Careful What You Wish For

 Tony struck the rearview mirror with the palm of his hand, slamming it sideways so the high-beams of the truck behind him could no longer slash at him with a blade of blinding brightness.

 “Stupid cocksucker,” Tony growled.  “Turn off your brights!”

 Raindrops popped on the windshield of his old, brown Ford Pinto.  Tony felt like it was his blood bubbling and popping.  The truck had been tailgating Tony for five miles along Highway 62.  Beyond the highway lay the Sticks, and beyond them rose the knobs.  All around them the wet darkness crouched closely like a cat atop its prey.  It was New Year’s Eve, and the joker in the truck behind Tony must have thought that the dark and the rain and Tony’s steady 35 mph were reason enough to blind him from behind and blow his horn.

 “Go around, asshole!” Tony roared.  “Pass me if you don’t like it!”

 The motorist could not hear Tony, nor did Tony believe the driver would have heeded him.  The driver seemed hellbent on tormenting Tony.

 “Pass now! Go ahead and do it already!”

 The Highway was a straight stretch for a good mile, though there was a bridge with railings here and there.  Trees and lowlands stretched into darkness on either side of the highway.  There was little traffic on this side of the County.

 Yet, the driver did not pass Tony.

 “I wish you’d fucking wreck,” Tony said, grinding his teeth.

 Tony had to drive slowly, not only because of the rain and darkness, but because his rear passenger tire was a small doughnut.  The full-sized tire had gone flat a week ago, from a nail in the wall of the tire, and Tony didn’t have the money for a replacement.

 “I swear to God, if I could, I’d fucking smash your truck into a goddamn ravine,” Tony swore.

 At length, Tony saw the liquor store and slowed down, his blinker not working.  He eased the Pinto into a turn, pulling into the big parking lot.  A pot hole’s water puddle ruptured like a hemorrhage and the Pinto jerked sideways, but came to a stop.  Meanwhile the truck blasted its horn.  Tony glanced back only once and saw, within the glow of the parking lot lamppost, the side of the truck.  There was a faded Confederate battle flag painted on the door.

 “Go home and fuck your sister,” Tony grumbled.  He sighed, irritably, then turned off the Pinto.  Groaning now, he climbed out of the car, which was difficult for him since he was so tall, his legs so long, and the Pinto so small and low to the ground.  He did not know which was worse: falling in or tumbling out.  Standing up was like coming up from a game of Limbo.  The old, familiar ache in his hip proclaimed it was still alive and well and had, much to his misery, learned new agonies.

 “Christ Almighty!”

 Limping now from sciatic pain, Tony headed into the front door of Mike’s Liquor Store to start his shift.

 Robbie, the second-shift clerk, eagerly abounded from behind the counter as Tony hobbled into the bleaching light of the store.

 “Finally,” Robbie said in a low, disgruntled voice.  “What took you so long?”

 “I am on time!” Tony growled, glaring at the young twenty-two year old’s face-piercings.  Even if Tony wasn’t angry at Robbie, he would still have been staring at the piercings.  The silver rings glistened like Christmas ornaments and the chains that linked them swayed with the slightest movement.  There were times when Tony wanted to tear them out.  “I still have five minutes until it’s Eleven.”

 “But I told you I needed to leave by Ten-Thirty,” Robbie complained in that monotone that never changed pitch, even when more robust emotions were meant to be conveyed.  “I got a gig tonight with my band.”

 Tony walked past Robbie, nearly getting hooked by the chains that dangled from his black pants and black shirt.

 “I never agreed to come in early,” Tony said.  “But I’m here now, so get lost.”

 Robbie opened his three-ringed lips to say something, then closed them and headed out into the parking lot.  He looked like a pale set of arms and a head as his black shirt and pants melded with the outer blackness of the night.

 Tony assumed his place behind the counter.  He noticed there were Cheeto crumbs on the counter.  He raised a hand to sweep it off, but then grumbled.

 “I’m not his momma,” he said.  He looked out at the aisles of booze, wondering how many of them Robbie had filched.  It didn’t matter, he realized.  Mike’s Liquor Store had a terminal illness, and its last days were approaching fast.

 He felt something like white noise in his ears.  He heard it, too, but the radio was so loud that it had a tactile roughness, like sandpaper.  After a moment of vegetated nonthought, he realized that it was the radio.  He walked over to it, by the drive-thru window, and turned it off.  It was the Metal music that Robbie listened to.  Naturally, Tony hated it, just like the fact that he hated Robbie’s long hair.  Tony was balding, and he thought that the only good music that ever existed, existed in the Seventies.  Everything else— like the world at large—was expendable.

 “Stupid crap,” he said.

 He stood in the silence of the empty liquor store.  He hated the bright lights.  They reminded him of the driver in the truck who had been shining his high-beams and tailgating.  He wanted to turn the lights off, or at least half of them.  Why would it matter anyway?  The liquor store was going to close soon because nobody came out this way for booze.  Once upon a time, when Boone County next-door was Dry, its citizens would venture out here on Highway 62 and purchase all of their alcoholic needs.  Business was going well back then.  Mike, the owner, sometimes had a hard time keeping the store fully stocked since so many customers were coming here.  The big parking lot was full, even in the late hours.

 But then Boone County voted to go Wet, and sure enough the majority of Mike’s customer base dried up.  Tony was surprised at Mike’s denial, though, thinking that if Mike was sensible he would have fired both Tony and Robbie and liquidated his remaining stock, or at the least opening another store somewhere else, on the outer edge of another Dry county.  But Mike was in denial, and so long as Mike was in denial, Tony had a job.

 And yet, Tony did not care for the job much.  It was merely a means of buying booze to drown himself from day to day.  Nothing more.

 The door banged open and the little bell ding-a-ling-a-linged pathetically.  A young guy in a hoodie and sweatpants walked in, followed by a young woman.  She was in a hoodie, too, and both of them had their hoodies up over their heads, shielding their eyes, and most of their faces, from the bright fluorescence of the store.  She had an oversized purse and wore a short skirt, the latter of which would not have been justified even by Summer temperatures.  A tattoo of Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid smiled coyly from the inner thigh of one leg.  A hookah trailed smoke up the other leg, disappearing into the skirt.  Tony could have hazarded a guess as to where it ended.

 “What’s up?” the young man said.

 Tony merely nodded, watching them like a sheriff at the entrance of a new cowboy posse.

 “Wet fucking night, am I right?” the young man offered.

 “That’s what umbrellas are for,” Tony said, mirthlessly.

 The young man pointed a finger-gun at Tony.  “Good advice,” he said.

 The young man and woman split apart, going down different aisles.  Tony knew their routine better than they did.  They thought they were being slick, separating to divide his attention while they filched whatever they could from the shelves.  And they almost succeeded, but Tony was wise to the ruse because it was a ruse he knew well.

 The young man tripped loudly over a display, making a dramatic show of knocking over a stack of Mad Dog beer.  The beer cans rolled everywhere like aggrieved animals on the run.

 “Oh man!” the young man said, gawping up at Tony with mock-embarrassment while bending over to try to pick up the cans.  “Dude, I am so sorry!”

 The young man scrambled to reassemble the display stack.  He kept his face concealed beneath his hoodie; all except that dog-eat-shit-grin—it glittered in the fluorescence.  Meanwhile the young woman stuck a bottle of Captain Morgan Rum into her oversized purse.  She walked around with a hastened step, emboldened by her presumed success.

 The young man made a show of looking around the store for a while longer before finally picking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the coolers.  He brought it to the counter and, while he busily fished out his ID, his girl walked out the door, her purse swinging ponderously against her upper thigh.

 “Just the PBR,” the young man said, handing over the PBR and a five-dollar bill.

 Tony rang up the PBR, and the Captain Morgan Rum.

 “Whoa, whoa, whoa, man,” the young man said.  His dog-eat-shit-grin twisted into a snarl.  “What’s that shit you added there?”

 “The rum your girl put in her purse,” Tony said.

 “She didn’t do not fucking thing,” the young man said.

 It never ceased to amaze Tony how petty thieves could become so outraged at suspicion, especially when they were caught.

 “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” the thief demanded.

 “The guy who caught your bitch stealing on camera,” Tony said.  He hooked a thumb back toward the camera on the wall behind him.  “So either pay for the rum or she can go to jail or juvie.  To be honest, I’m not sure how old she is.  Maybe her dad will want a word with you before the police do.”

 The outrage did not subside from the thief’s face, but it was fractured with alarm.

 “Camera?” he said.  “There ain’t no fuckin’ camera.  You’re fuckin’ lying.”

 Tony gave the thief an indifferent, nonchalant shrug of the shoulder.  “You’re the one risking everything.  I just work here.”

 The thief glowered at Tony.

 “You don’t even know who we are,” the thief said.

 “I have your ID right here,” Tony said.

 “It’s fake, bitch,” the thief said.

 “All the better,” Tony said.  “More jail time for using a fake ID.”

 The two men glared for a time longer.  The younger man, at last, relented.

 “Fine, motherfucker,” the thief said.  “I’ll bring it back.”

 The thief went outside for a minute.  He came back with the bottle of rum.

 “Here, you fuckin’ snitch!”

 The thief slammed the bottle of rum on the floor, smashing it all over the scuffed-up linoleum tiles.

 “Fuck you, you punk-ass bitch!” the thief shouted, flicking Tony the bird and shouldering through the door.  A few beats later a car door slammed, an engine revved, tires squealed, and wailed down the road in impotent rage.

 Tony scowled at the rum and broken glass.  After a few seconds of trying to recalibrate his anger to a lower setting, he fetched a dust pan, broom, mop and bucket.  He cleaned away the mess.

 The camera inside the liquor store was, in actuality, nonfunctional and Mike did not have the money to fix it.  Still, the broken camera could be seen by anyone glancing up while paying for their booze.  It was a one-eyed alien from a bygone era.  The only other camera was the parking lot camera.  Tony occasionally glanced at its monitor behind the counter.  Right now it was black and white and half-blinded by the parking lot light and the rain that slashed through the darkness like shooting stars of white streaks.  There were no cars in the parking lot.  The highway stretched between two counties, both sprawling boondocks riddled with the Sticks and underbrush and flooded swampland.

 The radio, which Tony had turned off, turned itself on.  It did this from time to time.  The off/on switch was broken and only worked one way or the other for so long before switching itself.  When it turned on, the chugging guitar of a Jimi Hendrix song blasted through the store.

 “‘There must be some way outta here,’ said the joker to the thief…”

 Tony yanked the radio’s plug from the wall.  He should have unplugged it earlier, he thought.  One day he would throw that radio in the dumpster.

 There must be some way out of here…

 The voice of Jimi Hendrix taunted him over and over again.  He knew it was a desperate lie.  There was no way out of here.  Life was a prison all around him, and it had closed in on him with claustrophobic closeness over the years.

 Feeling suddenly very moody, Tony took out his wallet and slowly pulled out a photo, extracting it with all of the cautious care of a surgeon conducting a perilous operation.  The photo slipped out, at length, with minimal creasing.  Old and crumpled and faded, it was a photo of a younger version of Tony, with a full head of blonde hair—healthy, shiny hair—and a pretty, young woman beside him, holding a baby.  All three members of the family were smiling in the photo.  It was a photo miracle, the portrait photographer said; a picture-perfect arrangement of smiles all at the same time.  But what a contrast it cruelly displayed for Tony now.  Nowadays, he had no hair, never smiled, and was raked head to toe with wrinkles.  His wife—ex-wife, he told himself—had remarried and had aged a little better than Tony because she did not drink or smoke.  She also wore makeup nowadays, or had been the last time Tony had seen her.  He hated the makeup on her.  It looked unnatural.

 And the baby…the baby was now a grown woman.  She had gone to college, and became a Veterinarian, and had gotten married.  She had small children of her own now—two, in fact—but she had not allowed Tony to see them.  He was a stranger to them, and a stranger to her.

 “Ungrateful,” he muttered.  “Without me…she wouldn’t even exist…”

 Nothing had gone well in life for Tony.  And the things that seemed to have been going well were just rotten bits of luck in disguise.  They were the opposite of “blessings in disguise”.  They were curses in disguise.  It was like Luck apportioned by circumstance so as to provoke optimism only as a catalyst for the disappointments to come.   Like a Leprechaun’s pot of gold that turns out to be stolen from Fort Knox, the pot tagged with a tracking device.  The best example of such a curse was his ex-wife, Laverne.  He had thought he won the Jackpot when he married her.  In truth, he had won hot lead in a game of Russian Roulette.

 It was just like that insurance scheme.  He had it all lined up right, and would have made a hundred thousand off of it.  But a fraudster was only as good as the victim let him be, and if the victim was an insurance company, then he was not good at all.  Insurance companies were the kings of fraud, equaled only by celebrities and politicians.  In the end, Tony had served jail time for the ploy.

 Worse, he had ruined his life.

 A couple of hours passed, crawling by with all the swiftness of a slug across a cheek.  Tony felt the sliminess of Time lingering on him, like a triggered nerve that would not stop twitching his face just below his right eye.  The fluorescent lights bothered him, and the booze.  He wanted to drink a beer.  But if he drank a beer he would want to drink another beer.  And another.  And then a shot of whiskey.  Maybe a shot of Bluegrass Bourbon.  And then, before long, he would have drained several cans and bottles and thrown them on the floor alongside his own slovenly, sloppy-drunk self.  He did not want to betray Mike’s trust like that.  Sure, he thought, Mike was fighting a hopeless battle, but Tony would have never forgiven himself for betraying Mike.  Just like he never forgave himself for saying the terrible things he had said to his ex-wife during the Custody battle.

 And so Tony went outside for a smoke.  He stood under the eave of the liquor store, peering through the smoke of his cigarette and the veil of heavy rain and stared at nothing.  Highway 62 was empty.  No cars passed along that desolate stretch of hillbilly backwoods.

 Tony’s preferred brand of cigarettes was Monkey’s Paw.  They were cheap and they gave his body the amount of nicotine it thought it needed.  And so he lit a cigarette, puffing his lungs to ash and tar and coughing occasionally, the Monkey’s Paw choking him like a garroter at times, and generally feeling sardonic about the world.

 He smoked until there were flecks of ashes in the untrimmed scatter of mustache hair over his top lip.  Flicking the cigarette butt out into the black glaze of the parking lot, he headed back inside.  The chill followed him inside.

 The alcohol still beckoned to Tony.  He wanted to turn half of the store’s lights off and conceal the booze in darkness.  Actually, he wanted to turn all of them off and just sit in the dark, staring at nothing.  As a compromise, he turned off only the lights illuminating the counter and himself.  He told himself that it would have save Mike some money, at least, since the store had bled too much money through the lights as it was.  No customers at that late of an hour would have cared if the lights were on or not.  But his eyes and tongue cared.  Wherever he looked the amber gleam of whiskey and rum and the friendly glimmer of silver beer cans all enticed him over.  It was like an ambush from old lovers with their legs all spread out and ready.

 One addiction did not help, and the other was too inappropriate, so Tony opted for his last addiction, which was the most dangerous of all three.  He walked around the counter and picked up the phone.  After a moment’s hesitation, he dialed the familiar number.  There was no ring tone.  His ex-wife must have blocked the store’s number, too.  It was the only phone he had access to, and now it was a dead-end as well, just like their marriage.

 “I wish…I wish things had been different,” Tony said to the dead receiver.  He hung up and stood in the darkness, grim as a gargoyle.  The silence of the store, the highway, and the surrounding countryside met his confession with merciless immutability.

 Tony started for the nearest aisle, hand aiming toward the nearest alcohol without any consideration of what it was.  But his shoestrings were loose and he nearly fell as he stepped on them with one foot and tried to step forward with the other.  Catching himself on the counter, a breathed breath of relief, then bent over to tie his shoestrings.  When he straightened up—with a groan and a jolting agony in his leg—there was a man standing before him.  The man had appeared seemingly out of thin air.  At first, Tony blinked, thinking that the figure before him was a result of the conspiring efforts of his graveyard shift, drowsiness, cataracts, and the half-light in the liquor store.  After staring at the man, and gawping like a monkey, Tony concluded that he was, himself, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

 “Evening, sir,” the man said.

 He was short and had dark black eyebrows, a dark black beard, and dark black eyes like coal.  His skin was burnt umber and the large turban topping his head was wound into a purple plume with a fist-sized diamond in the center of it.  The man wore a black tunic and red, puffy pantaloons.  He had a single earring in one ear, gleaming gold.  Despite the rain, his strange clothes and turban were completely dry.  Desert dry.

 “I didn’t think you Muslims drank,” Tony remarked, after finding his tongue.

 “I am not a Muslim,” the man said, his accent thick.  “I am a Djinni.”

 “Well,” Tony said, “whatever your religion is, I don’t care.  If you want to buy some booze, you need to use the almighty American dollar.”

 “I do not want to buy booze, either,” the stranger said.

 “Then what do you want?” Tony demanded, growing irritable.  “A lottery ticket?  A lighter?”

 The stranger’s lips creased at the edges, suggesting a smile.  “I want to buy your soul,” he said.

 Tony grimaced.  “I’m a Presbyterian.  I’m not converting to anything else.”  He sighed, suddenly feeling despondent.  “I’m too old to change now.  Just ask my ex-wife.  The most I can change nowadays is a tire.”

 The stranger’s eyes were not black.  They were afire.

 “For your soul, Tony Gable, I will grant you wishes.”

 The mention of his name gave Tony pause.  “Who are you?” he said.  “Did my ex-wife send you?”  He grew irate.  “Are you here to serve me papers?  We had an agreement that I didn’t have to pay child support so long as she was married to that fucking car dealer…”

 The stranger waved aside Tony’s furious words.  “I know your name, Tony Gable, because I know your life.”  His eyes blazed brighter and the fluorescence of the liquor store flickered out, leaving only darkness and the eyes that burned within that darkness.  “I know that you wish for things.  All mortals do.  I am willing to make your wishes come true.  All you need do is sell me your soul.”

 Tony winced and then blinked.  All at once the liquor store was alight with its stark fluorescence.  The stranger was standing before Tony again, eyes dark as he waited patiently.

 Tony’s mouth was dry.  He moved his tongue and it rasped like a receipt in a pocket.  “How…how do I know you are telling me the truth?”

 The stranger raised a hand.  There were bangles and jewelry dangling from his wrist.  “Would you like me to give you a wish for free as a sign of good faith?”

 Tony had not realized how much he was sweating until an itch brought his hand to his forehead.  “Could you…could you cure my sciatica?”

 The stranger bowed his head slightly.  “Only wish it so.”

 “I wish that my sciatica was cured,” Tony said.

 The stranger fluttered the fingers of his raised hand, then lowered the hand, letting it fall at his side.  Nearly instantly Tony felt his sciatic pain—that javelin that impaled him from hip to toe—melt, subside, and then disappear altogether from his leg.  His disbelief was but a moment.  After that moment, he stepped side to side, did a jumping-jack, and even lunged; left and right, left and right.  The sparkle of joy in his eyes glimmered, but soon disappeared within a shade of apprehension.

 “My soul?” he said.  “My soul for always?  Or is it just…slavery for a while?”

 The Djinni said nothing.  The dreadful silence, and his smile, said all that needed to be said.

 Tony’s eyes fell to the scuffed tile as the scales of his mind teeter-tottered back and forth with their fateful weights.

 “How many wishes do I get?” he asked.

 “As many as you want until the moment you die,” the Djinni said.

 A cunning and excitement scintillated in Tony’s eyes, but before he could speak, the Djinni spoke, snuffing it out.

 “Remember that you are mortal,” he said, “that you were born mortal and you will die mortal, as is the Celestial Law.  I may bend that Law, but I may not break it.  Mortal you are and mortal you will remain until your death, and no wish may change that.”

 Tony nodded reluctantly, his face veiled in dark thoughts.  His brow creased with conflicted desire and fear.  The wrinkles of his face became deeper, as if freshly sliced by a scalpel, the blood not yet ready to run.  He cast his eyes over the liquor store, and out the window at his old Pinto in the parking lot.  He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the windowpane.  The reflection was dark, and his eye sockets appeared hollow and ghoulish.  He clenched his teeth like an ape confronted by a challenger.

 “Fine!” he burst out, flinging an arm in a simian motion.  “I will sell you my soul!  Not that it is worth much.”

 The stranger vanished at once, like a candle’s flame winking out.  Tony looked left and he looked right, searching the store for the turbaned man.  There was not a trace of him; neither hair nor footprint or distant footfall.  For a moment Tony thought he had hallucinated the whole visit.  But after he turned on all of the lights, and as he walked around the store, looking for the short man, he was more and more convinced that the man had been real, for the ache in his hip and leg was utterly gone.

 “He was a liar,” Tony told himself.  “Wasn’t he?”

 Pausing by the window, Tony gazed out into the parking lot.  The only car in the rain-drenched lot was his own: that ugly, beat-up Ford Pinto.  His eyes focused on what was nearest: his own reflection.

 “I wish I had a full head of hair,” he said, “like when I was a teenager.”

 Smooth, shiny hair sprouted from Tony’s head, growing thick to cover his bald spot and then spreading outward, forming the Devil-may-care parted shape of his teenage years.  He could scarcely believe it, and ran his fingers through his hair and scalp several times while looking at himself in the window.

 “Holy shit!” he exclaimed.  He nearly hopped up and down with joy.  Looking now at the Pinto beyond his reflection, he grinned.  “I wish I had a Ferrari instead.”

 The Pinto transmogrified at once, stretching and broadening and smoothing itself out into a red Ferrari.  Tony did not know the year or model, but he loved it, running out into the parking lot to walk around it and behold the glory of his new vehicle.  He did not even notice the rain.  At first.  But as the downpour strengthened, he decided to test the interior of his new car.  The door opened vertically, at the touch of the key fob that was suddenly in his hand.  With his sciatica gone, he had no trouble bending down and slipping into the black leather interior of the car.  He pushed the fob again and the door lowered on its own.  He started to put the key in the ignition, but paused.

 “I wish I had a cell-phone,” he said.  “A good cell-phone.  And not that Apple shit, either. An Asian phone.”

 A Samsung Galaxy 10 appeared in Tony’s hand, gleaming with its slick black design.  He fumbled with it for a moment, trying to figure it out.

 “I wish to call my ex-wife,” he said aloud, having given up on figuring the phone out enough to do it himself.  The phone dialed the familiar number and, much to his joy, his wife answered.

 “Hello?” she ventured apprehensively.

 “Laverne, it’s me, Tony…” he began.

 She hung up immediately.

 Tony groaned and struck the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.  Rain ran down the windshield of the Ferrari like teardrops down a cheek.  After a moment, however, he brightened.

 “I wish Laverne would call me and want to talk to me,” Tony said.

 The cell-phone began to ring.  Tony knew enough intuitively to swipe green on the touchscreen.

 “Tony, are you there?” Laverne said hesitantly.

 “It’s me!” Tony said, louder than he needed to.

 “Yeah, well…it’s been a while since I spoke to you about the grandchildren.  So I thought it was only fair that I tell you how they are doing.”

 Tony sat up eagerly in the seat, leaning his body toward the phone he held against his ear.  But instead of waiting for Laverne to inform him about their grandchildren, he spoke first.

 “I wish Laverne still loved me!” he barked.

 “…I miss you, Tony,” she said.  “I still have feelings for you.  I still…love you…”

 “I wish she would want to get back together!”

 “…and I think we should try to work it out…for the grandkids, but also for ourselves…we should try again…”

 “I wish that she hated her used car salesman husband!”

 “…and I hate Frank.  He was not a good husband or father.  Or a good salesman.  I made a mistake.”

 “I wish that she would beg for my forgiveness!”

 “…Can you forgive me?  Please?  I need you to forgive me, Tony!  Please forgive me and tell me you love me!”

 Tony amended this conversation several more times until Laverne was sobbing on her end and promising to leave straightaway and meet Tony at his current residence.  By the time the conversation ended, Tony could hear the baffled protests of Frank himself.  Tony grinned, glad to hear it the salesman losing, at last, the deal of a lifetime.

 Feeling quite pleased, Tony abandoned the liquor store to the rain and darkness and the pleasure of whatever thieves might visit it.  He started for home, expecting to find his ex-wife awaiting him there.  It was very dark still, and rainy, and it was the witching hour.  His Ferrari cut through the darkness and the rain like a red blade.  He felt good driving it, but he did not drive overly fast.  He felt paranoid that he would lose control of it and wreck it.  And he did not want to damage such a fine vehicle.

 Tony had been ruminating on how he would break the deal with the turbaned stranger, and he was satisfied that he had found a loophole in the arrangement.  He would simply wish that the deal was moot.  First, however, he would reconcile with his wife, and he would sell the Ferrari for money, his reasoning being that the stranger could take the Ferrari away from the new owner, but not the money the Ferrari had brought to Tony.  He felt optimistic about this ploy.  He felt invincible.  He would make several such wishes and then pawn them off for a dragon’s hoard of wealth.  It was a transactional con, and he knew about them well.

 Only, this one would work.  He knew it would work.

 Tony was halfway home when the headlights approached from behind.  The high-beams flooded his Ferrari with blinding bright light.  Tony cringed and shielded his eyes with his arm, then pushed the rearview mirror aside.

 “I bet it’s the same cocksucker from before,” Tony swore.

 The truck began honking its horn in rapid succession, keeping its brights on the Ferrari.

 “Pass me, you dumb-ass,” Tony growled.  “Or better yet…”

 Tony hit the gas, accelerating down the straight, but wet and dark, highway.  At first the headlights behind him began to lag behind, receding, but they, too, accelerated, catching up to him.  Tony did not dare go faster or risk losing control of his new car.  So he relented, slowing down, now, and hoping that the belligerent tailgater would finally pass him.  The motorist did not.  The truck’s high-beams flooded the Ferrari again, and the driver hammered the horn incessantly.  Tony would have pulled off the highway, but there was no shoulder, nor any driveways or exits to take advantage of.  It was a branchless road for miles.

 The truck finally pulled into the opposite lane, revving its engine and driving up alongside Tony.  But it did not pass.  Instead, one of the passengers leaned out of the window and yelled at Tony.

 “Fuckin’ faggoty foreign car!” the drunk slurred into the rain.  He flung an empty bottle can, striking the Ferrari’s hood.  The bottle shattered and scattered across the Ferrari.  “Think you’re better than us?  Buy American!”

 Tony seethed.  He recognized the truck, and its Confederate battle flag on the door.  The truck kept abreast of the Ferrari, if only because Tony was too cautious to drive any faster.  The rain fell harder, as if it, too, wished to damage the Ferrari like the bottle had.  The driver of the truck blew his horn for one long, strident note.  All the while Tony ground his teeth together in rage.

 “You think you can outrun us?!” the drunk yelled.  He slapped the Confederate battle flag for emphasis.  “You goddamn Yankee!

 “I wish that bastard would fucking wreck,” Tony growled.

 The truck suddenly lurched forward in a burst of speed, and tried to maneuver in front of Tony’s Ferrari.  But instead of gaining enough speed, and distance, it slid with a jerk to the right as a tire blew out, slamming into the Ferrari.  Before Tony could utter a word, the truck and the Ferrari careened sideways, slamming into the rails that ran along Highway 62.  The truck bounded off in the opposite direction, diving off the highway while Tony’s car overcorrected, hydroplaning.  Tony screamed as the sports car flipped and then somersaulted down the road with its chaotic momentum.

 In his excitement, Tony had not buckled his seatbelt.  He flew through the windshield and tumbled along the asphalt as a broken tangle of limbs.  The car followed after him, and after it followed the stranger in the purple turban.

Bringing Me Down

It was the most forlorn of towns
where all its people had depression
and shared only their frequent frowns
and their latest therapy session.
They moaned and groaned about each thing
that pained them a little here and there,
acting as if no suffering
was as awful as their own to bear.
They made sport of it, in a way,
trying to outdo each other’s sorrow,
and if they did not moan most that day
they would always moan more tomorrow.
But there was one man in the town
who only liked to crack funny jokes:
Barnaby, the comedy clown
who tried to help all these mirthless folks.
Barnaby always did his best
to get a laugh from his neighbors,
pulling toys from his purple vest
or juggling a bunch of sharp sabers.
One day, however, they found him
hanging dead from a thick, knotted rope,
swaying from the oak’s creaking limb
like a man given up on all hope.
Every townsfolk wondered why
Barnaby had chosen to leave this world,
thinking him too jolly to die
by his own hand with a rope unfurled.
Then they found the angry letter
in his pocket, next to his flower,
and it read, “Things won’t get better
so long as I live here one more hour.
I’m tired of the endless whining
about life, misery, and whatnot,
and I think it quite a fine thing
to end this life quickly and just rot.
You have all been bringing me down
for more years than I should have let you
and I will not be a sad clown;
no Pierrot, so melancholic and blue.”
The townsfolk thought of his last words,
taking umbrage at his swaying shade
as it hung above, with the birds
and the mocking song their voices made.
They left Barnaby up to rot,
thinking that was what he had wanted,
and when they bemoaned their sad lot
they looked at once to him, undaunted.
“We have all been bringing him down,”
they said, smirking at some private joke,
“so we ought to honor the clown
and let him sway above us sad folk.”
Hence, they kept Barnaby aloft
and trembled to see him through the years
as he lost his skin and flesh, oft
grinning at them and their endless tears.

Loved To Death

Grandma smoked like a dragon on the gazebo,
hearing her estranged daughter praise a placebo—
“Love is the strongest drug a doctor knows,”
she said, fanning the fumes from her nose.
“It keeps you well and happy and strong,”
but she coughed as if sucking from a bong.
Her children, meanwhile, played in the garden,
laughing and crying and begging pardon.
“Maybe so,” the beldam said, still chugging,
“but it’s bad for your heart, all that hugging.”
“You can’t mean that, momma,” her daughter said.
Grandma meant it: “Love will kill you stone-dead.”
On cue, her grandchildren leapt onto her back—
she died of a hug, and a heart-attack.

Theatrics

He carried the pistol upon the stage
and spoke a line not on the page—
“For years I’ve been but scripted lies,”
he announced, tears rolling from his eyes.
“No more! If I cannot live as I wish…”
Someone booed before he could finish.
He scowled, keeping the pistol where it was held,
but then—“Melodrama!” someone yelled.
Pulling the trigger, his brains blew out
as the stage manager began to shout.
The audience screamed and fled the lobby
except for a couple, both jaded and snobby.
“What a tonedeaf final act,” the husband snorted.
“The whole play should have been aborted.”
“His theatrics were overblown,” the wife said.
“He always let feelings go to his head.”

But One True Law

The Queen of Privulieu said,
as she patted her little mustached Terrier,
“Fluff up Frederick’s carriage bed
to make him comfy and all the merrier.”
The footman did as he was commanded,
fluffing the pillows for that spoiled pet,
but while he did so, all gentle-handed,
he did so knowing there was always a threat
beneath everything the Queen decreed,
and so all the servants indulged that brat
and every whiny whim from that royal breed,
knowing a single word meant “That was that!”
For even the Queen’s dog could abruptly banish
a footman that displeased that little hairy lord
for nothing more than to see him vanish
from the palace because the dog was bored.
Then one day the Queen went to the Royal Park
walking through the woods for fresh air
and she took with her that canine monarch,
carried by a footman allergic to dog hair.
The footman sneezed again and again
until Frederick became furious with him
and growled and snarled and bit at his chin
until the footman ran away from them.
Now the Queen and the royal canine
were left by themselves in the Park
and a hawk shrieked high above the treeline
and Frederick began to bark.
“Worry not, my little blessed beast,”
the Queen said with a loving smile,
“When we return home you shall feast
on tenderloin and mutton while
that naughty man is tied to a tree
and flogged for being so impudent.
He will starve as well, verily,
and learn, indeed, to be more prudent.”
The hawk shrieked again and took to flight,
flying over to the Queen and circling above
and Frederick barked and barked with all his might.
The Queen said, “He shall not hurt you, my love.”
The Queen shouted an order to the hawk
using her fiercest, most regal tone,
and yet the hawk did not heed or baulk
as Frederick fled in fright, all alone.
The hawk shrieked and shot, straight and true,
and took the Queen’s dog in its claws
and, lifting upward, the large bird flew
away to eat, for it obeyed only Nature’s Laws.

Committed

The shadows from the trees stretched long
across the grass, like a black gate,
and though he was a boy, bold and strong,
he was also uncommitted, so he did not wait,
for it was the gate to Faerie, just beyond
and he knew that a people who opened a gate
at sunset were not, in truth, much overfond
when welcoming guests at an hour so late.
If they invited strangers upon their lawn
in the darkening of the Twilight
rather than the lightening of the Dawn
they were peoples of the Night,
and, so, folks a good Christian should shun—
therefore his brisk walk became a frantic run.

He heard the silver notes of the chimes
and the strumming of gold-stringed lutes;
he heard the laughter and the rhymes
and the happy piping of their flutes,
and he ran all the harder, at full sprint,
racing toward the setting sun,
coming, at length, to his tent
and entering as the day came undone.
He created a fire in the pit
of the tent, to keep himself warm,
and as his tent’s canvas was thereupon lit
he saw shadows dancing in a swarm—
saw the shadows twirl and whirl
with many a comely fairy girl.

Around and around they danced,
playing their songs and whispering,
and a curvaceous fairy laughed and pranced,
calling to him to kiss her ring.
“Come kiss me, child,” she sighed and cooed,
“do not abandon me to be forlorn.”
She promised him things most lewd,
but he held his silence until the morn.
He spoke only to say a prayer,
repeating the words ad nauseam,
denying that he wished to see them bare
even as he knew he wished to see them—
see their curves and their skin
gleaming in the sweat of sin.

When the sun rose, at last,
he heard Fairies no more ‘round his tent
and so he opened the flap, running fast
past standing stones, to his village in Kent.
As he ran away from the glade
his mind and heart ran contrariwise,
longing for a pact to be made
with a Fairy maiden with silken thighs.
Arriving in town, he found things changed
and saw a man riding a horseless carriage
and he thought himself, therefore, deranged
and regretted not accepting a Fairy in marriage—
when he told his story, with nothing omitted,
law enforcement had him committed.

Flash Fictions

Naive
“There was once a man who believed ardently in Humanism,” her father said. “He believed so utterly in Humanism that he ventured forth into the wild jungle, where it was said man-eating tigers stalked the shadows. He brought with him no protection except several books on Humanism. Once there, he preached to the jungle on the value of a human life, reading from his many books of all the merits of letting humans live and thrive. Many of the tigers passed him by, indifferently. But a few tigers began to gather around him, watching him very intently as he lectured them. He even preached to their cubs, thinking the next generation of tigers would know better than eating human beings, if only they were taught to be Humanists.
“An expedition discovered what remained of him a few weeks later, his bones surrounded by books and his skull’s sockets gaping wide, as if in abject surprise.”
“He was naive,” his daughter said. “He should have known better. Predators don’t care about that stuff when they’re hungry.”
“True,” her father said. “But you, too, should know that you are living in a jungle. That is why I want you to bring more than just books with you to ward off the tigers.”

Zen Breath
It began so simply, as many things do, and it grew unto complexity, like a sheet of paper, blankly white and smooth and flat, now folded into an origami animal. Miyazaki’s anger burgeoned from workaday irritation to blinding rage as he waited in the subway station at Shinjuku. And the irony of the situation was that as he stood waiting, steeped in his own aggravation, he attempted to take a deep, Zen-centering breath and release the rage in dissipation— he really had tried— only for the nearby commuter to breathe out a cloud of cigarette smoke which Miyazaki inadvertently breathed in, coughing uncontrollably while the other commuters stepped away from him; stepped away from him as if he had some fatal airborne illness for which he needed to be quarantined. It was then, as he coughed and cursed and chewed the grudge of that terrible year spent as a twelve-hour-a-day cubicle jockey— it was then that the yokai possessed him, at long last, and drove his fist through the smoker’s heart, tearing its vermilion core out while bystanders screamed and scrambled to flee from the horrific carnage wrought by the long-horned demon that suddenly stood amongst them, glaring with red eyes as he rushed about, in gorilla-fisted fashion, rampaging throughout silver-edged, neon-lit Shinjuku until later that afternoon, killing many people in his wake until finally finding himself at Hanazono Shrine and, by entering it, expelling the demon so Miyazaki could sit down and empty himself of his negative emotions. Indeed, he emptied himself so completely of negative emotions after that terrible indulgence that he transcended the mortal plane and passed on to a higher plane of Enlightenment. Many people, consequently, have since concluded that Enlightenment could be achieved as much through devastating debauchery, excess, and sin as much as through years of abstinence, purification, and meditation. Zen Buddhists and Shinto Priests cannot reconcile themselves either way and, it is feared, many such esteemed personages were denied Enlightenment because of this troublesome anecdote.

La Petite Mort

“Touch my breasts, not my heart,” she demanded as she gyrated atop him to the crescendo of Stairway To Heaven. Impatiently, her hand sought his, the latter crouching timidly between her breasts like a meek, trembling gerbil, and slammed it over her left nipple; her most sex-sensitive nipple.
“Oh, don’t you fucking finish yet!” she growled, feeling him erupt inside of her.
“Sorry!” he moaned, his face contorting ridiculously with orgasm. “You’re…just…so…beautiful!”
Angry, she grinded down on him harder, trying to reach climax herself. It did not work. He went limp and shriveled, vacating whatever iota of pleasure she felt in tandem measure to his manhood. He was like all of the others, then; selfish in sex, even with all of his kisses and promises of love and his priming cunnilingus foreplay. True, he had attempted to sway her heart with love, but only because he wanted sex. She looked down at him, or what remained of him now. He looked like a mummified corpse over a thousand years old. Beef jerky, like the countless others. The ancient curse, thus, persisted, as it had since Hatshepsut had placed it upon her for fornicating with her priest in her royal temple. And she would not die and go on to the land of Duat until a man had pleased her fully.
“Ammit!” she called.
The bedroom door opened and a fat bulldog entered on stiff-jointed, squat legs.
She dismounted from the leathery corpse, almost crudely, and flicked her hand in a gesture of mild irritation.
“Another one unworthy,” she said. She walked into the adjacent bathroom to take a shower and clean up. The bulldog hopped up onto the bed and looked down at the corpse. There was, faintly, the sound of a scream— as quiet as if it came from a great distance down in the shriveled throat of the inert cadaver, barely audible above the sound of the shower faucet and Robert Plant’s mewling conclusion to his magnum opus. Then again, it could have been a pigeon’s feather brushing against the highrise apartment window. If Ammit heard it, he did not care. He opened his jowl-underlined jaws and swallowed the corpse whole, as if there unfolded in his small, pudgy body a whole dimension of oblivion belied by his ostensible size.
She sighed irritably as she reentered the bedroom, walking briskly to her clothes and scooping them up. She began to dress herself hurriedly; preparing her makeup and her favorite black dress and her golden jewelry with its sapphire scarab.
“Looks like I’m going out tonight, Ammit,” she said, huffing and puffing in princess annoyance. “I feel like the Sisyphean dung beetle, pushing his ball uphill. I will never land a good man.”
She turned off the radio, as it began to play Heart’s What About Love. She sat down in front of a long, ornate mirror, applying mascara to darken her already dark eyes. She had feline eyes, like a lioness, which she inherited from her mother. Her rounded cheeks, too, were feline and inherited from her mother’s blood, as were her full lips which always appeared puckered. Her mother had been an African consort from Ghana. Her Egyptian father gave her his long black hair and dusky skin. He had been a royal priest, much like the man she had coupled with in Hatshepsut’s temple. She wondered, sardonically, if she had daddy issues and whether this whole cursed life had stemmed from a need to fulfill an Electra complex. But she hated the Greeks, and she hated Freud, so she pushed such disgusting thoughts away lest they lead to madness.
She looked glumly into her reflection with a sense of doom. She had been cursed by beauty and desirability. No man, through the centuries, had survived a night with her. Hatshepsut had devised the most consummately ironic punishment for the trespass against her divinity. By cursing her with her boons she had guaranteed a persistent curse, seemingly without deliverance. Consequently, she lived a life of one night stands and hopeless bedside regrets. And while many men willingly died for one night with her, she had hoped one of them would overcome the curse so that she could die, at long last, and escape dull eternity as it stretched out upon the infinite horizon of Time.
She braided her black hair in a complex pattern of knots; quickly, to one side. She then sighed, hissing through clenched teeth.
“The Nile is more than just a river in Egypt,” she said.
She stood up, glancing over her comely curves in profile, beneath the black dress. She ran her fingers down the black sheer gown— over her breasts, down her belly and into the valley of her womanhood. She then slapped her hip. She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Seduction has lost all of its savor,” she said.
Ammit barked breathlessly, once. She glanced back at him.
“Oh, I am sure you do not mind my bounty,” she said. “I keep you well fed.”
She fetched a pair of black stilettos from her closet. They were angled like pyramids beneath the arches of her feet, raising her buttocks high with an elevated “come hither” posture. When she walked in them it was with a slow, graceful flamingo poise, even as her eyes flashed with feline predation.
Glancing once more in the long mirror—and appraising herself bodily— she nodded and headed into the hall and toward the front door. Ammit followed her eagerly, breathing laboriously. He was a very old bulldog.
“I’ll be back later,” she said to him. She opened the door and stepped out into the outer hallway. “Here’s to finding Mr. Right.”
She closed the door behind her and set off for another day of hunting for hearts.

The True Spirit Of Christmas

When they think of their holly-jolly season
have they not the wherewithal of reckoning or reason
to think of the jolly fat man with his rosy-cheeked smile
but an avatar of delusion, an effigy of denial?
Think back to our ancestors and their bitter winters
that bit with winds and snows, the icy splinters
of that fanged desolation with its arctic blasts
and the famine and the silence, the starvation that lasts
much overlong, as a cruel-clawed hag of want
whose every kiss leaves us shivering and gaunt;
and so do not deceive yourself with dazzling lights
or warm fireside carols, or candied chocolate bites,
nor smile in cheer of a frosty-bearded elf—
rather, see it from the distant ancestral self;
look back through the cold and the darkness
to see black and white, life and death, in all its starkness:
see this wendigo calamity of each passing year
returning round again with the gift of fear,
and humility, and the keen awareness of Death
as they huddled in huts together, their communal breath
heavy with cold, an apparition of prayer
frosting upon our lips, stillborn upon the air,
and recall, too, the jolly saint withered, frost-bitten,
his fingers fallen off after he has eaten each mitten
and his red suit now white with the furious blizzard
while he wanders, snowblind, like a deranged wizard.
See him burn down a whole forest of Christmas trees
to raise his body temperature by a few degrees,
and now he calls out to children, shakes his sleigh bells,
and hungers for youthful meat while the wind wails.
His reindeer shun him, for they all wisely know
not to trust a starving man, or his laughing “Ho ho ho…”
I suppose we ought feel merry for a bellyful of Christmas hog
rather than long-pig roasting over the cruel yuletide log.

The Threefold Veil

The funeral bell knelled
and threefold widows wailed,
though whether because he’d thrice wed
or woeful for the dead
wherefore none could reward him Hell
for herself, none could tell.
The Will that he willed, thus,
’twas split with much of fuss
for he willed that they each
should live within each other’s reach,
the three in the same home
or not one would but roam.
‘Twas much ado among the three
to which they said, “Fiend, O thee!”
and yanked benighted lace
away from one another’s face,
showing tears, at last, when
flowing belike forever then,
though for beloved spouse
or his wealthy farmhouse
the executor could not say,
disturbed unto dismay.
The widows raked and clawed
and did unto as ’twas outlawed,
scarring miens most meanly
so veils were needed most keenly.
None received house or land,
but naught in either hand
save lace and flesh and blood
which they chewed, like the cud.
The gravediggers later that night
laid the dead man out by moonlight,
but grabbed the box by a lax grip
so it did thereby slip,
tumbling down with a plop
and opening wide with the drop.
There he sprawled, all ‘a grin,
having tricked his wives, once again.