Sid Simmons laid his head back in his wicker patio chair. The sun was still levitating above the horizon, its warmth comforting his old bones to pause from their aching. Four gold rings lay on the small table to his left, lined up together from largest to smallest, though they were all fairly large. Sid’s fingers were thick as the cigars he smoked, and almost just as brown from years of baking in the sun. He had been taller at one point in time, but even having shrunk two and a half inches, Sid still looked down on most people and was just as barrel-chested. Thick-framed sunglasses encased his eyes as he looked out over the city from the terrace of his home in the hills of Los Feliz.
An old rotary phone sat on a table to his right. It had been a house-warming present from Johnny Carson along with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Johnny had told him with that shit-eating grin that he’d be calling him soon. After two decades of waiting and the retirement of the late night host, Sid drank the wine and packed the telephone away. It was only during an estate sale that he’d rediscovered it and decided to wire it up again. It was a good conversation piece, though he wasn’t having many visitors anymore. He’d yet to even hear what its ringer sounded like.
“Sid!” A man’s voice called from the house. He gave no answer and listened to his name being repeated. The voice grew closer until it was right over him. “Sidney… Sid… are you dead?”
Sid lay there, his eyes open just enough to see his oldest friend looking down on him, debating if he was still alive or not. Perhaps he was hoping Sid was dead, and Sid worked even harder to keep his chest from moving.
“I can see you breathing, you fuck.” Sid remained motionless for a moment longer, then exhaled loudly.
“Goddamn yourself. Why do you fuckin’ do shit like that?”
“It amuses me… until you ruin it, that is.”
“You wanna die? I can arrange that. I’ll even pay for the casket.”
“I’m gonna be cremated.”
“Then I’ll pay for the matches. Better yet, I’ll steal a book from Tito’s nightclub.”
“How you been feeling, Sid? Haven’t been seein’ you around much.” Glenn sat down on the edge of another patio chair, stretching his legs out with a wince. “What’s the story?”
“Ah, nothin’. Just haven’t been feelin’ up to much lately. I been sick some. Got one of them summer colds.”
“What the fuck is a summer cold?”
“It’s like a regular cold, only in the summer.”
“Your immunity must be down. You need to start drinking more orange juice. I know this cat who does private bartending. Makes one hell of a mimosa. I’ll give you her information.”
“That’s a women’s drink, isn’t it?” Sid asked, squinting dubiously.
“It’s a classy drink. I been havin’ one or two every morning for the past year, and look at me.” Glenn patted his chest. “Healthy as a horse.”
“You look like a hippopotamus.”
“Hippopotamuses are some of the deadliest animals alive.”
“Says my great-granddaughter,”said Glenn leaning back. “Clarise knows all about the animals. Wants to be an animal doctor when she grows up.”
“That’s cute,” Sid frowned.
“You shoulda had some children, Sid. You wouldn’t be sittin’ out here feelin’ sorry for yourself.”
“I’m not feelin’ sorry for myself.”
“Tell me the reason you been a ghost isn’t because of them dyin’.” Glenn pointed at the rings. “It’s been almost ten years now since Oscar passed away. Think I don’t know what’s goin’ on?” He stared Sid down in silence for a long moment. Finally, Sid laid his head back again.
“You don’t know nothin’,” he responded. Glenn nodded before standing. He paced a few steps then turned back.
“You’re sittin’ there lookin’ at them rings like they’re some kinda connection. I bet you probably talk to them, too.”
“You’re fuckin’ stupid.”
“You do, don’t you?”
“What’s it to you if I do, Glenn?” Sid asked angrily. “What the hell do you know about it?”
“We’ve known each other all our lives. I’ve been around you through everything, when you got discovered sellin’ jokes in that seedy little comedy bar. When you got your first movie deal. Then you was cavortin’ with the Laugh Pack. The four of you were inseparable, tearin’ up Hollywood like you owned the place.”
“We did own the place.” Sid straightened up suddenly. “We lived like kings, Glenn. People respected us. People loved us.”
“They loved the show, Sid. You were entertainers, and don’t tell me that the whole Laugh Pack thing wasn’t part of it, because we both know it was.”
“You’re tryin’ to say it was all fake? They were like my brothers, Glenn. We weren’t the same after Jonesy died. Then Elroy couldn’t stop with the drugs, and then Oscar…”
“I know the story. And now it’s just you. You and those rings.”
Sid looked out over the landscape speckled with roofs of all shapes and sizes, the palm trees leaning and stretching. It was like a mountain of little oases. They weren’t real, however. Only mirages. Nothing was there that should be. The grass, the trees, the gardens, it was all planted for the sake of appearances. It seemed to him that his garden was dying, and there was no water left to quench the soil.
“We’re old, Glenn. We’re almost to the punchline, and I’m not so sure I like this joke after all.” Sid toyed with one of the rings on the table. “You know you’re right. It was all a show, and I honestly didn’t care for that lifestyle sometimes.”
“It was a lot of work. People got a kick out of it, but every day was a hangover. Every stunt and charade got crazier and crazier because we had to outdo ourselves, or people would get bored. It was exhaustin’. None of us enjoyed it by the time it was all said and done.” Sid sighed. “We were almost relieved in a way when Jonesy died.”
“That’s what it felt like,” nodded Sid. “We started out on this path because we loved tellin’ jokes. We loved makin’ people laugh. Those were the best days, before we were somebody. Back when we were nobody. I still miss those days.”
“Well,” said Glenn after a long silence, “there’s no rule that says you can’t do that again?”
“What do you mean?”
“Sure, people know your name. Sid Simmons was one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century. But this is the 21st century now. It’s a different time, a different audience. You’re not somebody anymore.” Glenn smiled. “Seems to me like you don’t have to miss those days if you don’t wanna.”
“Get outta here. You know how long it’s been since I’ve written a joke? Or even told one?”
“There was a time when you’d never told a joke.”
“You’re right. You didn’t have a lifetime of experience.”
A short while later, Sid was once again alone, pestered only by the thoughts running rampant through his mind. It was completely absurd, the idea of Sid Simmons going back on a stage, a small one, where he’d be intimate with the audience, connect personally, risk being heckled, his back to the wall. Five minutes later, he was sitting in his office with pen and paper.
What should he say? What did people laugh at these days? He’d tuned out the comedy scene as more dick and fart jokes increasingly weaseled their way in. Sure, they were funny, but that wasn’t his style. After a half hour of sitting, Sid suddenly had a terrifying thought. What if he had lost his ability to create a joke entirely? It had always been his greatest fear but had never considered it a possibility. Like the boogie man in your closet, always there in your mind, but never making an appearance. Never that is, until he does. There was a formula to this whole thing, but his ability to manipulate it had seemingly vanished. What had he written about so long ago as a young man? What mattered to him? His eyes gravitated toward a large hutch, inside of which was his entire life.
In a moment he was there, looking, not through jokes, but moments in time. It seemed that every setup and punchline had a memory to it, a vision of people, of unique laughs, of faces and crinkled eyes, of fingers wiping tears of laughter away. As he read page after scribbled napkin after scrawled note, Sid found himself as amused as ever with the jokes that came from a place in between everywhere and nowhere at all. It seemed that, though overgrown, the path leading there still existed after all, and he’d rediscovered it.
The following weekend, Sid stood in a dark hallway, watching a young woman tell her jokes on a small stage, the proverbial brick wall behind her. She was funny, and despite his nervousness, he found himself chuckling. He considered the space, its darkness and its depth. It was characteristically raw, and despite never having been in that particular location before, he faintly recognized the smell of booze, candles, sweat, and old vinyl flooring. Glenn suddenly appeared in the back of the audience, smiling at him.
“You ready?” the host asked as he stepped beside him.
“Are you ready?” Sid returned with a smile. The young man chuckled and nodded before going to take the stage. Sid rubbed his sweaty palms together, feeling the four rings on his fingers, three on his left and one on his right.
“Up next, we have a hilariously special treat for you tonight. There aren’t too many ways to introduce him because, well, he needs no introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to give you a true king of comedy, Sid Simmons.”
Sid stepped out of the hallway to the sound of whistles and applause. He climbed the small set of stairs to the stage, shook the host’s hand, and with that, he was alone under the white light. Sid cleared his throat and without hesitation, reached for the microphone.
The following day, Sid spent all morning and afternoon at his desk, working through ideas for one-liners, pondering observational setups and anecdotes, contemplating seemingly mundane situations. It wasn’t easy for him to get started, and for a good period of time, he paced his office floor, muttering to himself. In all this, however, Sid was happier than he had been in a very long time. So happy, in fact, that he didn’t even hear the ringing from the patio.