I DON’T OWN A GUN, and that’s probably a good thing because on very rare occasions like these – when I happen to find myself sitting across from a lunatic – it’s just as likely as not that I might decide to go ahead and use one. If I had one, which, like I said, I don’t. As it was, I was within reach of any number of things I knew I could use as a defensive weapon. This is what I was doing: taking inventory, weighing options, figuring escape routes out of my small office. Yep, there was only one way out. I knew that.
This crazy person sitting across the desk from me seemed calm; tranquil in fact, but who knows whether or not he might go from saying crazy things to acting out crazy things.
“So you’re a genie, eh?” I was playing along. “And this is what a genie looks like. Not what I’d’ve expected if I was expecting a genie.” I said that last part more to myself. “And, uh… so I get three wishes, right?” Why the hell did I let this guy in here?
He stared at me for a few seconds without saying a word. Then he rolled his eyes. “I’m going to pretend that you’re not an idiot for as long as I can. I don’t know yet how long that will be, but I’m not optimistic. A genie, as you called me, grants three wishes. This is not a novel concept. You know this. This is TV stuff. Condescension is not something you’re good at. I can tell. And I’ll guess you’re usually at the receiving end of condescension anyway. So don’t attempt it for me.”
I felt my mood shift suddenly from Hey, I better get ready to fight to Hey, is this guy really taking potshots at me? In my own house?
“And I did not say I was a genie. I said I was a Jinn. There is a difference.”
“And I get three wishes.” It wasn’t a question, but he answered it.
“No. When you believe. First, you must believe.”
I MUST BELIEVE.
That’s how it started. I must believe.
And that’s funny because I’d always thought that if I ever had something happen to me that was worth writing a book about, or even just telling a whole long story about, I’d start it out with a really great opening line. Maybe with something Ben Franklin or Abe Lincoln or George Clooney might say. But, you know, I didn’t start it like that.
The truth is that I really didn’t think it was all that important to tell about how I got the genie in the first place, but Stan says that that sort of detail lays the foundation, draws people in, makes them want to hear the story. And since he’s been right too many times – especially recently – I will tell it. But to be honest, for as much as I like telling stories, I’m not the one who really wants to tell this one, given my role in it. But Stan says the story needs to be told, so I tell it.
Okay then – before the guessing starts – I didn’t find an old magic lamp at a flea market and no, I didn’t find an old magic bottle on a beach. The genie (or Jinn, but for the most part, I’ll probably just keep calling him a genie) actually just walked up and knocked on my home office door. He asked for me. I told him who I was (he looked disappointed) and the next thing I knew, he was sitting across from me and I may have been wishing for a gun. Not wishing wishing, y’know, just wishing. And in that way he came into my service. But then how did he come into my possession, right? How did he become my genie? I’m gonna suggest you bone up on your genie mythos. I can only explain so much. You can go ahead and Google it. I know you’ll find it. There’re any number of chat rooms and forums out there, filled with countless nerds and geeks, who would just love to explain, discuss, and argue about the ‘genie rules’. It’s much the same way they feel about the ‘vampire rules’ or the ‘zombie rules’ or the ‘werewolf rules’ and on and on and on.
There are many rules for genie possession and maybe – no, wrong word, not maybe – definitely. I should definitely have paid full attention to them when the rules were explained to me – but honestly, in the beginning (after you do believe) you just want to cut out 99% of it and get down to the basic stuff, the good stuff, the wish-making. After that, all you think you need to know is that once a genie is beholden to you to grant you the three wishes, he’s pretty much with you for the duration. Until the third and last wish is granted. Then the genie gets passed on to the next guy… but not gal. Gals – and I’m not being sexist, I’m just stating facts – don’t get control of a genie, ever.
I’m think I ran off onto a tangent there. Sorry. I tend to do that. It’s something I need to change about myself… among many other things.
NOW AT THIS POINT he wanted me to believe that he was a genie (or Jinn) and I was about to become his… his what? His master? Really? So now what? He was right, of course. What I knew about genies I learned from TV or movies. I kind of remember reading about Aladdin and his genie in The Arabian Nights, or having the book read to me when I was a kid. And, of course, I saw the Disney movie. But that was about it. I really didn’t know much of the important stuff about them then. I could have looked it up, but I didn’t. And I was still a non-believer.
HIS NAME WAS OMAR O’Malley, or at least that’s what he said it was when he introduced himself. (It occurred to me later that this was his first lie.) When I asked him about the O’Malley, he said his father was a leprechaun. I’m sure now, as I was sure then, that this was him just being a smartass, which, in my book, is different from being a liar. Which he also was. In every story I ever saw or read, genies were always acting out as smartasses. I spent three days with him – three loooong days – and after the first day, if anybody had asked me to describe a genie in one word, that’s the word I’d use: Smartass. After that, I’d have to say that my genie was a jerk who dedicated most of his non-wish-fulfilling time to perfecting the art of insults. (It seemed perfected to me.) How much time he spent on lying is anyone’s guess, but I’d say his lying formed a natural and seamless overlap with the insulting.
I suppose I initially marked this attitude up to what (I imagined) was his having suffered through similar introductions and interactions, wish-maker after wish-maker, sometimes day after day, century upon century. When I asked him if this were so, he didn’t even bother answering me. He just looked at me like he was trying to decide whether he should waste his time talking to me, or just go ahead and drop a big boot on me and squash me like a bug.
Eventually, after making a few attempts at normal conversation like that, I just gave up. For myself, I figured that since he knew his whole reason for being there was ultimately about the Three Wishes, why should he bother with getting to know very much about me? Because the three wishes were almost always about greed, right? I was going to get my wishes anyway, right? He knew that. That was his job.
MY NAME IS VIC Baranauskas and, up until Omar showed up, I made my living as a home improvement contractor. Mostly I did small residential jobs. Some bigger projects though. Am I any good? Yeah, I’d like to think I am. In fact, I do think I’m good, very good, verging on great. Building additions, hanging sheetrock, doors and windows, interior and exterior trim, tiling. I’m at the top of my game. Hell, I’m even close to excellent in fields I probably have no business messing with. Electrical? Check. Plumbing? Check. Roofing? Check. Landscaping? Check. So then why did I use more red ink than black? Yeah, well, I know now, but I wish I’d known then. No. Not really wish. That’s a word I learned to be careful using.
I told myself – like everybody else – that it was because of the economy. And maybe it was. Or maybe there was just a glut of home improvement contractors. Or maybe I was just too old-school to catch onto the kind of advertising and marketing that a 21st century self-employed businessman needs to know. It’s one of those things I knew I needed to change about myself. I knew it was, but unless I was forced to change (and isn’t that what we all need? Being forced to change?) I assumed I’d just be struggling along, ad infinitum et nauseam, so to speak. Or maybe the economy would get better. Or maybe my competition would die off.
So I worked, but it was a rare week when I logged more than forty hours swinging a hammer. I spent far too much time in my home office, telling myself that I was trying to reach other markets, and waiting for the phone to ring. I really wasted a lot time in my office, staring at marketing strategy websites that are so far beyond me, it’s hard to believe they were created by humans.
IT WAS A WEDNESDAY morning that Omar arrived, expecting me to believe he was a genie. It was the 1st of October.
Much like someone showing up at your door claiming to be able to change piss into beer (and not the other way around), you’ve gotta be skeptical about someone claiming to be a genie, right? I mean, you’d have to be an idiot not to be skeptical. Because the thing is, you naturally don’t believe anybody when they make a claim about themselves that you’re totally unprepared for. I mean, why would you? I can throw a baseball ninety miles an hour right over the plate. Yeah, right. Here, hit that fire plug with this potato. I’m the poet laureate of Hawaii. Uh-huh, give me two words that rhyme with ‘kilauea’.
A guy says he’s gonna grant you three wishes for anything at all, and what? You’re going to buy it? Of course you don’t. You want to see proof that he is what he says he is, or you’re going to call the cops to get this nutjob off your sidewalk (or in my case, out of my house). But even then, the proof is going to have to be pretty damned good. I mean, if Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that anything you can imagine can be made to look real. And then there’re scammers, con artists, hustlers, flimflammers, hypnotists, mentalists, religious nuts. And then on top of all that, you’ve gotta think: who would go through that kind of trouble to scam a schlub like me? And why? And that’s what I was thinking.
But alright then, I decided to listen anyway, for a minute.
“A GENIE, HUH. WELL, okay, isn’t there supposed to be, like, smoke or something?”
“You want smoke, I can do smoke,” he said “but I gave up smoking a long time ago.” A lit cigar appeared in his hand and he passed it to me. I gotta admit, I was impressed by this sleight of hand, though I tried not to act like I was. I dropped the cigar into a paper cup that still had a little coffee in it. It fizzled out.
“That was Cuban.” He leaned back in his chair.
“It still is,” I said. “And I think it’s illegal.” Then he handed me his resume.
“Okay then,” I said, looking over his resume. (So genies have resumes?) “What’s this? It says here that you changed the direction of a tornado. What’s that all about?”
“What’s that all about?” he repeated. He slumped down in the only comfortable chair in my office, slowly arching his fingers up and down like he was bored. Now I’m sure he was. He’d gone through this many times before, only at that time, I didn’t know it and I wouldn’t have believed it. “That was a week ago. Charlie Barber, a rube farmer somewhere out there in the Midwest – Indiana, to be specific. He had made two of his wishes but was dragging his feet on the third one. And then, well wouldn’t you know it? Out of nowhere a monster of a tornado (I would put it at a category F4) shows up, heading straight for his corn field. And by the way, that was what his second wish got him: corn. He panicked; screamed a wish about changing the direction of the twister.” He pointed to the resume, “It says that right there. So I changed the direction, just as he wished. Made it spin clockwise. They usually only do that south of the equator.” He smirked. I wouldn’t say it was a smile or a grin. It was definitely a smirk. “He lost everything: crops, house, even his brand-new tractor. That was his first wish: a tractor.” He pointed again at the resume. “That’s there too. This idiot wished for a tractor and corn. Imbecile.”
“Y’know I heard about genies doing crap like that. I read it somewhere—”
“No, I doubt it,” he interrupted. “You probably saw it on TV. I doubt you read much of anything. You don’t strike me as a reader. I’d bet most of what you think is valuable knowledge comes from Honey Boo Boo reruns or Wheel of Fortune or commercials. But apparently you’ve been missing the mouthwash and toothpaste commercials. Go figure. Green teeth and it’s not even St. Patty’s Day.”
That shut me up. I must’ve looked like a dope. But for the record: my teeth were not and are not green.
“You shouldn’t let your mouth hang open like that. It really makes you look dumber than you usually look.”
“And how would you know how dumb I usually look?” I shot back. “We just met not ten minutes ago and –” I caught myself early, before I lost control. “Are we gonna have conversations like this all the time?”
He sighed. “God, I hope not. Now that I’ve met you, I’m really hoping you’ll make your three wishes fast, and let me move onto someone who’s heard of dental hygiene and who actually owns a toothbrush.”
“Y’know, you seem fixated on my mouth. Do I –” It was right then that I decided to do the one smart thing I knew I could do. I decided to ignore the taunts (I’d once been married to the queen of taunters. And in that hellish twelve years, I learned how thick my skin could be), at least until I was sure he wasn’t a violent psychopath. Because if I had to, I think I was ready to pound him.
“Y’know, for a genie, you’re pretty much an ass. If you’re gonna to be my genie, why would you want to go on provoking me so much?”
“How much do you think I should provoke you?”
“How much sh– That’s not the point. I’m saying isn’t there that master/genie relationship? Shouldn’t you show me some respect?”
“Like calling you Master? Go on and hold your breath, Vic. This is your TV education rearing its ugly head again.” He stood up. “Speaking of ugly heads–”
“Never mind,” I said. He walked over to my fax machine. He seemed to be checking out the controls without touching them, just looking at them. “Omar, what are you doing? What about this guy, Frank MacVeagh?” This time I pointed to his resume. “I don’t think I understand this. He was already playing in the NHL, but here he’s wishing to play in the NHL?”
He didn’t even turn to look at me. “Look. Stop. Either read it to yourself, or don’t read it at all. It’s embarrassing to have to listen to you struggle through multi-syllabic words,” he said. “You need convincing. You want proof. You want me to show you that I’m the real thing. You probably think I’m going to make with colorful sparkles and explosions and all, but I don’t do that Las Vegas nonsense. And I’m not interested in giving you proof that I’m a Jinn only to have you try to figure out why it’s fake. I’ve seen it too many times. Because once it’s established, then the wishing can begin. Then we can get this over with.” He found an open ream of paper on the shelf above the fax and he took out one sheet. “You’re not unlike thousands of other mouth-breathers I’ve suffered. You’re just another in a long, long line of greedy bastards, just eager as hell to wish something away from a friend or a stranger. So here, stand up.” He took a marker from a mug on my desk and wrote on the paper. I didn’t see what it said, because, from where he was standing and how he was holding it, it was either absolutely beautiful calligraphy or total wavy-lined scribbling.
“Here,” he said, “dial this number.” He handed me a business card that magically appeared in his hand. There was nothing on it – either side – except a phone number.
I was thrown off-guard. “Wait a minute. You’re going to fax somebody? Right now? Are you serious?”
He narrowed his eyes as he looked right at me. “Yes. As a matter of fact, I’m going to fax somebody.”
I gave up and sighed, “Alright, fine.” I folded up his resume and put it into my shirt pocket. Then I dialed the number (I didn’t recognize the area code) and he passed the paper to me. I placed the sheet into the feed and just as I was pushing the START FAX button, I saw what he had written: “Fax this goofball back to me when you’re done with him. No rush,” and he signed it simply “O”.
“Wait – What?” But the connection was made and the paper started slowly moving through the machine. My hand, though, would not let go of the paper.
“Hey! What the— Omar, what? HEY!” I shouted as my hand inched toward the machine. I couldn’t let go, and the paper wouldn’t rip. I yanked as hard as I could and even the fax machine wouldn’t move off the table. And the table, which was on wheels, wouldn’t move either. I grabbed the paper with my free hand and that was stuck too.
“OMAR! WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?! STOP THIS!”
My fingers were disappearing inside. I thought ‘Oh my God. This is going to mangle my hands’ but I also knew that was impossible. I’d opened it up before and all there was in there were a series of rollers. The worst that could happen was that I’d break a finger and jam it up, but I didn’t. My hands were inside, up to my wrists, and they kept on going. I started jerking side to side and I think I started crying.
“OMAR, FOR GOD’S SAKE, STOP THIS!”
Omar leaned against the wall, munching on a soft pretzel with yellow mustard, casually watching the show. I was hunched over at that point, up to my elbows.
“You should probably close your eyes before your head goes through,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I understand that’s the scariest part.” He took another bite of his pretzel.
I didn’t know what else to do. My chin was up against the feed.
I closed my eyes.
“OKAY, COME ON NOW! Open your eyes. Hey – what’d you do? Wet yourself?”
I opened my eyes to find myself standing in a very dark room with a light hanging a couple of feet over my head. Right behind me was a fax machine on a table, very similar to mine, also on wheels. In front of me was a short heavyset man wearing a ridiculous Devil Halloween costume. He had red plastic horns attached to a tight cap and a red cape that came down below his waist, and below that he wore white leotards. Behind him was a tail – cloth, also red. He carried a plastic pitchfork, black handle and red fork.
“Who the hell are you?” I realized that he was right – I had wet myself.
“Don’t worry!” he said. “I’m not the devil!” He chuckled. “My name is Dr. Adrian Marvel. I’m a gastroenterologist, but I’m also a magician. My stage name is The Amazing Gastro. Clever, huh?”
“What the hell are you talking about? Where am I?” I stepped towards him.
“Don’t move, please. I can’t tell if you wet your socks but I don’t want you to get my carpet all… wet. Here,” he pointed his pitchfork at my crotch. “Let me take care of that.”
I was instantly dry… and pants-less. But only for a few seconds. And then I wasn’t.
“I’m sorry about that. I sent your pants to the core of the sun. I thought that was for the best. I hope you like corduroy. That’s the first thing I could think of. You look like a corduroy kind of guy. Here.” He stepped towards me and handed me my wallet and keys. “I saved these for you. And – Oh Geez! Uh, here, have a breath mint. And uh, here, take the rest of them.” He gave me the whole pack.
I am not a corduroy kind of guy, but there I was: wearing corduroy jeans. Amazing. I didn’t like them. But at least I was dry. And they fit pretty well too.
“You sent my pants to the core of the sun?”
“No, not really. I just said that. It’s what magicians do. Hey, is that for me?” He held out his hand and I realized I was still holding Omar’s fax.
“Uh, yeah. I guess so.” I gave it to him.
He read it and shook head and smiled. “That Omar! What a kidder! Am I right?”
Now it was my turn to shake my head. “Look, Gastro, I don’t know what’s going on here–”
A door opened and a nurse leaned in. “Dr. Marvel, Mr. Gaudens is on line one. He insists on talking to you directly.” I could see a very ordinary medical office right outside, behind her. Fluorescent lights, filing cabinets, nurses’ station, and things like that. But what surprised me was the fact that she was completely unfazed by the sight of her boss standing in a mostly dark room dressed like a buffoon. I felt like I should say something about that, but I didn’t. Maybe I was dreaming.
“Thank you, Miss Timmons. Let him know that I’ll call him back within the hour.”
As the door closed, he returned his attention to me.
“Are you a genie too?” I had to ask.
He was shocked. “A genie? Dear god, no!” He shook his head. “No. I only help out Omar once in a while if he thinks he has a really stup— I mean, uh, if he, uh, thinks he’s come into the service of someone who, uh, who he believes – through no fault of their own, of course – might not have the capacity to— I mean, someone who might be struggling to understand… some… basic… uh, obvious, uh, principles.” And he ended with another “Uh”.
I should have been offended by that roundabout attack on my intelligence, but instead I just felt embarrassed for him. I also thought that, for all of the insults that had just been thrown at me in the last fifteen minutes, maybe I should check the back of my pants for a KICK ME sign. But that would have probably gone to the core of the sun too, or wherever the hell my pants went.
His shoulders slouched and he sighed. “Look. Please have a seat and let me get on with it.”
A chair bumped the back of my legs and I sat down.
Gastro the Amazing then proceeded to entertain me with card tricks, one after the other in quick succession, followed by animal balloon tricks, and then a disappearing bird act. All the while, he talked non-stop. He was crudely professional, and it was apparent that, not only did he love doing these magic tricks, but he was pretty good at them. Not great, but pretty good. The tricks themselves were – I have to say – impossible to perform. Yet he performed them, almost flawlessly. So for example, he shuffled ten decks of cards in his hands all at once, tossing groups into the air, which would fall to the floor, face up and in the order he predicted. Like all Queens – forty of them. The bird tricks were also far beyond what I understood reality to allow.
I tried to butt in several times but his banter was incessant. Finally, after about a half an hour I stood up and – gently lowering two kiwi chicks to the floor (they had been perched on my shoulders) – I interrupted.
“Stop already!” I raised my voice a little. “Why are you doing this? Why am I here? And… and… and where am I?”
He seemed surprised at my questions. “Why? Well, to prove to you that magic exists, of course.”
“Yeah, well these are magic tricks. Pretty good ones, I’ll admit, but to be honest, if I was going to be convinced by anything, wouldn’t you think that being faxed would trump card tricks. I mean… that was awesome?”
He tilted his head to one side. “Really? The fax? You weren’t impressed by what I was doing? This is REAL magic. Not sleight of hand, no. Real honest-to-God magic.”
I was afraid I hurt his feelings. “No. It was good. It was great. I was impressed. Really I was, but these were magic tricks and— hey, how did you get involved with Omar anyway?” I felt like I needed to change the subject, and this was something I wondered about since I got here… wherever here was.
This time he sat down on a chair that appeared behind him.
“THE TEN CENT VERSION,” he said. “As simple as this: Omar came into my possession thirty-seven years ago (not important how), along with the three wishes. Unlike you, apparently, I found plausibility in most everything he presented. But to be honest, I was ill prepared for making three choices that could very well change all that was real to me. Now perhaps you’re thinking how could an educated man such as myself, lend credence to a scenario so steeped in mysticism, legend, and fancy. Genies! Hah! Hocus Pocus, smoke and mirrors, and scammers. Hah, hah, hah.
“But here’s the truth,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, unnecessarily I’d say, since we were totally alone in the room. I leaned forward, though, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Before I met Omar, I was not an educated man. In fact, I was,” he swallowed hard, “a lowly home improvement contractor. Y’know, drywall, hanging doors, stuff like that.” Now it was my turn to swallow hard, but I got caught in a cough and then started to convulse into a coughing fit. I couldn’t catch enough breath.
“Victor! Are you alright? Here. Take a drink.” He had a glass of cold water in his hand which I took, sipped, and quickly regained my composure. I leaned back and folded my arms after he gave me another breath mint.
“In any case,” he continued, “Omar and I hit it off right away. He really is a remarkable fellow once you get to know him. We spent about four weeks together, by the end of which I made my wishes. The first was a career as a gastroenterologist. The second was to be the greatest magician in Las Vegas. (Yes, that’s where you are.) And, I’ll leave you to wonder what the third wish was. Again, not important.
“So now, every once in a while, when Omar needs some assistance, I’m there to help as much as I can. And this brings us to you.”
“Wait, wait, wait. If you’re the world’s greatest magician, how come I never heard of you?”
“I didn’t say I was the world’s greatest magician. I said I was the greatest magician in Las Vegas. If you had lis— never mind. The problem with wishes is that you’ve got to be careful about how you word them. Inside Las Vegas city limits, you won’t find a greater magician. I can create miracles. Literally miracles! But if I step outside – nothing. I can barely shuffle one deck with both hands. I used to hope that Vegas would expand its boundaries. At least take over Spring Valley. Well, that’s old thinking anyway. Now I’m happy to be who I am. All of my personal changes have been for the better.”
He stood up then, and looked down at me. I could tell he was trying to put on his most serious face, but even if he hadn’t been wearing a cheapo Halloween costume, he’d have come across as silly. “So, do you believe Omar is a mighty Jinn, sent to you to grant you three wishes?”
It looked like our session (if you could call it that) was almost over, and I wasn’t expecting it this soon. I was caught off-guard. I felt like it had mostly been a waste of time.
‘Uh, sure,” was all I could come up with.
“Good,” he said, and he pulled off his plastic horns, “because I have to call Mr. Gaudens right away, and he can be a real son of a bitch.”
THE FAX BACK TO Philly was pretty much like the fax out to Vegas only without the screaming and the loss of bladder control. I made the mistake of keeping my eyes open – I had to know that experience – and, if I ever have to do that again, well, eyes shut. Clenched, in fact.
When I shook off the weird feeling and cleared my head, I found Omar sitting behind my desk, feet up, paging through one of my work files. There was a tall pile of them leaning against his shoes.
“Why do you even bother staying in business?” He pointed a file in the direction of my computer screen, where he’d been perusing my profit/loss statements. “You seem to be on the cusp of financial ruin year after year. I think you’re better suited for panhandling.”
I clicked the program closed. “Do you mind? That’s none of your business.”
“Should be none of your business either, Vic. I mean really. You actually put cash jobs in your receipts? And you claim them? Who does that? Didn’t you ever hear of the underground economy?”
This isn’t the first time I’d heard this. I have a predisposition toward honesty. At least where money is concerned.
“Look, why are you rifling through my books?”
“Just wanted to know what I’m dealing with.” He shook his head and threw the file on top of the heap. “And now I know. It’s like you’ve stared stupidity in the face and then went right ahead and gave it a big ole bear hug.” He sat up. “Ready to get to the first wish?”
I’ll be honest. I was still unconvinced. Surely he could have been a hypnotist. I just couldn’t fathom why I’d be in his sights.
I took a deep breath. “Everything I think I just saw in the last hour could have been an illusion. I haven’t figured out why you would have done it, but –”
“You’re wearing corduroy pants, for God’s sake! If you wanted physical proof, isn’t that enough? You didn’t have them on when you left here. You’re allowed to trust your senses, aren’t you? Do you even know what empirical evidence means? Didn’t you just have a totally unique experience? You were faxed! I can’t believe I have to go through this.” I don’t think he was faking exasperation, although I felt it was kind of early for that kind of reaction.
“I don’t know. Maybe I had them on and you gave me a suggestion that I didn’t have them on before you put me under. Maybe—”
“How many fingers did you have when you woke up this morning?”
That stopped me. What the hell did that mean? I must have looked completely puzzled, because he stood up then, snapped his own fingers in front of my face and said, “Hey, Vic. Ready for Clappy Hands?” He held his hands up and started clapping as he sang the baby song.
“Clappy hands, Daddy come home, bring little Vickie an ice cream cone,” I lifted my hands up involuntarily as he finished, “SO BIG!”
And I screamed.
I was looking at six fingers on each on my hands.
“VIC! VIC! ARE YOU ALRIGHT?” Stan, my best friend, was shouting outside the office. “I can’t get the door open. What’s happening!?”
“It’s okay, Stan.” I didn’t know what else to say. “I… I… I’m interviewing somebody for a, a job.”
“You’re inter… what!? I heard a scream. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I thought I saw a mouse.” That was a dumb thing to say. “Not now, Stan! I’ll call you later. Just go home. Everything’s alright.”
There was a long silence and then, “Vic?”
“Seriously, Stan. Just… go home. I’ll call you.”
OMAR WAS SWIVELING BACK and forth in the chair he should have been sitting in all along, sort of absentmindedly, not even looking in my direction. I sat down in my chair and I was shaking. I held my hands up in front of my face and flexed all of my fingers – even the two new weird ones.
“Twelve fingers, eh? What a treat for you. You’ll finally be able to count a dozen donuts without taking off your shoes.” He stopped playing with the chair. “And if you did take off your shoes, hey, you’d be able to count two dozen!”
I gulped and looked down at my shoes. They were the same shoes, only they were much wider than they were when I put them on this morning. I wasn’t about to take them off to check. I just closed my eyes.
“Vic, there’s nothing at all attractive about stupidity, so I don’t know why you’re fighting the obvious. Although, God knows you could use something – anything – to help make you attractive. Accept. Or would you like twenty-eight digits?” He waited a second. “In case your math skills are as stale as your breath, that’s seven –”
“I know, I know.” I gave up. Another breath mint arrived magically in my mouth. “Okay. You’re a genie. You’re my genie.”
“Jinn,” he corrected.
“Fine. Jinn. I believe. Alright?” And my hands were back to normal. I took a quick peek at my shoes – normal again there, too. “So now what? What are the rules? I guess I should know all of the details.”
SO IT BEGAN. BUT it turned out there really were rules, and somehow – I guess because I happened to ask about them – he must have felt obliged to lay them all out for me. And I don’t think he was happy about that either, having to explain the rules. But I was glad I asked, up to a point.
I know now that I should have paid more attention from the beginning, but he jumped right into it like it was a speed recital. I got the full course as if there were a handbook he’d memorized. I stopped him a couple of times, just to clarify things. He was talking so fast, I’m sure I missed a lot. And I thought I’d been asking a lot of good questions and making a lot of good observations, but every time I did, he only reacted like I was a moron. Lots of exasperation. Lots of huffs. Lots of puffs. Lots of sighs.
After a while, I thought I’d break it up a little by asking him about himself, about his beginnings. All I got though were vagaries. I found out that he was born more than a thousand years ago (he wouldn’t give me an exact year), and became a Jinn when he was in his twenties, that’s why he looked so young. He stayed in his twenties – physically. Over a thousand years old and no wrinkles and no gray hair. He’d never been married, never had children. He said something that made me think he must have had pets over the years, but he wouldn’t go further about it. When I pushed him, he refused to tell me even what kind of pets they were. I wondered if maybe he was sensitive about that because, if he had kept pets, he’d outlived so many of them. Or all of them. He didn’t say that. It’s just an idea I had. And I might’ve been reading too much into it, and I hate to sound sappy, but just talking about it made me think that he might just be pretty lonely. His composure never changed, but somehow I couldn’t help feel there was a soft spot in him, and that was the loneliness peeking out. And at that point in our so-called relationship – at the very beginning – I could still feel a little sympathy for him, even if he was the biggest jerk I ever met.
HE CONTINUED, “I WILL remain with you at all times until you make all three wishes. I will never be more than ten paces from you.”
“Really? Ten paces? Seriously? So what’s a pace?” I asked.
“What’s a pace?” he repeated. “Are you kidding me? Does your brain feel good when you say stupid things? A pace is a pace. Don’t you know what a pace is? Is that really such a hard concept?”
“No,” I said “but is it one of your paces or one of mine? I mean you’re only slightly taller than me, I think, so how far away would you say that is?”
He looked straight up in the air. “I’m not going to answer that. I don’t have to answer that. You’ll just have to go ahead and lose some sleep over this one.” Then he muttered a few sentences under his breath, but all I heard was the word asshole.
I looked it up later on – pace, that is, not asshole – and it turns out that a pace is actually a unit of measurement. Who knew? Nowadays it’s considered to be just like a regular step, about two and a half feet (so that’s twenty-five feet for ten paces), but in the olden times a pace was twice that, about five feet (and that’s fifty feet for ten paces). That would be as if you were walking and you’d measure from where your right heel would touch the ground to where your right heel would touch the ground again. One cycle. I don’t think I ever figured out which definition Omar was using because in the three days he spent with me, I don’t think I ever got more than twenty-five feet away from him anyway.
He went on for a while then, giving instruction on what does and does not constitute a wish, making sure I understood that I can’t wish for more wishes. And the fact that even though us humans just naturally, in the course of any day, might make a wish as a common expression, like: ‘I wish I knew why I said that’. Or ‘I wish you’d shut up’. Or ‘I wish I were an Oscar Meyer weiner’. He was there, no more than ten paces away, ready to fulfill any spoken wish, no matter what. So I had to be very, very careful. I remember thinking: what if I talked in my sleep?
“Now pay attention,” he said. “Each wish must be stated completely in one breath.”
I opened my mouth to ask – “No, Vic. Not my breath. Any chance you had a lawn dart head injury when you were a kid? This would be your breath we’re talking about.”
“I know that,” I said. “I was gonna ask –” but then I forgot what I was gonna ask.
He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “I actually have a very lucid, very direct, very simple elaboration of this principle…” he paused “…but I truly think you’re incapable of understanding it.” He took a deep breath. “So I’m going to give you an illustration.” He stood up. “If you were to… you do know what illustration means, right?”
“Good. Okay, here’s a cookie.” He passed me an Oreo. “So, if you were to say ‘I wish I had the IQ of a pork chop,’” and he exhaled theatrically and then inhaled theatrically, “‘as well as the personality,’ you’d get your wish. Your IQ would suddenly rocket up from where it is now – about like that of gravel – all the way up to that of a pork chop. BUT your personality would remain like that of gravel and NOT a pork chop. This is because you ended the wish when you started taking a second breath. All you’d get is the first part. Because, in essence, you only said ‘I wish I had the IQ of a pork chop.’ Got it?”
“Look, Omar. Gimme a break. This is all new to me so I’m trying to get all of the details straight. I read – I mean – I heard genies like to take advantage of misunderstood technicalities. I’m just trying to protect myself. Stop treating me like I’m a fool.”
He sat back down.
“Let’s go. Let’s take five. I’m hungry. And besides, I think I’ve had all the instructions I need,” I said. “To be honest, I don’t have the slightest idea what I want my wishes to be. So I think we’re going to be hanging out together for a while.” The way he winced at that, you’d’ve thought I asked him for a kiss.
WHEN WE GOT OUTSIDE I saw Stan across the street, blowing his nose into his hankie and leaning against his car, looking right at us.
“Stay here, Omar,” I said.
“No, Vic,” he said.
I jogged over to Stan. “Stan. Hi. Hey, sorry about that. What’s up?”
“Are you really Vic’s best friend?” Omar cut right in, before Stan could speak. He stood right beside me. “Because I’d say you couldn’t possibly be that big of a loser to give this yokel–,” he jerked a thumb at me, “oh, wait, wait, wait. On second thought, oh, wait. Is this your –, you’re not calling this thing a car, are you?” Omar put his hand over his mouth and nose like maybe he shouldn’t breathe near it. “This rust-mobile? Shit, you must have a towing company on speed-dial. What is this thing? A science fair experiment? You could call it ‘A Full Affront to All Five Senses,’ but you’re gonna have to lick it yourself, Stan. I don’t even think a dog would touch it if you dipped it in bacon grease. And I’m gonna guess you think your long dry-spell in the dating department’s got nothing to do with this. Am I right? Whew! Well, here it is, ladies, the most God-awful excuse for a car I’ve ever seen. And I thought I’d seen them all. No, no, Stan, don’t invite me in for a ride. Really. You never know if this kind of ugly is contagious. And no, I’m not just talking about this, this… what do you call this thing? Oh, and by the way, if this,” he waved his hand up and down at Stan’s clothes, “look you’re sporting is supposed to be a fashion statement, well, let me verbalize exactly what your clothes are saying: ‘Help! I’ve fallen down in the seventies, and I can’t get up’. I’ve gotta tell ya, Stan, the women who’d’ve appreciated this – I hesitate to call it style, are either blind or have died of old age. But y’know, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you and tooty-fruity Vic here really do belong together. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how losers like you two always tend to find each other and team up. But damn! Don’t you two look like a pair of ugly bookends?”
I’ve known Stan since we were in grade school together, and in all those years I’ve never seen his face turn that depth of purple before.
I lurched towards him just as he lurched towards Omar and both of us wound up rolling around in the street, him trying to get up and me, trying to hold him down, my arms and legs wrapped around him. “STAN! STAN! WAIT! I CAN EXPLAIN!” I yelled. I’ve got about thirty pounds on him so I did manage to keep a hold, though he is a pretty strong guy. We tussled for a few more minutes with me the whole time telling him in a very low voice “I’ve gotta tell you what’s going on, Stan. It’s not what you think. It’s okay. Really it is. Just be calm. Please. I’ll tell you the whole story. Just calm down.”
When he finally stopped struggling we both looked up to see about a half dozen stay-at-home neighborhood moms gathered around watching this non-fight. And there among them was Omar. He held a cat in his arms, slowly and calmly scratching its ears, but still looking at us on the ground. I guess it was some neighbor’s cat – I didn’t recognize it. The cat seemed to be watching the spectacle too, but its eyes were half closed, pure delight on its face, reveling in the scratch.
“Better turn your head away, Mr. Pussycat,” Omar said. “I think they’re about to start swapping spit.” And I felt Stan lurch again.
WHEN EVERYTHING SETTLED DOWN, and the neighbor women slowly – almost reluctantly – dispersed, and the cat went home, I guess, I got Stan into the driver’s side of his car and me into the passenger side. I told Omar to wait outside and, as I closed the door, I heard him say, “Not a problem, Vic. I’ve had lice before and that’s not something I want to relive. And besides, I’m embarrassed just being on the same block as this model of turd.”
I saw Stan’s jaw tighten as he watched Omar indifferently stepping back and away about ten paces from the car. Stan swiveled his head and held a hard gaze right at me. “This had better be good. You’re hiring that guy? Vic,” he choked, “you don’t even have enough work to keep yourself busy. What, what…” he trailed off. Then he sneezed. He’d been trying to fight off a late summer cold for a few weeks, and fighting allergies his whole life.
“Alright Stan, here’s the straight God’s honest truth,” I gulped. “It wasn’t an interview for work, and I’m not really hiring him. I panicked, that’s all. I thought I had to say something. Y’see,” I gulped again, “that ignorant dirtball is a genie.”