Inside and Out



Darren DeFrain

Fiction, 300 pages, $14.95 cover price

($10 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)

ISBN: 978-1-59948-135-7

Released: 2008

Darren DeFrain received his Ph.D. in creative writing from Western Michigan University and his MFA from Texas State. His cult novel, The Salt Palace, was short-listed as a best novel of 2005 in several national publications including The Kansas City Star and was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Best Small Press Novel. A recent Kansas Arts Fellow, his short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in many journals and publications. He lives in Wichita with his wife, writer Melinda DeFrain, and their two daughters, and directs the MFA at Wichita State University.

Darren DeFrain’s INSIDE & OUT is a wonderfully companionable book. It’s eleven stories are told by a variety of first person narrators who share a keen eye and a caring, critical heart–a combination that makes for the comic center of the author’s voice. As the stories roam from the West to Wisconsin a contemporary America crafted from in its own deceptively colorful, plain–ie. economical–language emerges. It’s the style of storyteller, sure enough of his stories to tell them straight, adorned only by epigrammatically tight insight.

Stuart Dybek

These stories — dramatic monologues of the highest order — display a wealth of voices, each acting as a single instrument in the creation of an orchestral version of our American life. Defrain has listened faithfully to his characters, and they have spoken to and through him with honesty and charm.

Antonya Nelson


When the warden said we’d be excavating a cave, I confess, I pictured myself investigating a dark, mysterious cavern like Cave of the Mounds, with one of those shining lights on my forehead, as the trustys navigated the dripping calcite. I thought I’d bring my son to the cave so he could get it through that I’m not a bad man up at work– that this isn’t the kind of job to shame either one of us. But the whole discovery came from our state geologist taking resonance measures on little machines, which isn’t nearly so romantic and leaves nothing to show my son but me busting the gritty humps of trustys under the hot summer sun. I’m guessing this is what already goes on in his head.

It’s over ninety today, which seems unbearable for this part of Wisconsin, and I tell them that they’ll be cooler down in the cave, thinking that might get some more work out of a talky one like Hennick. Of course it won’t be a cave until these trustys pull out more of that black dirt. There’s no timetable, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the state decided to fill things all back in as soon as we got it hollowed out. But I don’t like them thinking they shouldn’t put their backs into whatever we bring them out to do.

It’s not Rod’s idea to have Hennick on his ear like some cartoon puppy all day, but it might as well be. Inmates are social creatures, and even someone as bottled up as Rod, who’s been in here for years and, more importantly, has years left, won’t chase off an overeager pup like Hennick. Even if Hennick can’t stop talking.

This job has been weeks of buckets of dirt and leaves and little yellow flags, as if we’re up here installing some fool’s pool. Rod cuts his shovel into the black earth and lets it stand there, like a cowboy grave marker, before sauntering over to the water jug under my elbow. “You ever think Hennick might be a retard?” Rod says, looking out over hills between us and Lake Winnebago. The lake looks miles wide from here, but it’s no more than a dozen feet deep anywhere.

“He’s sweet on you,” I say. I try not to, but my gaze adjusts to see if Rod is really looking out there at anything or if he’s just thinking what I’m sure they all think. The air’s sweet with the breeze, but there’s an infinity of hot failure lurking on that green horizon. “No, Hennick’s not retarded,” I say. You have to be clear, always, and not just because we do get some who are retarded. “You’d better get back at it, if you want me to sign off.”
Before he saunters back to his shovel, Rod gives me that look, through his one good eye, I know he’s been meaning to give me all day. I can trust Rod about as far as I can throw him, but he and I both know how to walk the walk. Rod won’t even cuss in front of me, though I’m sure that doesn’t keep him from imagining me on the business end of that shovel, or that his renewed energy is supposed to suggest that he’s only digging this hole to put a body in. Something he knows how to do.

Rod’s up to his neck in the hole now, and there’s barely room for him and Hennick to work and not bump into each other. It’d be just like Hennick to have to go to the infirmary because he caught a shovel under his chin or across his face. He’s already covered in scars from sixteen years with his daddy and another couple in the juvenile hall, where talking nonstop will eventually make someone shut you up. I put in a couple of years at the juvenile hall down in Fond du Lac, right out of college, and I know factually that it is a harder place to be than up here with the big kids like Rod. It takes more time than most these kids have for everyone to get comfortable with the rules and to learn the codes that’ll keep you from getting a beatdown.

When I walk closer to the rim of the excavation I can see Rod’s upper torso spitting out earth. He’s wearing his tank-top, his “wife-beater” he’d say if it wasn’t so unfunny, and his tattoos are starting to fill in with rivulets of sweat and cakes of black dirt. The spider’s web on his elbow looks as if it has caught dinner every time a shovel-full comes flying up out of the hole.

I can see the geologist’s cruddy little Neon creeping up the hill as the sun inches down into the shallows of Winnebago. That’ll mean it’s time to knock off, sign the sheets, and head home to my family while Rod and Hennick, and the rest further up the hill, head back to the lock-up for the night.

“You’re black,” my son, the teenager, says when I come in the door.

I look down at my uniform, thinking I must’ve got a good dusting up at the cave. “Whuh?” I say, brushing at my collar and the high places I can’t see.

“No, you’re black. African-American. Like Jesus,” he says. He’s wearing a too-big t-shirt with what looks to be the name of some rap band on it. Or hip-hop. It’s an insult to him personally when I call it rap. “Am I my brother’s keeper, I ask you?”

“Oh, not The Good Word again,” I say. “Clarice! Did you give him money to buy another damned t-shirt?” I can hear the television, which means she’s already mesmerized by the QVC and the Nolan Miller Glamour Collection. Why is that name now emblazoned on my memory? We’d agreed not to give him money, but I know she does.

“No-oh,” her reply echoes. I wait to hear something else, but it never comes and there’s my son blocking my path to the kitchen, with his tiny little arms poking out of the big black holes in his shirt that reads: AMERIKAz NIGHTMARE. Last year we tossed the ball in the yard or shot hoops. I could still pick him up and swing him around. He let me do those things. This year he recoils to his room to relentlessly blast these angry chants. His shrink says we have to let him vent that way, but what I don’t understand is what he has to vent about when all his needs are met.

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