JOANNA FRIEDMAN

★ ★ ★ ★

FICTION

Wife on String and Other Wishes

On a corner, in a town with wooden sidewalks and streets made of cobbled stones, Ben watched New Year’s Eve snow fall on Alice’s black and gray hair. One snowflake stuck and lingered despite the movement her hair made when she laughed. And she was laughing hard at Nicolette, his new marionette.

When he moved Nicolette’s control bar, her delicate wooden arms lifted past his knee, over her head, and into a twirl. “A dance, my dear?” She paused, tilted her head, lifted her right arm in invitation. Ben allowed Nicolette’s delicate fingers to rest in his.  

“Have you made yourself a wife or a lover?”  Steam from the cold and Alice’s breath swirled around them. 

“Well, as it turns out, I found her laying near the Magic Shop. The one down on Third.” He spun Nicolette and waited for her white dress to settle below her knees. “Nicolette and I had a Christmas wedding.”

Tiny footsteps appeared in the snow as Nicolette glided toward Alice, reached out her hand, and in Ben’s squeaky voice said, “The two of you are bound by the friendship pact, right?”

Alice’s long fingers closed around Nicolette’s tiny hand, just as they had years ago when they’d made the agreement.  Ben let Nicolette’s hand linger in Alice’s.

“How about you?” he asked. “Any engagement rings in your stocking?”

Alice shook her head ‘no’ before her attention turned to a little girl who’d stopped to watch Nicolette spin and scamper.

“Is he the prince?” The girl asked Alice.

“No, he’s the villain who’s turned the princess into wood—”

“Can’t you see she’s quite happy dancing with me.” Ben smiled the friendliest non-villainous smile he could. “Aren’t you, my dear?”

“Yes, yes I am,” Nicolette squeaked.

Alice whispered to the girl. “You see how she speaks? Her voice is all pinched inside. What do you think she really wants to say?”

“Let me go, you meanie.” The girl said in a loud round voice. “I want to run free into the snowy night.”

“Exactly, my point. Come with me tonight, Nicolette, for a post-wedding bachelorette party?” Alice asked.

“Enough, you two. She’s not the type for adventures. Or parties,” Ben said.

The small girl’s mom came and pulled her away. Alice waved. “To be continued.” She pushed back her curls, revealing smile wrinkles near her eyes.  

Ben whispered to Nicolette, “You’re lovely just as you are, my dear.”

Nicolette pulled at Ben’s pant leg, gently. “Ah, you want to visit with Alice? Well, trust me, Alice is friendly but off limits. At least she’s made herself that way.”

“Wasn’t it you who made up this pact?”  Alice raised an eyebrow.

Ben let Nicolette sink, her wooden back flopped against the street sign, until she was fully sitting on snow covered ground.

 “When does she get to come to life?” Alice smelled like peppermint.

“If she’s truthful.”

“And how is she so far?”

“Ask her yourself.”

Nicolette wandered, foot over foot, below Ben’s hand, to where Alice sat. “I love the yellow and green flowers on your skirt,” Nicolette squeaked.

“They come to life at night, you know.”

Ben frowned. “Stop that, she’s not ready for any coming-to-life business. Wives have been nothing but trouble, but this one . . . I have high hopes for her. If she listens, does what I ask and . . . ” Nicolette returned to Ben. “See! She already knows I’m partial to wives who stay put.”

Alice shut her eyes. The evening sun came in red through the tops of the trees. Snow swirled in the light of the street lamp. The crowd had thinned. She brushed snow off her skirt. “So what do you and Nicolette have planned for New Year’s?”

“Well, the wife and I need to rest.” Nicolette nodded in agreement. 

“On New Year’s? Don’t you want to toast with her? Kiss her at midnight?”

“She definitely doesn’t drink or kiss in public.” Ben pulled Nicolette onto his shoulder. “You could learn a thing or two from her, you know.” 

“Like what?” Alice linked her arm through Ben’s.

“Hmmmm . . . How about I just follow you for now.” He shrugged his shoulders and felt Nicolette bounce against them.

“Where do you wish to go?” Alice asked.

He wished to go home, and to take Alice there with him.

 Alice turned toward Nicolette. “Oh, you’d like to return to the Magic Shop? Where Ben found you?”

“No she doesn’t.”

“Let’s go anyway, The Great Luis always has something planned for New Year’s Eve. It’ll be fun.”

Fun, a word he didn’t connect with Alice.  

* * *

The black velvet star-covered curtain served as a portal into the Magic Shop. The Great Luis, like a bartender, pointed to a table where two champagne glasses waited. A cuckoo clock ticked off minutes until midnight. A rabbit chewed a carrot in a corner hutch. A dove cooed in her cage. Tricks waited: card decks with no hearts, disappearing pills, hats with secret compartments, flowers that turned into fire. Photos of The Great Luis and his assistants—some impaled with swords, others with feet separated from heads—hung on gold-colored walls. Nicolette’s string caught and she swung next to a wax woman sawn in half.

“You’ve returned to the Great Luis, my wooden beauty?” Luis was slicker than an iceberg floating out to sea.

Nicolette, still swinging, seemed to shake a vehement ‘no’ in response.  

Ben unfastened her. “She found herself a good husband.”

“Suit yourself. One day she’ll return,” Luis sniffed. 

“She doesn’t seem like the wife type to me,” Alice said. “She’s full of passion. Romance. She likes to socialize and dance.”

“And she can socialize and dance with me.” Ben moved toward a booth in back, past Luis, past Alice, past the wax woman.

On red velvet curtains a posted sign read: New Year’s Eve special$10. Enter the booth with your true love, a glass of champagne, and your fate will be sealed.

“Take advantage, other days it’s just a Disappearing Booth,” Luis said.

“You want us to toast in there?”  Alice asked. “When the cuckoo strikes at midnight, who knows where it’ll take us!”

She laughed and Ben’s heart ached just a little. He picked up one champagne glass for himself and one for Alice. When he offered to pay, Alice said it was fifty-fifty or nothing. And he didn’t want nothing, not tonight. But did she have to argue about everything? They agreed on five dollars each.

Champagne in one hand, Alice’s hand in his other, Nicolette dangling from his shoulder, they stepped into the booth and . . . 

* * *

The cuckoo clock clucked, counting the midnight chime. Through darkness, through stars, through familiar streets to his apartment, they fell. An ocean, with snow-capped waves. Nicolette’s strings broke. A pact broke. A New Year’s kiss brushed against Alice’s lips. Ben reached for her but she floated away. Alice’s voice echoed in his stairway, “I’m having fun, Ben.” His heart beat an extra beat as they fell. Through darkness. 

And onto a raft floating in the middle of a dark velvety ocean under a blanket of sky. No land in sight. Alice sat on one side of the raft, he on the other. Nicolette—her wooden eyes staring at stars—lay between them. Her unattached strings dangled from her arms and legs.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”  Alice watched waves lap at their raft-bed. She dipped her champagne glass into the ocean.”If you give this to Nicolette,” she held out the topped off glass to Ben, “she’ll grow into full size. You’ll have a real wife this time. One that does everything you tell her to do.”  

Her black curls floated against the back of her nightgown. He sipped and topped off his glass in the ocean too. “What if you stay? I’ll tell Nicolette we have an open relationship.”

“Don’t you want a loyal, simple wife?” Alice dipped her feet in the water.

“I do, but, she’ll likely turn out complicated—”

“Look Nicolette, there’s Andromeda, and Venus—”

Alice lay head to head with Nicolette. Both looking up at stars.

“See you’ve already ruined her. Don’t tell her about Venus.”

“Should I tell her about wishing stars?”

“No.”

“Swimming in the ocean?”

“Only with your bathing suit on.”

“Well how fun is that?”

“She’s a respectable girl.”

“Poor Nicolette.”

Ben lifted Nicolette onto his knee. “Enough talking to Alice. She’s never been able to commit to anyone, never mind take a chance on marriage.”

The waves stopped. The ocean flattened around them. Alice sipped from her glass. “Not because I don’t want to, but not many come to this place with me.”

Somewhere ahead, past the curtains, the seascape of city-lights surrounded them.

“I do miss my wife,” Ben said, as snowflakes and stars fell around him.

The raft floated toward land. Alice held his hand. “You could make Nicolette real before morning.”

“No, let’s you and I enjoy tonight—”

Alice lifted the glass filled with ocean water. “Go ahead. Aren’t you curious? Maybe it’ll be different with her.”

Before his thoughts rushed in, before he had too many ideas about it, Ben took the glass from Alice and poured it on Nicolette’s wooden body. Her dress was wet, her hair was wet, the wood expanded and she grew. Her wooden skin turned pale and soft. Her brown hair fell past her shoulders. She tucked her feet behind her and looked around.

“Well, talk to her.” Alice said.

“Shhh, give her a chance she’s taking in the world. We have to be careful or she’ll startle.”

“Hello there! Hello! Nicolette. Are you a good wife or a bad one?” Alice shook her hand.

Ben came to Nicolette’s side. Touched her shoulder. “Welcome.”

Alice looked out over the city buildings. Into the street below.

“I’m good and bad, but a wife?” Nicolette’s voice was pleasant, friendly. Sultry.

“Well yes. I’m hoping we can be . . . husband and wife?”

He coughed, glanced, at Alice. “Or we could start as friends?”

Alice snorted. Nicolette jumped.

“Would you like to go for a swim?” Alice held Nicolette’s hand.

“No, you can’t go. It’s way too cold for that. It’s snowing.”

“A swim would be perfect.”  Nicolette took off her dress.

Ben blushed. Before he could stop her, Alice let go of her hand. Nicolette fell into the city ocean outside of his window. Swam away.

 “Oh God, my wife’s gone. I shouldn’t have brought either of you here,” Ben said.

“I guess she wasn’t as obedient as you’d hoped?” Alice’s eyes practically crossed before she took the oar. The two of them, quiet, paddled away from the city, away from Nicolette. Aimlessly.

“Ben?”

“Yes, Alice.”

“I’m sorry you lost your wife.”

A tunnel appeared. Ben’s voice sounded hollow when they passed by moss covered walls. “It’s okay,” he kissed Alice’s bare shoulder. “Some things you can’t control.”

The bamboo headboard of Ben’s bed appeared. His striped sheets and pillows were lit with morning light. Alice breathed quietly next to him. Her hair curled on her cheek, and he moved it away. She stirred; turned her face from his fingers. Instinctively, as if touching something hot, he pulled back his hand.”I’ll get you something. Tea?”

“I’ll get some on the way home.” 

She pulled the covers off, felt for her clothes.

“Stay in bed, just stay here . . . For today?”

 Alice pulled on her dress, the one with green and yellow flowers. The straps sat on her shoulders, her breasts settled into the triangles of its fabric. She covered herself with a green sweater. “It’s New Year’s Day. You know how people break their resolutions and restart them? New year, new start. Right?”

“No … well maybe.” He could feel panic rising as he watched her put on boots. “How about a resolution to staying here, all day? All year?”

“If we stay here, we’ll never find our way back to the raft.”

He wanted to keep her, hug her. But Alice left. Nicolette had left him as well; somewhere in the night she’d found her freedom. And he found, once again, his solitude.

* * *

He whittled at a piece of wood. Damn her. Damn Alice. Damn. The wood felt splintery beneath his fingers. He whittled it down to a sliver. And he’d keep whittling until the memories of Alice in his bed last night disappear too. Damn her for whispering to him about fun. Why had he taken a chance? Alice and the disappearing booth and magic and her New Year’s resolutions. His throat tightened with his New Year’s resolution: to disappear. 

* * *

The Great Luis’s red cape swung from his arms when he spoke. “And have you brought your wife?”

“I have no wife.”

“Never mind, she’s bad wood, that one. Look around maybe you’ll find something—or someone else—of interest.”

Ben picked up the disappearing pills. “I’ll take a bottle of these.”

“Ah, yes, good choice. Nineteen dollars, and you’re good to go.”

Sugar. Sugar candy pills. Ben’s eyes blurred as he put them back. He’d step into the booth. Just once more. Just to remember how she felt. A flash of yellow and green dress beneath the red velvet curtain stirred.

“Alice?” Ben spoke toward the curtain. “What are you doing here?”

Alice’s voice, soft from behind the curtain. “I thought there might be another one here for you. I’m sorry I let Nicolette fall.” 

He felt for the soft velvet.”You looked lovely tossing her out the window.”

“At least she’s having an adventure.”

Ben pulled the curtain aside. “Can I come in?”

Alice’s eyes looked puffy, her voice scratchy. “It’s not the same as New Year’s. We’d go in and it would just be the two of us in a booth, a magic one, but only a booth. And likely we’d both disappear. Likely I’d let you down.”

“I have two New Year’s resolutions.” He trailed his finger against her wet cheek. “To be let down and to disappear with you.”

“In this booth?” she asked.

“In this kiss, Alice.”

 In this . . .

Joanna Friedman’s fiction and poetry has appeared in a couple of anthologies and on-line publications. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband, twin girls, and pug dog, Blue. Follow her on twitter, @j grabarek or her website joannafriedman.wordpress.com

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2 Comments

  1. Toni

    Lovely and magical!

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      Thank you , Toni!

      Reply

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