Everybody’d Eat Steak

by Diane Arrelle

Miss Eloise O’Banion leaned against the white wooden railing that encircled her porch. Sighing, she watched as the dying summer blooms seemed to wave their withered heads at the children as they walked and skipped past the old Victorian house.

“I wish,” she mumbled. “I just wish.” She shook her head covered by thin bluish-white curls and sighed deeply once again. “If wishes were fishes…”

Turning away, she grasped her walker with tight fists of anger and hobbled stiffly over to the wicker rocking chair. She backed painfully into the seat and slowly relaxed, watching the boys and girls make their way to the school two blocks away.

Here it is, the Tuesday after Labor Day and everyone is going to school, she thought bitterly. Everyone except me. She felt tears of frustration slide from her eyes and work their way down the network of wrinkles that were her cheeks. Embarrassed by this display of frailness, she let the tears stay, rather than wipe at them while outside in public view.

“I’m only 69,” she said to the dove splashing in the birdbath on the front lawn. “If I weren’t so crippled, I’d be greeting my new class right about now. Instead they retired me with a thank you and a luncheon. Is that fair?”

Too depressed to enjoy the warm September sunshine, she slowly pulled herself up and inched her way into the house. She put on the kettle for tea and then sat and waited for Mrs. Hillery who was due at 9 a.m. Eloise shuddered at the thought of the old biddy coming over to help her. “Imagine coming to this,” she muttered. “ A nurse-maid in the guise of a housekeeper.” She sighed heavily once more. “I wish I didn’t have to put up with any of this nonsense!”

A sparkle outside the window caught her attention and she turned to see what it was. Coming through the fluttering yellow curtains was a platter-sized globe filled with glitter like the children used on Christmas decorations. She watched as the sparkling bubble touched the floor, gaping dumbly as it exploded in a shower of gold confetti.

There, on the checkerboard linoleum, stood a beautiful young woman. Feeling more curiosity than fear, Eloise studied the intruder, taking in the layers of taffeta on the white and pink dress, the gossamer wings sprouting from her back, the long strawberry blonde hair topped by a jeweled tiara. She decided that the bubble and woman were too absurd to be a threat and said, “It’s terribly rude not to knock, my dear.”

The apparition waved a silver wand complete with a large star and said, “I am your fairy godmother, Eloise O’Banion, and I heard your wish.” The lovely fairy stopped and stared at Eloise in shock. “Oh my stars, Miss O’Banion! I thought you were dead!”

“That’s a nice way to greet your old fifth grade teacher, Mary Margaret Holmes!” Eloise snapped. “I always said that you were a flighty girl.”

“M-M-Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret stammered. “I’m sorry, I was just so surprised that I just didn’t think.”

“Hurrumph,” Eloise hurrumphed. “You never did use your head enough. Why I remember how you used to get Tony Lewis to do your homework for a kiss on the cheek. I wonder what ever happened to that foolish boy?”

“He’s a database manager,” Mary Margaret said then stared wide-eyed at Eloise. “Why Miss O’Banion, how did you know Tony did my homework?”

“Never mind that,” Eloise said and shifted slightly in the hard chair to look directly at the girl. “Why are you dressed up like Glinda the Good Witch, and as much as I enjoy visits from my students, why are you standing in my kitchen at 8:45 in the morning?”

“Miss O’Banion, I’m a fairy godmother. Your fairy godmother. I’m going to grant you three wishes.”

“Mary Margaret, did you join a cult or did you just get involved with drugs?” Eloise asked in disgust.

“No, no, Miss O’Banion. It’s my job. I was enlisted in the F-G Guild six months ago. You see I was having a hard time finding a job so I went to the ‘Dreams Do Come True’ employment agency. Now here I am, gainfully employed. In fact you’re my first solo assignment,” Mary Margaret said as she studied her reflection in the mirror that was hanging on the wall in the next room.

“You are such a vain girl, look at me when you address me,” Eloise said sternly and hid a smile. Children grow up, but they just don’t change, she thought with an absurd teacherly satisfaction.

“Sorry, Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret said and looked her in the wire-rimmed glasses.

“That’s better. Now my dear,” Eloise said. “I don’t know how you pulled off the bubble stunt, after all you never paid any attention to your science lessons, but I think you’d better go home now. By the way, how is your dear mother, are you still at home with her?”

“She’s fine,” Mary Margaret said automatically then frowned and added, “Miss O’Banion, I really am your fairy godmother and I have to grant you three wishes.”

“Mary Margaret, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. If wishes were fishes everybody’d eat steak.”

Mary Margaret smiled, “I remember, Miss O’Banion, I remember.” Gazing at her with a perplexed almost cross-eyed look, Mary Margaret said, “I never understood what you meant.”

“I know,” Eloise said smugly. “You’re a nice girl but a little on the dense side. All looks and a little short on the smarts.”

Mary Margaret looked hurt. “What does it mean?”

“Never mind, I’m more concerned with your delusions. Fantasy is fine in books, but this is the real world.”

“Please Miss O’Banion, this is for real. Make a wish, not a small one, and I’ll grant it,” Mary Margaret pleaded.

Eloise snorted, feeling bitter and angry. The nerve of this cruel girl, coming back into her life to taunt her. Just the thought of being granted a wish filled her with longing and regret. “Young lady, I wish you would leave. Right now!”

In a huge puff of gold fairy dust, Mary Margaret vanished. The sound of her despairing wail echoed in Eloise’s ears.

Eloise sat immobile, staring at the spot where Mary Margaret had vanished. She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear the teapot screaming for attention until Mrs. Hillery let herself in.

“Miss O’Banion! My goodness, you’ll ruin that kettle,” the housekeeper scolded as she fluttered around the kitchen like a hyperactive butterfly.

For once Eloise didn’t mind the company, it helped to take her mind off her disturbing visitor. Still, thoughts did creep in… What if it had been real? Never! But what if I could return to a fruitful life? Stop torturing yourself…

That evening, after Mrs. Hillery made dinner and left for home, Eloise was standing in the hall looking out the screen door when the bubble reappeared. Mary Margaret poofed into being in front of her. “Please Miss O’Banion, don’t say a word,” Mary Margaret said in a breathless rush. “You’ve already wasted one wish. Don’t waste another.”

Eloise shuffled slowly to the overstuffed sofa set in the corner of her dark living room and plopped down. “I have always secretly worried that a student would come back and haunt me,” she muttered shaking her head from side to side. “All right, Mary Margaret, what will it take to get you to leave me alone?”

A silvery tear trickled down from Mary Margaret’s right eye. “Oh, Miss O’Banion, why are you making this so hard? You always were too demanding and strict,” she said in a quivery voice.

Anger flared through Eloise, all feelings of despair dissipated, “You impudent girl! First you burst into my home, then you have the gall to criticize my professional techniques. How dare you!”

Mary Margaret held up her hands as if to ward off the verbal blows. “Miss O’Banion, you called for me! You made a wish!”

Eloise saw a gleam appear in Mary Margaret’s eyes as her voice softened. “Now, please, Miss O’Banion, don’t carry on so. After all, this is my first assignment, and you wouldn’t want people saying that one of your students failed in life because of you, would you? You don’t want me to be an unemployed failure?”

“Mary Margaret,” Eloise said. “After teaching over a thousand students, I’m sure many turned out far worse.”

She watched Mary Margaret give up rational debate and start to weep. Giving in, Eloise smiled kindly at the pathetically whimpering woman and said, “There, there, Mary Margaret, stop blubbering. I’ll let you grant my wishes, although I don’t believe in any of this foolishness.”

Her face brightening through the tears, Mary Margaret smiled. “Oh, Miss O’Banion, thank you! Now make a really good wish!” she bubbled.

Eloise abandoned good sense and said without hesitation, “I wish to be working again as an able-bodied educator. Now let’s see what you can do girl.”

Waving her wand, Mary Margaret said, “Granted.”

Several minutes passed, both women silently watching each other when the phone rang. Eloise got up and walked over to it. Picking it up on the second ring she froze, turned to Mary Margaret and stammered, “I… I walked!”

Mary Margaret grinned. “Yes, you did. Now answer your call.”

Eloise listened to the male voice over the receiver and finally said, “Yes sir, oh yes, first thing tomorrow morning!”

Hanging up, she skipped over to Mary Margaret and grasped her hands. “My dear, I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time. My Lord, I can skip! Thank you.”

“You have one more wish, you know,” Mary Margaret prompted.

“I don’t need it!” Eloise said with a laugh. “I’ve got everything I want. That was Mr. Jordan, Superintendent of Schools. They need me! I start tomorrow.”

“I told you, I could do it, now that other wish,” Mary Margaret urged. “The rules are clear cut, I have to grant three wishes.”

Eloise stopped hopping with joy and sat back down on the sofa. “I have everything I want. A wish is quite a responsibility, you know.”

Sitting, deep in thought, Eloise’s old, worn face suddenly creased into a grim grin. “It’s time that I practice what I have been preaching all these years.” She looked Mary Margaret directly in the eyes. “This will be a real test for you. I wish for an end to world hunger and war.”

Mary Margaret grew as white as her crinoline gown. “Miss O’Banion! Surely you don’t really want to wish for that.”

Eloise eyed the pale young woman coldly, “Too much for you? You were always an underachiever.”

“Wishes are supposed to be selfish. That’s human nature,” Mary Margaret reasoned. “Don’t you want to be young? Don’t you want a husband, children? How about wealth, security for your old age?”

Laughing, Eloise said, “Youth? God forbid! I’ve lived my life and I’m satisfied. I couldn’t stand another fifty years. As for a husband, it would have been nice… but… And I’ve had over a thousand children to mold and to love. No thank you, my dear. You’ve already granted me wealth.”

Silence filled the room. After a moment Eloise said, “I wish for an end to world hunger and war.”

“But Miss O’Banion, that’s impossible!”

Being firm, Eloise used her most teacherly voice. “Not a very effective fairy godmother are you? Maybe I’ll just wish for your superiors.”

“Come on, Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret pleaded. “Look, it’s not that I can’t grant your wish, it’s just that it would be wrong. You can’t go around changing the whole world.”

“Why not?” Eloise demanded, taking immense pleasure in tapping her foot.

“Because fighting is a human trait, it’s human nature to fight, and hunger is part of living on this earth. You can’t change human nature and not alter all of humanity.”

Smiling at her ex-student, Eloise exclaimed, “Now that’s an astute argument, Mary Margaret! You please me when you use your deductive reasoning. In fact you’re the perfect example of your argument, but I can’t accept that the world was meant to be such an unhappy place.”

Mary Margaret tried one more time. “Miss O’Banion, you’re going to put us out of work. People need to have things to wish for!”

“So, you’re just being selfish. Well, my wish stands. Grant my wish!” Eloise demanded, her cheeks flushed with anger.

Mary Margaret bowed her head sadly. “I’ll talk to my supervisor,” she mumbled and vanished. Eloise noticed the gold fairy dust looked duller as it settled on her dark carpet.

Three days later Eloise sat at her kitchen table shaking her head in annoyance while marking papers. A noise distracted her and she looked up. Standing before her was a very morose Mary Margaret.

“Watched the news earlier this evening, there’s still a famine in Africa,” Eloise said matter of factly. “And those Middle Eastern countries are still trying to blow themselves up.”

“Miss O’Banion, I’ve learned something very disturbing.” She hesitated then blurted, “Your time’s almost up!”

Eloise stared at her fairy godmother in shock. Trying to control the wild pounding of her elderly heart she asked, “You mean I’m going to die?”

Mary Margaret started crying. Sobbing, she blubbered, “Soon.”

“So, why are you telling me this?” Eloise asked, already accepting the inevitability of living and dying.

“I thought that you could use your last wish to extend your life. After all, your first wish has caused this. The strain on your heart from all this mobility.”

Mary Margaret looked embarrassed as she added, “You see, most wishes have a catch, that’s why we give you three so you can counteract the negative aspects.”

Eloise laughed bitterly, “So that’s it, still trying to save your job!”

“No, no!” Mary Margaret gasped. “I’m trying to save you! You’ve only got a few days.”

“Well,” Eloise said philosophically. “I’ve had a good long life, longer than all those young boys I taught who went off to war and died. My last days were made happy with your help, so…”

“Miss O’Banion, help yourself!” Mary Margaret wailed.

“No, all I can wish for now is to have an end to hunger and war. I’d like to die knowing that I helped mankind.”

Mary Margaret asked, “Is that it then?”

“Yes.”

“Believe me, Miss O’Banion, you’re making a terrible mistake. Please don’t make me do this!”

“Mary Margaret, if wishes were fishes, everybody’d eat steak. Well I want to know that nobody will have to go hungry. I don’t care if they eat fish, steak, or broccoli!” Eloise said. Turning back to her papers, she added, “Nice of you to visit.”

Weeping uncontrollably, Mary Margaret disappeared with a spray of tear-soaked gray ash instead of gold dust.

A few days later Eloise was marking math papers in front of the television when the broadcast came. A giant asteroid had apparently appeared out of nowhere and was hurtling to the earth at an astonishing speed.

Eloise clutched her hands in prayer and wept. “You really can’t change human nature,” she cried out, realizing her unyielding sense of righteousness had doomed humanity.

Carrying that burden, all she could do was look up at the darkening sky. Guilt heavy on her conscience and tears wet on her cheeks, Eloise joined the rest of mankind in wishing for a miracle.

 

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