The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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California Dreamin’

Two ill-kempt kids crouched on the sidewalk, poking at something with sticks. They took no notice of Lloyd as he leaned over the nearest of them to see what they were at. A potato bug, in all its umber-striped, Martian-skulled malevolence, was running and darting at a furious speed on the dusty, sun-baked cement, trying to reach the dirt and weeds, while the kids attempted to impale it on their sticks. Whenever it got near the sidewalk’s edge, one of the kids laid his stick flush with the ground and swept the beetle back to the middle.

One of the youths had thin blonde hair, and Lloyd could see scabs on his scalp. Both smelled like they slept curled up with dogs. One noticed that Lloyd was standing over them and looked up, fearfully when he saw it was an unknown adult.

Even they’re spooked by these murders, he thought, then realized it was probably process servers, parole officers and truant officers who loomed in their dreams. As opposed to former officer Sippie, who was rooting for them, at least where potato bugs were concerned. He’d killed his share in La Puente, usually with a spade or the side of a brick, with no play involved. He’d picked one up when he was four, thinking its tail end was a marble in the dirt. It twisted around and got him with its pincers. He’d favored obliteration ever since.

When it became apparent that Lloyd wasn’t going to do anything worse than stand there looking overheated, the two returned soundlessly to their bug.

The field was maybe an acre and a half, one of those parcels that fell through the cracks when L.A.’s businessmen were imprisoning every inch of open space in concrete and rebar. The lot was L-shaped, framed on the left by the brick back wall of a warehouse, and on the right by the stucco rear of a more recent building that faced the cross street, starting at about 40 feet back from the corner. Most of the tents and other structures were in the long lane between the two walls.

He’d already walked past where the man in the marching band helmet and the dwarf had been talking earlier, against the brick warehouse wall. They were still there, but the man in the helmet was now sitting in a ratty lawn chair, looking not terribly awake.

Lloyd decided to save them for dessert, and started at the bottom end of the L, where the street corner was. The remnants of a trash fire smoldered there, food cans with ashen labels, a sodden diaper, a half-consumed copy of TV Guide.

Christ, I’ve had enough of cold-calling the squalid, Lloyd said to himself. Why not head back to the beach, where a person can enjoy a beer without getting hit in the head?

He knew he wouldn’t let himself enjoy that beer without walking the path before him, literally a path, worn between the brown weeds and the inhabited parts of the field. The nearest tents were pitched by the smaller warehouse. Seen up close, they confirmed his impression from afar that they were Army surplus, but in nearly new condition. Along with the three tents, a cardboard lean-to was built against the warehouse wall. Its flap was open, and Lloyd could see it had a floor of carpet scraps, and a new-looking sleeping bag on a cot, with an orange crate for a side-table.

Lloyd could imagine Artie setting up comfortably for a while in such a hut, or in any of the tents. They weren’t a Spanish-style mansion in the hills, with a wife Lloyd couldn’t imagine anyone ever leaving behind, but they probably weren’t worse than some of the buses and flops Artie had slept in during his vaudeville days.

“You looking to lease or to buy?”

A ginger-haired, 40-ish man was sitting at weed-level in a low beach chair. He had a face like a boxer who hadn’t been hit too much. A huge cat practiced being languid on his lap.

“You’ll pardon me if I don’t get up, but I’ve got this tabby handicap. What can I do you for?”

“Hi. I’m just looking around.”

“If it’s for a place to stay, we’ve got some room here, and we can fix you up with a tent and a sleeping bag. We’ve got a water tank; we’ve got hot and cold running dust; and we’ve got a nice bunch of folks. But I’ve got to tell you: You look like you’ve been in a few scrapes. We don’t allow fighting here. We don’t tolerate thievery. We allow drinking, but we don’t allow drunkenness. If you can abide that, this is a nice patch to ride out your low times.”

“Is this some sort of rescue mission without a roof? “

“Nope. There’s no organization here, just people interested in their lives not getting too much more screwed up than they already are.”

“What’s with all the matching new tents then?”

“That’s our little mystery. About a month ago an oriental shows up with a truck loaded with tents, the sleeping bags, the water tank, cartons of canned food, rain slickers and other stuff, along with a greeting card that only said, ‘Your Consolation Prize.’ The Chinaman or whatever he was didn’t show any interest in us, so I don’t think he was our benefactor, and he wouldn’t say who was. I don’t even think he spoke English.”

“If you’ve got tents to spare, why are there people here still living in cardboard shacks?”

“Because they like them, I suppose. You get your place fixed up just how you like it, get the ground tamped down real good—some people don’t want to leave that behind. So you can have your pick: cardboard or canvas. It’s a little off the beaten path, but you’re welcome here.”

“I’m not looking for a home just yet. I’m looking for a missing person.”

“Well, I don’t believe I’ll help you there,” the man said, turning flinty. “Most people are missing because they don’t want to be found.”

“This is an old man. He might be a little batty. He’s in no shape to be living on the street. He’s not on the lam from anybody. He’s just got a wife who’s worried sick.” And me worried sick I won’t see her again when he does get home, he might have added. Instead, he described Artie.

“Well, I won’t be betraying anyone’s trust to tell you I’ve seen no such person here.”

“Could I leave you a phone number to call me, in case you do? He’d be easy to spot. He might also be lugging a small brown suitcase and a black wood box with a ventriloquist dummy in it.”

“Mister, unless he’s lugging a telephone with him, I’ve got no way to call you. Superman would have to stay Clark Kent down here, because I haven’t seen one phone booth anywhere.”

“I’ll try stopping back sometimes then. I hope to have a photo of him next time. Do you mind if I look around here a little more? My name’s Lloyd, by the way.” It had finally dawned on him to introduce himself. He stepped closer and bent over to shake hands. The cat looked up as Lloyd’s shadow crossed it.

“Help yourself. It’s a free country, unless Reagan beats Pat Brown. My name’s Pat, too.”

Lloyd thanked him and continued down the dirt path. The lot wasn’t the Garden of Eden, but neither was it some shit-strewn house of horrors. There was some dug-in dignity here. There were families, couples and loners. Some looked like hard cases or mental cases, but most seemed to be working stiffs who just weren’t doing so great in the Great Society. He tried asking a few about Artie, but got no sparks.

Some of the new tents were already oil-stained, grimy and on their way to ruin. Most were kept up. Near the back of the lot was the smallest Fleetwood trailer he’d seen, with geraniums growing in an improvised window box. Heading up the brick-walled side, a rusted ’57 Chrysler Windsor had evidently sat for years, given the weeds that had grown around it. The backseat was someone’s bed. Lloyd took a wild guess it was the guy in the marching band helmet.

He could see him up ahead, back on his feet and in animated conversation with the dwarf. Lloyd had an involuntary shudder. Dwarves and midgets were the reason ventriloquist dummies disturbed him. Ever since he was a kid and had been to his first circus, little people haunted him. If the God his mother was always going on about was so loving and perfect, why did God’s mistakes come popping up in these tiny packages? Were they being punished for something?

That last question had weighed heavy on young Lloyd, because if God was all-seeing, he was certainly on to Lloyd, from the toy soldiers he’d stolen from Kresge’s to the acts of self-pollution he’d so vigorously engaged in from age six onward. He’d heard about kids having growing pains, and he didn’t have any. He’d worry, What if I’m not growing? What if God was sending him on a one-way trip to Munchkinland?

As he neared the two men, he realized size was the least of the dwarf’s problems. His face was so hideously burnt it looked like a charred hot dog that had rolled in the dirt. Lloyd could barely look at him. He was still perched on the refrigerator box. Lloyd saw his hands were also burned.

He was laughing, though, telling Helmet Head, “That joke’s so old it has hair growing out its ears.” They both turned their heads to watch Lloyd’s approach. He was glad that the helmeted one was the first to speak to him.

“You lose your club?”

Jesus, Lloyd thought, how’d he peg me for a cop? “Why would I have a club?” he asked.

“To hit the ball with. Can’t you see you’re treading the finest miniature golf course in North America?”

“Are you the windmill?” Sometimes Lloyd couldn’t stop himself.

The man broke into a broad smile. “You’re OK. Nolan Bentine.”

Lloyd didn’t realize the man was introducing himself until he held out his hand, the one that didn’t have a beer in it. Lloyd shook it and answered, “Lloyd Sippie.”

“You want a baloney sandwich, Lloyd Sippie?”

“Why not?” he said, though he could think of several microscopic reasons why not.

“Hey, what about me?” the dwarf complained. “What am I, chopped liver?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Nolan Bentine told him. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?”

“Not since I saw you gazing at your ass with it. You looked like you’d found your long-lost twin.”

They’d evidently had this rapport for a while. Bentine stepped off to fetch the fixings from a Styrofoam ice chest in the shade by the wall. He was probably in his early 60s, muscular and solidly built, though he walked stiffly. Lloyd had been surprised to see his eyes were nearly the deep blue of his marching band helmet, where the synthetic fur was so weather beaten it looked like a dog had happily salivated on it for weeks.

The man pulled out an Oscar Meyer package and mustard, followed by a shrunken head of lettuce that he eyed, then tossed in the weeds.

“What, you too good to talk to me?” It was the charred dwarf. Lloyd had been flustered for anything to say to him, so he hadn’t. He’d been waiting out the awkward silence by staring at his sandwich being assembled.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he told him.

“I’ll say. You look like you’ve been using a chicken fried steak for a washcloth. Are you new here?”

The voice was pitched only slightly higher than a full-grown man’s. Lloyd placed it as being from the Midwest, and probably about his own age, though it seemed like a choir boy’s compared to Bentine’s heavy smoker’s voice, so gravelly it sounded only a few steps removed from having one of those talk-boxes cut in his esophagus.

Lloyd forced himself to look the dwarf in his eyes. They were brown and lively, and appeared undamaged by whatever had ravaged his face. He was sweating profusely, so evidently the skin damage hadn’t been too deep. Not knowing if his hands or arms worked, Lloyd didn’t proffer his. “I’m just passing through. I’m trying to find a ...”

“Here’s your sandwich. Don’t worry. We bought the bread and baloney just yesterday.” Bentine waited a beat, then added, “From a mortuary.”

It entered Lloyd’s mind: What if he’s the killer, playing a goofball? What had Roy said, expect someone smart enough to get the jump on him? Which was pretty much like telling Lloyd to think like someone who was smarter than he was. In this city of millions, was his supposed to distrust everyone he met until proven otherwise?

He took a bite, and told Bentine why he was there, looking for Artie, the once-famed ventriloquist.

“I saw him,” Bentine said, and Lloyd jolted out of the hazy state the heat had put him in. Then the man continued, “I saw him, it must have been the RKO lot, 1942. I was a stunt car driver on Highway Hi-Jinx. That’s what I used to do. Artie Kane was the only one of those stars that didn’t think his shit was corned beef. Everyone else had their snoots in the air. Artie, he’d help you change a tire and chew the fat. Once, he, I and Slam Cartwheel were setting up a scene on the Coast Highway, and I swear, this Jap submarine—”

“Artie Kane screwed chimpanzees,” the dwarf interrupted. “He was a sailorman. He and the chimpanzee would go below decks and do it, do it, do it. Such a racket. Then he and the chimp would play slapjack and laugh like idiots. Creepiest sound you ever heard.”

Bentine was not happy at being sidetracked. He asked the dwarf, “And you saw that?”

“Nah, but I read it in the Christian Science Monitor.”

“Look guys,” Lloyd said. “You’re both funnier than Vaughn Meader, but this is serious to me. This is an old man I’m talking about. You might have noticed old men are getting murdered by some crazy son of a bitch down here. While you’re doing your floorshow, would you please mind keeping an eye out for him?”

“Mister, I wasn’t kidding about knowing him,” Bentine said. “He was a good Joe. If I see him, I’ll keep him safe for you.”

“Thanks, and thanks for the sandwich. I’ll stop back in a few days.”

Lloyd took the footpath back to the sidewalk, and walked to the corner to figure what direction he’d drive next. The two kids weren’t there anymore, but he was pleased to see a squashed potato bug in their wake.

 

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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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