Ever since middle school Haystack and I believed it was important not to abuse the magic 8-ball. This meant we should not ask stupid questions. Or more than three. Or less than three. It also meant that we should never disobey the advice it provided, even if we did not like the advice.
It was well known that if we disobeyed the magic 8-ball that it would soon grow malignant, sticking us with a terrible species of luck, the type of luck you’d compare to leprosy, or an amputation, luck like a broken neck. Every New Year’s Eve we came to the hill by The Wooden Nickel Buffalo Farm to split a case of Coors then consult the 8-ball about the coming year. There was procedure. When it was time, we each took a turn climbing out of the pick-up and walking, alone, into the mowed-down cornfield across from the buffalo. Then we’d shake the ball three times among the broken stalks, the answers like a secret code to be committed to memory. We never told each other what we asked. That’s how the questions were kept serious.
We did this until last year, when Haystack said we were too busy and too old to bother. He was married and had a baby girl and sold insurance policies now. I said I was busy, too, though I wasn’t. We should have known not to stop. When I asked the 8-ball if we could quit, the answer was simple. “Don’t count on it,” the message read. Five months later, I got fired from roofing, but that was lucky. In December, just when Haystack thought he’d slipped by, his wife Karen came home with a bottle of Wild Turkey, a chocolate cake, and a diagnosis.
“Ever wonder why doctors always compare your tumor to a piece of fruit?” Haystack asked. He’d parked us at the bend in the road. Ahead, beside the icy gravel, the herd of 10 buffalo stood on the slope, asleep, the dark shaggy mounds of their bodies profiled against the snow like clumps of lint on a sheet. “The size of a lemon,” Haystack continued. “The size of an orange….”
“Fruit isn’t scary,” I said. “That’s why.”
“What about forbidden fruit?” Haystack said. “That’s scary.”
“Not really.” I sipped my Coors. The absence of flavor was comforting.
“How about going fruit loops then?” He tapped himself between the eyes. “Going bananas.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I said.
The tumor had fattened itself on Karen’s ovary, the same place that drew the blueprint for their little girl, now gone deranged with a piece of death the size of a grapefruit. We both knew what Haystack wanted to ask the 8-ball now. We both knew that ovarian was worse than breast cancer, but not as bad as pancreatic. She had a chance. But that was all. If Haystack’s luck was bad, he would lose her. And then he’d likely kill himself, which he had tried years before, back when he burned himself with cigarettes as a party trick. It’s still hard to believe how he managed to steal Karen away from me, to marry her, or how she weaned him off those chalky speed pills that he seemed to need to even get dressed. All through my years of floating through jobs, through worse and worse women, I never forgave Haystack for making her love him. Not until now.
In its sleep, a buffalo let out a throttled groan. But there was no movement, as though whatever animal cried out was frozen inside of a dream. In our teens, if we didn’t like the 8-ball’s answers, Haystack and I would walk to the chain link fence and hurl snowballs over. When we hit a buffalo, we’d watch it snort itself awake, then trample to the far side of the field, waking the others in its search for an escape that wasn’t there. We laughed our heads off.
“If I hadn’t married her, you’d be the one talking about fruit,” Haystack said. “How’s it even possible? Don’t you think she’d have noticed before it got so damn big?”
I rattled the ball and liquid sloshed inside. He wouldn’t even look at it.
“What are you going to ask?” he said.
“Thought I’d ask about buying the buffalo farm,” I said. “Those steaks I had were good. Pretty tender.”
“You can’t afford it,” he said. “And you’re just going to piss off the ball with a dumb question like that. Ask something you can’t figure out. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
I’d been planning to ask if I should move away, if I should quit the cover band I still drummed in, if Karen would ever cheat on Haystack with me. Now I didn’t want to ask anything.
“Look,” Haystack said. “I’ll ask about her three times, then so will you. If it’s all true about the 8-ball, it will have to give the same answer six times. We’ll know about her for sure then.”
“What if it’s all ‘Reply Hazy,’ or ‘Cannot Predict Now?’”
He leaned forward to rest his head against the steering wheel. “Then I’ll smash the fucking thing,” he said.
A wind shivered through what was left of the cornstalks. On the radio, The Kinks were playing a song that I knew Haystack liked, and we listened to it all the way through before he clicked off the volume.
“Do you want to go first?” he asked.
I nodded because I knew he was scared, and any moment longer he could have would count for something. The snow crunched as I walked into the field and turned to see the truck idling, smoke spewing from the exhaust pipe like a tail.
I shook the ball in both hands and thought of the die inside, turning and turning, ready to plunge upward six times and show us our luck—or reveal itself a fake. My head was buzzing and I thought about how much I’d hated Haystack, for the well-insured piece of mind that he sold, for pulling himself together while I kept screwing up, for how he had pitied me. The buffalo groaned again. I closed my eyes to picture Karen. Was it wrong to still want her? I didn’t know. The only thing I knew was that I was holding a ball with the black number eight, that inside of it there was the future, words swimming in shadow, waiting.