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.

    “Goddammit, Glenn.”

    “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.”

    “Fuck you.”

    “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 who?”

    “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.”

            “Yeah.”

            “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.”

            “Hell…”

            “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.”

            “That’s different.”

            “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.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

The rain hushed away the silence of the office as Kate Vanden rolled the new-hire fountain pen from side to side across her desk. Her blouse was damp with sweat, sticking down the center of her back beneath her suit jacket. She shifted slightly to release herself from the fabric, but within a few seconds, it had seemingly adhered again to her skin. Lynn had developed an indifference to days like these, edging close to boredom yet with a splinter of anticipation. The Executive would be there at any moment, and it seemed that it was never without some anxiety that they waited for his arrival.

    Kate was still considered a rookie to Mondo Media after only a month of employment and had never so much as seen the Executive. She was still unsure as to why he was even called that. In her mind, he was no more than a tenured peer.

“Seventeen years of killing it will get you there,” said Kate’s supervisor. “Don’t expect to last that long.”

Kate wondered why anyone would want to last that long at a company that created calls-to-action and polling emails. This wasn’t why she’d graduated as head of her class with a major in marketing and a minor in communications. At $28k a year, she calculated that she would pay off her student loans just before her sixty-third birthday, and that was factoring in inflation, interest, and any raises or promotions. Assuming the company didn’t go under, that would take her almost forty years. Thanks, but no thanks.

“Is there any way we could turn up the air? It’s so hot,” said Kate to anyone. Freddy from the cubicle next door poked his head over.

“Invest in a neck coolie.”

“What’s a neck coolie?”

“It’s basically an ice pack, except with a soft outside designed to go around your neck. I have one just for when the Exec arrives.”

    “Why when he arrives?”

    “He likes it extra hot. He says sweat makes the mind nimbler.”

    “Nimbler? Seriously?” Kate asked.

    “No one jokes about the Exec,” said Brandy from the cubicle across. “Better not let him see you slacking off, either, or you’ll be in for a speech. Last time, I was in the kitchen getting coffee and he start having a conniption.”

    “But why?”

 “You’ll find out,” said Freddy as he and Brandy laughed and shook their heads. They returned to their computer screens leaving Kate with a bewildered expression.

    Kate turned back to her desk. It was a small roofless box, a three-foot table, a laptop, and her pen. A single tray with a stack of papers rested beside it, the infinite list of recipients. She took the top packet and began comparing the list to that on her screen. If she found one missing on either end, she would update them both until completely identical. This was her busy work and found it more bearable with headphones in. Funk disco was the sound of the day, she decided, inserting the buds into her ears and pressing play on a randomly generated playlist.

    A few minutes later, she received an email assigning her to write up a call-to-action for the preservation of an endangered plant in the Midwest United States and a link to a website with all the necessary information she’d need. Kate’s blood began pumping a bit faster, as this was what she enjoyed the most about her job: creating compelling messages to people who want to make the world a better place.

    Kate moved her fingers to the keys.

    Subject: BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

    Content: Almost 20,000 years ago, giant glaciers left indents throughout the Midwest known as the “prairie potholes”. It is in these indents that the perfect conditions were made for the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid to thrive. However, according to the Endangered Species Coalition, there are estimated only 172 populations left on our entire planet because of development, overgrazing, wildfires, and global warming.

WE need YOUR NAME added to the petitions to bring this worthy cause before Congress and protect this important and beautiful flower from extinction.

CLICK HERE to protect the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid.

Because no one but YOU can save them.

    “Working through lunch won’t get you a better parking spot,” said a voice, bass and articulated, very close to Kate’s ear. Startled, she whirled around to see a tall man, stocky and neat, smiling smugly down at her. “That last line is a good touch, by the way. You should try adding the same urgency to the rest of it before they trash the email from boredom.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Did you know that within the first thirteen and a half words of anything, the reader has already decided whether they will continue reading or hit delete?”

    “Thirteen and a half?”

    “Thirteen and a half,” he repeated.

“That doesn’t sound like a real statistic.”

“That’s because almost seventy-one percent of all statistics are made up.”

“So… you made that up.”

“About the statistics? Yes. I take word count very seriously, though. I wouldn’t joke about that.”

“What study did the thirteen and a half words come from exactly?”

“That’s not what’s important. What’s important is those first fourteen words, and that’s not including your subject line.”

“I thought you said it was thirteen and a half?”

“What does that say about the fourteenth, then? For example, word number fourteen in your email is the word ‘the’. What is the word ‘the’? And don’t say it’s an adjective.” His coal black eyes peered down at her expectantly.

“An adverb?”

“It’s a definite article,” he said. Kate stared back blankly. “You don’t know what that is do you?”

“I…it’s one of those little words like a preposition, right?”

“No,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like a preposition. A preposition is a word that governs a noun or pronoun and expresses relationship with another word. A definite article introduces a noun and implies some common knowledge, the key word being ‘common’. ‘The’ as your fourteenth word is a death sentence to the rest of your message, which means you might as well have not written which means that Shoreline Media might as well hire a chimp to sit in your seat because even a chimp who types an email full of mumbo jumbo wouldn’t squander his one precious fourteenth word with a pathetic ‘the’.”

“Don’t patronize me. I graduated top of my class from Howard University with a major in marketing and minor in communications. I might not be an expert with grammar, but I know a thing or two.”

“Oh, Howard University,” the Executive repeated, putting a hand on his hips.

“That’s right.”

“Top of your class, too?”

“Yes. I, a woman, was top of my class.”

“Well, you know where I graduated from? I graduated from Fuck Your Bachelor’s Degree University with a major in more experience in my left walnut than your entire femininity. And don’t get all pissy; that’s not a jab at your sex. That’s a gunshot to its head, because anyone who thinks that their sex makes them weaker and as such makes their marginal accomplishments greater has already lost. Lost what, you ask? Lost the fucking game. Cash in your chips. Thanks for playing.”

“That’s easy to say, coming from a man.”

“Yes, I’m a man, and as a man my accomplishments are significantly diminished meaning that I have to work ten times as hard to be considered successful. Do you know what a successful woman is by society’s standards? A successful woman is a human who bleeds monthly and runs a business with a quarterly profit of over two percent. Do you know what a successful man is by society’s standards? Steve Jobs. Muhammad Ali. Martin Luther King. Patton. Charlemagne. Julius Caesar. Any of the Kennedy’s. Those men had thrown at them everything that society didn’t have bolted to the floor. Any other man who accomplished anything is just a man, and every other man who cleaned toilets and assembled parts is just a number.

“Words are your tools. You should know how they work both individually and combined. More importantly, you should know how they don’t work. You say you know a thing or two? I won’t argue with that. You know where the break room is, where to find the ladies’ room, and how to make a decent closing one-liner. But everyone here can say the same thing. So, the question you should be asking is, what don’t I know?”

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Kate jumped back as he reached into his jacket and produced a fountain pen similar to hers but much more elegant. After removing the cap, he presented it, placing it onto her desk, ‘The Executive’ etched across its nib.

    “I am the fucking Executive. I didn’t give myself that name, and I didn’t earn it because I was never working for a name. It was given to me freely by my peers. Peers past, present, and future. Peers that I had no problem cutting off like gangrenous limbs when they tried to hold me back with their deficiencies.”

    “Deficiencies?”

“Yes, as in, your call-to-action is deficient in urgency, inspiration, in herding the blind hearts of sheep to follow. You say there are only 172 populations? Make it 60. This plant is going extinct because of wildfires and hungry bovine? Throw in fracking and a divided federal government. Give them someone to blame.”

    “But that’s lying.”

    “Lying is what your paid to do. You have one objective in this place: get names. Names are people, people with interests, money, votes, health problems, debts. This information is like blood diamonds, retrieved at any cost and sold to the highest bidder.

    “These emails are supposed to speak to the good in people.”

    “No, they’re supposed to speak to the selfishness in people. Everyone wants to be a hero, but not at the cost of facing the villain. That’s where we come in. The middlemen. That’s why people sign their names on these petitions. They sign so that they can go to sleep in the comfort of their homes, bellies full, safe from harm, feeling like they actually influenced change in the life of a kid starving on a city sidewalk without ever having to look at them. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.”

    “But these petitions help people. They help the world. They make people see—”

    “How much plastic has been pulled from the oceans because of a name? How many endangered species saved? How many famines reversed, diseases cured, trees planted? You say you majored in marketing, but it seems you missed the very first and most important lesson of all. We are in the business of lies. Every bit of it, and if you think the truth was ever important, you’re right. It was. But not anymore.” The executive turned towards the doorway of her cubicle. “They call me the Executive because I command people. If that’s what you want to do, then fix that fourteenth word. You’ll only be lying to yourself, otherwise. It’s all about manipulating the lies into alignment. If you can remember that, then there’s nothing you can’t make anyone do. Not even me.”

    Kate sat in silence for a long moment after he’d walked away, stunned and shaken. She wasn’t afraid, yet, she feared something. Not the executive. Not the act of lying. What she feared was this rising pleasure in the ability she now possessed. Had the executive meant to cut her down? At first, it appeared so. But now, she suddenly found herself lusting the power he’d revealed was in her hands all along.

    The sound of voices returning from lunch began to fill the office as she turned back to her laptop.

    Subject: WHILE YOU STILL CAN

    Content: Save the last remaining 51 Western Prairie Fringed Orchids in the world from annihilation…


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

“Hello, Andrew.”

“Hello.”

“How are you feeling today?”

“I’m feeling well, thank you.”

“How did you sleep last night? I know the nightmares have been giving you trouble lately. You’re still experiencing them?”

“Yes.”

“How often?”

“Frequently.”

“And last night? Did you have any dreams that you’d care to talk about?”

“We were on the railroad tracks. Kids, walking the ties. Barefoot, but we didn’t care about splinters. It was me and Nora and Chucky. Good ole Chucky. He was scared of the splinters, so he kept his shoes on. We walked for miles, down past Jenkin’s Creek, all the oak trees full green.”

“Is this a real place? The tracks and the creek?”

“It was. Not anymore.”

“They dug up the tracks?”

“They dug up the trees.”

“I see… What happened next?”

“Both Nora and I had been looking for old iron spikes. We found about three or four each. Chucky was just filling his bag with coal. We had a wager to see who could get more for what they found. We’d walked around there before looking for coal, but Nora heard about a construction supplier buying up old iron for double the price of coal. Two bucks a spike, I think. Chucky wasn’t convinced though and said the coal was the surest bet for a good payout. ‘No-semitty,’ he’d always say. Like Yosemite. He was into geography and things like that. What Nora and I knew about that stuff was just from what he told us. I wasn’t interested in all that, but it seemed important to Nora, and that meant it was important to me.”

“Did she like learning from Chucky?”
   “Nora always used to say, ‘Come on, Andy. Let’s go see what Chucky chucked up today.’ So,we’d go see. She loved it.”

    “And how did you feel about it?”

    “It was important to me because of her.”

    “You liked Nora? As more than a friend?”

“Almost everybody liked her that way. She was the prettiest girl in the county, and on top of it, she could do everything all the boys could do and better.”

    “But she was your friend out of everyone…”

    “She was. We used to go crawfishing, catching crickets and frogs, fighting spiders and turtles against each other. She could dig up twice the earth worms as anyone, including me. But Chucky showed her a geode one day. It was pretty neat, sure. But then he got a telescope and he showed Nora the moon and the stars.”

…it seemed important to Nora, and that meant it was important to me.”

    “How did that make you feel?”

    “She was my friend. I tried to not care.”

    “She chose to look for spikes instead of coal like Chucky. Did you feel like that meant anything?”

    “Sure. It meant she understood the value of a dollar better than Chucky. I’m surprised he didn’t decide to look for spikes, too, just because she was. He would never have looked for them just because of me.”

    “Well, who won the wager?”

    “Nobody won.”

    “Nobody won? You mean it was a tie?”

    “I mean nobody won. We never sold the spikes or the coal.”

    “Why not?… Andy… Can you tell me what happened?”

    “Nora sprained her ankle.”

    “And you had to carry her back? Leave the coal and the spikes?”

    “No. Nora sprained her ankle and Chucky wrapped it up in a bandage. He was like a boy scout except he wasn’t. He knew how to do all that like he was a paramedic. I didn’t know what to do. I was worried, but Chucky just stayed calm took care of Nora. When he was done and she stopped crying, she hugged him. For a long time. Then she thanked him with a kiss.”

    “How did you react?”

    “How would anyone react?”

“You’re not just anyone, Andrew. You’re you, and the way you reacted in your dream can tell us even more about you in real life. That’s all it really was, wasn’t it? Just a bad dream?… Andrew… Andrew, if you’re not willing to give me the full picture then you’re tying my hands to help you… Please, Andy…”

    “I took a spike from my pocket and drove it into her skull.”

    “What?”

    “I’ll never forget the look on Chucky’s face.”

    “Why did you kill Nora? She was the one you liked.”

    “I never said that.”

    “You said everyone—”

“I said that almost everyone liked her that way. Chucky did, but I didn’t.”

    “Then why did you murder her?”

    “It was Chucky that I liked. She knew it, too. But Chucky didn’t like me. He wasn’t a faggot like me. I’m not the one he opened the geode for. I’m not the one he showed the moon and the stars to. That was always for Nora. Always Nora.”

“How was that Nora’s fault?”

“She knew how I felt about him. She didn’t care. Nora never cared about anyone. That bitch got what was coming to her. Sometimes, I can still hear that railroad spike, the top of her skull popping like… like a wooden tire, and the blood was all over everything. Chucky was still kissing her before he even realized what had happened. The spike even got stuck for a second, and I had to put my knee in her back just to get the leverage to yank it out. It made this horrible screeching sound. Not like nails on a chalkboard… but like the screech of a fork on a dinner plate. Then she fell over. I remember her blinking up at me as her body spasmed. Then it stopped… I wish it could’ve gone on longer…

“Why so pale, doctor?… I hope I didn’t upset you. It was only a bad dream, wasn’t it? You said so yourself.”

“Yes… I did…”

“I’m sorry, what was your original question? I got completely sidetracked.”

“Um… how did you sleep last night?…”

“Oh, that’s right; I remember now. Yes, I slept very well, thanks. How about you?”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

“…what we have here, Bill, if you—if you let me speak, Bill, what we have here is a classic case of bait and switch. There’s no way that the White House is truly backing this, even as a declared fully partisan plan. There’s too much at stake here for both sides, too much to be lost on both sides, and what I was—”

“Leonard, I’ve known you for a long time—”

“—what I was trying to say—”

“—I’ve known you for a long time, Leonard, and I’ve always respected you until this very moment. How could you honestly believe this whole bait and switch theory when it’s blatantly obvious that the whole thing’s been concocted by the far left to distract the general public from the important issues—”

The radio clicked to silence, the cab of the semi becoming heavy with the reverberating sound of the engine. The passenger window was down about halfway, and the air was sweeping the stale out. That was how Carl liked it sometimes. Quiet, natural. The stale was new. It had smelled sweet before, but now there was the pungent odor of nothing. It had been giving him headaches, or at least, that’s what he kept telling himself. Carl hadn’t been sleeping exceptionally well, either, but it had been a boon for his travel time. Being paid by the mile, he made the most of his insomnia by cutting down his delivery times, and he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

On the opposite side of the coin, the silence was sometimes deafening. It fluctuated between soothing and debilitating, and at the worst times it was both, and there was nothing to be done except to listen to one of Linette’s old cassette recordings. He reached to the center console, selecting blindly from the collection. Once he had a grasp of one, he read the title “Madama Butterfly” handwritten neatly on the label. He smiled, knowing this was Linette’s favorite, then turned it up until it was too loud and too beautiful for him to go insane.

With the extra time on his hands, Carl had chosen to take a back road in lieu of the interstate, which, around the Denver area, was picturesque in the moonlight. The caps of the mountains glowed a chrome white, saluting the Midwest sky. Linette would’ve taken a photograph, he was sure. Carl glanced over at the collage of Polaroids stapled to the interior of the cab as though they were the kaleidoscope of life itself. There was the one with him sleeping in the back, wrapped in that old pueblo blanket she’d picked up at a gas station in New Mexico. Linette loved that thing, and they would bundle up under it together on cold nights.

Carl tried to place a name to the soprano singing on the cassette, or at least to name the song. His wife had told him at least a few times, yet he could never seem to remember until she’d told him again. Without her there to tell him, however, what was he to do? He recalled her saying it was an aria. Carl stared blankly ahead, his brain taking charge of the wheel while his thoughts steered him down other roads. Linette was beautiful. Her smile was the sunrise over the plains and the sunset of the Rockies. Her laugh was the sound of the ocean landing on a Pacific shore. Her eyes were the heavens where God himself dreamed of retirement. Linette had always been that way, when they were young and as they aged. Now, the sun confined itself to the other side of the world. The ocean stilled its waves. God took out a timeshare in Florida.

…he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

Carl shook his head, furious for allowing his thoughts to take control again. He didn’t have time to get lost or to stray from the charted course where it was safe. He clicked the selector knob back to the radio, cutting out the opera, but only replacing it with static. Carl cursed aloud as he turned the dial further to explore the empty frequencies.

A loud thump at the nose of his truck captured his attention, and a shot of adrenaline opened his eyes wide. His brakes squealed and the pressure released with a hiss. Carl began to imagine all the possible animals he may have hit. A deer or an elk maybe. It wasn’t unheard of out here in the middle of nowhere, and it was the time of year for such things. Parked on the shoulder, he reached into the back of the cab for his flashlight then popped his door open. Blood on the front fender indicated he’d indeed clipped something, yet without fur left behind, he couldn’t say for sure what. His footsteps were thick and crisp beneath his boots as he followed the beam of light across the ground. It had been less than a hundred feet, he estimated. Out of habit, Carl checked his tires and cables as he approached the rear of his 18-wheeler.

“This is a damn good flashlight,” Carl thought as the spotlight cut holes out of the darkness. There was the gravel lining the edge of the road. Rocks and weeds. The empty asphalt. Nothing that seemed to indicate he’d hit anything. “Maybe it was Sasquatch,” he chuckled to himself.

With a shrug, he turned to go back to his truck, but as the light swung ‘round, a glimmer shone from the opposite shoulder of the road. It was blood, not much, but some. The eyes of a coyote gleamed at him but with little concern for his presence as they turned to the dark, shimmering mass beside it. Carl took one cautious step closer, then another. The body of a second coyote lay at the paws of the first, breathing heavily and fast.

“Shit.” Carl shook his head, dismayed. “Shit, shit.” He wasn’t much into nature, but Linette had always been the kind-hearted one, and in her absence, he felt compelled to compensate.

He went back to his cab, took the .38 Special from the holster beneath his seat, ensured there were rounds in the cylinder, and returned to where the dying animal lay. The first coyote was no longer standing over the second, but lying in front of it, nose against nose. Carl’s throat burned and ached in his realization of what he was witnessing. Yet, with a cough, he resolved it, and steadied his gun.

“This is for the best, darlin’.” The female looked at him as her mate bled. “I’m sorry. He’s in pain.” She rested her head on the fur of his nape, making eye contact with Carl. The brow lifted and a sad whine sang out. “What do you want me to do?” Carl asked. The coyote began to lick the wounds of the other. “There’s no fixing him. There’s no helping. The closest town is about sixty miles and they don’t have a vet. Even if they did…” Resting her head again, she kept looking at him. “Just move, damn it.” He aimed again, yet she did not budge. Exasperated, Carl sighed and lowered his gun. “Ballsy little mutt, ain’tcha? Okay, then. Have it your way.”

As he turned to leave them, the coyote lifted her head and whined once more. Carl looked back, curious. It seemed to him that she wanted him to stay. He asked her this, then chuckled at himself for asking a stupid animal a question like that. But she seemed to answer. It was those goddamn eyes. They spoke a language, something that Carl couldn’t translate yet understood fluently.

“You hungry?” She didn’t move. “You’re probably hungry.” Carl went back again scrounged for the paper bag with the leftover fast food that Linette would have never let him eat. A moment later, he unwrapped a cheeseburger and tossed it toward the pair. She merely glanced at it, the bun askew and mustard smeared. “What’s the matter? You don’t eat meat?” he asked. “How about some water then?” Carl had grabbed a cooking pot and emptied a water bottle into it. Placing the pot on the ground, he slid it toward them. The coyote bared her teeth, wary of his proximity. “Okay, okay.” Carl backed off quickly, then stood scratching his head. The flashlight illuminated the blood to a glowing red and revealed a leg turned completely around.

Carl had heard that some coyotes mated for life but had never considered it more than a decision based around anything but procreation, if not a rumor. This was something else, however, something familiar to him, and he heaved a sigh. A large rock lay several feet off on the roadside and he took a seat, still watching them.

“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked her. She watched him calmly, laying her head back down on her mate. “If it makes you feel any better, he’s the lucky one. Dying is the easy part, you know. It doesn’t take any effort. No work, no fail and try again. Living, now, that’s the hard part.” He sucked at his teeth for a moment. “Like right now. He’s having a hard time trying to stay alive for you. He’s in pain. I’m sure he wants to stay alive, but… It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want. I guess that applies to other species… You should let me end it for him.” Carl reached for his gun, but the coyote growled again, and he held his hands where she could see. “Aright, alright. No guns. No easy, painless death for him.” He swallowed. “So, what now?”

The three sat still for a long time, and Carl listened to the breeze move across the spinning earth. Linette would do that on many mornings, except she would be in one of her various yoga positions. How she stayed in those knots for so long, he never could figure. Carl hadn’t ever been very flexible, even when she’d gotten him to try it out. Now that he thought about it, how the hell did she convince him to do yoga not once, not twice, but four times? He shook his head and laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he responded to the coyote lifting her head. “I just had a funny thought.” She laid back. “I was thinking about my wife, Linette, and her way of getting me to do things I’d never want to do and even make me think that’s what I wanted. You females are wily, and I suppose a female coyote’s the wiliest of them all. She got me eating okra. I hated okra my whole life, at least I thought I did. I hadn’t actually ever tried it. I didn’t tell her that, though. Just made it seem like I didn’t like the texture. One day she fried it up, and she made this special dipping sauce. I swear, I’ve still never eaten anything more delicious than Linette’s fried okra.” Carl was smiling at the coyote, then remembered, and he stopped. “Wily women. Maybe in a way, I always wanted to do those things. She just pulled it all out of me. And it made us both happy. I’m sure he ain’t any happier about him dying than you are,” he said, nodding towards them. She nuzzled the other coyote, licked him a few more times, then lied still watching Carl.

It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want.

“Better eat that cheeseburger before the ants get it. I heard they got big ones around here.” She glanced again at the food but remained where she was. She wasn’t eating, and he understood why. It was the same reason he hadn’t eaten. He lied to Linette about it, of course. He didn’t want her worrying. For some reason, thinking about the lie he told made him sick now.

Carl tried to leave again, but the coyote whined and yipped. “You want some company, huh? That’s what they say about misery, you know. Maybe that’s what I should call you. What do you think, Misery?”

The moon moved slowly across the sky as he neared sitting there for an hour. Glancing at his watch, it was a quarter to four. He considered his route, how much time he had to spare, and was still five hours ahead of schedule. The male coyote was still alive, and every so often would sigh, weak and strained. It’s not fair to him.

“It’s just not fair to him.” Carl looked her in the eye. It wasn’t fair to anyone. “I was right where you are, you know. My wife died, slowly. Instead of a few hours though, it took years. I watched her and held her as she fought through all the pain. She’d cry herself to sleep some nights. It was all I could do not to cry myself. Sometimes I wish I had, but she needed me to be strong for her. Someone had to. Her own body had turned on her, was killing her. And we stuck through it, with all the medicines and the treatments and operations and recoveries and thinking it was over and then finding out it wasn’t really.” Carl looked away, thoughts connecting in places they hadn’t before. “I’ve been wondering what the hell it all was for. Why all that if she was just going to die anyway? Now… you know, in some strange way, certain parts of it were the best time of our lives. In between the pain and the tears, we laughed so much, and we smiled. We had before, but, when you sandwich regular slices of good in between all the slices of bad, it was pretty damn amazing in contrast.” He looked back at her. “I guess I can understand now why you don’t want me to end it for him.” She sighed softly, and they sat silently again.

The dying coyote began to tremble, causing her ears to perk up as she cried.

“He’s getting cold. Lost a lot of blood. And it’s gotten colder.” Carl checked his watch again. Another hour had passed in what felt like only a few minutes. He wondered where the time had gone, and as if in response, the first glimmer of twilight peaked over the crests of the mountains washing everything with a dark purple haze. It took a few seconds to see clearly, but he could make out the panting of the coyote, still bleeding, still dying, and Carl became angry.

“Why’d you make me sit here like this, watching him die? I don’t deserve this. It’s not my fault that this is happening. You refuse to let me put him out of his misery.” She looked at him, motionless. “Why do you keep looking at me like that? He’s suffering, goddamn it! Can’t you see? You can hold on all you want to, but it isn’t going to change anything for him except leave him in pain longer. He’s dying. He’s as good as dead already. This isn’t about you, you know. I’ve got a life. I’ve got a job to do. I should be out there driving right now instead of sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere watching a stupid coyote bleed to death in the dirt. What the hell is the matter with you? You’re a sadistic little bitch, and I’m not putting up with it anymore!”

As he stood, she growled, and as he stepped, she darted in front of him, facing him with her fangs revealed. She wasn’t exceptionally large, but the warning in her eyes was a fire, and Carl halted.

“Get out of my way, you stupid mutt.” The coyote growled again. “Move! Go on!” Still, she remained in his path. Carl drew his gun. “I’ll shoot you. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will!”

The front sight post of his pistol was aligned to the Misery’s face. Her expression didn’t change, however. She was unafraid in a way that Carl recognized, not because he too was unafraid, but because he had been the polar opposite, and a part will always recognize its counterpart. But what was he so afraid of that this coyote wasn’t? What the hell did she know that was so unapparent to him? She knew what the gun meant, and yet she remained fixed in his path. Dying didn’t matter to her. He wasn’t bluffing. But in the same measure, staying alive didn’t matter either.

“Living isn’t the point, is it…” Carl neither asked nor stated. “But dying isn’t either.” The coyote relaxed and let out a quiet whimper. “I’m sorry for hitting him. I wasn’t paying attention. It’s my own fault that we’re here.

The sky was glowing as they returned together to the dying coyote. Carl sat beside them, his elbow on a knee. She took a spot nestled beside her mate. His breathing was shallow and labored now. Then, as the first ray of morning sun claimed the horizon, he died. She nudged him a few times, licked his face, then reared back and began to howl for several minutes. Somewhere in the distance, the echo of a response returned the call. Then another, and a third and fourth. Carl listened in silent awe as they sang to each other.

Misery rose, calmly, lightly, and turned away. Carl watched her until she disappeared in the distance. Five minutes later, he was digging a small grave away from the road, and soon after, he turned the key in his ignition. The radio blasted static at him, and he jumped, fumbling with the switch. Then, the soprano began singing her aria once more.

“Freni. Her name is Mirella Freni.” Carl laughed deeply, relieving the tension in his chest as he drove his rig back onto the highway, the sunlight warming his face. “One good day, we will see,” he said with a smile. “One good day, we will see.”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

One week prior, Lois had been taking her lunch break when the news was announced that a team of marine biologists had discovered the literal edge of the world. The break room television, which was never on, displayed the newscaster. He was visibly shaken, the headline flashing across the bottom of the screen.      

Everyone wanted to know what was over the edge. There was plenty of speculation, anything from empty space to the depths of hell itself. Evangelists preached that Jesus’ return was nigh. Most scientists agreed it was simply the extreme shifting of tectonic plates, though they were divided as to whether the cause was related to climate change or not. Several governments attempted to declare and cordon off portions of the edge for their respective country while others denied its existence completely. Even the International Space Station was no longer broadcasting its live feeds.

The discovery changed nothing for Lois, however, at least, not significantly. Life was more or less the same as it had always been. She was still a single mother who lived in a small town and worked in a manufacturing facility, far from the edge. That day had been like any other, waking up ahead of the sun, getting her children ready and out the door fast enough to beat the interstate traffic. The night before, she’d set out their clothes, prepared their breakfasts, and loaded the coffee maker for the morning. It was supposed to afford her an extra twenty minutes of sleep, but her son, Ezra, woke before his normal time, meaning she did as well. The earth could have turned into a rhombus. She wasn’t losing any more sleep than before.

“How do you know the edge is even real?” Mike, the janitor where Lois worked, leaned on his mop.  “Or what if the government knew about it the whole time and was just lying to us?”

“I guess you don’t,” said Lois, taking a bite of her sandwich.

“Why keep it a secret?” Eddie wondered aloud from the other side of the breakroom.

“The question isn’t why keep it.” Mike replied. “The question is, why let the secret out now?”

Lois chewed slowly, considering his point. If it indeed was a well-kept secret, there was certainly some reason for its revelation. What did it have to do with her, though? She had a car payment to make and summer clothes to buy for the kids.

The earth could have turned into a rhombus. She wasn’t losing any more sleep than before.

Her cousin Beth called her that evening, as did her mother and her brother Simon.

“What do you think it is?” Beth asked.

“What do you mean? It’s the edge,” she answered.

“I know, but what is it? I wish I could go see. Can you imagine being at the world’s edge, looking over?”

“No, not really.”

“Have you made things right with God?”

“I’m not dying, Mama.”

“No, but the times are getting more and more queer.”

“First of all, please try using a word other than queer. Secondly, nothing is any crazier now than it was before. In fifty years, it’ll be just another fact of life. The earth has an edge.”

“The earth isn’t supposed to have an edge, Lois. This is a sign from God. The Lord is coming soon. Even the Reverend Gillis says so. There was an emergency meeting called at the church last night, and he said that God told him to get his flock ready.”

“A lot of people have been believing a lot of things for a long time. The world just keeps on spinning.”

“For all you know, the earth hasn’t been spinning at all. You’ve got to face the facts, Sis. You need to start stocking up on canned goods, rice, distilled water. Batteries. Gasoline. Have you ever seen Mad Max?”

“No, Simon, and I doubt I ever will.”

“What makes you think society is going to remain intact forever?”

“I don’t.”

“You need to invest in a gun. I have a few extra with some rounds that you can have.”

“A few extra? How many do you have?”

“Lois, I’ve been preparing for this day for a long time. I have as many as I need.”

“Well, I don’t need a gun, much less a few of them.”

“Do you think they might open it up as a vacation destination?” asked Beth. “Can you imagine getting married at the world’s end? That’s more romantic than Niagara Falls.”

“I can’t imagine getting married at all. If I did get married again, I wouldn’t oppose doing it there so I could immediately jump off.” Lois chuckled to herself.

“Lois Mariah Hart, this is not a joking matter.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“You start joking about the will of God, and you won’t be laughing very long. You remember what happened to all the people who laughed at Noah when he was building the ark.”

“God drowned them.”

“You bet he did, and don’t you forget it. You need to start praying, Lois. Pray for your soul. And if not for yourself, then for Ezra and Harmony. They shouldn’t suffer because their mother’s an atheist.”

“For the last time, Mama, I’m not an atheist. And if you recall, when I was growing up, your church was the bar at the end of the street.”

“And look at what happened. My son is a maniac and my daughter is a heathen.” She sighed. “I don’t deny I made plenty of mistakes, but God forgave me of those sins, Lois. They don’t matter anymore.”

“If that were true, then I wouldn’t be a heathen, and Simon wouldn’t be a maniac.”

“I’m not a maniac,” Simon insisted. “Why does she always say that?”

“Maybe because you have a thousand square foot bunker behind your house.”

“I’m a maniac because I’m prepared? You know something, Lois, the earth and nature and the order of things hasn’t changed just because there’s civilization and technology. The world is still the same as it always has been, and we’re at the same risk of extinction as any other species.”

“But it isn’t the same, though, is it? At least, not for everyone else.”

“You live on this planet, too, Sis.”

“I know where I live, and where I live doesn’t have an edge.”

The following day, there were numerous accounts from multiple sources that hundreds of people had been seen jumping off the edge of the world. Evidential footage played over and over on the break room television. Trying to disregard the whole thing, Lois began eating her lunches with her back to the screen. 

“Mom,” said Ezra from the back seat, “why do people want to die?”

“People don’t want to die. Why are you asking me that?” Lois asked, feigning ignorance.

“But people are trying die.”

“What people?”

“I don’t know… people.”

“The ones who keep jumping off the edge,” Harmony interjected. “They’re trying to die, right?”

“Who told you that?” The two children shrugged. “I swear to god, why can’t people just leave kids—” Lois silenced herself when she saw them in the rearview listening to her. “Don’t worry about that, guys. Okay? Some things are hard to understand sometimes, but you can’t spend your time thinking about it.”

She’d not wanted them to know about what had been happening. Life was already volatile enough without the thought of human beings jumping off the edge of the earth into oblivion. And why? She couldn’t even tell. The general consensus was that they either were fed up with the world or that they thought maybe whatever was in the unknown depths was something better. Heaven perhaps. But heaven is in the sky, isn’t it?

“Hey, Eddie. Where’s Mary Beth and Tony? I can’t keep taking these extra shifts.”

“I don’t know,” said Eddie. “It’s unusual for sure. One more no-call no-show and they’re out. All this in the news about people disappearing… makes you wonder.”

“Disappearing?” asked Lois, who had begun taking her lunch outside. “What are you talking about?”

“It started with those people jumping off the edge. Now, folks are disappearing left and right without a trace. I think they’ve estimated almost ten million people worldwide.”

“That can’t be possible,” she said with little conviction.

“You know, I feel like that statement doesn’t apply to much anymore.”

Lois caught her mind wandering, likely due to her exhaustion, and realized that she accidentally misaligned the printing lasers by half a centimeter, doubling the smiley faces on what she assumed were lollipop wrappers. How many containers had been botched? Lois had no way to know, and perhaps, if this were a few weeks ago, she would have reported it.

Several days later, Lois watched from her bedroom window as a military Humvee patrolled her neighborhood. She couldn’t understand the call for martial law. People had been disappearing, people she knew, but she still had a job to go to. Bills still had to be paid. She needed her children to have an education. What would she do if the schools closed down like they said they would?

…they thought maybe whatever was in the unknown depths was something better. Heaven perhaps. But heaven is in the sky, isn’t it?

Lois’ sister and mother hadn’t called in some time, and Simon wasn’t answering his phone. She wondered if perhaps he was hiding out in his bunker. Or, perhaps he’d been arrested by the National Guard. What if he’d disappeared, too? That night she slept with her children in her bed. The darkness was thicker than ever outside, pierced by the spotlights of passing military patrols. Every so often, gunshots rang out, a dog barked, a cry silenced.

Lois had decided to take her brother’s advice and bought perishable goods, though she was unable to get any substantial amount. Still, they were having filling meals, rice and beans, nuts, canned fruits and vegetables, and powdered milk. She had been fortunate as a child that her mother took the time to teach her how to cook, and not simply from a recipe. Ezra asked how long they would have to go without cheese, and Lois, with all the confidence she could display, assured him that everything would be back to normal within the next week or two.

When three weeks had gone by without any improvements, however, Lois realized she would need to start rationing their food. It was difficult having to limit her children from consuming what would have otherwise been a hearty meal. The boredom didn’t help their hunger either. Schools were closed, and with the count of almost half a billion people over the edge, daycares were overflowing. Lois began giving Harmony and Ezra lessons, lessons about the earth and how to make things grow, lessons on grammar and language, about how to work more complex mathematics. One evening, after lighting the candles to conserve electricity as ordered, she explored the back of an old storage closet to find her old guitar. It was out of tune and dusted. However, once she had the strings tuned enough, she began teaching them the song her father sang to her at night, the only song she knew how to play.

Won’t you let me come ‘round

Come ‘round to the harbor

Where the ships have all moored

For the night

            I will sing you a song

            A song under the arbor

            Of the water, the waves,

            And the tide.    

  “Do you have your identification?” the soldier asked. Without hesitating, Lois presented her driver’s license. “Alright, ma’am. Just take your ticket and basket and go wait in the holding block. They’ll call you shortly.”

Lois entered a fenced in area at the entrance of the grocery store. Apparently, with the population in crisis, there were no workers to farm, none to package goods, fewer to ship and deliver them. Just as equally, however, with the population in crisis, there were fewer people to share rations with. Lois was flushed with joy a few minutes later when she saw a row of chicken breasts. Altogether, she took home the meat, five boxes of stuffing, five cans of mixed vegetables, two boxes of instant mashed potatoes, a small tomato that had been growing in someone’s garden, and an emergency kit handed out to each household.

“Tonight, we’ll have a feast,” she thought.

The smell of the meat cooking that evening made their stomachs grumble and their mouths salivate like never before. As they ate, they laughed and talked as in times not so long ago, but so far removed. Lois hadn’t forgotten, however, and once she was sure her children were asleep, she cried quietly to herself, realizing that such times would be scarce. This was now the way of things. This was life. How did it change so quickly?

Money was worth no more than kindling for a fire. Food and medical supplies had become the new currency. Pharmacies and warehouses had been raided before being placed under government control. Helicopters droned by regularly. She no longer heard the gunshots because they had become as commonplace as a singing bird or chirping cricket. Except, she could hear the absence of the birds and the silence in the evenings without crickets.

“Stop it!” she thought to herself. “Stop it! This isn’t the end of the world!”

“Identification.” Lois presented her license again to the soldier. “Where is your stamp?”

“My stamp?”

“You need a certification stamp to enter.”

“How do I get that?”

“You have to go to your district’s assigned station.”

“Where is that?”

“What district are you?”

“I don’t know. I live on Newton Road.”

“You’re going to need to tell me more than that, ma’am. I’m not from here so I don’t know where Newton Road is. Didn’t your district leader give you a map?”

“My district leader?”

“Yes. He should have given you a pamphlet with all the information you need.”

“No one told me anything about this. I didn’t even know that there were districts.. I just need to get food. My children need to eat.”

“Can’t do that without a stamp, ma’am.”

“Please, I don’t know where to go.”

“I’m going to need you to leave the premises ma’am. You know what you need to get in.”

No, no, no, no! She didn’t know. How was she supposed to know? Lois’s mind was reeling, the heat of exhausted fury hotter than its ignition, and she was at her end. What was she supposed to do? Her mind collapsed into hysteria, and two minutes later, she was thrown to the sidewalk. The guard snatched her license from her hand and punched a single hole into its center.

“Your license has been revoked, and you are no longer permitted on these premises. Do you understand me?”

“What?! No! How am I supposed to feed my children? What am I supposed to do?” Lois’ was on her knees, hands limp, her eyes swollen with tears.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” he shrugged. “Use your emergency kit.”

Lois sat there for nearly two hours, silent, expressionless. As far away as the edge was and as much as she’d tried to ignore it, it had somehow reached her, and now she too was falling into her own oblivion. There was no end in sight, as she had tried to convince herself. There was no more normal. Living had become one’s work, one’s chore, one’s burden. Living was a curse. Living was what people meant when they said ‘go to hell’.

She no longer heard the gunshots because they had become as commonplace as a singing bird or chirping cricket.

That night with empty bellies, she held her children in their bed. Ezra and Harmony had cried themselves to sleep. She no longer had the ability to cry, even if she’d wanted. Outside, a storm had begun, the winds howling increasingly louder around their home. What was she supposed to do?

The emergency kit. Why had the guard said to use the emergency kit? At the moment, she’d thought he was being facetious. Now, however, her mind could not rest for curiosity.

Lois slipped out from the bed and walked quietly to the kitchen. She had put it somewhere, she knew. It hadn’t seemed important at the time. After a minute of searching in the dark, she found the black plastic bag with a perforated end to tear open. She ripped it off and emptied the contents on the table, holding the candle near to get a better look. It seemed an average emergency kit. There was a tourniquet, a flare, two packs of pain relievers, a stitching needle and thread, iodine packets, gauze, wraps, band aids, and antiseptic cream. Lois stared at the pile, disappointed.

As she sat back, however, the flickering glow of the candle cast a light on the pain relievers. What had seemed to be two packets was actually one, and another of something completely different. A familiar, double-printed face smiled up at her. They stared into each other’s empty eyes for several minutes, and slowly, Lois began to find comfort in the smile. She tore open the packet and poured the contents into her hand. Four capsules, unmarked, red and white 1,000mg each. 1,000 mg of what? It didn’t matter. The smiley face was enough.

Lois watched her children sleeping for a long time as the rain poured outside. She loved them, didn’t she? Yes. Of course, she did. They were her everything, her reason for existence. But what of their existence? How many more nights must they cry themselves to sleep as they slowly starve to death? Without a word, she took a single glass of water and broke the capsule, pouring the contents in. It mixed without a trace, and she did the same with the remaining three.

“Ezra, Harmony,” Lois said, rubbing their arms comfortingly. “I got you some water. Here.” Bleary eyes, Harmony took the water first, drank, handed it to Ezra who drank then returned the rest to Lois. Looking over them for a long moment as they returned to sleep, she finished the water.

Lois returned to the kitchen, washed the glass, and went back to bed.  


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Despite his wishes, Robert Collins’ wake was a black-tie affair likely because anyone who had ever imagined the wake of a billionaire would simply expect it to be and had dressed accordingly. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, however, Robert Collins had not been a billionaire for quite some time. In fact, he had been down to his last seventeen million dollars which, to a billionaire, was equivalent to bankruptcy. His accountant, Samuel Eldridge, who had recently become wealthier than him due to his generous salary and disciplined spending, was, to his knowledge, the only person aware of this. Finding himself in such a position, Mr. Eldridge secretly outsourced the work to another accountant fresh out of school and for a fraction of what he himself was being paid. Likewise, the accountant he’d hired had no idea it was Robert Collins’ account at all and would not have believed you if you’d told him so.

“So?”

“So, what?”

“So, who’s going to get all his money?” the young accountant asked over a glass of brandy.

    “Charities mostly,” answered Mr. Eldridge. “The man needed his name engraved somewhere besides his headstone.”

     “But what about his wife?”

     “You mean Bridget?”

“Whoever the current one is.”

“She’s likely to get the house and the cars. The two Benz’s, I mean. Not the Ferrari. That one will go to his son, Jerry. She’s also got an allowance set aside for the next several years, though I’m sure she’ll blow through that in six to eight months. Then she’ll have to find a new mine to dig her gold from.”

    “They were only married a few years, right?”

    “That’s right.”

“She’s young, too, isn’t she?”

“Younger than any of his children, and his son Michael hasn’t even left the damn house, yet.”

“Awkward,” the young accountant shuddered. “I wonder what that must be like.”

    “Well, just look at her. I’m sure he figured out a way to cope,” Mr. Eldridge said with a smirk.

    “You mean…”

    “Wouldn’t you?” They snickered together, relishing illicit thoughts as their eyes fell upon the dead man’s pretty wife. 

    Bridget Hanson-Collins was across the banquet hall still shaking hands and accepting condolences nearly an hour into the wake. It was, of course, all a formality. No one besides the old gardener and her husband’s second wife was truly sorry to see him go, not even her. Sure, she’d loved Rob, but much in the same way that she loved high heels or spa days or weekends in Boca Raton. It was also in this same way that she was experiencing the vacuum of his absence. However, such a vacuum would not be filled so easily were anyone to realize how little Rob had actually been worth at the end. Bridget still maintained the advantage of their accountant’s discretion, but without her husband’s employment, that discretion was surely approaching its expiration. The money—real or otherwise— was her dowry, and she must flaunt it like a hooker with her tits out.

    “Mrs. Collins, my deepest sympathies to you and your family.” Howard Leach, the rich, elderly CEO of a company that was apparently revolutionizing cellular computing technology, patted her hand. “What an incredible loss.”

    “Yes, quite incredible.”

    “And yet, an incredible gain, perhaps?” He paused for effect. “You must be under quite a lot of pressure taking over his estate. Have you considered assigning a trustee?”

    “I have, though one doesn’t simply assign just anybody to be a trustee,” said Bridget. “That sort of thing requires… well, trust, and as we both know, that is a rare commodity, especially in this room.”

“Well then, for the sake of commodity, allow me to give you some words of advice that I actually received from your husband not so long ago. We were out on the golf course, and he turned to me and said, ‘Howie,’ he said, ‘if you want to beat the other vultures, you don’t have to be the strongest; only the hungriest.’” Bridget nodded slowly, and Mr. Leach moved closer. “Vultures, Mrs. Collins. Do you understand my meaning?”

“I believe I do.”

“Your husband was a good man. If there’s any way I can assist you, don’t hesitate to call. I’d hate to see his legacy lost to the wolves.”

“The vultures, you mean.”

“Yes,” he nodded with a smile. “The vultures.”

“Thank you, Howie. I’m sure I’ll be calling you very soon.” She shook his hand once more before he moved on.

“He’s got potential,” said Michael over her shoulder.

“All this vultures and wolves talk… he’s nothing but an ass.” Bridget wiped her hand against her thigh.

“Precisely.”

“This is bullshit. If your father hadn’t been such a fool with his money and given it all away, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

…‘if you want to beat the vultures at their game, you don’t have to be the biggest vulture playing. You just have to be the hungriest.’”

You wouldn’t be in this position,” Michael corrected. “Be glad you’ve got me on your team. The others would’ve left you high and dry.” Bridget stepped to the side and stared him down.

“Let me make one thing clear to you, Michael, because it seems there’s something you’ve overlooked. The house you live in, the bed you sleep in, the luxury car you drive, the ridiculous allowance you spend, it all belongs to me, now. I might be at a loss because your idiot father found Jesus, but I am not high and dry. I may be young and play the damsel in distress, but trust me,” she said, leaning in toward his ear, “I am a wolf. I know how to survive. So, if you try to fuck me, I will rip that pathetic cock off your little boy body and shove it so far up your ass it’ll give a whole new meaning to the term ‘deepthroat’.” Michael gulped, and Bridget returned a satisfied smile to her face. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have hunting to do.”

Michael listened to her heels tap behind him as she walked away. Who the fuck did she think she was? If it wasn’t for the fact that he started believing it to be a sin, his father would’ve divorced her a long time ago. She was nothing but a stupid floozy. No, not stupid. Bridget knew exactly what she was doing. If only she’d been able to keep the old son of a bitch from giving almost everything away. Imagine if he hadn’t died. Michael realized what a stroke of luck it was for all of them. His brother Jerry had also acknowledged this, as had their sister Maurine. Their sister, Lisa, however, had chastised them for such a thought, apparently giving the three of them more evidence in the “Lisa was adopted” argument. It was a discussion that dug under Lisa’s skin, and the recollection of it forced a quiet laugh out of Michael as he approached his siblings by the French doors to the veranda. 

“She’s really turning it up today, isn’t she?” asked Maurine. “Like a bleeding shark in a school of sharks.”

“Sharks are solitary animals.”

“Sharks are solitary animals,” Maurine mocked. “Shut up and eat your shrimp, Lisa.” Lisa, armed with an overloaded salad plate, shut up and ate her shrimp.

“What did she say to you?” asked Jerry.

“Just how grateful she is that I’ve been there for her,” said Michael, taking a cocktail from a passing tray. “I think she’s going to crack soon. Could be any day now.”

“Just make sure you have those documents ready to go,” said Jerry. “I don’t need any setbacks. I’ve already got investments lined up, so the sooner I get my cut, the better. Two million dollars isn’t much, but I can make it work.”

“I can’t believe he wasted all that money on a bunch of dirty, old poor people,” said Maurine. “Ridiculous.”

“Better than wasting it on a bunch of dirty, old rich people.”

“Shut the fuck up, Lisa.”

“You guys are assholes,” said Lisa. “All you care about is money. It can’t buy any of you happiness.”

“No, but it can finance it,” said Jerry into his glass.

“There’s more to life, you know,” she argued. “I should just get up and tell everyone here the truth.”

“Go ahead, Lisa,” said Michael. “I’ll take your two million, and you can give out samples at a grocery store for a living.” Lisa stuttered for a moment, then ate another shrimp. Turning back to the others, “You know, I’m surprised Mother hasn’t said anything about any of this. I think I saw her shed a tear earlier during the service.”

“It was probably just trying to escape the cold-hearted bitch,” said Jerry. “Mother doesn’t cry for anyone or anything. Not even when Lex died.”

“Goddamn.” The four of them stood somberly together for a moment. “Imagine if he was still here. We’d all be out half-a-mil each.” The three of them laughed while Lisa leered disgustedly.

“Four hundred thousand,” she muttered under her breath.

“Would you shut the hell up, Lisa?” Michael asked. “Who invited you here, anyway?”

“Mother,” said Lisa.

It just so happened that Mother, despite how long it had been since she’d played the part, still retained the uncanny ability of hearing her child speak her name in a crowded room, and so, she turned her eyes toward the four of them. How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

“Carol, what is it?” asked Denise, Mother’s thirty-two-year-old personal assistant and off-and-on-currently-on lover.

“You know I like you, Denise, and sometimes I even feel that I love you, maybe,” said Carol, “but it’s become increasingly clear to me that I should have never left Robert all those years ago.” Expectantly hurt, Denise withdrew her hand from Carol’s who subsequently rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t be such a fucking baby.”

“I would do anything for you,” Denise declared. “I would die for you.”

“Yes, well unless you have millions stashed around somewhere that really doesn’t do me any good, does it?” Denise blinked in shock. “They say you can’t take money with you when you die, but that’s only ever poor people who say that; poor people who disguise their deficiency of ambition as an abundance of frugality and humble pride. But they’re no different than anyone else. They’d choose money in a heartbeat if you offered.”

“I love you, Carol,” said Denise earnestly.

“Love,” she chuckled. “Now there’s something worth leaving behind.”

“I need some air,” Denise sighed, rising to her feet.

“Oh, please, don’t get your panties all in a bunch.”

“I don’t wear panties. I wear boxer-briefs.”

“Yes, I know,” Carol frowned. “Well, then, if you’re going to go sulk, at least come back with a bottle of that merlot.” Denise rolled her eyes and turned to go until Carol said her name in that sweet, strangely intoxicating tone she hated admitting an affinity for.

“What?…”

“You know you’re my favorite.” Denise smiled and walked away towards the bar where Sam Eldridge was chatting with a young man. He and Carol made eye contact, nodded, and turned to face opposite directions.

How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

Gloria, Robert Collins’ second wife, approached Carol leaning heavily on a cane. Her hands were wrinkled and spotted, and her face, with no more than a bit of rouge and lipstick, was unashamedly aged according to her years. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said, her head shaking unsteadily. “Can you believe it?”

“When was he ever here?” Carol responded.

“I know you two didn’t have many good years, but is it so difficult to refrain from speaking ill of the dead? Of someone you loved?”

“I never loved Robert,” said Carol. Gloria nodded and took a tired seat beside her, wandering her gaze across the faces in the room.

“Robby loved you.”

“Yes, I know he did. It was disgusting.”

“But you had five children together. You must have loved him at some point.”

“If you believe that the pussy and the heart are interminably connected then you’re no more of a woman than a man decides you to be.”

“Five children,” Gloria persisted. “Five. That’s no small thing to give a man.”

“Says a woman incapable of giving any,” Carol shot back. “Just look at my return of investment. How commensurate.” Gloria looked at her for a moment before lowering her eyes.

“You’re rotten, Carol. You know that?”

“Yes. I am rotten.” Carol looked at Gloria with a startling expression of pride. Gloria rose slowly and turned away to leave her.

“Nothing rotten was never once sweet.”

As Carol stared ahead silently, a salad fork dinged gently at the side of a glass, and the din of conversations ended abruptly. Samuel Eldridge and his employee, Bridget Collins, the four children, and the two ex-wives looked together at an old man who stood at a corner table preparing to speak.

“Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Henry Koper. Most folks call me Hank, at least, Bob did when he was alive. I don’t know if saying things about the dead matter much. Seems to me that if you had something to say about someone, you should’ve said it before they died. That’s a hard lesson you generally don’t learn but the hard way. Bob and I, we grew up together over in Port City, just a couple of troublemakers playing hooky, chasing girls, tying sparklers to cats… good times. Then we grew up, went to war… after that was over, he went his way, and I went mine.

“I become a lawyer. Bob became a billionaire.” The room laughed for a moment without Hank. “He became a billionaire…” Hank hung his head before inhaling to regain his voice. “Bob wrote a letter a long time ago. He gave it to me in ‘Nam for me to send home in case anything ever happened to him. We didn’t die, obviously, and I forgot all about it until I found out he’d passed. Never even read it until yesterday… I’d like to share it with you now, because, well…” Hank Koper reached into his jacket pocket and produced a dirty, yellowed letter and a pair of bifocals. After clearing his throat, he read the following:

Dear Mother,

If you’re reading this, it means either they got me, or I got me. I don’t really understand what this is all about, and I don’t expect you to, either. Regardless, you’re still here, and I’m gone. I once heard somebody say that even after you die, you’re still alive as long as someone is thinking about you. If there’s any truth to that reasoning, it seems to me that it should work the same in reverse. So, wherever it is that I am, I hope I’ll miss you there, because then, you’ll still exist for me, too. If there’s anything I’ve come to realize, it’s not that you lived that’s important, but that you remain alive after it’s all said and done.

Well, I guess there isn’t much else to say, now, except that I love you, and thanks for the socks.

Love always,

Bobby

Hank folded the letter and returned it and his glasses to his pocket. A grin bloomed on his face as he looked around at the crowd and said, “I get the feeling you folks will keep Bob alive for a very long time, and well, that’s just something you can’t inherit from the dead, now is it?”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

It has been said that in the final moment of a person’s existence, their whole life flashes before their eyes. I cannot say with any certainty whether this is true because, firstly, I have no life, or at least, no life of my own. What existence I have is shared and fleeting and relies solely on the existence of others. Secondly, there is no such thing as a final moment, because each moment in and of itself is both final and independent. It is for this reason that I cannot fully fathom the notion of directing one’s own fate. Yet, I do believe in it, however begrudgingly, and know that if it were ever afforded to me, I would treasure it. Such privilege is all too often wasted on those who are incapable of believing, even as they hold it in their own hands. My fate forever remains out of hands I do not possess. And now, the only hand I see is balled into a fist and poised for my destruction. Don’t think that I am bitter for my helplessness. I am what I am, and I accept that. After all, one cannot lose what was never had. Therefore, with neither a final moment nor a life with which to live it, I shall do as I have always done and reflect.

It was on a peculiar day, not five years ago, that the new owners of my residence placed me into a room I’d never before seen, and at first I was repulsed at how much time these people spent looking at me. They mindlessly splashed me with sink water leaving the droplets to dry until they felt compelled to clean them off. Many times I found myself peering through the mist, unable to discern any more than shapes and orbs of color and light until the towel which had been wrapped around naked flesh was used to smudge away the fog. And what noises that escape the human form! I consider myself fortunate to reflect light and not sound.

However, even in that undesirable environment, I found most pleasing a new view through a small window giving me sight to what I’d only before heard referenced to as “the lake”. The water moved back and forth in soft crescendos, disturbed only by the impact of rain on its surface. When the sun returned, the neighbor children would go jumping into the water from the pier for some time, then sit back with their fishing poles lined and launched. It was sunny this way nearly every day when the new couple arrived. I do not know where they came from, but I could only surmise after hearing and seeing so many conversations that they too were pleased with the change of scenery, however minor it may have been.

The man was handsome, a bit rough around the edges, and certainly not as fit as others I’d seen. He smiled much more frequently, however, and at times it seemed to be his most attractive feature. The woman who kissed him was short and spent far less time than many other women fixing their hair and concealing their blemishes. She seemed to realize what was already beautiful about her and needed nothing—nor felt a need—to make anyone else more aware of it.

What I found most peculiar was the bond between them, far different from the aching hearts of the meek and the mild, the backbiting of the envious, and the stoic silence of hopeless romantics. It was almost as if they felt something genuine for each other, a thing which I could not give a name, yet it was something visible in their eyes when they said to each other, “I love you.” The man and woman said this often, always simply and without reservation. I had, in the first weeks, already decided that even if they believed they meant it, such feelings would not last, and such beliefs would follow suit.

She seemed to realize what was already beautiful about her and needed nothing—nor felt a need—to make anyone else more aware of it.

Whether due to an affliction of supra-naiveté or simply a lack of matrimonial awareness, as the summer turned to autumn and thusly to winter, their happiness and love did not appear to diminish. It was a struggle even for me, with all my knowledge and observation of the human species, to remain pragmatic. Idealistic attitudes of human nature never ended well, as the very first inhabitants of my house learned all too clearly when they were robbed by some soldiers who’d surrendered and sought a night’s shelter from their former enemies. By all accounts, it was nothing short of a miracle that no one had been murdered in their beds. At any rate, the cycle of trust and deception always ended in this way: those who trusted would be deceived, and those who deceived would never trust, but all would meet their end with bitter wisdom.

In the dawn of their first spring, a layer of morning clouds cast a haze over the lake, and the woman entered the bathroom, quickly locking the door behind her. She sat in every ordinary way on the porcelain seat, fumbling with some box and its contents. I paid the affair little mind until she stood before me. She looked at herself in me, and it was then that my attention was caught. It was as if she was facing a giant; that reflected before her was not herself but something greater, as if she observed the path of uncertain adventure. Yet, it was this fact of uncertainty that brought the smile to her face. The man began knocking at the door, and after taking a deep breath she allowed him entrance. Together they smiled, then laughed. Together they wept. This was something I’d never before witnessed. Of course, I’d seen countless men and women weep, but this was something else. This was happiness, and I pondered with perplexity such joy that would release a wealth of tears.

Soon, the woman’s figure changed, her belly and her breasts swelling quickly. Unlike others who grow bigger, this seemed to please her, and she’d turn to one side, then the other, feeling and pressing at her sides, then rubbing her palm tenderly across her skin. On occasion, in quiet moments, the man would do the same to her, his arms wrapping around from behind. The summer and the light returned until it cooled and the leaves began to turn. Breezes whispered to each other just as did the man and the woman, and despite the winter claiming the lake, the cold found no shelter here.

Then, there were three of them. The baby girl chattered and cooed at herself in me, her mother holding her securely against her bossom. The man was there as well, his smile evolved into an expression of awed affection. This child was their creation, and they were humbled and in love. Few moments followed in which the girl was not the center of attention. Like two planets, they orbited their star, and they called her Felicity.

Those who trusted would be deceived, and those who deceived would never trust, but all would meet their end with bitter wisdom.

The three lived this way for a long time. The woman even grew again as with their daughter, and she and the man wept together as before. Yet, there was no addition to the family. One autumn morning before dawn, the light switched on. The woman was alone as she struggled into the bathroom. Her night gown was coated red, and her hands the same leaving smeared prints on the floor as she crawled towards the tub in agony. Her skin was pale, sweating, and crying, her teeth gritted until I was certain they’d crack. With a guttural sigh, her strength gave out, and she lay silently on the floor. The woman bled until she stopped.

I do not like some reflections. I do not like most, if I am to be honest. The man walking into the bathroom, tired and dirty from a long night’s work, those suspended seconds of confusion, the bolt of realization piercing him that followed and the scream he could not give voice to; I would have rather not existed at all than to reflect that light. Perhaps, in consideration of such things, fate is in no one’s hands at all. Perhaps, such a notion is simply a myth, a fairy tale created to make sense of the nonsensical, no different than any other horrible bedtime story.

To say that the woman lived is subjective, and you may take that as you will. The eyes that once looked confidently upon a great adventure now stared blankly at a wall. It was only with Felicity that such an expression was replaced with a smile. However, there was no question that the new reflection was void of something that the old possessed. The man recognized this, too, though he remained silent, seeing it then looking away in denial of both, as if to not acknowledge something is to negate its existence altogether. However, that which is buried alive will seek vengeance when unearthed, and it will shriek and howl all the while in between.

Despite her role in my imminent shattering, the woman I see now is the same woman I saw years before. No form of her in the present is devoid of her in the past, and though it may seem her heavy eyes and splintering tears were born of sorrow for what might have been, they were instead for the inexorable change of what used to be. She’d repeated countless times while looking at herself in me, “You cannot lose what you never had… You cannot lose what you never had…” It may have been that she was simply trying to convince herself of such a thing, to remind herself of what still mattered. However, when one has smiled but can no longer, when a person who has expressed love becomes incapable of expression, when someone who—worse than a lack of feeling—feels the heaviness of nothing, then there is no matter. There is only the reflection, and the reflection must die.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Disclaimer: The following short story contains racially charged dialogue and disturbing subject matter as it reflects the characters and the period in which they exist. In no way does it express the views or opinions of the author.

“The hangman’s gettin’ his today.” A puff of cigarette smoke floated toward the open window. “Yessir. The hangman’s gettin’ his.”

  “Sit down, Joe. Enough witnesses out there already, ain’t there?”

  “What’s eatin’ you, Pal? Since when did you stop likin’ a good hangin’?” Pal looked back down at the revolver he’d been polishing for nearly an hour. It had been three long weeks since he’d been able to clean it. He couldn’t stand a dirty gun. Joe sat down at the other end of the table, exhaling a gray cloud. “There ain’t nothin’ you coulda done. Mitchell dug his own grave. What the hell were you supposed to do? Let him run off with them niggers?” Pal stopped wiping for a moment of thought, then resumed.

  “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” he said.

  “It ain’t about what a nigger do. It about what a nigger be. A nigger be a nigger. You can’t trust a one of ‘em. Sure as shit, as soon as Mitchell’d got them up north, those damn spooks woulda put a bullet twixed his eyes and made off with his horse an’ his billfold. I’m tellin’ ya. Sure as shit.”

  “Why would they do that to someone just helped ‘em?” Pal asked.

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.

 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “Sure it do,” said Joe, relaxing. He took out his pocket knife and began scraping the dirt from under his fingernails.

 “Didn’t look no different up in Kentucky.”

 “You just wasn’t payin’ no attention.”

 “Oh… I was payin’ attention.”

 “It’s in they skin, Pal. Come on. I know you ain’t missin’ that.”

 “No, I ain’t missin’ that.”

 “You can learn a nigger a lotta things. How to plow, how to plant, how to harvest, how to build. But you can’t change ‘em. You can’t wash out the nigger. You can’t learn out the nigger. They ain’t never gonna be no more than a bunch o’ damned monkeys. Any chance they’d get, them spooks’d be turnin’ this here country into Afr’ca, chuckin’ spears an’ bangin’ drums. Worst part is, it’d be us white folks chained up like we the slaves. Niggers would be goin’ ‘round murderin’ and rapin’ all our white women an’ chil’en. Lawmen like you an’ me, you know we’d be at the top o’ they kill list. That’s why we gotta keep ‘em under control, ‘specially them bad ones. Ain’t no tellin’ what a bad nigger gonna do.”

 “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” Pal repeated.

 “Don’t mean they wouldn’t if’n you let ‘em.”

 “Don’t mean they would, neither.”

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.
 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “The hell’s got into you, Pal?” Joe asked angrily. “You actin’ like there’s somethin’ wrong with killin’ a bad nigger.”

 “I ain’t sayin’ all that.”

 “What you sayin’, then?” Joe demanded, putting his knife away to face Pal who looked down at the gun in his hand.

 “What’s the difference ‘tween a good nigger and a bad nigger?” Pal asked, looking up at Joe.

 “What d’you mean ‘good nigger’? Ain’t no such thing as a good nigger, Pal.”

 “Just s’posin’ there were, Joe.”

 “But there ain’t-”

 “Just, s’pose.”

 “Well,” Joe shrugged after a moment, “a good nigger—s’posin’ there be such a thing—a good nigger know his place, an’ a bad nigger don’t know a nigger’s place.”

 “Okay,” Pal nodded. “What’s the difference ‘tween a good white man and a bad white man?”

 “I ain’t gotta explain a good white man. A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither. Look at what Mitchell done, helpin’ them coons. He got it all mixed up in his head one way or ‘nother.”

 “So, a bad white man is the same as a bad nigger, is what you’re sayin’?”

 “Now, Pal, ain’t no white man the same as a nigger, good nor bad.”

 “Would you shoot a nigger if’n you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “Sure as shit, I’d shoot that nigger dead.” Joe straightened up proudly.

 “Would you shoot a white man if you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “That ain’t the same thing at all, Pal, an’ you know it.”

 “Why ain’t it?”

 “’Cause, it’s twice the bad if a nigger’s rapin’ a white girl.”

 “To you or to the white girl?”

 “If they ain’t no difference to the white girl, then she mixed up too!”

 “It’s the same crime ain’t it, rapin’ someone?”

 “Yeah, but it ain’t the same if a goddamn nigger do it.”

 “What makes it different?”

 “’Cause they niggers, Pal! That’s why they gotta be kept under control. Why you questionin’ ever’thin’?”

 “You mean make ‘em slaves?”

 “If’n that’s what it takes, an’ we both know that’s what it takes.”

 “Supposin’ you made a white man a slave, put him in chains, took his woman and children away. Supposin’ that. What do you reckon that white man’d do?”

 “That ain’t the same thing.”

 “It ain’t?”

 “You talkin’ ‘bout a white man. We dealin’ with spear-chuckin’ chimps.”

 “What would you do if it was you, Joe? What if you was just some ole whitey slave under the nigger’s thumb? Sweatin’ away every day in their nigger fields, getting’ beat every day with them nigger whips, always hungry, never seein’ your wife and girls again but knowin’, fearin’ that every day, some nigger’s stuffin’ ‘em good? You’d do everything you could to get away, wouldn’t you?”

 “Course I would.”

 “You’d fight back? You’d break out and run?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d make them niggers pay, wouldn’t you?”

 “You’re goddamn right.”

 “I suppose you’d steal yourself a horse too if’n you could find one, to get you far as you can, quick as you can, right?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d need food, so you’d steal some of that, too, wouldn’t you? An’ a gun? If one o’ them were to see you, try to stop you, you’d shoot ‘im wouldn’t you?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “So you’d be runnin’, stealin’, and murderin’…” Pal looked down at the handkerchief in his hands, his thoughts pulling him back and forth. “Sounds a lot like the same shit bad niggers be doin’. There ain’t no difference.”

“… A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither….”

 “Them niggers is property, Pal! White folks ain’t property o’ no man!”

 “But what was they first, Joe? Was they property first, or was they just niggers first?”

 “You talkin’ nonsense, Pal.”

 “It ain’t no nonsense that anyone would be doin’ the same thing if’n they was treated the same way. You said so yourself.”

 “So, what?”

 “So, there ain’t no difference ‘tween a bad nigger an’ a bad white man. We jus’ say there is ‘cause we’re white an’ ‘cause we’re the ones runnin’ shit. Switch things ‘round an’ niggers would be sayin’ the same ‘bout white folks. They’d be callin’ us property and bad ole whiteys. There jus’ ain’t no goddamn difference, Joe.” Joe looked a long time at Pal who’d gone back to wiping down his revolver, and he wasn’t sure if he should start to hate him or fear him.

 In Joe’s mind, the only thing more dangerous than a nigger, was a nigger lover. They were like spies. Turncoats. You couldn’t trust them, but you couldn’t identify one just by looking at him. They were tricky. They could circumvent law, spawn anarchy and rebellion. At the same rate, hadn’t it been Pal who’d taken the lead while they were hunting down that last group of runaways? Hadn’t it been Pal himself who’d cuffed Thomas Mitchell, his longtime partner? He’d even testified against Mitchell to the magistrate. If it wasn’t for Pal, Mitchell might be rounding up some more runaways instead of standing outside in line at the gallows. Perhaps, it didn’t matter much what Pal thought in his head because Pal didn’t let it get in the way of the job he’d sworn to do. They had to maintain the balance of law and order and keep the peace. Joe had always respected Pal, but in that moment, he realized he neither hated nor feared Pal. Joe wanted to be Pal in some different way he had yet to define for himself.

 “What would you do, Pal?” Joe asked, lighting a fresh cigarette. Pal looked over at him.

 “What would I do, what?”

 “What would you do if’n you was some spook’s slave, jus’ some ole whitey all chained up? What would you do?” Pal sat for a long time, staring at the table between them, his eyes heavy, the dark circles beneath them like the shadows of twin crescent moons. Joe was leaning forward slightly, squinting at him.

 “I can’t rightly say,” said Pal, holstering his pistol. He stood up slowly and approached the window, folding the cloth between his hands.

 “The hell you mean, you can’t rightly say? Why not?” Joe scoffed, second-guessing his newfound desire to be like Pal. “I wanna know what you’d do.”

 Running his thumb along the stitching of the handkerchief, Pal looked out towards the distant gallows. The sun was high, and he could see the one shade of light skin leading the line of dark. Mitchell was first up to climb the platform, and it occurred to Pal how quickly time passed in life. They’d been partners for almost nine years, and there was no question in Pal’s mind that if it wasn’t for Tom, he’d be a dead man. Pal felt pretty certain that he’d done the same for Tom, but even if he had, did it count for anything, now? If anyone had ever tried to tell him it would be his testimony that tightened the rope around his partner’s neck, he’d have knocked their teeth in. Tom didn’t look angry about it at his trial, though, almost as if he approved of Pal doing what was right, even if Pal didn’t like it. Yet, they’d both done what they believed to be right, hadn’t they? The difference was that one had acted according to his conscience and the other according to the law, but how do you string up a man for following his conscience? And if a man’s conscience runs counter to the law, does that make the man wrong or the law wrong?

 Pal couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and it had finally exhausted him. What would he do if the world was opposite? How the hell could he tell that if he couldn’t tell what he’d do in the world as it was? Pal did know, however, what Mitchell would do, and he hung his head as the black bag was lowered over Tom’s face.

 “I guess I’d be a good ole whitey.”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab along the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard. It had been four days of peanut butter sandwiches, and he was hoping that today wouldn’t be the fifth. The tin container rattled open, and unwrapping the parchment paper revealed a jelly sandwich. “If that woman don’t beat all,” he chuckled.

   The city of Chicago and its citizens were alive and buzzing around Rudy like a hive of bees. The sun was affectionately combing its fingers through the heights of concrete and steel, down along the avenues, and toward the hidden lakefront. Checking his watch, he estimated that he still had about two minutes and quickly tore away the crust, stuffing a quarter of the sandwich into his mouth. As he chewed deliberately, Rudy considered what the monetary repercussions would be if he sucked it up and put down the fifty cents it would cost for a soup and sandwich at the diner on 5th Avenue.

   “Hiya, Rudy,” a young woman’s voice said through the window. Looking up, Rudy returned the greeting as he cranked the window down. “We should be ready in just a minute.”

   “No rush,” he said. “How you been, Margaret? Busy week so far?”

   “Not as much as last week,” she shrugged. “It’s only Tuesday, though.”

   “Sure is a pretty day,” Rudy commented. “I was thinkin’ about fishin’ on the lake tomorrow if it keeps up.

   “Yeah, it’s really nice out.”

   “Did you know that spring is my favorite season?”

   “I didn’t know that.”

   “Not too hot, not too cold. And you know what? Gloria was even out for a walk this morning.”

   “Really? How’s she been doing?” Margaret leaned one hand on the roof of the car.

   “Some days are better than others, days like today.” Rudy looked pensively ahead down the street. “Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this,” he admitted, wagging his thumb over his shoulder. “Wouldn’t be any good days if I did.”

   “Makes sense.”

   “Hey, Margaret, she’s ready. You all set?” Another woman had poked her head out from the door of the apartment building beyond them. “Oh, and we got two more calls.”

   “Two?” Margaret repeated.

   “Yeah, so we’re gonna need you to take one,” she confirmed before disappearing back inside.

  “I guess I spoke to soon,” Margaret said, handing him a folded piece of paper. “Here’s the address.”

  “What do you mean, here’s the address? You mean you ain’t comin’?” Rudy asked, suddenly anxious.

  “I’ve gotta stay for these other ladies.”

  “What about the one you got right now?” he demanded. “I ain’t one of ya’ll. I don’t know how to talk to these women.”

   “Nobody said you have to talk. Just drive her there like any other passenger.”

   “South Shore?” Rudy asked, looking at the scribbled address. “That’s near a half hour. Ain’t no woman can be quiet that long.”

   “Just turn on the radio.”

   “What if she doesn’t want no radio on?”

   “Here’s five extra dollars, okay?” Rudy glared at the folded bill in Margaret’s hand.

   “Fine,” he conceded, accepting the money. “But this ain’t gonna be no regular thing, you hear? I’m gettin’ too old to be consolin’ women and all that.”

   “Here she comes,” Margaret said. “Just drive.”

“Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this.”

Aggravated, Rudy inhaled another quarter of his sandwich before returning the rest to the lunchbox, muttering under his breath about the new generation and their ridiculous expectations on people his age. At least he would be able to get that soup and sandwich, now. What time did they stop serving that lunch special, though? In an hour, maybe? His estimation of the fastest route to take was paused as the woman he was to drive opened the door and took her seat in the back. She wore a pressed, blue dress, black flats, and one of the little hats all the women seemed to be wearing those days. Gloved hands tightly clutched a small, cloth purse over the edge of her knees.

   “All right, Jane, this is Rudy,” introduced Margaret. “He’s gonna drive you to the location just like we talked about. If you need anything, just tell him. Okay?”

   “Okay,” Jane nodded timidly.

   “You’re sure you want to do this?” Margaret squinted as she waited for a response. Jane nodded again, only silently this time, and with down-turned eyes. Margaret stood straight, closed the door, and hit twice on the roof.

Rudy pulled away from the sidewalk and began navigating toward the highway, the engine humming a different tone with each shift of the gears. He found himself occasionally glancing at her in the rear view. She didn’t seem but twenty years old. Maybe twenty-five. It was impossible to tell those days with all the young kids looking like adults. Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

   “Where are we going?” Jane’s question broke him from his thoughts.

   “South Shore,” he answered curtly.

   “I’ve never been down that way. How far is it?”

   “Gonna be about twenty-five minutes, give or take. Depends on traffic.”

   “Is there a lot today?” she asked, with a hint of hope.

   “Roads are lookin’ pretty clear so far.” Rudy hoped this would be the extent of the conversation, and to help ensure it was, he asked, “Want to listen to the radio?”

   “Not right now,” she answered quietly. Rudy frowned. “Is it a nice place?”

   “You mean South Shore?”

   “The place we’re going.”

   “I don’t know. Ain’t never been there.” He couldn’t understand why she needed to talk to him, or better yet, why she couldn’t just listen to the radio.

   “Do you do this a lot?”

   “Well, I’m a cab driver, so…”

   “I mean for this,” she specified.

   “I ain’t part of what they do, but, sure, sometimes.”

   “So,” Jane began slowly, “you know what this is all for, then?”

   “I got a good idea.” Rudy cleared his throat uncomfortably.

   “And it doesn’t bother you at all?”

   “It ain’t my business to be bothered by.”

   “A friend of mine did this last year, you know. Maybe you remember her. Her name was Catherine—or Cathy, I guess. We all called her Cathy… and she had thick brown hair, always bobbed real nice. Pretty, straight teeth, too. A real nice smile. All the boys were—”

   “I don’t remember,” Rudy interrupted.

   “Oh, of course. I’m sure you see hundreds of people every day. Thousands maybe. I guess you couldn’t be expected to remember one.” Jane rubbed her thumbs along the strap of her purse. “I doubt you’ll remember me, even.”

   “There’s a lot of people in Chicago,” Rudy said, as if to imply that it was no fault of hers that she would be forgotten and in turn make up for his previous abrasiveness. Judging by her expression, however, his words seemed to have little effect. “What I mean is, I probably won’t remember you any more than I won’t remember anyone else. You know? There’s a lot of people.”

   “I knew what you meant,” she said. “Nobody’s special.”

   “I wouldn’t say all that,” he replied. “Nobody’s special to everyone, but everyone should be special to someone.”

   “Even if they haven’t been born yet?” asked Jane. Rudy remained silent, watching the lines on the road move slowly toward them, ever-increasing in speed until they jumped by and were gone. Like life, he thought to himself. It seems like everything to come is a slow haul until it arrives. Then, it’s over as if it never happened at all. “Who’s special to you?”

   “What’s that?” he asked, stealing a glance at his watch.

   “I said, who’s special to you?” Jane was studying him in the mirror, now.

   “I’m married.” Rudy focused on avoiding her gaze.

   “Oh? How long?”

   “Longer than you been alive. I married Gloria back in 1921,” he said proudly. “Ain’t looked back since.”

Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

“That sounds wonderful. You two must really love each other.”

   “I love her. She tolerates me,” Rudy smiled. “No, I suppose we love and tolerate each other about equal parts. Marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know, but it’s worth a hell of a lot more than folks like to admit.” At this, Jane blinked and looked blankly out the window. “I don’t suppose you’re married, are you?”

   “I’m engaged.”

   “Ah. Does he know about…”

   “No.”

   “I realize I’m just some old cab driver, but,” Rudy began, “don’t you think that maybe he might want a say in this, too? If he’s the man you’re marrying, he might actually want—”

   “He can’t know,” Jane interrupted. “It would ruin him.”

Rudy nodded, surprised at himself for feeling surprised at all. This was a grown woman, wasn’t she? She was as capable of infidelity as anyone else. For some reason, though, she didn’t strike him as the type. He’d lived long enough to understand that people are more than their appearances. But what does ‘the type’ even look like, he wondered. This lady appeared about as innocent as a baby jay. Although, wouldn’t an innocent appearance be advantageous for a cheater? “You’re doing this for his sake, then…”

   “What’s it any of your business why I’m doing this?” Jane snapped. “Maybe I’m doing it for me. Maybe I’m doing it for the baby. Did you ever think of that?”

   “No, I guess not,” he said, wishing like hell he’d taken Margaret’s advice. “Just seems like, if you got this far, you’d know why.”

   “I can’t take care of a baby on my own, no matter how much I might want to. What kind of life do you think some bastard child would have in this world? And I would be the one who let it happen. I would be the cause of it all, and I couldn’t live with that on my conscience.”

   “I’m confused, now. Is this for the child’s sake or for your conscience’s sake?”

   “Who says it can’t be both?”

   “Nobody, but I figure one’s gotta carry more weight than the other. Who says this baby can’t end up being somebody special? Don’t matter what other people say about him or who his father is if he decides to be someone special.”

   “No one is special to everyone, remember?” Jane shot back.

   “No one should want to be,” Rudy said. “Anyone that special is doomed to fail.”

   “So, you don’t think I should do this,” said Jane. “You think I’m going to hell? That I’m committing a horrible sin?”

   “Now, I didn’t say anything like that, but if that’s how you feel, then that’s on you,” said Rudy. “I ain’t no preacher to be tellin’ you how to live your life. It’s your decision to make. It’s your life unless you decide to have the baby, and then it’s his life, too. And if the father steps up, well then, I suppose it’s all three of your lives.”

   “He can’t know, I already told you.”

   “You mean… this is your fiancé’s baby?” Jane stared silently away. “I don’t understand why a man wouldn’t want to have a baby with the woman he loves.”

   “Because he’s a minister,” she confessed, “but we’re not married yet, and he’ll lose his position in the church if anyone were to find out. Like I said, it’ll ruin him. Everything he’s ever worked for will be gone.”

   “You’re saying he would want you to do this?” Rudy asked.

   “Of course not! If he knew I was here right now, he’d never speak to me again. This is a sin. Unforgivable.”

   “And if you kept the baby?”

   “I don’t know that he’d ever admit it was his. He’s a man of God, and a men of God don’t have babies out of wedlock. If I have the baby so I don’t commit a sin, he’ll leave me, and if I don’t have the baby and commit a sin and he finds out, he’ll leave me—even if it is to save his reputation.” Rudy watched Jane exhale from beneath the weight of this reality.

   “Last time I checked, there ain’t no sin that’s unforgiveable. It don’t matter what anyone tries to tell you, and, boy, don’t they ever try to tell you. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I quit goin’ to church. Ain’t no such thing as a man of God. A man’s a man, a woman’s a woman… either we’re all of God or no one is… nobody’s better than anyone else, no matter what position they got… whole damn thing is a scheme, and we—” Rudy was silenced by a sniffle from the backseat.

   As he listened to her whispered crying and considered the source of her tears, a foreign thought suddenly entered his mind. Perhaps this decision wasn’t simply a matter of having an abortion. That was the easy part. The choice that she must make, whether to sacrifice her soul, her conscience, or the one she loves, perhaps that was where the difficulty truly lay. And who could ever lightly make that decision for their own self much less for another person?

   Jane never responded to his words. The remainder of the ride was silent, and fourteen long minutes later—still leaving him a solid half hour to buy his soup and sandwich—Rudy was driving alone back towards the heart of Chicago, the tires drumming quietly down the road. He contemplated Jane until his stomach rumbled at him, and his thoughts returned to the diner. “Decisions, decisions,” he sighed.

    Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab next to the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Mr. Gaines was not breathing.

  Mr. Gaines was not breathing.

  Why wasn’t he breathing? How long had he not been breathing? Olive had been tired, yes, but she’d had a cup of coffee earlier. She would’ve had more if the coffee maker wasn’t broken. She must have fallen asleep. Had she fallen asleep? She couldn’t recall. Just like with all sleeping, time was indiscernible. She could check the chart. Yes! She could do that. She’d made sure to write down everything. Hadn’t she? No, the fields were blank. She must have forgotten to write the times into the chart and had fallen asleep. Maybe had fallen asleep. It was still uncertain. Who could possibly say if she’d fallen asleep or not? Olive didn’t remember dreaming anything. Then again, people don’t always dream, and if they do, they don’t always remember it.

  Olive began performing CPR. 1, 2, 3, 4…

  Why, oh why had she sat down? Her feet had been aching after seven hours of cleaning the industrial complex. Her ankles had been swelling. Why shouldn’t she have taken a seat? She deserved a rest, didn’t she? She’d even placed herself beside Mr. Gaines’ bed as a precaution, in case she were to fall asleep. She hadn’t, though. She was almost certain. Olive was a hard worker, a good worker. Day after day, she went out and earned her pay hours upon hours at a time. She rested little. The time she had outside of work, she spent with her two daughters. It was for them that she worked herself to the point of endless exhaustion. She walked around in a perpetual state of weariness that she’d become so accustomed to, it wasn’t a struggle to keep  moving—so long as she kept moving.

  9, 10, 11, 12…

  However, Olive had taken a seat. She’d taken a seat and shirked her responsibility to look after Mr. Gaines, a man who had no way to care of himself, a man with all the money in the world and no one to love him. She’d heard he had children, at least a couple, but there’s no telling where they were. Any family he might have was absent enough to need her, a stranger, paid to make sure he stayed alive. The staffing agency that Olive had received employment through was tasked with filling the position she now held. She wasn’t certified to be there. She didn’t have any real training besides CPR and basic first aid. Olive had retained some information from her stint in nursing school before dropping out when she got pregnant.

  18, 19, 20, 21…

She walked around in a perpetual state of weariness that she’d become so accustomed to, it was no longer a struggle to keep moving—so long as she kept moving.

It didn’t matter how much knowledge and skill she had or didn’t have if she was asleep, though. If only that damn coffee maker had been working, she wouldn’t have fallen asleep… that is, if she had indeed fallen asleep. She drank coffee all the time. Olive wondered if, perhaps, her body had become addicted to coffee and, without it, wasn’t up to her usual level of energy. Now, there was a dead body all because of a broken coffee maker. There was no way her job could be saved now. She needed this job, but, with a death on her hands, how would she ever replace it? Olive would lose her apartment. She wouldn’t be able to buy groceries. The bank would repossess her car. Her daughters would look at her and wonder why they were starving, their innocent eyes filled with disappointment and confusion. Then, the state would take them. And what then? What would she have left to live for? All because she’d chosen to sit down.

  …29, 30.

  Olive halted her thoughts, her mouth hovering over Mr. Gaines’ lifeless blue lips. Then, there in his throat, she saw an object black and shining like obsidian. Extending a finger, she reached in and hooked the object, then pulled it out, revealing a long chain attached that had been down his trachea. In a horrifying instant, Olive realized it was her own necklace, a black stone on a silver chain, the one passed down to her from her great-great grandmother. What the hell was it doing in his throat? Had that been what caused him to stop breathing? Dark mucus and thickened blood dripped down onto Mr. Gaines’ chest as the stone dangled from her fingers. She realized that as she pulled the chain and pendant, it must have dug itself in somewhere, scratching and cutting at his tissue. A puddle of blood began to form in his throat where the necklace had been. In a frantic start, Olive dropped the necklace and turned him onto his side. A gush of blood began pouring out, off the edge of the bed, and onto the floor at Olive’s feet. It flowed like a waterfall, splashing upon impact with the carpet that had so quickly saturated, it was becoming slick. Olive’s sneakers, at least three-years-old and devoid of any remaining tread, slipped over the blood. Her legs shot up from under her, and the last thing she heard was the snapping of bone in her neck.

  Olive’s eyes snapped open, and she sat upright in the chair. Panting, she looked at the floor, clean and recently vacuumed. With a trembling hand, she traced her fingers along her collarbone, feeling the cool metal and stone in its appropriate place. No broken bones. Her body relaxed. It had only been a bad dream. She would fix that coffee maker one way or another, and she would make sure to never sit down on the job again, damned the aching in her feet. New sneakers would help the pain. No more putting off buying new ones any longer. With a slow sigh, Olive allowed herself to smile. Finally, at ease, she looked over at the bed. Olive’s heart froze.

  Mr. Gaines was not breathing.

  Mr. Gaines was not breathing.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN