I tried to reserve a table, but it was too late. The other customers had run ahead of me. They sat at the windows to have a view of the bay. It wasn’t that I was too slow. I was too poor. They were wealthier by far. They were crafty enough to reserve those tables ahead of time. I settled for one in the corner. I felt like the restaurant dunce, a loser. But what had I lost besides the chance to sit at a better table? People have called me a nerd, an asshole, a cheater, a liar, a moron, a pervert, and even a narcissist. But a loser? I don’t think anyone has ever called me a winner. Athletes win—so do lawyers and politicians. A loser would have to lose every time and every thing at everything. That’s impossible. Society is obsessed with winning. If you lose, you’re nothing. If you win, people tag along. They think they’ll catch the victory bug.
A busboy hastily set a glass of water and a basket of sourdough on my table. I stared at the wall. A black-and-white picture hung of a group of men in suits at the same restaurant. They were playing cards at a table facing the bay. They looked back at the camera. I guessed it was taken in the 1940s by the suits, hats, and suspenders they wore. They all smoked cigars. The man closest to the camera had turned in his chair. He smirked at me piteously. A wine bottle was knocked over on the table. A mysterious vapor flowed out of its mouth. The picture looked almost surreal.
I finished the basket of sourdough. I still waited for both my client and the server.
So I asked the bartender, “Where’s the server?”
He was careful, pouring wine for a rich man. It was as if the wine might spill at the slightest jerk. “She’ll be right with you, sir,” he said. His stiff attention remained on the glass.
“My name’s Eric North,” I said.“My client should be here. I sell coats,” I said. I tried to interest the man he was pouring the glass for. But neither gave a shit. “I really thought he would be here by now. I don’t have a lot of time. When you see my server, can you ask her to come to my table?”
“Of course, sir.”
I checked my watch fifteen minutes later. She still hadn’t shown up. The bartender must’ve shunned my request. So I ordered a Boston clam chowder from the bar.
“How long will it take the clam chowder?”
“Give it ten minutes,” he said.
I set the timer on my phone. After those ten minutes, I picked it up myself.
It’s the year 2030. The president of the United States has tattoos on his neck. Servers are becoming obsolete. If that isn’t enough, they’re now independent contractors. They can choose which customers to serve. If customers look well-to-do, the server could wait on them first. Call me old-fashioned.
“Did you see anyone come in yet in those ten minutes?” I asked the bartender.
“What was your name again?”
“Eric North, Mr. North. Yes. Someone did come in and ask for you, now that I remember.”
“What did he look like? I’ve spoken to him only on the phone.”
“I thought he was a teenager.”
“Yeah. Come to think of it, what’s that syndrome where he’s an adult? Anyway, I pointed at you, and he walked out.”
“He was my client. He had to be.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll come right back.”
I waited for those winners to leave to steal their table. But they stayed there on a sunny afternoon. The sun shined on their faces. I commiserated with myself with a watery bowl of clam chowder. It must’ve come from a barrel specific for doormats.
“The clams here are amazing,” one of them said.
Amazing for them. I was lucky to taste one.
But anyway, without the servers or my client coming, I walked out and ran for the train. I’d treated myself to a free lunch. And I plotted the most vengeful words for my review online—under an alias.
The restaurant manager tried to catch up with me. I enjoyed that part of the afternoon.
But passengers took every seat in the car. I stood holding a handle. At least on the train, the passengers got off frequently. But new passengers climbed aboard and took those seats. One of them slipped under me. I couldn’t move in time. I stumbled with the shove of the train. I gripped the handle tighter. There went another seat. The older I got, the more I lost: my hair, my space, my freedom, my options… I wished to have them back. A friend once said, “You got to ask for everything in this life.” He had to ask for an ambulance before he died from a heart attack in Times Square.
I told the kid who’d taken the seat: “Excuse me. I’ll pay you five dollars if you let me sit here.”
He wore a golfer’s cap with a button on its top. He stared at me with his arms crossed and shook his head.
“What?” I said. “I said I’ll pay you five dollars. Why would you turn that down? Five dollars should be a fortune at your age.”
“I don’t take fortunes,” he said.
I pulled out the bill to show him I wasn’t bluffing. I held the crisp paper near the tip of his nose. “Smell it,” I said. “Smells like real money. It’s a new bill. That’s why it smells so good.”
“You’re Eric North,” he said.
Just when the kid couldn’t have been more strange…in his matching schoolboy outfit. His feet dangled. His train ticket rested on his lap. His cheeks were red, and his nose was pointy.
“How did you know?”
“Is this your wish? To have this seat?” he asked.
He sounded like a smart-ass. What else was I going to expect from a teenager? But what did the bartender say about a young kid asking for my name? His voice sounded older than his age, like the voice on the phone.
“You came to the Gentlemen’s Wharf looking for me, right?”
“You’re my next appointment.”
“So you’re Amarabu.”
“Out of everything in the world, is that what you want?”
“The seat right now? Yes. What are you? Fifteen?”
“I’m ageless,” he said. “I’ve never had a birthday. You might think I’m fifteen, but where I’m from, we all look fifteen. The fact is, I’ve been around for eons. So here’s your chance, Mr. North.”
I thought the kid was teasing me.“You didn’t want to buy the coat, did you?”
“Just tell me what your wish is.”
I didn’t understand his game. Nothing ever came true. That seat with graffiti on it was at the bottom of my wish list. But I wanted nothing more at the moment. It would’ve helped my sciatica.
“OK,” I said. “Prove it to me. Go on.”
“I’ll give you a preliminary wish,” he said. “After that, I’ll grant you only one real wish, which will be final.”
“Then I wish everyone on this train would get off now.”
Amarabu smiled. He snapped his fingers. The train came to a startling halt. Everyone stumbled forward, myself included. I squeezed the handle. The kid ran off without my five-dollar bill. Everyone else hurried out, too, leaving me alone in the car. I sat in peace until the next stop—my stop—so I got to sit for only five minutes. What if Amarabu could’ve really been a genie? —a bratty genie, but a genie nonetheless, with the timing of a parking enforcer.
I walked a mile from the station. My sciatica worsened. I blamed my flat-footed shoes. Sciatica shot down from my hip to my ankles like lightning. But it would go away when I sat in my chair. It was my favorite chair, my father’s. I could’ve sat in it for the rest of my life.
But that night, she sat in it, watching game shows. We would’ve argued if I’d kicked Maggie out of the chair. I didn’t want that. Arguments never end victoriously. We were both right and wrong.
So I lay on our couch and rested my legs at the other end. It stiffened my neck. I swear to God. The older I get, the smaller the couch gets. When I was newlywed, my feet used to dangle over the edge. Now my knees sit on top. My neck kept hurting no matter how much I bunched the pillow.
But I was tired from standing on that train to sitting in that wobbly chair at the restaurant. I fell fast asleep. I awoke with a headache because of my stiff neck.
When I got to the bedroom, I found my wife sleeping on the side of the bed, which was cool. She was closest to the fan. It was another humid summer night. Maggie would shut the air-conditioner off to save costs. She’d learned that habit from her father. Mr. Martin once treated us to an Applebee’s for my forty-fourth birthday because he wanted to use his coupon. Our mattress was worth close to a thousand dollars. We’d had it for twelve years and needed a new one. A new one had to feel softer than the old one.
Maggie would usually go to bed before me. Whoever went to bed first got the better side. But somehow, she would still end up there by morning. I swore she knew a bed fairy who showed up and rolled me over. I would wake up sweating with a pinched neck.
I nudged her. “Maggie, wake up. I can’t sleep on this side.”
She said, half-awake: “Your side is fine. Go back to sleep.”
“It’s too hot over here, and it’s sinking. Every time I sleep here, I feel like I’m falling off. Come on. You always get that side.”
“You’re losing your mind,” she said.
She kept her back to me and pulled me against her. Maggie had to sleep with me pressed against her spine. When she would snore, I would turn the other way.
A gentle cold breeze blew.
“I only gave you the preliminary,” I heard.
It was the voice from the train. I opened my eyes. It was the kid. He stood in front of the window and the Venetian blinds. The moonlight lit him in stripes. He wasn’t standing but levitating.
“How did you get in here?” I asked.
“I’m levitating, and you’re asking how I got in here?”
“True,” I said.
“The front door was unlocked,” he said.
“Well, shit, what do you want? I just sell coats.”
“I have a quota.”
I didn’t know to what he was referring. “So you belong to some company of genies?”
“It’s not a company. Any institution where money is passed around is a business. That includes churches, colleges, and hospitals. And by the way, the word ‘genie’ is a slur.”
“What isn’t a slur these days?” I asked.
“Enough about me,” he said. “I’m pressed for time, so I must grant your wish before the train.”
“You levitate, but you still need a train?”
“Yes, I can fly, but it gets foggy. Anyway, let’s cut through the gristle. What’s your wish?”
“Out of everything?” I asked. “My god, you put me on the spot. Too many choices. It’s why I canceled satellite TV.”
“My time is precious, Mr. North.”
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
“Just close your eyes. Think of the first wish that comes to mind.”
“OK, I want her side of the bed.”
I pointed at my wife. “I said I want her side of the bed. She always gets it. And I want it from now often.”
“So out of all wishes I could’ve granted you, you picked her side of the bed.”
”And I want a seat on the train and the best table at the restaurant. Does all of that count?”
“I thought you wanted more, Mr. North.”
“Fine. Forget that one. I wish for a new car. All paid for. Do I get to pick which one?”
“But you told me the first wish.”
I said, “Yeah, but I wasn’t prepared for this.”
“I can’t do that,” he said. “The wish on the train was supposed to prepare you.”
“What can you do?”
“I can only grant you the first wish.”
“If you have other wishes, you better hope they come true. That’s all.”
“Wait. What if I paid you more?”
“I don’t accept money, Mr. North. That goes against our policy. I could lose my power.”
“Then how do you make ends meet?”
“I don’t need to. We live off wishes where I’m from.”
He set one arm over the other. He shut his eyes, still levitating.
I blacked out. I awoke, startled, with a cold splash of water on my face. I was on the other side of the bed—the better side. It was almost morning. I never got to enjoy the sleep.
“Jesus with a toaster,” I said.
“You took my side,” she said.
“Your side? It’s our side.”
“But I was sleeping there.”
“Now let’s get this straight,” I said. “How long have we been married?”
“What does that matter?”
“I want you to think back to all the times you got your way,” I said.
“Excuse me. I didn’t know you were keeping tabs.”
“Let’s make a deal,” I said.
“We switch off each night. Tonight, I sleep in front of the fan. Tomorrow night, you get the fan.”
“But I can’t sleep without the fan blowing in my face.”
“Neither can I,” I said. “Then I’ll turn the air-conditioner on.”
“Eric, that’s stupid. You know how high the bill can get.”
“This is insane.”
“You always get your way,” she said.
“My way? I never get my way.”
“Fine,” she said. “How about I sleep in the basement? I can sweat to death. You would like that, wouldn’t you? You sick old man.”
She sat on the other side of the bed. She faced her back to me. Her arms were crossed. She was probably pouting.
I knew what would come next. She picked up the phone to call Papa. It was the middle of the night. He made her hand me the phone. He lectured me about the importance of compromises. I’d been trying to teach her that.
“Yes, Mr. Martin…OK, Mr. Martin…”
He started repeating himself, so I hung up on him.
“Fine, I’ll get up,” I said. “Take the whole damn bed. Then tomorrow night, it’s my whole bed.”
“Where’re you going?” she asked.
“To the basement. I should’ve wished for another wife.”
“What did you just say?”
I couldn’t believe what I’d said. That was awful. I was out of control. “There was a genie,” I said. “Never mind. It’s too early.”
“What genie? What’re you talking about?”
“This genie named Amarabu. I met him on the train. He looks about fifteenish, but he’s actually ageless. And he can levitate. I thought he was some punk kid from Oakland. So when you were sleeping, he showed up in our bedroom.”
“I heard you talking to someone,” she said. “So this genie came in. What did he say?”
“He said what a genie would say. I didn’t know this, but the word ‘genie’ is a slur.”
“I knew that,” she said.
“You did? But anyway, honey, he was levitating.”
Maggie slapped her hand over her mouth. She couldn’t keep the laughter inside.
“I’m telling the truth.”
“OK, so you should’ve believed him.”
“For a start, yes.”
“And what did Abracadabra do?”
“It’s Amarabu,” I said. “He granted me one wish. One wish only.”
“What about three wishes? Shouldn’t they grant you three? Where’s the bottle he came out of?”
“This one doesn’t come from bottles. You’re stereotyping. But I do remember a bottle in a picture at the restaurant. I don’t know where Amarabu came from. He kept it a secret. He said something about a quota. Maggie, he put me under pressure. You know how I am about ultimatums. Just look at what your father put me through.”
“So, what was your wish?”
“To have the other side of the bed.”
“Please tell me you dreamed this up,” she said.
“I wanted a seat on the train, too, but that was a preliminary wish. I told you I came up with nothing else.”
“Eric, we’re in debt. We’re both overweight. I’ve been out of a job. And you came up with that?”
“Let’s go back to sleep,” I said. “Maybe I’ll call Amarabu again. He caught me off guard on a bad day.”
“I can’t believe anything you’ve said. It’s still ridiculous that you wished for that.”
“It’s like those times at karaoke when you tell me to sing. I can never choose the right song. It’s not because of no options but the opposite. There’s too many. But don’t worry. He’ll show back up.”
She rolled to her side. She faced her back to me again. “If you do, thank your genie for getting your stupid wish. Come on. Press against me.”
Maybe I really did dream about Amarabu. But I found a fortune cookie on the floor. It must’ve fallen from his pocket. I tried to crack it open, but it wouldn’t break. It was stubborn. I even pressed my teeth into it. It tasted like a fortune cookie on my tongue. But if I bit any harder, it might’ve chipped my teeth.
I hoped to get a few hours of sleep pressed against her back. I could fall asleep only with a pillow between my legs. Neither she nor I could live in that overstuffed world without being somewhat weird.
I awoke a few hours later on the right side of the bed. Saturday had come. It was the day of the week when I could celebrate. But it was actually Tuesday. I’d slept hard enough to confuse the days of the week. I had to make it to the office in two hours. The train station on Tuesdays was a zoo. I needed a shower, but Maggie was already there. It was like every morning. She would always beat me there when I was waking up. She would take too long.
“Amarabu,” I said. “If you’re there, speak to me.”
But he ignored me. Either he was with another client, or he was asleep.
“Amarabu, if you can hear me, I want another wish. I want her to stop taking showers when I need to take showers.”
I snapped my fingers, thinking it might work. The shower stopped, and she came out. Her hair was like the wet fibers on a mop. The bath towel was over her breasts. All I had left was her. My friends got married, too. They were hardly friends. Friends see each other and bowl together and golf together and drink together and go to ball games together. I could’ve wished to see them again. So much for that.
From then on, some things changed. I got my table at the Gentleman’s Wharf. And I found a seat every time I took the train. But that was where my luck ran out. My wife and I made a compromise, as Mr. Martin suggested. Most nights, she would still get the better side of the bed—the pillow between her legs, too.
I would leave the apartment with that fortune cookie in my pocket. Someday, I hope it will crack. I wonder if Heaven has foam mattresses. That’s as far as I know. I also wonder if it has my father’s chair or tables in front of the bay. I guess I’ll have to settle with the fortunes I have.