Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish” from The New Yorker, 11/14/11

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

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.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking it was a perfect Twilight Zone story – the original series with black-and-white Rod grimacing at the camera, explaining in the intro right after a brief introductory scene where the salesman appears on the guy’s doorstep, that he is not just buying a salesman’s wares, he’s buying a one-way ticket into The Twilight Zone.Yeah. I can see it, hear it. Maybe because of the salesman. Salesmen, as well as the disheartened and the defeated, were a staple of Rod Serling’s series. As were things such as slightly magical mirror polishes.

The story is available online.

Our unnamed narrator buys a bottle of Miracle Polish from a door-to-door salesman. That’s the first thing that’s off about the story (I don’t mean the story is written incorrectly, I mean it’s a story about offness). Why not just tell the guy to go? Or not answer the door at all? But the narrator maybe sees a kinship with the salesman, with “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.” At any rate, though he knows he shouldn’t, he invites him in, and then listens to the opening of the pitch for Miracle Polish, all the while wondering:

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.

That’s the next thing that’s off. He tries not to imagine, which implies he does, in fact, imagine, leading the reader to imagine. We have no idea, however, and won’t until further along in the story.

The narrator buys a bottle. Not two – he rebuffs the salesman’s attempts to double the purchase, and the guy knows when to pack it in. The narrator watches him as he’s leaving; he glances back at the house, grins, then frowns, then goes. I’m not sure why the grin and frown – perhaps he caught his reflection in a window and was not pleased? – but I’m sure it’s important.

He tosses the bottle in a drawer with: flashlight batteries, light bulbs, and an unused photo album. Another off detail. All things to do with light. And why is the photo album unused? These are the tiny details that fascinate me.

A week or so later, the narrator notices a smudge on the mirror in his hallway, and gets out the Miracle Polish. It removes the smudge easily, but the rest of the mirror looks dingy now, so he cleans the entire surface. He notices he looks better in the mirror; nothing that dramatic, he isn’t younger or handsome or anything, but he looks fresher, with a glow, like “a man who expected things of life.”

He ponders this. Maybe the mirror had really needed cleaning. He tries the polish on other mirrors, and the same effect occurs. And it isn’t just him: the walls seem brighter, the wood of the door seems richer, and the next morning his pajamas seem jaunty, the towels fuller.

He needs another opinion – “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.” The way he continues to describe Monica, who arrives “twice a week after work, once on Tuesdays and once, with her overnight bag, on Fridays,” had me wondering if Monica was a girlfriend or a housekeeper. She’s the girlfriend, of course:

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.

Another off thing: he only sees this sometimes, only in a certain light. His earlier description of her seemed to indicate this was a permanent condition. But no matter; he has a bond with her, their disappointed eyes.

Monica sees a difference in herself, too. But they don’t seem to discuss much. In fact – off again – she says nothing at all in the story, though presumably she has something to say when she sees an image of herself that glows, in clothes that are understated and restrained instead of drab. But we don’t get to hear that; it’s just suddenly the next day.

The narrator starts buying mirrors. He fills the house with them, a new-born Narcissus. He feels happy when he sees his vitalized self. As Monica visits and sees the mirrors multiplying, she’s not pleased. She thinks he prefers her reflection to her. He starts looking directly at her more, all the while aware how much better she looks in the mirrors that now cover the walls of his house. Apparently Monica isn’t as concerned with the improvement in his reflection. Or she doesn’t care. Or perhaps she misses the kinship they had based on their real selves, and does not want to trade it for a kinship in reflection.

At this point I start to go bonkers, like I do when I’m watching one of those PBS specials on string theory: there’s always a place when I can no longer pin the ideas down and just have to let them whirl around and use faith or Zen or instinct and go with it. Does a person who sees himself as vibrant, actually become more vibrant? Does a person who sees how she would look if she were not covered by a film of disappointment begin to hate the contrast? Is it an act of betrayal to improve oneself if one’s partner is left behind?

The two go on a Saturday picnic at the lake. In the bright sunlight, Monica has the same glowing look. Is it the light? How the light reflects off the water and the sky? Any photographer knows reflected light is always more flattering than direct. But there is no Miracle Polish at work. I’m perplexed. And wait, there’s more: the narrator had difficulties with the day: “In the course of the afternoon an uneasiness had begun to creep into me.” The glare hurt his eyes, everything seemed sluggish, they seemed like actors playing a part. Perhaps this is the unease Monica feels in his house? Though that connection is not made here; I may be grasping at straws.

He buys more mirrors, and in time, Monica gets fed up. She demands that he choose between her, and her image. He tries to convince himself that the mirrors help him see the real Monica; it’s not a falsification, it’s a revelation.

Here I began to connect the mirrors with the idea of loving someone for their money, their fame, their success; it isn’t the same as loving them. And of course there’s loving the idealized version of a person. This is where so much love goes bad right off the bat: we see someone and imagine they are perfect, and as we get to know them better we discover they are not. In a loving relationship, we accept those things. But if instead we insist they change, or dislike the parts we overlooked at first, doom results. Trust me. Oh, wait, you don’t have to – you’ve been there, too, right? Probably on both sides of that formula, as have I.

The narrator pours the Miracle Polish down the sink, sets up the mirrors in the back yard and breaks them in front of Monica. He does this in such an aggressive way, it repels her. It certainly repelled me. His resentment crashed through every mirror. She leaves. And he is left with no more illusions, only the mournful memory of his mirrors, and the hope that the salesman will return some day with more Miracle Polish:

One of these days the stranger is bound to come again. He’ll walk toward my house with his heavy case tugging him to one side…. I’ll tell him that I want every bottle, every last one. When I close my eyes, I can see the look of suspicion on his face, along with a touch of slyness, a shadow of contempt, and the beginnings of unbearable hope.

Now there’s a change. There was no look of hope mentioned in the first encounter; has the narrator now learned to find hope where there is none? Or does he recognize hope that he previously overlooked? Or does he just imagine there will be hope, separate from whether or not that is a reasonable expectation? Perhaps the effect of the Miracle Polish has altered his perception so that he sees hope that is truly there, just buried under desperation.

It’s all a little jumbled to me. I’m not sure I liked this story. I wanted to go through it in detail because I keep hearing how terrific Steven Millhauser is. I just recently discovered he’s one of Seth Fried’s go-to guys, for heaven’s sake, so he’s someone I want to know more about. But this story, while amusing on the Twilight Zone level, didn’t quite connect for me. I’m willing to accept that it’s my problem, that I’m not sophisticated enough to connect something that’s “off” in as many places as this is.

It was a good read, and I’m interested in some of the concepts. But as a whole it remains out of my grasp, without the tantalizing glimmer that makes me eager for more. Maybe I need some Miracle Polish.

Addendum: This story appeared in BASS 2012; on re-read, I had some additional thoughts, posted here.

One response to “Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish” from The New Yorker, 11/14/11

  1. Pingback: BASS 2012: Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish” from The New Yorker, 11/14/11 | A Just Recompense

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