Magic Mirror 

There’s a fire raging at Romper Room. Miss Alice coughs hi to all the boys and girls as smoke rises over her face and hand mirror. 

Hello, Magic Mirror friends. She reads messy names Sujenny and Ambrian and Joemily

Firemen in Mr. Roger-cardigan-colored outfits arrive with hoses filled with glitter and PlayDoh water that turns into a clumpy blue mess. They try to open the giant folding ladder of Miss Alice’s Fire Engine Playset ($9.98 + tax) but it snaps like ribbon candy. 

The fire began as a Swedish chime carousel announced a holiday St. Lucia play. Shirley Temple lookalikes lined up with flammable head wreaths and white candles to showcase a new culture. I sent in my application to be one of them but wasn’t chosen. I was never called out by Miss Alice in her magic mirror either. I still practiced for months with a book on my head, walking like a runway model.

The chosen Shirley Temple St. Lucia’s are better at it then I would be, marching like sausage-hair-curled soldiers. In minutes, their hair is on fire too as the fire engine sirens play Edelweiss. The firemen spray down their curls with seltzer water from clown-sized spritz bottles. 

I have to let the children know I’m watching them.

Miss Alice Puff the Magic Dragon breathes through our television screen. I feel her hot breath on my face as I reach my hands out to catch her; she falls from forty stories almost into our living room, but not quite. Her face presses against the black and white screen, black and white flames licking at us.

She mumbles as smoke crowds into her plastic lungs but we can’t hear her anymore. We watch her paper dress fill with flaming memory words as she reads messages from boys and Shirley Temple girls.

 Fire Fire help help me can you see me, boys and girls?

The firemen-boys finally put out the fire with their glitter hoses. Miss Alice holds the paper mirror in bandaged hands and tries to read our names in the ashes. Alice she crow-voiced calls out, can you hear me? And yet, she can’t hear herself. 

The St. Lucia Shirley’s run over to reassure her but she can’t see them anymore either. Her blue eyes and blue cardigan are black and white and grayscale. Do you see me, Miss Alice? I call at the television as she is carried away. My fingerprints spell out her name on the flickering screen. A pile of Christmas music ashes fall behind her.

Perhaps to distract, my mother brings a crushed box of silver angels and finger white candles to the table. I light a candle for Miss Alice and say her name into our dining room mirrored walls. I practice walking with a fake evergreen wreath on my head. Miss Alice will need replacement Shirley’s. I need to be ready.

16 Comments

  1. Janelle Greco

    I absolutely love the glitter hoses and Play-Doh water. It feels surreal, yet grounded in a real situation (the fire). I love the ending too–it’s a nice image of the narrator balancing the wreath on their head and I really enjoy the last two lines. I got a little lost in the middle when Alice falls the forty stories. I felt like I lost my footing a bit as a reader (which is maybe the point). I wasn’t sure if she was actually falling through the television screen into the living room or if she was falling within the television screen. Perhaps making this detail just a tad clearer will help ground the reader so they can focus on the beautiful image and not on the logistics of it. Wonderful, beautiful piece!

    • Amy Barnes

      Thank you so much! Your comments are very helpful — I get my head stuck in the version I know and always want to know what doesn’t come through to someone reading it too.

  2. Bud Smith

    Oh wow, that’s such evocative writing right out of the gate! “There’s a fire raging at Romper Room. Miss Alice coughs hi to all the boys and girls as smoke rises over her face and hand mirror.” and I love the ending of the story so much (so sad and so full of longing!) “Do you see me, Miss Alice? I call at the television as she is carried away. My fingerprints spell out her name on the flickering screen. A pile of Christmas music ashes fall behind her.
    Perhaps to distract, my mother brings a crushed box of silver angels and finger white candles to the table. I light a candle for Miss Alice and say her name into our dining room mirrored walls. I practice walking with a fake evergreen wreath on my head. Miss Alice will need replacement Shirley’s. I need to be ready.”

    So to try and figure out what is happening in the story below are the beautiful imagery and flowing prose — do I have it right that there is a fire on a television show and a child imagines it even more wild and vivd than it really is in her fear and inexperience, blending reality and surreality into the programming on the television and empathizing with a fictional character … brilliant.

    But maybe Janelle Greco is right in her comment that we could use just a touch more clarity and grounding, which I am always a fan of.

    • Amy Barnes

      Thank you so much! You are correct in the general idea. I may need to clarify the television show more to ground the flash. I think it must have been a regional (and older) thing but in the Midwest (maybe other places), there was a show called “Romper Room” where various local female hosts offered educational information, crafts, songs, etc. The hostess always closed out the show by looking in her “magic mirror” and calling out the names of kids in the audience. Probably completely random but kids (me) watched, waiting to hear their name being called out. You could also audition to be on the show. At some point, the set in my city burned down and it was months before our area hostess returned on air. Kind of like a female Mr. Rogers. I need to find a few sentences to ground the story in Romper Room lore more because it obviously isn’t as widespread as I thought it was. 🙂

      • Bud Smith

        oh my god, that is amazing! Yeah it’s my bad for not reading up more on Romper Room, I knew to do that but when you said that anecdote about your local set burning down …. that is one of the most interesting aspects and waiting for the host to return (from the dead), wow, not to mention the kids hoping they could be on the show — put that stuff in there more explicitly, would be incredible

  3. Samantha Mitchell

    Hi Amy,
    I’m really intrigued by your imagery here, as well as point of view. Both feel child-like and surreal, which gives the story a nice emotional depth. I love the ending, and how the speaker seizes on opportunity in the face of tragedy. There’s something satisfyingly dark in the blase way she views the fire and her role as a spectator of it, like she can finally find some real, tangible agency in her pursuit of becoming a Shirley Temple because of it. Also, if I’m right in thinking that the speaker is a child, I think this ending really drives home how uncanny and dark children and their actions can sometimes be.

    I would agree with Janelle’s and Bud’s comments that being more clear in the action of the story – what is actually going on – is a good start toward revision. Providing a through-line that will keep the reader grounded will only help to emphasize your surreal and playful language and let it land with a stronger punch.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy Barnes

      Thank you so much! I’m going to contemplate how to get the grounding in there. It’s always a balancing act with the surreal, trying to make sure it is grounded but not too much. I don’t know what the secret sauce is here yet but your comments have me thinking about how to find that balance.

  4. K Chiucarello

    Amy! You have such a knack for drawing the reader in. I see it across all your pieces and this one is no different. The details that ramp up after that introduction are astounding and have such dark humor in them (the fact that we know the price of the set … plus tax, also the exact shade of cardigan that is universally known). You blur the line between imaginary, real, and I suppose digital (?) so well. It’s disorienting, yet each paragraph settles back in perfectly only to knock you over into the next. “A pile of Christmas music ashes fall behind her.” was a favorite line and honestly that is the type of abysmal holiday cheer that many of us feel around these times of year. I’m having trouble even giving suggestions for this one, but I’m wondering if the italic sections can anchor us a bit more (albeit even in the one line) so that there’s even more of a landing pad before moving on to the next disorientation. Am very excited to see revisions of this one.

    • Amy Barnes

      Thank you so much for your kind comments. 2020 holidays just seem muddy like the rest of the year. I will definitely look at the italicized sections — I’ve played with them a little but they could have a stronger role I think.

  5. Kevin Sterne

    there’s a wonderful voice here. Wow. And the way you keep this pulse of absurdity. This is evocative, energetic, and fast-paced top to bottom. I felt like this paragraph was when the piece really started to get a rhythm in pacing and at the prose level: “Miss Alice Puff the Magic Dragon breathes through our television screen. I feel her hot breath on my face as I reach my hands out to catch her; she falls from forty stories almost into our living room, but not quite. Her face presses against the black and white screen, black and white flames licking at us.”

    I agree with everyone about giving the reader more grounding. this could be setting, slowing things down a bit. There’s a lot of actions and characters committing those actions. I think this paragraph is an example: “Firemen in Mr. Roger-cardigan-colored outfits arrive with hoses filled with glitter and PlayDoh water that turns into a clumpy blue mess. They try to open the giant folding ladder of Miss Alice’s Fire Engine Playset ($9.98 + tax) but it snaps like ribbon candy.”

    I really love this and am excited to see what you do with it. hope this helps!

    • Amy Barnes

      Thank you so much for your kind feedback. I have a tendency in flash especially to get too fast with the pacing, try to jam in too much. This may actually need to be closer to 750 than 500 but I’m going to play with it and see if I can cut/add to add the grounding/more even pacing that it needs.

  6. Neil Clark

    Some really lovely flourishes in this one, blending the surreal and the down-to-Earth. My favourite is this passage – “Miss Alice Puff the Magic Dragon breathes through our television screen. I feel her hot breath on my face as I reach my hands out to catch her; she falls from forty stories almost into our living room, but not quite. Her face presses against the black and white screen, black and white flames licking at us.”

    And that ending! Such poignancy in “A pile of Christmas music ashes fall behind her.” and I think the last line has a real punch.

    Similar to what others have said, I think more of a nod to the back story and what Romper Room is/was would ground it a bit more. When I knew the story behind it upon the second reading, I could engage with it better, although still really enjoyed the imagery the first time round!

  7. Taylor Grieshober

    Hi Amy,

    This piece is really wild! I loved it. Lots of good, specific imagery. I especially loved the glitter hoses and the little Shirley Temples “lookalikes lined up with flammable head wreaths and white candles to showcase a new culture”. This is just so strange and shimmery; it feels like a fever dream. I agree with everyone here about more grounding. I was a little unglued as I was reading and I wanted to be more oriented.

    Your reply to Bud is really helpful and I wonder if the story could actually be more explicit? The Romper Room show is FASCINATING. One way to maybe help orient us more is to look at folk tale structure. I’m teaching a unit on flash folk tales right now and what is really cool about the form is you can take something banal (like, say, a children’s tv show) and strip it down to its simplest elements to actually show how strange that thing is. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the reality of this show is strange enough that I would read a whole book about it. I’m not entirely sure how to keep the mood of what you have here and ground us more, but this was my first thought. If you simplify a little in some places, it might help. It might be worth saying that until the paragraph that begins “The fire began…” I thought the Romper Room was a strip club and Miss Alice was the, like, head dancer. Something about that opening line and the firemen. It took me until Shirley Temple to realize I was encountering something totally alien to me.
    Thanks for sharing this! It was a really fun read.

  8. Jacob Schrodt

    I absolutely love this story and can relate so much to the narrator—the wanting to be known, to be special, to be ready when her time comes. Ugh! And the idea of children, the narrator, watching this horrific fire unfold, but for it to be told (as witnessed by the innocent narrator) as if it were just part of the show, is so, so brilliant. I think like others have mentioned, perhaps you could do a little more to ground the scene so that we know we are watching a children’s show. I’ll be thinking about this one all day!

  9. Cheryl Pappas

    Amy! I remember this show and Miss Alice (and just now, the song that plays when the trolley goes by is in my head). I love so many of the sensory images in here, especially the black and white of the TV spilling into the girl’s living room.

    This is highly original and I’m not sure where you got the idea of the Romper Room world (as it is portrayed not in actuality) going up in flames, but wow! It’s a wonderfully rich concept. I’m wondering, however, how many people remember Romper Room and that Miss Alice calls out kids’ names (I’d forgotten that part!).

    I see others have said something similar: ground us first in the world and then depart from it wildly. Maybe the fire doesn’t start right away. Jog our memories first of the simple things about the show and then go off.

    A fantastically imaginative story!

  10. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Janelle, This piece is a romp! I love all the vivid details, from the initial conception of the Romper Room fire to the image of the child watching who feels left out, and longs to be included, even possibly benefitting from the ashes of her competitors. Miss Alice and her mirror folds so well into the television setting.

    As others have said, some clarification would help. You might accomplish some clarity with some sentence work. Reordering a few details too might help. Here’s a sample rewrite for paragraph 4:

    Paragraph 5 as is:
    The chosen Shirley Temple St. Lucia’s are better at it then I would be, marching like sausage-hair-curled soldiers. In minutes, their hair is on fire too as the fire engine sirens play Edelweiss. The firemen spray down their curls with seltzer water from clown-sized spritz bottles.

    Paragraph 5 with edit:
    The Shirley Temples Miss Alice chose are so much better than I would be. They march like soldiers with sausage curled hair, but in minutes that hair is on fire too. The firemen spray down the curls with seltzer water from clown-sized spritz bottles as the fire engine sirens play Edelweiss.

    Paragraph 8:
    She mumbles as smoke crowds into her plastic lungs but we can’t hear her anymore. We watch her paper dress fill with flaming memory words as she reads messages from boys and Shirley Temple girls.

    Paragraph 8 edited– here I think a simple reordering would be clearer in the context:
    We watch her paper dress fill with flaming memory words as she reads messages from boys and Shirley Temple girls. As smoke crowds into her plastic lungs, she mumbles, but we can’t hear her anymore.

    I don’t know if any of this helps, but I would try to consider what is the main thread, the main verb, of each paragraph and then align the sentences and then the paragraphs so that the main thread comes first. That’s not always important, but this is so rich with details that I think that ordering principle might be what works here.

    In any case, loved reading this and thinking about it. Good work.

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