The next house was red brick, a three-story Colonial with a flawless flat lawn and blacktop driveway shaded by oaks, exactly the kind of house in which he wished he had grown up. But wishes can’t change the past. His early childhood was spent in a modern architectural showpiece, metal and glass, full of empty rooms, balanced on an ocean cliff and visited by tour groups. He had been expected to stay out of sight in that house. He had been a good boy back then. Obedient to his parents’ wishes.
He approached the house by the walkway lined in white azaleas, to a grand door of polished black wood. In the center was a brass door knocker in the shape of a lion’s head, an intimidating piece, clearly meant for decoration only. He pounded it with conviction.
A woman answered. In his experience going door-to-door, a woman almost always answered. Her short gray hair was shaped around her face, and she wore a pressed black skirt and a delicate gold cross at her throat.
“Good morning,” he began. “My name is Mitchell Morrison.”
The woman lifted her chin slightly but Mitch caught the gesture. How well he had learned to read faces over the years, just like a salesman. Or a psychiatrist, even. He saw the shell harden on her gaze, the muscles tighten in her jaw.
Debbie had told him repeatedly: Don’t start with your name. No one cares what your name is. Just get to the point!
But still he began with his name. It was important to him, most important, that the person knew his name, even if later they could not recall it. In this moment, they must know each other, he and this person who answered the door.
“Yes?” the woman asked. Her penciled eyebrows arched a bit higher. A warning.
“And you are…?” Mitch always attempted this, though it rarely worked. He barely knew a handful of the names of people to whom he introduced himself.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m a volunteer in the neighborhood-“
“We’re Catholic,” she interrupted and stepped back, swinging the door closed.
Debbie had once suggested: Check out the neighborhood first. See which church is closest and just tell them you’re with that one.
No, Mitch had told her. I won’t lie. It wouldn’t be right.
Then you’re gonna get a whole lot of people thinking you’re a nut job.
Debbie, as it turned out quite often over the years, was absolutely correct. But Mitch had found that, though people might indeed think he was a nut job, lies only made it worse. The best course was to be blunt, upfront, to the point.
“Ma’am,” he said. He stopped the door with his hand. “I’m here to offer my assistance to you. My name is Mitchell Morrison.”
She glared at him. He refused to back down.
“I grant wishes,” he said.
He would never grow comfortable with this moment. Telling someone, I grant wishes, is exactly like standing before a person and saying, I love you. It is the same agony of waiting to see what the other person will do.
“Please leave,” said the woman.
“I’m telling you the truth, Ma’am.”
“Fine.” She placed her hands on her hips, the primal feminine assertion of get the hell out of here. “I really wish you’d leave.”
She scowled, and a bloom of pink color burst in her pale cheeks.
Of course they get mad, reasoned Debbie, you’re scaring them. Most people get angry when they’re scared.
“You can think of a better wish than that,” he said.
“Okay, then,” said the woman. “A donut. From that little bakery downtown…the Portuguese place. I wish I had one of those. Now why don’t you run along and get it, while I call the police?”
He produced it from behind his back. From previous experience, he knew that an object appearing out of thin air was terrifying to people. For a time, he had carried a briefcase from which he could pretend these objects manifested, but the briefcase made him look even more like door-to-door salesman. He had also dressed formally, thinking the professional apparel-an expensive briefcase, a suit and tie-had made him look trustworthy. Those were the early days, the most naïve.
“Wha-where did you get that?” The woman stepped out to the porch and looked up and down the street for his car, another person, any clue to this illusion. Mitch held his arms out to show that he carried nothing, no bag, no phone, not even a sack lunch. He wore jeans, running shoes, and a faded t-shirt. He looked like a man our for a walk in the neighborhood, which, technically, he was. Debbie had dropped him off that morning and wouldn’t pick him up until dusk. Up until a few weeks ago, he had even brought his dog Buddy along. With Buddy beside him, he never felt quite as rejected when a door slammed in his face.
“You wished for it,” he said,” and I granted that wish. That’s about as much of the science of it as I understand.”
She took the donut from him, which was wrapped in a square of wax paper.
“It’s warm,” she said, “I didn’t wish for that. But I always have them warm it up.”
“Sometimes that happens. The little details get taken care of, even if you don’t spell them out.”
They stood for a moment, both looking down at the warm donut. Mitch really missed Buddy who often filled the awkward silences with happy panting.
“Would you like to come in?” asked the woman.
Never go into these strangers’ homes, Debbie warned. Do you want to get murdered? How would I even know what happened to you? You could just disappear!
Mitch nodded. When the door swung open, he saw with delight an enormous and stoic dog sitting in the entry. He lifted his wise and sad face to Mitch, his smooth yellow coat lightened with gray around his eyes and muzzle.
“May I?” Mitch asked, holding his hand out for the dog to sniff.
“Sure. This is Noah.”
“Hi, Noah,” he said, scratching the dog under the chin, “I’m Mitchell Morrison.”
Noah’s damp nose reached just above Mitch’s waist. Skittling around his feet and clawing at his ankles was a ball of white fur with sharp toenails. The woman picked it up and held it in the air, where it wriggled and panted and rolled its eyes as though it longed to take flight.
“And this is Cupcake.”
Mitchell and Noah followed the woman through a high-ceilinged entry down a hallway to the kitchen and breakfast area. The rest of the house was silent, except for this kernel of the kitchen, the earthy and warm scent of coffee grounds mixed with morning television chatter. The room looked similar to his own kitchen at home, with a brick fireplace, wooden beams, and battered, bulky table. But then, his entire house was built of these features, thick and wooden, pseudo-handmade.
Rustic, Debbie had wished for, and the details had fallen into place.
“Marion,” she said, handing him a large mug.
“Mitch.” He took the mug and with his other hand, reached out to scratch the ears of Cupcake, who was still struggling in Marion’s grip. The little dog stopped squirming and closed his eyes.
“Yes. Mitchell Morrison. I remember. You’re a dog person, I see.”
“My dog Buddy…he’s gone now. It just happened a few weeks ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Marion. She knelt down and released Cupcake, who scurried away like a rabbit. “You couldn’t have…done something about that?”
That wouldn’t be right, Debbie insisted. Really, Mitch. That would be crossing some kind of line. I won’t wish for it.
Marion nodded. “So,” she asked, “you’re like a genie?”
“Uh no, definitely not. Your wish is not my command.”
“Oh, so you didn’t have to grant my donut wish?”
“A lot of people do that,” he said. “A test. I play along if it’s not too ridiculous. It’s harmless and it helps the person to believe what I’m saying.”
“That it certainly does.” She took a sip from her coffee. “So you must be rich, Mitchell Morrison. You must have everything you’ve ever wanted.”
“I can’t grant my own wishes.”
She froze, her mug halfway to her lips. “Really.”
“But I have a wife.”
“And yes, we do have all the money we need.”
The hardened gaze only then softened, and Mitch knew it was that moment, she truly began to believe him. “This is your job, then?”
“No, actually. I’m an archivist. For the city. This is just my service to the community.”
“Why this neighborhood, though? Why not go down to Hays Street? I’m sure there are plenty of wishes you could grant there.”
“Oh, I’ve been there. I go everywhere. Today I’m here.”
“I used to volunteer myself, at the children’s hospital. It’s never as great as you think it’s going to be, helping people. You think you’re going to change things, and really, you just end up being an accomplice to their hardships. Just extra set of hands in their struggle.”
“I can see your point.”
She sighed, waved a hand. “Anyway, that was a long time ago, in college. I was going to be a purse.”
“My wife is a nurse,” he told her. ” In fact, we met at a hospital.”
You, Debbie had wished for, and the details had fallen into place.
“Really. How nice. More coffee?”
Watch it when they’re hem-hawing around, Debbie advised. If they don’t get to the point, it means they’ve got a bad one in mind. They just don’t want to say it out loud.
Marion tapped her mug with her fingernails. They were still standing, facing one another across the kitchen counter.
“So…are you an angel?” she asked. “Or a devil?”
“I’m unaffiliated. And I’m human. In every way.”
She held up the wished-for donut. “Except you can make something appear out of nothing.”
“That’s called creativity. It’s more common than you think.”
She smiled. “No offense. I’m just saying…I imagine you get a lot of trouble over this talent of yours. What makes you want to help people, when you have to work so hard just to get them to believe you in the first place?”
“That is an excellent question. Maybe I’ll stop tomorrow.”
She laughed, just a quick exhale, a relief of pressure, but it was genuine. “Would you like to sit down, Mitchell?”
He said yes, and they sat at the table in the breakfast nook. The seats were warmed by the sunlight through the windows.
Marion had finished her coffee, and she stared into the empty cup. Mitch waited patiently, watching two squirrels on the back lawn chase each other around a tree trunk. He sipped the last of his coffee, which was quite good. He could tell it was made from freshly ground beans.
“What if I wished someone were dead?” asked Marion.
You’re a good person, Debbie told him every night as they lay in bed. You help people.
Mitch turned from the window. “Who?”
“No, of course. It doesn’t matter. I understand.”
“Who is it?” he asked again.
Noah walked over and rested his head on Marion’s lap, and a few feet away, in the dining area, Cupcake sat down, lifted her back legs, and began dragging her rear across the rug.
“That dog,” said Marion, watching it and shaking her head. “How can two dogs be so different? One good dog, the other ridiculous. It was just Noah and I for years, and he was such a good dog that I thought I should get another one. Then I end up with that absurd thing. And I love it just as much. I’ve heard it’s the same with children. You never know how they’re going to turn out. And yet you love them just the same.”
“You don’t have children then?”
“Nope. Never married, either. Not my thing.”
“What do you do?”
“I run a bank,” she smiled. “I love my work.” She turned to the window, and the smile disappeared. “It’s my mother,” she whispered.
Noah looked up, his eyebrows lifting one at a time. Marion ran her fingertips along his ear.
“I’m not a bad person. You have to know…that woman, she made me cry every day. She told me things…no little girl should hear…you have to understand.”
“A wish can’t change the past. I’m sorry.”
“She’s still doing it. She still makes me cry every day. She still says things I shouldn’t have to listen to.” Marion looked away from the window, back at Mitch. She set down her mug. “I’m a grown woman. I shouldn’t be scared of her anymore.”
Mitch nodded. “You know, I don’t get along with my parents, either.”
Mitch shook his head. “I haven’t seen them since I was nine years old.”
“I stopped granting their wishes. They left.”
Good riddance to them. Debbie hated his parents, though she’d never met them. You have me now.
Marion leaned over and buried her face in Noah’s neck.
“I can’t do anything until you wish it,” said Mitch.
She sat up. “I have to say it out loud?”
Marion stood and went to the kitchen. Hunched over the sink, she filled a tall glass at the tap, drank, filled it again. The glass slipped from her hand, shattered in the sink. Noah looked up at her. Cupcake collapsed on the rug, exhausted. The squirrels on the tree froze. Marion spun around, grasping the counter behind her.
“I wish my mother was dead.”
Mitch closed his eyes.
Don’t let them sucker you. They’ll walk all over you if you let them. You’re the one with the power, don’t forget.
When he opened them, Marion was still at the sink, clutching the counter, watching him.
“It’s done,” he told her.
“Just like that? I don’t feel any different. Are you sure?”
“I don’t do return trips. I won’t be by this way again. Understand?”
“You get a lot of people showing up on your doorstep, wanting a refund?”
“No one knows where I live. Few people even remember my name.”
He stood. Marion and Noah walked him to the door while Cupcake circled them and made a break for the front lawn when the door opened. Marion picked up the little dog, and Mitchell looked back once more at the three of them before the door closed.
He looked up at the red brick house, the kind he had always wished for, and then made his way back down to the sidewalk. The next house was another Colonial, cedar siding and stone, even larger than the three-story brick. It had a winding drive with several cars lined up, as if a gathering were taking place. Mitchell took a deep breath of resolve. Farther down the road, the houses just got bigger.
More Short Stories by this author:
Anya Meets Mr. Yes
A Word For Her
Image by: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net