Read Voices in the Night Online

Authors: Steven Millhauser

Voices in the Night

ALSO BY STEVEN MILLHAUSER

We Others: New and Selected Stories

Dangerous Laughter

The King in the Tree

Enchanted Night

The Knife Thrower

Martin Dressler

Little Kingdoms

The Barnum Museum

From the Realm of Morpheus

In the Penny Arcade

Portrait of a Romantic

Edwin Mullhouse

This Is a Borzoi Book

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Millhauser

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies
.

www.aaknopf.com

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC
.

Selected stories previously appeared in the following: “Home Run” (2013) in
Electric Literature;
“Mermaid Fever” (December 2009), and “A Report on Our Recent Troubles” (November 2007) in
Harper’s;
“American Tall Tale” (Summer 2012), “Phantoms” (Summer 2010), and “Rapunzel” (Summer 2011) in
McSweeney’s;
“Coming Soon” (December 2013), “Miracle Polish” (November 2011), “Thirteen Wives” (May 2013), and “A Voice in the Night” (December 2012) in
The New Yorker;
“Arcadia” (Winter 2013), and “Sons and Mothers” (Winter 2012) in
Tin House.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Millhauser, Steven
.

[Short stories. Selections]

Voices in the night : stories / Steven Millhauser. — First edition
.

pages cm

“This is a Borzoi Book” — Title page verso
.

ISBN 978-0-385-35159-1 (hardcover) — ISBN 978-0-385-35160-7

(eBook)

I. Millhauser, Steven. Miracle Polish. II. Title
.

PS3563.I422A6 2015

813′.54—dc23

2014025425

eBook ISBN 9780385351607

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
.

Cover design by Janet Hansen

v4.1

a

TO KATE

MIRACLE POLISH

I
should have said no to the stranger at the door, with his skinny throat and his black sample case that pulled him a little to the side, so that one of his jacket cuffs was higher than the other, a polite no would have done the trick, no thanks, I’m afraid not, not today, then the closing of the door and the heavy click of the latch, but I’d seen the lines of dirt in the black shoe-creases, the worn-down heels, the shine on the jacket sleeves, the glint of desperation in his eyes. All the more reason, I said to myself, to send him on his way, as I stepped aside and watched him move into my living room. He looked quickly around before setting his case down on the small table next to the couch. I’d made up my mind to buy something from him, anything, a hairbrush, the Brooklyn Bridge, buy it and get him out of there, I had better things to do with my time, but there was no hurrying him as he slowly undid each clasp with his bony fingers and explained in a mournful voice that this was my lucky day. In the suddenly opened case I saw six rows of identical dark-brown glass bottles, each a bit smaller than a bottle of cough medicine. Two things struck me: the case must be very heavy, and he must not have sold anything in a long time. The product was called Miracle Polish. It cleaned mirrors with one easy flick of the wrist. He seemed surprised, even suspicious,
when I said I’d take one, as if he had wandered the earth for years with the same case filled to bursting with unsold bottles. I tried not to imagine what would drive a man to go from house to house in a neighborhood like this one, with porches and old maples and kids playing basketball in driveways, a neighborhood where Girl Scouts sold you cookies and the woman across the street asked you to contribute to the leukemia drive but no strangers with broken-down shoes and desperate eyes came tramping from door to door lugging heavy cases full of brown bottles called Miracle Polish. The name exasperated me, a child could have done better than that, though there was something to be said for the way it sat there flaunting its fraudulence. “Don’t trust me!” it shouted for all to hear. “Don’t be a fool!”

When he tried to sell me a second bottle, he understood from my look that it was time to go. “You’ve made a wise choice,” he said solemnly, glancing at me and looking abruptly away. Then he clicked his case shut and hurried out the door as if afraid I’d change my mind. Lifting a slat of the half-closed blinds, I watched him make his way along the front walk with the sample case pulling him to one side. At the sidewalk he stopped, put down his case next to the sugar maple, wiped his jacket sleeve across his forehead, and gazed up the block as if he were the new boy in school, getting ready to cross the schoolyard where faces were already turning to stare at him. For a moment he looked back at my house. When he saw me watching him, he grinned suddenly, then frowned and jerked his head away. With a sharp snap I let the blind-slat drop.

I had no interest in mirror polish. I placed the bottle in a drawer of the hutch, where I kept extra flashlight batteries, packages of lightbulbs, and an unused photograph album, and gave no more thought to it.

Early one morning, a week or so later, I stepped over to the oval mirror in the upstairs hall, as I did every morning before leaving for work. As I tugged down the sides of my suit jacket and smoothed my tie, I noticed a small smudge on the glass, near my left shoulder. It
had probably been there for years, ever since I’d brought the mirror down from my parents’ attic, along with a faded armchair and my grandmother’s couch with the threadbare arms. I tried to recall whether I had ever cleaned the oval mirror before, whether I had ever bothered to dust the old mahogany frame carved with leaves and flowers. I understood that I was having these thoughts only because of the stranger with the bony fingers and the worn-down heels, and as I went down to the hutch I felt a burst of irritation as I heard him say: “This is your lucky day.”

Upstairs I pulled a tissue from the box in the bathroom and unscrewed the top of the brown bottle. On the dark glass, in white capital letters, stood the words
MIRACLE POLISH
. The liquid was thick, slow, and greenish white. I applied a bit to the tissue and wiped the smudge. When I lifted my hand I was almost disappointed to see that the spot was gone. I was aware of another thing: the rest of the mirror looked dull or tarnished. Had I really never noticed it before? With another dab of polish I set to work wiping the entire surface, right up to the curves of the frame. It was done quickly; I stepped back for a look. In the light from the overhead bulb with its old glass shade, mixed with sunlight from the window on the nearby landing, I saw myself reflected clearly. But it was more than that. There was a freshness to my image, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before. I looked at myself with interest. This in itself was striking, for I wasn’t the kind of man who looked at himself in mirrors. I was the kind of man who spent as little time as possible in front of mirrors, the kind of man who had a brisk and practical relation to his reflection, with its tired eyes, its disappointed shoulders, its look of defeat. Now I was standing before a man who resembled my old reflection almost exactly but who had been changed in some manner, the way a lawn under a cloudy sky changes when the sun comes out. What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life.

That afternoon when I returned from work, I went up to the oval
mirror. In the polished glass I was struck again by a sense of freshness. Had the mirror really been so deeply in need of cleaning? There were three other mirrors in the house: the mirror over the sink in the upstairs bathroom, the mirror over the sink in the downstairs half bath, and the small circular mirror with a wooden handle that hung on a hook beside the upstairs-bathroom window. None of them had seemed to need cleaning before, but when I was through with them I saw my new reflection glowing back at me from all three. I looked at the brown bottle of Miracle Polish in my hand. It seemed an ordinary bottle, a bottle like any other. If the polish had made me look younger, if it had made me handsome, if it had smoothed my skin and fixed my teeth and changed the shape of my nose, I’d have known it was some horrible mechanical trick and I’d have smashed those mirrors with my fists rather than allow myself to be taken in like a fool. But the image in the mirror was unmistakably me—not young, not good-looking, not anything in particular, a little slumped, heavy at the waist, pouchy under the eyes, not the sort of man that anyone would ever choose to be. And yet he looked back at me in a way I hadn’t seen for a long time, a way that made the other things all right. He looked back at me—the thought sprang to mind—like a man who believed in things.

The next morning I woke before my alarm and hurried over to the oval mirror in the hall. My image shone back at me; even my rumpled pajamas had a certain jaunty look. In the polished glass the dull walls seemed brighter, the bedroom door a richer brown. In the bathroom mirror I seemed to give off light; the whiteness of the sink burned in the glass; the towels looked fuller. Downstairs, the reflected window in the half bath showed part of a brilliant curtain, beyond which lay the green grass of childhood summers. All day at work I thought of nothing but those shining surfaces, like coins catching the sun, and when I came home I went from mirror to mirror, striking poses, turning my head from side to side.

Because I prided myself on never having false hopes, on never permitting myself to imagine that things were better than they were, I asked myself whether I might be allowing the mirrors to deceive me. Maybe the greenish-white polish contained a chemical that, upon contact with glass, produced an optical distortion. Maybe the words “Miracle Polish” had caused cells in my brain to fire in a series of associations that affected the way I saw the reflected world. Whatever was happening, I knew that I needed another opinion, from someone I could trust. It was Monica who would set me straight, Monica who would know—Monica, who looked at the world through large, kind, skeptical eyes, darkened by many disappointments.

Monica arrived, as she did twice a week after work, once on Tuesdays and once, with her overnight bag, on Fridays, and as always when I greeted her I was careful not to look too closely at her, for Monica was likely to draw back and say “Is something wrong?” while raising her hand anxiously to her hair. She had a habit of assessing her looks mercilessly: she approved of her eyes, liked the shape of her wrists and the length of her fingers, put up with her calves, but was unforgiving about her thighs, her chin, her biggish knees, her hips, her upper arms. She fretted over any imperfection in her skin, like a mosquito bite or a heat rash or a tiny pimple, and often wore a hidden Band-Aid on a shoulder or calf, holding some ointment in place. She wore skirts that came down to her ankles, with plain blouses over plain white bras; she liked to mix dark greens, dark browns, and dark grays. Her shoulder-length brown hair was usually straight and parted in the middle, though sometimes she pulled it back and gathered it in a big dark clip that looked like an enormous insect. She inspected herself in front of any mirror, searching for flaws like a teenage girl before a big party. In fact she was forty and worked as an administrative assistant at the local high school. For years we had edged toward each other without moving all the way. I liked how she hesitated a little before easing into a smile; liked the slight heaviness
of her body, its faint awkwardness, its air of mild tiredness; liked how, when she took off her shoes and placed her feet on the hassock, she would wiggle her toes slowly and say, crinkling her eyes: “That feels really, really good.” Sometimes, in a certain light, when she held her body a certain way, I would see her as a woman for whom things had not worked out as she had hoped, a woman sinking slowly into defeat. Then a burst of fellow-feeling would come over me, for I knew how difficult it was, waiting for something better, waiting for something that was never going to happen.

I took her upstairs to the oval mirror and switched on the light. “Look at that!” I said, and swept out my arm in a stagy way. It was a gesture meant to imply that what I had to show her was nothing much, really, nothing to be taken seriously. I had hoped the reflection in the polished mirror would please her in some way, but I hadn’t expected what I saw—for there she was, without a touch of weariness, a fresh Monica, a vibrant Monica, a Monica with a glow of pleasure in her face. She was dressed in clothes that no longer seemed a little drab, a little elderly, but were handsomely understated, seductively restrained. Not for a moment did the mirror make her look young, or beautiful, for she was not young and she was not beautiful. But it was as if some inner constriction had dissolved, some sense of her drifting gradually into unhappiness. In the mirror she gave forth a fine resilience. Monica saw it; I saw her see it; and she began turning her body from side to side, smoothing down her long skirt over her hips, pulling her shoulders back, arranging her hair.

Now in the mornings I rose with a kind of zest and went directly to the hall mirror, where even my tumbled hair gave me a look of casual confidence, and the shadowy folds under my eyes spoke of someone in the habit of facing and overcoming obstacles. In my cubicle I worked with concentration and with an odd lightness of heart, and when I returned home in the late afternoon I looked at myself in all four mirrors. It struck me that before I could reach the oval mirror
in the upstairs hall, I had to pass through the front hall, cross the dusky living room with its sagging couch, walk the length of the kitchen, and climb two sets of creaking stairs, the long one up to the landing and the short one up to the hall. One night after dinner I drove to the outskirts of town, where the old shopping center faced off against the new mall in a battle of slashed prices. In the aisle after blenders and juicers I came to them. I saw tall narrow mirrors, square mirrors framed in oak and dark walnut, round mirrors like gigantic eyeglass lenses, cheval mirrors, mirrors framed in coppered bronze, mirrors with rows of hooks along the bottom. Avoiding my reflections as well as I could, for these mirrors showed only a tired man with a look of sorrow in his eyes, I chose a rectangular mirror with a cherrywood frame. At home I opened a drawer of the hutch and took out the brown bottle. With a few careful swipes of a cloth I polished the mirror. I hung it in the front hall, across from the closet and next to the boot tray with its old slippers and gardening shoes, and stepped back. In the light of the ceiling bulb I saw my reflection, standing with a cloth over his shoulder and looking out at me as if ready to hurl himself into whatever the day might bring. The sight of him standing there with his sleeves pushed up and his cloth over his shoulder and his look of readiness—all this made me smile; and the smile that came back to me seemed to stream out of the glass and into my arms, my chest, my face, my blood.

The next day after work I stopped at a furniture store and bought another mirror. At home I polished it and hung it in the kitchen, facing the table. As I ate my dinner I was able to look up whenever I liked and see the oak table, the gleaming plate with its chicken leg and baked potato, the silverware quivering with light, and my reflection looking up alertly, like someone whose attention has been called to an important matter.

On Friday, Monica entered the front hall and stopped sharply when she saw the mirror. She glanced at me and seemed about to
say something, then turned her face away. In front of the mirror she stared at herself thoughtfully for a long while. Without turning back to me, she said she supposed it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to be able to check her hair and blouse before entering the living room, especially when it was pouring down rain, or when the wind was blowing. I said nothing as I watched her reflection push her hair boldly from her cheek. Together she and Monica moved toward the edge of the mirror and disappeared into the living room.

In the kitchen I saw Monica’s lips pull into a little tight circle. It was an expression I’d never cared for, with its combination of petulance and stubborn severity, but in the new mirror I saw only a flirtatious pout. “It’s just an experiment,” I said. “If you really don’t like it—” “But it’s your house,” she said. “But that isn’t the point,” I said. She threw me a look and lowered her eyes; it was a way she had of protesting silently. She sat with her back to the mirror as I brewed her a pot of herb tea. Seated across from her, I was able to look beyond her strained face to the back of her head, the back of her blouse-collar showing through her hair, the tops of her shoulder blades. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves as she talked to me about her troubles with the lawn man. Once, when she turned to look out the window, I saw in the mirror the curved line of her forehead, the upward slant of the bottom of her nose, the little slope between her nostrils and her upper lip, and I was struck by the fine liveliness of her profile.

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