Excerpt: Wishes

Chapter 1

Later, it was said that Berni was the best dressed corpse any of her set had seen in decades. Not that many of them admitted to having lived for much more than a couple of decades, and, what with the wonders of plastic surgery, none of them needed to admit to the exact number of years.

They filed by the expensive coffin and looked in admiration at Berni. There wasn’t a line in her face. Every pit, wrinkle, even some of the pores had been shot full of collagen. Her breasts, filled with silicone, even in death pointed skyward. Hair expensively colored, eyelashes permanently dyed, nails mani­cured, waist tucked into a youthful twenty-three inches, her body clad in a six-thousand-dollar suit— she looked as good in death as she had in life.

There were sighs of admiration from the people attending, and hope that they would look as good in death as she did. Only two people shed any tears at Berni’s demise, both of them men. One man was her hairdresser. He was going to miss Berni’s business, but he was also going to miss Berni’s wicked tongue and all the juicy gossip she passed his way. The other mourner was Berni’s fourth ex-husband, and his tears were tears of joy, because he was no longer going to have to support the army of workers it took to keep a fifty-year-old looking twenty-seven.

“Going to the cemetery?” one woman asked an­other.

“I would like to, but I can’t,” said the second woman. “I have an appointment. Emergency, you know.” Janine, her manicurist, could only give her a time slot today at two, and she had to have her broken nail repaired.

“Same here,” said the first woman, and she gave a quick, guarded, angry glance at Berni in her coffin. Last week she’d bought the same suit Berni was being buried in, now she would have to return it. It was just like Berni to show up in the latest, the newest, the most expensive at every gathering. At least that won’t happen anymore, she thought, and she managed to suppress her smile. “I do wish I could go. Berni and I were such good, close friends, you know.” She smoothed her silk Geoffrey Beene pantsuit. “I really must leave.”

Before long there were more murmurs of people having emergency appointments elsewhere, until, in the end, only Berni’s hairdresser rode in the limousine to the grave. There was a line of twenty limos behind the hearse—Berni had arranged and paid for her funeral years in advance—but they were empty of mourners.

At long last the words (planned by Berni) had been spoken, the music (also planned by Berni) had been played and sung, and the single mourner had gone home. The grave was filled in, new sod rolled into place, flowers artistically arranged around the tasteful gravestone, and the sun began to set over Berni’s grave.

Four hours after her coffin was covered, not one person gave a thought to the woman who had been so much a part of their lives. They had eaten her food, attended her parties, gossiped endlessly with her and about her, but no one missed her now that she was gone. No one at all.

THE KITCHEN

Berni opened her eyes with a jolt, feeling as though she’d overslept. Her first thought was that she’d be late for her nail appointment with Janine, and the bitch was ruthless if a client was late. She’d tell Berni she was booked up for the next week and make Berni suffer with ragged-looking nails for days. I’ll get her, Berni thought. I’ll tell Diane that Janine’s been sleep­ing with her husband. With Diane’s temper Janine will be lucky to come out alive.

Smiling, Berni started to get out of bed and then realized she wasn’t in bed. It was then that she began to see that something was wrong. She wasn’t in bed but standing up. She wasn’t wearing her red silk Christian Dior nightgown but her new white Dupioni silk suit—the one Lois Simons had purchased on sale. Berni planned to wear the suit first, then Lois wouldn’t be able to wear hers; she’d try to return it and wouldn’t be allowed to, and she’d be stuck with a four-thousand-dollar suit she couldn’t wear. The idea made Berni smile.

But she lost her smile as she looked around. There was fog everywhere, and she couldn’t see anything except a gold-colored light far ahead. What now, she thought. She squinted a bit to see better, although she now had twenty-twenty vision thanks to eye surgery last year.

She took a few steps forward, and the fog cleared a path. She started to frown but caught herself (frown­ing gives one wrinkles). Perhaps this was some stupid idea of her latest lover. He was a twenty-year-old muscle-bound beachboy she’d picked up a few months ago, and she was growing tired of him. He kept talking about how he wanted to be a movie director, and he wanted Berni to finance him. Maybe all this fog was his doing to get her to open her checkbook.

She walked for several minutes before she saw anything. Under the golden light was a big desk, and behind it was sitting a handsome, gray-haired man.

When she saw the man Berni perked up and put her shoulders back so her high breasts pointed straight ahead.

“Hello,” she said in her throatiest, sexiest voice. The man glanced up at her then down at the papers on his desk.

It always worried Berni when men didn’t immedi­ately respond to her beauty. Maybe she’d better make another appointment with her surgeon next week. “Are you with Lance?” she asked, referring to her beachboy lover.

The man kept looking at his papers and didn’t answer her, so Berni looked at his desk. She tried not to look startled, but his big desk was twenty-four-carat gold. Many years ago Berni had developed an eye for jewelry that would have made any jeweler proud. She could quickly and easily tell twelve-carat from eighteen-carat from the genuine, pure twenty-four-­carat.

She reached out her hand to touch the desk but drew it back when the man looked up.

“Bernadina,” he said.

Berni winced. She hadn’t heard the name in years. It sounded as old as she fought not to be. “Berni,” she said. “With an i.”

She watched the man use an old-fashioned fountain pen to make a note, then she began to grow annoyed. “Look, I’ve had just about enough of this. If this is some scheme you and Lance have cooked up, I—”

“You’re dead.”

“—am still going to throw him out. Fm not going to support him, and—”

“Died in your sleep last night. Heart attack.”

“—his harebrained schemes to—” She stopped and stared at the man. “I what?” “Died in your sleep last night, and now you’re in the Kitchen.”

Berni stood there blinking at him, and then she began to laugh. She forgot about wrinkles and how unattractive a woman looked when she was laughing as opposed to smiling coyly and really laughed.

“Great one, buster,” she said, “but it won’t work. I know this is a trick to get me to give Lance money, so you can turn off your fog machines and—”

She stopped because the man wasn’t listening to her. He picked up a big stamp from the desk, smacked the paper with it, then motioned to his right. From out of the fog came a woman of about Berni’s age—her real age, not how old she looked—wearing a long dress with lace at the elbows, looking as though she’d just stepped out of a play about Martha and George Washington.

Berni’s only thought was that her beachboy had better be gone by the time she got back.

“Come with me,” the woman said, and Berni followed her.

The fog still surrounded them, but it parted as they walked. After a while the woman stopped before what looked to be an arched doorway, again made of twenty-four-carat gold. Above the arch was a sign that said “Disbelief.”

“I believe you need this,” the woman said, stepping back.

Reluctantly, Berni entered the fog on the other side of the arch.

It was some time later that she left the room. Her eyes were no longer angry but were now filled with wonder and some fear. She had seen images of her death, her funeral, had even watched the undertakers embalming her body.

Outside the Disbelief room the woman was waiting for her.

“Better now?” the woman asked.

“Who are you?” Berni whispered. “Is this heaven or hell?”

The woman smiled. “I’m Pauline, and this is nei­ther heaven nor hell. It’s the Kitchen.”

“The Kitchen? I just died, and I get sent to the Kitchen?” Her voice was rising in hysteria.

Pauline didn’t seem in the least perturbed by her manner. “The Kitchen is a .. . I believe in your time you would call it a halfway house. It’s between heaven and hell. It’s for women only—not for bad women, not for good women—it’s for women who don’t quite deserve heaven or hell.”

Berni just stood there gaping, her mouth open.

“It’s a place for women who . . .” Pauline thought a moment. “For example, it’s for all those religious women who spout Bible verses and consider them­ selves better than everyone else. They haven’t been really bad, so to speak, so they can’t be sent to hell, yet they’ve been so judgmental they can’t really be sent directly to heaven.”

“So they’re sent here? To the Kitchen?” Berni whispered.

“Exactly.”

Pauline didn’t seem inclined to say any more, and Berni was still trying to recover from the news of her own death. “Nice dress,” she managed to say at last. “Halston?”

Pauline smiled, either not understanding or ignor­ing Berni’s bitchiness. “The women here are from all different time periods. You’ll see every century from earth here. There are lots of Puritans here.”

Berni felt her head reeling with all she’d learned. “Is there someplace to get a drink around here?”

“Oh, yes. What do you drink now? Bathtub gin, isn’t it?”

“That was before my time,” Berni said as they began walking, the fog clearing ahead of them.

“Whatever you drink, whatever you want, you’ll find it here.”

A moment later Pauline stopped in front of a tiny table, and on it was a tall, frosty margarita. Gratefully, Berni sat down and took a long drink as Pauline sat opposite her.

When Berni looked up, she said, “Why’s this place called the Kitchen?”

“It’s just a nickname. I’m sure it has another name, but nobody remembers it. It’s called the Kitchen because it’s like women’s life on earth. When you die you think you’re going to heaven, just as you think, when you get married, that you’re going to have heaven on earth. Instead, in both cases, you get sent to the Kitchen.”

Berni nearly choked on her drink. She would have laughed, but instead her eyes widened in horror. “You don’t mean I’m going to have to spend eternity cooking and . . . and cleaning out the refrigerator, do you?” Can a dead person commit suicide, she won­dered.

“Oh, no, nothing like that. This place is very nice. Very nice. In fact, it’s so nice many women never want to leave. They never do their assignments correctly, and they’ve been here for centuries.”

“What assignments?” Berni asked suspiciously, still reeling with horror at the idea of years of cleaning floors and sinks and ovens and cooking a damned turkey every Thanksgiving.

“Every woman in the Kitchen is given, from time to time, a task to perform. She’s to help someone on earth. The tasks are always different. Sometimes a woman is to help someone who’s grieving, sometimes she’s to help someone to make a decision. There are lots of different assignments. If you fail, you stay here.”

“And if you succeed in helping the person, what do you get?”

“Eventually, heaven.”

“Is heaven full of this fog?” Pauline shrugged. “I have no idea. I’ve never been there, but I imagine it’s better than this.”

“Al l right,” Berni said, standing, “lead me to my first task. I don’t want to stay in a place even named the Kitchen.”

Pauline stood, and the table, chairs, and empty glass disappeared. She started walking, Berni behind her. Berni was thinking hard about what Pauline had told her. “Help someone on earth?” she muttered, then she stopped.

Pauline halted and looked back.

“Are we,” Berni said, “are we fairy godmothers?”

“More or less,” Pauline answered, smiling and starting to walk again.

Berni caught up with her. “You mean / am sup­posed to be someone’s fairy godmother? Magic wands? Wishes and Cinderella and all that?”

“You’re quite free to solve your assignment in any way that you see fit.”

If Berni’s collagen-padded face could have wrinkled into a frown, it would have done so. “I don’t like this,” she said. “I have my own life to lead. I don’t want to be some fat, gray-haired lady running around saying ‘Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo’ and changing pumpkins into coaches.”

Pauline blinked, not understanding Berni’s allusion at all. “Leading your own life is what I imagine got you here instead of into heaven.”

“What does that mean? I never hurt anyone in my life.”

“Nor did you help anyone. You lived completely for yourself. Not even as a child did you ever consider anyone else’s wishes. You married four men for their money, and when they complained you divorced them and took half of everything they owned.”

“But that’s how everyone lives in the twentieth century.”

“Not everyone. You cared much more for clothes than you did for any of your husbands.”

“The clothes gave me more pleasure,” Berni said. “And besides, they got what they wanted. They weren’t innocent in this. If they’d given me what I needed, I wouldn’t have divorced them.”

Pauline had no more to say. Having grown up in the eighteenth century, she didn’t know that Berni’s words were the product of years of expensive therapy. Berni only went to therapists who asked, “What do you want out of life?” “What do you need?” “What are your priorities?” Berni had always found someone to help her justify her belief that what she wanted was more important than what anyone else wanted.

With a little sigh, Pauline turned away and began walking again. “It looks like you may be here for a while,” she said softly.

Berni followed her, thinking that Pauline sounded just like her four husbands. They were selfish through and through, always complaining that Berni never cared anything about them, that she only wanted them for what they could do for her.

Pauline stopped, and Berni halted also. Around them the fog began to clear, and she could see that they were standing in a circular room, very bare, and set in the walls were arches. Above the arches were signs: “Romance.” “Fantasy.” “Clothes.” “Feasting.” “Indolence.” “Luxury.” “Parties.”

“Choose,” Pauline said.

“Choose what?” Berni asked, turning about and reading the signs.

“You must wait while an assignment is found for you, and you will wait in one of the halls.” Pauline could see that Berni still didn’t understand. “What would you most like to do now?”

“Go to a party,” Berni said without hesitation. Perhaps a loud, energetic party would get her mind off her own funeral and all the talk of ex-husbands.

Pauline turned toward the arch marked “Party,” and Berni followed her. Once through the arch there was another fog-filled arch to the right. Above it was a sign: “Elizabethan.”

Pauline stepped through the fog, and Berni saw a scene from Shakespeare. Men in capes, their legs in tight hose, were leading corseted women through the intricate moves of a sixteenth-century dance.

“Would you like to join them?” Pauline asked.

“This is not my idea of a party,” Berni answered, appalled.

Pauline led her back through the arch and across the hall to another arch.

All in all they looked into half a dozen parties before Berni saw one that appealed to her. They saw a Regency party with women in muslin dresses sipping tea from saucers and talking about the latest escapade of Lady Caroline Lamb. There was a square dance with cowboys, a Victorian party with parlor games, a thirteenth-century feast with some fine-looking young acrobats that tempted Berni, a Japanese tea ceremo­ny, and an amazing Tahitian dance, but in the end she chose a party from the sixties. The blaring music of the Stones, the bright mini dresses, the Nehru jackets, the smell of marijuana burning, the writhing bodies of the long-haired people reminded her of her youth.

“Yes,” she whispered, and she stepped inside. In a moment she was wearing a micro-mini dress, her hair was long and straight, and there was a boy asking her to dance. She never looked back to see what had happened to Pauline.

Berni was huddled in a pile with other flower children, smoking grass and listening to Frank Zappa talk to Suzie Creamcheese when Pauline came for her. Berni looked up and knew she had to leave. Reluctant­ly, she left the party and followed Pauline out of the room.

Once they were through the golden archway the fog closed in over the room and hid all sights and sounds from them. Berni’s beads and tie-dyed shirt disap­peared along with her headband. Her head cleared of the effects of the marijuana, and she was once again wearing the silk suit in which she’d been buried.

“I just got here,” Berni said sulkily. “I was just beginning to enjoy myself.”

“By earth time you have been partying for fourteen years.”

Berni could only blink at Pauline. Fourteen years? She felt as though she’d entered the party but mo­ments before. She had been aware that now and then her clothes were different, but surely she couldn’t have been in there fourteen years. She hadn’t slept or eaten, had drunk very little, and hadn’t had a single conver­sation with her fellow party-goers. She’d meant to talk to them about the Kitchen and about their assign­ments, but there had never seemed to be an oppor­tunity.

“There is an assignment for you,” Pauline said.

“Great,” Berni said, smiling. If she passed this test and went to heaven, what pleasures awaited her there? Heaven must be some super place to be better than the Kitchen.

Pauline led them down a hallway, past several golden arches that Berni was dying to explore. One said “Harem Fantasy” above it, another “Pirates.”

At last Pauline turned through an arch labeled “Viewing Room” and led them into a large room with a half circle of banquettes covered in peach-colored velvet. All around the seats was thick, white fog.

“Please make yourself comfortable.”

Berni snuggled down into the soft, velvet-covered seat and looked where Pauline did, at the foggy wall in front of them. Within seconds the fog drew back and a scene appeared before them. It was like a movie, only not as flat, and like a play, only more real.

A young woman, slim, pretty, with light brown hair pulled back from her face, was standing before a full-length mirror. She was wearing a long dress with very large puffed sleeves. The dress was of dark green silk with sparkling black beads across the bosom, and it was so tight in the bodice it was a wonder she could breathe. There were three hatboxes on the floor, and the woman was trying on one hat after another. The room was pleasant, with a bed, a wardrobe, a dresser, a washstand, a rag rug, and a fireplace, but it certainly wasn’t a palace. There were invitations open on the mantelpiece.

“I don’t guess she can see us,” Berni said.

“No, she has no idea anyone is watching her. Her name is Terel Grayson, she’s twenty years old, it is 1896, and she lives in Chandler, Colorado.”

“You mean I’m to make a Cinderella out of some antique girl? I don’t know anything about history. I need someone from my own time.”

“In the Kitchen all earth time is the same.”

Berni looked back at the screen and sighed. “All right. So where’s Prince Charming? And where’s the wicked stepsister?”

Pauline didn’t answer, so Berni watched in silence. Terel moved about the room quickly, looking at her invitations, then rummaging inside the big mahogany wardrobe. She sighed and looked disgusted as she pulled out one dress after another and flung them on the bed.

“That’s just like me,” Berni said, smiling. “I always had lots of invitations, and I was always worried about what I was going to wear. Not that I needed to worry, of course. I could have worn rags and been the belle of the ball.”

“Yes,” Pauline said softly, “Terel is like you.”

“I could do something with her,” Berni said. “A few cosmetics, soften her hair. She doesn’t need much. She isn’t as pretty as I was at her age, but she’ll do. She has a lot of potential.” She looked at Pauline. “So when do I start?”

“Ah,” Pauline said, “here comes Nellie.”

Berni looked back at the scene. The door opened, and in came another woman, older than Terel and about twice her size.

“Gross,” Berni said, looking at Nellie. She had a slim woman’s horror of obesity, and Berni’s fear of fat was amplified by the fact that she’d spent most of her life starving herself in order to remain slim. Deep down she feared that if she made the least slip she’d be Nellie’s size. “Two hundred pounds if she’s an ounce.”

“One hundred and sixty-two, actually,” Pauline answered. “She’s Terel’s older sister, Nellie. She’s twenty-eight, unmarried, and she takes care of Terel and their father. Their mother died when Terel was four and Nellie was twelve. After his wife died Charles Grayson had Nellie quit school and take care of the house and Terel. Nellie has been Terel’s mother, so to speak, for most of Terel’s life.”

“I see,” Berni said. “A wicked sister and mother combined. Poor Terel. No wonder she needs a fairy godmother to help her.” She looked at Pauline. “Do I get a magic wand for this job?”

“If you would like. We can supply you with any magic you want, but you must supply the wisdom.”

“That’ll be easy. I’ll see that Terel gets whatever she deserves, and I won’t let that fat sister of hers keep her from getting the most out of life. Did you know that I have a fat older sister? She was so jealous of me, always trying to horn in on my life.” Berni could feel the remembered anger rising in her. “My sister hated everything about me. She was so jealous that she would have done anything to make me miserable. I fixed her, though.”

“What did you do?” Pauline asked softly.

“My first husband was her fiancé,” Berni answered, smiling. “He really was the most boring man, but he had a little money, so I made him pay attention to me.”

“You seduced him, didn’t you?”

“More or less. But he needed seducing. My sister was—is—such a bore, and . . .” She looked at Paul­ine sharply. “Don’t look at me like that. That man had more fun with me in the five years we were married than he would have had in a lifetime with my fat, dull, stupid sister. Besides, she turned out okay. She mar­ried and had a couple of fat kids. They were all quite happy in their middle-class way.”

“I’m sure everyone was very happy. You most of all.” Berni wasn’t sure she liked the woman’s tone, but before she could reply Pauline said, “Shall we watch?”

Berni looked back at the scene before them, at the two women in the bedroom, and settled back to watch. She had to figure out how to help the slim, pretty Terel.