“Wishes” by Teresa Milbrodt

I don’t know where it happened, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. Place has nothing to do with the story, or almost nothing, since it started by a lake where a mechanic was fishing off the dock. We can say it was Lake Erie if that makes you happy, but the important thing is that he caught a fish, a nondescript fish that looked much like a walleye, except this fish could talk, which is not common among walleye, except for the most learned ones. This fish was also magical, which no walleye are to the best of my knowledge.

“I will give you three wishes if you let me go,” said the fish that was not a walleye, and this is where we get to important stuff, so you should pay attention if you weren’t before.

The mechanic figured that wishes were better than fishes, especially since he didn’t like walleye much, so he asked for a new motorboat so he wouldn’t have fish off the dock, and a plastic grocery bag with a jar of peanut butter that would never be empty and a loaf of bread that would never get moldy or run out, and he wanted his son to go into the mechanic business since the boy was a layabout who’d be content to deliver pizzas and play video games forever.

“I can’t do the last one,” said the fish. “Would you like a motorcycle instead?”

“But he gets up at two in the afternoon, lies around until five, and eats all the potato chips when I’m at work,” said the mechanic. “I need him to have ambition.”

“No can do,” said the fish, shaking his head sadly before the man cut it off, deciding that he was hungry enough to eat walleye after all. Thinking about his son made him grouchy. He took the fish home, deboned it, fried the filets, and had awful indigestion all night, reminding him why he didn’t eat walleye often.

The stranger thing happened the next day, when the mechanic started to have odd compulsions. When a customer had him cornered in the mechanic’s shop, lost in an argument about prices or parts, the mechanic had to offer him three wishes so the customer would let him get back to work. He did not like or understand the phenomenon, only knew that if he didn’t offer the wishes he’d start to get an awful stomachache, and it didn’t put him in a good mood. He wanted to work on cars, and didn’t enjoy talking to people for extended periods of time.

“You grant wishes?” said one of his customers, who’d been arguing over the price of a transmission rebuild. “Fuck that.”

“Just try me,” said the mechanic, who wanted the man out of his shop.

“Red sports car,” he said, “you choose the make and the model.”

The mechanic didn’t know how the sports car appeared in the lot beside his garage, but his customer looked like he’d shit his pants, which the mechanic found gratifying in a sour way that made him smirk for the rest of the morning.

The mechanic had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. His son was still a lout, but the mechanic had moved him to the basement where there was a couch and TV, so he didn’t have to see his offspring quite as much. You might say he should have thought of that before, and I would agree with you and go further as to say the boy should have found his own apartment, but that didn’t do much to solve the mechanic’s more pressing problem. This wish-granting issue was annoying. He wondered if there was a fish bone caught in his throat and the instinct would pass like a disease if he dislodged it, but a month went by, then two, then three, and he was still a reluctant magician. None of his clients believed he could fulfill wishes, but perhaps it had to do with the mechanic’s delivery.

He crossed his arms when the genie urge struck him and said, “Okay, so I’ve got to give you three wishes. What do you want, anyway, and hurry it up because I haven’t got all day.”

Actually he did have all day, he had as long as it took, but he didn’t want the people who got wishes to know that. A lot of them wished for dumb stuff regardless of time limits, so he didn’t think it mattered. He’d wished for practical things, like the never-ending jar of peanut butter and bag of bread, which showed a little forethought, but once he could grant wishes to anyone, he lost his small amount of respect for the human race. I don’t have time to tell you all the silly things people wished for, the story is too short for that, so you must use your imagination, but I trust that will suffice. The mechanic decided all the people he granted wishes to were crazy or dumb as a post. Sometimes both. He gave them cars and winning lottery tickets and got them the hell out of his garage so he could return to the engine rebuild.

The mechanic couldn’t tell people what to wish for, but he could give them directed guidance, like the young man who had just opened his own garage and tried to wheedle the mechanic down on the price of a used station wagon he wanted to sell. He wanted four grand for the car, and the young man would only give him three, and before long the mechanic found himself in a corner of the garage by the register, and the young man was irritated since he was low on funds.

You’d think the mechanic would have learned to avoid arguments by this time, but he hadn’t, so wishes had to be offered.

“What?” said the young man. “Then I want the car for free.”

“That’s dumb,” said the mechanic, “but whatever, it’s yours.”

“Seriously?” said the young man.

“One wish down, two to go,” said the mechanic.

“Then I want a ring for my girlfriend,” he said.

“Are you crazy?” said the mechanic. I make no excuse for his lack of tact. It had never been one of his strong points. “What you need are improvements to your shop.”

“But I want to get married, and rings are expensive,” said the young man.

The mechanic sighed. He was bound to this kid until he made all his wishes, but in this case he could devote a little extra time to the project. It was for a good cause.

“It’s simple logic,” he said, “give a man a ring and he’ll get a wife. Show a man how to build a great mechanic shop, and he’ll be able to buy a shitload of jewelry for his wife in the future and not need any damn genie.”

“You don’t look like a genie,” said the young man.

“Do you think I fucking care about that?” said the mechanic. “Come on, I’m shutting down for the day. We’re going to your garage.”

They drove there in the old station wagon. The older mechanic advised the younger one that he needed better tools, and once those were wished for he had to teach the young man how to use them. That’s why, when the young man wished for the mechanic to repair the motor on an expensive sports car, the mechanic wouldn’t let him waste a wish. (This practice of wish-denial probably breaks some rule of genie-hood, but I do not claim to be an expert on the profession, so you’ll have to investigate the matter for yourself.)

“You have to learn how to do this on your own,” he said, “or else you’ll fuck up the next job.” He spent one day, then two, then three at the young man’s shop, but the kid needed guidance, and the mechanic had an endless supply of peanut butter sandwiches. He could miss a few customers since he had to help the young man build a loyal customer base for the garage. Of course they worked twelve- and thirteen-hour days.

The young man was a good student with a careful hand—the mechanic admitted his son the pizza-delivering lout would have done much worse at the profession—but after a month of blood, sweat, and motor oil, the young man’s girlfriend was complaining about him being at the shop until nine every night, and how she never saw him anymore.

“Tough,” said the mechanic. “This is what it’s like when you’re starting a business.”

I daresay this mode of thinking also explained why the mechanic was no longer married, but he had also realized this particular logic years ago, and come to the conclusion that his first love would always be his shop.

His passion for the profession might explain why, when the young man made his final wish, it was one the mechanic didn’t expect.

“I want out of the business,” he said. “I’m here forever trying to get the job done right so I don’t piss off a customer, then my girlfriend gets pissed instead, and I just can’t win.”

“But—” said the mechanic.

“I hate worrying about rent and electricity and how much I’m charging for a job and if it’s more or less than other guys,” said the young man.

“But—” said the mechanic.

“And customers get mad when I fix one problem and next week there’s another, like that’s my fault, and they don’t listen when I say they should get a new car,” said the young man. “You have so many good ideas, you choose a new profession for me. That’s my wish. I’m going home.”

The mechanic had to follow him, still bound to the young man by a final wish he didn’t want to grant, and he wasn’t even sure if he could.

“You’re smart, and things will get better,” he said as they drove home in the young man’s station wagon. The mechanic never imagined this job would be so difficult, and he realized the fish’s dilemma. He could grant things, cash and cars and endless bags of peanut butter sandwiches, but he couldn’t manifest changes in people. He couldn’t make them happy. Somewhere, I know, the ghost of that magic fish was smirking, but what became of him is an entirely different and yet equally engaging story we shall save for another time.

At the young man’s house the mechanic took off his grease-stained ball cap, nodded to the frowning girlfriend, and manifested a pizza and a six-pack to apologize for the intrusion. They spent the evening watching car races, and the mechanic shut up about brakes and transmissions. He convinced the young man to come to his garage the next day, just to hang out and watch him work. And talk. He promised Chinese food for dinner, and that they would close at five for the day. He hoped to inspire the young man, but an hour of talking only made him more depressed, which explained why the mechanic had gone into auto repair instead of job counseling.

“I want to be ten years older and have a successful career and be happy,” the young man said. “But you probably can’t do that for me. Or you’d tell me why it’s a stupid idea.”

“It’s not a stupid idea,” said the mechanic. “But I can’t just make you happy. You have to figure out how that works.”

“Then what good are you?” said the young man.

“I don’t know,” said the mechanic. “I’m still new at this wish thing.”

“Could have fooled me,” said the young man.

“I ruined your love for the profession,” said the mechanic, who was becoming rather depressed himself. “I pushed you too hard.”

“No,” said the young man. “My dad always worked for other people, and he thought being your own boss would be the best thing in the world. I was sure I wanted to do that and have my own shop, but now I want someone else to have the responsibility and just tell me what to do. Nicely. I’m too stressed out and I’m not even doing anything important like saving lives or kittens.”

“You’re making sure brakes and engines are functioning,” said the mechanic. “That’s pretty damn important if you ask me.”

“I guess,” said the young man, “but I should have trained to be a firefighter. Then you know you’re doing something that helps people. If your job keeps you up late at night, you have a good reason to wander around the house eating cheese crackers and being worried. It’s not like worrying if you messed something up on the oil change.”

“Driving a car is like driving a battering ram,” said the mechanic. “Lives are in your hands.”

“I guess,” said the young man, who was texting on his cell phone, which was unwise to do in the company of genies, but the mechanic was used to being ignored by his lout of a son who was still living in the basement.

The mechanic closed the shop at five, materialized white boxes of Chinese takeout in the back seat of the station wagon, and tried to console the young man on the drive home.

“Starting a business is hard,” he said. “You have to stick with it.”

“And not go bankrupt,” said the young man. “My girlfriend works at this stained glass supply store and does work on commission. It’s not a lot of money, but she’s got a regular paycheck. I feel like I’m pretending to be an adult and someday people will figure out that I’m really a six year old playing under the hood of their car and poking at wires. This friend of mine from high school is a volunteer firefighter. They have training exercises where they set buildings on fire and put them out. He could die trying to save someone’s life. I could die having a car fall on me.”

The mechanic wished for the stupid people and stupid wishes of a month and a half ago, when he’d cheerfully derided and then granted dumb requests, and gotten on with his life. Did other genie types run into this problem, he wondered. The hard part wasn’t the people who wanted dumb shit, it was the people who thought about what they wanted and realized his limitations.

“Maybe you can work for me,” he said, “in at eight, out at five. I’ll worry about the lights and the electric bill and pissing off customers. You can take time off your own shop and figure out what you want to do. You’ve got another wish, kid.”

Maybe the young man didn’t hate cars, but he didn’t want to marry a business. The mechanic could give him the paycheck he wanted, and he wouldn’t have to grant wishes to anyone else for the time being. But it only took five days of working and pondering life in the mechanic’s shop for the young man to decide he wanted to train to be a firefighter. He also didn’t want to waste a wish on that goal, he assured the mechanic, since he needed to endure the requisite physical tests and understand more about the science of fire.

When he made the announcement to his girlfriend at dinner, she was not happy.

“You want to make a difference and I want to keep you around,” she said, banging her knife on the table because the mechanic had materialized steaks and baked potatoes.

“Based on statistical rates of death in different professions,” said the mechanic, “firefighting isn’t that bad.” The girlfriend gave him a death glare. The mechanic realized he was worse with relationship counseling than career counseling.

“Why does he get all the wishes, and nobody’s asking my opinion?” said the girlfriend. “If anyone cares to know, and you probably don’t, I’d like two reliable cars, a good 401(k) retirement plan, and a three-bedroom house for when we have kids.”

The mechanic nodded. Very practical. But he wasn’t under her command, so all he could do was materialize a chocolate cake and sit on the couch to watch auto racing as the argument whirled around him, with words hurled at dizzying rates. In comparison, it was soothing to watch cars speed around the track over and over. The drivers didn’t question their mission, and didn’t worry about dying for a good or bad reason. That was why he admired them. There was no hesitation about the importance of going fast for the sake of speed, the adrenalin thrill, bringing entertainment to others who were too smart to try it themselves. He materialized another six pack of beer as the young couple bickered over who loved who more, and the wish lay on the coffee table, gleaming and forgotten.

Teresa Milbrodt has published a short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories (ChiZine Publications); a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press); and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Pressgang). Her stories, poems, and flash fiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Strange Horizons, Nimrod, TriQuarterly, North American Review, Crazyhorse, Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, CutBank, and Sycamore Review. She received her MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University. Read more of her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/.

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