Swans Commentary » swans.com April 9, 2012  



The Mirror Test


by Peter Byrne


Short Story



"The point of public relations slogans like 'Support our troops' is that they don't mean anything... That's the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody's going to be against, and everybody's going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn't mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That's the one you're not allowed to talk about."
—Noam Chomsky


(Swans - April 9, 2012)   At first I didn't twig what they were on about with all their talk of the "mirror test" and "the mirror ordeal." Now I've come to understand. It was the usual gift parcel of words from the folks at home. Back there where everyone's busy beating out the competition for the good life, they sometimes hear about our wars. Nervier patriots even get a bee in their baseball cap about them. They wonder if enough is being done for "our troops." Sending us out didn't bother them. Then we were all crisp and neat. What upsets folks is the mess we come back in.

The mirror scenario starts like this. He's been out there for some time, a long plane hop from home, busy establishing democracy and putting the right foreign friends in power. Never mind the geography. The big maps weren't for him. He was given a little map that covered the operation in hand. A practical guy, he was getting the job done. Strong and silent, he asked no questions. The top men never burdened "our boys" -- that was him -- with useless detail. They knew what they were doing. That's why they were on top. They made the decisions that ended in something called policy that it wasn't our man's business to bother about. It was all, of course, for his own good and that meant for the good of the planet.

The scenario admitted that keeping the world going in the desired direction wasn't easy. There was a lot of bad will out there. Some of these faraway people didn't know what was good for them. They wouldn't accept a favor. Young men like him came all that way open handed to woo their hearts and change their minds. He'd given a lot up and made real sacrifices. He missed out on watching the Super Bowl on his dad's TV and eating mom's Thanksgiving dinner at the old homestead. And yet -- surprise, surprise -- these confused foreigners did not thank him. He was misunderstood and, in the worst cases, it has to be said, despised. But there's no explaining evil. It's just, well, evil.

And what can be done against evil but release righteous wrath? That, the scenario says, is where he and "our boys" show their mettle. They always perform like heroes, turning the other cheek in every possible direction before unleashing their force. That, of course, is irresistible, the most expensive, massive, most deadly force the world has ever known. It's also the safest imaginable for "our boys." Yet, evil has dirty tricks up its filthy sleeve. A few of our ever strong and always silent heroes are nicked by the underhand tactics of vile deadenders.

All this makes a great story. I appreciate it even more because I figure in the unhappy ending. I've been not only nicked but pretty well chewed up in combat. The next part of the scenario, however, though doubtless well meant, is too far-fetched for my taste. As our roughed up boys come home, some of them in pieces, the general public is encouraged to show its sympathy. After all "our troops" have saved them from I forget exactly what, but it was something dire. We are told that these heroes are portable ruins and have to be looked after. It's not only that some of their bits and pieces are missing. The men suffered shock. They know trauma. Their heads have to be completely realigned.

Here's where the mirror comes in. Facing it was the moment of truth like when a kid has to put away his Superman suit and explain his bum report card. Imagine the time the young dude with the punk haircut couldn't make it on his big date. Or when at fifty Mr. Pot Belly gives up on his mortgage and looks for somewhere else to live. It was the test, "the mirror test." Now none of the anxious people who looked after me ever mentioned a mirror. But since that day my Humvee hit an IED and the fuel tank blew, the faces looking into mine all had to gulp back their lunch.

Funny how I remember each face and can't recall the day. I suppose it was like all the others out there. We got up early, some joker blasting us with his fetish heavy metal CD. Breakfast was big and greedy. We used to call it "our last meal" even after the joke went stale. But what didn't go stale after a couple of months? Everyone to his taste. Some guys popped pills, others started on beer. There was time to relax before the patrol mounted up. Nobody relaxed.

The faces I remember came afterward, after I got singed. First of all there was the medic who went horror show and turned away to fiddle with his equipment. Next the base doctor was all consolation as if I'd lost my nearest and dearest. The guys in the chopper didn't dig me in the ribs with their usual "You'll be back in the ring next round, Champ." They wrapped me up and put me under without any chitchat at all. As a package I was easier to digest. Then, wherever it was, maybe Kuwait, they got around to whispering and hand-holding like old friends. They were trained to schmooze. They'd been taught to look hard at what roiled their stomach and grin as if I was a newborn babe on a calendar.

Back home or in the string of hospitals never far from my home, it was like seeing the same movie too many times. Some of the places smelled less of disinfectant, had green grass outside the windows, and were called medical centers. Now the jolly crew were all polished professionals, and very busy. It was their show and could easily turn into a comedy. A lab-coat once rushed me with a clip-board and started calling me "Bill." This Bill -- my name is Joe -- seems to have had his face burnt off in Somalia, where I'd never been as far as my superiors had informed me.

I assumed that these specialists knew a lot more about my face than I did. When they suggested another graft to cover up the last one I went along. I didn't say no to a spoonful of silicone in order to -- how did they put it? -- add definition to my chin. Go ahead, I said, and feel free to open up my right nostril if the slacker refuses to play ball. A year passed, and another. We had power conferences about wrong-colored scar tissue and the fight against patchiness. There were good cheer sessions when we slapped one another on the back.

But enough was enough for me. They had spared no effort. I felt sorry for them when I had to say I was ready to settle for what they'd done with my face and preferred the status quo to further waves of anesthesia. They were less put out than I expected and told me I had "surgery fatigue." Take a break, they said, and come back for more. I didn't argue because they would never understand. They were still in the "our-poor-boys" scenario that I appreciated as entertainment but never bought into. Their last word was to watch out for mirrors; the test was coming.

In the scenario, understand, the scar-faced dummy never checked out their handiwork. He never caught a glimpse of himself on a grayed-out TV screen or in a dark window pane. He never wanted to see if he needed a shave or peeked at his reflection in his wife's compact. Curiosity was not his thing. Then one day, wandering around home, he stumbled on a big wardrobe mirror and did a double-take, "Who the hell was that ugly bastard?" He then fainted away, too glum to face himself. A couple of cute therapists would then turn up and convince him he still had a fetching smile. He had only to grit his teeth hard and say cheese.

That wasn't going to be the punch line in my personal tale because my story was something completely different. Flat as a yawn, it had no scary high points, no flare ups. It had been one long dull fright. To start at the beginning as these things do, I don't know why -- who remembers the beginning? -- I was born in 1975. Skip a dozen years and there I am living in the projects with my mother who was the original bundle of nerves wrapped up in a shiver of panic. I'd never caught sight of my father, who died doing his duty, as they say, in Vietnam. As far as I was concerned he was that monthly check that came through our door. That is to say, the check was mailed monthly, but actually getting our hands on it every four weeks could be a problem.

The projects have a scenario too. Who hasn't heard of the vermin, heisters, junkies, welfare pirates, broken elevators -- broken everything? There was truth in that of course but my mother's and my major worry, (I won't say trauma) was getting our mail (that good news of my father) safely through the slot in our door. The mailman seemed to have something against our community. He visited us rarely and when he came hurled a bundle tied with a cord through the street door downstairs. Volunteers assumed responsibility from then on. They tended to favor one floor -- their own -- more than another. My mother spent thirty anxious days in front of her calendar waiting for what was often a non-event. I was sent to spy out deliveries and learnt my arithmetic by counting steps, so many down, minus so many up. Our tiny household may have been crime-free but it was no isle of calm. There was a brief happy time after the envelope was finally ripped open. I don't say my mother gave a bow to the Vietcong. Sarcasm wasn't her forte. But she might hum a bit of God Bless America.

Years before, the official telegram had got to her without a hitch. The neighbors knocked and told her to put a gold star in our window. She never did. I can imagine her thinking that wasn't the sort of thing to do in the projects. Gold stars were for bay windows looking out on a well clipped lawn. My mother was too unsure of herself even to confess she had no pretensions. Dread sat heavy on her mousey head and vibrated around her. As far back as I can remember, we were two scared rabbits that couldn't find a hole in the fence.

My mother told me years later -- in fact, when I signed up to go off -- that the military came all dressed up to give her the news. She worried that the talkative guy in kaki, after shedding his tear, would latch on to the fact that my father hadn't been around for a couple of years before he enlisted. He'd planted us and hid out on the West Coast until he'd staggered through all the alternative blind alleys and volunteered. My mother had no shame about being dumped, feeling she deserved worse. Her fear back then was that it might be illegal for a cast-off wife to bank the insurance money and pension.

I don't really recall how I felt about my father, dead or alive. Did I think he was a hero? Maybe on the way home from a double-feature on Saturday afternoon. But once back in our cramped household, hero worship did not flourish. All the same, as far as patriotism went, my mother's grew with the years. When that envelope made it through the slot year after year she would often remark how surprised she was that the government hadn't written her off. That's why she thought my joining the Army was a good idea. My possible demise, I like to think, never entered her head, only the regularity of those checks. And at twenty I hadn't even found any alternative dead ends to try.

Ten years later, there I was standing in front of that full length mirror. My family fright had left me once I joined the Army. Not that I felt impregnable or even strong. I simply gave up on living and considered myself gone. In combat or in the boredom between, there was nothing left to lose. What could a mirror do now to someone like me? My reaction, standing there, was only annoyance that the knot in my tie was wrong and would have to be re-done. The army taught me grooming. I'd already got well accustomed to my new face. Frankly I'd never found the old one endearing and the episode serving my country turned me into an optimist. After all, not everyone has a second chance in life, including medical insurance, without having to resort to a shady disappearing act like my old man.

It wasn't only that I'd got used to my post-combat face, I actually preferred it. There were plusses. I'd never told the surgeons that the droop in what was left of my eyelids was an improvement. One lid already drooped before the big burnout and, as they kept telling me, symmetry was all important in faces. I looked worldly now, mature, confident, patched up but with a full past in there behind the crazy-quilt exterior.

After all, the mug I started out with as a kid was no toothpaste commercial. It showed my inherited blue funk and skewered my features. The first thing the job interviewers always told me was to relax. I'd listen to the usual blah-blah and they'd see me out with a reminder to have a good day and not to call them. They never even added, as the saying does, that they would call me.

I certainly couldn't blame them for burying my file. The address in the projects put a hex on it from the start. My elementary school only made the statistic tables when some ten-year-old had to be disarmed by the city's SWAT team. Any thinking that went on there had to do with gang strategy. Kids sat the years out picking up trade secrets and at sixteen graduated into the drug industry. The diploma they gave us was less for the three R's than for surviving. High school was more of the same, except that I was then surrounded by big hairy brutes. The girls knew more about life than my mother ever saw out of our window. Those who weren't on the game had no time for scared rabbits. I got out as soon as the state law allowed.

So, standing before that same mirror, I re-knotted my tie and gave myself a wink. It came out more of a badly synchronized blink. Those eyelids of mine still like to stick together. It enhances my Phantom of the Opera appeal. On my trips to Vegas it keeps the croupier guessing when I place my chips. Mainly, though, I sit it out here in my cozy little place on the Coast, finally relaxing. My bedroom mirror is backlit and has a gilt frame. The apartment block reminds me of my childhood back East. But the elevator works most of the time and there's no slot in the door. My check arrives in my mailbox downstairs. Who says the American Dream is dead?


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 9, 2012