Terms of Concealment: Junot Díaz and the Language of Masculinity

IMAGE BY: Rick Reinhard/Flickr

by Jonathan Russell Clark

Junot Díaz has pretty much made a career for himself with one narrator. We first meet Yunior, a Dominican raised in New Jersey, like Díaz himself, in Drown, published in 1996. The stories that make up Drown show Yunior as an adolescent or a young man, growing up and coming into his own. In one story, “Aurora,” we get our first taste of one of Yunior’s most distinct qualities: his rampant philandering. Yunior’s roommate, Cut, doesn’t like Aurora, and “never gives [Yunior] the messages she leaves with him.” Yunior doesn’t care, though, because the notes are “bullshit mostly, but every now and then she leaves one that makes me want to treat her better.” Through and through, Yunior is always direct about the way he treats women, and over the years it doesn’t really change. Sixteen years later, with the publication of This Is How You Lose Her, we find Yunior older but not any wiser. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” opens like this:

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty. Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn. Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived—but you’re not engaged to super open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.

And you did.

This extended passage displays another of Yunior’s most prominent characteristics: his voice. Díaz is ubiquitously praised for his prose style, his mix of whip-smart prose, low-brow colloquialism, remarkable rhythm, and Spanish words dotting the pages. Put together, these aspects of Díaz’s writing make it energetic, authentic and utterly singular. Notice, though, in the above passage, where the Spanish words appear. Let’s go through them. There’s “sucia,” a Spanish dysphemism for promiscuous women, and “cuero,” another derogatory term for an overly sexual person. Then there’s “blanquita,” which means “white girl,” and “salcedeña,” which refers to a person from Salcedo, a city in the Dominican Republic. What’s interesting about these terms isn’t what they mean so much as how they’re employed: Díaz always uses them when discussing relationships, both sexual and emotional. His Spanish, then (which is never translated for non-Spanish speakers), not only adds to the authenticity of the narrator, but also functions, for the English-speaking reader, as a distancing device between Yunior and his actions, his seeming lack of moral compass. This usage both emphasizes the words and obfuscates their meaning. And finally, because Spanish is Yunior’s native language, his method of obscuring his inner self employs the words of his earliest—and one might argue, most fundamental—form of expression.

Díaz has been raiding this shit since his first collection. In the title story, “Drown,” another feature of Yunior’s life is explored: his rigorous masculinity. The culture Yunior comes up in isn’t exactly the most open-minded in the world, and a male’s perceived masculinity becomes an important trait to defend. “Drown,” then, captures many of Díaz’s recurring themes—sex, masculinity, language—and subtly investigates Yunior’s relationship to all three. Yunior describes what he and his friends do for fun, which consists mostly of going out to bars and failing to pick up women. Afterwards, they’ll “pass the fag bar, which never seems to close. Patos are all over the parking lot, drinking and talking.” Alex, one of Yunior’s cohorts, sometimes stops the car and says, “Excuse me,” and “when somebody comes over from the bar he’ll point his plastic pistol at them, just to see if they’ll run or shit their pants.” Yunior tells this story with a narrative straight-face, implying that such outward homophobia permeates his peer group.

When Yunior first mentions Beto, the subject of the story, he recalls “the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps and then challenged them to come out and stop us.” More than homophobic, there is a thread of violence pervasive here as well. They’ll urinate on an innocent person’s home and then challenge them. Ostentatious masculinity does not even need to be provoked; it is offered, presented, displayed.

Some critics find Díaz’s authenticity to be dubious, as if his vernacular were outdated. Critic Rob Jacklosky claims “there is too much reliance on ‘street’ constructions that already sound quaint, such as the use of ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ as an adverb, and ‘dope’ as an adjective.” Though Jacklosky’s intimate knowledge of American-Dominican nomenclature usage is never validated, it’s safe to say that he’s way the hell off here. He seems to believe that if certain phrases disappear from the popular zeitgeist, it must mean they’ve stopped being used by individual communities, as if we’ve stopped saying “cool” decades after its introduction into American language, or “hip” or “awesome” or “sweet.” Even more insidious is the implicit claim here that novels or stories that do not feature up-to-date vernacular are somehow automatically irrelevant. Does Jacklosky have any idea how young people speak? People still say “dope.” But he paints Díaz’s use of “street” language as disingenuous, the kind of “street lingo only an upper-eastside editor could see as cutting-edge.” Rather, Díaz’s language is filled with the kind of lingo that only tone-deaf critics would see as “quaint.”

Díaz’s stories exist in a real place filled with real people, which makes the pervasive homophobia and its underlying violence all the more rattling to read. As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro has it, these stories are “alternately set in an impoverished Dominican campo where young boys grow accustomed, each year, to shitting worms that their mamis don’t have the medicine to treat, to the scarcely-better life of public housing in New Jersey, where those same boys hide the ‘government cheese’ when girls come over.” Yunior is even shown to be a smart kid (which considering that he’s a Diaz stand-in isn’t all that surprising). When Yunior tells the reader about his now-defunct relationship with Beto, he remembers a telling incident, which involves a sign at the neighborhood pool decreeing “No Expectorating”:

Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

Shit, he said. Where did you learn that?

I shrugged.

Tell me. He hated when I knew something he didn’t. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn’t tell him; he thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries.

Yunior is smart, but he refuses to be ostentatious about it, quite a far cry from his otherwise masculine theatrics. Moreover, it is important to note that it is a single word that functions to show how different Yunior and Beto are, yet how similar. They’re both proud and competitive, especially about intelligence, but Yunior keeps his under wraps, as he doesn’t view himself—or maybe he doesn’t want to view himself—as intellectually curious. Beto, on the other hand, “hated everything about the neighborhood” and was “delirious at the thought” of leaving for college. Yunior, however, “wasn’t like him,” for he “had another year to go in high school, no promises elsewhere.” Yunior has no ambitions, and he seems to be suspicious of Beto’s.

Just as their competitive intelligence is highlighted by a single word, so too is their sexuality. Yunior introduces Beto as a “pato,” a derogatory term for a gay person, and uses the word again when he and his friends drive past the gay bar and make fun of the patrons. Why does this mean-spirited term keep arising? Well, it seems as if Yunior wants to distance himself from the word and its implications in his own life. When Yunior and Beto were younger, best friends who did everything together, Beto shows Yunior one of his father’s pornos. As they watch, Beto reaches into Yunior’s shorts and jacks him off. A similar event happens again, but Yunior stops it before it ends. Now, years later, Beto’s back in town from college, but Yunior only half-heartedly seeks him out, which basically amounts to avoiding him. In the end, he doesn’t see Beto, and probably won’t ever again.

Nowhere in “Drown” does the word ‘gay’ appear. All we get instead is “pato” and “fag.” Yunior won’t use the word, because if he does it will somehow turn into something permanent, something he can’t rationalize away by saying “Twice. That’s it,” as he does with Beto. He can’t face his former best friend, just as he can’t say the word that might be true, recalling Alfred Douglas’s famous phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.” For a young man in a masculine world that’s also suspicious of intelligence and ambition, there are just some things you can’t say, some things you just can’t be.

Yet these cue (or I suppose anti-cue) words are in Spanish, Yunior’s native language, so the thematic dynamics are distinct between the text-to-reader meaning and the Yunior-to-Spanish meaning. For the reader, these terms function as a brief peak into Yunior’s inner struggles, but for Yunior, the fact that Spanish is the language of his vulnerabilities speaks to its significance. Whenever the deepest, most challenging parts of Yunior emerge, they do so in his most essential and foundational nomenclature. Spanish, to put it another way, reaches even the darkest crevasses of Yunior’s heart.

As noted above, Díaz never provides the translations for the Spanish slang he employs. This is because he wants the meaning of these terms to be one step below the surface, just slightly hidden, a way of suggesting Yunior’s discomfort with their meanings. He can’t face his issues with monogamy, referring to himself as a “cuero” and women as “sucias.” He won’t explain to Beto (or to us) where he learned what expectorating means. And he won’t see Beto, once his best friend, now a “pato,” because he can’t face what’s just underneath the surface, the meaning of the words, obscured from the reader ever so slightly by a foreign tongue, but unambiguously clear enough to everyone, even the people who don’t speak the language.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

A Promise Matters More Than Snow: Rethinking Robert Frost

IMAGE BY: Robert Frost, Newyorker.com

by Jonathan Russell Clark

The great Maxine Kumin wrote a poem describing a time at Bread Loaf when Robert Frost came to read and hang out with the students. “Magisterial in the white wicker rocker,” she writes, “Robert Frost at rest after giving / a savage reading.” He holds “nothing back” and barks at the young poets: “don’t sit / there mumbling in the shadows, call / yourselves poets.” He goes on to give some stern, hard-earned advice:

…Look
up from the page. Pause between poems.
Say something about the next one.
Otherwise the audience

will coast, they can’t take in
half of what you’re giving them.

He concludes by saying, “Make every poem your final poem.”

Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.”

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in March of 1874, and lived there until he was eleven, when the family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts following the death of Frost’s father. As a poet, Frost has had a fascinating and ever-changing relationship to poetry criticism. As critic Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, Frost

at the time of his death in 1963 was generally considered to be a New England folkie… In 1977, the third volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography suggested that Frost was a much nastier piece of work than anyone had imagined; a few years later, thanks to the reappraisal of critics like William H. Pritchard and Harold Bloom and of younger poets like Joseph Brodsky, he bounced back again, this time as a bleak and unforgiving modernist.

Just last year, David Orr published The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, in which he argues, among other points, that the poem, rather than a celebration of “the road less traveled by” (though thanks to M. Scott Peck people usually leave out the “by”), actually

gives us several variations on the standard dilemmas associated with the romantic sensibility: How can one transcend one’s self (“travel both”) while still remaining oneself (“And be one traveler”)? What is the difference between the stories we tell about ourselves and the actuality of our inner lives? In the moment of choosing—the moment of delay—all answers to these questions remain equally possible. But when a choice is made, other possibilities are foreclosed, which leads to what Frost describes as “crying over what might have been.”

If Frost’s most iconic and ubiquitous poem is largely misunderstood, what chance does the rest of his poetry have? And does the man who refers to regret as “crying over what might have been” mesh with the image we’ve had of Frost since reading his verses in grade school? Critics have long understood that there was more going on in Frost’s work than spotted at first glance, but the greater population has yet to catch up, and it isn’t just “The Road Not Taken” that remains stubbornly misinterpreted.

Another of Frost’s iconic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is often seen as a mournful ode to humanity’s disconnection from the natural world. The speaker’s “little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near,” because, the poem suggests, the man never does this. By the end, though, the man realizes that he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go before” he sleeps. One interpretation of this would claim that this fleeting moment is somewhat tragic—man has no time for nature. He is too busy, too mired in responsibility to do anything more than stop for a brief respite. This poem, for many, perfectly captures the spirit of Frost’s attitude toward our relationship to nature.

Let us for a moment examine another poem to see if “Stopping by Woods…” truly typifies Frost’s beliefs. In “After Apple-Picking,” the speaker becomes “overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” His ladder is left “sticking through a tree / Toward heaven.” By the end, the speaker contemplates sleep, how his won’t be “Long sleep,” like the woodchuck’s, not a hibernation, though it feels that way to him. Instead, it will just be “some human sleep.” Is this a man who allows his desire for “human sleep,” his need for daily, human comforts, to get in the way of reaching “toward heaven”? That would make this poem match that of “Stopping by Woods…” Clarke W. Owens notes, “One cannot escape the resonance of death in the image of sleep” in this poem. Similar arguments have been made about the “sleep” at the end of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The death metaphor would suggest further that each poem’s speaker will miss out on the transcendental beauty of nature and die before they truly reach it. Is this what Frost intended?

Back to “After Apple-Picking.” When the man explains why the apple-picking has made him so tired, he says:

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

The speaker here sees nature as abundant and tedious as life can be. Each apple is not some miracle but merely a drop in the bucket of apple cider. Now, one could read this as yet another critique of humanity’s treatment of nature, i.e., that we reduce beautiful things (like apples) to the level of machinery, the vitality of the wondrous coming from our destruction of them for our own purposes. For the speaker, though, does that matter? However humanity as a whole treats nature, the speaker still has to live in that world, and his reaction to it is less about all people and more about him as an individual. For the speaker, too, is one of “ten thousand thousand” people, “as of no worth.” Nature reminds him of this fact instead of saving him from it.

Okay, so returning to “sleep” as death: if Frost viewed “nature as an antagonist,” or at least as not so different from human life, then what do the references to sleep mean? Are they, as Owens suggests, metaphors for death? Owen’s argument goes like this:

Were the contemplated sleep truly “just some human sleep,” it would be a known quantity—because we have all experienced sleep—but it is not a known quantity. The tension of the poem derives precisely from its not being known. The image of a ladder pointing to heaven (lines 1 and 2), the image of winter, the archetypal season of death (7), the image of long experience and an over-tiredness with one’s formerly desired ends (the middle section of the poem, but especially lines 24–31)—all these things, together with the wondering, apprehensive uncertainty, suggest a nonexclusive or symbolic association of death with the image of sleep.

Owen goes further to state that “the final contrast becomes one between death as it occurs in nature—that is, a cyclical process of decay and cessation followed by birth and renewal akin to the change of seasons—and mere “human sleep,” seen as an individual’s night of dreams interspersed within a quotidian routine of work and reward.” It is tempting to see the poem in this light—that “sleep” stands for death— but this flies in the face of much of the poem’s literalness, an aspect that defies metaphor. Frost, here, does mean to contrast nature with humanity, but elevating “sleep” to death goes a little further than the poem suggests. Strip away any notion of metaphor and we arrive at a poem about the limitations of nature within a human context. The speaker picked apples for a long time and has tired of it. That participating in nature should lift him “toward heaven” means very little to him, as he is tired and overworked. “Just some human sleep” is what he’ll get, not the “long sleep” of hibernation, an extended existence in nature. Because ultimately, the speaker, no matter how heavenly nature can be, must return to life.

But this return is not a negative one. Frost does not see it as tragic. In fact, he sees it as preferable. In “Birches,” we get Frost’s most clear view of man’s relationship with nature—or, at least, his own relationship with nature. After “brilliantly” digressing about an ice storm, and describing the way the speaker imagines a boy “riding down” the branches of the birches, Frost launches into a prolonged statement about nature. “So I was once myself a swinger of birches,” he writes, “And so I dream of going back to be.” But there is something the speaker needs to clarify:

May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost’s speakers do not wish to be in nature forever, nor do they think it would be a good thing if they were. Nature offers something like the fun of a boy swinging across tree limbs—a temporary enjoyment, a minor diversion from the more pertinent and necessary claims of an adulthood. One could even see how Frost viewed all “visionary experience as an illusion.” And his speakers are quite aware of this. So the sadness that one detects in a Frost poem, that peculiar yearning just underneath the language, is not a lament for our distance from some life-altering and life-affirming nature, but instead for the fact that nature actually doesn’t offer much solace.

Let’s go back to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with this interpretation in mind, specifically the final stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The repetition of sleep, rather than suggesting death, actually suggests life–a long, weary and not-so-fulfilling one, yes, but a life nonetheless. This man can’t stay and watch the snow as it softly falls; he can’t continue to contemplate the “lovely, dark and deep” woods. He must carry on, he must keep his promises, and he must sleep, eventually, after all his work is done. Rather than view this as tragic, as a commentary on the way we allow our work and our trivial lives prevent us from experiencing the transcendence of the natural world, why can’t we see this as quietly heroic? Why can’t we allow that maybe the aims of humanity—our goals, ambitions, our greatest hopes and fears—are not meaningless when compared to nature? Why must we be deemed the trivial ones? Can snow really be more meaningful than promises?

If all this sounds a little unromantic, we must remember who we’re dealing with here. Like Kumin, John Updike also has story of seeing Frost in person. After moving through his “poems rather rapidly, minimizing their music in his haste to get on with his spoken commentary on whatever came to his mind,” Frost launched into an attack on Archibald MacLeish. Updike continues:

MacLeish had recently issued a radio play, The Trojan Horse, whose message in that heyday of McCarthyism was that the United States should not take into itself the Trojan horse of totalitarian tactics. Who could dispute so unexceptionable a message and the agitated liberalism that have given rise to it? Well, Frost could. “You know,” he told his old friend and admirer in the astonished hearing of us worshipfully assembled undergraduates, “if you’re going to beat a fella, you got to get to be like him.”

Frost continued on “long enough for his anti-anti-McCarthyite drift to register,” and Updike notes that in response to another work by MacLeish—a version of the Job story called J.B.—and its moral—that “Our labor…is to learn through suffering to love”—Frost said, “People think everything is solved by love. Maybe just as many things are solved by hate.”

Readers conditioned by popular culture’s version of Frost would be stunned by these stories. How heartless and wrongheaded was this guy? Updike’s story is, of course, anecdotal and shouldn’t be used to completely demonize Frost, but there is something important in such a description of Frost, especially when one is considering his poetry. Here was a man who saw nature as “indifferent, alien, hostile,” yet wrote some of the most beloved nature poems of the twentieth century. Here is a man who preferred humanity to nature, yet is remembered for odes, not to people, but to a fleeting escape from human activity. But Frost did not, as Whitman did, contradict himself; his poetry does not contain multitudes. Instead, what Frost feared so has happened: his poetry has been “willfully” misunderstood and placed (irrevocably) in nature, or at least on nature’s side, and the great tragedy might be that now that it’s snatched away, it might never return. Is there hope that the institution of Frost will continue to venerate his poetry for misguided reasons? Can we still rescue him from the woods? In the lines directly before the ones about being misunderstood by fate, Frost writes, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Maybe he still can.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

Fiction: Looking at Pictures

Issue 1.2

by Janet Mason

(May, 1926)

Tina looked at the image in front of her and wished she still had her camera.

She was walking along the deepwater port looking into the hold of a ship that had backed up to the cement pier. She could see both levels. Initially she assumed that first class was on the top and that steerage was down below.  Then she noticed that the people below were almost all women and children.  They looked like immigrants from Europe wrapped in their drab shawls and holding their squalling infants.  None of them looked up.

On the top level, in what looked like first class, men in their bowler hats waited for the sailors to open the gang plank that in a few minutes would be secured on the dock.  To the left a man with a banded panama hat bent forward over the rope railing. He looked like he was lighting a pipe or cigar. He was going to smoke while he waited.  The top of his white straw hat against the brim formed a circle within a circle.

Between the two levels of steerage and first class, a plank ran diagonally through the scene.  Behind the plank, a wide metal chimney came up from the floor of the ship bottom in steerage behind a woman huddled with two children. The effect of the line of the chimney cutting behind the plank made a triangular space in the upper part of the ship where the men and their bowler hats stood.  To the right, the plank and the chimney framed the women and children in the bottom of the boat.  The horizontal line of the second floor and the stairs on the low right leading to the second floor of the ship further divided the image into another triangular space.

Tina recognized that the scene in front of her was as cubist as a Picasso or Braque. It was as mesmerizing as Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”  It was the perfect image.  The women in steerage, with shawls wrapped around their heads and shoulders, looked like they were from the old world.  Even the young ones stooped slightly.  They were probably Germans — maybe from Bavaria.  The men too – in their dark caps and bowler hats – looked German. They were European immigrants who had come to Mexico to flee persecution, to be with family (for there were so many Germans living here), to find work.  Tina grimaced.  If they were coming to find work, they were in for a surprise.

Maybe instead they would find the Mexican Communist Party – like she had, like Diego and Frida had, like everyone Tina was fleeing.  She wouldn’t miss them though – Frida and Diego.  She wanted to put them as far out of her mind as possible.  She would miss the Party.  It had become her life. She never thought about leaving her beloved Mexico, her sunny country filled with romance and tropical fruits.

But then she had met Peggy and she convinced Tina to return with her to Europe.  So Tina sold her camera and bought her passage on the RMS Alcantara.

Peggy was right.  Tina would find more opportunities for her photography in Europe.  But she would miss the land, the people, the Mexican Communist Party.  She would miss Frida. No!  Frida was the reason she was leaving.  The thought made her look away from the scene she had been hungering for.  It wouldn’t be right anyway.  The men in the caps and bowler hats looked indifferent.  They were just waiting to come to a new country.  They wouldn’t care if they were photographed.  But the women were different.  Most had shawls wrapped around their heads but not all.  One had her fuzzy head exposed.  They probably had been at sea for weeks — and Tina knew how women felt about fixing their hair. Plus, they had children with them.  The women would most likely not want to be photographed.

Tina ran down the walkway and reached the gangplank at the end of the dock to the liner, just as Peggy called to her from aboard the ship.

“I thought I had lost you,” she yelled to Tina.

“I’ll wait for you up here and then we can find our rooms.”

Tina threw back her shoulders as she stepped up her walk.


Janet Mason is an award-winning creative writer, teacher, and blogger for The Huffington Post. Her radio commentary airs worldwide on This Way Out, the LGBT news syndicated based in Los Angeles. Her book, Tea Leaves: a Memoir of Mothers and Daughters (Bella Books, 2012), was chosen by the American Library Association for its 2013 Over the Rainbow List and also received a Goldie Award. Janet’s short stories have appeared in many literary journals including the Brooklyn Review, Sinister Wisdom, and Aaduna. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Fiction: Hole in the Wall

by Neal Steichen

He sat on the couch with his legs kicked up, his pillow supporting his arm, simply staring at the hole in the wall. The room was much quieter now. The only real sound was the hanging buzz of a fly bouncing against one of the working ceiling lights. The air was occasionally punctuated by the German Shepard in 317.

The hole in the wall was only a bit bigger than his fist. It was a poor choice. The cheap plaster concaved when he punched through. He only felt remnants of pain in his hand—more like random nerve pulses around his knuckles—as they twitched and went limp. The small kit he usually hid under the bed was splayed out. With the belt around his arm loosening, he couldn’t feel much of anything except for a small sense of sympathy for the hole.

She had left a pair of shoes, though. Nothing impressive. Two little brown chunks of false leather and plastic. They were coming apart at the bottom, the stitches unraveling. They were to the left of the hole in the wall, teasing him out of the corner of his eye. They rested against the wall, almost in a little teepee, one pointed up and resting on the other.

He looked away from the hole in the wall and saw a drop of blood on his pillow. There was a thin, watered-down line that traced the bend of his elbow. He went to the sink, gently falling forward rather than walking. He grabbed a dishcloth from the sink and ran it under cold water. His hands lingered, enjoying the sensation and the sound that drowned the out the emptiness. Turning the water mostly off, he walked with heavy feet back to the couch.

He could hear his mother’s voice in his head, telling him to blot and not wipe to get the blood out before it became a stain. He tried, bending awkwardly at the waist, hands like slabs of uncooked steak. He failed and smeared it, gracefully though, as the spot mixed into the fabric to make a brown tinted patch. It felt permanent now. He let the cloth fall out of his hands and onto the floor as he took his position back on the couch.

The German Sheppard barked.

He felt his eyes close. He was not sure if he was blinking or sleeping, but he was roused by a knock at the door. He waited to see if it was his imagination or just mishearing the German Sheppard, but the knock repeated. He rolled off the couch and made it to his feet, shambling towards the door. He left the chain on, but open it a few inches.

It was his landlord. He couldn’t quite see all of her face. It was backlit by 1960s sconces covered in not-always-yellow glass. Her slippered foot tapped on the unfinished hardwood hallway. She said that he was late last month by a few days, which was true, and wanted to remind him that she wouldn’t hesitate to put him out on his ass next week if he forgot again or was short. He wasn’t sure if that was true, but he nodded and mumbled, closing the door when it seemed like she didn’t have anything left to say.

He didn’t mention the hole in the wall. He could fix it himself, maybe. That would cut into his rent money. He didn’t have anything set aside, except some reserved funds for necessities. He could always take some of his stuff to the thrift store or pawnshop, get some cash up front.

He picked up the milk crate that used to act as his bedside table when he had a bed frame. He went around the apartment, picking up whatever he could live without that may fetch a fair price. A radio clock. A large pot. A box of four, new light bulbs he never got around to installing.

He found himself back at the hole in the wall. Looking past the blackness, he could see a rim of cracked yellow paint underneath the eggshell overcoat and on top of the plaster. He looked away, not wanting to get preoccupied with the inside contents of his walls, as grotesque and intriguing as the likely were. Instead, his eyes drifted back down and to the left, onto the broken leather shoes.

They were probably not worth anything. She had them for what seemed like ages. He first saw them when they went to the movies, he legs kicked up on the safety rail in front of them. Whenever she visited, she kicked them off hard, but they always seemed to fall together gracefully. If he looked hard, he could see where the fabric had tightly warped around her feet.

He set the crate down on the floor and fell back onto the couch. He rolled in and out of wakefulness. When his eyes were open, he felt them rotate around the room. The hole in the wall. To the fly in the ceiling lights. To the hole in the wall. To the shoes. To the crate. To the hole in the wall. The German Sheppard barked. To the stained pillow. To the belt and needle. To the shoes. To the hole in his wall.

His hand walked up his arm and to the crook of his elbow, prodding gently.

He needed more money. He needed to fill the hole.

He looked to the window. It was still daylight.

He stood and walked to the door, bending down to pick up the milk crate. He stood up, breathed, and bent down again. He grabbed the brown leather shoes by their hanging heels and dropped them into the crate, and he went down to the street. He regretted grabbing the shoes, but his feet kept falling.

Photo by Ville Miettinen

Neal Steichen is a fiction writer, editor, and teacher living in Chicago. Currently studying as an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago, he finds himself drawn to writing about the darker sides of humanity. Whether it is the hubris of technology or the enticement of the mystical and unknown, Neal seeks to unravel truths about people and their capabilities. You can follow him on Twitter at @neal_steichen.

Poetry: Shower-In-A-Can

by Alison O’Connor

PSSSSSSSS
Her brand
Sprayed over her hair
By Nurse’s Station
Head nurse gagging
From the remnants
Of the baby powder solvent
Long after the perpetrator
Of the pollution left
For morning vitals.


Alison O’Connor is a fourth year undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago majoring in Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in The North Chicago Review. She was a featured as a “promising young poet” at the Poetry Foundation. Alison performs her poetry at numerous open mics and venues across the Chicago area, from The Green Mill to The Glencoe Public Library.