“Trial by Luck” – from BY THE WAYSIDE, published February 2017 by Unsolicited Press
TRIAL BY LUCK
The genie didn’t look like a genie at all. More like one of those super nerdy guys in high school with glasses and bad skin, Laurie thought. To Jonathon, the genie was a bronzed surfer with flip-flops and a leather band around his neck.
The genie escaped from the spare tire compartment of Jonathon’s Toyota. There’d been something in the road, a board, probably, that Laurie saw and Jonathon didn’t. She yelled at him to avoid it, and he hit it instead. Laurie had called him an asshole, which made his thick lower lip turn down. They were on a highway outside of Elkhart, Indiana, going to see Laurie’s parents, a visit neither wanted to make but felt obliged to since they’d agreed to spring for the lavish wedding Laurie said she wanted.
The genie rose up not in a purple haze or flash of green, but something resembling the dust devils Laurie and Jonathon had seen coursing the deserts of Arizona. In fact, Jonathon remembered thinking at the time how genie-like those dust devils were. He was pleased that he’d correctly guessed the true nature of genies. Laurie, on the other hand, wasn’t pleased, with him, the genie, or anything else. She sat on the shoulder of the highway, using her jacket as a cushion. She’d refused to lend a hand when asked, and wondered if it was her refusal that had caused the genie to come to the rescue.
“Here, let me get that for you,” the genie said, and ZAP, the tire was changed. The couple assumed that their first wish had been granted and that two more would be forthcoming. The genie disabused them.
“This is a one-wish deal, friends,” he said.
“You mean, that’s it?” Laurie asked. She tended to whine when tense, but always hated the sound it made.
“Not at all. The tire change is gratis. Free. On the house.”
“Oh,” Jonathon said.
“So, take your time, talk it over, and settle on one wish,” the genie said.
“One, for the both of us?” Laurie asked. The whine was still there.
“Yup.” Then the genie took himself off in another dust devil.
With him gone, the rushing traffic became noisy again. They wondered if something had happened to their hearing while in the genie’s presence. Laurie stood up and brushed herself off. She was hungry and dispirited, which made no sense, she knew. Not with the possibility of being granted a fabulous wish.
“We should get going,” she said.
“You don’t have to shout.”
“Yes, you are.”
They got in the car. The engine took a moment to turn over. Jonathon wished he’d replaced the battery cable as the mechanic had recommended. The car was eight years old and had a lot of miles on it. Maybe they should ask for a new car. When he told Laurie that, she said she couldn’t believe what an idiot he was.
“Okay, then. What do you wish for?” he asked. He pulled into traffic and accelerated rapidly. Laurie hated how he drove, hating that she hated that.
“For you to slow down,” she said.
“A good lunch.”
“You can have that without the genie’s help.”
Signs for a family-owned diner appeared up ahead. Jonathon pulled off and followed the directions the sign had given. In a few minutes, they were seated, staring at large, laminated menus, surrounded by the irresistible smell of grilling meat.
Laurie stirred her iced tea. She would have preferred a glass of wine. Jonathon said she loved it too much, and raised an eyebrow when she ordered a second glass in a restaurant. It wasn’t even noon, which meant she’d get a snide comment if she asked for some now. Laurie was a marketing executive for the regional cable company. Part of her job was to take potential advertisers out for lunch and dinner. If they ordered an alcoholic beverage, which they almost always did, she looked like a stuck-up prude if she didn’t go along. Jonathon was a grant writer for a non-profit organization that protected the rights of illegal immigrants, of which Arizona had a great many. He was dedicated to his work, though he wished he could have put his law degree to better use. He’d been turned down by one law firm after another in Phoenix. He didn’t like thinking that he’d settled, but in truth, he had. His sense of failure made him intolerant of personal foibles, Laurie thought. He was judgmental.
“Did it really happen?” she asked him.
“Looked real to me. But what a surfer dude is doing in the middle of Indiana beats the hell out of me,” Jonathon said.
“What are you talking about? The guy’s more like a computer geek.”
That would be just like Laurie to conceal her attraction to someone by putting him down, Johnathon thought. Once, when she returned home from an office party, Laurie had complained about one of her co-workers, saying he dressed badly, chewed with his mouth open, and didn’t know the difference between Merlot and Cabernet. Later, Jonathon happened to meet the man when he came to pick Laurie up. He was stunningly handsome, tall and blond. The way Laurie looked after him when he went down the hall made Jonathon’s stomach lurch.
They ordered lunch.
“I wish it would come soon. I’m starving,” Laurie said.
Through the plate glass window, the cars moved in dream-like silence along the freeway. Watching them only agitated Laurie further. She worried about how long the trip was taking. They were already overdue at her parents’ house. Her cell phone was dead, or she’d have called them.
Jonathon saw where she was looking, and looked, too.
“Know what my mother used to say? ‘All those people going by, and I don’t know any of them,’” he said.
“Why are you bringing up your mother?”
“Oh, never mind.”
Laurie and Jonathon’s mother didn’t get along. Jonathon’s mother thought Laurie was pushy. Laurie thought Jonathon’s mother was narrow-minded. Jonathon was tired of being caught in the middle.
He wrote something on his paper napkin. Laurie watched the tiny bald spot on the top of his head as he leaned forward.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Making a list of wishes.”
“What do you have so far?”
“Well, money. That’s the first thing that comes to mind, right? Lots of money. That we’d split. After that, perfect health until the age of ninety.”
“Okay, then, until whenever you want.”
“Why not eternal life?”
“Be serious, will you?”
Laurie pushed away her glass of tea. She signaled the waitress, who took a few minutes to swing by. Laurie asked for her wine. Jonathon didn’t say anything. He was adding items to his list and studying it.
“I wonder if we could have just one long sentence,” he said.
“You know. ‘We want a trillion dollars and health and three children, also rich and healthy, etc.’”
Jonathon grew annoyed.
“Stop asking stupid questions and focus!” he said.
“Since when is the question of children stupid?”
Laurie’s wine arrived. There was no sign of their food.
“Or, how about this? ‘We wish for an endless supply of future wishes to be granted,’” he said.
“That’s clever; I have to admit.”
Jonathon grinned. Laurie wondered if he’d brushed his teeth that morning. Their departure from the motel had been a bit rushed. They’d overslept again. She didn’t know why they were both so tired, or deaf to clock-radio alarms. At home, their dog, Pixie, got them up. Jonathon wanted Pixie to come with them, and Laurie said she’d be better off boarding at the place she went during the week for doggie day care. Pixie had trouble being alone in the house when they were at work. She had destroyed all their area rugs and had begun whittling down the dining room table—an expensive Mexican antique.
“I don’t think he’ll go for that, though. I know I wouldn’t, in his shoes,” Jonathon said.
“High-topped sneakers, no less.”
“What are you talking about? Didn’t you see his flip-flops?”
Laurie again turned to watch the endless flow of vehicles along the freeway. The silence out there was eerie.
She drank her wine, hoping it would take the edge off.
Their food arrived.
“This isn’t what I ordered,” Laurie said.
“Cheeseburger, toppings on the side, fruit instead of fries,” the waitress said. Her glasses were green and perfectly round.
“French dip,” Laurie said.
Jonathon had ordered an omelet which he didn’t want.
“Trade with me. I’ll eat your burger,” he said.
“Oh, all right.”
They switched plates.
“Anything else I can get for you folks?” the waitress asked.
“Another glass of wine,” Laurie said.
Jonathon cocked his eyebrow. “I didn’t realize you’d even had one.”
“That’s because you weren’t paying attention.”
The waitress left them alone.
“I’m trying to figure out this wish thing,” Jonathon said. He picked up a strawberry from his plate, and put it back down. Laurie poked at her omelet. She wasn’t hungry anymore.
“I should find a phone,” she said.
“To tell my parents we’re running late.”
“What happened to your cell?”
“Out of juice.”
He handed her his phone. The background was a picture of her holding Pixie. Pixie was smiling. Laurie wasn’t.
“Why didn’t you tell me your phone was working?” she asked, trying to figure out how to unlock the screen. She hated his phone. It was too complicated.
“You didn’t ask.”
She managed to unlock the phone, and punched in the numbers. Nothing happened. She looked at the phone.
“It says I’m not getting a signal,” she said.
“Then you’re probably not.”
“We’re on a highway! How can there be no signal?”
“How should I know?”
She pushed her plate away.
“I really wanted that French dip,” she said.
“I’ll call her back.”
“Don’t, it’s okay.”
Jonathon ate his burger. His appetite never failed, no matter what. They could be having the worst fight of their lives, and he’d sit down and plow through a triple-decker sandwich. He managed to stay thin, though. She appreciated that, at least.
He dabbed his lips with his napkin, then put the napkin on his dirty, empty plate.
“You know, I’m having second thoughts about this,” he said.
“Because no matter what we choose, there will probably come a day when we wish we’d chosen something else.”
“I’ve lived with regrets before.”
His eyebrows drew together.
“Like what?” he asked.
“No, tell me.”
“You know. Stuff.”
“That’s not very specific.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.”
“Do you regret your career?” he asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He leaned back against the fake red leather vinyl of the booth they sat in.
“That’s it, isn’t it? You regret saying you’ll marry me,” he said. His voice was quiet.
“That isn’t true!”
Jonathon looked at his watch. He tapped it. He removed it from his wrist and brought it to his ear. He set the watch on the table. He looked around for the waitress. He took out his wallet and put two twenty dollar bills on the table.
“What are you doing? Nothing we ordered cost that much,” Laurie said.
He exchanged one of the twenties for a ten.
“Is that better?” he asked. She didn’t answer.
He stood up.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
Laurie chugged down the rest of her wine. Just outside the doorway of the diner, Jonathon stopped. He turned and faced her.
“Have you ever noticed that we never see things the same way?” he asked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know perfectly well what it means. You see things your way, I see things my way, and they’re never the same.”
“Jesus! What the hell are you talking about?”
He simply stared at her. He seemed shorter than she remembered, which made no sense. Laurie felt fuzzy in the head. She wished she hadn’t drunk her wine so fast.
“I need to sit down,” she said.
“We’re almost at the car.”
He took her arm a little roughly and steered her down the sidewalk. The genie was in the driver’s seat, fiddling with the radio. He got out.
“All right then, folks, what’s the verdict?” he asked.
The whole thing had been a trial, Laurie realized, and they were their own jury. She wondered if the same thought had occurred to Jonathon, given his legal background. But no, it was clear that he was thinking up what to wish for. He had that puzzled look he sometimes got when she said something that went over his head.
She put her face in her hands. “I wish this whole day had never happened,” she whispered.
Returned seamlessly to the day before, and now at the wheel, Laurie told Jonathon she wanted to do all the driving from then on out. They were in Nebraska, and the road was a flat black ribbon in the sun.
“Really, why?” he asked.
“I need to stare at the highway for a while. It clears the mind.”
“Fine with me.”
A tumbleweed bounced across the highway and lodged in the barbed wire fence that followed it for miles. They each thought it looked like a living being, a creature with will and purpose, but neither said so. Jonathon closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Laurie kept driving toward the future, whatever it was.