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

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