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

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

It was on a crystal-clear morning, sunny and warm with only the hint of an early chill, that Bruce was awakened. His siblings had apparently been up for a while and were a little ways off, nibbling on remnants of old venison. It had been their only source of food for some time, though it wasn’t anything to be disappointed about. Nourishment couldn’t have come in much of a better form than this, and while he never complained, there wasn’t anyone to complain to even if he wanted. His existence didn’t afford him such luxuries, and, in truth, it wasn’t particularly necessary. After all, Bruce was a fly.

Bruce was but one in 87 flies, smartly laid by his mother deep within the warm carcass of a deer which had recently been hit by a semi-truck on the highway. Out of the original 87 eggs, only 62 hatched, and out of those 62, only 23 of them completed the metamorphosis from maggot to fly. Bruce vaguely remembered the journey from the guts of the deer to the surface, though he recalled the light had been nearly blinding. However, within the first few days in his encasement as a pupa, he’d become accustomed to it, and since his emergence, he couldn’t help but stare at the big, blue sky above them. Never in his life had he ever seen anything so spectacular, and the reality that his life hadn’t been particularly long in the first place was a detail of little relevance to him.

No one else seemed to notice and, in fact, did not generally seem to see or even think about anything beyond the carcass whatsoever. His brothers and sisters zipped around mindlessly, and any time he tried to tell them about anything that he considered amazing, they simply stared at him and said, “Buzzzzzzzz.”

With such an isolating difference between him and the rest of his family, Bruce spent an ever-increasing amount of time by himself. This didn’t bother him, however, as he had become fond of strolls at twilight along the exposed ribs of the deer. Bruce considered often how nice it would be to talk to someone about everything, though, and it was during one of these particular moments that Bruce first began to wonder why he was different.

He looked like the rest of them, ate the same food, slept the same way—more or less. There was no doubt that he was indeed a fly. Yet, Bruce did not feel like a fly, or whatever he imagined a fly should feel like. No one else cared about the great vastness above them. He was the only one who seemed effected by the vision of swaying tree branches in a breeze, the bright variances of color as the sun rose, its comforting warmth in the day, and its stunning brilliance at sunset. Even as he was sleeping, Bruce would see and feel these things, sometimes things he’d never felt or seen, and would wake with his heart racing euphorically before falling into despair upon realization of the truth.

It was after waking from just such a sleep and to such a feeling that he began his morning stroll earlier than usual, the sky still black and sparkling above, a full moon glowing. He walked along the bone until he’d come out into the light of the moon. As he moved past several droplets of dew, he noticed a shadow at his side, though more than simply a shadow. Bruce, at first thinking that perhaps one of his siblings had woken early as well, turned to see that this was not the case as he had come face to face with his own reflection.

This was not apparent to Bruce, however, and he wondered how many times he had been in that same spot before and not seen this strange aberration, a fly trapped within the water. It watched him as he watched it, and Bruce spoke first with mounting excitement.

“Hello, there,” Bruce greeted with a wave. “Are you on a stroll, as well?” The fly appeared to be trying to speak and wave also, yet Bruce heard nothing. “I couldn’t sleep,” he continued. “So, I came out to enjoy the night sky. Do you like the sky, too?” He spoke louder, and the fly in the water appeared more excited as well, but there was still no sound. “Can you hear me?” Bruce asked. “I say, can you hear me?” The fly appeared to be fairing all right there in the water, though apparently growing agitated as Bruce could not understand what the fly was trying to say. Presently, the fly became forlorn, and collapsed before him in defeat. “I’m sorry,” he said sadly.

It seemed only a moment later that the sun was up and the dew almost evaporated. A breeze tickled at Bruce’s wings, and they fluttered lightly. The fly’s wings in the water were hardly visible, but they, too, fluttered. Bruce adjusted his wings. The fly in the water adjusted his wings. One of Bruce’s siblings droned by. A second fly in the water suddenly droned by the first.

There was no doubt that he was indeed a fly. Yet, Bruce did not feel like a fly, or whatever he imagined a fly should feel like.

It is widely considered that, in all individual existence, it is the first moment of self-awareness which sets the course of everything to follow. That it creates a defining point of origin for the path of life and presents the possibility of extraordinary things. It is, for most, a pleasant thought. For Bruce, however, this awakening was something else altogether. In one microscopic moment, a fly named Bruce suddenly realized that he was both of the world, and apart from the world. He realized that he could do everything or nothing. His life was his to make whatever he wished it to be. Such a realization might seem invigorating, but to a fly, who—if lucky—lives but a matter of weeks, was earth-shattering. It had been one part genetics, two parts luck that he’d survived as long as he had. Already, half of his siblings who’d fully developed were dead. How could he ever do all he was capable of or experience all there was to be experienced with such a short and fragile life?

Bruce retreated into the carcass, trembling with fright at this sudden revelation. He was determined to keep himself alive at all costs and located an untouched section of intestine to hermitize himself. He would only come out for food when absolutely necessary, and what food he did get, he would ration. He could think of little else he might need, and before midday, he’d disappeared deep into the decaying animal. There Bruce stayed, and while at first he struggled with the lack of light, he didn’t find it all too bad of a place. There was nothing more to worry about. He had everything he would ever need, and now, all the time in the world to have it.

But Bruce did worry. At first, he worried about the food running out and so stockpiled it, restricting his ability to move, but when he dreamed, he dreamed of limitless space. After that, he worried about his stockpile being discovered and so blocked the entrance into his hideaway, isolating him more than he’d ever been, but when he dreamed, he dreamed of all the friends a fly could have. Pretty soon, Bruce’s own waste began to build up. This wasn’t so bad at first. After all, he was a fly, but it wasn’t long before he could hardly recognize his waste from his food. He quickly convinced himself that it was all edible, but when he dreamed, he dreamed of unattended picnics. He would live, Bruce thought, and that was all that mattered.

Then one day, as he dreamed of space, friends, and picnics, a rumbling erupted all around him, and his lair began to shake violently. The booming and the jostling sent Bruce into a panic, and, certain he was going to die, he cried out in anguished fury at the world that had it out for him and all his kind. No matter what he had done, his life was over, and all the things he had dreamed of doing were to never come to pass.

What Bruce was unaware of—by no fault of his own—was that the carcass of the deer which had been his only home was being cleared from the highway. As it was tossed into the bed of a truck, the very place where Bruce had made himself a sanctuary was torn in apart. The daylight burst in upon Bruce. The sweet, fresh air poured over his wings which had become caked with his own excrement and incapable of flight. His body landed somewhere foreign to him, and even the sky which has always been blue, was now gray and menacing. As little drops of rain began to land around Bruce, he lay, waiting to die.

In his defeat, Bruce no longer felt the desire for anything. He didn’t care about the sky. What did it care of him? He didn’t care about the trees or it’s swaying branches, or all the things he knew exist but would never experience. It wasn’t there for him. It never had been. Turning his face away from the clouds, he looked over where drops of rain were collecting, and in them he saw his reflection, the fly in the water.

Bruce waved feebly to the fly. The fly waved feebly back. The fly smiled weakly at Bruce. Bruce smiled weakly back. And they both said to each other, “This is all your fault.”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Richie Mullins was full of shit. Everyone knew it, but no one more than Lars, and no one in quite the same way as Lars. After all, he had been following Richie Mullins for weeks, tracking his movements, his patterns, his leads. Lars had even lost potential clients because of his investigating. It didn’t matter, though. With so much at stake, it was justifiable. The truth had to be known, and Lars would be the one to reveal it for all to see. Richie Mullins- in  front of the executives of the company, the district and regional management, the headquarters administration, in front of everyone- would be exposed and humiliated, and with any luck, fired. That company-wide number one sales award would be Lars’ once again. Lars smiled as he sipped his champagne, pleased with himself.

It wasn’t that Lars was interested in being number one, it’s just that he wasn’t interested in being anything other than number one. To be cheated out of it, however, that was a different situation altogether. He’d established that personal precedent long ago and could not allow it to be broken. If he were to allow Richie Mullins to cheat him out of being the best, then what about the next Joe Blow that came along? Pretty soon, the whole world would be walking all over him starting with everyone in that dining hall, and the name Lars Jefferson would forever be synonymous with ‘schmuck’. Was he to sit idly by and let this happen? No, because Lars Jefferson was a salesman.

Even then while he’d been watching Richie Mullins from his rental car- which he’d obtained for the purpose of remaining clandestine- Lars had considered that perhaps everyone might think he had gone off the deep end.  Of course, this was ridiculous, and he’d laughed out loud. Once the evidence was laid bare, Lars knew they’d realize that he was steadfastly committed to the company, and, therefore, deserving of a raise and promotion at the very least.

   Lars had prepared his presentation meticulously, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’. His arsenal of evidence included two graphs, an interactive outline, photocopies of official documents signed and dated, and even high definition images taken by the eyewitness himself. It was all there. Sure, they’d think he’s crazy at first, but once he got started, they’d see. They’d know. They’d toast him. They’d applaud him. They’d cheer him. His photograph would return to its rightful place in the “Employee of the Year” frame- in addition to Employee of the Month. Life would return to the way it had always been. It would all be right again.

Lars had worked hard- better yet- he’d slaved away for years to learn the trade, studied all the ins and outs, mastered the tricks, memorized the scripts. His most prized possessions were the seven ties he’d sacrificed to tie-cutting ceremonies. Being a salesman was more than just getting people to buy things. Anyone could sell. Computer programs could sell. Some talented salespeople could even sell things that people don’t need. However, when it came down to Lars, it was an art. He could walk into a stranger’s home, no appointment necessary, present an item they’d never heard of much less needed, and be willingly given their money, and lots of it. There was a psychology to this kind of transaction, one that he had long mastered. He could sell a telescope to a blind man. Lars knew this because he had.

It wasn’t that Lars was interested in being number one, it’s just that he wasn’t interested in being anything other than number one.

   Lars lived for sales, and he was convinced at this point in his life that it was simply in his blood. After all, his father had been in sales, his father’s father had been in sales, and his aunt had been a hooker, which is kind of like being in sales. It had been sales that gave him a purpose. It had been sales that had kept him moving even when his wife took the children and left, even through the mornings he didn’t think he could get out of bed, and the nights before when he didn’t think he could go to bed. Sales had kept him alive, and all was well.

   Then they hired Richie Mullins, and the world rolled over. He was a slick, young guy with a straight, bright smile, and a way of making everything he said sound like he’d just read it off a billboard somewhere. Lars was certain the kid was a phony, though he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that there was any other kind of salesman. Richie Mullins convinced people he actually cared about them, though. He fed them line after empathetic line, deceptively leveling the field, removing the jacket and tie, so to speak, and Lars found it disgusting. He’d seen it on Richie Mullins’ first day. Of course, management tasked Lars to show the new kid the ropes since he was the best there was. The very first stop they made, Richie Mullins threw the whole playbook out the goddamn window. The script? What script? The demonstration model? To hell with the models. Lars couldn’t respect anyone who didn’t have respect for the rules, and if the rules say to do this and that, then you did this and that and in the specified order. It was sales. People expected to be sold to, and anyone who defied that was dangerous. It broke the salesman-customer bond of understanding, and Lars almost spat right there just thinking about it.

   Lars did not spit, however, because at that exact moment, he heard his cue. The president of the company was at the podium, looking out over them like Christ himself preaching to his disciples on the mount. There were at least two hundred of them, pressed and dressed, full of catered chicken, pork, or fish depending on how you responded to the email a month prior, sipping their single glass of champagne slowly to make it last. The president had been going on about the quarterly breakdown and how proud he was of each and every person there, that without them, the company simply wouldn’t be. Without them, he wouldn’t be so stinking rich. His employees laughed zealously. Lars’ blood pressure began to rise with anticipation. He breathed deeply to keep his heart from racing beyond control. A few minutes later, five salespeople stood beside the president who was instructing them to give it up for Richie Mullins, the company’s MVP of the year.

   Lars knew this was it. Richie Mullins’ career was about to be flushed down the toilet, and Lars was at the lever. He would wait for the right moment to jump up and object. There would be a dramatic gasp across the room as he strode to the stage. The president would ask him what the meaning of this was. Lars would take the podium, lean into the microphone, and tell the truth about Richie Mullins. Richie Mullins, the phony. Richie Mullins, the deceiver.

   Lars Jefferson did just that. He jumped up and shouted his objection just as the president was about to hand Richie Mullins the award trophy. The audience gasped. He approached the stage with long, confident strides. The president, bewildered, demanded to know what the meaning of all this was. Lars leaned into the microphone and told everyone the truth about Richie Mullins the phony, Rich Mullins the deceiver. He pressed the button in his pocket, and his presentation illuminated the white wall behind them. He showed them his two graphs, the interactive outline, all the photocopies of official documents signed and dated, and each high definition image taken by him, the eyewitness.

   When he stopped speaking, Lars stood before a silent audience, eyes all wide and in varying degrees of shock and amusement. From an unknown corner of the room, a pair of hands began to clap. Then another. And another. The room erupted in great ovation. Richie Mullins shrank away, exposed and humiliated. The president beamed at Lars, before silencing the crowd to tell them how evident it was that Lars was steadfastly committed to the company, and, therefore, deserving of a raise and a promotion. The president asked how they ever could have been so blind.

One week later, as the sunset cast its vivid colors into his new corner office, Lars stood proudly surveying the view of his seven, cut ties which had been framed and mounted on his wall. He smiled contentedly, reminiscing over all the years of hard work that had brought him there. He’d sweat, bled, and cried for sales. There had been times of famine and times of plenty alike, but he’d marched right through it. Some may have even labeled it an addiction, but Lars knew it was love. Love of the chase. Love of the close, of looking into the eyes of the willing prey, navigating into their subconscious and extracting the “yes”. It was for the preservation of all this that Lars had gone to such lengths to vanquish Richie Mullins and preserve the integrity of the sale. It hadn’t been the first time, and, he considered, it might not be the last. No matter, he would do what had to be done. After all, wasn’t that why they’d promoted him to director of sales? Yes, because Lars Jefferson was a salesman.

   Lars, however, was not a director, and within a month’s time he was fired from the company, and he never made another sale again.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN