The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Any Way the Wind Blows

The noisy, sunny intersection was a relief to Lloyd after the Union’s dingy hotel room. He took in a few droughts of Saturday afternoon smog and pondered his next move. A living, breathing Artie trumped a pawned dummy case, so he abandoned any idea of backtracking to the Spring Street pawnshops to look for leads.

He had no good notion of how long water drops remained in a bathtub on a hot morning, but guessed it was maybe three to five hours since Artie had vacated the tub, and less time since he had vacated the room. Judging by the contents of the wastebasket, it was pretty sure Artie was living rough on the streets, and probably not moving at any great speed.

Would he have taken a room near an alley he was staying in, or was he concerned enough about being found that he would pick a place a ways from his typical flop site? Did he even have one, or was he moving about town? Lloyd could stand on a corner all day puzzling over what a cracked old man might be thinking. Better to just hoof it at random, cover as much ground as he could and hope their paths crossed, probably dashing whatever hopes he had regarding Audrey. At least then he could devote himself to clearing himself of suspicion as a murderer, after which he might just buy a pair of bongos and sit on the beach till he starved.

He took a brisk walk around the surrounding streets and alleyways, watching the sidewalks and shop windows for a burry silver head of hair. At likelier spots—cafes, fruit stands—he showed Artie’s photo to the proprietors, with no result.

Because no direction had anything to recommend it, he started walking southeast on Olympic. He got panhandled twice. Remembering Audrey’s description of Artie in his satyr-like prime, he checked for him in a dirty book store. He showed Artie’s picture to the counterman, who started yelling at Lloyd in a language he didn’t recognize, as if he thought Lloyd was asking about having sex with old men.

Four blocks down, he stepped into a rundown toy shop, with dusty racks and bins of pudgy baby dolls and cheap Japan-made spark guns and tin wind-up boats and cars, nothing with a recognizable brand. It wasn’t the sort of place Ken would take Barbie to.

When Lloyd showed Artie’s photo to the wizened shopkeeper in a yarmulke, the man said, “You should have come in three hours ago, you could have got that autographed.”

“You’re sure it was him?”

“More sure than he was. I told him, ‘Hey, Kandy Kane Town! You’re Artie Kane!’ and he said ‘Shhh. I’m keeping that secret from myself.’ Funny guy. I don’t get many celebrities.”

“How did he look?”

“Older than in your picture, sneezing, pretty ragged. You’d think he’d have saved his money. He wouldn’t take a discount on the toys he bought, though. I offered one.”

“He bought toys?”

“Dolls, cars, sand buckets, little things for little kids.”

“He say why?”

“Who has to? You buy toys for kids.”

The man seemed genuinely puzzled by Lloyd’s question, and it did seem dim when not posed as, “What would a childless, homeless man with festering sores want with import knockoff Betsy Wetsy dolls?”

Lloyd pressed on. “Did he say anything else? Anything about where he was headed?”

“And you would be who to ask?”

“Sorry, I’m a friend of his family. He’s been missing for nearly two weeks, and he’s not in good health.”

“Seemed OK to me except for the sniffles. He didn’t say where he was going. We talked in Yiddish for a minute, just pleasantries, things you say to stay in practice, then he left.”

“Did you see which way he was headed?”

“Just out the door. Sorry.”

Lloyd was nearly out the door himself before he remembered Pat in the homeless tent town’s request that he bring some toys for the kids there, after Ailes’ goons had trashed the place. He selected a couple of plastic sand pails, some little baby dolls with puckered mouths to hold tinier bottles and some spark guns, which even at his advanced age seemed like more fun than the shop’s wooden pop guns.

The shopkeeper nestled the buckets in each other, piled the toys in and put it all in a bag. He neatly wrapped the top part of the bag around the pail’s handle so Lloyd could carry it that way. He didn’t offer him a discount, but he did wish him good luck finding Artie.

Now he was walking down Olympic with a bag in each hand, cruelly thinking he should have the tent children choose between them—“Sorry kid, your friend picked this one with all these toys. You get a sanitary napkin bag full of scabs.”

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He spent the better part of an hour canvassing, with no other leads. He wasn’t more than five blocks now from the field where Barney and the remaining tent squatters were, so he decided to drop off the toys and check in on the dwarf. And since Artie had headed to the southeast end of town, it wouldn’t hurt to remind them to keep a lookout for him. Barney was just the sort of guy he could picture Artie gabbing with for hours.

As he rounded the last corner to the field, he was glad he hadn’t come zooming up in his red MG. A squad car was parked in front. Lloyd stepped back behind the wall of the abandoned warehouse he’d just passed, crouched down and cautiously peered around the corner.

The warehouse blocked him seeing deep into the field where the squatters’ tents were, but he could see Barney’s appliance box at the opposite end from him. As usual, Barney was seated on it, and a beefy uniformed cop was talking to him, one it only took Lloyd a second to recognize as Bunk Ailes.

Of all the dwarves in the world to visit, why did he have to pick Lloyd’s? Ailes and Barney together seemed horribly out of place, but it quickly dawned on Lloyd that if Ailes was trying to nail him as the killer, or clear him as he’d claimed, of course he’d be questioning those who’d known the victims. The LAPD had detectives for that, but from what Ed Lafferty had told him, Ailes tended to act like a force answerable only to himself, and the department generally gave way before that. No one else wanted his beat.

He had a chilling thought: All those things he’d poured out to Barney—his feelings for Audrey and his litany of self-doubts; things he’d confessed confident that this broken little man would never cross paths with anyone in his world—what if Barney was glibly relating all that to Ailes? The thought made him sick to his stomach, more than Chick Singer’s spying on them had.

He considered walking up and interrupting them, in case no beans had yet been spilled. But what if he only aggravated the situation? What if Barney was saying he didn’t know him? He wouldn’t wish a pissed-off Ailes on anyone, least of all this addled, fire-damaged dwarf who looked like he’d always gotten the short end of it.

So he just crouched there, shielded by the wall and weeds, watching, wondering if he’d have the courage to intervene if Ailes got rough. The cop was keeping his distance, though. Lloyd supposed that being repulsive had its advantages.

He also cast an eye behind and around him, since Ailes always seemed to have Gunter or another of his acolytes around. After another very long minute of talking to Barney, though, Ailes whistled toward the back of the field. Gunter soon came into view, answered his boss’ call at a good clip. They both went to the black and white, where Gunter got in the driver’s seat and Ailes relaxed on the passenger side, one ham hock of an arm dangling out the window with a cigarette.

Lloyd waited a moment after they drove off before he got to his feet and walked into the field. Once past the warehouse wall, he saw that the wreckage of the Ailes team’s previous visit remained strewn about the weeds. A few upright tents still hugged the wall by the back of the field, the dozen or so tenants looking Lloyd’s way as if they’d had enough of visitors for one day. He couldn’t tell for sure from that far away, but at least half of them looked like a family of retards.

Barney saw him coming but didn’t say anything until he got close.

“So you’re the famous murderer?”

“Just in my spare time. Usually I’m busy washing raccoons.”

“Do you get the rings around their eyes? Makes them look like bandits.”

“You sure you want to hobnob with a killer? Wasn’t that sergeant telling you how dangerous I am?”

“He’s full of beans. He said you might have killed Nolan, but you’re not smart enough to have got the jump on him, sorry. If you’re a killer then I’m firewood.”

Lloyd decided not to be insulted by that. The dwarf didn’t look any worse for wear, but there was evidently a cold going around down here. His voice sounded hoarse and muted, and when he sneezed it seemed to explode from nowhere.

“You want a Kleenex?”

“No thanks.”

“Might I ask what the good sergeant asked you, and what you told him?”

“He asked questions, I gave him gobbledygook. I know a schnook when I see one.”

“Thanks. There’s things I’ve told you I don’t want told around.”

“Like about your lady friend?”

“Like about exactly.”

“You in love with her?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The last I heard, love was good.”

“Thanks. I’ve got to go. Can I leave this bag of toys with you for the children back there?”

“All right. What’s in the other bag?”

“My hatchet for murdering people, and a sponge.”

“What to you need a sponge for?”

“That’s for the raccoons.”

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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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