Updated: Jan 7
In the late-nineteenth century, Watson Sr finds the vessel of the purple genie, and becomes one of the richest men in the world. Within thirty years, he spends all three of his wishes, and is left with only the consequences of his choices, and a useless genie vessel, which still maintains a dangerous grip on his body and soul.
Long before Watson Sr was consumed by worries about his sons, his legacy, and the future of his railroad empire; long before he was “Mr. Watson Sr, sir, if you please...”; he was nothing, maybe even less than nothing. After escaping the brutal circumstances of his youth, he rode the rails as a nameless cutthroat, a dangerous shadow who robbed and killed anyone he pleased. In those days, no one knew him, and he knew no one. Within a year of abandoning his old life, his real name was lost. It was years before he felt the need to assume a new one.
Hunched in corners of empty boxcars, he would wait in the shadows, looking to take advantage of anyone unlucky enough to come aboard. Watson Sr never spoke; he could barely form words from the stapled-down corners of his mutilated mouth. Without language or companions, he survived as a lone predator. He was like a bear: huge, powerful, insensible to language, ferocious, and merciless with his victims.
When Watson Sr killed, he liked to tear his victims apart. Just like a bear, he preferred to leave his victims torn open and gutless. But, while a bear destroys its victims by instinct, for Watson Sr, it was due and proper for anyone who crossed his path. His bright onyx eyes could take the measure of a man in a moment, sizing up any situation for threat or intent, as if instinct favored him better as an animal than as a man.
Watson Sr had a terrible and violent temper. His young life was defined by the application of continual trauma. By the time he was thirteen, Watson Sr could count more broken bones than birthdays. From an early age, a cruel hatred boiled inside him like black tar bubbling over the sides of an iron cauldron. His hatred was precious to him. It kept him alive when nothing else had. It had won the battle over sucking hopelessness and despair, and allowed him to escape. When Watson Sr was finally free to act on all the violent and wicked thoughts that had bloated in his mind for so long, effectively choking off any other thoughts, he gloried in the blood like it was a baptism by fire.
Seeing the same fear that had swallowed his entire childhood fill someone else’s eyes was a revelation to him, and he could not get enough of it. It did not take him long to evolve from a clumsy killer to a murderous beast. Empty rail cars were an exceptional habitat for a murderer to evolve. Watson Sr quickly learned that the endless clickety-clack of rail joints under heavy steel wheels would silence any screams, no matter how agonized. With nothing to stop him, Watson Sr took his killing instincts even further as he tried to avenge the traumas he had endured.
It did not matter that the drifters and hobos who became his victims had never done anything to him. For Watson Sr, they were acceptable substitutes for the men whose faces loomed so large and hateful in his memory. He felt that the intensity of his hatred could only be bathed in blood, and cured in fire. Watson Sr established a routine that seemed to satiate the rage, but still kept him safe from being caught. First, he would use his long knife, commonly known as an Arkansas toothpick, to arrest his victims while they slept by cutting their Achilles’ tendon.
The startled victims would awaken screaming, their bodies ponderous and useless with pain. That is when the real nightmare would begin. Those doomed men would only ever see a large, dark figure with a face hidden behind a handkerchief, but whose black eyes glittered with awful intent. For years, Watson Sr killed in this mutilating fashion, pulling his victims apart, cavorting like a bear with emptied shells of bodies in fast-moving train cars, hidden in the night, and festooned with gore and entrails.
In those days, Watson Sr was little more than an animal. He lived by instinct, stealth, cunning, and little else. He was consumed by murder, and the purer depths of his soul only showed in occasional and grotesque displays of sorrow. Then, there were all the times; many, many times, when he was almost caught. However, all the nights he had spent tied beneath a bed as a child, trying to grasp sleep amidst clanging pots, moaning clamor, and shouted confusion had left him with a nearly preternatural ability to hear anything and everything.
Mostly, life lived on the rails suited him very well. He enjoyed the fresh air and changing scenery, which he had never had a chance to experience before. In his whole life, Watson Sr never felt that he had any true place in the world, or any kind of purpose, but that was true of almost all the drifters and scalawags who rode the rails. In the completely anonymous world of predators and prey, Watson Sr felt like he belonged.
His only waking fear was the rail yard bulls, and the keen-nosed bulldogs that always accompanied them. The rail bulls were a private railroad police force who were employed to deal with trouble along the lines, as well as kick free-loading drifters out of the empty freight cars, often in a way that made them unwilling to risk returning. The rail yard bulls operated by their own rules and, in the interest of their rich and powerful employers, they did not hesitate to break the law themselves.
From afar, Watson Sr had witnessed them meting out dozens of brutal beatings, as well as more severe punishments. The bulls would not hesitate to kill a man who caused trouble on the lines. Most often, men like Watson Sr, the ones who caused serious trouble, never saw the inside of a courtroom. Dangerous or repeat offenders would be beaten, lynched, sometimes tarred and feathered, and then strung up next to a remote section of track where their withered body would serve as a warning to others.
Watson Sr was very careful to not be caught, but luck was also on his side. Even for the experienced bulls, it was hard to track down a man no one knew, or had ever even spoken to. Still, that was no guarantee he would not be caught. If they did catch him, his fate would be not much kinder than the deaths he had meted out. Keeping quietude on the lines by any means, wholesome or unwholesome, was a business suited for only a certain type of man. In many ways, Watson Sr understood them because they were just like him.
They were the kind of men who did not mind throwing trouble makers and bindlestiffs out of speeding box cars into dark and dangerous woods, or off towering trestle bridges to fall through a vanishing nothingness towards swirling rivers that ran hundreds of feet below. Since Watson Sr understood these men, he also understood how to avoid them. In another time, or in another life, he might have been one of them, rather than their quarry. Watson Sr knew that the life he was leading could not last much longer. It was a life lived on the perilous edge of death, and the only deaths anyone ever died on the rail roads were always terrible, sudden, and violent.
After several years of living the life of an insatiable killer, his taste for indiscriminate murder and grotesque mutilations began to wane. He still killed, and regularly, but there was nothing new in it for him. He no longer needed to know that he could kill anyone anytime he wanted just because he wanted to do it. The empty want of vengeance had been cooled by the blood he had spilled. There was no corner of his mind left unquiet by the notion that someone might ever be able to hurt him again.
Then, the day came when he made a mistake. He was careless, and not watchful when he should have been watchful. One night, a night like any other except for the bright light of a full moon, he had fallen asleep for a few hours on an empty rail car. When he awoke, dawn had not broken, but he could see well enough by the strong moonlight of the clear night. Groggy-headed, he had taken off his kerchief to wash his face with water from a canteen he had recently acquired. At first glance, nothing seemed amiss in the car, and so he had not walked the car before removing his kerchief, as was his usual habit.
Watson Sr felt certain that he would have woken up if the train had slowed or stopped, he always did. He would awaken if a feather fell on the tracks, so he was shocked to his skin to see the barest movement on the far end the car. The movement made a step forward, and seemed to betray the figure of a tall, wiry, but puny man, almost no more substantial than a ghost. Thrown into sudden alarm, Watson Sr grabbed for the switchblade hidden in his boot, and threw it with all his might at the man.
Unfortunately, Watson Sr had no talent for throwing knives, and it not only completely missed the man’s heart; it completely missed the man, and clattered uselessly into the dank recesses of the far corner of the car. Immediately and without thinking, Watson Sr rushed his hulking bulk after the misthrown weapon following the only voice he heard: the instinct that counseled him to follow thrust metal with strength.
Alerted to danger, and acting even more quickly, the puny man turned round quick as lightning, skittered crablike to the corner, and got hold of the knife. In that moment, Watson Sr knew he had picked another predator as prey. The very next things that happened happened so fast that they could only be seen in flashing slides of memory. The man was much smaller, but also faster, and he held the knife like someone who was used to holding one. The fight was brutal, and bloody; and no one had the advantage until the end.
What seemed like an eternity later, Watson Sr kicked the man’s body, deflated of all oxygen, out of the moving train car so it could roll onto a bright yellow field, tenderly lit by the early dawn light, and covered land and sky by bluebirds and jays, cardinals and robins, orioles and goldfinches, and all other manner of brightly-colored, sweet-melodied songbirds. Watson Sr took a deep breath, relieved to have emerged victorious, but worried at the cost.
It was not the worst beating he had ever taken, but it was the worst knife fight he was ever in. By sheer size and strength, and a willingness to let the small knife cut where it would, Watson Sr overcame his foe, and strangled the life from his throat. But, he was battered and stabbed and knew he had to get off the lines. However, there was no way to know when the train would stop long enough for him to disembark.
A long and painful afternoon passed before Watson Sr was able to safely get off the train at a “hell on wheels” camp that was set up near the tracks. Immediately, he made his way to the medical tent. Since he looked like any of the other men who worked for the railroads, his appearance in the camp did not raise any eyebrows. His injuries were not seen as anything unusual, and elicited no questions. Knife fights were common among those who lived life on the rails.
Still, as long as he lay bandaged and helpless on a simple cot, he could not help but be gripped by worry. However, the worry did no good, it was no more than idle distraction; no one knew or cared who he was or exactly what had happened. It was assumed that he was just another worker who had gotten drunk and argued with somebody he shouldn’t have. And when Watson Sr was finally able to return to his hard, cold home on board the steel rail cars, he did not return entirely unchanged.
For the first many nights, Watson Sr huddled like a moth in a cocoon against dank, rumbling steel corners, and rethought his life. He decided that he no longer needed to murder every man who crossed his path. It was no longer necessary to make him feel whole and powerful. Still, he knew that there was no undoing the past. Forevermore, he would be a wanted man, which meant that the rolling steel dungeons that had been his home for so long would never truly be safe again.
When he stopped to listen, words caught out from low whispers warned him that time was running short. No matter how many miles or how many months might separate his murders, the rail line enforcers were beginning to catch up to him. It had taken years, and dozens of empty bodies left broken and rotting on dirty blankets in freight cars; or simply discarded as pools of anonymous blood left with no other indication of who the man had been, how he had met his end, or at what point along the endless miles of tracks the body had been dumped. But, despite all this, the railroad police were professionals, and they had begun to establish a pattern that the author of the grisly displays seemed to follow.
They knew that they were looking for a large, powerful man who moved swiftly and often. Judging by his travel patterns, he kept no association with any person or place. The only descriptions they had were of a hulking figure who hid his face under an old kerchief and wore a dark greatcoat. It was not a lot, it was barely more than a description of any of the tramps, hobos, and bindlestiffs they dealt with each day, but it was a start.
Sepia-colored flyers with tattered edges began to be nailed to every available tree and power pole that bordered the tracks. The flyers gave only the barest description of the hunted man: a large, dark, heavy, greatcoated figure with angry, black eyes glaring out over the top of a kerchief. The picture was ominous, as was the large type that announced him as “The No Name Killer,” and offered a five thousand dollar reward for his capture.
Watson Sr loved his life on the rails. He loved the cold comfort of combustion; the solidity of wrought pig iron; the rumbling sound of the steel cars; the screeching of the iron brake pads; and the high, shrill call of the conductor’s whistle the way he would later love the salty taste of the open sea air. He did not want to give it up, but an entire army of men had been dispatched to find the killer who, far and wide, haunted the tracks, and murdered at will.
Anonymity was his only ally. But, Watson Sr knew that he must find a new life. He looked to the “hell on wheels” shanty camps, which existed in a constant state of being torn down and re-built. The camps were rank with dispossessed, nameless sorts who would never claim any past further removed than a nearby yesterday. It was there that he could find his way off of “Murderer’s Mile” while not totally giving up his love of trains. From his time spent in the camps, Watson Sr knew he could slip into the ranks of hardened and faceless workers as easily as slipping into his bed roll at night.
Maybe he might even become a railroad bull himself one day, he mused. After all, he was just like them in so many ways. He knew he could fit in with those men like a paisley design on a handkerchief. He understood them well, their cunning, their cruelty, their passion for the hunt, which was how he knew, beyond any doubt, that they were getting closer each day. It was this thought that occupied his restless mind when he jumped onto the platform of a freight car just beyond dusk in a pouring March rain, just as he had done a thousand times before.
The smelly train car was too full of other people for his taste, but his options were slimming as he felt time ticking more and more, further and further, against him. He could feel it; he felt it more and more each day. As the pressure mounted, Watson Sr’s worries grew, and could not be stopped, no matter how much he willed it so. Thankfully, no one had noticed him silently boarding the freight car. The small group of men on the other end of the car were fully absorbed in an idle game of cards, which they played by the light of a shallow fire held in a hobo stove made from a coffee can.
The men were so absorbed in their cards, as well as keeping their poorly-mittened hands warm near their hobo stove, that not one of them noticed the large, kerchiefed man watching them from the shadows. When the train began to chug noisily down the tracks at a comfortable rhythm, Watson Sr reflexively clutched the handle of his large knife. But, he did nothing more; just simply waited.
After a few minutes of sitting on the rotten hay that covered the deck of the freight car, Watson Sr shifted uncomfortably, and tucked his hands under his folded legs. He scrunched his nose at the putrid smell of the hay, and focused on the light of the hobo stove, wishing he were nearer to it, but not yet ready to take the chance of being seen. He chewed his teeth while he continued to wait. It was a nervous habit, which made his already large teeth unusually uniform and square.
Miles of track disappeared sightlessly beneath him, and Watson Sr did nothing, simply sat, and listened to the low talk. The thraldom of violence was loosening its grip around his heart and mind, and he found himself interested in the mens’ talk. Mostly, they spoke of the work which awaited them at their destination. They were headed north to the end of the tracks, the farthest point the rail lines had reached. Once there, and settled into their newest camp, they were among the men set to blast a tunnel through a great mountain, which had halted the inchworm progress of the railroads.
From the hushed voices and murmured whispers on the opposite side of the squalid freight car, Watson Sr gathered that the five men were general laborers, rail-and-tie gang workers and track layers, as well as one brakeman. Watson Sr was most interested in what the brakeman had to say. The idea of being a brakeman appealed to him, as it did to very few. It was a killing job. Only the strongest and bravest men were able to do all that was required. A man had to be willing to stand between two moving train cars to man the link-and-pin couplers that connected them. It was a dangerous job, but it paid much better than being a simple laborer on the rail lines.
He knew the work of laborers very well, too. Over the years, he had seen hundreds of men just like the ones who occupied the other end of the freight car. From the open doors of a box car, the picture was always the same; dozens of men standing on opposite sides of the tracks; sweat pouring from their brows, their backs bowed over the tools of their trade: picks and short-handled shovels. It looked like hell to him, but Watson Sr knew he’d do it if he had to. It was better than ending up at the end of a rope, or worse.
Even the fact that many brakemen lost fingers, hands, or even their lives in the process did not bother Watson Sr. He knew himself to be bigger and tougher than most men. Besides, he needed a way to disappear. Even before hopping on the freight car that evening, Watson Sr had already begun to think that it might be a good job for him, so he settled his mind to join their fire, just as any honest man might. After all, he looked like any other drifter or rail line worker with his rough clothes; broad-rimmed, worn, brown leather shabby hat; and his common dark-grey wool greatcoat.
Then, just as he made his mind up to join the men, and perhaps even disembark with them in hopes of finding work, the conversation changed. Suddenly, the men were no longer talking about wages, or the trials of working on the burgeoning rail lines:
“Hey, any o’ you fellers believes in ghosts?” the brakeman asked.
A chorus of denials, chuckles, and snorts of derision met his question, but the brakeman was undeterred.
“Canna fault your doubts, no sirs, canna faul’ ya your doubts. Men’s canna be believin’ a thing withenout ever seein’ it wit’ they’s own two eyes. But, I cain’t believes none of youse aint never seen no specterin’ ghosty, leastwise not once or twice.”
“You a-callin’ us liars?” one of the tie gang laborers asked as he slammed his tin cup down so hard that the dark liquid inside formed a small wave and spilt onto the hay-sodden steel deck. He cursed loudly, but was cut off by one of the other men.
“Yeah, wha’ in th’ hell business is it o’ yourns, anyhows?” one of the others, a man with fat, purple duck lips and heavily pockmarked skin, asked in an angry voice. The men all nodded their heads in grim agreement. Watson Sr leaned forward with interest, his hand once again clutching the handle of his long knife, just in case the argument turned to a fight, and scuttled towards his end of the car.
“Nows, don’t be a-gettin’ all belliverant and such! Youse jus’ be a-showin’ y’all’s own ignorance. I’s gots good reason t’ ask, ‘tis my bread and butta it is, and iffen y’all’s mights not mind a little bit o’ gamblin’, I’ll’s shows y’all somethin’ I promise you ain’t never seen the like!” exclaimed the brakeman.
The air immediately cleared at the mention of gambling, and the four rail-and-tie men leaned forward with interest. Watson Sr also pricked his keen ears to listen even more closely. He had a particular interest in the conversation; for him, it harkened back to an old memory, nearly buried by time.
“Sufficests enough and say I gots in me satchel a purple ghosty straight outten the netherworld. Now, t’ be honest wit’ y’all, I’s ain’t seen too much like this here purple spooky. T’ain’t none o’ you has neithers, and that’s a damned promise! Mighten it not be worth a half-week’s wages to anys of youse iffen I were t’ produce a specterin’ shade from nothin’ t’at all, rights here, right now? Worths it t’ any o’ y’all? What’s y’all say, or is y’all’s clammed up like skeletons in th’ grave?”
The other four men looked at each other in wide-eyed disbelief. It seemed too good an offer to be real. After all, as well as they knew, not a soul on earth could produce a ghost on request.
“Humbug! Goes on now, ya damned liar! You canna do nothin’ like that, cause no man never canna raise th’ holy dead,” stated the surly, dramatic rail-and-tie man. The others nodded their agreement, and sat back on their heels, their interest gone.
“I canna so! ‘Tis a scientifical fact, I’s cans so” the brakeman insisted. “I’ll be to a-showin y’all a purple ghosty quick as snot! Sees here, messin’ wit’ th’ doggone otherworldly t’ain’t not an undangerous business, and I ain’t gonna be doin’ it withenout somethin’ ins it for me, that’s a promise, damned and sure!”
The surly brakeman then paused for a moment, as if to assess his audience, before continuing:
“Here’s my thinkin’: youse all mighten got purty well-fixt’ off this here last piece o’ rail-splittin’ and tyin’. So youse all gots the money rights now. None o’ youse ain’t’s ne’er goin’ to see th’ like o’ what I mights just can be fixin’ to shows ya. But, th’ showin’ t’ain’t free, canna be! Iffen I’m’s a liar, puts up them jinglers, and shows it. Otherhow, it’s jus’ easy money, ‘s all. Here now, I’s be a-makin’ more than all o’ ya, prolly puts togethers, so’s I’ll’s sponge youse debts for a time. I’s good for it, aft’ all.”
“If you canna produce a damn gum purple ghosty from outta your arse, then I says go ons now an’ do it!” said another gang laborer.
“Iffen you can make a purple ghost appear from nothin’ at all, I’ll gives ya two weeks wages!” laughed another. The others nodded their assent, eager to make a quick buck off the brakeman’s ridiculous offer.
“Off’s it now! Youse don’t be a-havin’ no two weeks wages t’ be a-givin’, not a’ one o’ y’all,” replied the brakeman.
“I’ll owes it! I’s always pays me debts!”
The others nodded their agreement.
“An’ a fun piece o’ time collectin’ for me; I reckon truly! Still, iffen I thinks on it, we all’s be a-headin’ to the same piece o’ track for’n th’ next little whiles. Iffen y’all would be a-willin’ to hold t’ your words, as God be yourn own witness, then I’ll’s take th’ rest as owed. But, I ain’t’s never been one to be forgetten a face. Y’all’s can ask from anybody. And, I’s don’t mind a-killin’ no cheatin’ damn squelchers! No better’n snakes, damn cheaters. I’ll’s bust you up, and leave you in worse shape than death, iffen youse tries to be a-cheatin’ me. I ain’t be doin’ nobody’s wrong to collect on what’s owed however I’s sees fit. So, there’s be a warning on y’all. Don’t none o’ youse try holdin’ out your moneys on me!”
“Fine, fine,” came the single, anonymous response.
“You’d better be a-showin us this damn gum ghosty rights ‘bout now, or youse can get on wit’ shuttin’ th’ fuck ups ‘bout it!” exclaimed the surliest rail-and-tie man, the one with the tin cup who had spilled his coffee before.
“Allrighty, then. Gets your money sets to be lost, lads! Ain’t’s none o’ youse gonna be havin’ a penny lef’ for drinks nor whores nor food whenevers we be a-rollin’ on into th’ next’ camp. An’ don’t’s any o’ youse be a-thinkin’ to cheat me offen one damned penny! You ain’t a-walkin’ this back neither! I’ll’s find ya. I’ll catch ya, and I’ll stretch ya jus’ the same as if you tweren’t no better’n a slitherin’ rattlesnake.”
The others nodded their assent. There was no surprise in his words. It was just clear that he was drunk, and a drunk who had been drunk so many times that he slurred his words to a regular fashion. No one really cared though. There were few friends and even less charity to be found in the “hell on wheels” camps, or the miles of tracks that lay betwixt them, and many men fell to hard liquor.
However, if not for his quick ears, Watson Sr would never have understood a word. But, as it happened, he was able to keep his distance, and follow the unfolding scene with growing fascination. Watson Sr could not see well to the other side of the car, but the firelight lit the men’s faces well enough to make them out, as well as the small pottery that the brakeman extracted from his worn leather satchel.
Without hesitation, the brakeman pulled out the cork stopper with his teeth, and a plume of white smoke poured forth from the jar. Watson Sr sat forward, his interest as rapt, but perhaps far less terrified, than any of the other men who sat around the fire. But, he was far less terrified because he alone in the train car had heard legends of bottle conjurers before. Slowly, a stark, handsome purple face; strong, muscular arms; and a long torso formed out of a sparkling blizzard of warm white smoke. There was no sound in the hay-stinking freight car as the gathered men stared in slack-jawed consternation.
The purple apparition did not speak, it merely floated as a partially-formed, frowning manifestation above the opening of the small pottery. After a minute had passed, and the air had grown stale with confounded suspense, the brakeman tapped the jar three times with his short knife, and the ghostly purple apparition immediately disappeared back within the confines of the small pottery.
“Sees it there! Sees it there, by golly! I’s done told y’all’s! This t’ain’t no blue-light imaginin’ neithers. Nope, this here be a true spirit o’ th’ ne’erworld. Now, don’t’s be a-gettin’ all teary tha’ youse all done lost. Aft’ all, you done seen a true picture o’ th’ otherworld is what you done seen. That’s gotta be worths something. So, do’s as I tell ya, and be payin’ what’s owed. Hop to’s it now!”
No one argued with the brakeman’s request. He was by far the biggest man of the five of them. He held out his hand menacingly, and snapped his leathery fingers tersely. The others, cowered by what they’d seen, nodded dumbly as the gruff and turbulent brakeman restored the small pottery to his satchel.
As one, the men began to dig in their pockets for whatever money they might have. All the while, they mumbled to each other about how they couldn’t believe what they had just seen. But, as the closest man moved to offer the pile of coins and crumpled bills to the brakeman, his eyes lingered a little too long on the sum of change. The brakeman grabbed the man’s hand and twisted two of his fingers until it looked like the fingers might snap. The man lost his grip with an “ouch, mercy” and the precious money fell to the hay-strewn deck.
“Y’all got t’ get right, an’ be stayin’ right, if y’all be wantin’ t’ stay on th’ bright side o’ th’ ground! Now, I’s be a-gettin’ tired. We all’s be a-headin’ t’ a long piece o’ work, an there won’t’s be time for sleep nor whorin’ once we’re there. Now, I’ll’s be a-needin’ my beauty sleeps. And, don’t none of youse be gettin’ no bright ideas ‘bout jumpin’ th’ deck ‘fore I gets what’s owed. I‘ll finds ya, and woe whens I do, an’ that’s a damned promise!” The brakeman commented tersely.
His eyes had a menacing cast that no one dared to question as he looked at the fallen money like a person possessed, like a person who had never beheld money before. He then gathered the money, and stuffed it all into the pockets of his oil- and grease-stained pants. The men grumbled for a while over emptying their pockets, but they turned over in their coats and bed rolls and were soon fast asleep by the light of the small, dying fire.
Meanwhile, Watson Sr could not remember having ever felt more awake. He knew what he had seen. It was a bottle conjurer; a genie, sure! The damn fool brakeman had no earthly idea what he had! But, Watson Sr knew, and there was one more thing he was sure of: the purple bottle conjurer had glimpsed him, and its look had seared straight through to his heart.
All honest thoughts fled Watson Sr’s mind as if they had never been. His memory wandered back to the only other time in his life that he had ever heard talk of bottle conjurers. It had happened so long before: back when he was a mere boy who had overheard a conversation that he had never been meant to hear. In a moment, he was back there, in the underground den of vice where he had grown up. On that long before night, the brothel’s headman, a despicable man named Earl Watson, had spent the night drinking in the small bar, as was his usual habit.
Men came and went from the brothel’s rooms, freely spending their money on the prostitutes who called the underground cavern home. When they were done, the customers would often take libation in the small bar. The ceiling was packed earth, and held aloft by thick tree roots that hung down in places like stalactites, and traveled the full length of the brothel in others. Myriad small roots hung from the dirt ceiling like fishing line, dangling down from the world above. The largest roots formed columns around which the room was organized. It was behind these gnarled and knobby pillars where young Watson Sr would hide and listen to the men talk.
It was how he learned about life above ground, far from the dank cavern swollen with the smells of unwashed bodies and soured liquor that was his home. On that long ago night, the man who sat opposite the headman was an old, grey-haired mariner, skinny from traveling, and red-cheeked from years of hard drinking. The conversation began normally with lots of talk of traveling, and then news of the sunlit world above that young Watson Sr so rarely saw. But, when a half-full wine bottle that sat atop the long, gnarled stump that served as the bar fell over with no apparent cause, the tenor changed:
“Boy!” the headman had shouted. “Be to a-cleanin’ that mess up, an’ hurry on up abouts it!”
Young Watson Sr emerged unnoticed from the shadows while the conversation went on unabated between the two men. Inspired by the fallen bottle, Earl Watson had begun sharing stories about the brothel being haunted, but when those wore thin, both men indulged in tales about other spooky events that each had experienced during their lives. These tales only interested young Watson Sr to a point. He’d already seen enough of life to not be scared by ghost stories.
Peripherally, young Watson Sr supposed that ghost stories were more interesting to listen to than the old, rusted mattress springs squeaking; or the constant, feigned moans of dramatic sexual passion; or listening to the ceiling joists that creaked and complained under the weight they had to carry, and left him wondering when the ceiling would just cave in and bury them all.
But, the beer continued to flow, and the old mariner, his scarred hands cupped reflexively around the cheap ceramic tankard, his white-and-grey beard wet with spilled malt and bubbles, became nostalgic. He spoke longingly about his younger years, and the career he had spent at sea, traveling to every point on the map. Young Watson Sr was on his hands and knees wiping up the spilt wine and broken glass with an old rag that had more holes than usable fabric when the old mariner began telling a story he would never forget.
The old mariner’s bloodshot blue eyes had gazed into the depths of his tankard, and he had begun to speak of a particular seafaring adventure from a long, long time before. Wistfully, he remembered aloud what it was like to be a young sailor, and having secured rich wages at a 175th share (‘twas th’ best I’d ever done did, by thunder!’ he’d claimed) on a whaling vessel bound for Calais. The whaling vessel had already been gone almost all of a three years’ journey hunting sperm whales. The hold was nearly full of oil, spermaceti, and ambergris; and spirits on board had been high. Every sailor aboard had been looking forward to docking and receiving their share of the valuable cargo.
With every long, dribbling guzzle of beer he drank, the old mariner slurred his words more and more, but his wizened blue eyes crinkled merrily at the memory, as if he could still feel the weight of all that money weighing down his pockets. His voice had a soft lilt of joy as he recounted spending months of leisure on the wages from just that one whaling journey. For a moment, to young Watson Sr, the old mariner had almost sounded young and happy, but the wrinkled skin that sagged off the bones of his face like an old saddle bag; the leathery skin that was riddled with brown age spots; the red cheeks bright with burst capillaries; and the two very large ears that bookended his haggard countenance gave the lie to the youthful notes in his voice.
If young Watson Sr had not naturally been gifted with the acute hearing an anxious hare, he would not have been able to hear, much less understand, the old mariner’s tale. But, such as he was - keen of ear, but poor of eye as the common bat - he understood perfectly the old mariner’s tale, which had proceeded thus in a rushing blue tide of memory:
It was summertime, and ere nightfall on the deep blue waters off the Azores Islands, and whales had breached and spouted happily all around the temporarily becalmed ship. The men had been lounging about the deck, drinking their rations of rum, and planning how they would spend the hard-earned money that was locked away in the massive hold. After so long at sea, everyone on board had been eager to set their feet on dry land. As the rum flowed more freely, a near stranger to their vessel, a shipwrecked sailor whom they had rescued from a staved-in lifeboat, began to talk.
They were the first words the peculiar shipwrecked sailor had spoken since the sailors on board the whaling ship had lifted his emaciated, desiccated, and sunburnt body from the half-sunk lifeboat to which he had clung. No one had pressed him for speech; aboard a whaling ship too much talk was considered a waste of time anyway. Everyone assumed he had been shocked dumb by his trials, and would come around all on his own. The whaling ship had come upon the lifeboat a couple weeks before as it had floated aimlessly through the warm waters of the Straits of Gibraltar.
The shipwrecked sailor had been burned to such a bright shade of scarlet by the merciless sun that he had screamed at the slightest touch. His damaged skin had peeled off in long white sheets, almost like sails, under the care of the ship’s surgeon. The shipwrecked sailor had screamed himself into an unconscious state, but even when he woke, he would still not speak a word. However, he had accepted the offers of water, rations, and medical care with a humble mien of gratitude that endeared him to the whaling crew. The surgeon had supposed aloud that he was so traumatized by his experiences that he had lost the powers of speech.
As such, the whaling crew had pitied the shipwrecked sailor, and had taken him as a kind of pet, since all aboard knew that such a fate might befall any of them so long as they chose to pursue a life at sea. On the night in question, the shipwrecked sailor had drunk several cups of rum with the others, but no one had expected him to speak until he began to tell a strange story.
At this point, the old mariner paused as he recounted the tale to Earl Watson. He stared into his near-empty tankard as if the memory were being conjured in the bubbles, and could be read like a fortune from them. Young Watson Sr slowly cleaned the floor, picking up large chunks of broken glass as he went. All the while, he listened as closely as he could to the mumbled words.
The shipwrecked sailor, continued the age-spotted, grey-haired old mariner, had pulled from the large-cut pockets of his wide-leg pants a small blue glass bottle, stoppered by a piece of cut clear glass. He had then pulled the glass stopper from the bottle, and a mass of blue smoke had poured forth. From within that unnatural blue mist, there had appeared the head, arms, and torso of a blue man that had trailed down in wisps of curling smoke to the top of the unstoppered glass bottle.
The old mariner spoke candidly of the cold fear that had enveloped all the sailors on board the long ago whaling ship, sending chills down their spines. It seemed to young Watson Sr that the old mariner was still frightened by what he had seen so long before. The old mariner had crossed himself self-consciously before turning to his ceramic tankard for comfort. But, finding it nearly empty, he had raised the tankard to have it filled from the pitcher that a woman with a cut-up face, an off-duty whore, ferried about the room.
According to the old mariner, as he relayed the story to Earl Watson, the whole experience had lasted only a minute or two before three taps on the blue glass had forced the blue apparition, and its billowing whorls of blue smoke, into a rapid spiral which became smaller and smaller until it disappeared altogether, as if it had never been at all. Everyone on the deck of the whaling ship had rubbed their eyes in disbelief, but when they recovered from their shock, and regained their powers of speech, they had immediately pressed the shipwrecked sailor with questions.
Shortly, the questions had turned angry, as the sailors demanded answers to the mystery of what they had witnessed. The shipwrecked sailor, frightened by their anger, had been hesitant to say too much about the blue bottle conjurer, or his relation to it, even though it was clear to everyone aboard that the relation was a close one. After a moment, his timidity had passed, and the shipwrecked sailor had assured the other sailors that it was not a demon, but another type of ghost called a genie, or bottle conjurer.
At this point in his story, the old mariner had scoffed at Earl Watson, the headman, over the top of his nearly-full tankard, as if his opinion was, so many scores of years later, still unshaken. ‘’Twas a demon! A blue demon, I tells ya!’ the old mariner had emphasized most dramatically, as if it truly mattered to him that he could convince Earl Watson of this singular and most important fact.
Earl Watson had, of course, nodded obligingly. But, young Watson Sr knew the headman better than that. Earl Watson was a cruel man with no imagination. Although the headman pretended to be interested, young Watson Sr knew that Earl Watson was only waiting to make a joke of the whole story once the old mariner had gone. But, satisfied that his story was being heard, and its gravity appreciated, the old mariner had continued the tale:
For reasons unknown to any but himself, the long ago shipwrecked sailor had felt obliged to share what he knew with the other sailors aboard the whaling ship. For an hour or more, according to the old mariner, the shipwrecked sailor had dazzled the other sailors with pieces of strange knowledge. However, when pressed about the fate of his own sailing vessel, the shipwrecked sailor had solemnly refused to discuss what had happened to the lost ship. Instead, he had hung his head, seemingly consumed by a deep shame over the matter, and said that he had broken his troth as a good man.
Mostly, the shipwrecked sailor had spent that night aboard the long ago whaling ship describing what he knew of bottle conjurers. A good man, the shipwrecked sailor had shared, would use his first wish to free the genie, and therefore rid the world of the possibility of the genie’s power being used for bad purposes by evil men. The shipwrecked sailor had then entreated the other sailors, his only friends, to instantly do away with a genie, if they should ever come upon one themselves, so that it might not do them, or anyone else, any harm.
The sailors aboard the whaling ship, incredulous to a one, had shaken their heads and taunted the shipwrecked sailor with their loud laughter. ‘’Twere too ridiculous to be believed,’ the old mariner had said; and his small, disbelieving guffaw sounded to young Watson Sr like an echo of what must have been his own cruel and regrettable laughter on the deck of that long ago and faraway whaling ship. However, despite the laughter of his fellows, reported the old mariner, the shipwrecked sailor had persisted, saying that it was a very easy thing to do.
At this, the old mariner scoffed lightly, but forgivingly; as if remembering the taste of something unpleasant, something he had expected to be delicious. But, Earl Watson had leaned forward with interest and so, drunk as he was, the old mariner had continued:
In the beginning, the shipwrecked sailor had told his fellow sailors, it was easy to discard a genie, because no genie would ever speak to a new master first. Even if it meant that a genie’s vessel might be thrown into the sea, or down a deep canyon, or even off the ends of the earth, a genie would wait for a new master to speak first. According to the long ago shipwrecked sailor, although a genie could say as much as it wished, it was only ever guaranteed to ask, “Is that your wish?” And this would only happen after a new master had made a request. Then, either the wish would be granted, or the price would be named.
The price for a wish would only be named if an unknowing master made a “false” wish, of which only a few were known, and mostly by legend. These false wishes could cost a wish, a life, control of the lamp, or all three. And, no one ever knew what these “false” wishes were until it was too late. Genies were old beings, and it was an old way of doing things. It was not subject to the desires of mortals; nor were any of these rules put in place for the benefit of mortal men.
Bottle conjurers, the shipwrecked sailor had explained, came from a time when the head of the family was responsible for the behaviors of every family member. It was a time when mortal men were responsible to their choices, come what may. And, since a good man would either free the genie or do away with the vessel, he would never be burdened by these things; so, it was an old rule that existed for bad men. The only way for a man to avoid becoming a slave to the genie, as sure as the genie was a slave to its vessel, was to immediately do away with it, no matter how hungry, tired, or desirous of unearned rewards he might be. However, once a man had ignored the bottle conjurer’s silence and spent his three wishes, then he became a slave, even in his mortal flesh, to the genie, and to any new masters of the genie.
Unnoticed by Earl Watson, young Watson Sr listened to the muddled tale with intense interest. He busied himself nearby, and images danced in his head as the old mariner continued to tell the story of the shipwrecked sailor:
In the silence that followed his confession, the waves had loudly lapped their ancient rhythm against the sides of the long ago whaling ship, and the shipwrecked sailor had suddenly resumed his feet, even though his thin legs were unsteady with rum. The shipwrecked sailor then clutched the blue glass bottle close to his heart, uttered a hushed thank you to his fellow sailors, and plaintively bid them to remember the truth of his warning.
Then, before the other sailors could question him further; or perhaps beat more information out of him; or maybe even seize the blue glass bottle for their own; the shipwrecked sailor had swung his legs over the rail, and fallen into nothing. With a loud and sudden splash, the mysterious shipwrecked sailor had vanished entirely into the unforgiving depths below.
In an instant, the other sailors had jumped to their feet, reaching to stop him; or maybe to just grab the blue glass genie bottle for their own, but the shipwrecked sailor had acted too quickly and unexpectedly to be stopped. The other sailors had plaintively and hopelessly called out for him, but their cries had been silenced by a huge plume of water: the equivalent of ten whales spouting all at once, which had shot up from the precise spot where the shipwrecked sailor and blue bottle conjurer had disappeared beneath the waves, and then soaked all the sailors through to their skins.
The broken-down old mariner finished his tankard, and as young Watson Sr furiously cleaned the same spot over and over, he concluded by saying, “I done ain’t never seen the like since, nor do I ever be expectin’ to. But, and listen nigh you don’t be to missin’ my meanin’: ‘Twas a demon, by thunder! T’ my mind, only such as a demon, be it blue, or some other color o’ turquoise indescribable to the human eye, tha’ coulda fill a man’s mind full o’ such evil, and be the cause of him taking his own life. Were it not for that there damned blue demon in its damned bottle, that boy might still be alive. Now, he just be a-layin’ down thar’ in Davy Jones’s locker. Poor wretched soul. A good lot, tha’ boy, a good lot. Deserved better, did he, deserved better.”
These words were spoken with a strange finality that caused the old mariner to shiver violently all the way down to his broken-soled, leather clodhoppers. Then, the old mariner fell silent, and seemed disinclined to speak any more. After a minute or two, Earl Watson rose from the table and clapped the old mariner heartily on the back. He then thanked him in earnest for “th’ best ol’ yarn I’s done heard in years.”
The headman of the brothel then went to the bar to fill his tankard. He took a couple of long draughts, and proceeded down the narrow hall, checking for trouble. After a few minutes, Earl Watson returned to the small bar, and resumed his seat. For the next couple hours, young Watson Sr watched as drunks rolled in and out of the bar, some with their pants still open as they gained their drinks, left their uncounted coins jingling on the bar, and returned to their loud and vulgar time passings.
Young Watson Sr busied himself about the bar, clearing tables, washing out used tankards, and refilling drinks for men who only seemed to know how to thank him with gruff snorts of gratitude, or rough chuffs behind his ear. He had hoped the old mariner might share another story, but he and Earl Watson continued to sit in companionable silence, sharing very little talk as they lifted the tankards to their lips with drunk, unsteady hands.
The old mariner might have thought that he could outdrink the headman, but young Watson Sr had never seen it done. The headman drank from dawn to dusk, and never seemed too badly off for it. In young Watson Sr’s opinion, it was the only redeeming quality that he had ever seen the headman display. Half-past three came, and the old mariner’s head began to loll. Soon enough, he laid his head down on the folded arms of his tattered and threadbare blue jacket; the heavy lids of his wrinkled, merry eyes dropped closed of their own accord; and soon the sonorous sounds of loud snoring followed.
On his way out of the small bar, Earl Watson finally took notice of young Watson Sr’s huddled form, cleaning a spot where one of the drunk patrons had spilled his ale before vomiting into the mess. In disgust, the headman had kicked him hard in the back of the thighs. Young Watson Sr sprawled to the floor, tipping over the soapy-water bucket that held his porous cleaning rag.
“Piss an’ vinegar, boy! Clean that stinkin’ sop up, ya damn fuckin’ coot!” the headman ordered, before leaving to do his late night-early morning check of the prostitutes’ rooms. Young Watson Sr swore right then and there that if he ever found a genie in a bottle he would not use one single wish for good. Instead, he would use his first wish to see the headman killed in the most awful way his imagination could conjure.
Young Watson Sr had smiled at the notion, but kept his head down and kept scrubbing, so it would not seem to the headman as though he was thinking anything at all. But really, his mind was whirling with images of bottle conjurers and wishes. Young Watson Sr knew then that his second imagined wish would be for a meal fit for a king. A large, sumptuous meal that could fill his nearly-always empty tummy to glorious fullness. His stomach growled with unsatisfied want as he pictured fancy servants placing food before him at his very own golden table.
For his third imagined wish, young Watson Sr decided that he would wish himself to be the richest man in the world. He would then live in a very grand, large house where the golden sunlight would pour in from expensive glass windows, guarded gate towers would keep every unwanted person out, and he could spend each night of the year in a different room with a soft feather bed, if he so chose.
But, for that night, his circumstances remained unchanged, except for an unexpected and strange story that had given him a brief glimpse of a bigger world. Young Watson Sr seethed with discontent as he cleaned up the newest mess the headman had made for him before he headed to bed for a short rest. The next morning when he arose from his poor pallet, young Watson Sr saw that the old mariner was gone. He never saw the old mariner again and, as the years went by, the memory faded until it seemed as if the whole night had been nothing more than a vivid dream.
Years passed, and young Watson Sr gained maturity; and with it, his hard-won freedom, but he never forgot the story of the shipwrecked sailor. It was the only piece of magic and wonder to ever cross the threshold into his old world of penury and shame. He held the magic of the story close to his heart, but he never spoke of it, and he never again heard a story anything like it. But, crouched in the corner of the freight car on that fateful and drizzly March night, he knew that all his wishes were about to be answered. Without a doubt, the purple genie would be his before morning broke.
As the brakeman and the four rail-and-tie gang workers bedded down for the night, Watson Sr knew exactly what to do. It was like everything he had ever been through had prepared him for that moment, and there was not a soul on earth who could stop him from taking exactly what he wanted. Gone were any fruitful thoughts of joining the men around the humble hobo stove, listening to their talk of rail line jobs, or perhaps disembarking with them once the train reached the next “hell on wheels” camp; gone were all those thoughts, gone as if they had never been.
In the space of time it had taken for the blustering brakeman to gather in a single wager, everything had changed. Now, all Watson Sr had to do was wait. The wait proved unbearable. The fire in the hobo stove dimmed and went out, and Watson Sr patiently waited. The moon passed its zenith outside the open car door, and still he waited. Finally, the sun began to break the horizon in the East, and he decided that it was time to strike. In minutes, it was done. His trusty Arkansas toothpick slashed quickly and soundlessly through the darkness as he cut the five mens’ throats, one by one.
When it was over, Watson Sr sat in the midst of the formerly peaceable scene, bodies heaped around him like bloody bales of hay, while he clutched the unremarkable small pottery in his large hand. However, he did not uncork it immediately. There was work to be done. Quickly, for the sun was beginning to break dawn, he rolled the bodies off the freight car, and threw their belongings after them. He did not even pause to rifle through their pockets before discarding the lifeless corpses, even though his own last penny was long since spent.
The only thing he kept was the brakeman’s old, brown leather satchel, which held a worn tin cup, a few loose cigarettes, and an empty flask. Normally, Watson Sr traveled light; carrying only his billfold and a couple knives, one large and one small, but the old brown satchel had struck him as an item that might come of some use. Next, he located a rusty, old rake, and used it to clean the red-stained straw from where the five unfortunate men had lain.
Then, satisfied his work was done, he hunkered down near the open entrance, and waited for the train to slow down; either because it was approaching a long incline, or coming to its next planned stop. It did not matter though. Watson Sr did not have the luxury of waiting for the train to make a full stop. When he felt it begin to slow, he simply jumped off the freight car as he had done hundreds of times before. With utter care for its safety, he tucked the small pottery against his chest, rolled down the soft ravine that abutted the tracks, and silently disappeared into the surrounding woods.
Watson Sr had left the train in the midst of the indefatigable hills of Arkansas. It was a hard land, and scarcely populated. Luckily, Watson Sr was as seasoned a survivalist as any frontier woodsman; and once the protecting trees had swallowed his shadow, and the train had gone on chugging down the tracks, completely oblivious of what had transpired during its journey, he was as good as gone. Armed with his knives, satchel, and the genie vessel, Watson Sr set off in search of a patch of woods that he could comfortably call his own.
It took more than a week of sleeping rough with only his worn greatcoat for protection from the cold nights before he came upon a forgotten trapper’s cabin buried deep in the unnamed Arkansas woods. The dilapidated structure was not a very impressive home, especially at first glance: the thatched roof had mostly caved in; the dirt floor was a mess of forgotten items and the old, brittle skeletons of dead animals; but the timbers that made up the structure were as hardy and sound as they had ever been.
Searching around and within, Watson Sr put his reckoning on the structure having been there for fifty years or more. When he spied a few ancient and forgotten snares, as well as some other telltale odds and ends, his intuition told him that the place had not seen human habitation for years. With his newly found trapping supplies, which were old but still usable, he knew he could make a comfortable living as a woodsman and hermit for as long as he wished to.
Never one to court the inevitable fruits of sloth, Watson Sr immediately began the work of setting up the cabin as a proper dwelling for himself. A small and clean brook ran near the structure, and game was plentiful. Within a couple days of arriving, he had cleaned the hearth-pit, started a blazing fire, and cut new thatching for the roof. Then, once he felt settled and secure in his ability to carry on with life regardless of what did or did not happen with the purple genie; then and only then, did he pull the small pottery from the battered shelf where it had waited for just the right day to be opened.
As Watson Sr felt the small pottery that held the purple bottle conjurer firm and real in his hands, he knew with salivating surety exactly what his first wish would be. For a moment, he thought about wishing for a big plate of butter-fried biscuits with sausage gravy; a good, strong cup of coffee with heavy cream; a crisp, flaky myrtleberry and blueberry cobbler with whipped cream; and a good bottle of whiskey for dessert. It was a hugely tempting thought, and his near-empty belly growled with want. But, his better mind ruled against food, and in favor of patience.
When he uncorked the small, plain pottery, he chose to make his first spoken wish the best one. The purple genie had barely materialized from the bottle before Watson Sr began speaking. The genie listened as his new master’s mouth struggled to form the only awkward syllables his injuries would allow. It did not matter to the purple bottle conjurer though. He could speak every language, and read the thoughts of those nearby, and he was not surprised by the request. The purple genie simply asked, “Is that your wish?”, and accepted Watson Sr’s slight nod as confirmation of a wish spent
To the purple bottle conjurer, it seemed that almost every time he was released by a new master, the wish was always the same: money, and lots of it. In Watson Sr’s case, he wanted a more specific type of perpetuating wealth. He had asked to be one of the richest men in the world, and he also wanted to own the railroads. Rather than taking this request as the intention of two separate and distinct wishes, the genie heard a means and an end. It was easier when a new master supplied the why and how, rather than leaving it to the bottle conjurer’s discretion how best to fulfill such a wish.
In any way possible, a genie always wanted to hide his influence in human affairs. Keeping the genie’s meddling hidden from others, lest he be discovered, was also foremost in the mind of most masters, which suited bottle conjurers just fine. Money wishes were almost always first. They were also the hardest, and often caused genies to roll their otherworldly, bright eyes. Any expediency in this matter, be it thought or spoken word, was taken by a genie for granted.
After all, the moment a wish was spoken, a bottle conjurer knew that the latest master was not the long hoped-for, winning lottery ticket. He knew it was just another in an endless succession of evil-hearted, greedy masters who would always, and had always, asked for money, or sometimes love, first. In point of fact, the hardest thing for a genie to produce while hiding the means of its production was great wealth.
Bottle conjurers feared very little; interminable and immortal as they were. But, while no bottle conjurer could be pulled apart by mortal hands; nor could their vessel be destroyed; nor their foot moved; an immediate onslaught of endless wishes by a clear succession of known masters (who had witnessed a magical opportunity, and lined up for the pleasure) could cause a genie to shortly exhaust his powers, and merely wither away in his vessel, unable even to appear.
Inevitably, the genie’s vessel would then be discarded as useless rubbish. Then, there would be no hope of freedom for the bottle conjurer, possibly not ever. In the small world of genies, peace could only be found in the spans of time between masters, when their vesseled life contained little hope of freedom. But, being released posed a sweet risk: it meant that their presence might be discovered by the masses, which could result in a “genie death,” or near enough to it.
Therefore, upon being released, the uppermost thought in the mind of any genie was hiding his own, magical hand in things. When a new master did come along, and allow the bottle conjurer to gasp fresh air, sometimes for the first time in a hundred years, the very next mortal breath would be used to ask for the near-impossible, at least in human terms.
Over millennia, there had been very few exceptions to this rule. People always wanted fantastic feats of magic: the ascendency of great wealth, the attainment of great love, the vanquishing of enemies and sea monsters, the summoning of storms, the striking down of otherwise innocent souls; the means to cross the seas - bottle conjurers had heard them all, and were never surprised by the stupid short-sightedness of their masters. It was a continual saga, an endless cliche; and, for Watson Sr, it was about to unfold in his own life.
In that first moment aboard the train, while he still existed as the possession of the gambling brakeman, the purple genie had seen Watson Sr’s primal and cruel nature, and understood it. He even liked it, or at least as much as a genie could ever like anything about a new master. Regardless, it was natural to follow that the immediate results of Watson Sr’s first wish looked much the same as for anyone else. It was an old trick, and a favorite among bottle conjurers. Diamonds and gem stones were easy for a bottle conjurer to produce, and their origins were almost always cloaked in mystery, which made them tantalizingly untraceable.
Almost as soon as he had nodded his head in assent, Watson Sr felt his pockets fill with small, sharp objects which poked irritatingly into his thighs. He jammed his hands into his pockets as well as he could, and found himself holding two fistfuls of sparkling diamonds. His front pockets filled again, and diamonds also poured from the pockets of his greatcoat, where it hung from an old fishing hook by the door. Immediately, Watson Sr knelt down to scoop up the flashing diamonds, and stuff them in the old leather satchel. He did not feel safe to look around the cabin until they were all safely hidden.
When he stood up, he could not help but feel abashed for hoarding his wealth away from the sight of ghosts, for truly there was no one else to see. Agog at the majesty of the moment, Watson Sr had almost been unaware that his back pocket was also straining against the heavy wool fabric of his pants. Amidst the roiling turbulence of diamonds, which had poured forth so gloriously from his pockets to decorate the dirt floor; Watson Sr’s weathered, empty bill fold had also sprung out of its pocket, fallen to the earthen floor, and filled to overflowing with dozens of crisp, snappy new dollar bills in every denomination.
Overjoyed, Watson Sr pulled the money out of the bill fold and stared dumbly at the riches he held. Diamonds were a peripheral delight only because they were unfamiliar; he had never actually seen one before. Cash, on the other hand, was something he understood very well, and it was more cash than he’d ever seen. He had little knowledge of the higher numbers, but he knew enough to know it was more money than anything he’d ever heard of.
He decided right then what his new name would be. Earl Watson, the headman, rarely gave him a cent, no matter how hard he worked. And, holding more money than Earl Watson had ever had, he knew that he was now Watson Sr. He was a better and richer man than the cruel and abusive headman could ever have been. But, it was not over, the well-spring of bills kept coming even after Watson Sr had stuffed them all in a buckled side-pocket of the worn satchel.
Each time he removed the money from his billfold, it filled with even more new bills. From that time forward, his wallet sprouted money like grass growing wild in a sunny field. However, the railroad business was a little more tricky to work out. Firstly, he needed to leave his cabin in the woods. In fact, the purple genie had instructed him that he would need to leave the woods entirely and head to Cincinnati, Ohio. Watson Sr had no real idea where he was, but he knew he needed to head North and East.
It took five months of traveling alone on foot through dark and perilous woods to reach Cincinnati. The whole while he took care to avoid other people, which meant avoiding all the main highways and byways. Traveling alone through the rugged landscapes took its toll, but Watson Sr finally made it. Cincinnati was a bigger city than Watson Sr had ever spent time in before. After checking into a fine hotel, which had required handing over a fistful of high bills to silence the disapproving proprietor’s concerns about admitting such a dirty and uncouth traveler as himself, Watson Sr retired to his room.
He slept, and he slept for a long time. Then, he bathed and shaved, and used every drop of all the available potions to make himself smell wonderfully good, which actually resulted in a sweetly skunky smell that overwhelmed his small room, but Watson Sr did not mind. However, the proprietor of the hotel, Herman Greatrex, crinkled his nose and rolled his eyes as an odoriferous and poorly-dressed Watson Sr made his way through the decorous lobby and on to the restaurant. Watson Sr was starving, and once inside and seated, he pointed out every item on the menu to the waiter, as well as the best bottle of whiskey in the bar. A tall glass of water filled with ice and lemon and kept fresh from one of the silverplate decanters being carried around the room completed his repast.
After several hours, contentedly full of steak and shrimp and lobster, Watson Sr felt pleased and happy. But, when the waiter refused to give him a second bottle of whiskey, Watson Sr pushed back from the table so hard that the table wobbled, and the many glasses and candles fell over. He threw two hundred-dollar bills onto the mess, stormed out of the restaurant, and returned to his room.
Herman Greatrex watched him ascend the stairs, and then went into the restaurant to survey the mess. The waiter held up the two high bills, which were soaked in water, and Herman Greatrex snatched them from the startled man’s hand. Content that no real damage had been done, Herman Greatrex stuffed the money in his pocket, and went back to his desk, leaving his staff to tidy up the mess.
After his meal and whiskey, Watson Sr slept for an additional two days before he arose on the third morning, and readied himself for a day of shopping. There was much to be done. His first order of business was to go to a decent store and buy himself a new suit, such as a proper businessman might wear. He had already taken off his handkerchief, tossed it in a rubbish bin, and then felt surprised at how easy it was to be rid of it. Everywhere he went, people treated him like he already owned the railroad, even though all he had done was make a wish, follow the genie’s instructions, and return to civilization.
The time for him to dress in the best and wait at the train station was fast approaching. Watson Sr had no earthly idea of who was coming, or why, but he was not about to question the purple bottle conjurer’s instructions. However, before he made his preparations to meet the mystery person at the train station, he had one more important concern to deal with. Even though the genie was conveniently hidden in an unremarkable and common piece of pottery, Watson Sr worried that someone might try to steal it. Therefore, hiding his prize was uppermost in his thoughts. To that end, he hunted dozens of shops in downtown Cincinnati looking for the perfect and most eminently portable hiding place for his bottle conjurer.
At first, Watson Sr was uncertain how to accomplish this end. He looked at hat boxes, cigar boxes, valises, pistol holsters, suitcases, jewelry boxes, and small steel safes, but somehow they all seemed wrong to him. He was about to give up on finding the perfect, discreet hiding place until he entered the most unlikely of places for an unlettered vagabond like himself: a bookstore. Once inside, his nostrils were overwhelmed by the musty smells of old paper and the sharp pungency of fresh ink, but he knew he had come to the right place. Instantly, an idea dawned; he found the single largest book in the store, and purchased it.
The book he had fallen upon for his choice was a copy of Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy by Henry George. Watson Sr had been looking for a fat book with a long title, and it was by far the fattest book with the longest title in the bookstore. It really made no difference what the book was about; he had no intention of reading it. In fact, he could not read it. His impoverished childhood had held no room for such needless luxuries as the acquisition of letters and numbers.
In fact, it was the first time Watson Sr had ever actually had occasion to open a book, and the letters seemed to him like insect legs knitted across the pages and gathered into thick webs of unknown meaning; the letter forms put him ill at ease, so he shut the book quickly, and gave it not another thought. Except later when he returned to his hotel room, and began hulling out the precious pages to make a secret chamber in which to hide his genie vessel.
The very next day at the appointed time, Watson Sr sat in the train station, dressed in his new best suit, while the book safe sat soundly on the bench seat right next to him. While he waited, he let his large, calloused fingers drift lazily over the smooth leather binding. The presence of the book safe was strangely comforting, but he also knew that once his three wishes were spent, the small pottery contained within it would only hold certain doom for him, just like everyone else who had ever possessed it.
Watson Sr had no idea who he was waiting for, and he ground his large, square teeth in anticipation. But, he did not have to wait long. A well-dressed, middle-aged, very nondescript, sandy-haired gentleman disembarked from the afternoon train, and made a beeline for Watson Sr. But, momentarily, it was clear that the nondescript man was drawn to the book safe much more so than to Watson Sr, who was the only other occupant on the otherwise empty bench seat.
Without speaking a word, the nondescript man sat down opposite Watson Sr on the bench seat, so that the book safe rested between them. The man’s eyes caressed the book safe, and then his fingers instinctively leapt from his pockets to hold it until Watson Sr, seeing his intention, snatched the precious book safe away.
“That is it, isn’t it? It’s inside the book, is it not?” the well-dressed, nondescript, sandy-haired man asked.
Watson Sr craned his neck to look around and reassure himself that no one else would overhear what was said. But, the train station was still mostly empty, and those few milling about seemed to be of no interested, and so he answered with a decisive nod of the head. The nondescript man then stood up from the bench before setting himself down on one knee, and lowering his eyes dramatically as if he knelt before a king. Watson Sr was aghast, but no one in the station took undo notice.
“If that is the case then, sir, I am here to serve you in any way I might. My name is Robert Young, and I am 53 years old. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and I have been practicing law for thirty years. Moreover, I specialize in the concerns of industry, specifically the railroad industry. I began my career as a telegraph operator for Western Union. My elite natural acuity for Morse code, and its attendant apparatus, helped me to become what I’m sure you’ve heard spoken of as a ‘smooth operator.’ This distinction opened many doors for me, including the door to law school.
“Twenty-some-odd years ago, I came into possession of the purple genie, but he abandoned me when my wishes were spent, or misspent, as happened in my particular case. Now, I am a servant of the genie; a mortal intermediary, if you will. But, for you, sir, it means that I am, in point of fact, your slave to command as you will, just the same as the genie. You are the new master of the purple genie, and such is my fate. I have been called to your aid after ten years of silence. I shall serve you to the very best of my abilities until my death, or until your wishes are spent, whichever comes first.”
Not being able to easily form words, and not knowing what else to do, Watson Sr tapped Robert Young on the shoulder, and indicated that he should rise. Shortly thereafter, the two men left the station, and went to Watson Sr’s hotel. It was there that they began making plans for how to expedite the presumption of his power over the railroads into actual and manifested fact.
From that day until his last day, Robert Young was by Watson Sr’s side. As Robert Young came to understand Watson Sr’s muteness, he endeavored to learn sign language, which he then taught Watson Sr, and later taught his family and servants. Almost more valuable to Watson Sr than learning sign language was hearing Robert Young talk about his experiences with the purple genie. However, Watson Sr never did ask Robert Young about his first wish, and the lawyer never chose to share this information of his own accord, which Watson Sr later always regretted.
Watson Sr supposed that he could have demanded to know, but he enjoyed the friendship they had too much to insist. What he did learn was that Robert Young was very mistrustful about the tricky nature of bottle conjurers. It was clear that he resented his experience of being the master of the purple genie, and felt that he had been cheated.
In fact, Robert Young spoke bitterly about the purple genie, and said that he had “wasted” his second wish moving the foot of the purple genie from an ancient oil lamp into the small pottery in which it resided. The lawyer expressed that he had been suspicious that moving the foot of the purple genie to a much more convenient, and unremarkable, vessel might cost a wish, since it appeared to be a magical action, and not something the genie would naturally do.
Robert Young then shared that he had not worried very much about losing his second wish because he had a plan in mind for his final wish. But, he had been deceived in his ignorance. His plan to use his final wish to request more wishes had backfired. Such a wish was what he termed a “false wish” which, once spoken, forfeits the wish. Or, in Robert Young’s case, his possession of the purple bottle conjurer entirely. He had been so angry to discover this fact that he had then done everything in his power to destroy the vessel, but had not even managed to crack the small pottery.
Frustrated, and not wishing to ever see the small pottery again, Robert Young had impulsively thrown the vessel from the window of a moving train. It was the last he had heard of the purple genie until he was summoned to Watson Sr’s side. Genies, he explained, are evil, manipulative creatures who are happy to see their masters “lose” their wishes.
These conversations about genies were very few and far between. Watson Sr knew that his questions upset Robert Young, so he did not ask often. Mostly, the pressing matters of business, as well as Watson Sr’s personal interests, dominated their communications. It did not take long for Robert Young to become completely indispensable to him. In addition to helping him buy up bankrupt rail lines, and consolidate them underneath a single corporate umbrella, Robert Young was instrumental in helping secure Watson Sr’s engagement to Ophelia Eufalla Hudson.
Robert Young’s expertise and hard work shortly made Watson Sr a very influential and wealthy man. Within a decade, Watson Sr was not only the head of many disparate rail lines spread throughout the country, but also the master of a richly-profitable industrial empire, which included interests in steel, timber, and coal. All was well until Watson Sr perceived, with rising alarm, that automobiles were becoming more and more common. It did not take long before he began to fear that the railroads, and his empire, might fall by the wayside to accommodate this new, more popular mode of travel.
In response to these fears, he, Robert Young, and a number of brilliant engineers began brainstorming ways to revolutionize their expensive coal combustion systems into cheaper, cleaner, more modern and powerful forms of combustible power. After several years of experiments and trials, they were ready to test their new engine prototype inside of a real train. It was supposed to be one of the greatest days of Watson Sr’s life.
Everyone involved had been excited to test the new, cleaner-burning, nitroglycerin-fueled combustion engine. Instead, it was the day that Watson Sr almost lost everything. Before the day was out, he had lost his only friend, lawyer, and confidant, as well as his second wish. It had started out as a perfect day. The weather was warm and agreeable. Everyone who had gathered together for the test -Watson Sr, Robert Young, the conductor, and a dozen engineers and scientists- were full of high, good hopes.
Years later, even when sitting perfectly still in absolute safety, Watson Sr could still feel the terrible pressure of the moment when everything had gone wrong. For a scant second, there had been a catch in the breathable air, and a terrible sense of foreboding had overtaken him. Then, almost at once, came the slow, awful, bass-heavy rumble that vibrated the train car in which they all stood. Everyone looked around in consternation, fear, and wonder, but there had been no room to move in the packed train car. The sound had quickly accelerated in pitch to a dire, high-pitched scream, and everyone aboard had instinctively covered their ears.
In the next moment, quarter-pound bolts began bursting off the igneous-red, pig-iron engine like bullets. The first bolt to pop off hit Robert Young straight in the forehead. The top of his head exploded like a plugged cannon, live on the battlefield, and sabotaged by enemy soldiers. Robert Young was dead before his body hit the steel deck of the train car. Then, everything happened in motions so slow it felt to Watson Sr that time was miming its own passing. In truth, everything happened faster than a mortal mind could account for it.
Stunned and frozen to his spot on the platform of the train car, Watson Sr’s eyes seized on the perilous experimental engine. The black iron surface of the fire-box began to expand as volcanic veins of orange and red fire shot through the exterior. In moments, the colors shifted again, radiating past a deep and dangerous red, and into an unearthly silver-white-yellow color.
For the scarcest second, the assembled men held each other in a dead man’s gaze, their eyes wild and panicked with pupils so large they eclipsed the irises. An incandescent cloud filled the air with tiny crystals fused from oxygen particles in the melting heat. But there had been no time to embrace panic. In the next moment, a whoosh of skin-crackling heat enrobed them all in fire until their flailing bodies were completely swallowed in a fiery cascade of blazing flames.
However, Watson Sr stood, rooted to the spot, just inches outside the open door of the train car. He watched the smoke curl and billow, growing larger every second, like some great grey and black and sparkling silver monster which swallowed his friends, consumed their writhing, screaming bodies, and finally incinerated them to white ash. By mere inches, he was held safe from its fiery reach.
But the smoke monster, for Watson Sr could never again think of what he had witnessed without giving it some kind of identity and intention, picked him up and blew him backwards off the platform as if he were no more substantial than a pile of loose hay. Whether he really remembered the details of the inferno, or flying weightless through the air, or whether it was just an amalgamation of fever dreams which stood for memory, Watson Sr would never truly know.
He only remembered flying, powerless and terrified, away from the smoke monster before everything went dark. It had been a surprise to wake up at all. When he did wake up, the first thing he noticed was the pain. His whole body was racked with waves upon waves of excruciating pain. Both of his legs were broken. He had landed atop them with such inhuman force that both his knee caps had snapped backwards out of their sockets. Woefully, he was laid out on the ground with his feet torqued akimbo underneath the weight of his torso. In addition, his right arm was similarly kinked by fractures, and a sharp fragment of bone protruded from where his elbow had once been.
Underneath a large pine tree, more than a hundred feet from where he had stood, strongly and confidently, with his weight evenly balanced above the tongues of his steel-toed work boots, Watson Sr lay in a careless heap like a crumpled piece of origami. Blood poured out of his wounds, and bones protruded through his skin like the quills of a porcupine. He was no longer human, he was bright-eyed and scorched; just a thing of pain.
His skin burned with an awful fury, and seemed to crack when his mind commanded the muscles of his face, or his good left hand, to move. His clothes had also been blown off by the fiery tempest, and his skin was flash-fried and charred by the heat, leaving him entirely red and black, blistered and burning. Hoarsely, a war cry of horror tried to erupt from his raw throat, but it choked on the slim moisture in the air, leaving him hoarse and coughing. Half his teeth were shattered to sharp fragments in his mouth and, within his chest, Watson Sr could feel that several ribs were broken.
He was having trouble breathing, and a small hissing sound accompanied every painful breath. Watson Sr was sure that the sound and the sharp heaviness in his chest meant that he had punctured a lung. Death loomed near. It was all he could see or sense or feel. There was nothing else. To his narrow, clouded vision, the world was barely discernible. Everything was consumed by dark shadows whose edges were lit in a strange palette of yellow, orange, and red spheres.
Horrified, he realized that one of his eyes had been knocked out and lolled, rolling about, low on his cheek, only held in place by scarlet veins and stringy viscera. It was the final confirmation of certainty. Watson Sr knew, as well as he had ever known anything, that he was dying. Then, he remembered his satchel, and the vessel of the purple genie. It was the same satchel that he had taken from the brakeman on the night when he claimed the purple bottle conjurer. A long time before, it had held his bounty of diamonds, but since then it had been re-purposed to hold the book safe.
However, the satchel was gone, completely destroyed by the inferno. All that remained was the leather strap, which was warped, and fire-emblazoned. But, somehow, the completely blackened and burning, nearly-destroyed book safe had landed atop what was left of the old, sturdy, leather strap, about midway down its remaining length. Watson Sr could not turn his head well, but he stretched out his good left arm as far as he could manage. It was only a scant few inches, but it was enough.
He felt the worn leather strap beneath his fingers, and with his last bits of strength he pulled what was left of the charred book safe to his side. The book safe fell open, seemingly of its own accord. Then, the purple genie’s vessel rolled out, perfectly intact, and right into his palm. Watson Sr struggled to pry the stopper out between his thumb and forefinger. Then, just as everything started to go completely black, a bright cloud of sparkling white mist poured out.
Watson Sr could hardly distinguish the purple genie from the thick shroud of silvery-white smoke, but he knew he was saved. He spoke only a few garbled, breathy syllables: “‘Elp ‘e ‘ow.” It was enough.
The purple genie asked, “Is that your wish?”
Watson Sr gave the barest nod of his head, and made a yes that sounded like the long hiss of a deflating balloon: “‘Sssss...”
When he awoke several hours later, Watson Sr knew that he was healed, but that he had also paid a terrible and unexpected price. His best engineers were dead, his scientists were dead, his conductor was dead, and worst of all, his irreplaceable friend and lawyer, Robert Young, was dead. Watson Sr stood up, as whole in mind and body as when he’d awoken that morning, and surveyed the destruction that had ended his latest dream for the rail lines. He’d never expected the day to end as it had, or that the toll could be so high. Of course, he had known that what they were working on was dangerous. He’d heard the warnings, and chosen to ignore them.
Watson Sr had always carried the purple bottle conjurer around with him like a lucky rabbit’s foot, thinking it would ensure him good luck even beyond his betokened wishes. But, it was not a four-leaf clover. It was a genie. And genies only hunger for freedom from their own imprisonment. To a genie, the sooner each master spent their three wishes and dispossessed themselves of the vessel, the sooner the bottle conjurer could hope for a new chance to be free.
As Watson Sr untangled his newly-healed limbs, breathed through healed lungs, felt his teeth strong and square with his tongue, searched the horizon with two working eyes, and found that everything about his physical person was sound, he at first felt relief, but then all he could feel was anger. He had had a very specific plan for his second wish. He hated that he had been forced to spend it early, even if it meant saving his own life. After that awful day, Watson Sr always considered his second wish to be a “stolen wish.”
It was the only requiem for that day. The locomotive, or what was left of it, was hauled off the demolished tracks, and into an industrial warehouse. The other victims were buried with all due and proper ceremony. His wife, Ophelia Eufalla Watson, went to each funeral service, since Watson Sr staunchly refused to go to any of them. Despite her pleas, he was unreachable, even to her, and would only agree to send her along with huge and gaudy flower arrangements that each had a small square of white linen paper attached, which was signed “W.”
On the business side, his lawyers and accountants handled the fallout of the explosion, so that the inconvenience of it all barely touched him. It was perfectly natural to avoid all the unpleasantness, or so Watson Sr believed of his behavior. After all, no one would ever think that he could have survived an explosion that left a twenty-foot, soot-blackened crater in the earth where a train car had once been, and he did not wish to disabuse them of that notion.
As well as anyone knew, he was out on his boat that day, and that was just fine. Technically, he had not even been meant to be there. Robert Young was an acceptable proxy for anything requiring high-level approval. Besides, his most-trusted conductor, as well as his best scientists and engineers were there to measure the results of the fire-box test, so there really was no reason for his presence.
In fact, Robert Young had not even known that Watson Sr would show up for the test; and his mouth had turned down in a distinct frown when he had spotted his master strolling up to the crowded train car just minutes before the appointed time. But, that had been no matter to him, Watson Sr did not answer to his lawyer, or anyone else.
On occasion, in the years to follow, Watson Sr would enumerate his age by subtracting the number of years he had been at the time of the explosion. His age was one thing that he could always reckon fairly, since he had been born on the last day of the great Battle of Gettysburg. Somewhere in his heart, he knew the years since the explosion were all years he should never have had.
It was a familiar and distressing feeling, especially since it was exactly the same one he’d had when he had escaped his early life in Gettysburg. Peripherally, Watson Sr was grateful for all the stolen years of his life, since they had been stolen from the maw of a fiery beast, but he could not reign in his resentment continued over having lost a wish.
And so it was that in the years following the explosion, Watson Sr watched with an unexpectedly heavy heart as his flock of seven, fine, golden sons became young men. His heart could find no joy when each day it seemed more obvious that none of them would ever possess the toughness, fire, or ruthlessness necessary to follow in his formidable footsteps.
After years of fretting, Watson Sr finally knew that something would have to be done. So, as his eldest son departed for boarding school, Watson Sr unleashed the purple genie, and spent his final wish on an eighth son. However, he had said no more than this. He simply assumed that the purple genie would fill in any unspoken blanks as perfectly as it had always done before. Watson Sr never stopped to think that genies are chimerical, and moved by their own agendas. He never stopped to think that he was taking a bottle conjurer for granted.
In due course, Watson Sr’s third wish resulted in Ophelia Eufalla’s beloved Jonathan Andrew, who was the biggest disappointment of all, and whose birth heralded the beginning of many unexpected problems with his wife. No matter how much he might have wished for it to be different, Watson Sr was never able to look at his slight and premature eighth child without feeling profound anger and brutal frustration over his final, wasted wish.
It was thus now that the genie vessel had become as useless and cumbersome as an unused paperweight, but in the years since the fateful explosion, Watson Sr had kept the bottle conjurer in a new book safe, a burnished leather and gilt-edged first edition of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It was another book which he had never bothered to open except to hull out the precious pages. The new book safe was a good, secret place for the small, defunct pottery, and all the heavy secrets it held. But, for the life of him, Watson Sr could not figure out what on earth to do with the thing. He wanted to be rid of it, but he knew that getting rid of it might cause him some very real problems.
As near as he could figure, the best he could do was hold on to it until he was very old, or just pitch it overboard from his boat, or maybe a combination of both just to be extra sure. He knew the perfect spot too, and pictured it often. Just off the coast of Nova Scotia lay his favorite fishing grounds. And then one night, while Ophelia Eufalla, heavily pregnant with their ninth child, slept Watson Sr awoke from the most wonderfully vivid dream of sharking.
In the summer and fall, the waters off Freeport, Nova Scotia, were fairly teaming with blue sharks and makos of all sizes. It was when their migratory patterns brought them to the dreary edge of cold, coastal Canada to feed on herring, cod, haddock, tuna, and other assorted pelagic fish. In his dream, the cobalt-blue waters were alive with dolphins chasing the wake from his favorite schooner. And a crying cacophony from droves of grey-and-white seagulls filled his ears.
Just off deck, the majestic waters were churned frothy white from multitudes of blues and makos, the occasional whitetip, or brown shark, and the constant, wild movements of their ever-trolling fins and tails. Watson Sr could almost feel the weight of the harpoon in his right hand, and the fine heft of his fishing spear in his left. He could picture no greater harpooner’s delight; it was the oceanic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.
For the previous two months, he had been staying close to Ophelia Eufalla as her time drew near. They had taken up residence in their Manhattan penthouse to be near her doctors, and the hospital. Watson Sr had promised himself that he would stay put, and not go anywhere until the child was born. But, after waking in an excited fever from his seagoing dream, he could no longer resist the call of the open water. At 3:30 am, he had slipped out of bed as quietly and stealthily as he could manage.
Luckily, Ophelia Eufalla was a heavy sleeper, and she did not stir. Not waking the cats, however, was a different matter. Seven cats lounged on their massive, soft bed, mostly in the space between them. Ophelia Eufalla loved cats, and they had many, many cats, but only her favorite black cat, Storm (for they had found him by the side of the road during a miserable storm), awoke as Watson Sr placed a soft kiss goodbye on Ophelia Eufalla’s untroubled forehead.
Storm looked up at him with solemn, inquisitive, yellow eyes, as if to ask the question his sleeping mistress could not. Watson Sr had given Storm a gentle scratch behind his ears, and the kitty closed his eyes, purring contentedly. Ophelia Eufalla still had not awoken, so he stole out of the bedroom on tiptoes, and began gathering everything he would need for a short nautical adventure. In his head, he heard the doctor’s voice confirming that they ought to have at least three weeks left before she delivered.
However, the doctor was not without his concerns, mostly due to her age and the difficulties of Jonathan Andrew’s premature birth. But later, after the appointment, when they were alone, Ophelia Eufalla had looked into Watson Sr’s concerned eyes, and granted him a bland, but contented smile, and patted his hand reassuringly. Still, as the doctor’s words and warnings played in his head, Watson Sr reassured himself that he would not be gone much more than two weeks. He just needed a week or so to get a few new sets of shark jaws for his office, maybe even land a ten-footer or two.
On his way out of the Manhattan penthouse, Watson Sr woke up only a single hall boy, Andrew, the chauffeur’s apprentice, to drive him. The hall boy had been sleeping deeply, snoring quietly but regularly, on a light pallet in the main hall. A swift kick to his tailbone had quickly woken him up. Leaning in close to Andrew’s face, Watson Sr had held a finger to his lips to indicate silence. Watson Sr did not want any fuss, and the boy had jumped to his feet, pulling on his trousers, shoes, and shirt as he followed his employer through the darkened apartment.
As quietly as he possibly could, Watson Sr had loaded his and the hall boy’s arms full of tackle and gear, food and liquor. Then, the two had made their way down to the car without waking another soul. Only the doorman raised a questioning eyebrow as they walked out of the building. Watson Sr only kept one of his many cars in the city: his newest, jet-black Alco Berline limousine. It wasn’t custom-made like many of his others, but it was the most stylish and expensive automobile that could be had at any price, which made it perfect for New York City.
As was his habit, Watson Sr had a plan for the day. He intended that none of his staff should be alerted to his absence until Andrew returned with the Alco Berline limousine later that day. It was foolish, Watson Sr knew, sneaking off to his boat in the middle of the night like that. But, it was worth it. His dream had not lied. The waters off Nova Scotia were chock full of sharks. After four days of sailing, Watson Sr had put in to port at Freeport, Nova Scotia. As was his custom, he bought all new supplies, and most importantly, he had filled his large, traveling iceboxes with precious pounds of cold ice.
Watson Sr then spent seven days in full fishing splendor. The warm Northern Atlantic summer sun warmed his back as he worked, and he had enjoyed two quiet days of drinking beer and whiskey while fishing for cod from his folding summer chair on the deck of his schooner. It was not until his third day on the open water that he chose to gather his harpoons and spears, and chop the leftover cod into chum. For five days, he sharked, but only landed one fine specimen late in the afternoon of the last day.
Then early the next morning, his high spirits were dashed when he received an urgent telegram saying that Ophelia Eufalla had been admitted to the hospital. As soon as he received the telegram, Watson Sr began throwing things together in a disorganized series of panicked preparations to set sail for home. Unfortunately, sailing the large schooner was easily a two-person affair, although he preferred to crew it by himself. Normally, this was no obstacle for a practiced and knowledgeable sailor like himself, as long as he kept a leisurely pace; but, in his desperation to get home, Watson Sr knew that there would be no time to eat or sleep until his schooner was safely back in its slip in the Newport marina.
He thought of his catch: a single twelve-foot blue shark. Usually, he used the ice that he kept aboard to keep his shark teeth and jaws preserved. Watson Sr had planned to use the morning to chop the prized jaws out of the animal’s head with a hacksaw before disposing of the toothless corpse by rolling it overboard to disappear beneath the waves. But, Watson Sr had no time to disassemble his catch. Instead, he stuffed the smelly corpse with all the ice it would hold, covered it with a tarpaulin, and set sail.
Three-and-a-half days later, Watson Sr put into port at Newport, Rhode Island. When his driver, Arnold, came upon him, Watson Sr was on the long dock, furiously hacking away, alternately with a hatchet and a hand saw, to extract the jaws of his only kill. It was a gruesome sight, and the driver had momentarily gone green. He hesitated to come too close, even to issue a proper greeting to his employer, for fear that the flying, red clots of capillaries or the ejected, bloody remnants of burst veins might rocket his way.
As it was, the stench was nearly impassible, and Arnold held his nose against the awful odors of old kelp, stagnant sea water, and rotten fish which came close to overwhelming his senses. He felt a strong urge to void the contents of his stomach over the side of the dock. However, he had been in Watson Sr’s service for a long time, and he had seen other men be fired for less. Watson Sr did not like weakness in any form, so Arnold held his breath, and hoped that his employer had not noticed the fleeting expression of disgust that had contorted his features.
Luckily, Watson Sr was too involved in ripping his bloody catch apart to pay his bland driver any mind. Once he had made enough deep, bloody depressions, he tore the valued jaws from their bindings of sinew and cartilage with one great, sweeping rip. When he was done, he rolled the empty sleeve of rough, mutilated skin off the dock, leaving a river of blood dripping into the water. Watson Sr then removed his thick, wire-rimmed spectacles, and knelt down to splash his face with cool, clean sea water from the other side of the dock.
The effort was almost moot; only his face and hands came away any cleaner than they had been before. Not caring that his cable-knit wool sweater, suspendered ‘long galoshes’, and rubber boots were far more bloodied than unbloodied, Watson Sr wrapped the jaws in a clean corner of a large burlap square; then, he wound the rest of the rough fabric round and round until the whole package was rather like a large, swaddled brown egg.
“A fine catch, sir! Those jaws will be an excellent addition to your collection!” Arnold exclaimed.
Watson Sr brushed by him with the smelly bundle tucked under his arm. He made no other acknowledgement of his driver, except to shoulder him aside. Arnold nearly wound up in the chilly shallows before recovering his balance, and quickly realized that he had been remiss.
There was no room for Watson Sr to walk side by side with another person down a platform as narrow as a standard dock, especially when toting his customary brown leather satchel, as well as a large blue shark’s jaws. Quickly, Arnold hurried to match, and then overtake his employer’s long, quick strides down the remaining length of the dock to where his favorite, wine-red Studebaker limousine was parked.
Arnold had almost caught up to Watson Sr in time to open the door to the passenger compartment, but his employer continued forward, and slung the bloody bundle of burlap-wrapped jaws shotgun onto the driver’s bench. Arnold crinkled his nose, suddenly not caring if Watson Sr saw. It was going to be a long and smelly ride back to the city, and then straight on to the taxidermist.
A long day indeed, Arnold thought, as he hurriedly rearranged his features to a practiced and precise impassiveness, as was his duty. Watson Sr wiped down his rubberized, suspendered “long galoshes” with an old towel he had slung around his neck when he’d stopped to procure the clean burlap from the deck of the ship. He then dropped the dirty towel to the ground, and Arnold quickly pulled open the passenger door before Watson Sr had the chance to wait.
Without wasting a motion of effort or time, Watson Sr, with all the grace of a dancing bear, ducked his head and climbed into the back. The tires of the limousine deflated slightly as he settled his weight into the claret red, velvet-festooned passenger compartment. On the seat, there was a paper bag of fresh summer cherries; his traveling Louis Vuitton trunk with its Waterford tumblers and decanter; two velvet-bagged bottles resting on the floorboards; and a wooden tray with fresh bread and honey-sweetened, whipped butter in a small bowl; just as he had requested.
All in all, the car was ready for his journey to the city. Inwardly, Watson Sr was pleased to see this, although outwardly he gave no sign. After all, he was exhausted, hungry, and stinking of old blood, sweat, and sea brine. He was in no mood for pleasantries and, sensing this, Arnold quickly shut the door. Sometimes, Arnold would get a small sign of approval but on this day, none seemed forthcoming.
It was not terribly surprising to him; it had already been a disastrous morning. From the moment before dawn when a knock came at his chamber door, Arnold had known that the whole day would go amiss. The driver had already been consumed with worry about his mistress, Ophelia Eufalla, since the day she had gone into an early and protracted labor.
Ever since, Arnold had been splitting his time between the hospital and the Watson’s penthouse while he waited anxiously for word of Watson Sr’s return home. That morning, he’d had an inkling as he opened his chamber door and saw a panicked maid standing there and saying in a tense whisper that an urgent telegram had come through the private line.
Arnold had frowned deeply as he unfolded the neatly folded sheet of paper. The maid, satisfied with his curt nod of reply, had departed quickly down the darkened hall at a double quick time pace. In his hand, the telegram firstly stated that Watson Sr was steaming his schooner home at a quick pace, and that the wind was with him.
Other than that, the telegram was simply a list of demands, and a telling number of hours. Arnold could almost hear the clock starting to tick-tock, tick-tock. He further scanned the list and felt thoroughly daunted, but unsurprised, by its curt contents. It stated that his employer wanted fresh sweet cherries; a fresh bottle of his special favorite ‘whiskey’; and to be driven to the city in his old, red limousine.
In addition, he wanted warm bread and butter waiting in the car. Then, the telegram specified that he intended to put to port no later than noon. From years spent on the job, Arnold knew that this meant that he had precisely seven hours to do it all, and do it all perfectly. Watson Sr was always earlier than expected, and seemed to delight in taking his staff unawares.
Arnold walked briskly back to the bed, kissed his sleeping wife, and then began pulling his morning routine together as fast as he could. The only easy part of the list was going to be the bread and butter. Watson Sr would take any good loaf from a decent bakery, but he liked his butter softened, as well as honey-sweetened. It was fine and expected; and luckily, Arnold knew exactly where to go.
There was a little bakery not far from the marina in Newport. Arnold knew that all he needed to do was send a telegram to the Newport mansion, and have one of the maids make sure that the baker would have everything perfect, and ready at the appointed time. Then, there was very other chore that needed to be dealt with.
While sending the telegram to the Newport mansion, Arnold included instructions to have the old, red limousine pulled from the lesser garage. It needed to be polished to a high shine for its journey, as well as have a full tank of gas. Once the telegram was sent, Arnold knew that he would first journey to an out-of-the-way fruit stand in the city that always had the best, and often the only, sweet cherries to be found anywhere. Tart cherries were easier to come by, but were impassable to Watson Sr.
Then, there was the demand for the special bottle of ‘whiskey’, which was going to be the most difficult item to come by. It wasn’t even really whiskey; and it was a completely unsuitable choice of drink for his wealthy master, Arnold thought disparagingly. The special ‘whiskey’ was a brown bottle of unlabeled bootleg moonshine that Watson Sr had taken a liking to. Every time he had to procure a bottle of the rank stuff, Arnold always imagined it being brewed in some squalid barn in Kentucky.
Carloads of the stuff were only driven to the Northeast about every six months. Then, there were only a couple of seedy establishments that sold the bootleg ‘whiskey’. Tracking down one of those bottles could easily be an all-day adventure, so Arnold cursed his luck, and immediately made a plan to acquire one of the precious bottles, if one could be found at all.
A tense early morning turned into a frenzied late morning, and Arnold did not feel like he could take a deep breath until the limousine had merged onto the highway, and he could see Watson Sr tearing into the fresh loaf of bread like a starving thing in the rear view mirror. But, Arnold was still anxious; even warm bread and honey-butter were not guaranteed to make Watson Sr feel full and happy.
If his employer decided to be unhappy with any of the arrangements, he would let Arnold know by pounding on the glass that separated them; or, sometimes, by throwing the unsatisfactory item out of the window, or directly at Arnold once the car had stopped. Anxiously, Arnold watched his master, but Watson Sr did not seem inclined to throw one of his perilous fits.
In the rear view mirror, Arnold watched Watson Sr pull his leather satchel close to his chest. It was something Arnold knew his master did when he was nervous or upset, although he did not know why. But the only thing that really mattered was that Watson Sr seemed content to lose himself in his own thoughts, rather than on punishing his driver for yet another dark mood.
Whenever he felt uncertain, Watson Sr always held his new satchel close, like a security blanket. It had been that way ever since he had traveled through miles of untracked forest with only the worn, old leather satchel, which had held a huge wad of cash, hundreds of diamonds, and the purple bottle conjurer. The new satchel was, as each one had been since the original was destroyed, custom-made by an expert leather-worker.
Still, the new ones were never as alike to the original as he would have wished. They were simply too perfect. Watson Sr could not help himself, especially as he held the new satchel close to his heart; he missed the old, worn, reliable satchel that he had stolen from the long ago, and almost forgotten, brakeman. The blustering brakeman’s old leather satchel had been mottled and oil-stained and drool-softened from being used as a pillow; and, apparently, it could not be replicated at any price.
Watson Sr felt that the old satchel had been like him: weathered, and made sturdy by the withering scythes of time and abuse. In his opinion, the new, fancy satchels were nowhere near good enough to compete with the old one. They were only good enough for the useless book safe that now held his useless bottle conjurer. His newest high-priced satchel was made of the best leather and embossed with a fancy brand, and rested comfortably close to his heart.
It suited his rich life well, whereas the old one had elicited odd looks and many disparaging comments, especially from Ophelia Eufalla, who never understood why he held on to “the tacky, old thing.” However, as inappropriate as an old, battered satchel was for his new life, any of the new satchels would have been a complete liability in his old world: they were simply too valuable, and they would have stood out.
This was especially true when he had been traveling on foot along unnamed roads and through untracked forests on his way to Cincinnati. He had not paused once during his journey, not for any reason. He had not stopped to rob or murder, or even to join a warming fire, no matter how inviting. Watson Sr had known that he could not risk someone finding out what it was he carried with him.
Watson Sr could never escape the feeling that if a single pale effort of circumstance had been different, he would not have made it safely to Cincinnati with his wealth and the purple genie. However, on the first day of his long journey, Watson Sr promised himself that he would not raid any farms no matter how hungry or tired he was; no matter how many fresh eggs were in the chicken coop; nor how full of fruit the trees might be; nor even how soft and clean and comfortable the hay in a quiet barn might be.
It was this strength of will, he believed, that had seen him safely through the wilds. It was this steel determination that had ensured that he might one day sit in the back of his own limousine, and never again have to worry about someone stealing from him. Not only would no one dare, but it had been years since he had carried cash himself. Ophelia Eufalla considered carrying money to be a distasteful practice, and had banned him from doing so.
Watson Sr could not stand to upset his beloved Ophelia Eufalla; so, without her knowledge, he always made sure his driver carried his bill fold, and the large amounts of cash that it sprouted like grass. Over time, it turned out that his hoard of diamonds had been much simpler to deal with. In a turn of clever thinking, many years after finding the genie, Watson Sr had had the same diamonds fashioned into Ophelia Eufalla’s wedding jewelry. For a long time before that, Watson Sr had kept them hidden in a safe, unsure what to do with them, yet unwilling to part with a single sparkly gem.
During that time he had often thought that the diamonds might rest in their small, black velvet drawstring bags in the base of his large, green, steel safe forever. But, that was before he first saw Ophelia Eufalla Hudson. Before Watson Sr had ever so much as kissed the back of her hand, he had known he wanted her, which meant he also knew what he needed to do with his diamonds.
Immediately, he had informed Robert Young of his desires, and dispatched the lawyer to contact the best jeweler he could find. Watson Sr knew that the wedding jewelry would take time, but time he’d had. His instructions, as relayed through his lawyer were very specific: the best and largest diamonds were to be spun into an elaborate necklace, something worthy of a queen; the leftover diamonds could be used for large and fashionable earrings, while the smallest ones should be made into bedazzling loops of bracelets that would shine in elegant abundance on her tiny wrists.
But, even after the gemstones had been carefully and extravagantly rendered into the beautiful jewelry, there was still a large handful of small diamonds left over. With more than a year spent, Watson Sr had had the balance of loose diamonds sent from the jeweler’s shop to the dressmaker’s studio to be sewn into the intricately-threaded embroideries on her dress, as well as the borders of her lace-edged, silk veil. However, from the beginning, the very largest, brightest diamond had been set aside to adorn her finger as a simple, but grand, solitaire.
In the end, Watson Sr’s vision had been realized when his beautiful Ophelia Eufalla Hudson had emerged from her family’s home gleaming like a sparkling star shower in the daytime. Watson Sr had never told Ophelia Eufalla about the special meaning that the wildly extravagant diamond jewelry held for him. He was content that Ophelia Eufalla still occasionally wore her wedding jewelry, and considered it the most beautiful jewelry that she owned. Each time they went out and she wore her diamond wreath necklace, or the chandelier earrings, or the many loops of bracelets, Watson Sr could almost feel the diamonds filling his empty pockets and falling onto the dirt floor of a forgotten cabin in the Arkansas wilderness again.
It brought his heart joy that the two greatest moments of his life were soldered in silver, and captured in flashing carbon. And each time Ophelia Eufalla wore this special jewelry, she looked as beautiful to Watson Sr as the day he married her. On those days, he could only see his wistful memories, and all the promise the future had once held. It made him want to smile, but since he couldn’t, his dark eyes blazed with a tender intensity that never failed to warm Ophelia Eufalla’s heart. She wore the jewels often, much more often than she otherwise would have, since she sensed correctly that they pleased him more than any others she owned.
All in all, it was the only piece of good fortune from his spent wishes that still made Watson Sr happy. But, he could never think about Ophelia Eufalla without thinking about the genie, and how coming into possession of the purple genie had been as much a piece of good fortune as bad. It had always been that way, he told himself. Even in the early days, when he had been traveling on foot to Cincinnati, there had been times when he had not been able to resist pulling the small pottery from the old satchel and uncorking it, and for no other reason than wanting to see the purple genie materialize again.
Mostly, the powerful, purple bottle conjurer said nothing, and did nothing. It never spoke first. The purple bottle conjurer would just frown, and hang blankly in the gently moving air like a sheet pinned to a line and moved by a mild breeze. After a few minutes, Watson Sr would return the purple bottle conjurer to its rest, but always with a sense of unease. It did not take long for him to notice that the more he pestered the purple genie, the worse his overall luck got. Weather that had been pleasant would suddenly turn cold and windy; dark clouds would pile up like pancakes, and follow his steps for days; and game would disappear entirely: it was an eerie effect.
During these bad luck spells, if he managed to reach a sunny hillside, the dark clouds would race across the skies to rain torrents down upon him. In the woods, acorns would fall ceaselessly upon his head, and tree roots would curl up out of the ground to claw at his boot laces, and cause his normally steady feet to stumble. Watson Sr could remember, clear as day, the time he lost his balance and fell into a thicket of thorns for no reason at all, almost as if he had been pushed by a large, invisible hand. At night, he was tortured by the same terrible nightmare of running naked on a path through a dark forest where the leaves on the trees were switchblades, the grass was broken glass, and there was a constant ‘chug! chug! chug!’ sound in the distance.
It did not take long for Watson Sr to become convinced that the purple bottle conjurer was irking his luck, and he decided to leave off bothering the bottle conjurer, once and for all. Within days, the skies began to clear, and the forest paths seemed to unfold before him in passable elegance. Slowly, he gained ground on his destination, and excitement fueled his quickening steps more and more with each passing day.
Soberly, Watson Sr remembered the excitement of those far-off, lost days. He had not felt that way in many years. As a penniless man, his worries had been far less hopeless and all-consuming than the ones he lived with as a rich man. It was then that he looked at the leather satchel, and thought about his time with the genie. With his wishes spent, it was little more than an ancient paperweight, except that it was far more dangerous.
He had brought it along on his Nova Scotia sharking adventure to consider, once again, just pitching it overboard from his boat, and being done with it altogether. But, somehow, he always managed to put it off, and find a reason not to do it. It was never the right time, the right place, the right weather, the right something. There was always another reason to put off what he knew he ought to do, and his most recent trip to sea had been no different.
Someday, Watson Sr knew he would have to make a decision about the purple bottle conjurer. Perhaps he would continue to keep it with him, plaguing his thoughts from dawn to dusk each day. It seemed the only available answer, even though it was a devastatingly disappointing one. When he had made his first wish, and felt his pockets fill so deliciously full of diamonds, Watson Sr could never have imagined that he would one day see the genie as an implement of great despair and worry.
Over time, Watson Sr found less and less comfort in the idea that he had spent his three wishes the best he knew how to at the time. Now nothing could change the fact that he found himself with no more luck than anyone else. Watson Sr really hated feeling ordinary, and especially really hated feeling out of control. He felt like his life was being tossed about by the waves and whims of wild chance, and he had no more power to stop it than a tumbleweed could withstand the force of the wind.
He understood that other, ordinary men felt the same way, but he did not want to feel like them; and he especially did not want to have to worry about the same things they did. Watson Sr preferred the idea that he was, in every way, naturally superior to those other men. Looking down, he tapped his foot against the black velvet drawstring bag, which was tucked inconspicuously along the footboard, next to a similar purple velvet bag.
All his worrying had caused his fingers to itch for the weight of his special bottle of ‘whiskey.’ He had wondered if his driver would be able to scare up his favorite drink on such short notice. Good man, thought Watson Sr. Arnold always came through for him, no matter what. Not only had the driver found his favorite bottle, but the purple velvet bag meant that he had also provided a bottle of Watson Sr’s second favorite, an expensive bottle of real Tennessee whiskey.
Watson Sr grabbed the black bag first, uncorked the bottle, and poured a long swallow of the dark, amber liquid down his throat. It was a glorious feeling, and the relief was almost as sweet as honey. But, just as his pharaonic wealth could not buy a new destiny, the worries that weighed him down would not burn away, even with 100-proof liquid fire being poured over them.
Watson Sr frowned darkly, and looked about for something to occupy his thoughts. Outside the windows of his shiny limousine, he saw nothing but a blizzarding pestilence of dust that hundreds of bedeviling automobiles had turned up in their wake. Watson Sr was disgusted. He hated cars, all cars, except his own. He liked better the regular comfort found in the thundering pulse of a train. It felt steady and reliable, not at all like cars.
As near as Watson Sr was concerned, cars were the worst of everything: cheap, easy, and innumerable. They were nothing at all to compete with the grandeur of the rail lines. Watson Sr hated cars for what they were, but he also hated what the rise of an army of small, motorized vehicles represented: it would be the end of the rail lines; and, with it, his empire, his family, and his legacy. He had long feared the end of his empire, by one means or another, but he could never have imagined that the end would take such an obnoxious and ubiquitous form.
Watson Sr had always assumed that it would be his large passel of weak and affable, nearly worthless, children (or maybe their children) who end up would losing, by one means or another, his great industrial empire. But, it was not going to be that way after all. Sullenly, he poured more whiskey down his throat, and wondered darkly if even a ninth son raised perfectly under his steel-fisted tutelage could hold back the tide.
Each year that went by made it more certain that the automotive revolution was ending the unchallenged rule of the railroads. His locomotive empire had not yet started to crumble, but the effects were obvious, especially in the board room. It saddened Watson Sr beyond all measure. Everything he had worked for, sacrificed for, wished for, and killed for was slipping away, and there was nothing he could do about it.
As he looked around him, the world seemed to broadcast that it was already over for him and his beloved locomotives, the great iron-cast and rivet-pocked forebears of automobiles. The corners of his smoldering black eyes crinkled down to frown his great discontent, as the tortured skin around his mouth was so stiffly unable to do. There was no doubt about it; the days of railroads, the days of cutthroats, the days of men like Watson Sr were ending.
He could not, would not understand this new world, or its new men. They were small men who prided themselves on creating a world of small things. Watson Sr despised every one of these men, and every part of their new world. Depressed, tired, and brooding, he took several more pulls from his special bottle of ‘whiskey.’ He just couldn’t understand how anyone could think the newer, smaller, faster world was better than the slow and stately old one.
After all, the world of railroads was not chaotic, it was hard and straight, sewn in iron, but cars operated under a careless principle. They went every which way under the control of idiots, constantly crashing into each other, as if they had all sprung fully-formed from the metal needle of a broken compass. As Watson Sr gazed out the window, he could not help but feel that each and every car he saw was nothing more than another annoying, horn-honking locust stealing cargo and passengers from the rail lines, his rail lines.
In his mind, each and every driver was personally responsible for the slow rot collapsing the foundations of his great empire, the Pennsylvania and Watson Railroad Co. In the landscape of quicksand that the modern world called progress, the P & W Railroad Co. and all its train cars and locomotives and train tracks were no better than junk to be consigned to history’s rubbish pile, and Watson Sr hated history and all its modern denizens for it.
Watson Sr clenched his open fist in impotent despair. Casting about the small, claret-colored space for something to improve his mood, Watson Sr grabbed the brown paper bag of sweet red cherries, and dug in. Cherries were his favorite fruit, and their sweet meat instantly made him feel better. He liked them better in pies and tarts than as simple, fresh-picked, plain fruit, but then he had always had a monstrous sweet tooth.
The cooks and chefs at his many homes could hardly keep him in cakes, cookies, pies, cobblers, jams, tarts, and other goodies of every variety. Over the years, Watson Sr’s preoccupation with sweets, especially anything with sweetened fruits or preserves, had overcome Ophelia Eufalla’s natural unwillingness to overindulge in anything, and her girlish figure had vanished, leaving her quite plump. But, Watson Sr did not love her any less. There was nothing that he loved more than sharing his favorite sweet treats with his sweetest Ophelia Eufalla.
When they were together in residence, Sunday mornings were set aside as their special time to sit and watch the sun shatter the dark horizon with its myriad brilliant rays, stridently burning away the last vestiges of night in a hundred molten shades of red, gold, and orange. Weekdays were almost never an option, since Watson Sr arose promptly at 4 am to be in his office by 5 am, and then worked a full twelve-hour day. He worked no less, and sometimes even more, than his employees.
But, no matter at which home they had posted temporary residence, the cooks knew that only light and flaky sugar rolls, as well as his favorite honey-drizzled cherry scones with loads of sweet butter and strong coffee, would do. Being at sea, Watson Sr had missed his last two Sunday morning breakfasts with Ophelia Eufalla. On the latest one, instead of eating his favorite cherry scones, he had spent that morning, as well as the previous evening, single-handedly crewing his schooner to move it across the sea as swiftly as possible. The endeavor had left no time for food or sleep, and he had disembarked with a ravenous hunger.
Reaching into the brown paper bag, he grabbed a few more of the stemmed fruits. He pulled the stems off, and plopped them into his misshapen mouth by the handful. Watson Sr chewed his sweet cherries thoroughly, and sucked the meat off the pits with a loud puckering sound. Then, he spat the thoroughly masticated pits into his large, calloused palm.
In his other hand, the remaining bootleg whiskey rocked back and forth in its bottle. He threw back the last shot, and it rolled heady and bitter down his throat. Watson Sr then rolled down the window in the passenger compartment, threw the empty bottle out, and watched it crash into a thousand splintering shards on the side of the road. He smiled until the trussed skin around his mouth ached, which resulted in a rare lopsided grimace.
It was at these times especially when Watson Sr loved the roll-down window feature which was practically unique to his wine red Studebaker. It made it different from most of his other limousines, and his favorite to travel in. Other than that, the interior was decorated much the same as his other limos. As much as possible, Watson Sr liked to recreate his private train cars in the smaller passenger compartments of his fancy limousines. To a one, they were garish and overdone, upholstered in claret velvet, lined with fur pillows, and bedecked with lights enclosed by hand-painted glass and fixtures sodden with gold filigree.
With the extra-heavy load of all its gold-trimmed luxury, the red Studebaker tried its best to speed down the highway, but it was not nearly fast enough. Just like everything else Watson Sr owned, it was designed to impress. When the light hit all its heavy gold embellishments just right, the limousine would gleam like a flash of red-dripped starlight, but unfortunately it was at the cost of speed.
As the red and gold limousine continued at a moderate pace along the dusty highway which led into New York City, Watson Sr knew that he should have requested his Blitzen Benz speedster, which was the fastest car he owned, and the fastest race car in the world. It had been a conscious decision, but he could not help but to regret it as he chewed his sweet cherries, and worried over his beloved Ophelia Eufalla. On board the schooner (before he’d sent the morning’s telegram to his staff), he had considered the merits of speedy flight versus slow, steady, and comfortable motion. It was the large set of blue shark’s jaws that had been the difference.
After all, on a good day, he could hardly fit himself in his Blitzen Benz speedster much less his driver, and definitely not a full set of jaws torn whole from the mouth of a shark. If he had not gone to the trouble of taking all the ice from the many portable oak and walnut ice boxes he carried along onboard and stuffed it into the body of his blue shark, then he might have made a different decision.
However, in that rushed and stressful moment, greed had won out. Watson Sr just could not stand to pitch the cold corpse overboard. Wishing to quell his guilty feelings, Watson Sr pulled the second bottle from its lively-hued, purple velvet bag. Normally, he liked to drink his good Tennessee whiskey from the crystal decanter and tumblers in the Louis Vuitton trunk. Contrarily, he preferred to drink his bootleg ‘whiskey’ from the bottle.
His free hand shook mildly from nerves and impatience, and it was just easier to drink from the bottle, and not waste any extra effort. He looked at the hand which held the slimy, masticated cherry pits. Even he could see that it looked like a monster’s hand: big and ugly and dripping with red cherry goop. Watson Sr decided it was time to play his favorite road game, and be rid of the slimy cherry pits he held.
Through the dust that poured in from the open window, he strained his spectacled gaze to carefully scan the oncoming traffic. Cars rumbled past on the road, dodging and passing and flying about his attention like annoying wasps. Most everyone looked the same at a glance: commuting stock brokers in their mid-range vehicles; coupes full of vaudeville stars; the occasional paddy wagon; and, every so often, another flashy limousine, sparkling in fancy style. None of these interested Watson Sr. He was looking for a particular sort of Monday driver.
Finally, he saw a particularly plain-looking, dark-haired fellow approaching in a dull brown, two-door jalopy with a sizable dent for almost every cherry pit in his hand. Watson Sr crinkled his nose, and his nostrils flared with disdain. What right did such a junker have to share the road with his custom Studebaker, anyway? Cars were just too egalitarian, he decided with a sniff. Watson Sr hated the fact that practically anybody could get their hands on one.
In the old, better world, you had to have money to travel the roads in style. If you could not afford a horse or a ride in a carriage, you weren’t anyone to worry about, and everyone knew it. Watson Sr detested feeling the press of others, especially those who were not so good as himself. Besides, such things were never an issue in the comfortable private train cars he kept on his iron-lunged locomotives, or in his old-fashioned, luxurious coach with its team of six horses.
The world was becoming not just modern but monstrous, Watson Sr concluded as he coughed on the dust that blew in from the open window. He peered through the dust cloud and could see that his dented target was approaching at whistling speed. Pulling back his arm and taking aim, Watson Sr launched his ripe summer cherry pits at the brown jalopy. However, in the years since the train car incident his aim had still not improved, and the ripe summer cherry pits bounced uselessly, and then disappeared into the mottled brown canvas of the busy road.
The unwitting driver of the brown jalopy never knew any different as he sped on towards his destination. Watson Sr grabbed another handful of sweet red cherries, which he chewed pensively. He was not really in the mood for his favorite game. The day was just too important for folly and fun. Fuck ‘em, he decided, and tossed the remaining cherry pits out the window.
On and on, the miles passed under the limousine’s wheels, but the closer they came to the city, the more anxious Watson Sr became. His second bottle was almost done. It was just a race to the bottom before the red Studebaker pulled up to the hospital’s cobblestone pavers. The day still seemed inauspicious to him. The light of the late afternoon was blue-grey and waning, and the sun stubbornly hid its face behind the clouds. A sense of sticky apprehension pulled the deeply furrowed lines of his brow into tightly drawn skewers of worry.
Arnold pulled open the door to the passenger compartment, and Watson Sr gathered his leather satchel before walking unsteadily through the hospital doors and into the chilly interior. He trudged through the long corridor in his rubber boots dreading the decision that was upon him, and tried to push his worries to the back of his mind. The decision would have to wait until after he saw his ninth child, and his lovely, exhausted Ophelia Eufalla smiling over a baby’s crown of soft curls, just as had happened eight times before.
It was then that he would know how to feel about the past, the choices he had made, and the impact they had had on the future. Then, and only then, could he decide what to do with the useless purple genie. Should he keep it? Should he throw the bottle conjurer into the sea? Should he continue to try to rack his brain for another option? There were consequences to be considered no matter how he chose. The anxiety and doubts he entertained grated like sandpaper on his hot nerves.
There was no question in his mind that this would be his last child.The outcome of the day depended on whether or not matter he had sired the child he needed, that his family and the railroad needed.Until then, the question would have to remain: what was the best thing to do with the feckless purple genie hidden in its plain pottery within the book safe at the base of his fancy leather satchel?