Keeping Catfish

Darlin’ Neal

My first day alone on the Square in Oxford, I ran into Barry Hannah getting out of his car. I said hello, and he asked who I was, what I was doing there. I'd just taken a three-year job as an instructor at Ole Miss. He walked me around the Square. He wanted to know where I’d been published, what he might be able to do for me. He offered words of encouragement I hadn't been fishing for: about how important it was to keep pushing forward, about how esteemed he thought the editors of the magazines I'd mentioned were. He said he was happy to welcome me as a colleague. He took his time with me before disappearing into the little record store or maybe Ajax Diner.

As it turned out my first office at Ole Miss was directly across from his. Mostly I just passed by and looked at the photo of the dog on the door. I’d hear him greet students and hear the fading voices as the door closed. Always that voice of his distinguishing itself from others. He invited me to Thanksgiving dinner and I did not go. I can hear him calling up the stairs to me as he was leaving. I wish so much I’d gone.

I’d see Barry sometimes on the steps outside the building smoking. The first time I saw him smoking I was startled that he’d be doing that after having lung cancer, but I figured he’d added up the dangers against what he needed. At least he didn’t drink anymore.

What I want to tell you is something about that voice, that voice that told the funny heartbreaking stories and echoed down the stairs. The voice encouraging me as we walked around the Square. The voice I’d heard on the phone. The voice that reflected in those kind eyes.

I listened on the radio to Thacker Mountain Radio from my home in Taylor, the first show after 9/11. Barry had stepped in to take care of the audience because the scheduled reader couldn’t make it because the planes were shut down in New York and he was going to be too delayed. I don’t remember who the scheduled reader was. I remember Barry Hannah trying to lift the audience up from their sadness even as he shared their grief. I remember him talking about how we had to remember our other fellow beings who had died, the dogs and the cats, who had also suffered and were also heroes.

When I found a puppy in the road New Year’s Day 2002, I thought I knew the perfect person to take him, or at least help him find a home. I stuffed flyers in Barry’s mailbox “Free Puppy To Good Home.” He put one outside his door. I took that puppy to Dr. Harland, Larry Brown’s vet as it turned out. Dr. Harland told me to keep the puppy myself. I imagine Barry was thinking the same thing.

In the end, I have the memory of walking along the Square with Barry, running into him and worrying that he was starting to get sick again, but always he was kind. I remember seeing him at an AWP where he read from Yonder Stands Your Orphan and hearing him talk about Bob Dylan being the greatest living American poet. It made me proud of how I'd loved Dylan since I was a child. It made me feel I'd found a comrade. He made us laugh and then broke our hearts. I stood out in the emptying audience meeting Dave Smith who had taken the first story I had published for the Southern Review. I stood out there talking to Richard Ford who told me they needed a Mississippi girl in Oxford.  Barry Hannah was sitting on the stage. I believe he was signing. He called out to me, “Darlin’? Darlin’? Are you still an instructor?  Don’t you have an MFA? A doctorate? It’s fuckin’ ridiculous! Fucking ridiculous.”

I was wishing what both of them had said could be true, and I would find my home in Taylor and keep working at Ole Miss. In the end the contract ran out and that was that, but I got all that time in that great company, and I ended up with what was important, books that carry some of Hannah’s and the other writers’ voices. Work behind me and more ahead. I’m so glad Barry didn’t take my dog. Catfish and I have traveled from one side of the country to the other. He’s a happy dog, but he sighs in utter contentment any time we make a trip back where he was born, right when we turn on to the road to Coffeeville, he knows how close he is.

Darlin’ Neal
Darlin’ Neal (photo by Sara Floyd)

Native Mississippian Darlin’ Neal authored the short story collections, Rattlesnakes & The Moon (Press 53, 2010) and Elegant Punk (Press 53, 2012).  A DH Lawrence Fellow and Mississippi Arts Commission Fiction Fellow, she teaches in the MFA and undergraduate Creative Writing Programs at the University of Central Florida.