another wreck a few years later.

He lifted you out and you limped but didn’t want to tell on him, the drinking and the pot, how he kept taking the curves too fast and sloppy, or talk about the muddy feeling of falling over and being knocked unconscious, waking while walking down a gravel mountain road, being carried when your ankle could bear no more weight. At home in the trailer, you moved so carefully and never admitted the broken ankle to your watchful mother.

author photoDarlinNeal

You want that crazy luck. For the dog to live at least eight more years with you, past sixteen, as far as life can ever be. You want to live strong and grieve that love far far from now and have another.

In the parking lot near the hospital you saved the kitten your lover named Rousseau, found him a home and you feel sad though you didn’t want another, the stink and the tear, but now want him in all his black and white joy of being in a warm house or a cool house with all the food he desires and his little head listening to your heartbeat with the dog watching, the years stretching ahead.

You find him a home where he’s got that still, not with you but you hope they keep him safe inside, keep the birds unharmed from his claws.

You want to heal like your ankle once did. Easy. No fuss. Maybe no healing is necessary, just the practice of life, running some laps with the dog, these bones should last longer. There will be so many kinds of marathon’s. The old cat mewl. The ancient dog groan.

You wonder for months about time, until the doctor tells you about scaring, about histoplasmosis, valley fever, did you ever feel tired, tired, did you ever travel to a third world country? They don’t know which but many viruses must have caused all those nodules.

You call your mother and tell her you once had an illness that almost killed Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and you never knew it. You tell her don’t worry you will be all right. Don’t worry. Neither of you know yet about her own lungs, the longing and loss that will soon follow. One of you has another chance.

fish and ivy copy


About Darlin' Neal

Darlin' Neal is the author of the story collections Rattlesnakes & The Moon and Elegant Punk (Press 53). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous magazines including Puerto del Sol, The Southern Review, Eleven Eleven, and The Huffington Post. A recipient of the DH Lawrence, Frank Waters, and Mississippi Arts Commission Fiction Fellowships and a Henfield Transatlantic Review Award, she is Associate Professor in the MFA and undergraduate Creative Writing Programs at the University of Central Florida. She also serves as Contributing Editor to New World Writing and as a writing mentor for Cutthroat Magazine’s Mentorship program: She lives in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida with a man called Happy, two dogs named Skeeter and Junebug, and Maggie the 20-something-year-old cat, all of whom belong to a little girl named Ivy. “So Many Highways” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress, Highways I Once Traveled.
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20 Responses to So Many Highways

  1. Michelle says:

    This isn’t very relevant, believable or relateble. A very poor attempt at steam of consciousness. I couldn’t even read it past you trash talking your child and her alleged addiction.

  2. Bree says:

    I can’t even stay focused reading this, I’ve read better fiction written by children. -1 star for you.

    • Ang says:

      one star is being generous imo

      • Bree says:

        That is a negative one star

        • Ang says:

          I can’t believe how incompetent she is as a mother. She doesn’t even hide it in her writing. She couldn’t care less about the cat or the dog. And she obviously couldn’t care less about her daughter either which is why she took off when she was only 12, completely disrupting her education and friendships in the process. It mentions nothing about this in her writing, but loves to point out her daughter’s failings, and then has the nerve to talk about it as though it such a great trial for her as a human being. In other words she does nothing but whine and slag off everybody else… A horrible human being. People like this should not be allowed to have children or pets. Anyone this self absorbed and with so little empathy for children and pets should be banned from ever having them..

  3. Ang says:

    Dreadful writing style. All over the place.. And the story doesn’t recommend you as a parent much either..

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is a story of a grieving mother who solely focused on herself while her children were allegedly addicts. This is also a story of a grieving mother who was a neglectful person. This is the story: a mother neglecting her kids’ problems then but now make a big deal out of them because they gave her something to do with her life for once.

    A mother: a narcissistic mother.

    • Michelle says:

      Yes! I think you jit the nail on the head. The entire time I was trying to read this I kept thinking, it’s devoid of any actual emotion, like she is trying to appear to feel something profound but actually has no emotions. It was very strange.

      • Sara says:

        You are absolutely correct. I am the daughter. She is a wretched, selfish, cold mother. I was taught that drugs were just “something you did”. I didn’t realize that I’d be trying to drown the pain from having such a horrible narcissist as a mother. She thinks she’s won now. By stealing my daughter and lying to the judge about me. She thinks I will give up. I’m not on drugs yet she is an alcoholic and pill addict. She’s also simply insufferable. I’ve beat my drug addiction but I haven’t quite sewn up all the holes she poked in me by parentifying me at such a young age. You notice, all she does is talk about her incredibly boring, evil self. She sent me bags of dried beans when I ran away as “food” no money, not ever. Even though she was still cashing checks from social security that she got for me due to the early death of my father, who was a very young man that also ran away from her. My daughter will run too. I have absolutely no doubt. Darlin Neal is mentally ill and abusive. She’s a pretentious pretender that decides what people think and feel for them. She expects children to be birthed as fully formed adults. She’s a horrid wretch and it would have been strange if I hadn’t had drug problems. She coaches my daughter to hate me, she’s changed her name. But she can never replace me. I’m not dead. And though she wishes I were as I “should have been aborted” I’m only getting stronger and better everyday. “One of us has a second chance” huh? Darlin’, you’re an absolutely disingenuous sickening disgrace. No one will ever care about your writing because you are so out of touch you could never write something relatable. I’ve appealed to the courts, am getting a divorce and I’m coming for Ivy. I will be more successful than you could ever dream and I will watch you fall from a distance. Your twitching eyes and panic disorder, caused by being a fraud, making you tremble and shake your way into nothingness. Where you belong. I will not mourn your death, I’ve already mourned what you should have been. You’ve never known me. You’ve always been too insane and in your own world to actually know anyone beyond your assumptions. I’ve never been a “prostitute” but I remember when you were a young whore. You’re an awful person and it reflects in your entire life. My only solace is that maybe you’re not as wretched to Ivy as you were to me. But deep down I know you’re incapable of much more than you gave me. I’m a better writer than you too. And I didn’t need to spend my entire life hiding behind college to be as such. I heard you think that I got my friends to write on this thread so I looked it up. Guess what, it wasn’t me. You’re really this awful. But now you’ve given me quite the idea! Publish more words about me and you’ll see. You horrid, devoid of soul, lumpy sweat sock of a woman. You’re going to die with no one actually loving you but fearing your mental illnesses and personality disorders instead. You don’t know what love is. You never will, pathetic.

    • Ang says:

      Yes a vile human being. Utterly self absorbed, act on impulse with no thought or consideration for how this will affect everyone else. And then seems to be completely surprised when her daughter starts to develop problems as an adolescent. Who wouldn’t with a mother like this? And then when problems do emerge, it is then seen as a huge burden for her personally, crosses her mind to talk about how much pain her daughter is going through because she had to grow up with such utterly indifferent and self absorbed Mother. to even use the word mother in relation to this behaviour is ill fitting. She’s an egg donor and that’s about it. Emotionally she seems to be nothing more than a self absorbed void. God help that poor daughter growing up with somebody who clearly felt absolutely nothing for her, because they would far too busy thinking about themselves. Those sorts of wounds last a lifetime and are unbearably painful. But I don’t expect you will read about in this woman’s book because she can’t comprehend anybody else’s emotional states apart from her own. A sorry excuse for a human being and should never have been allowed to have children. What’s really astonishing is that she is so oblivious that she writes about all this stuff and clearly has no clue about what she has done. She is a true psychopathic narcissist.. they have no idea how wrong they are. They are so full of themselves. They have absolutely no clue. This woman just sees this wreckage as handy writing project. Her pathway littered with bleeding forms of her daughter and discarded dog and cat.. I can’t believe this woman is writing about this. And how dare she slag off her daughter like this. A vile horrible woman. I doubt very much she will learn sufficient self insight to remedy her wrongs in the course of her lifetime. I’m guessing she is beyond help.

  5. Another Mother says:

    Awful nonsense, and if these are from your memoirs I’d stop writing them now because, you have no right to slander your daughter or your brothers without their permission. Also, your insular “me me me whine whine whine” is a pretty awful reflection of who you are as a human being. Just the fact that you would dump the kitten your daughter entrusted to you shows clearly how little she matters to you with your inflated opinion of yourself.

    • Ang says:

      Yes there are so many glaring faults in this short passage it’s difficult to know where to start. She harps on about her daughter’s addiction problem, whilst at the same time making little or no reference to her own neglectful behaviour as regards uprooting her daughter at age 12. This shows a complete lack of insight in self reflection. She is keen to swag off her daughter and hang out daughters dirty laundry, whilst conveniently omitting her own dirty laundry. For a start it’s particularly cruel to slag off your daughter in this manner in a public forum. It’s also very cruel to uproot your daughter at age 12. It shows zero consideration for her daughter who I daresay is trying to make the best of her life having gone through college despite having such a neglectful mother. And her treatment of cats and dogs is no better. I’m astonished that she would advertise her terrible treatment of her daughter, cats and dogs in this manner. The fact that she’s willing to go ahead and do this shows how little she understands what her real responsibilities whereas the mother, and how blind she is to her own failings. All she does is harp on about her own trip, oblivious of the wreckage in her wake. It’s all about her. Her daughter, cats and dogs are a mere inconvenience. A true narcissist zero empathy for her daughter and other living animals. I feel very very sorry for her daughter and any other unfortunate animal or person that found themselves under her responsibility as a helpless child.

  6. Monica says:

    I want the last eight minutes of my life back – because I completely wasted it reading this Pity-Party drivel. It’s intended to be stream of consciousness, but I can’t get past the fact that this writing is the most narcissistic rambling I’ve ever read. (And I’ve been an editor for over 20 years.) Everything is made to elicit sympathy and appear as if it is happening TO her, when she is clearly the cause of it all.

    What a selfish poor excuse for a human being. Definitely not fit to be a mother, since even as grown woman with a college age daughter, she cannot even handle caring for her child’s kitten. Then when when her own dog bites someone and is put down, she won’t acknowledge her own neglect and fault, burying it in her “woe is me” rant. If she is this open about her pet neglect, one can connect to the dots and imagine what her child’s life was like.

    Self-absorbed Rubbish.

    • Ang says:

      yeh.. dogs, cats daughters.. all get ignored or cast to one side.. pfft. god save us from ‘mothers’ (I use the term loosely) like these. This woman needs serious help. Why is she advertising her incompetence in book form for all the world to see?? clearly in complete denial about her utter indifference to her parental responsibility, and responsibility towards cats dogs you name it.. This woman would be banned from owning any other pets and having any other children. There is enough damage done there for a lifetime. I’m guessing this woman has zero empathy.. is either a psychopath or a narcissist.. horrible woman

  7. Renee says:

    This is probably the worst thing I’ve read in quiet some time. The writing and story was all over the place so bad to the point that I couldn’t read it all. Absolute terrible writing. You were definitely throwing a pity-party for yourself while writing this. You can tell that although you try to make it seem like you have emotion and that you’re a “caring” mother, anyone who can read between the lines of bullshit can tell that you’re distant and cold hearted. The fact that you would slander your daughter and siblings names all over addiction says alot about you as a person too. I can only imagine what your little girls life was like. Shame on you for caring more about yourself than you did her. Shame on you for putting her addiction out there for the world to know about. You never once mentioned on how proud you were that she went to college while she supposedly faced addiction.You only pointed out the negative things. You’re truly the definition of a narcissistic mother. I don’t blame your daughter for trying to get as far away from you as possible, I would have too. I hope you seek help.

  8. Ang says:

    the world would be a better place of mothers like you decided not to have children. It would be a lot fairer on the children. A narcissistic parent is a terrible burden for any child to have to deal with. So many of your choices were made with no consideration for the impact they would have on your daughter. And how you expect her to have an ounce of respect for you after you took upon yourself to advertise to the world that you think she’s an alcoholic I don’t know. I’m guessing your daughter will be very wisely steering as far away from you as she possibly can. How you could do that to a young girl who is trying to make her way in the world forge a career for herself is beyond me. You appear to have zero consideration for other people. And acting like you care and doling out pity towards her doesn’t change a thing. It’s extremely detrimental to her career prospects and to many other aspects of her life to broadcast your personal assessment of her addiction. What I would much rather read would be commentary from your daughter about what it was like having to endure a childhood with a mother like you. When an author is a narcissist not interesting listening to what they have to say. It’s just self absorbed rambling.. you need to ask yourself why you don’t ever stop to think about other people before you make decisions about what to do with your life. How old are you? Did it not cross your mind to think about these things?

  9. Noneya says:

    I knew this woman, as the so-called mother she was, when her “addict” daughter was 13. She came over to my house, right across the street, to eat, because there was no food in the house, even though she collected SSI, for her daughter’s dead father. She was never home, and always drunk. She institutionalized her daughter, because she was angry. Angry at being fucking neglected and unloved! She now has stolen this daughters daughter, to further martyr herself, but nobody’s buying your bullshit Darlin! Get help! Make things right with your child, for ONCE, in your life! You have never been a parent to her, and you should be fucking ashamed of yourself! And nobody is going to publish this stream of consciousness bullshit, that has no context whatsoever, for the reader! Nobody has any idea what you’re talking about! And nobody gives a shit about your uhaul upgrades, and your uhaul driving abilities! Seriously! Ugh! Barf!

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