online magazine for short, good writing

Month: December, 2012

The Futility Company

by a contributor

Michael Chaney

They rode out star shine early, a flashing yellow fist of power trucks, taking the fight to a warming planet. No batteries in the store, no gas at the station, and downed lines snapping the dance electric on flooded roads.

“They say the rain’s going to sleet up,” said Ray rubbing his hands like a fly.

Mailboxes up to their chins in water spied on them as Timothy shifted into third. This was supposed to be his dream job, what Charlotte demanded for the mouths they had and the one on the way. Coffee seared his lip styrofoam stiff. Charlotte’s scowl from that morning strobed in the lemony afterglow of the hazards. He had nagged her about fumes from the genny.

“We’re gonna be popsicles by the time we get there,” Ray shouted over the engine. Ray’s breath was smoke from a muzzle in the cold, dark cab, driving the main road, searching the horizon for overloads. This was the dream job he kept waking up for beside Charlotte’s dawn-cracking scowl—due penalty for the hope that shimmered his soul to mote the eye of every passing storm.

The world was weather weary and dazed. Tsunamis had tossed the Ohio Valley’s frozen leaves and served them up with stewed tornadoes on the side. Things could not have looked more dire from the cab of a power truck, but all that devastation was going to get what for from Timothy yet on the line, still listening for god’s whisper in those arcing wires and waiting for the sun.

The target repair lay smack in the middle of the red circle of the supervisor’s map—a country road alive with rippers. When they pulled up and saw the electric mayhem with their own eyes, Ray whistled long and slow. Timothy thought of Medusa’s hair. The line cursed them for the halftree that split it, making it flash whip the road. More cursing came from a gaunt man in front of a slanted porch spilling trash.

“You assholes gonna fix it or just fucking stand there making time and a half?”

Ray stepped forward, but Timothy intercepted. “We’ll secure it, sir. Please remain thirty feet away at least for your own safety.”

The man vented more. In the back of the truck by the lift, Ray filled a belt with tools. “Two words,” he muttered to Timothy: “Ram shackle.”

Timothy put on the belt and his rubber gloves. The bucket raised him as slowly as the wizard left Oz. With hot gloves on the line and the pole purring, he could see the flooded banks of the Tuscarawas beyond the bluff, women and children tripping over defeated sandbags risking their crowns to fetch a pail of water.

Ray worked the comms with another crew at the power station. By the time they had exorcised the demon snake out of the line, a woman with an orange five-gallon bucket on her head and four dirt-faced children at her hip had made her way up the bluff. The bucket lift whirred Timothy down to greet her.

“I see you got rid a’that hotwire,” she said.

Timothy nodded. “You folks should be safe now.”

A lanky girl with dyed black hair and a pout to match came for her mother’s bucket of water.

The gaunt man spat on the road near Timothy’s rubber boot. “Power back on?”

“No sir,” said Ray, taking his turn to intercept. “Two kinds a crews out this morning. One for emergencies and one for repairs. We’re the emergency crew.”

“Fuck that. You’re gonna turn my lights back on.”

“Easy does it,” said Timothy. “The repair crew will be here soon.”

“You wanna leave in one piece, you’re gonna turn my goddamn lights back on!”

“Get in the house before you get arrested,” chided the woman.

“This is bullshit,” he growled.

“We’re only following procedures,” Timothy told the woman, her eyes familiar. “We’ll restore power as soon as possible, ma’am.”

The man kicked the dirt. “Procedures, my ass. High and mighty with your jobs. I got procedures, too. Wanna see my procedures?”

Children gathered on the porch.

“I wanna see’em!” Ray barked.

“No we don’t sir, now I suggest you get back in your house. We will restore the power. Please try to remain calm until we do.”

“Let’s get outta here,” said Ray boarding the driver’s side of the cab.

The woman fingered the plaits of her hair. “I can’t stand that man,” she said to Timothy, pausing to let her eyes say something more. “I wish I had—”

Ray tapped the horn.

“I know,” Timothy said to her. “I promise you’ll get power soon.”

Her smile was pretty. He lingered long enough to think so openly, in front of her, and then mounted the cab. In the sentimental projection screen of the side mirror, the happily ever after of their gaze became smaller than frozen orbules of silver rain.

“Serves him right,” Ray said. “These fuckers are so far downgrid they won’t get power for days.”

Timothy sipped cold coffee, picturing Charlotte checking the genny for fumes. The image blurred into the woman back there in the slanted house looking for him sometimes up in the line.

Michael Chaney teaches in the English department at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Fugitive Vision (Indiana Univ. Press, 2008) and the editor of Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels (Wisconsin, 2010). His writings have appeared in Molotov Cocktail, Hobo Pancakes, Not One of Us, Gone Lawn and elsewhere. He is currently working on a novel about the absurdities of the pharmaceutical industry.

See Michael’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.

This Week in Words – New Year’s Edition

by Treehouse Editors

compiled by Rachel Bondurant

If you’re like me, then you hate New Year’s resolutions. I never make them. I think declaring a goal to be a New Year’s resolution automatically damns it to failure.

That being said, I (do not) resolve this New Year to write often, rewrite, and write better. It’s not a resolution; it’s just something I want to do. In case your unresolution is writing (or reading) related, here are some things to nudge you in a productive direction.

Let’s start tremendously. Jeffrey Eugenides spoke at the ceremony for the 2012 Whiting Award winners, and The New Yorker graciously printed an adapted-for-print version of the speech for us to read and thus be inspired. To wit, Eugenides says, “Write posthumously.” Actually, Nadine Gordimer said that, but Eugenides explains it well – much better than I could here – so read it.

The Review Review has a whole slew of publishing tips, so check all of them out when you have time. A couple of my favorites: this piece about submission phobia and this one about revising.

Nobody can argue advice from Ray Bradbury, especially when it’s so simply put: make a list of ten things you hate and ten you love, then write about them. Nice and easy.

Book Riot has a pet peeve about people with literary pet peeves.

For those who need straightforward advice, here’s an article that is an actual list of suggestions for writing/reading resolutions…you know, if resolutions happen to be your thing.

And if you need general recommendations and sarcasm to inspire you and get your ass in gear, then by all means: Colin Nissan at McSweeney’s has just the thing for you.

Mixtape: Ariana Nadia Nash

by a contributor

nash“Ariana Nadia Nash’s Instructions for Preparing Your Skin is an exquisitely passionate first book. Mostly I am struck by the lyrical frankness of the poems, and how they sustain an uncanny purity and yet are totally down to earth.”

— Malena Mörling

Instructions for Preparing Your Skin is a startling book in which so much is at stake. Love poems morph into hate poems into indifference poems then back again into deeper love poems. Nash’s stark raw material is transformed into verse as honest and clear as the mirrors in which we recognize ourselves. There is no way to prepare for these striking poems that strike against any temporary assuredness we may have about our bodies and each other. Instructions for Preparing Your Skin is candid, revelatory, and uncompromising in its vision.”

— Denise Duhamel, Judge, 2011 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry

Instructions for Preparing Your Skin can be purchased here.


by Ariana Nadia Nash

In the shoebox room she sits on the edge of his bed and slides her back to rest against his side.  As she talks, her hands trace small galaxies.  Silk skin distracts her as he touches her hand and she twists down to him, swizzling stick to rest on his shoulder.  He wraps his arm around her; her hands dance his geography.  Their legs double-decker sandwich.  They dissolve into talking then touching.  Talking.  Touching.  Sometimes not listening, she just watches the blueberry line on his lip.  And she’s an ice cube thinking he doesn’t know her, thinking her touch could be a reed whip, and she puts her ear to his chest, listen to his heart beatbox.


Not when I’m sick, he says, pulling his blue-line lips away from her threatening pucker, throwing back shaggy hair.  Biting lips into scarecrow line he shakes no.  She figure-eights her legs around his legs, her fingers around his neck, slow, seducing.  She goblets his chin, diving to drink.  He pulls away.  Her stomach coils.  Fine.  She squats beside her bag, shoveling herself from his floor into small compartments.  She turns to see fingers reaching and she’s a magnet, kissing his shoulder for forgiveness.  Then pulling away and back to the middle of the floor.  She’s inside herself—shut music box—saying goodnight.


Where his sweet raw lips and tongue are, she can taste tart blueberry.  They are lying, rooting into each other.  His arm vines her waist, squeezing skin to skin.  Her arm pursuing his, holding him holding her.  When he inches his fingers towards her chest, she holds her breath until contact and exhales in a stutter.  Silk moving slowly, pressure so slight she could scream.

Ariana Nadia Nash is the winner of the 2011 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her first book Instructions for Preparing Your Skin. Her chapbook, Our Blood Is Singing, is forthcoming from Damask Press. She is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and a MacDowell Colony residency. Her work can be found in Rock & SlingMain Street Rag, and The Mom Egg, among other journals.

See also: A History of Remembering, and Ariana’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Mixtape: Matt Bell

by a contributor

Beset with environmental disaster, animal-like children, and the failure of traditional roles, the twenty-six fathers of Cataclysm Baby raise their desperate voices to reveal the strange stations of frustrated parenthood, to proclaim familial thrashings against the fading light of our exhausted planet, its glory grown wild again. As the known world disappears, these beleaguered and all-too-breakable men cling ever tighter to the duties of an unrecoverable past, even as their children rush ahead, evolve away. Unflinching in the face of apocalypse and unblinking before the complicated gaze of parental love, Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby is a powerful chronicle of our last days, and of the tentative graces that might fill the hours of our dusk.

Read an excerpt from Cataclysm Baby at > Kill Author and buy the book if you dig it.

All Those Weirdos, and Us

by Matt Bell

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son famously ends with the lines, “All those weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” And it sounds so redemptive after all the misery and confusion that has come before, and because we are given no more access to our narrator’s future it is easy to read it in such a way—that is, after all, how we mostly expect books to end. (Certainly the makers of the film version of Jesus’ Son made this mistake, amid others, because their script rewrote Johnson’s ambiguous and disjointed masterpiece into a cheaper and more-linear junkie-love redemption story.) But what Denis Johnson seems to actually offer isn’t a kind of false (or, at best, merely narrative) redemption, but something else—and in my opinion something better than just another salvation story, the default mode of most of our popular narratives in books and movies.

“Beverly Home” is the last story in Jesus’ Son, and it begins with our nameless narrator describing a probably-married woman he meets working at a nursery, who invites him to come back and see her again. He knows he won’t go back, but not because she’s married—it’s because she “seemed much too grown-up” for him. He goes on to talk about how in those days he “was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that”:

I looked for work because people seemed to believe I should look for work, and when I found a job I believed I was happy about it because these same people—counselors and Narcotics Anonymous members and such—seemed to think a job was a happy thing.

The narrator—seemingly still in fairly bad shape, even if he is sober—then describes at some length this job working at the titular Beverly Home, a hospital for the old and the infirm and also those who were “fine,” except they “couldn’t be allowed out on the street with their impossible deformities” that made “God look like a senseless maniac.” Describing one patient, our narrator almost gleefully says, “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” Of another, he says, “It wasn’t his physical condition that kept him here, but his sadness”—and given the number of times variants on the word “sadness” appear in this story, it is impossible for this observation to not also reflect back upon our narrator, whose problems in this time are more spiritual or psychological than physical, more of the past than of the future.

Tellingly, in a story that uses four fragmentary, non-linear bits of narrative to start its movement, Johnson segues out of the first long passage describing Beverly Home and into the next part of the story without such a break: He moves uninterrupted from the “magisterial sadness” of that last patient to his narrator’s replacement addiction, a home in east Phoenix where he stands on tiptoe to watch a possibly-Mennonite woman sing in the shower, singing “with the unconsciousness, the obliviousness, of a castaway,” suggesting that this experience outside of Beverly Home also fits among the descriptions of the deformities within it. Here we also see a perfect example of the way that Johnson takes the transcendence of this already-questionable moment—the narrator feels “weightless” while peeping, hovering there with his chin about the windowsill—and undercuts it with the narrator’s criminal thoughts:

She toweled off quickly, briskly, never touching herself in any indulgent or particularly sensual way. That was disappointing. But it was virginal and exciting, too. I had thoughts of breaking through the glass and raping her. But I would have been ashamed to have her see me. I thought I might be able to do something like that if I were wearing a mask.

Later the narrator tells us about dating a woman he describes as a “dwarf,” saying that the television always played when they made love, because he “was afraid to make love to her without the conversation and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears”: “I didn’t want to get to know her very well, and didn’t want to be bridging any silences with our eyes.”

And yet, despite these many flaws and character defects, one of the great accomplishments of Jesus’ Son is the ways in which we are made to love this nameless narrator, in all his monstrous beauty: He is funny and charming and (I imagine) good-looking in a certain kind of way, and in his speech he is capable of gorgeous turns of phrase and seemingly-deep insights—even if those insights rarely better his life, in the way we sometimes hope insight might.

In the end, I believe we know too much of who he really is (or at least who he has been) to love this narrator in any way but by loving him as a junkie first: by loving him even while accepting that he is likely going to backslide, that despite his moments of overwhelming honesty he is sometimes lying to us, that he is likely to disappoint us again and again. Even if our narrator never uses drugs again that will not stop him from being a junkie in other ways. There is no fundamental change being offered here that will completely shift the balance in his personality: through most of the book he is truly cruel in his interactions with others (he holds a mother to her apartment floor at gunpoint; he does handfuls of pills while working in an emergency room; he lies about getting a vasectomy to his girlfriend on the way to getting an abortion, telling her that her unborn child belongs to someone else; he punches another girlfriend in the stomach outside a motel), and there is nothing to suggest that the worst of this sort of behavior has ended completely. Rather it seems more likely that it has merely receded, even from his perspective: While watching the Mennonite woman through her window—something he does so often that he frequently misses his bus home—he says, “How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding. That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.”

So if not redemption, then what are we offered there at the end, in those famous last lines, and what does the narrator find at Beverly Home? Shortly before the end, he tells us, “I felt about the circular hallway of Beverly Home as about the place where, between our lives on this earth, we go back to mingle with other souls waiting to be born.” This isn’t an image of redemption—it’s not heaven—but of a kind of near-reincarnation, and as such it has a different connotation: The narrator isn’t imagining that he might be saved, but that he might have a chance to try again. Beverly Home has become the place just before life, a place where he imagines he is “waiting to be born” (note, not “reborn”), a chance perhaps not even to start again—but rather at last to start from. He hasn’t actually started yet, perhaps never will, but there is a kind of hope here, and in a world as difficult as ours—and with our own actions and thoughts often revealing us to also be some variety of beautiful monster, as Johnson’s narrator’s actions and thoughts so often do—hope might be all we can reasonably expect. It is thanks to Johnson’s great restraint that Jesus’ Son ends not in the fulfillment of that hope, but merely in the presence of its promise, held there in “that place for people like us.” “I was getting my looks back,” our narrator says, “and my spirits were rising, and this was all in all a happy time for me”—and we might presume that this valuation includes his weaknesses too, his bad behaviors and backslidings. And yet in the presence of his worst qualities, still some happiness, still some hope. It’s more than some of us ever get. It’s more than enough.

Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist, and in the fall he will join the creative writing faculty at Northern Michigan University.

Mixtape: Ravi Mangla

by a contributor

Blurb is a short collection of new and previously published humor pieces. The ebook is available for free download through Artistically Declined Press. An excerpt from the collection can be read here. Also, Ravi’s chapbook, Visiting Writers, is available for free from Uncanny Valley here.

A Good Meal

by Ravi Mangla

The hostess points to a table in the corner of the dining room, where a man is eating alone. “Is that your husband?” the hostess asks. “Yes,” the woman says, the answer that seems closest at hand, even though the man is not her husband. The hostess leads the woman to the table and seats her across from the man. His knife pauses in mid-incision and he looks at the woman. “I’m not paying for your meal, you know,” he says. He returns to sectioning his steak. The woman browses the wine list. Halfway through the reds she notices the hostess guiding her husband into the dining room, depositing him at a vacant table. She considers how rare it is to observe someone you know so intimately from a distance, in a public setting, for any extended period of time. For a moment she tries to pretend they are perfect strangers, no longer bound by their common history. She watches him fidget with his silverware. He tucks his napkin into his collar, changes his mind, and places it in his lap. Can she picture herself in this scene? The man across from her, suddenly aware of the opportunity that has been presented to him, attempts to reclaim her attention. “Would you like to see how many potatoes I can fit in my mouth,” he asks. Before she can answer he begins packing his mouth with potatoes, alternating with separate forks. His cheeks widen and his face turns red. He mumbles something to her, but she is unable to reconstruct the words. The forks drop from his fists and clatter against the plate. She realizes he is choking. He pounds on the table and she tries signaling a waiter with her napkin, and when that doesn’t work she stands on her chair and shouts for help. Her husband, recognizing the voice, hastens to the table. He belts his arms around the choking man’s stomach. After several pumping motions the potato is exorcised, landing in the empty bread basket. The waiting staff crowd around the man, dab his forehead with a napkin, offer to refill his water. Her husband approaches with a quizzical expression. “What were you doing here?” he asks. “What is anyone doing anywhere?” she says. He considers the response for a moment. The answer seems to satisfy him. “Can I buy you dinner?” he asks, an earnest appeal. The breaking of bread won’t mend whatever is broken between them, but she wants to be the woman who believes in second chances. She wants to believe that all of the problems in the world can be solved with a good meal. Her husband offers her a silk rose from the choking man’s table. She twirls the stem in her fingers, holds the scentless petals under her nose.

Ravi Mangla lives in Fairport, NY. His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, American Short Fiction, Corium Magazine, matchbook, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. A collection of microfictions, Visiting Writers, was published as an ebook by Uncanny Valley Press. He keeps a blog at

See Ravi’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Mixtape: Gabriel Blackwell

by a contributor

According to Dashiell Hammett, a shadow man is “meant to blend in, to disappear by being always there.” Hammett knew something about disappearing. Behind the shadows thrown by “Miles Archer,” his fictional detective, was a very real detective—his partner in San Francisco, Lewis Miles Archer, a private detective so private that, when he went missing in February of 1929, no one even thought to look for him. Shadow Man is the biography of the silhouette Hammett, as well as Raymond Chandler and even Ross Macdonald, eventually filled in, a man who was always there.

Until he wasn’t.

—publisher’s description of Shadow Man

Napoleon Bonaparte

from The Obscura, A Historical Canon in Four Parts, for Voice and Left Hand

by Gabriel Blackwell

Commonly blamed for inventing that singularly pompous pose forever associated with his most famous subject out of some ridiculous depravity or artistic inadequacy, Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Bonaparte’s portraitist, vigorously denied such charges not with dodges but with salvos of his own. The stint at Elba and consequent reconquest made him wary of St. Helena, even the grave—he dared not go against the Emperor’s word—and so, out of necessity, he had become skilled at sensing imperfections in others, refusing to keep his tongue when slandered.

The 1812 canvas, Napoleon in His Study, is perhaps the most famous of these hand-in-waistcoat renderings, but, truth be told, all of David’s portraits of Napoleon I featured this pose. It was David’s peculiar misfortune to have been afflicted with such a stubborn subject in the first place.

“But, mon Empereur, why do you insist on hiding that, your right hand, even though it is there, in plain view? Anyway, it is quite handsome. Perhaps you could hold this piece of paper. Or this quill? C’est charmante, non? What a fetching and imperial pose it would make!”

“Non. Absolutement non.”

When David showed him his painting—just as the Emperor had sat it, with his right hand suspended from a cleverly constructed loop designed by itinerant Russian tailors (said to be angelically gifted)—the exasperated artist was nearly thrown in the stockade, accused of treason. The curious texture of the canvas at just that spot is the result of a second, yes, even a third coat of paint, covering the hand made of pigment in exactly two more layers than the hand made of flesh it was meant to depict. It is still slightly visible, mostly as an impression, a rough patch on the waistcoat in the shape of a hand, as though this one element of the painting had true depth. Napoleon’s despotic insistence was the peculiar result of his early steeping in the legends of Corsican oratory combined with the mendacious ministrations of the Russian tailors.

“Jacques-Louis, while you correct that idiotic mistake of yours, let me tell you of my history. I was not born here in Paris, you know,” the Emperor explained. “Non. It is from Corsica I come. There, we owe our culture to the Greek Aeschines, exiled to our island after losing an argument to Demosthenes, that preposterous windbag. It was apparently his second such campaign—easily prevailing in his first suit, he was not so lucky the second time. The greater the victory, the more crushing the defeat, ah? Do you already know the story?”

“Non, mon Empereur. Perhaps, if I may, if we were to just quite erase this strange loop your waistcoat has grown…”

Napoleon, attaining that musket-bore stare David had thought perfect for the portrait but now abjectly feared, ignored the inane request and instead carefully enlightened David on the illustrious career of Aeschines. Charged with treason by Demosthenes and his lackey, Timarchus, Aeschines returned their volley with arrows from his own quiver: Timarchus’s standing as accuser was seriously compromised by his rather raunchy behavior at Piraeus, was it not?  It was well known that the boy had played bottle to countless messages from foreign sailors too long at sea. Not exactly the man to be slinging mud, not when he was face first bottom up in it. The slander might have continued, but Timarchus slipped away and hung himself on the first pole he found, correctly guessing the orientation of the children of Astraeus. Demosthenes put away his accusations for another time.

It was not long in coming. Aeschines, sensing an Attic eruption, again prepared a complete reversal of the charges, accusing Demosthenes of the treason Demosthenes had accused him of. A matter of coin, this one, rather than flesh. In the event, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory, each increasing the other’s infamy until they were both nearly executed. Demosthenes prevailed only by the slimmest majority, a fact which Aeschines attributed correctly to one small but mortifying slip-up. Flustered at the baffling extent of Demosthenes’s oratory, at the third hour, Aeschines dropped his hand, decorously withheld in his toga until that moment, causing a report in colliding with his podium that swiveled all heads his way. Demosthenes broke off and everyone waited Aeschines, who, unprepared to riposte, had merely been surprised and was not even cognizant that he was attended. Gaping like a hooked mackerel, it took Aeschines several moments to realize eyes were upon him, whereupon, with consummate skill, Demosthenes rapped his own podium and picked up where he had left off, giving Aeschines the unsettling suspicion that he had just unwittingly ceded the upper hand to his opponent. Indeed, he had.

“It was the right hand, you see, cher Jacques-Louis, the hand of logic and reason. The hand of God. Dropping it heralded something ignominious, non? Everyone could see, plain as the tip of your thumb. To this day, to be shown a man’s right hand in Corsica is a slap in the face!”

“But you hide it from no one!”

“Zut alors! Jacques-Louis, in Corsica, this portrait would be counted a crime equal to Ham’s, and Noah’s curse would be handed down through your family. Attends! Those Russians are saints. The fiber they have woven this waistcoat out of, it is a miracle. It feels like the air, light as the light itself, but don’t be fooled by its lightness into believing it insubstantial, as I did. Non. I protested just as you do now, but they made a test.”

“What test?”

“They explained that this poor light of the candle—ha, even Lebon’s gas—is inadequate to illuminate the weave they have taken such pains to spin. Only the natural light of the sun is equal to the task. Unfortunately, they could not find a looking glass suitable for the parade ground, so we repaired to my apartments, where they closed all of the drapes until the room was as black as coal. Then, one turned a curiously shaped glass at the only open window, and voila, right there in front of me, through the magic of their glass, I could see myself, clear as day but much enlarged and everything as they had been telling me it was, with details sharper than the blade in my scabbard and their fine waistcoat in place. Ah, que c’est beau! If they hadn’t scampered off, I should have had them outfit a whole wardrobe for me.”

Sotto voce, the portraitist replied, “Be thankful they ran at the first hint of success, rather.”

“What did you say, Jacques-Louis?”

“Perhaps you will allow me to examine this glass you say they employed, mon Empereur? Purely for my own edification. Perhaps there is something yet to be learned.”

“Very well, monsieur. It is where the Russians left it, in my apartments. But I warn you: I tire of this sitting. The portrait ought to have been done long ago and there is the parade this afternoon to think of.”

The Emperor had his steward move the tailors’ glass into place. Once the curtains had been drawn and the sliver of light had spilled out of the prism, however, rather than the resplendent Napoleon, Marie Louise, missing both her bustle and her bodice, shone forth on the floor. She had been caught in the act of plucking a small cluster of three thick, black hairs from her enlarged and scandalously bared left breast. Dumbfounded, Napoleon stepped into his wife’s outline. His was but a blurred shadow moving over her finely detailed bosom, a vole set loose on the most jealously-guarded topography in the Empire. David could not suppress a nervous laugh.

The portraitist gloated, “You see it is not a matter of illumination or of reflection, mon Empereur, but of costume and plot. One of the tailors or perhaps a confederate must have been stationed in the Empress’s boudoir, dressed as you are in this so-called fabric, while you stood here, even as you are now, naked as the Empress and innocent as Adam in the Garden.”

Bashing the glass with his right hand, the Emperor bellowed, “Mon Dieu! Draw the curtains. Draw the curtains! I will not soon forget this insult, monsieur.” While David, taking care to remain penumbral, obeyed, Napoleon examined his bruised and bleeding member—pale, unlined, hairless, even a little atrophied from years of coddling in his waistcoat, it was that of a woman. He recalled the tittering he was certain he had heard coming from Ney and his fellow marshals during the morning’s oration. “Which direction did those tailors take?” the Emperor demanded.

Pursuing the Russians across steppe and frozen waste, Napoleon sought to make whole his pride, but realized with dismay that, though he was not particularly superstitious, with the fracture of the tailors’ glass he had indeed inaugurated seven years’ bad luck. He waited the end of this period as patiently as circumstances would allow, but as his shamefully exposed—and pitifully punctured—palm would have shown, his lifeline, though much longer than the several travel lines crossing it, was not more extensive than his fate line. Believing all along he would escape the island of his renewed exile and reconquer the continent, Napoleon instead contracted cancer, and, cursing fate, died long before the glass had finished exacting its revenge.

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM) and Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi), both out in November. He is the reviews editor of The Collagist and a contributor to Big Other, among other things.

See Gabriel’s 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Mixtape: Thomas Mundt

by a contributor

“An Eat Pray Love for anorexic, atheist sociopaths, Thomas Mundt’s You Have Until Noon To Unlock The Secrets Of The Universe is a triumph of the human spirit (or, if homo sapiens sapiens isn’t your bag, a victory for your spirit animal’s corporeal self). This past summer, I had the distinct pleasure of checking this face-wrenching tour de force out from the prison library and, after I begged and pleaded with Bandsaw, Senior Librarian, to give me something, anything, else, I must say I didn’t puke on what I found—that is, the semi-coherent, incredibly-average musings of a fair-to-middling Caucasian struggling with personal demons and, in all likelihood, the current location of his car keys. A few sentences into Universe’s first selection, “Sarge,” I thought, Yes. Now THIS is the written word, and in easy-to-read American English. A few sentences later I was on the receiving end of a weight room pummeling from which I’m still recovering, but from what I recall it was decent. The food, I mean. Everyone talks about how awful the food is on the inside but, truth be told, I didn’t hate it. What are we talking about?
—Wesley Snipes, December 2012”

Out-of-Office Reply

by Thomas Mundt

You have reached the desk of Cort Plumlee. It is with great regret that I inform you that I have no desk, just a smartphone permanently affixed to my hip, sheathed in a stylish pleather holster. I have my concerns about the child labor undoubtedly employed in the manufacturing of said accoutrement, but that is neither here nor there.

What is here and there, however, is that I am here, which is to say I have gone black for the day. I do plan to go back, though, despite suggestions to the contrary. If this reference to a popular sexual aphorism has made you uncomfortable, my sincerest apologies. Please be advised that I am blessed to have had several strong African-American influences in my life, including but not limited to my high school guidance counselor, a Mr. T. Allen Diggs, and a former lover, Cheryl. I am certain that, upon request, they would attest to the fact that this is the species of joke we made around one another all the time, given the post-racial ease with which we interacted.

But I digress. It is not my intention to keep you or any other interested party in the dark about my whereabouts, so please allow me to cut to the chase: I am currently in South Bend, Indiana, watching my eldest, Tracy, participate in a field hockey tournament. I am here under protest, mind you, and at the insistence of Tracy’s mother, who is currently hospitalized with acute appendicitis. Lest you question the level of my parental involvement, however, please know that the hesitancy with which I sit in the bleachers, ensconced in polar fleece and quarter-drunk on Speedway-brand Irish coffee, has nothing to do with my desire, or lack thereof, to participate in my pre-teen daughter’s life. It derives from my knowing abso-fucking-lutely nothing about the subject sport, the rules, regulations, and strategies that make it tick.

Additionally, the presence of several unaccompanied middle-aged men with binoculars, intently focused upon the billowing of tartan skirts and the revelation of athletic bloomers underneath, is a cause for concern.

Now, I realize that you did not issue me electronic mail in the hope that you would receive a status update concerning my travels to Midwestern college towns and the various comings-and-goings of the precocious young women therein. No, you queried me because you want, nay, need something. There is a corrupted Excel sheet you need debugged, a thrice-downloaded Adobe Acrobat update that refuses to take. You want to know if I found your key card, which you believe you may have dropped near the plaza-level vending machines.

I am writing to inform you that, today, as I watch a tiny orange ball get lobbed back and forth across the torn-up sod of a second-tier junior college green, the November chill threatening to freeze my mucus and seal my nasal passages like sarcophagi, I unequivocally and unabashedly do not give a shit.

Before you scroll through the remainder of my response in search of contact information for Rudy, my backup, please allow me to explain.

You see, I have catered to the whims of the tenants of the Crowne Center office park (hereinafter collectively referred to as “You People”) for upwards of thirteen years now and, during my tenure as Chief Technology Consultant, very little has changed for me, both professionally and personally. Granted, my income has seen steady, industry-consistent increases of three-percent annually during that timeframe, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my good fortune for the same in this era of continued economic decline. The holiday parties and their related cold cuts-and-cheese buffets should not go unrecognized, either. It is just that, when a man invests in expensive, terrain-appropriate footwear such that he can scale a rock formation, lean out over its precipice, and take in the bounty below, the faces, places, and traces of dreams conjured and realized, he wants to see his mark. He wishes to point to a pear tree planted, a regional frozen foods distribution warehouse leased and utilized, and say I did that. That was me there, in the smock. Metaphorically-speaking, of course.

It is the days when You People call me Curt, or Kirk, or Mort, and after spending forty-five minutes cleaning ill-advised Limewire frolics off of your hard drives, that remind me that I have fallen well short of any mark-making goals I may have set in my youth. Thus, I will spend the remainder of my Friday in the company of Tiger Moms, indulging in my maudlin fantasies and, if I get hungry, oversized hot pretzels with extra salt and honey mustard dipping sauce.

Rest assured that I will return on Monday, ready to address any technology-related conundrums you may have encountered and/or caused during my absence. I will accept your right hand for a shake upon the completion of my Service Ticket, knowing full well that this is the best I can hope for under the circumstances, and from here on out.

Very truly yours,

Cort R. Plumlee
Chief Technology Consultant
Cotillion, A Certo Company

Thomas Mundt is the author of one short story collection, You Have Until Noon to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe (Lady Lazarus Press, 2011), and the father of one human boy, Henry (2011). Teambuilding opportunities and risk management advice can be found at

See Thomas’ list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.