Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
A Fable for Our Time
[p.126]Once upon a time (upon several times, actually), a fair young maiden sat weeping in a corner of her kitchen. Everyone else was going to a party, but Kate had nothing to wear, and instead was forced by her wicked step-conscience to stay at home and feed vegetables to the Cuisinart for tomorrow’s dinner.
“Oh why couldn’t I have just one pair of jeans?” she moaned. “Nothing but Laura Ashleys and certified Dress-For-Success suits! Wouldn’t they be laughable at this event? Oh, woe is me! I Wish—I wish—”
Suddenly there was a blinding flash of light, followed by darkness.
“Drat!” said Kate. “I knew this Cuisinart would overload the circuits!”
But as suddenly as it had come, the darkness left. And at her kitchen table sat a woman Kate had never seen before. Even in the middle of her surprise, Kate noticed that she was dressed perfectly for the party-cool white slacks and a shirt in the most wonderful shades of blue and lavender all running together like the aftermath of a spring shower. Her dark blonde hair hung down her back in a thick French braid. She looked like a cross [p.127] between a young Ingrid Bergman and a mature Marietta Hartley, with something of Sharon Gless around the mouth. Kate had a moment of annoyance to think that even a Power & Light worker had a better, a more comprehensive wardrobe than she did.
“Yes?” said the woman, which seemed more like Kate’s line.
“Uh, well, yes, I guess I shouldn’t have plugged in the food processor while the printer was still running but I—”
“The circuitry is fine,” said the woman. “What is it you wish?”
The woman consulted the Franklin Planner open on the table before her. Then she read off, in the voice of a court recorder, “Saturday the 25th, nine-oh-two p.m. ‘Oh woe is me! I Wish—I wish—.’ Well, Kate, I am Miranda Verasdaughter, F.G., and I am here to grant your wish. In fact, you have been allotted—” (another quick glance into the Planner) “yes, three wishes. Will you sign right here-bottom line, where the X is.” She held out a small clipboard, with a form in tri-color triplicate attached.
“I know!” Kate said suddenly. “I’ll bet you’re from Western Onion, aren’t you? This is from the gang at the party, isn’t it? Are you going to sing something? Are there balloons with this?”
The woman laid a cool, gentle hand on Kate’s arm.
“I wish I could stay and philosophize, Kate. But I can’t. You’ll just have to figure this out on your own. Read the bottom line.” The look in her blue eyes compelled Kate to sign the form and to take the offered pink copy.
“Good-bye, Kate,” said Miranda. “Enjoy.”
Just then the Cuisinart starting screeching and grinding, building to an absolute crescendo of agony. Kate turned to silence it. When she turned back, Miranda had vanished.
Kate spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out who was behind the joke. It was a cute gag, but actually, she didn’t know anybody with the energy—or frankly, the interest—to go to that kind of trouble to give her a laugh.
After she had studied the pink receipt for the tenth time, she happened to turn it over. The back was a thicket of very very fine print. It was not a legal contract; it seemed to be a biography of her life right up to the moment the food processor had started misbehaving, and it had many precise and private details, so many that Kate at one point stopped reading and whispered, “FBI!” But even with chronic paranoia, she knew that was absurd. Besides, some of these things, even the FBI [p.128]couldn’t know, because they had never been spoken or written to anyone, but were the secret hoardings of her heart. Two of them she had never even acknowledged to herself, and knew to be the truth only in the moment she read them.
Whatever it was, this was no gag. That night, in a dream, Miranda returned to her. She took Kate’s face in her hands, looked steadily into her eyes, and said, “Get on with it!”
Now Kate was not your typical foolish young maiden. Don’t look for her to waste her three wishes on trivial whims or unthinking inanities: “I wish there were something decent on TV”; “I wish I knew what to do with my hair,” etc. No indeed! (She was a Virgo, after all.)
“I probably shouldn’t make any decision at all for a long Time—the way they tell you to do when a spouse dies.” So she locked the pink receipt in her safety deposit box for a full calendar year.
During that year, of course, she thought a great deal. And she worked on herself to avoid any inadvertent slips. In fact, she totally exiled the word “wish” from her vocabulary. She never said, “Oh, thanks, I wish I could go but I can’t.” Or “I wish this heat would break.” Or “I wish” anything.
She knew that, according to folklore, the three-wishes scenario is fraught with irony. Even O. Henry knew that: boy wishes for fancy watch-fob for his fine watch, girl wishes for fancy combs for her long hair. Boy sells watch to buy combs for girl, who has cut and sold her hair to buy watch-fob. Couple wishes for money; it comes in the form of insurance upon the death of their beloved son. They wish for him back, and a grisly corpse begins thumping on the door. Etc.
There had to be some catch involved with this . . . offer. (Actually, she had taken to thinking of it as a grant. It seemed easier to deal with that way.) She needed to be very careful and examine all potential snags before committing herself. She wasn’t going to race around any blind curve in the road before knowing what lay ahead.
But there was a greater problem. What did she really want? Oh, she wanted a lot of things, of course. But what did she really want?
The second year, her apartment filled up with catalogs and pamphlets and brochures. Neiman-Marcus and Spiegel, Thomasville and Lladro. Arabian Nights Tours and Joy Lake Personal Growth Seminars. A steady stream of “agents” called [p.129]on her. She saw slide presentations about land in New Mexico and Colorado; she spent complimentary weekends at condo developments on Oahu and in Vermont. She test-drove BMWs, Porsches, a Bentley.
During the third year, Miranda came to her frequently in dreams, but only for the briefest moments. One night Kate fell wearily into bed (she no longer slept well) thinking, “Wishing never made anything happen.” Miranda appeared that night, a face on a TV commercial, and said, “Nothing ever happened without wishing.” Another night, Kate wrestled with the idea that people should struggle for what they want in life. This time she saw Miranda driving a creamy convertible with a bumper sticker that read: STRUGGLE IS HIGHLY OVER-RATED. ESPECIALLY AS A LIFESTYLE. In the middle of that winter, an especially cold and dreary winter, Kate fretted for a week, convinced that if she were granted three wishes, no matter what she asked for, she would be changed, become a different person. In that night’s dream, she cracked open a fortune cookie and read, “YOU WILL CHANGE IN ANY CASE.”
In the fourth year, she became a cynic. Any wish that came to her mind immediately triggered a scenario of disappointment, disillusionment, and emptiness amid splendor. Her Cuisinart broke down completely; she never got it fixed.
The fifth year she writhed in an agony of unworthiness. Who was she to have her wishes answered, when the world tottered in pain, hunger, and want? She devoured newspapers that year, choking down accounts of pestilence and famine, wars and fires and earthquakes; toddlers needing transplants; wildlife societies begging for help to save the whales, the seals, the tigers, the rhinos, the snail darters; the homeless clogging the streets of every major metropolis as the smog once did; street children infesting the thoroughfares of Rio and Buenos Aires and Cairo and Calcutta, the weak ones dying, the strong ones surviving to perpetuate lives of fierce theft, deception, expediency, grief. Three wishes against all that?
Eleven o’clock on New Year’s Eve of the fifth year, Kate was alone in her apartment, drinking her second bottle of white wine. She couldn’t stand to have the TV on; she couldn’t stand to have it off. She compromised: picture, but no sound. Suddenly, the sound came on, unasked for.
“Kate.” It was Miranda. “Kate, I’m sorry to say this. We are rescinding your … ‘grant.’”
[p.130]Kate wasn’t surprised.
“I guess there are only so many wishes to go around, hum? Well, I understand.”
“You don’t, Kate; that’s the problem. Did you ever read the bottom line on your contract?” The pink receipt was still in the safety deposit box. On the TV screen, Miranda flashed a yellow copy of the form, greatly enlarged. Kate read, “RENEWABLE IN PERPETUITY.”
“Now wait a minute—”
“We’ve waited five years, Kate. The wishes are renewable. Three wishes are only the start. You could follow that with nine, and eighty-one, and 6,561—”
“If that’s so, if there’s enough to go around and then some, why are you rescinding?”
“Abundance is encouraged; waste is not. Every wish is made up of universal energy. You’ve locked yours up, instead of recycling it. A tragic waste. But never mind, Kate! There’s still time. You have twenty minutes before midnight, when the contract lapses. Take them now! Take all three wishes!” There was that Sharon Gless insistence in Miranda’s eyes, the Ingrid Bergman urgency in her voice.
“What—now? Just like that?” And her brain fuddled with two bottles of wine, she almost added.
Something seemed to happen to all the appliances in the place. The hum of the fridge grew palpable. She swore she could hear the electricity zapping in the wires behind the walls. The forced air heating breathed out swirls of invisible fog. Miranda’s voice sounded far, far away, though Kate could hear every word.
“This is the only moment there is. Put out your hand, Kate. In the beginning is always the word. Say it!”
“I wish—I wish—”
Somebody from Times Square was counting down: “10-9-8 …”
Horns and whistles and screams fi1led the background. (But the sound was turned all the way down on the TV.)
“I WISH I KNEW WHAT TO WISH FOR!”
At that moment, the fifth dimension unfolded. Kate’s brain became the sixth. The seventh dimension blossomed like a time-lapsed flower. The eighth and ninth billowed out together, mirror images. The tenth and the eleventh …
Miranda’s laughter floated joyous through them all.