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The Wishing Pot by Kathryn Paulsen


There is something to be said for the short-short story. Clocking in at 1,500 words, Kathryn Paulsen’s “The Wishing Pot” accomplishes a great deal in a small space. Employing fairy-tale logic in theme, style, and voice, Paulsen is able to effectively use misdirection, making for a terrific end with a satisfying turn. Propelling us at the line level, with a dash of defamiliarization, this piece lets us wonder if magic is as play. Is this fabulism or realism? The punctuation is lavish—look for the Russian-doll-sentence construction in the third paragraph—and the imagery is eerie and memorable.  —CRAFT


 

For a year she saved her pennies in a red earthen pot lined with plastic wrap, which had formerly housed a chrysanthemum plant. The pot, clean, but still displaying some hardened dirt around the edges, occupied the center of the tool table. Friends who visited would invariably ask, When are you getting a plant for that thing?—it was so carefully placed in direct center that it obviously was no mere leftover—and she would reply, As soon as someone gives me one, then laugh, dismiss her own joke, and point to the handful of coins in the bottom of the pot.

But soon the friends began to drop pennies in themselves. It was a young, or not so young man she was “seeing a lot of” who began it, and the others naturally followed. They called it Kate’s Wishing Well, and some claimed to have actually had a wish come true. She was never to learn whether they meant it or not, because everyone knows (and Kate was no exception) that it’s bad luck to reveal a wish—and worst of all, after it’s come true, because by then the steps necessary to reverse it must be harsher and more destructive than mere non-fulfillment would have been.

Kate herself never wished. What could I want, she asked herself, that would not be a mixed gain. She was much afraid of mixed gains, as it seemed to her most were. Her young man—the new one, that is (his predecessor, the originator of the penny dropping had wished, though Kate did not know this, to find a young woman more suitable—a bit more stable and less mysterious, who would cook for him and have good babies, as Kate seemed reluctant to do; no under-sized breasts to bother about, he thought later, happy and relieved in the arms of his wish), the new man—call him Mike (even Kate would forget his name)—was fine for the moment: though she would not consciously want to replace him, she did not regard his continued presence, or anyone else’s continued presence, worth wishing for.

Money—she had enough—was not as dangerous as human beings, but one had to make room in her life for it. Kate’s life had no extra room. She had space enough, and occasionally light (she was by nature a creature of the dark) but the balance was shaky. If something entered, something must leave. And money, like a man, might prove stronger than her own precarious presence.

Sometimes she would wonder—especially late at night writing at the tiny table with one bare bulb throwing her ten-foot head onto the opposite wall and around the corner into the kitchen window—what she should do with all her wish-free pennies. They were, most of them, still from her; the result of a frivolous, unnecessary economy. And although those from friends may have served as bribes to fortune, they retained their copper purity, and they were still the minority. As she pondered, an enormous hand would run fingers through the ropes of her hair, then descend and move, limber dark animals on the typewriter. She might sigh and rest her chin on a wrist, and the monster head would suddenly round the corner.

One day there was an unexpected knock on her door. It was a neighbor—the messy, mustached young man from the floor below. He took off his hat and, waving it back and forth like a pendulum, said, “I heard you have a wishing bowl, and I don’t believe in that stuff, but I thought you might like your neighbors to drop in a penny, just for good luck.”

“It’s a pot, actually,” Kate answered, leading him toward it. He dropped in two pennies. At the door he turned as if to retrieve a forgotten coat (it was his hat he’d forgotten and never did remember to get back) and threw in a third penny.

Other neighbors began to drop by and contribute their pennies, and Kate’s hoard grew. The pot was now nearly full. How many were in there? A thousand? Five thousand? Fifteen thousand? A good bit of money to finally dispose of, as she would have to, once the pot was filled. It would not do to have pennies overflowing.

The question was, what she could buy with them. Nothing ordinary—in fact Kate would have preferred not to spend them on anything. But she had a slight, superstitious sense that these pennies should not be given again. She could bury them and let them enrich the earth instead, but her apartment building hadn’t a yard.

After much mulling and musing, she hit upon the obvious answer: the pot would tell her what to spend its treasure on. She would carry it out into the world, and walk around till something said, Buy me. Of course, she’d have to find out just how much the pennies amounted to. Practically speaking, it would make sense to count them in advance, but that felt wrong to Kate—or at least not sufficiently ritualistic. She would find the object, then take the pot to her bank and roll the pennies up in those little paper tubes. She would look ridiculous, but perhaps the tellers would be entertained and her pot of pennies would become a dinnertime “how was your day?” story. If she needed more than just the pennies to buy the chosen thing, well she’d just have to spend more.

One late spring evening, when the pennies touching the sides of the pot had reached the rim, surrounding an ever so slightly concave middle, she dropped in the final penny of the day, and thought, It’s done, it’s ready.

For the last time, she ran her fingertips over their surface, listening to them cheep to each other and to her. Tomorrow would be shopping day.

That night she scarcely slept. In the morning, she woke wondering, not for the first time, how much the pot weighed—five pounds, ten, twenty (surely no more than that)? She’d have been tempted to put it on the scale, if she had one. But however heavy, she was sure she could handle it.

She dressed, slung her messenger bag over her shoulder, put the keys in her pocket, set the door to close automatically, so that she wouldn’t need a hand to lock it, and propped the door open with a brick she could kick out of the way after sliding through. Finally she bent over the pot, circled the base with her hands, and lifted it. It was heavier than she’d hoped but not heavier than she’d expected.

She made her way through the door and down the stairs, fingers aching. Reached the lobby, only to face the outer door she hadn’t planned for. What to do? Wait for a neighbor?

She set the pot down, opened the door, then stooped and slid it through, using the heels of her hands to lift it over the jamb.

Outside a brisk, friendly breeze greeted her. She turned right, walked to the corner, and turned left onto the first shopping street. Slowly, carefully, she walked past barber, nail salon, shoe repair shop, pharmacy, and restaurant, then stopped at the corner till it was safe to pass, sensing, but not meeting, curious glances from strangers. Was the pot heavier than the average toddler?

The next block offered a diner, a copy shop, a second-hand store—where she paused to look over the items in the window. Nothing called to her; she could, of course, go in, but instead went on: past a pizza place, a toy store, to a music store, where she again waited: was an instrument in her future, or at least a CD? Perhaps on the way back, if nothing else called….

Another corner: cross or turn? She turned: bank, cellphone store, laundromat. Ahead beckoned an art supply store. The wind picked up, her pace matching—she’d grown used to the weight in her arms—when someone-something hit her elbow. A big, orange cat leaped into her path, her hands gave way, and the pot went flying.

Like a giant speckled sun, pierced with terra cotta shards, copper pennies filled the ground all around. Thousands of pennies. To gather even most of them would take hours, and with nothing to put them in—so much for her plan, whose ridiculosity now seemed painfully evident.

Spine curling upward, the cat snarled at her, as if to say, Look what you did, you idiot.

“That’s right, I am,” she whispered. She could at least pick up the worst of the pot remains.

As she bent to start, the cat strode closer, pressed against her hand. Its fur was matted, one ear nicked—a street cat. Her cat now. She opened her arms, and the cat stepped in.

Stroking its fur, she lifted the cat. It was much lighter than the pot of pennies.

 


KATHRYN PAULSEN lives in New York City, but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places, and suffers from chronic wanderlust. Besides short fiction, she writes long fiction, nonfiction, poetry, stage plays, and screenplays. Her work has been published in New Letters, West Branch, The New York Times, et al., and may currently be read in journals including Big Fiction, Scum, and Maudlin House. For fiction and playwriting, she’s been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and other retreats. She interrupted her latest novel-in-progress to write a new full-length play, FORBIDDEN GREENS, and shorter work, including “The Wishing Pot.” See her occasional musings at Rambles and Revels.

 

Author’s Note

Unlike writers who toss work they find wanting, I save it all: files upon files, mostly unorganized, filled with typed writings, handwritten notes, and often-illegible jottings on all manner of paper. From time to time I look through them, and now and then glean something worth working on—most often a poem.

A little over two years ago, in one of those files, I found two moldering pages of typescript, with crumbling edges, turned tan with age. The first page began with a draft of a poem I vaguely remembered; below that a three-line poem I didn’t remember at all.

The bottom half of the page was occupied by three untitled, single-spaced paragraphs, the first word of which wasn’t even capitalized. Curious, I started reading, and right away thought, This is pretty good. I went onto the next page, which was titled “Kate,” and continued enjoying the read, but with no real sense of recognition.

Then I got to the end.

You stopped! Why did you stop? I asked myself, after reading the words, “her apartment hadn’t a yard.”

But I knew the answer, or thought I did: I’d stopped because I didn’t know how to finish the story. I had the imagination and skills to create Kate and her world—her building, her pot, her pennies—but not to figure out what would happen next.

Decades later, I had those skills (and more life experience). Out of several possibilities that occurred to me, I quickly decided how the story should develop, then finished it. Here are a few of the notes I made as I began the process: “Should she drop it? Should it hurt someone—an animal. Should she adopt the animal?” “Did she count pennies in her house—go to bank to get penny rolls,” “should she bring it to the bank—or be on her way through the streets—not rolled up but open?” “It was the cat that told her to run for her first public office?”

Thinking about the writer I was then—likely in my early twenties—I tried to imagine what inspired the story. The apartment might have been based on the sixth-floor walk-up I lived in back then. I’ve long been a fan of film noir, and assume the image of the bare bulb throwing shadows of Kate’s head was inspired by those films.

Looking again at those old pages, I noticed that the paragraph beginning “One day…” had narrower margins than what preceded. But the final paragraph not only had the widest margins, but was in a different typeface—had been written on a different typewriter (possibly the one on which I’d written my unpublished first novel). So I’d returned to the story twice—was it possible that I could have finished it, but just didn’t?

Whatever the circumstances of the story’s beginning, completing it feels like a two-way gift between the writer I was then and the writer I’ve grown into—and a reason to keep hanging onto old work.

 


KATHRYN PAULSEN lives in New York City, but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places, and suffers from chronic wanderlust. Besides short fiction, she writes long fiction, nonfiction, poetry, stage plays, and screenplays. Her work has been published in New Letters, West Branch, The New York Times, et al., and may currently be read in journals including Big Fiction, Scum, and Maudlin House. For fiction and playwriting, she’s been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and other retreats. She interrupted her latest novel-in-progress to write a new full-length play, FORBIDDEN GREENS, and shorter work, including “The Wishing Pot.” See her occasional musings at Rambles and Revels.