The first picture I ever saw of a naked woman wasn’t in National Geographic Magazine; it was on a calendar tacked to the wall of a machine shop I visited with my father when he was having a die cast for his burglar alarm. We went to a wide variety of such shops when I was growing up, because each of my father’s inventions (most of which were both useful and decades ahead of their time) needed prototypes.
But the burglar alarm was the one that he loved the best.
When I was growing up in Glencoe, I discovered a closet at the foot of the basement stairs in the house on Jackson Avenue. I only went into it once. Not because I’d been forbidden to go inside, but because, so obviously, it didn’t belong to that era of Samuel Reuben’s life that was encumbered with five children, unprofitable apartment buildings on Chicago’s South Side, lawns to mow, and bills to pay.
The closet belonged to his youth. Exploring it, I came as close as I ever would to owning a pair of magical binoculars through which I could peer into my father’s past.
My bewitchment started with the mirrors.
On the bottom shelf of the closet, less than an inch from the floor, were stacks of sturdy cardboard boxes filled with very, very thick mirrors. Some were rectangular, some were square, and all were of sizes either small enough to fit into a purse or large enough to hang over a bathroom sink. By thick, I mean heavy. Dense. My father had invented these mirrors decades before I was born, and despite their ample angularity, they were jewel-like and exotic, unlike any other mirrors I had ever seen. On a few, the silver backing had frayed along the edges, and on others, black spots of erosion marred where my image was supposed to have stared back at me, unblemished and serene.
Their colors were a prism of delight. A few were a shade of blue so secretively deep, they were almost black. Others were more suggestive of some color than of none, but were not quite any specific color at all. There were mirrors so beautiful an emerald green that they seemed to be plot elements in a fantastic story that nobody had told me yet; and there were mirrors so intensely pink that I couldn’t help but wonder if seeing the world through rose-colored glasses was a characteristic passed along in the genes.
The rest of the mirrors in the closet, as intriguing to me as pirate loot, were individually wrapped in soft brown paper, and I probably would have unwrapped all of them if I hadn’t discovered, on the shelf above, small, wooden boxes containing brass printers’ plates.
Deciphering the reverse lettering, I realized that they advertised jello...