I let out a short, high-pitched scream as I fell back on my ass, the kind of scream a man wishes he could take back even as it escapes his throat.
The thin man in black wingtip shoes appeared suddenly when I shook the dirt out of an old bourbon bottle I‘d found in a box with some rusty oil cans in the back room of The Past Lane, my favorite antique and second hand store. It looked right for the movie I was working on, so I took a closer look. Having been an up-and-coming assistant set decorator for almost fifteen years, I was comfortable with this sort of low-frequency initiative.
I crouched down and knocked on the bottle with the heel of my hand. Dirt broke free and poured out, not onto the floor, but onto a pair of black wingtips.
“Shit. Shit,” I said, my voice still too high. “What the, where did you come from?”
“I regret startling you,” he said. “It is, I am afraid, wholly unavoidable. My name is Maxwell, but you may abbreviate if you wish and call me Max.” He held out his hand to help me up, I thought, but he only shook it in greeting and then let go.
As I found my feet the store’s owner, Stevie, rushed into the room.
“What the hell was that?” he asked. “And who the hell are you?
Max faced Stevie and smiled a quick toothy smile. “My name is Max. I am an associate of Mr. Tilton’s.”
I started to protest. I didn’t want to lose my backroom privileges. Max looked me in the eye and I couldn’t speak.
“I came in the back door,” Max said, “and regretfully surprised my friend who was, as is his nature, very focused on the task at hand. I apologize for the commotion.”
Stevie looked at the lock on the back door, then at me, and I smiled helplessly.
“No worries,” he said. “Just, you know, use the front door so I know who’s in the store, okay?”
“Surely,” said Max.
Once Stevie was out of the room I unexpectedly blurted out, “I’ve never seen this guy in my life.”
“I am impatient with excessive apologizing,” said Max. “So please understand I regret doing anything that makes you uncomfortable, such as the muzzle you have just experienced, and let us leave it at that.”
“Muzzle? Who are you? How do you know my … did Morey send you out here?”
Max began looking around the room, picking things up and looking at them, though he clearly had no real interest in anything he saw. He was wearing a dark gray suit with boxy shoulders and a white pocket square sternly aligned horizontally with its pocket, from which it protruded exactly one quarter of an inch. His narrow black and white striped tie was held in place with a silver-jeweled clasp and his pleated trousers ended with two-inch cuffs. This perfect 1950’s suit made me think he was a vintage dealer or, God forbid, a collector. He was a little taller than my own 5 ‘10 frame and yet appeared diminutive or, slight. His hair was short and evenly trimmed into what my father used to call a businessman’s cut. This guy is an actor, I thought. The only thing missing was a cigarette. Morey did send him out here.
“I will give you a moment to gather yourself,” he said, turning his back to me and reaching for a tall, Chinese, porcelain figurine on a high shelf, which actually did seem to interest him. “Breathe, think about what has occurred over the last ninety-seven seconds, and then I will offer some explanation.”
The thought that I wasn’t in any danger somewhat forcibly entered my brain. I actually thought about how Max was dressed in contrast to my khakis, which were fraying at every edge, my driving loafers (no socks) and my button down denim shirt, untucked. I was thirty-five. Maybe it was time I kicked it up a notch and started tucking in my shirt on occasion.
Then, once again, I felt an overpowering lack of desire to speak as Max turned around.
“Mr. Tilton,” he said, “I am jinn or, to make this whole thing almost unbearably simple, in human terms, a genie. Yes, I said I am a genie. The sooner you accept this as a fact the sooner we can move onto the business at hand, which, it is just now occurring to you, is the granting of wishes. Speak”
“You’re a genie?”
“Now you see, if you are going to repeat things I have already said it will only cause me to say less and, presumably, you would like as much explanation as I am willing to offer, correct?”
I nodded, and brushed away the strands of disobedient blond hair that had fallen into my eyes so I could get a better look.
“Good. Now, I see you are the curious type and probably clever as well … yes, an underachiever, I think, is the term. So, my personal history is a long and exhausting story, a good portion of which is beyond your comprehension and, frankly speaking, none of your business anyway. I will tell you that I came into being millions of years ago, as you understand time.
“Any discussion of my race, the jinn, is not only also beyond your comprehension, but dangerous knowledge to possess, which I only tell you by way of explaining why we will not be exchanging stories about family, friends, and the old neighborhood.”
Max stood right in front of me and squinted. His eyes, which were bright amber, seemed to be tracing lines on my face, searching my expression.
“I am speaking by rote it is true, but the information I am giving you is very important nevertheless. While I place a high value on the lives of humans and believe in the importance of the work that I do, the universe, for lack of a better word, as it exists just beyond your ability to perceive it, is not a well-run kindergarten, Mr. Tilton, and I am not a character from a children’s bedtime story. Speak.”
“You’re a genie?”
Max smiled and backed off.
“That is a residual effect of the muzzle,” he said.
“There is no reason that our encounter cannot be a pleasurable, life changing experience for you, and an exercise in efficient execution of duties for me. Nevertheless, the lives of jinn are no less complicated than you believe the lives of humans to be, and my being here, as necessary as it is, does not come without challenges on multiple levels. It is best for us both to remain focused. Speak.”
“Do you believe me?”
I swallowed and my tongue felt like it was returning to my mouth. “Well, it’s a lot to take in and, uh, it seems a little, a little hard to, I mean, a genie …”
He turned away and began pacing, leaving the Chinese figurine on a different shelf than he had found it.
“Yes, sometimes the muzzle is enough to convince but I can see, not in your case. I will explain something in terms to which you can relate. I am like an actor alone in front of the camera. The audience sees only the actor, but there are dozens of people just outside the view of the camera, people with jobs like yours who make everything work. It takes many jinn to make my presence here possible and I refuse to waste their energies. I will provide you proof but you cannot ask for more, not until you make a wish. Do you understand?”
“I think so, maybe.”
I was expecting something like a magic trick, something that looked like sleight of hand and would not amount to definitive proof, at least not for me, someone who was surrounded daily by fakery of every kind. I figured that everything I had experienced so far could be accomplished with drugs or hypnosis. I was still thinking about this and still looking at Max when I realized there was sky behind him.
I looked down and screamed, but not like a child this time. Then I screamed again and threw up.
There is no way, I have decided, to describe the feeling of actually floating unsupported in mid-air, watching your vomit falling for hundreds of feet.
“We are four hundred feet above the store, give or take an inch or two,” said Max, who, with his legs crossed at the ankles and his arms folded managed to look elegant, while I appeared to be slipping on the same banana peel over and over again.
“It is a shock,” he said, “I know, but I perceived that I could leave no room for doubt in your mind. Are you convinced?”
“Yes. Yes. Fuck yes. Yes. Please, please. Yes.”
Then we were back in the stockroom and I threw up again.
“I believe it is lunchtime,” said Max.
I did not touch my pastrami sandwich as Max methodically explained my situation. He consumed his chicken salad sandwich systematically, with surprising enthusiasm, while explaining that human mythology and religions had not distorted everything when it came to genies. According to Max, the fact that the concept of three wishes had remained intact in the stories we told about genies was some sort of validation of the work he did.
“Three is very important,” he said. “This is reflected in human history and religions. It is fundamental to all reality, the complete and imperfect number.”
“So, no wishing for more wishes?” I asked.
“Correct,” he said. “There are only three wishes in the slot, to use a rough translation of our vernacular. It is not a rule it is a reality. I could not grant you more than three wishes any more than you could grant me one.”
I also learned the rules of circumstance and human condition. Max could not make direct and fundamental changes to anyone’s circumstances but mine, he could not change what he called my internal circumstances, like my personality or my feelings, and he could not change my participation in the basics of the human condition.
“I get it,” I said, starting to enjoy the puzzle of it while feeling increasingly confident that I was dreaming. “I cannot wish for the Dodgers to win the World Series or for you to make me an extrovert. I also cannot wish for immortality or for super human strength. But I could wish to be the strongest human alive.”
“Mr. Tilton, I believe we understand each other generally if not specifically. There are additional nuances that I can explain along the way, if required. Note that outcomes around sporting events are open to some level of interpretation, depending on the circumstances. I suggest you get one under your belt and make a wish.”
“If you change my circumstances, doesn’t that automatically change the circumstances of other people?”
As I asked the question, Max sighed and his eyes drifted. His voice softened as he answered me and he appeared to be staring at my right ear. “Thus, the community of jinn,” he said, and then winked, but not at me. “You have, when you make a film, someone who is responsible for the very same types of things, if I am not mistaken, someone to make sure the man’s timepiece does not jump from one wrist to the other in the same scene.”
I looked over my right shoulder, even though I knew the only thing behind me was a wall. When I turned back, Max was standing. “Sure,” I said, “wrist … but that’s a movie. We’re talking about the entire goddamn universe, the whole butterfly effect thing.”
“Algorithms,” he said. “Sums and reckoning. It is not really … not usually my department.”
“What is your department?”
“I am an account executive.”
I was tempted to ask for proof again, but the sour taste of vomit still lingered in my mouth. “I’d like to think about it for a while,” I said. “This is, this is overwhelming and I think I should take some time, maybe even sleep on it to make sure I’m not dreaming.”
Max took a small red book with a gold shape on the cover out of his coat pocket and began writing or sketching in it. He had been almost animated as he explained everything over lunch. Now he was all business again.
“Is there a time limit” I asked, “an expiration date on my wishes?”
“No,” he said flatly. “Take your time.”