On the way back from my appointment at the VA, I stopped by this old antique place. A real chintzy little hole in the wall that I ‘d seen umpteen times, but never thought about. I was bored. Didn’t want to go home right away after hearing that the dosage of my meds had to be increased. Depressing. I thought about Sophia and how shitty I had been to her the last time I saw her. I felt bad. I felt bad a lot, for a whole bunch of things. Ever since I got back from Afghanistan nothing seems connected anymore, not like how things used to be. The VA doctor said upping the meds will help me feel like things are still together, not drifting apart.
So, this antique place. All peeling, bleached paint around dirty windows full of junk. I looked at the stuff in the window and caught sight of a bald doll looking back at me with glass eyes. It creeped me out, so I went inside and didn’t look for it. A bell above the door tinkled. I hated that noise. Sharp and ugly. It made me look around to see who else had heard. I saw a Somali propped up on a glass counter, reading a newspaper. He ignored me. I looked around.
All crap, but I kept looking. The money Johnny gave me was burning a hole in my pocket, so I knew I was going to buy something, just not what. A glint of light caught my eye. I was in that sweet spot in the place where the light reflected from whatever it was spiked right in my eyes. I walked across the faded carpet and dug through a box of kitchen utensils and tin boxes, and there it was; a dirty glass bottle. I took it out and looked at it. It was kind of weird, all twisted. Looked fancy. I liked it.
I took it to the Somali and said, “How much?”. Without moving his head, his rheumy eyeballs swiveled up to look at me in their sunken pits.
“Old piece,” he said. “Thirty dollar for you.” I dug out a ten and put it on the counter, all knotted and crumpled. His bony hand covered it and drew it away, like those Halloween toy banks where the skeleton takes your quarter. He wrapped it up in white butcher paper, silent. I took it from him and left, silent back.
Outside, I stood at the bus stop and pulled up my collar. It was cold for that time of the year. I could feel it the worst in my knee, which was all fucked up from getting too close to an IED. They fixed it up good, put a lot of metal in it. I was lucky. I came back mostly all in one piece. While I stood there, a girl came to wait too, but she stood a ways away from me. I looked at her tight jeans and those Ugg boots they all wear these days. I didn’t mind. I would have stood a ways from me too. The bus came and I got on and sat at the back, and opened the white paper to look at the bottle. It was corked and covered with greasy dust. I drew my finger across it, making a path through it so I could see the glass itself. In the passing lights it was green, but sometimes purple, and blue. I looked around, furtively. Nobody was looking at me. The girl from the busstop was texting, oblivious. I looked back at the bottle and wrapped it up again. I coveted it already.
A little while later, I unlocked the door of the apartment building. The lock was old and loose, and you had to rattle the key around inside it before the tumblers worked. When I stepped inside, the couple from upstairs were necking under the buzzing fluorescent, but stopped when I closed the door behind me. “Hey Billy,” the girl said and looked at me. I felt my skin crawling. “What’s up, man?” the guy asked. I walked past them to the the stairs to the basement apartment. I heard his voice say something, but I couldn’t tell what it was. “Shh!” the girl hissed, then laughed.
Inside my apartment, I did the locks and drew the chain and put the bottle on the kitchen counter. While my frozen meal warmed up in the microwave I unwrapped the bottle and stood back to look at it under the one light in the middle of the ceiling. In the unwrapped paper, it was like an egg. An ostrich egg, painted by a blind child. The microwave dinged. No. A spider egg, I thought. I ate my meal directly from the box it came in. Tasteless.
The phone rang, and I let the machine pick it up. “Hey Billy,” said Sophia’s voice. “I miss you. Are you gonna call me sometime?” An awkward, uncomfortable pause. I could hear her fingernails tapping on the other end. “I saw that guy this morning. The guy with no thumbs. It was … like you said. He was in the elevator to Monie’s building. The king of the New Year. He said … he said … ” then she started sobbing and hung up. The King of the New Year. I threw away the rest of the food. I couldn’t eat it anymore, it tasted like plastic.
I got a washcloth from the bathroom and went back into the kitchen. The blood was still in the bath where it had been since earlier that morning. I figured I’d clean it up in the morning, but right then I was just too tired from the day. I just wanted to crash in front of the TV and fall asleep to Leno. Right after I cleaned up the bottle. It was old – might have been worth something. For once in my life, I might have lucked out, y’know? I think I was due some luck.
In the upstairs apartment, the old guy who listened to old records was talking, but I couldn’t hear any other voices. He was crazy. Always doing that kind of crap. Then his voice stopped, replaced with Frankie Vali singing “You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes offa you.”
I ran the cloth under the faucet and rung most of the water out, and went to the bottle and started cleaning it off. The dirt on it was thick, really clogged up the cloth in no time, but I was getting the gunk off, uncovering shiny, dark glass.
The light overhead flickered. I paused and looked at it. It was one of those curly fluorescents. Harsh and sterile. That’s when I noticed the bottle was … well, it felt like it was moving. I put it back on the counter and watched it. It gave a small jerking movement like one of those Mexican jumping beans with a maggot inside. Once, twice, then nothing. I went to pick it up again, but then I saw the cork move.
I should have just gone to bed then, but I didn’t. I took hold of the cork and pulled, thinking it was going to be stiff like a wine bottle, and I’d have to work it back and forth to get it out, but it came right off.
And then it happened. The black smoke, from the inside. It came out, like the exhaust on an old car, or a semi. It oozed out, into the kitchen and hung in the air in front of me, not spreading or anything. Just hanging. I couldn’t move. I was looking into the smoke and thought I could see something solid inside it. Not moving or anything, just kind if there. Hiding. My mouth was dry, like tarmac in the summer. And my knee … it hurt so bad. But I didn’t move. I just kept looking into the smoke, and then I was sure that I could see something. Two small lights inside it.
And then the voice. “I am free,” it said. There was some kind of accent there, but I couldn’t tell what. “I am bound to grant your heart’s desire in gratitude.”
“Like a genie?” I said. My head was swimming all of a sudden. I remembered the higher dosage of the meds I’d popped from the VA pharmacy. The doctor said I might feel weird the first couple of times.
“Choose wisely,” the smoke said. The lights in the middle of it winked in and out, like stars when you look at them directly. “But choose quickly … you could be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. Or do you wish power over men?” The voice was firm, but gentle. It made me think of a snake, a cobra, swaying in front of me.
“Anything?” I asked. I thought about my bad knee, and how much it hurt these days just to walk a few minutes. I thought about Sophia, her little body twisted into that wheelchair. I thought about the King of the New Year. The man without thumbs. I thought about my shitty life, on high dose meds for however long I had left. I thought about the starving Africans and the dying mutts on the Sarah McLachlan ads, and I thought of the world and how miserable it had become, with infantile cancer and AIDS and all the hatred and bad news on the TV and how maybe the world should just stop spinning, and get hit by something. Like this genie could grab one of those asteroids as it went on its way blissfully through the universe and smash it into the world. “I can have anything?” I asked.
“Anything,” said the smoke.
© 2016 ANDREW HOPE ALL RIGHTS RESERVED