The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Black Is Black

Lloyd had started down towards Compton on I-405, the interstate that had superseded State Route 7 the year before. Angelinos hadn’t wasted any time in clogging the new asphalt up with autos. It was hopeless, and every car stretching ahead of the MG felt like an impediment to him ever getting Audrey back in his arms.

He got off and took Sepulveda, figuring he’d catch Slauson to La Brea to Imperial. If they got jammed up, he could detour through residential streets.

He wondered if Audrey had been high when she’d called. He wasn’t used to that level of exhilaration when a woman was talking about anything to do with him. However much it had felt like she was speaking directly to his soul, he knew he had a partition in there, behind which a part of him lived that wouldn’t have been surprised if she, joined by suave voices behind her, had broken out in mocking laughter.

He was still feeling jealous of people he’d never met, those who populated Audrey’s life; artists, musicians and hipsters who’d have no use for a disgraced ex-cop who only had money in his pocket because Audrey Kane put it there.

Aside from a couple of trips to the waning Central Avenue jazz clubs, the most Lloyd had seen of Watts and its surrounding areas was during the riots the previous August, when he’d worked 16 to 20 hour shifts for eight days running, as every able hand was called in to quell the rioting and enforce the curfew.

His first sight of the Watts Towers had been silhouetted against a backdrop of orange flames reflected off oily black clouds. He recalled it looking like something out the Bible, if the Bible was all fucked up. Since meeting Audrey, Lloyd noticed, he wasn’t saying “fuck” more, but he was thinking it. He wondered what other of her mannerisms might he be adopting. Keep on like this, and he’d be wearing leotards in a month.

The riots were as close to war as he ever wanted to get, and were nearly the only times he’d fired his weapon on duty. He’d aimed so high to miss his targets that the bullets probably landed in Buena Park.

Watts was four nights of smoke and flames and people he’d never met throwing rocks and excrement at him. He’d seen a cinder block dropped on a fellow officer from an Imperial Courts roof, breaking the man’s right shoulder in three places. He’d found an Armenian shop owner on a sidewalk, bleeding from where members of the Gladiators gang had carved out his pants pockets, along with the flesh underneath, when he hadn’t handed over his wallet fast enough. He’d seen a scared young National Guardsman shoot an eleven-year-old kid in the face.

Those nights at least were filled with relentless activity. The following days enforcing the curfew were worse. The soot that hung in the air like an unwashable sin; the combined smell of a thousand different burned things: mattresses, butcher shops full of meat, a plastics factory, the hair in a wig shop. A warehouse of Kenyan coffee beans had burned, adding a roast coffee smell to the soot. “We have grounds to believe it was arson,” one of the sergeants had told the Herald Examiner with a straight face.

And one image: a bone-thin, lank-haired black woman glaring at him from behind the drapes of her bullet-scarred home. She made no sound. Only her eyes moved, following Lloyd down the street like twin periscopes from a submarine 20 fathoms down, where he could feel her screaming, “Die, you white bastard! Die right now! Let me see a bullet hit you! Nobody down here gives a fuck that you own Charles Mingus LPs. Fall down and die!”

Sometimes, like now, he still felt those eyes boring into his skull. South Central was not where he would go, given his druthers. But it was where he’d go to earn Audrey’s regard, a knight on a quest to find her errant husband, but, Christ, hopefully not before he and Audrey had woken up together some fresh morning in a riot of covers and pillows.

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Abraham Van Buren’s street was as well kept as Lloyd had thought it would be, with Abraham’s address being the most fastidiously tidy of the block. It was a mid-sized 1930s wood house, with a red brick facade and chimney. A white picket fence enclosed a close-cropped green lawn hedged by rose bushes.

He didn’t know if Abraham had a widow, but, whoever lived under that green shingle roof, he figured the grief would be greatest there, so he went to the Hibiscus Van Buren house first. She had to be a relative, but maybe a distant one.

It was another picture-perfect old suburban house, with the exception of a forbidding African mask mounted on the front door. He rang the doorbell. Nearly a minute later, it was answered by a striking young woman in a black dress. Her face was puffy from crying but her eyes were sharp and they flashed at the sight of Lloyd.

“What do you want?”

“I’m sorry to bother you. You’re related to Abraham Van Buren?”

“Are you a cop?”

“I’m a private investigator.”

“So?”

“I knew Abraham, just a bit, and I’m interested in helping to find his killer.”

“I can tell you who the killer is,” she snapped. “Some crazy white guy, could be you, and he can go on killing black people ’til the cows come home for all the police will ever do about it.”

Lloyd thought she’d slam the door, but instead she hesitated, then opened it and ushered Lloyd inside, saying in a softer voice, “If grandpa taught me anything, it was courtesy. Have a seat and tell me what you want while I endeavor not to hate you. Can I get you a drink?”

“Water, thanks.”

As she walked to the presumed kitchen, Lloyd enjoyed the roll of her muscled ass under the black fabric, then caught himself, thinking quickly of Audrey and also of what it must feel like to have someone you love murdered so horribly.

He looked around the living room. The blond furniture looked recent and had clearly been bought as a set. Books and papers were piled on almost every surface, and a typewriter sat on a side table. African art and a Malcolm X poster hung on the wall, along with a framed diploma from Los Angeles City College showing her full name: Hibiscus Quincy Adams Van Buren.

He was still looking at the diploma when she returned, holding two glasses. “That’s quite the name.”

“I’m lucky it isn’t Mildred Fillmore,” she said with an affected laugh. “The story goes that when my great, great grandfather was freed, he didn’t want the same three presidents’ names everyone else was taking, so he went for Van Buren. The family’s been tacking on other presidents ever since. I’ve got a brother named Rutherford. My grandfather used to joke that if any of us went Muslim, we’d change our last name to Y or Z just to be different.”

She handed Lloyd his water and ice in a green aluminum tumbler. She also had one, and Lloyd guessed it wasn’t water in it. He sat on the blond couch, and she took a chair opposite, crossing her legs tightly.

“Your grandfather, can you think of him talking about a customer or anyone else who rubbed him the wrong way? I don’t mean like a business disagreement, but someone who just struck him as being off, who asked weird questions or who maybe he thought was following him.”

“He mostly just told us jokes he’d heard, or about how fancy or raggedy some of the shoes he was asked to polish were. He didn’t talk much about his work.”

“Do you think he was ashamed of it?”

“I think just the opposite, mister.” Her look grew steely again. “After half a century maybe he felt he’d already told us everything about it, but he was proud of every day of work he ever did. ‘The helping hand is at the end of your own arm,’ he’d always tell us. ‘The only help I ever needed was this rag, and the two of us put this roof over all our heads.’ He told us that when he started shining shoes at the Compton PE station, he was the only Negro in the town, and he wasn’t allowed to stay after dark. He said he always knew that someday he’d own a house here.

“The only time my dad ever hit either one of us was when Rutherford was 12 and said that Grandpa was an Uncle Tom. My dad slapped him quicker than he could even think about it, then told him, ‘You remember this, there’s a huge difference between being a Tom and being big enough to be kind to your fellow man, and your grandfather is the walking example of big enough.’

“But so much for being nice, huh?” she finished, throwing out her hands to indicate, it seemed, any planet rotten enough to countenance her grandfather being flayed alive.

“That’s why I’m here,” Lloyd said, without much actual idea of why he was there. “Your grandfather seemed like a special man. No one deserves what happened, and him less than most. I’d like to see the guy who did this in the ground. You don’t have anything, anything different at all that he’d mentioned recently? He seemed pretty shook up by something his last night there.”

“Then you know more than I do. He didn’t tell us he was upset about anything. He did tell us one thing different, that a man had come around asking about a missing clown.”

“Could he have meant a ventriloquist?”

“Yeah, that’s what he’d said.” Her eyes widened. “Was my granddaddy killed by a ventriloquist?”

“No, nothing like that. The ventriloquist is a frail old man. The guy who was asking around was me. I’ve been hired to find him and get him home. While I’m looking, I’m keeping my eyes open for anything on this killer. Is there anything else at all you can tell me? What did the police ask about?”

“What police? No one’s been to question us, or even called, except from the morgue. Don’t you know: blacks aren’t people. Look at this ...” Hibiscus Van Buren snatched the first few magazines off a stack on the coffee table. In the top one, a magazine called R&B Jamboree, she opened to a page marked with a paper clip and began reading from an ad.

“‘Be beautiful. Long for a lovelier, fairer complexion? Try Stillman’s Freckle Cream—used by satisfied women in 65 countries! Its excellent bleaching action beautifies your skin and brings out its own rich beauty. Be bright and brighten your skin with Stillman’s Freckle Cream.’”

She flipped a few pages further. “Now listen to this. ‘Lighter Skin Loveliness in just ten days ... or your money back. Be-Gone Bleach Cream Formula works while you sleep ... peeling of the skin leads to a baby fresh-like brightness and thrilling lightness of your skin.’

“Why don’t they just call it Negro Be-Gone? That’s what they’re selling, making people hate their own skins so much they come to think all that they are is a big, disagreeable pimple to be bleached away. This is what I keep thinking: that some sick motherfucker only did to my grandfather what this country tries to do to all of us, rob us of our skin. Is finding the killer going to change that, Mister Private Investigator?”

Though her voice didn’t crack, Lloyd looked up to see she was crying, and he couldn’t think of a thing to say that wasn’t bullshit. He thanked her, left his card on the coffee table and let himself out the door. He didn’t look back when he got in his car and drove off, afraid he’d see her face glaring at him from between the drapes.

 

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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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