Autumn 2007 Volume One Issue Four
Mirror, Mirror - Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Sweat trickled down Deuce Truman's back as he plunged his hands into the three legged sink to wash another glass. Although he had to squint to see the clock behind the bar in the front of the tavern, he could see he had five more hours before his shift ended. Those hours seemed long when his back ached and his feet burned inside his Army surplus shoes. With one hand, he wiped sweat from the end of his nose and shifted position. Outside, the oppressive, muggy air portended a thunderstorm before the night was out.
Although the First Ward boasted how cool it was, little of the water cooled air seeped back into the hellish kitchen where Deuce worked. Glimpses of men with rolled up shirt sleeves and huge hands wrapped around a heavy glass mug made his throat ache with thirst. A cool beer would taste like heaven but he couldn't imbibe until his shift ended.
Many of the men parked at the bar or at tables in the dim recesses of the tavern worked at the brewery by day and drank by night. The amount of alcohol these fellows poured down their own throats amazed Deuce; if he drank half as much, he would be unable to do anything but sleep and he had to work.
Thrusha insisted and he loved his wife even if she sported strong opinions through her oversize mouth. During the war, he had been somebody, a soldier but now he had to vie for jobs with white veterans. The dusky shade of his skin eliminated many of the jobs before he could open his mouth or offer up his experience. Washing dishes was as good as it got for now.
Maguire burst into the kitchen like a charging tank, Lucky dangling from his lip so Deuce shifted into his Uncle Tom mode, an act he despised but one that saved trouble with Maguire.
"You got one speed and it's slow." Maguire said, the words slurred. "We got a tavern full of thirsty men and we need more glasses so get a move on, hear?"
"I hear you, Mister Maguire." Deuce said. He dried his hands on a piece of towel and put the last glass into a now full rack. With effort, he lifted the flat and carried it behind the bar. On his return trip, he brought back a full one of dirty glasses.
Those brief moments in the bar made the dish room hellish, a steam filled jungle and he sighed as he went to work on another round. Thunder growled away to the West and he hoped it would rain soon, maybe break the heat a little.
His shirt was soaked through by the time the tavern closed and he could smell his own rank aroma from hours of perspiration. As he bent to wash his face to cool down, his stomach clenched. Saturday night was pay day but Maguire had failed more than once before to give him the dough. If he came home without the cash, Thrusha would make him sleep on the porch and the kids would do without milk again. He had shut his eyes in prayer when Maguire called him from the bar.
The boss must be counting the till because stacks of greenbacks covered one corner of the bar; so many that Deuce had to squelch an urge to grab the dough and go.
"You done good this week, Deucie." Maguire said. "I figure your wages come up to about $30, give or take, allowing for the glasses you broke but we got something special for you."
Braced for anything, Deuce plastered a smile on his face. "Yes, sir?"
"I got twenty dollars for you right here and this fine mirror to make up the rest."
Maguire pulled an oval mirror from under the bar and held it up for inspection. Bad as Deuce needed the money, he whistled in appreciation at the mirror. He had not seen a mirror like this one; it was as much painting as mirror. A peaceful, pastoral scene had been painted over the reflective surface to depict a brook flowing into a large blue lake ringed with pine trees. On one side of the water a brown log cabin sat beneath a stand of evergreens. Although he wasn't one to appreciate art, Deuce thought it looked real, so real you could walk into the scene if you wanted.
"Son!" he gasped. "That's pretty."
Maguire snickered. "Glad you like it. Some idiot brought it in to trade for beer and I'm not the art sort. Go ahead, take it for part of your pay and enjoy."
Deuce couldn't say no. He wanted this mirror, needed it in some undefined way. He needed that other ten dollars, too, but he could do without. If Thrusha liked it as much as he did, it would be fine. If not, he'd give up smokes for the week and eat less.
"Thank you, sir, thank you most kindly."
"Here's your money. Get out of here. See you Monday afternoon."
"I'll be here."
With four pictures of Abe Lincoln tucked into his pocket, he hoisted the mirror under one arm and set off across the viaduct home. It felt heavy, heavier than he expected but not more than he could handle. Midway across, thunder growled again and lighting split the sky. By the time he'd crossed the viaduct and began the climb to his narrow street, raindrops pelted his back and the mirror. As he reached his three room house, the door opened and Thrusha held it until he dashed in, dripping onto the linoleum floor.
"Thanks, baby." His wife waited without fail for him on Saturday nights, always eager to get the cash as if she thought he might spend it between the tavern and his front door.
"Sure." Tall and coffee hued, his wife stared down her long, slender nose at the object clutched to his chest. "What is that thing?"
"It's a mirror."
"Uh-huh. I can see it's a mirror. Where did you get it?"
He sighed and put the mirror down on a table with care so that the painting faced outward. For a moment he thought he could smell fresh pines and it seemed that the surface of the lake moved as a fish jumped. After shaking his head to dispel the illusion, he turned to his wife.
"Maguire's give it to me, kept back part of my pay."
Her nostrils flared and her eyes smoked. "They did what? You're short on money?"
"Yeah, but it's not my fault."
That didn't seem to matter to his angry wife.
"How am I supposed to feed this family? I don't get half as much slaving in some house up on Ashland Avenue and we need that money. Take it back and get the money."
The idea of approaching Maguire and asking for the money scared him. It wouldn't work - the boss man wouldn't do it and he would end up without a job.
"I can't do that and you know it! He'd be likely to fire me."
Thrusha folded her arms across her chest and glared at the mirror. One foot tapped the floor as she considered it.
"I'll take it down to I-Buys and sell it." Her lips were pressed into a tight bow when she looked back at him. "He'll give me something for it; something's better than being ten dollars short."
"NO!" The word burst up from his belly with more force than he intended. He liked the mirror and he wasn't going to sell it. The idea of doing so filled him with rage but the answering fire in her eyes tempered his outburst. "Don't sell it. We can go a little short for a week and not starve. There's still a few dollars in the old cracked sugar bowl and if I have to, I'll hire out a few mornings weeding gardens or cutting grass somewhere."
"I don't know."
Her hesitation was a slight advantage and he took it.
"That's settled. Now I'm going to hang up my new mirror."
He found a nail heavy enough to hold it, in a drawer, and rooted out his hammer. There was a spot just over the couch that folded out into a bed by night and he drove the nail into the wall with force.
"There. Looks fine, doesn't it?"
Thrusha muttered something he couldn't hear but he didn't care. The mirror looked good but it was crooked so he straightened it. Once more, his attention riveted to the peaceful scene and his wife had to call him more than once to come to bed.
When he woke, it seemed that he lay on a soft featherbed and that clear, cool air scented with pine filtered through his senses. Maple syrup and bacon aromas made him stomach rumble and he heard a far off splash. Yet when he opened his eyes, the same worn springs poked his back and he could smell nothing but strong coffee.
A pair of round dark eyes met his above a thumb planted firmly between the lips of his youngest daughter, Gracie.
"Wake up, Daddy."
"I'm 'wake, Shug." He rolled over and sat up. "Where's your mamma?"
Marlene, older of the two girls, stood at the foot of the makeshift bed with the baby, Bobby, in her arms.
"She went to get something for breakfast." Her voice had the same timbre as her mother's and her eyes fixed on the mirror with the same disdain. Although just seven, she was a miniature version of her mother. "What's that old picture?"
"It's a mirror."
"It's pretty, Daddy." Gracie, nicknamed Sugar Baby or Shug for short, piped.
"I think so, too."
Before he could admire the mirror again, his wife pushed the door open with one hip. A white, grease spotted bag in one hand gave off the aroma of warm donuts.
"I think it's foolish." Thrusha said. "I brought home a few donuts; that's breakfast."
Deuce stretched. "Bacon and eggs would go good with a donut."
Thrusha sniffed. "Bacon and eggs are rich man's food; you got a mirror to look at. Hurry up children, get a donut and get dressed so we can go to church."
Deuce groaned. In one of her moods, his wife could be as bitter as black coffee and he didn't want to go to church on his one day off. If he had the choice, he would head over to the Missouri River and do a little fishing but Thrusha would want him home for dinner. He slid back down and turned over.
"Aren't you coming with us?" Thrusha asked.
"No, I'm tired."
She rolled both eyes heavenward. "Too tired for church but not too tired to admire that mirror. Well, we'll go anyway and I bought a chicken to fry when I get back."
Dressed in someone's cast off dress, Thrusha dressed the kids in clean but well worn clothing and departed without another glance at her husband. He pretended to be asleep but as soon as their voices faded in the distance, he rolled out of bed and took a bath.
Clean for the moment, he finished the coffee in the pot and stared at the mirror. The fantasy world in the painting appealed to him. Being poor didn't and he was tired of fighting to survive, weary of washing bar glasses to feed and clothe his family. No matter how many long hours he worked, how much guff he took from Maguire, he never made enough. Something was always lacking, they went without more often than not.
Watching his wife dress in some woman's charity cast off didn't help his mood and he ignored the single donut left in the bag. Let the kids split it for a little treat, he thought, and turned his attention to the mirror.
That place looked so clean, nothing like the streets of his hometown. Strength from those mountains felt like just what he needed to succor him through a poor man's life. If he could just latch onto the calm of that blue lake or the quiet dignity of the pine trees, he could thrive and survive. He wanted to live there, in that pretty place, with a desire that made his head ache.
Deuce imagined a life there. He could live in that log cabin. It looked cozy and although you couldn't see inside, he'd bet there was a fine stone fireplace because the chimney that peeked out through the pines trailed a line of gray smoke. Rustic furniture, maybe some calico curtains on the window would make it right homey. A man living there could wake up to fresh air and the sound of the wind in the trees.
He could head down to the lake and fish to his heart's content. As he studied the picture, the waters of the lake rippled and he heard the soft lapping sound of the water.
"It's real." Although alone, he whispered.
His fingers reached out to touch the rough bark of the pine trees and he felt a breath of wind touch his face. As he moved closer, anticipation of the unknown shivered down his spine.
"I can't believe this."
He took one step, then two and found his feet planted against the solid earth of the trail that led down from the mountains to the cabin. With wonder, he touched the ground and pinched his wrist. He yelped at the slight sting and then felt a wide grin stretch his face.
He followed the path around to the cabin and mounted the steps to the porch. A cane pole rested against the wall and a tin can overflowing with worms sat on the porch floor. Since the door was open, he stuck his head inside and whistled at the sight of the stone fireplace, a bearskin rug, sturdy pine furniture, and the calico curtains he had imagined.
His poverty forgotten, he picked up the cane pole and the night crawlers on his way to the lake. Settling down under a tall pine, he put his back against the tree and relaxed, his line dangling into the water. Contentment settled over him like a comfortable blanket and he put aside any thought of his life before.
Although Granny Shug told her never to touch anything in the attic, Hanna crept into the alcove stacked high with odd bits from the past. Curiosity made her pull a dust covered blanket away from an oval shape and she clapped her hands together with delight at the painting.
A blue lake stood surrounded by pine trees and mountains reached toward the sky in the background. She fingered the lake and her fingers felt wet. Hanna bent closer, her face against the rough surface and stared at a man who sat with a cane pole.
"Hello!" She shouted and was surprised to see him jump to his feet, turning his head from one side to another.
He held out his hand toward her and smiled.
"Come here, baby girl."
Hanna moved forward and her head bumped his. She blinked at the sunlight that streamed through the pines and squinted up at him.
"Who are you?"
"Aren't you Shug?"
She shook her head.
"Granny's the one named Shug. I'm Hanna."
She called up the stairs three times but when Hanna didn't come down for her lunch - chicken nuggets and cheese puffs -- Shug mounted the steps to the attic with aching knees.
"Hanna, baby, your lunch is ready and it's almost time for cartoons . . ."
The blanket that had covered the old mirror her father brought home the night before he left them had fallen; at the sight, her heartbeat pounded louder than the rain that drummed across the roof. Her mama had hated that mirror until the day she died and her sister, Marlene felt the same. Bobby, who didn't remember Daddy at all, didn't care but Shug had kept it.
As a child, she had spent hours before it and had believed she could see her father beside the lake. Mama put an end to such foolishness but she still remembered the charm she had chanted,
Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
I see my daddy, dark and tall
Distracted by the blanket, she hadn't realized that Hanna was not visible in the attic, not under the eaves or near the windows. Dread gnawed her stomach and she called, her voice sharp.
Distant laughter floated toward her and she whirled, sure Hanna was about to jump out from behind an old dresser or stack of boxes but the room remained empty. The sound came from the mirror and Shug stared at it for the first time in decades.
Two figures skipped beside the lake, hand in hand. Although the man looked familiar, she had no doubt that the child beside him was Hanna.
The trembling began in her hands and spread like wildfire until her body shook with shock and fear.
"It's not possible." She mumbled, repeating herself until she took a step toward the mirror. The toe of her shoe caught the box it rested on and the mirror toppled.
Her scream could not stay it; it hit the hard wood floor and shattered into many splinters. Over the sound of breaking glass she heard the shouts of her father and granddaughter.
They burst into the attic in a shower of glass that hit the floor with a tinkle and collapsed together into a heap on the floor. Shug watched as her father brushed the glass from Hanna's hair and lifted her to his shoulder. Both were laughing and she stood, unable to move or speak until her father looked up with a wide smile.
"Shug?" He said, and his voice was the same brown sugar she remembered. "Is that you, Shug? Daddy's home."
Emotions whirled within like a blender on high speed and she felt joy that he had returned, resentment at his long absence, and shock that he had not aged a single day.
Pain from growing up without a father, her mother's long suffering anguish and bitterness, and her own longing erupted in an outcry,
"Daddy, how in the world did you do that? Do you know how long you've been gone?"
He brushed glass shards from his trousers and grinned.
"If you're grandma to this one, I suppose it's been awhile. And I don't know how I did it - the mirror had some kind of magic."
On the floor, fragments of the mirror reflected raindrops and the burst of sunlight that thrust through the clouds to shimmer for a moment but when it faded, the magic had gone. Deuce Truman was earthbound once more and even as she hugged him, his daughter wondered just how she might explain the reappearance of her father who was now young enough to be her son.
- END -
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a native of St. Joseph, Missouri and makes her home in the Ozarks. Her fiction has appeared in various publications including Foliate Oak, Dragonfire, Mosaic Minds, Poor Mojo's Almanac, and others. She is a member of both Missouri Writers Guild and the Ozark Writers League.