A Trick of the Mirror
by Donna Gagnon
A man can stand almost anything except a succession of ordinary days. — Goethe
At some point in the past, Rosie McMorrow had believed in God. In the olden days, of course. Before her father was hit by an oil refinery tanker truck as he headed home one Tuesday morning from Murphy’s Bar. Before her mother stopped making dresses for the fabric shop and killed herself with pills.
Rosie lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment, above a twenty-four hour laundromat in a 1950s strip mall. The sounds that filled Rosie’s apartment were the occasional slam of a dryer door and the gentle swish of dirty clothes in sudsy wash water. Rosie liked the sounds of laundry. They lulled her to sleep at night.
Rosie had no friends, although there had been a boy once. She’d met him in the laundromat and he’d carried her bag of clean clothes up to her apartment. He’d stayed with her and when he left, late on Sunday afternoon, Rosie had been happy. But the boy never came back. That was when Rosie realized she no longer believed in God.
Rosie maintained a ceaseless routine in order to stay alive. Each weekday morning, she rode the commuter train for half an hour into Toronto to work as a typist for a large insurance company and came back again at night. Her only company was the morning edition of the Toronto Sun.
On Saturday mornings, Rosie rolled her laundry into a cloth bag and took it down to the laundromat. While her clothes washed, she did her grocery shopping at the A&P across the street. For ten years, Rosie hadn’t bothered writing out a grocery list — she bought the same food in order to prepare the same meals every day, every week.
Methodically, she would walk home with her groceries, climb the steep flight of stairs to her apartment and put everything neatly away in her kitchen cupboards. Then she would head back down the stairs to tend the laundry. While her clothing dried, Rosie picked up a copy of the weekend newspaper from the mall’s variety store and read it, slowly and carefully, always making sure she appeared engrossed enough in its contents that no one dared speak to her. She did not want anyone to interrupt her self-imposed detachment. Rosie believed that if she kept her head down and stayed out of everyone’s way, she would become invisible. If she could not be seen, she could not be touched. It was imperative to Rosie’s survival that her carefully ordered world remain undisturbed.
One Friday evening, returning home from work, Rosie unlocked her apartment door and bent to pick up a folded piece of white paper from the floor. Frowning, she opened it. It was an eviction notice ordering her to vacate the apartment by the end of the month. Due to a planned re-development, there would soon be nothing left of the old strip mall but a pile of rubble which would, in its turn, be replaced by a larger structure — a new shopping plaza containing a fully-computerized bowling facility.
Rosie stood in her open doorway and gazed sightlessly toward her living room. It was lined with a sentry-like queue of teak shelves filled to the brim with books. Their coloured spines glowed in the late afternoon sunshine — crimson and pale mauve, grey, yellow and blue. Normally, they comforted Rosie as expensive oil paintings re-assure the wealthy. That day, though, they did not calm her.
‘Where will I go?’ she wondered. ‘How will I move my things?’ She shut the door and went in to sit at the kitchen table.
Elbows on the table, head cupped in her hands, Rosie thought for long hours into the night. When she finally went to bed, it took her a long time to get to sleep.
She awakened at an unfamiliarly late hour the next morning. In her bathroom, she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her face was by no means beautiful but it was not unpleasant. Her eyes — deep brown rimmed by long, dark lashes tipped with blonde — stared back. Her skin was clear and pale. Rosie gently touched the feathery wrinkles around her eyes and around her thin lips. With a white cotton facecloth, she covered her face, scrubbed it hard. She felt restless, unsettled. And, she realized, she looked old. Rosie was suddenly conscious of a change in her heart’s rhythm. She looked just like her mother. The way her mother had been in the weeks before her death.
Without even thinking about doing her regular Saturday morning laundry or going grocery shopping, Rosie dressed. She grabbed her purse and left the apartment without eating breakfast. It was hot outside. As she walked along unfamiliar streets, Rosie perspired. Small trickles of dampness snaked down her back beneath her T-shirt. She didn’t feel it. She wasn’t even aware that her face, also, was streaked with moisture. Rosie cried silently as she walked and travelled many kilometres before she finally stopped.
After a while, Rosie became conscious of her wet face and running nose. She stood on a street corner and wiped her eyes with a Kleenex.
There was a church across the road. More than twenty tables were set up in the church’s parking lot, spread with junk — old two-slice toasters, heaps of clothing, worn toys, outmoded kitchen gadgets. There was little traffic moving on the road but Rosie waited until the light showed green before she crossed to stand closer to the church’s bazaar.
Behind one of the vendor’s tables, there was a very old man with brown wrinkled skin, like a shrivelled winter apple doll. He picked his teeth with a bent wooden toothpick and gazed out over the parking lot through clear blue eyes. Wisps of sparse grey hair stuck out of his dirty, navy blue baseball cap. He looked straight at Rosie and grinned.
“Come on over here,” he called, waving his bent toothpick. “Come on and see what I have for you!”
Rosie looked behind her, sure he was talking to someone else.
“You mean me?” she asked, looking back at the old man.
The old man nodded. “You betcha, missie. Lookie here.”
Behind his table, propped against a wire mesh fence that separated the church from a car dealership, Rosie spotted a large framed painting. She felt inexplicably drawn to the warm brown wood of the picture’s frame. As she came closer, Rosie realized that is was not a painting. It was a mirror, covered in dust. Rosie bent down to look at the mirror more closely. It was so clouded that nothing reflected off its dirty surface. She ran her finger across it, traced the sheer edges of a thin diagonal crack.
A small, insistent voice whispered inside of Rosie. She stood uncertainly for a moment and then, without having the faintest idea why, said to the old man, “I’ll take it. How much?”
The mirror weighed too much for Rosie to carry alone. The old man offered to help her take it to the curb where Rosie flagged down a taxi. For an extra $10 above the fare, the taxi driver — grumbling all the way up the stairs — carried the mirror into Rosie’s apartment.
The mirror quickly mesmerized Rosie. It dominated the apartment, leaning ponderously back against the centre bookcase. Rosie cleaned it as best she could with paper towels soaked in Windex and sat in front of it, gazing into its cracked, murky surface. Saturday’s sun went down while Rosie remained spellbound in front of the mirror. She sat perfectly still, entranced by this strange new accessory, until she saw something moving. Wavy lines bobbed up and down, crossing and uncrossing. A low drumming reverberated in Rosie’s head. She couldn’t tell if the noise came from the mirror or if the mirror was merely reflecting the sound of her pounding heart.
Although Rosie wasn’t aware of what time it was, it happened in the early hours of Sunday morning. The pattern of moving lines disappeared, giving way to a slow clearing of the mirror’s surface. The sound in Rosie’s head changed from drumming to clanging. Bells went off in her brain. The noise hurt. She closed her eyes against the intense, stabbing pain until it faded away, leaving a residue of faint electric crackling in the air. She opened her eyes. The mirror had unclouded, its covering suddenly crystalline and shimmeringly clear.
There was an eerie silence, broken only by Rosie’s sharp intake of breath. There was a picture in the mirror. A room. It was not her room, not a reflection of her apartment. It was a stranger’s room, full of large pieces of furniture — overstuffed wing chairs, a love seat upholstered in heavy fabric, mahogany end tables and lamps with ornate shades.
There was no one in the room. It was very tidy, perfectly appointed as if arranged for display purposes by an interior decorator. A porcelain vase filled with pink and white roses sat on a table in one corner of the room. Just past the table, there was a closed door.
Nothing else happened for many hours. Late on Sunday morning, Rosie dragged herself away from the mirror. She followed her persistently growling stomach into the kitchen where she toasted two pieces of bread and ate them standing at the counter.
She poured a large glass of milk and took it into the living room. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the mirror, Rosie drank the glass of milk and resumed her intense examination of the stranger’s room. The door inside the room was now ajar. A pair of reading glasses had been placed on one of the end tables. While Rosie was in the kitchen making toast, someone had been inside the room in the mirror.
Rosie breathed deeply and slowly. She stared very hard at the mirror. She heard the sound of footsteps — steady, measured footsteps. Whoever had been inside the room was returning. The sound stopped. With a sharp creak, the door opened. A young man walked into the room.
The man did not look up from the open book he held in his hands. He kicked the door shut behind him, walked over to sit in one of the wing chairs, reached for his eyeglasses.
Rosie gasped. The man put on his glasses and looked up. His gaze bore straight into Rosie’s. He put his book down on the table, stood and walked toward her. As he came closer, Rosie moved back until she felt her bottom touch the rear wall of her living room. The man peered through the mirror, a frown creasing his face. His clear blue eyes swept the expanse of Rosie’s living room.
“Hello? Who’s there?” he asked.
Rosie held her breath. Trying to make her trembling body very small, she pressed harder against the wall and willed herself to be very still. More than anything, she desperately wanted to scream, to run.
Not having received an answer to his query, the man shook his head and moved away from the mirror. Rosie heard him mumble to himself but couldn’t understand his words. The man walked out of the room, leaving the door open behind him. Rosie slumped slightly and began to breathe again.
On Monday, Rosie left for work at her usual time. She bought the morning paper at the train station and read it on her way into the city. At her desk, Rosie processed the usual number of documents and then headed home. On Sunday, after her close encounter with the room’s occupant, Rosie had questioned the reality of what she thought she had seen. But, just in case the man and his room were real, she had draped a bath towel over the front of the mirror before going to sleep. If she could see and hear the man, could the man not see and hear her?
After dinner on Monday night, she made a determined decision to look, once more, into the mirror. With shaking hands, Rosie drew the makeshift curtain aside slowly, revealing the stranger’s room a bit at a time. It was empty. The furniture was gone. All that remained were two curled rose petals on the bare floor. Rosie sighed. Had she hoped for more than this? She covered the mirror again with the bath towel, slunk off to bed and cried herself to sleep.
When the corporation that owned the strip mall was unable to reach Rosie by telephone to learn her moving date, they sent one of their staff over to check the apartment. No one answered the repeated, heavy knocks at Rosie’s door.
They discovered that Rosie’s employer had filed a missing person’s report. A constable was present when representatives from the corporation entered her apartment. It was virtually empty. There was no furniture. The kitchen cupboards were bare and the teak bookcases in the living room showed only dust lines where books used to rest. There was nothing left to prove that Rosie had ever existed — nothing but an old mirror lying on the bare wood floor, two large cracks creasing its dirty surface.
Copyright © 2006 by Donna Gagnon