Dan bought the magic eight-ball from a place in Alphabet City. It was a hole in the wall, tucked between a sandwich and salmonella dive, and a rusty steel shutter layered with graffiti tags. When he went back later he could never figure out where it had been.
“Cute toy,” Dan said. He stretched out his hand to touch the plush animal on the counter, and then stopped abruptly when it blinked its enormous eyes, and twitched a fuzzy ear.
“Family pet,” said the kid behind the counter. “Not for sale.” He paused and then said, “Too much trouble anyhow, just ask my grandfather.” The kid jerked his head backwards, indicating the low doorway behind the counter.
“I’m not looking for a pet,” said Dan. “Actually, I was hoping you had one of those things to help you make up your mind.”
“Magic eight-ball,” said the kid. “Only one left, twenty bucks.”
“Twenty bucks?” said Dan. “I can buy a new one online for under ten. Just don’t want to pay for shipping.”
“The old ones are better,” said the kid. “Twenty bucks,” he repeated. He pulled a battered cardboard box out from under the filthy glass counter. “Take or leave it.”
Threading his way out of the store, through encrusted clutter, he might have heard an elderly voice say, “Not again.”
The writing on the box had faded to native cardboard, but Dan thought he could make out “Don’t shake the ball.” Standard instructions. The ball itself was covered in scratches, but the window on the bottom was clear.
“Should I become a writer?” Dan addressed the eight at the top of the ball, and then flipped the ball over.
“Who cares?” he read. “Who cares? What kind of yes or no answer is that?”
“Twenty bucks and it doesn’t even work properly. Should just make up my own mind.” He drained the last can of watery low-cal pilsner from his fridge, and then said, “Actually, I really don’t care.” And indeed he didn’t.
Trying again, Dan asked, “Should I go to Vegas?”
Checking the bottom, he read, “In your dreams.”
Disgusted, he dumped the ball back into the battered box, and tossed the box onto the equally scuffed linoleum. It rattled around for a moment, making a whirring sound.
Then he went to bed.
In the dog-walk hours of the morning, Dan woke from a nightmare about Vegas loan sharks with actual shark teeth, to the same whirring sound. He opened his eyes and looked, through bleary eyes, through midtown semi-darkness, across the tiny studio apartment.
A pale glow emanated from the box on the floor. “Must be the beer,” he said, groggily. Then he barricaded himself carefully under his duvet.
The next morning, there was a knock on his door.
He peered through the hole.
“Lazy delivery guy,” Dan said. Carefully balancing his cereal in one hand, and bracing against the muscular door closer, he opened the door.
In the hallway was four foot sparsely of somebody else’s granddad.
“Yesterday my grandson sold you a magic eight-ball,” the tiny man said.
“How did you find me?” asked Dan.
“Got lucky,” said the man. He pulled a creased paper note out of the inner pocket of his jacket. “It says ‘not for resale’, but it must have fallen off.”
“It doesn’t work properly,” Dan said, through a mouthful of fortified wheat and food coloring.
The man looked alarmed. “Did anything,” he paused. “Did anything odd happen?”
“Odd?” Dan asked. “No, the thing just gives nonsensical answers.”
“Well that’s okay then,” said the man. He sounded relieved. “Mind if I buy it back from you?”
“One sec,” said Dan. Holding the door open with one foot, he stretched over with the other and nudged the box across the floor. “Here you go.”
The tiny man passed a rolled-up twenty. Dan tucked it under his bowl.
“Those early prototypes had a mind of their own,” said the man. He grimaced as he stooped to take the box. “They fixed it after. Terribly sorry about that.”
Dan spooned more cereal through his lips, muttered “s’okay”, and let the door close itself.
Setting the bowl down, he unrolled the twenty in order to put it in his wallet. Then he spat out a mouthful of cereal in surprise.
Dashing back to his door, he flung it open. “Hey mister,” Dan said weakly, to nobody at all. “That’s not a twenty, that’s a thousand bucks, you gave me, mister.”