‘Miracle Polish’ by Steven Millhauser


From The New Yorker:

I should have said no to the stranger at the door, with his skinny throat and his black sample case that pulled him a little to the side, so that one of his jacket cuffs was higher than the other, a polite no would have done the trick, no thanks, I’m afraid not, not today, then the closing of the door and the heavy click of the latch, but I’d seen 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. All the more reason, I said to myself, to send him on his way, as I stepped aside and watched him move into my living room. He looked quickly around before setting his case down on the small table next to the couch. I’d made up my mind to buy something from him, anything, a hairbrush, the Brooklyn Bridge, buy it and get him out of there, I had better things to do with my time, but there was no hurrying him as he slowly undid each clasp with his bony fingers and explained in a mournful voice that this was my lucky day. In the suddenly opened case I saw six rows of identical dark-brown glass bottles, each a bit smaller than a bottle of cough medicine. Two things struck me: the case must have been very heavy, and he must not have sold anything in a long time. The product was called Miracle Polish. It cleaned mirrors with one easy flick of the wrist. He seemed surprised, even suspicious, when I said I’d take one, as if he had wandered the earth for years with the same case filled to bursting with unsold bottles. 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. The name exasperated me, a child could have done better than that, though there was something to be said for the way it sat there flaunting its fraudulence. “Don’t trust me!” it shouted for all to hear. “Don’t be a fool!”

When he tried to sell me a second bottle, he understood from my look that it was time to go. “You’ve made a wise choice,” he said solemnly, glancing at me and looking abruptly away. Then he clicked his case shut and hurried out the door, as if afraid I’d change my mind. Lifting a slat of the half-closed blinds, I watched him make his way along the front walk with the sample case pulling him to one side. At the sidewalk he stopped, put down his case next to the sugar maple, wiped his jacket sleeve across his forehead, and gazed up the block as if he were the new boy in school, getting ready to cross the school yard, where faces were already turning to stare at him. For a moment he looked back at my house. When he saw me watching him, he grinned suddenly, then frowned and jerked his head away. With a sharp snap I let the blind-slat drop.

I had no interest in mirror polish. I placed the bottle in a drawer of the hutch, where I kept extra flashlight batteries, packages of light bulbs, and an unused photograph album, and gave no more thought to it.

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