The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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A Must to Avoid

Merrily we roll along, Lloyd thought, about to dust up his good black shoes in the once-vacant lot, now a veritable hobo farm, which he’d guessed to have some 30 rootless people taking root among its patches of brittle brown weeds. Grey smoke from the fire wafted his way, redolent of the trash fires of his La Puente youth.

Few days then were ever as good then as when he’d find a hair spray can that had some propellant left. Put a match or burning twig to the spray and you had a fantastic flamethrower. Throw the can into the fire and it would explode with a sudden pow!—usually just as you’d given up on it and approached to prod it deeper into the blaze. He wondered if kids still did that, or if they let Mattel manufacture all their thrills now.

A comic book sat at the edge of the fire, its corner just starting to catch. Quizzically, a hero called the Human Torch was on the cover. Lloyd recognized him because there had been a Human Torch in the comics he’d read as a kid, who would jet through the air and chuck fireballs at the Nazis. Twenty years later, Lloyd was surprised to see the Torch on a comic cover in a liquor store, and he bought it, only to learn this was a whole other character, a snotty teenager who hung out with a creature who appeared to be a large orange turd.

Lloyd nudged the comic into the fire with the toe of his left shoe, said “Flame on” under his breath, and took the dirt path deeper into the field. He wanted to show Artie’s photo to the two passably sane persons he’d met the last time there: Pat, the ginger-haired man who seemed to be nominally in charge of this rabbit-hole-pocked real estate, and Nolan Bentine, former stunt-car driver, current grizzled wearer of a matted blue marching band helmet. Sane just wasn’t what it used to be.

Heading in, he saw that several tents were down, like a windstorm had hit them. Two of the cardboard sheds were collapsed. Clothing and junk was strewn through the weeds, and, here and there, a dejected person stood sifting through the junk. Passing a couple of tents, he could see that, along with being knocked down, the Army green fabric had been slashed on all sides.

He found Pat not far from where he’d first met him. His folding chair was smashed flat. The cat sat on its wreckage looking peeved.

“What do you want?” the man said flatly. He had a black eye and held a child’s broken xylophone in his hands.

“I was here a couple of days ago, remember? I’m trying to find a lost old man? I brought his photo with me.”

Pat barely looked at the proffered 8x10.

“Everybody’s looking for something. You’re looking for some old man; the cops last night are looking for someone who kills old men; and I’m just looking to be left the hell alone.”

“The cops did this?” Lloyd asked, motioning to the destruction in the field.

“I guess they don’t want us getting too comfortable before we get murdered. They rousted everybody. ‘Can you account for everyone here between sundown and this morning?’ ‘Is anyone here violent or have a criminal record?’ ‘How’d you get the money for these tents?’ ‘Have you seen any strange faces around here?’

“That’s where you came in handy. A couple of the kids here related seeing you snooping around the other day, and I clarified that you were an investigator looking for an old man. The head cop, the red-faced sergeant who gave me this shiner, seemed to know who I was talking about. He a friend of yours?”

“No, but I’ve met his fist.” Christ in a crucible, he thought. Of all the places he didn’t want to be, he most didn’t want to be on the radar of that sadistic, fat Pershing Square sergeant, and that’s who this sounded like. “If we’re talking about the same guy, I’m sorry he’s the one who came here. Most cops aren’t like that.”

“Maybe you haven’t met most cops. The ones with him last night certainly weren’t any better than him. Look what they did to this place. Half my people grabbed what’s left of their things and lit out of here this morning, and you know they’re never going to find any place better.”

“I’m sorry to hear all that. The sooner they catch this killer, the sooner the cops can go back to doing nothing and I hope leaving you alone. In the meantime, I’ve still got this old man I’m looking for, and I’m worried with both him and this killer on the streets. Can I leave this photo with you, and if you don’t object, stop by again to see if you’ve heard anything?”

Pat actually examined the photo now. “Why do I know this face? He’s a famous somebody, isn’t he?”

“He’s Artie Kane, the ventriloquist.”

“You know who you should talk to is Nolan. He roosts in a car over by that wall there. He was a Hollywood stunt man, and knew half the people in the business, to hear him tell it. If anybody, he’d know if Artie Kane was around here. I listened to him on the radio, growing up. I thought he died years ago.”

“You and his agent. But he’s very much alive, and I’d like to keep him that way.”

“Sure, come back any time, so long as you don’t have trouble following you. And if you can, buy some toys to bring. There isn’t much that those goons didn’t break.”

Lloyd shook his hand, and laid a photo of Artie next to the cat.

He came upon a swath of mud and realized the cops had even overturned the camp’s water tank in their raid. A crow picked at the raisin eyes of half a gingerbread man stuck in the mud.

It bugged him that he couldn’t remember the sergeant’s name. It hadn’t come up when he’d been handcuffed in their underground interrogation room, so he was reaching back to his vice squad days for the name. Ailes, was it? Something like Bunk, Bart or Buck for the first name, he seemed to recollect. A total asshole, and the wrong guy to ever hope to catch this killer, but Lloyd wouldn’t have minded if the killer spent some time in Aile’s cellar before he was remanded to custody. Some people deserve each other.

He’d thought of asking others in the camp to keep an eye out for Artie in their roaming, but no one looked anxious to talk with a stranger. He headed straight toward Nolan Bentine’s trashed car, to see if Mr. Hollywood had any insights on Artie more recent than 1942.

Bentine’s rusty Windsor sat with both its front and back doors open. His marching band helmet lay in the dust nearby. The man himself was neither there nor by the dwarf’s cardboard castle. It appeared unmolested by the goons; being near little people evidently gave them the creeps, too.

He sat there as he had the other day, atop his box sweating in the sun. It was hard to tell where the salve ended and the scar tissue began.

Lloyd hadn’t asked his name the last time, and was embarrassed not to know it now. He asked, “How are you doing the morning?”

“Better than most people, as far as I can see. Still got a home to sit on. Still got my youthful good looks.” Again, that slightly too high voice, coming from a mouth struggling against shriveled muscles.

Lloyd pondered, How would I go on living if that was me? Better to join the circus and be shot out of a cannon, above and beyond POP’s roller coaster and into the deep blue sea.

“You’re probably wondering why I don’t kill myself.”

“No, I was wondering if you’d loan me a necktie.” He was startled by the dwarf’s on-the-mark observation, and could only think to deflect it with the sort of jousting he’d overheard between the dwarf and Bentine. “I’m going on the Joe Pyne Show to gripe about Munchkins.”

“What’s your beef with Munchkins?”

“They’re taking jobs from hardworking Americans.”

“Like where, in slaughterhouses?”

“Sure. Slaughterhouses.”

“So your beef is actually with beef. Beef is your beef. You ever notice if you say ‘beef’ enough, you start wondering if it’s a word?”

“You’re right. Forget the tie.”

The two regarded each other for an awkward moment. He felt as if he’d kissed someone he hadn’t meant to. Maybe I’m becoming Artie now, he thought for the second time, bantering the day away with all comers, short and tall.

“I’m Lloyd Sippie,” he offered. He stepped closer but didn’t hold out a hand, not imagining the dwarf would want his gnarled fingers touched.

“I’m Barney Arbor. I don’t shake hands. They might come off. It I remember right, you’re looking for someone.”

“Right now I’m looking for Nolan. He around?”

“No, and it’s worrying me. He helps me with things in the morning, never fail. This morning he never showed. Some others here told me earlier he wasn’t sleeping in his car. You didn’t pass by it, did you?”

“I did, and no sign of him. Just his band hat. There any chance the cops arrested him last night?”

“He was still here when they left. One of them hit him in the elbow with a flashlight, and he was smarting from that.”

“Could he have just taken off like some of the others here?”

“Not without telling me, and not without his helmet. He’s lugged that thing around since high school.”

“I’m sure he’ll show up then. Can I leave a photo with you for him? It’s a recent photo of the missing person I’m looking for.”

“Sure. Can I see it?”

“Lloyd held it up and stepped closer, but the dwarf—Barney—said, “Can you stand back a little? I don’t see too well up close. Who is that handsome man?”

“It’s Artie Kane, the guy you said screwed chimpanzees.”

“Well, I can see why they let him. Who’s missing him now? His dummies?”

“His wife. She’s worried sick about him. Can you make sure Nolan gets this?” He put the photo in Barney’s whimsical shoebox mailbox.

“I’ll tell him, but I’m telling you, something’s wrong. I really need his help in the mornings, and he knows it. He wouldn’t skip out on me.”

Lloyd said some reassuring farewell, then walked deeper into the camp, back to Bentine’s car, not feeling at all reassured himself. A few days earlier, he’d fleetingly wondered if Bentine might be the killer. He bent over now to retrieve the helmet from the dirt. He examined its old leather strap, and wondered if it fit with the marks under the chin of Doctor Tom’s new corpse.

 

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Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

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