THE MIRROR AT SUNSET
By Gil Lamont
Submitted by Leem,
This enigmatic little story features a male living mannequin. Although there is no overt sex, it is definitely of asfr interest - Leem.
Originally published in New Dimensions 5, ed. Robert Silverberg, 1975.
(Copyright ©1975, Robert Silverberg. Reproduced with permission)
Text scanned using Textbridge Classic, proofread and converted to HTML using Word '97.
In the dream I am running, I don't know from what or which, but it is of the utmost necessity that I run and keep running. I suck in great mouthfuls of sweet air, feel my lungs expand. I breathe hard, harder, and drops of sweat begin to bead on my brow. My legs are pumping, pumping. My arms are swinging, swinging. My feet fly over the cinders, toe heel sole, pushing, thrusting, and I am driving myself to the limits of exhaustion. My throat burns as I gasp. Salt sweat attracts a thin layer of dust and dirt, on my face, on my neck, under my arms. My shirt is plastered to my back. I am running and sweating and dying with the agonies of being alive, and it is glorious.
In the dream my heart thumps in my chest cavity as I run, thumps a little louder as I add a burst of speed, and then its beat is ragged, it tears, it breaks, it bursts, and this time I am really dying. You must stop this running, I tell myself You'll kill yourself like this. And then I begin to fall forward on my face.
At which point I always wake up. This time consciousness snaps to with a jolt, there is no easy segue from dream to waking, and before I remember that it cannot be, there is for the briefest of moments a tingling lingering ache in my calves and thighs. Then I fix time and space. All the external pangs are gone. I am standing, so: arm upraised in greeting, torso half twisted toward my invisible friend, the other arm dangling stiffly at my side. I am dressed in clothes that do not quite fit, though they are at least pinned in the back. I have, after this uncertain passage of time, become used to them. In fact I ignore them most of the time. They are not part of me, they have nothing to do with me, their style is not my style, and personally if I had the choice of what I would wear I would wear nothing. If I had the choice I would not be where and who I am, and I think it would be wonderful to feel all the elements raging against my naked skin: fire and ice and pain and love and beauty. I get none of these from the clothes I wear - correction, the clothes I have been dressed in. This time, however, I have reason for discomfort, as whoever dressed me has somehow twisted my feet until the toes point at a common locus. I am pigeon-toed.
We all have our crosses to bear, I once heard a fat woman from Midwich say. She'd come in to buy something for her husband, an anniversary present, and she spent a great deal of time looking through the entire stock of sport jackets before she found one her husband wouldn't like. It was a loud item in checks and stripes, garish colors (the details escape me now, of course), pockets everywhere and not enough buttons. Seeing her buy that monstrosity restored my faith, allowed me to accept the singular advantages of my position. In addition, that coat was the last the store had in stock, and I was not the only one happy to see it blare its way out of our lives.
I am not alone here, of course. The hired help is here from gray dawn to orange twilight, hustling amid the bustling, sneaking coffee breaks and bitching about the boss. A quick life, flickering with delight. A life full of friends, acquaintances, enemies. The clash of personalities. Jealousies and hatreds. Fear and understanding. I understand the last of these. I understand understanding, as I must, because I have nothing else to do all day long, and I have in my brief existence formulated several thousand utterly remarkable interpretations of the underlying philosophy of life. I understand the importance of light to the motility of man. When it is light they come. When it is dark they go.
Now it is growing dark, orange floods knee-deep, lights are flicked on here, off there. The cleaning staff is coming through, picking up the spoor of the last customers, and the store is closing. A lady whose face I have never seen adjusts the collar of my shirt; then, dissatisfied with the cast of my countenance, shifts the angle of my chin a few degrees. Then she is gone and I am staring across the aisle at a mirror.
Understand that I cannot see myself in the mirror. Understand that the mirror was not there yesterday, that if it had things might be a lot different. Now the mirror is something new, something I have seen before but never studied. Before, I have only glanced into the mirror as it, or I, was carried past. Now I can look into that reflected world until I have had my fill.
I stare for a long time before I begin to sort out which is what. It takes me a while to understand that all is backward - I knew that but did not realize it - and once I have that straight I can pick out the gondola of overstock blouses with the hosiery display at the near end, behind that the racks of dresses in every conceivable size, beyond that the changing rooms of orange board and frosted glass. I stare at the shadows on the glass and think about my dream and the end of my dream, especially the end. The running and the dying. The dying. A chill rivets my attention back to the shadows on the glass, at which point the door opens and a woman steps out of the dressing room. She is wearing such-and-such and so-and-so, walking with undulating grace easily and fluidly toward me. She is more motion at once than I have ever seen before.
I think she is quite beautiful, filling amply all the current criteria. I am eager for her to get close enough to see that I am pigeon-toed and correct it. Yet even as she steps nearer someone is entering my field of vision. He cuts across the aisle, slows down (and she is slowing down) and blocks the mirror.
I can still see her, but she is blocked by him and will advance no farther. He moves and she apes him, scratching her shoulder as he scratches his. Neither says a word. I stare and I do not understand. And then I do.
She is the reflection of him.
I do not understand how it can be so, nor why it is so, but I cannot doubt what I see, that isn't my style, and so I must accept that she is his reflection, and possibly he hers, and that is the way it is. So I study him before I go back to studying her. He's of fair height, as tall as she anyway, and he has a fine healthy head of hair, good posture, nothing in his back pockets, boots with moderate heels. I do not like him. Her I could love, that compassion in her eyes, the perfection of her face and body according to the current criteria. But she is looking at him, and smiling.
Smiling in that vaguely predatory affectionate manner. Smiling and smiling, as I suppose on our side of the glass he is smiling and smiling, lips puckering up into cheeks with the joy and glory of it all.
I can read the signs. Love has reared its head.
He looks at her and she looks at him for long dull seconds. I think about the world back of my left shoulder: a gondola of overstock shirts, socks at this end of it, behind racks of suits and the changing cubicles. And I think about the mirror, and I think of the world behind the glass...
They are still looking at each other, but now her mouth moves in silence. I cannot make out the words but it is long enough to say "I love you" and no more. Then her hand moves to the front of her dress. From the flapping of his elbows I detect that he is opening his shirt, but quickly I am more interested in her. This will be my first opportunity to personally appraise taboo areas of the body. I am curious about her breasts.
She drops her dress to the floor and is standing there naked with a knowing smile, and yes the current criteria! praise be the current criteria! I am fascinated and repelled, awed and uplifted.
He, the idiot, is still struggling with his pants, but he gets them down in time to win her approval. They nod at each other, lean forward, lips touching the glass. There is a quick private communication, I am sure of it, for suddenly there is an aura about them that I cannot completely place. I will in time, but now is not the time. They are pulling their clothes back on and his head turns to the right and he nods back at me and says something. She laughs, showing a fine throat, looks back over her shoulder, says something to him with a significant glance at me. He peers into the glass at something I cannot see, confers with her earnestly. She has not all this time taken her eyes off me, and when she replies the lines of her mouth are for a moment hard. Then suddenly they both burst out laughing.
But I understand. It is not unkind. They are not laughing at me, only at my predicament, so I ignore the twinges inside and laugh with them.
With a shrug he turns back to me, gives me a thumbs-up, puts his hand to the mirror, fingers splayed on the surface. Her palm has risen to meet it, her fingers flatten themselves against the glass between them. Again there is that secret communication, and now there is no glass between them. Their hands touch, palm to palm, an eddy of distortion around his fingers. He pushes his arm forward and his hand disappears to the wrist and I jerk in alarm. He withdraws his hand and it is still there, looks real, probably is real. And she has done the very same thing, now putting her hand back up to meet his, now pushing forward until their wrists are meeting and their hands are no where to be seen.
I think I begin to understand, a shift of mental attitude which somehow communicates itself to him, for he turns back to me and smiles, smiles, turns back to the mirror and puts both hands through it and sticks out his foot, leans forward, begins the very process of walking. His leg disappears into her leg as hers disappears into his. Then one arm is gone to the shoulder, his head goes, half his torso is left, now only one leg, now the heel of a boot, now nothing, not even a flaw left in the glass by their passage.
Some time has passed since he came and they went, and I have stood here with my pigeon toes, thinking and thinking. I am trying to understand, more so now because since that time the boss has shifted my chin back to where it had pointed before. I have accepted the circumstances of their escape because I have no choice, but I am plagued by questions about them. He and she. The Couple, as I think of them now. What was that conferred business about? What were they saying about me? Was that significant glance one of recognition? Of pity?
Did she, just for a moment, think of turning the glass? Who did she want me to see? Who did she want to see me?
And I wonder why he stopped her, and I have come to understand. In understanding their motives I have come to understand my predicament and my immobility and myself, and I would gladly embrace all of these and accept them were it not for my need to know the shape and form and current criteria of that which I have lost.
Now most of my time is spent in dreaming, and when I run I pay attention less to the breathing and the pounding and the churning, and more to the breaking and the bursting and the dying.