Cindy Ho, BFR Staff

“Your mother brought this spinet with her when she got married.”

I know what the word “spinet” means. I read it in a novel last week and then I found it in the dictionary, so I know that it’s a name for a type of very short piano. My siblings just call this a piano, but I think my uncle calls it a spinet because he likes to be scientific.

“Since you’re probably old enough to learn how to put some new life in this thing, it’s high time it got a new friend.”

My uncle slides the wooden cover into the piano and the keys are revealed. The white keys are tinged with yellow, like my uncle’s teeth. I climb onto the bench. I can’t quite reach the pedals, but hopefully that isn’t important. I stare at the black and white blocks that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. This belonged to Mama and it belongs to her ghost now. I don’t think I should be doing this, but I can’t tell uncle that I think Mama has a ghost because he’s a doctor and doctors don’t believe in ghosts.

“Go on. Press one of the keys.” He points at the little blocks and smiles at me. “What, you think it’s gonna bite you?”

Of course it won’t. The keys may look like teeth, but they’re not in a properly functioning mouth, so they couldn’t do anything to me. I expected better from a doctor, really. I put a finger on one of the white keys and press down.

I blink. I’ve never heard a sound as clear and pretty as this before. I press on some of the keys next to it. So the piano can make its voice sound different the same way a person can, but unlike a person, a piano can make several different sounds at once. Maybe a piano is actually many people.

“Go ahead and get a feel for all the different pitches.”

Pitches. So that’s what the different sounds are called. The black keys are like bridges between the pitches of the white keys, and the white keys that don’t have black keys between them are so close that they don’t need bridges. So that’s how it all works.

I come across a white key that sounds like the beginning of the song my sister sings when she’s kneading dough. If I can find more and put them in the right order, maybe I can make the spinet sing the same song. Except I don’t think that the spinet can make the words. But at least it will sound nice.

“Here’s a book that your mother had.” There’s a long piece of wood with hinges that’s stuck on the spinet, right above the keys and right under the big gold letters that I can’t read because they’re too fancy. My uncle flips it down so it makes a little shelf that he can put the book on.

The book explains that the curly shaped “S” is called a treble clef, the ear-shaped curve with the two dots after it is a bass clef, and the lines that they sit on are called staffs. A curly line hugging the left side of the staffs makes the two sets a grand staff.

And then the notes, which are the different black shapes that are either hollow or solid and sometimes with lines and flags sticking out, and then the sharps and flats which are the black keys, and the names of all the notes. The names are not names like Eva or Philip, they are just letters. The name of the first note of the song that my sister likes to sing is called A. And the next one is B, which is one black key away from A. And the next….

Rebecca Olson, BFR Staff

It has been so long that I no longer remember whose sadness weighed so heavily that night. But something flavored the darkness as we drove, through desert empty without sun to warm it, over mountains made bare by the raw eye of the moon, past trees who shed their skirts and raised bare arms to the sky.

I didn’t know where we were going, but the night insects flashed their wings, illuminated in the headlights, and the desert seemed to swallow us, coaxing my eyes open with the light of its stars to watch the rhythm of stones and trees swimming past the window. Now and then the sky opened, revealing a thread of color, and filling me with a longing for spring, for trees, for my home in soft green hills, and for me, this was enough.

When I was hungry and needed to pee I asked my dad to stop the car, but he wouldn’t stop, and I began to think of my mother, of the light that shone through the gingham curtains in our kitchen, of the hours I spent there doing my math homework or talking to my friend on the telephone, each of us unable to say goodbye but throwing the word back and forth until one of us gave in. I thought of that warm kitchen and I drank it into my body like milk. I asked my dad again if we could stop but he didn’t answer.

The silence in the car was so thick that it filled my throat, and it was into this silence that we flew, gathering speed on the empty highway, my father bent over the steering wheel, serious and heavy in his red flannel shirt.

I didn’t ask where we were going, only “What makes them so dark?”

“What?” He asked. “The trees, the mountains, the earth, the sky?”

I realized then my father was weeping, quietly, and without knowing why I watched the darkness grow wings, expanding to fill the silence in the car. I was alone, maybe for the first time, with this broken man my father who had helped me build rockets and sandcastles, and I was afraid. In the darkness he suddenly seemed small.

It was several minutes later, after we had climbed the road that wove like a black snake through the mountains and entered the national park, that my father explained how canyons are formed.

“It’s from the erosion of rivers,” he said, “the rock on either side tends to be stronger, while the rock inside the canyon is softer and more easily weathered over the years by wind and water. Here, for example, the rain falls in torrents, and the soil is so hard that when it rains the water has nowhere to go but to flow down into the river, the Colorado River, down and down and sometimes overflow its banks.”

We pulled into the parking lot then, maybe it was four o’clock in the morning, and my dad walked to the edge and looked down, into the empty canyon. I stayed in the car at first, afraid of the cold and the dark and of my father, but soon I opened the door and stepped out into the moonlight. I didn’t take his hand, but stood beside him, looking down into the depths.

Regan Farnsworth, BFR Staff

We all know genre fiction. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are the most well-known examples, but most any fantasy (Eragon, A Song of Ice and Fire) or science fiction (Ender’s Game, Dune) counts. These kinds of stories, while many are popular, are rarely if ever touted in academia, and often lack credibility in terms of intellectual merit. “Literary fiction” books such as Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby take their place, in literal classrooms and in discussions of academic nature. I posit that works of genre fiction—written well, of course—have no less a capacity for meaningful intellectual contribution than any work of literary fiction.

The simplest way to distinguish between genre fiction and literary fiction is the focus on plot versus thought, respectively. Literary fiction is often introverted and reflective, while genre fiction focuses on actions and reactions. This makes the idolization of literary fiction for academic and intellectual study seem obvious: any work that goes into the thoughts of a character and the ideas of a theory is surely going to be more worthy of thoughtful discussion and consideration. This seems only natural—events do not provide insight into mentality or philosophy.

Yet to take this stance fails to heed some of the most fundamental advice given to writers of all fiction: “Show, don’t tell.”

This is the crux of my argument. Anyone who picks up one of the literary fiction examples listed above, or even books a bit more ambiguous such as Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, recognizes immediately and inevitably that the author is trying to tell you something. There simply isn’t enough plot, enough “story,” for the intent to be anything else. A message or allegory or symbolism so blatant that, while the message may be entirely valid and important, the book or story becomes immediately less about the characters within and more about the ideas and thoughts it discusses, dissects, or encapsulates.

This is not true for those books of genre fiction that focus on events and happenings. We get wrapped up in what happens next, in the characters and relationships and developments. We are not being told, we are experiencing. This is how humans learn—not through the raw consumption of knowledge but through the experience and test of that knowledge. Thus, in genre fiction we are granted the opportunity to learn from the experiences of our characters, and derive lessons and concepts that are personal and more real than the metaphorical lecture of literary fiction.

This is not to say literary fiction is inferior, either, and certainly these two categories are arguable and occasionally ambiguous. I mean only to say that we should not discount a work’s intellectual merit solely because it has ogres or lasers, because it may be that laser-toting ogre will face hardships that mirror your own, and in doing so indirectly provide insight into your own life, rather than tutor you directly on matters of lost innocence or obsession and affluent debauchery.

Caroline Riley, BFR Staff

When I tell people that Lolita is my favorite novel, I usually receive a reaction straddling the line between fascination and horror. Yes, I know what it’s about. It wouldn’t be my favorite book if I hadn’t read it too many times to count. Yes, I think it’s disturbing. It’s deeply disturbing in a way that still leaves my skin crawling and stomach churning. Yes, it’s still my favorite book.

Lolita is not a work to be taken lightly. First published in 1955 by its author, Vladimir Nabokov, it delves into a plot narrated by professor Humbert Humbert, who enters into a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old girl after she becomes his stepdaughter. Its narrator is more than unreliable: Humbert is manipulative. His narrative deliberately intends to mislead, to deceive, to trick the reader into believing his side of the story. Cloaked in beautiful, romanticized language, Humbert’s first person narration has the power to strategically persuade the reader that his relationship with Lolita is amorous rather than abusive, beautiful rather than horrifying. Even more unnerving, sometimes it works.

Lolita challenges us in more ways than one. It attacks a controversial subject in jarring, heartbreaking ways. It forces us to listen to a self-described “murderer” wax poetic in dulcet tones about non-consensual sex with an underage girl. It confronts our moral stances and attempts to break them down, evoking sympathy for a narrator with whom we would never want to identify. It is not, in any way, shape, or form, an easy book to read.

This being said, Lolita teaches us how to read. It informs us that as readers, we are just as malleable as the novel itself; our perspectives and positions can ebb and flow just over the course of a single narrative. It presents us with a self-conscious “fancy prose style” whose goal is implicitly to confuse us into feeling slightly less disgust and slightly more pity toward its narrator. As readers, we are responsible not just for the words on the page, but also for their subtle connotations, hidden meanings, and cunning agendas. From first page to last, Lolita presents us with a narrative perspective and then begs us to question it, to read more deeply, more closely.

John Milton wrote in his 1644 speech “Areopagitica,” “I cannot praise a fugitive and  cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Humbert Humbert, armed to the teeth with clever wordplay and exquisite language, is this adversary. As readers, we are called to consider not only the literature that supports our viewpoints, but also the literature that tests them. Without a doubt, Lolita tests us. It requires us to read with a critical eye. It forces us to face the immoral disguised in beauty. It inspires us to decide how to stand our ground not by default, but by battle.

Jenna Mohl, BFR Staff

The Mandalay Writers Society met every Thursday evening in the dingy flat of Mildred Mandalay. Mildred was a middle-aged woman who worked as a receptionist at the Independent Tire Company. The job was dull, but Mildred, an unmarried romantic, passed away the hours dreaming of penning the next great love story.

There were three other members of the Society: Alicia Banks, a university student whose favorite author changed weekly; Mr. Sax, a lawyer who came to avoid his wife; and Edgar Varlish, a janitor who secretly believed he was ten times smarter than the executives whose offices he cleaned.

On the evening in which our story begins, Mildred, Mr. Sax, Alicia, and Edgar had just sat down to tea when the doorbell rang.

Mildred opened the door to a young woman with sharp, angular features, and dishwater blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun. She wore a black skirt that skimmed the floor, a long-sleeved, high-necked black blouse, and carried a black briefcase. The only colored item the woman wore was a single, blue, moon-shaped, earring dangling from her right ear.

The woman held up a flyer, “Is this the meeting place of the Mandalay Writers Society?”

Mildred admitted that it was before examining the flyer. Strange, she thought. She had put these flyers up several years ago when the Society first formed. But this flyer looked brand new.

The woman interrupted Mildred’s puzzling thoughts with, “My name is Darla Winkle and I’d like to join, if you’ll have me.”

Remembering her manners, Mildred introduced herself and ushered Darla inside. “There are four of us that meet here every week,” she said as she led Darla into the sitting room. “This is Alicia, Edgar, and Mr. Sax.”

Darla sat in the armchair in the corner and the meeting began. However, the drawback of the Society, and likely the reason there were only four members, was that nobody actually wrote anything. Of course they talked of writing a great deal, to the point that each person boasted himself or herself to be an expert.

You can thus imagine their surprise when the scratching of a pen interrupted Edgar’s pontification on how his story was similar to The Great Gatsby. Four sets of eyes drifted to the armchair where Darla sat, scribbling furiously in the notepad on her lap.

“Darla, dear” said Mildred graciously, “We generally spend our time discussing our writing, brainstorming and the like.”

Unfazed, Darla responded, “I’m listening.”

After an uncomfortable pause, there was nothing else to do but carry on. Since Edgar was too affronted to continue, Mr. Sax discussed the importance of plot planning in the detective book he had yet to start writing. This discussion lasted for two hours, during which Darla did not put down her pen once.

The following evening, Mildred was relaxing in her flat when there was a knock at the door. It was Darla.

Mildred, ever the hostess, asked if everything was all right and invited her inside for tea. When Mildred returned with the cups, she was startled to see Darla sitting in the armchair already writing.

Mildred perched awkwardly on the couch across from Darla and asked, “Darla, is there something you wanted to talk about?”

Darla reached for her cup, took a sip, and then answered, “No, thank you,” and turned back to her paper. Mildred was at a loss; she felt dismissed in her own home. She deliberated for several moments before going into the kitchen to retrieve her copy of Pride and Prejudice.

After two hours of almost complete silence, Darla put her notepad away, thanked Mildred and left. Mildred thought about the odd encounter all night and was still mulling it over the next morning. How very peculiar.

Unbeknownst to Mildred, she was in for many more ‘peculiar’ happenings. Darla came back every night that week, and the week after that. In fact, Darla showed up every night for the next five weeks.

Mildred tried everything, both subtle and unsubtle to dismiss her unwanted guest. She pretended she wasn’t home, but Darla continued knocking until she answered. She told Darla she was busy, but Darla simply replied, “That’s all right, I won’t get in your way.” She went out after work, but Darla waited on her front steps until she returned.

Each night was the same as that first night at the Society: Darla, wearing what appeared to be the same clothes, would sit in the corner, write for two hours and then leave.

Much to the displeasure of the other Society members, particularly Mr. Sax, Darla also refused to share her work.

“It’s downright rude,” he harrumphed at the sixth meeting since Darla’s arrival. “You should call the police on her.” (Alicia kindly pointed out to Mr. Sax that Darla hadn’t exactly forced her way in; she just refused to understand that she was unwelcome.)

The members were so caught up in their complaining, that it took a full twenty minutes for anyone to notice that Darla was absent. After this realization, Mildred spotted something on the corner armchair—Darla’s notebook, left from the night before.

Mildred reluctantly gave in to the pleas of the others and opened the notebook. On the first page was written: ‘For the Mandalay Writers Society by Darla Winkle’. The second page began with “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice…”

“Good God!” said Mr. Sax, flipping through the pages. “She’s written out the entire text of The Great Gatsby!” Edgar, trusting no one’s Fitzgerald knowledge above his own, confirmed that it was so.

Now, none of the members of the Mandalay Writers Society ever saw or heard from Darla Winkle again, and it was many meetings before the Society could talk of anything else. However, by the end of the year, the Society had produced some actual writing: four short stories on the curious circumstances of one Darla Winkle.

Sean Dennison, BFR Staff

Jonathon joined the Marine Corps on his 18th birthday as a gift to himself. They shaved his bow of hair off and wrapped him up in MARPAT. They gave him combat boots that gave him blisters that calloused over. They taught him new things and new ways to do old things: shoot, dress, hump, drill, clean, scream, cadence, eat, sleep, breath, move, lie, win and lose. They gave him a new name, his last name.

 Johnson lived in two deserts: the first was Yuma, Arizona, the second was Kandahar, Afghanistan.

 Johnson got to Yuma and then knew what hot really was. He stepped out of the airport and felt the sweat bead up like shy jellyfish. He got to base and saw all sorts of uniforms going to and fro, fro and to. He saluted officers and gave the proper greeting of the day to senior Marines. He checked in to his new unit in his Service Alpha uniform. He got to his barracks room and said, “I’m a Marine.”

 Johnson saw two male Marines kiss at a bar. He heard they were administratively separated from service. “Cause they were fags,” an operations clerk told him. He decided to keep quiet about some things.

 Johnson stayed up until dawn drinking and consoling a friend who suspected his wife was cheating on him. He went to the same friend’s funeral after he shot himself.

 Johnson had a method that was less dramatic: pills and alcohol. He did not fall asleep forever but woke up covered in vomit and shit. He cleaned himself up and went to go buy a six-pack.

 Johnson had another friend who was raped by another Marine. He asked her if she wanted to report it to the command. “What’s the point?” she asked. “Then I’ll really be fucked.”

 Johnson had to take photos of a helicopter crash. Human chaos splashed across the desert. The wreckage reminded him of burnt trees. The smell previewed him Hell. He was out all day and got back at midnight. He slept with Euclidean dreams of fire, steel and agony.

 Johnson started talking back.

 Johnson started drinking more.

 Johnson got a DUI. He drove ten blacked out miles for a number one, animal style fries and burger but no pickles or tomatoes. They caught him at the base entrance. “Almost made it,” they said as he fell out of his car. They took him in, took his mug and prints. They gave him a form to write a statement down. He wrote, “I do not wish to give a statement.” (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha)

 Johnson went to rehab. He improved. He got deployed.

 Johnson got to Kandahar two weeks after bin Laden got his 72 virgins. He was scared for two weeks and for the rest of the six months he celebrated ennui.

 Johnson once felt the debris from a rocket attack. He was smoking outside and his friend came out to smoke. They said hello and joked that it was so peaceful that there had to be a rocket attack soon. They both laughed and then felt and heard it. They heard the alarm go off. They felt detritus of dirt, wood and sand fall on their heads. “Well, I’ll see you in the bunker,” his friend said, putting out his cigarette.

 Johnson helped carry a coffin containing an 18-year-old Marine. He buckled under the weight of it all. He thought he felt something move in the coffin and nearly dropped it. He got chewed out bad but never admitted anything.

 Johnson went to Kandahar’s hospital on a morale visit. “This is war,” his sergeant major said, leading him to the recovery rooms. His favorite: a man with one eye, hooked up to a catheter, his urine the color of sweet ice tea. “Oo-Rah,” the man said. “Oo-Rah,” Johnson said back.

 Johnson realized he did not want to live. He realized this at night, during an aerial resupply mission. He watched things fall into darkness, to troops, and thought how wonderful it would be to fall with them, to give himself to midnight and just be.

 Johnson found out his grandmother died three days before coming home. He got the Red Cross message waiting in Kyrgyzstan. He chain-smoked for hours in the snow.

Johnson came back.

Johnson had nights that were extensions of days. He thought people were in his room when he was alone. He cried alone sometimes. He once saw the Devil’s face in the popcorn ceiling.

Johnson got out.

Jonathon tells these stories to a doctor every week at the VA. He has beautiful stories, too, but the ugly ones get him benefits.