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From Meander Belt

Excerpted from Meander Belt by M. Randal O’Wain, out this month from University of Nebraska Press.

With the covers drawn to my neck, I count cars that pass on Young Avenue, worrying over my father’s absence from dinner. Perhaps because he missed a few meals in a row or maybe my concern stems from the rain that has fallen all day and night. Outside my window, I hear the ssshiinnggs of tires against wet asphalt but no engine sounds like his truck. I’ll wait for him—but soon I fall asleep and a hungry fear wakes me seconds before I feel his heavy hand shake my shoulders. I play with this jolt as I zero in on my father’s face crouched close to mine. He is dressed in a thin jean jacket with fur around the collar, a pair of aviator shades holding back a loose mane of long hair—Come on, he says. I want to show you something. I do not trust the urgency in his voice, cannot understand why he needs to pull me from bed. I only calm when my older brother Chris appears in the doorway, a cool look of annoyance on his face.

On the way to the car, Chris moves as Dad does, chest puffed and shoulders squared, shuffling forward as if led by the button of his jeans. My father loads my younger sister Amanda into her booster. My mother smokes with the passenger window cracked. And then we drive and I (not aloud, never aloud in front of my father) whine about the length of the car ride, about the uncertainty of our destination. He tells us that where we were going is a surprise.

A lone building, tall and narrow, made almost entirely of glass stands in the center of a massive lot and my father parks just outside of the double brass doors. He carries my sleeping sister from the car, her body drapes over his torso, head resting in the crook of his neck. When he tosses his set of keys in the air, a bulbous mess of jangling sound, he laughs, catching them on the way down. I run to him, my face at the same level as the door handle, and watch as he fingers the ring in search of the corresponding key—gold, wrapped in a pink sticker, muddied with prints. He smiles when the lock clicks free. I know now the pleasures of pride; I can imagine the sense of accomplishment this sound must have provided my father, a thirty-year-old construction worker—keys mean trust, respect. Keys also mean home and so I follow his hand with suspicion.

Once inside, we take the elevator up to an expansive room: sea foam green walls; electric sockets, uncovered, exposed entrails of capped off wiring. Familiar objects are spread over a cloth tarp, objects I associate with my father—joint compound, troughs and spades, paper tape without adhesive, a cordless drill and a tool belt.

It’s this way, he says, waving us through a heavy wooden door and into an unfurnished restroom mezzanine where large mirrors cover the walls and floor and ceiling. There is a small window and as the mirrors reflect off one another, the mezzanine is cast in silver. There is no up and no down until my family, crowding closely together, break the room open—I see myself below me, above me, beside me. My father puts his hand on my shoulder and pushes me toward one wall; my brother on his other side, Amanda asleep in his arms. He tells us how to look, kneeling next to Chris and pointing to the reflections behind his reflection. See? Their bodies repeat ad-infinitum, dressed identically, grinning into the smallest images of themselves. I count the reproductions, first the front and then the back—long hair hanging past each of their shoulders, blue eyes too large in each of their faces, until I cannot see their eyes, can’t make out their sharp jaw lines. My excitement inverts, turns to panic. These are faces and bodies so like the ones known to me but distant, perhaps stolen in the last capture. I shake my head, focusing again on the me just beyond my ear, so close to the mirror my breath draws fog but I am confused to find only the back of my head—hair matted from sleep. My sister howls, a raspy, dry screaming that begins the moment she opens her eyes, surprised to be somewhere far from home. Patting her back, shhing, my parents leave the mezzanine together.

I lay down—at the tips of my fingers are further fingers, above me I locate my disappearing twins and I trace my likeness the way I had with my brother and father until I cannot recognize my face but only the contours of my head, and my breathing grows shallow because I fear an end. I fear an end because it is a mystery, a phenomenon, the hundreds of replicas I narrate with no conclusion—he is me, but different; he is not me, but looks the same; he is me, and is the same; he will go home and sleep and share my future; he will share the opposite future. My father was right. I love the surprise. My earlier unease is replaced by awe when, for the first time I can recall, I think of him as a man separate from father or provider, a man who built a room made of mirrors, a room that tilts the normal world into the extraordinary.

When he comes to fetch me, I ask him where the reflections end.

They don't, he says. 

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M. Randal O’Wain

M. Randal O’Wain earned his MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. He is a teaching assistant professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution. O’Wain is the author of the short story collection Hallelujah Station and his work has been published in Oxford American, Hotel Amerika, Crazyhorse, and Guernica Magazine. For more information about the author visit randalowain.com.