SWINGING his backpack in front of him, Otto stepped off the train. He felt foolish. What he had seen, as the northbound train had passed a small hut made of driftwood sticks, was only a reflection from a small mirror. The reflection had tossed into Otto’s eyes a single flash as he passed by; it had happened every day for four days. Yesterday, a young woman had stood near the hut and waved to him as he passed.
Three days running, he had pondered the meaning of that mirror, its flash of bright silver as the wheels rolled past, taking Otto to LA, two hours north. Finally, on this Thursday night, he again saw the mirror, its flash, and he asked himself what would he find if he investigated. Madness, he dismissed the thought, and yet as the brakes sent a shudder of resistance through the cars as they slowed nearing the San Clemente pier, he found himself gathering his backpack and reaching the exit door, hesitating, and stepping outside before it closed.
Maybe I should have told Paul about this, Otto thought, watching the train leave without him. Paul would have talked sense: a flash of light, so what? That wouldn’t have been the point. It was the way it glowed, a mind-penetrating glint like a beam into a dark basement: a momentary, internal illumination, a world compressed, and yet somehow expanded, a miniature Big Bang on a beach.
Again, Paul would say so what? What was Otto doing, leaving the train when he was two hours of rail and a bus ride away from his apartment in Glendale?
“Impulse control,” Otto imagined Paul saying, “that’s always been your problem. Remember your second marriage, or that time you lost two thousand in Vegas?”
“I’m older now,” Otto said.
“Obviously,” Paul said in his right ear, “and you have to do what you must. But just make sure you get a ticket for the northbound Amtrak tonight otherwise you’ll be stuck there unless you call me and I have to drive up to San Juan from Carlsbad and get you.”
Not to worry, Otto thought. He would catch the night train. He’d researched it before he left this morning, the last of his four-days of work with Paul.
Paul retired from the pool cleaning business in Los Angeles and had moved down to Carlsbad. He wanted to be closer to his two kids who lived in San Diego County. The house had been a quick sale—the daughter of the old man who lived there just needed to get back to worrying about her jobs and kids and sold as is. The sale happened shortly after Paul’s wife went in for hip surgery. She still was recovering. Paul bought Otto’s train ticket from LA and treated Otto to breakfast before they unpacked boxes, moved furniture, hung pictures, cleaned, and in the late afternoon Otto left with forty dollars in his pocket. After the fourth day, today, he and Paul had got the place in order.
The money helped. Otto had declined to teach summer school He was burned out. And now he’d seen a bright, burning reflection. So what? This time it was he asking himself, but too late now.
He walked to the shore. To the west, the sun set at the ocean’s rim. Trudging south across sand, heading for the driftwood-built hut and its mysterious mirror, Otto dodged around a family that was picking up their blankets as they left the beach. He saw a couple of surfers floating, waiting to catch a last wave and a young mother tossing a beach ball to her infant son. Around a bend, a boy and girl had a blanket over them and clearly waiting for him to be gone.
Farther on, high tide sent a wash of reflective water in thin sheets that splashed his feet. The sun’s bottom edge dipped below the horizon and the sea was a smooth, dark mirror.
He almost didn’t see the driftwood hut. Poking as it did above a ridge of sand, only a couple of sticks were visible. He walked up the short ridge and approached something that now looked more like a sloppily constructed doghouse. Circling the hut, he saw no mirror, but he heard a noise from inside. “Hello?” he said.
A face popped out. It was an old man with a pointed gray beard and thinning hair. On all fours, he introduced himself as Lombard. “What can I do for you?”
“I was passing by and I saw a mirror’s reflection,” Otto said.
“So?” Lombard said. Crawling out of the hut’s opening like a big, old dog he stood and stretched; old limbs creaked. He wore cutoff jeans, a T-shirt, and was barefoot.
Otto felt foolish now.
“Oh wait,” Lombard said. He reached down and pulled the circular mirror from inside, held it by a handle. “You mean this mirror?”
Otto saw what he hadn’t seen from the train. “It’s cracked,” he said. A single, jagged line ran down the middle. “It’s not cracked,” Lombard said. “It’s fissured. It’s my own process.” He creaked his head slightly sideways. “It’s a designer mirror.”
“And you designed it?”
Lombard thrust the mirror forward. “Try it,” he said.
Taking the handle, Otto saw how the cracked mirror reflected his features as two jagged halves. He didn’t like either side. He never had. He never liked his own features, even when he was younger—the weak chin, the small, raisin-like eyes—and less now that his hair was thinning and his belly growing. He held the mirror away from him, arm’s length.
That’s when things got strange. The crack now seemed to have altered the angle of the two almost-equal halves of glass, producing a double image, the sky on one side and the breaking waves on the other. And yet he wasn’t in the picture.
Then he regripped the mirror and there he was, only one half of his face was at a slightly higher angle than the other, as though he were two people.
When he turned the mirror, he saw the ocean in one frame and a girl running in her shorts and shirt and no shoes, but when he looked in that direction she was gone.
He lowered the mirror. “You designed this?” he asked.
“Some mirrors need the human touch,” Lombard said. “The crack brings the two sides into new alignments. This allows a new reality to appear.”
“What new reality?”
“That depends on the mirror’s owner,” Lombard said. “It’s for sale.”
Otto turned the mirror by its handle. He sensed the glass pulling down the pale light from the darkening sky. It would be night soon. “I can’t get a steady image,” he said.
“It’s temperamental,” Lombard said. “You have to work with it.”
He rode the last train back to LA from San Clemente downtown. On the way, Otto saw how the two sides of the mirror showed two different people or two different world, one side showed the train’s aisle and the other angled in reflection to the window and the back ends of businesses: gas stations, drive-through joints, hotels. The mirror’s distortions that made him feel as if he didn’t exist, that neither of two halves reflected him, only a version of himself.
Home at midnight, he took a quick shower and went to bed. Lying in the dark, curled on his side, he had the sensation that his body curved like the mirror’s crack, a thin zig-zag of a line like the jut of his knees and hips, as if he were something divided.
As he tried to sleep, he thought of how he’d loved being a beach-walker when he was a kid, to be one with the sand and surf. His family lived in the San Gabriel Valley. Going to the beach had been their favorite thing to do. He wanted to be a beachcomber when he grew up. Of course, these days the only real beachcombers were millionaires with beachfront homes. Now he lived in a small house he bought after his first divorce. There were no kids, not that time and certainly not after the second, a union that lasted a month. He was still single now, fifty-seven years old, looking forward to retiring as a teacher. Then what? He couldn’t afford to live at the beach, he knew.
He slept fitfully and had dreams of water and sand. Sometimes he floated and sometimes he sank. His sleep had not been restful, just the opposite. At dawn he looked at the mirror, saw how its two sides reflected entirely different things like a walleyed face. At a local Starbuck’s he held the mirror—which got him some curious looks—and saw phantoms in reflection, like the girl he saw running yesterday. When he saw that three hours had gone by like this, staring into and turning the mirror slightly this way and that, he became alarmed and took an Uber to Union Station and caught a noontime southbound train. He was determined to return the cracked mirror. Throwing it away somehow wasn’t the answer, as it would still be reflecting from the bottom of a bin. Returning it was the only thing to do.
“I need to be in control,” he would tell Lombard. He would shrug. “I guess that comes from being a junior-high teacher for twenty years.”
When he reached San Clemente it was the middle of the afternoon and he walked a few hundred yards south from the pier when a weariness overtook him. It was the sand, the heat, and last night’s insomnia. He found shade behind a lifeguard’s shack and curled up. The effect of the coffee he’d drunk had worn off. He slept for hours. When he woke the lifeguard was gone and it was late in the day. He checked the mirror. It showed the lifeguard’s shack from underneath though Otto was standing ten feet away. The other half showed the surf. He saw the form of a running woman headed south.
He went that way. As he walked, he kept looking down at the mirror as if it were a compass. As he did, he noticed that the crack on the surface was slowly healing, the glass smooth where it hadn’t been. As it healed, it seemed to straighten out either of the bent planes of glass, and they slowly brought his features together.
He looked up. He’d gone a long way. There was no one around and it was almost dark. He turned and saw the shack and walked up to it. “Hello,” he said.
No one was home. He got down on his knees and peered inside the small opening. By the day’s last light he saw no human presence, and not even himself in the mirror’s reflection. He’d been swallowed by glass. And yet he was here, a part of everything that was drifting into night. He crawled into the hut. No one was home, just him, holding the mirror and looking out as the daylight faded and, in the distance, a train approached from the south.