by Earl Staggs
“Litterbugs,” I said, flinching at the sudden pain. “People should be arrested for dumping trash on a public beach.”
Stubbing my big toe on something hard in the mushy sand only made a bad day worse. My latest attempt at writing a novel was hopelessly stalled. So far that morning, I had read all my Email — twice — wasted two hours in a stupid chat room, and scored a thousand points tossing wads of paper at the waste basket. Finally, I decided a barefoot walk along the beach might clear my writer’s block.
Writer’s block. Hah! That’s a joke. You have to actually be a writer to get that. I don’t think a pile of rejection letters qualifies you for it.
I leaned down and waited for the foaming surf to recede from around my feet so I could identify what was about to receive the venting of my pent-up frustration.
It appeared to be a thin-necked jar or vase with a small handle on the side, made of thick dark glass, encrusted with packed sand. I cocked my leg back and poised for a field goal attempt.
Fourth and ten, score tied, two seconds on the clock, the crowd hushed in breathless anticipation.
Then I heard a faint sound. The wind playing tricks on my ears, I thought, but it sounded strangely like a small voice.
“Rubdadumjuh,” it sounded like.
My imagination, for sure. I started the kick but stopped short when I heard it again. Still very faint, but now the voice had a tone of urgency.
It seemed to be coming from the thing I was about to boot far out to sea. Ridiculous.
Still….. I bent down close to it and cupped an ear to block the sound of the surf. This time, I heard it clearly. A small, squeaky, but very insistent voice.
“Quit screwin’ around and rub da damn jug awready!”
I backed away like a frightened crab.
“Hey, numchuck,” the voice called out, loud and clear this time. “Ya deaf? Pick up da ferschlugginer jug and rub it.”
I stood transfixed, assessing the situation. Candid Camera? No way. Nowhere to hide the camera. Aha! A practical joke being played by my writing buddies. They expected me to pick up the jug, rub it like a fool, they they’d jump out from behind a sand dune, doubled over with laughter.
Okay, what the heck. Let the silly dizbangs have their fun. Even in my depressed state of mind, I enjoyed a joke as much as anyone. I picked up the thing and gave it a couple of swipes.
Suddenly, a “Poof!” sound erupted from the jug and it glowed a brilliant green. A stream of lavender mist spewed from its opening. I dropped it like a hot ember and backpedaled a few feet.
The lavender mist rose, twisting and turning, slowly taking the shape of a man. Seconds later, there stood before me a squatty, crinkly-faced old man in a rumpled white toga. He looked familiar.
“M-M-Mel B-Brooks?” I stammered.
“Naaaahhhh” the old man said in a voice that sounded like his vocal chords were made of sandpaper. “Knew him, though, as a kid. Wanted to grow up to be a court jester as I recall. How’d he turn out?”
“He did all right,” I replied. “He makes movies now. But…but…”
The old man pursed his lips and nodded. “Movies, huh? With sound and everything?”
“Yes,” I said, “Sound and everything. But…who are you?”
He looked at me as if I had asked the dumbest question in history. “Where ya been da last couple thousand years, kid? I’m da genie in da jug.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, rattled my head back and forth a few times. When I looked, he was still there. I closed them again. Looked again. Still there.
“This is too weird,” I said as I turned and walked away. I had to get away from there.
“Dat’s it?” he called after me.
I turned back. “What?”
“Dat’s it?” he repeated. “You get a wish and all you can say is ‘Dis is too weird’? No piles of gold, no kingdom, no gorgeous harem broads?”
I jerked my head right, then left. No one in sight. I looked behind me. No one. I turned back to the old man. He still looked like Mel Brooks. He had picked up the jug and was busy flicking pieces of crust from it, muttering to himself. I thought I made out the word, “teflon.”
This had to be a dream. Or, I had totally lost my mind. My mother said that when I told her I wanted to be a writer.
But then, I thought, suppose it wasn’t a dream. Suppose it was real. What did I have to lose? It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do, and no one was around to see me make a fool of myself.
“Are you serious?” I finally managed to say. “I get a wish?”
He gave me that dumb question look again. “No, dummix, I stay cooped up in a stinkin’ jug because I like it.” He seemed to be getting impatient. “Yeah, you get a wish. Dat’s da deal. Rub da jug, get a wish. You get whatever you wish for, I get thirty days outa da jug.”
My mind was a whirlpool, still trying to get a grip on this.
He squinted up at the sun. “Don’t take all century, Einstein. Let’s do dis thing so I can get home in time for da big race. Ben Hur’s going off at 3 to 1 in the fifth. After, maybe I can get a part in Mel’s next picture.”
My mind cleared a little and a thought filtered through the fog. If this was real, it was my big chance. If it wasn’t real, I had nothing to lose. Go for it!
“Well,” I began, not sure how to phrase it. How often does one make a genie wish? “The gold and the kingdom and all are tempting, but there’s really only one thing I’ve ever wanted. All my life, I’ve wanted to be a great writer. So my wish is…”
That was as far as I got before he interrupted.
“Not again!” He slapped his forehead. “Why me? Why do I get ‘em?” He looked at me and shook his head. “So you’re one a’ dem.”
“One a’ dem, I mean, of them? Them what?”
“A writer, dat’s what. First, it was a kid in England. Will somethin’. Snake-somethin’, Shake-somethin’, maybe.”
My mouth dropped open. “Shakespeare? William Shakespeare?”
“Yeh, dat’s it. He wanted to be a great writer too. And a big good-looking kid a few years back. Hemingstern, I think it was.”
“Hem..Hem…Hemingway?” Now I was stuttering. “Ernest Hemingway?
“Right. Him. He still around?”
“No, but he wrote some great books. Are you saying you made Shakespeare and Hemingway into great writers?”
Again, I got the look.
“No, no, no, kid, pay attention. I can move mountains with a snap of a finger. Ya want a castle filled with gold? A flick of a wrist. Ya want a harem? Piece a’ cake. I can even part rivers with an eye blink. Remember dat Red Sea trick?”
My eyebrows shot up. “You parted the Red Sea? Awesome.”
He shot a quick, nervous glance upward. “Uh, no, dat wasn’t mine, but I once did a small pond in Madagascar. What I’m saying is, anything’s possible. Almost. But makin’ people into great writers? Impossible.” He lowered his head, wagged it back and forth and slapped his palms against his thighs. “Why me? Why do I get ‘em?”
I was crushed. “But…but…why? I mean, if you can do mountains and rivers and you can do gold and harem girls, who not this?”
He looked at me for a moment. His features softened and I actually saw disappointment — even a touch of sympathy — in his aged eyes. “Kid, all I can tell ya is, some things can only be accomplished da hard way. I’ll tell you da same as I told Will and Ernie. Work your tail off and never give up. You keep crankin’ it out and, if it’s really in ya, little by little, ya get better. Oh, and don’t let a stack a’ Dear John letters stop ya.”
“Rejection letters,” I corrected.
“Whatever. Same thing. All ya can do is keep at it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know. Took me months. What with weather delays, shoddy materials, union disputes, you wouldn’t believe what I went through.”
By now, I was more than crushed. I was demolished. “I guess that’s it then.”
He looked sad now. Dejected, disconsolate. “Yeah, kid. Sorry.”
With that, he began to fade. Seconds later, there was nothing left of him but a trail of lavender mist spiralling back into the jug. I turned and started walking away, head down, my spirits dragging behind me in the sand.
His voice stopped me. “Hey, kid. Come back here a sec.”
I walked back.
“Do me a favor,” I heard coming from inside the jug. “Gimme a big toss into da sea. Maybe I’ll drift somewhere with some action dis time. Vegas, maybe.”
I did as he asked and watched the jug splash down and disappear between two big waves pretty far out. Then I turned toward home. I had some writing to do. Lots of writing. Give up? Never. If Will and Ernie could do it. . . .
Suddenly, I stopped as if I’d walked into a wall. It hit me that I hadn’t actually made my wish to become a great writer. All I did was mention it.
I still had a wish coming to me!
I plunged into the ocean at full speed, highstepping over waves.
“Wait! Come back! The gold! The harem girls!”
This story originally appeared in FUTURES Magazine, April/May 2000.