The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Brown Shoes Don’t Make It

Audrey was silent on the ride down from the New Sweaty Minstrels house. He couldn’t tell if she was livid, proud he’d defended her honor by chucking Sweaty Efrem’s precious British fuzzbox into the ravine, or if she was just off in her own thoughts, maybe composing another of those hit songs she hadn’t mentioned to him.

Cochise drove. Despite the hops and cannabis battling for his attention, he drove more smoothly than on the ride up, his new friend Blue in the seat beside him. Audrey and Lloyd rode in the back, like teenaged campers.

Up front, Blue leaned her head back and was gently singing an ungentle Sweaty Minstrels’ chorus, “It fits me like a glove, the warm bacteria of your love, Ho hum.”

Turning left up Glen Green, Cochise ground the gears downshifting into first, cursing, “Horses don’t need transmissions. Why the fuck do cars?”

The engine stalled as he braked in front of Audrey’s, and Lloyd’s first thought was of the carnal noise those two would likely be up to if Audrey had to put them up. But, after agreeing to meet up at 11 Monday, Cochise had Lloyd help push the van around, rolled silently downhill, and kick-started the engine halfway down.

Leaving Lloyd on the street with Audrey, wondering, what now? His neglected MG was parked in front of her house, where she’d driven it the night Bunk Ailes had nabbed him. After his ungroovy display of anger among her groovy friends, was she hoping he’d drive off without a word, like a chagrined employee should?

He stood like an idiot until Audrey stepped over, wrapped her arms around him and whispered in his ear, “I have a pajama-gram for you: Come inside.” She let her tongue drift through his lips, which were parched for her.

They never made it to the bedroom, making love on the living room rug where they’d lain their first night. That was less than a week past, but their twining was different this time, all match-head and flint, desperate for the friction of sex to ignite the intimacy that had come so naturally then and was elusive now, more remote than when they’d been simply dancing an hour before. It felt like it could be the last time.

But near sunrise they woke on the floor in each other’s arms and did it again. They showered separately, made small talk as they dressed, and he drove them to Ben Frank’s for an early breakfast.

“Do you think we’ll find him today?” she asked, over eggs over easy, hash browns and coffee on her side of the table, the same but poached on his. Audrey twirled her parsley garnish between her left hand’s thumb and index finger, then nibbled at it.

“Don’t get your hopes too high. We’ve a lot more to go on than before, where he was and the general direction he was headed, but he could be behind any door we walk by, or sleeping under a pile of newspapers under an overpass. He could have caught a bus to Union Station, and be on another bus to Denver right now. We’ll do what we can, and if that doesn’t do it, in a few more days he’ll have been gone long enough for the police to take his disappearance seriously.”

They didn’t talk about what it would mean for them when her husband was back home, puttering around in his dummy-filled basement again.

“You know, Artie was supposed to go to the Beatles concert with me today.”

Lloyd stifled an impulse to suggest maybe that’s why he went missing.

They’d nearly had the restaurant to themselves. Now, a group of eight party people came in, looking like they’d been through an all-night revel. At the thick of them were Audrey’s two bohemian friends, including the one who had dosed Lloyd with LSD.

He spotted the pair at their table and excitedly came over while the others were being seated.

“Hi Audrey. Hi Audrey friend. You are a fellow seeker now, yes?”

“Calchas, I do not approve at all of what you did to Lloyd,” Audrey scolded. “That’s very irresponsible doing that to someone you don’t even know.”

“So introduce us.”

 “Calchas, this is Lloyd. Lloyd, this is Calchas.”

The man held out a clay-splattered, hair-backed hand.

“Call me Cal. You forgive me?”

Lloyd shook his hand, saying, “Someday when you least expect it, I’m going to slip you a stick of that gum that turns your mouth black, and we’ll see how you like that.”

The man was wearing overalls, also festooned with flecks of clay, plus rustic foodstuffs. He reached into a pocket and handed Lloyd a small amber bottle with an eyedropper top.

“Next time, you make your own trip. Is Sandoz, pure. You take one drop, maybe two, never more.”

How about never any, he thought, but pocketed the gift, figuring at least he might be saving others from a surprise dose. He’d have to remember to toss it, since if Ailes or his goons popped him again, the last thing he wanted was to be carrying contraband. Then he remembered that, unlike reefer, this stuff was as legal as baby food.

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On the ride downtown, whenever he wasn’t shifting gears, Audrey kept her hand in his. She had the radio on, the Righteous Brothers singing what could be his new anthem, “Just once in my life, let me hold on to the good thing I’ve found.”

The KRLA news was next. The entire world had done nothing that weekend, evidently, because the news was wall-to-wall Beatles. Fans scaling the fence of their rented Benedict Canyon hideout; fans in other states miffed because in their press conference here, one mop top revealed, “California is the only state we really looked forward to.” Maybe because the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t burning Beatle records here.

The station rolled tape of John Lennon ruefully offering a shopworn apology for what he hadn’t said about Jesus: “I do believe that Christianity is shrinking, that people are losing contact with it. However, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I was using the Beatles as an example because that’s what I’m most familiar with. I could have just as easily used cars or television. I’m sorry about the mess I made.” And get me out of your moronic country. Apologize away; idiots in the south were still tossing their records into bonfires, inhaling vinyl fumes sufficient to ensure generations of morons to come.

Chase the Beatles through the sewer system with flame-throwers for all he cared, just get this day over with. Artie found; Artie not-found; Artie rescued from the bowery in the nick of time to see the Fab Four; no, Lloyd spending a fine evening at Dodger Stadium with 35,000 other Angelinos, 15,000 of them doubtless dismissively hip young friends of Audrey’s, and 900 of them LAPD predisposed to hate Lloyd’s guts. But if he made it through that, he’d have one more night with Audrey, and then maybe another.

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He’d worked a Beatle show, the year before at the Hollywood Bowl. He’d been pulled back to Vice to assist because they’d learned the year before that 17,000 screaming pubescent girls was a siren call to every perv from Bakersfield to Brawley.

There were those who bought tickets, some contenting themselves with taking photos of young girls in ecstasy; others tried copping an unsuspecting feel from fans who’d fainted. Other males lurked outside the venue. Lloyd caught one guy in the bushes near the Bowl’s sign. He was listening to the unbridled screams from up the hill while jerking off into a Beatle wig. Most others—beatnik pimp types and older Lolita-lovers—just worked the sidewalk or cruised Highland looking for strays.

Even Ed Lafferty had been pulled off the desk to work that night, inside the amphitheater. They’d met at the coffee wagon on break, Ed shaking his head. “Have you ever been able to make a woman scream like that in your life? And that’s just their patiently-waiting-for-the-Beatles scream. Be glad you don’t have a daughter. Mine’s in there, having feelings she doesn’t even know the words for.”

Now, he wondered if Ed had his talk with Ailes yet, to vouch for Lloyd and set the cop straight on Lloyd’s non-homicidal nature, getting at least one worry off his back.

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For all of his and Audrey’s apprehensions, the morning held nothing momentous. They started at the toy store Artie had shopped in—closed for Sunday, like most of the businesses—and worked south. They wanted to cover as much ground as they could, but Lloyd didn’t want to leave Audrey on her own, so he had them working across the street from each other, in parallel. They were south of where Ailes’ squad typically roamed, practically into sheriff’s territory, but just in case they troubled Lloyd, he’d made her agree to vanish, and gave her his car key to do so.

But no Ailes, no Artie, not a trace of him. They’d planned on searching until 2:00. At 1:00 they stopped for a couple of Cokes at a corner stand. Lloyd mentioned they weren’t many blocks from where the tent town had been, and where the dwarf still was. Audrey suddenly said, “I’d like to meet him.”

They headed off that way. He wasn’t sure about how Barney would feel about meeting a woman. Audrey probably couldn’t help but pity him, and Barney probably couldn’t help seeing that pity. Meanwhile, he’d told Audrey about Barney, but hadn’t told her he’d poured his heart out to the dwarf about her. Maybe he could have a word with him about keeping that to himself.

“Why don’t you hold back when we get close, so I can see if he’s receiving company.”

“Whatever you think.”

He had her wait where the field’s trash fire had expired. You could barely make out the dwarf from there, sitting on his weathered appliance box.

Lloyd headed down the weedy path, and Barney looked up.

“Hey, it’s you. You know Jackie Kennedy has a sister? Knock-knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Tarara.”

“Tarara who?”

Barney belted, “Tarara Bouvier! Tarara Bouvier! Tarara Bouvier! Tarara Bouvier!”

Once he subsided, Lloyd said, “Knock-knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“That woman I told you about. She’s here. She wants to meet you.”

“Here? Are you crazy? I don’t want to meet her, no, no.”

“No?”

“No. That’s an awful knock-knock joke. Do I look like I came down here to meet girls? It hurts too much to look at them. You go, and get her out of here.”

He hadn’t heard Barney this upset, not even when he told him Nolan Bentine was dead.

He turned back to Audrey, and could see her, beautiful, looking their way through the tall weeds. He was pretty sure Barney couldn’t see that far.

“He’s bashful today,” Lloyd said when he came alongside Audrey.

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It was a long walk back to the car. She didn’t seem to mind. He dropped her off at 2:25, with plans to pick her up at 4.

Most of the traffic was flowing eastbound, as if the Beatles’ manager was perched atop Chavez Ravine with a big electromagnet. Lloyd made it to Venice in no time, and stopped at his office before heading home to change.

From two doors away he could hear his phone ringing, and it kept on as he unlocked his and made it to his desk.

“Hello?”

“Boychik. This is Artie Kane.”

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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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