The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Barefootin’

They’d hardly driven a block in Cochise’s VW camper when Lloyd noticed there was a tear rolling down the Indian’s right cheek. He guessed he was missing Bonzo. Cochise hadn’t mentioned the chimp since his trip to unload the animal and the newly stolen Cadillac. Lloyd had scarcely thought about him until they’d climbed in the van and he saw the rope webbing Cochise had installed for the chimp to clamber upon.

Had it been Lloyd crying, he’d hope Cochise wouldn’t notice, so he extended the same courtesy to the big man. He rolled down his side window and angled his head out of it, just in time to suck in a lungful of salt air as Cochise turned onto the Coast Highway. The longing he’d felt the night before—to swim in the surf until the defiling touch of Ailes and his goon was washed away—came back.

“You been to the beach lately?” he asked Cochise without turning his head.

 “What use do I have for a beach?”

He couldn’t gauge the man’s mood from his voice.

“You know, surf, sand, sun, snow cones, bikinis. For that matter, screw downtown for a while. Let’s play hooky. Forty minutes, and it’ll turn the whole day around. Turn left here.”

The Indian said nothing but was evidently willing to go along. Lloyd had him park around the corner from his rooming house and told him, “Give me five minutes. I’ll grab some towels, and I may have something you can use for a swimsuit.”

In his room, Lloyd put on his trunks, stuffed a change of clothes for downtown into a grocery bag, and found a bulky pair of sweatpants that might fit Cochise. He quickly cut the pant legs off with a steak knife, locked up and returned to the van.

“I don’t need those,” Cochise said when Lloyd proffered the truncated trunks. In his absence, Cochise had used one of Bonzo’s diapers and some rope to fashion an outlandish breechclout.

“Well if it isn’t the man with the Yucatan tan,” Lloyd remarked.

“This garb served my people well for thousands of years. And it’s very practical if I decide to shit my pants.”

They walked the couple of blocks back to the beach. It was early enough that inlanders weren’t yet clogging the sand or splashing in the spume; gremmies, the surfers called them. A handful of them sat on their boards out past the breakers. Some children and young couples frolicked in the shallows, while others warmed in the sun on their brightly hued beach towels. Some heads turned to watch the big bronze Indian striding across the sand in his diaper. And what did Lloyd look like walking beside him, he wondered. Cochise’s squaw?

A ways up from the waterline, he dropped their towels in the sand and continued down into the ocean, with Cochise alongside. The water was scarcely past their knees before Cochise came to an abrupt halt.

“What’s wrong? It’s not that cold.”

“It’s not that, it’s Smeg,” Cochise said, wearing a worried look. “He’s a seer, you know, and he told me, ‘The sea speaks to you of your death.’ He said I should fear it.”

Lloyd shook his head, laughing. “He said the exact same thing to me. He’d probably say the same to Thor Heyerdahl if he met him. Now come on.”

He pushed forward through the silt-thickened water, followed a few seconds later by Cochise. A weak wave splashed up to his shoulders, then the water sucked back past his legs, to deeper water where it quickly formed a tall wave that threatened to break before they could push past it. He did his best to run toward it, hoped Cochise was following suit, and dove into the base of the wave just as it was curling to come crashing down.

The wave almost flipped him over, but he was able to surge through it and surfaced on its quiet side. Several long seconds later, Cochise came up five yards distant, sputtering and thrashing.

“Shit your pants yet?” Lloyd enquired. He got no answer and realized Cochise was in genuine distress. His thick arms, which had no trouble beating a cash register to bits, continued flailing at the water’s surface, getting no purchase. He sank from sight and came bobbing up again, coughing and spitting water.

“What’s the matter?” Lloyd shouted, wondering if he’d been stung by a man o’ war.

“I can’t swim, you son of a bitch!”

Lloyd swam alongside, and tried steadying him, but Cochise only continued thrashing, and grabbed out as he went down again, pulling Lloyd along just as he was taking a breath. He inhaled a mouthful of water, and it surged into his nose, making his eyes feel as if they were exploding.

He might have panicked if he wasn’t so at home in the sea. But he could remain calm and drown just the same if Cochise didn’t loosen his grip on him. From experience, he knew there was little point in trying to knock Cochise unconscious, to pull him to shore, so he was stuck with trying to calm him.

“Listen!” he shouted, just as another wave engulfed them. They resurfaced, little worse for wear, and he continued. “Relax! Babies can swim! You float in seawater! Pretend you’re drunk! Picture Bonzo banging Annette Funicello!”

The last image seemed to get through to him, flailing less with the one arm and loosening his arm-lock on Lloyd’s neck with the other.

“OK. Now we’re going to take a breath and duck down when this next wave comes. When you surface, take another deep breath, relax and float on your back. I’ll tow you in. We’re not more than 15 feet from where you’ll be able to stand. OK? Here comes that wave.”

Cochise did as asked, and less than a minute later they were on the beach. The Indian strode toward the boardwalk, looking indignant that he’d been bested by something as insignificant as the Pacific Ocean.

Lloyd grabbed the towels and caught up with him.

“Come over here and shower off or you’ll feel crusty all day.”

Under the cold spray of the outdoor beach showers, he asked him, “Why’d you follow me if you can’t swim?”

“I don’t know; why’d you hire me after I head-butted you? That makes about as much sense.” That seemed to be all he had to say on the matter.

They changed in the car and in a few minutes the VW bus was chugging east on the still fresh-looking asphalt of the Santa Monica Freeway, the late-morning sun in their eyes.

“Well, that sure turned the whole day around,” Cochise deadpanned.

 

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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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