The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Call Me

Lloyd sat at his office desk, eating a cinnamon roll and reading about the weekend’s murders in the Monday L.A. Times. There was nothing new, and still only unconfirmed reports there might be more murders behind the weekend’s pair of cop-sickening corpses. At least the Times hadn’t called Abraham a vagrant.

After Lloyd left the field encampment Sunday afternoon, he’d driven around the shabby end of downtown for another hour, then headed home, where he made himself a peanut butter sandwich and was fast asleep by 8 pm.

He’d woken at 7, had a brisk swim in the empty ocean, and was at his office by 8:15. There hadn’t been any phone calls. In lieu of an answering service, when he set up shop he’d experimented balancing a nickel on various parts of the phone, having Billy Down ring him until he’d found a spot where the vibration consistently shook the nickel off.

When he’d come in that morning, it was still perched on the phone. He wondered how soon he’d have to spend it. He hadn’t had so little money in his pocket since before he’d become a paperboy in La Puente.

He was expecting a call from Cochise at 10 and hoping for one from Audrey any time. She’d said she’d call Monday once she’d unretreated, and he was sitting pat until she did.

The birds were having their daily mulberry festival in the bush outside the window. Lloyd sat flipping through his library books. He practiced throwing his voice, trying the ventriloquism book’s methods of saying letters like b and f without moving his lips. Then he tried saying “Audrey,” but it came out like a robot with oatmeal in its mouth.

The phone rang at 9:40. Lloyd let it go for two and a half rings, then picked up and in his most unconcerned professional voice said, “Lloyd Sippie.”

“Annette Funicello.”

It was Cochise, who continued, “Man, you should have hung around yesterday. Melissa or whatever her name was makes a mean Eggs Benedict.”

“When’s the wedding?”

“I don’t know. She’s a little hard on the ears ... I need to tell you there’s some other awful places I can look for your old puppet guy at, but I can’t today. A guy got beaned with a girder this morning, and I’m expected at ten to take his place on the site.” Lloyd wondered how contractors got ahold of Cochise. Smoke signals? “That might carry over to tomorrow, so don’t put me on the clock yet.”

“I don’t even have a watch to put you on right now. And I might have to pay you in mulberries. Your people eat things like that, don’t they?”

“When we can’t get twigs.”

“Why don’t we talk Wednesday? Is there someplace I can call you at?”

 “No fixed abode. I’m a mobile savage. I sleep on couches when I have friends, on women when I’m lucky, and in garages when I’m neither. I’ll just call Wednesday till I get you.”

“OK. Be careful with the girders and such.”

 “Always am. The difference between you and me is when I break a leg, it isn’t mine.”

The line clicked off. Lloyd wondered what it must be like, going through life with the future no more certain than an alley cat’s, every day some new adventure to find food and a bed. He’d read dime novels as a kid about a berserker who brawled and wenched his way though the ancient world. He got crucified in one story, but just wrenched the nails out and kept on going. He didn’t have a phone, either.

Lloyd wanted to put Cochise off until Wednesday, because later that day he had to head to South Central to check the tip about a ventriloquist doing shows in a carport, and since that left seeing Audrey out of the picture, he wanted to keep Tuesday floating for that.

He decided to switch to using an Indian head nickel for his answering service. He was sick of looking at Jefferson’s stupid wig head. He got up and stood outside his front door a while, thinking he should have got a coffee, but not wanting to leave the phone.

He went back inside, dropped to the floor and did 30 pushups, then an uncounted number of sit-ups. Then he sat in a lotus position for a while, thinking about everything except nothing. He got up and headed into the storeroom/restroom. When he’d rented the office, it had come with a plunger. He found it after moving nearly everything he’d put in the place—piled up furniture, boxes of record albums, some dumbbells he’d had since he was 10.

He worked the toilet hard enough for it to count as calisthenics. After 20 minutes he felt like the effort should have pumped any obstruction all the way into the Pacific, but he still had to pull the tank top off and secure the ballcock with a clothes hanger to keep the bowl from overflowing when he flushed it. He’d read somewhere that of all a household’s fixtures, the one most likely to survive a nuclear war would be the toilet. So the next evolutionary go-round, when man’s forebear crawled from the sea, he’d already have a leg up in the flush toilet department.

Lloyd gave up on the plunger and went back to reading the Times. He looked through the Lost & Found part of the classifieds, in case someone had found a ventriloquist dummy with an old man attached. On the front of the section was a full-page ad for Chick Singer Chevrolet, the left side of the page filled with a grinning photo of Chick and his diapered chimpanzee. C’mon down, and they’ll tag-team the missus in the Impala of your choice for just $79 a month.

He played around with the idea of Chick having Artie kidnapped as a way to get at Audrey. Maybe that’s where she was now, acceding to his craven whims in a mountain cabin to secure Artie’s release. It was nearly as likely that Artie was screwing chimps on the high seas, but he liked to consider all angles.

Lloyd’s stomach started grumbling around noon. He put the nickel back on the phone and dashed around the corner to the diner for a sandwich. The nickel was still in place when he got back. He ate the sandwich slowly, wondering how people managed to sit at a desk all day, every day.

On a whim, he looked up Abraham Van Buren in the phone book, and found his number and an address in Compton, along with another listing on the same block for a Hibiscus Van Buren. He wrote both addresses down, thinking he might try questioning his survivors that afternoon.

He had no valid reason to stick his nose into Abraham’s homicide, but he took it personally that the closest thing he had to a lead on Artie had turned up dead hours after he’d talked to him. If there was time between Audrey’s call and the rumored carport show, he’d go to the homes.

He could try calling Audrey, of course, but he wanted to respect her privacy, and she had said she’d call him. It was important to Lloyd that she’d want to call him, that she wasn’t trying to distance herself from the awkward kiss they’d shared Friday night, which is what her whole retreat weekend felt like to him.

The mailman came by a little after 1. Since the door with the mail slot on it was open, he walked in, plopped a small stack on Lloyd’s desk, said, “Heckofa day to be working, innit?” and went on his way. It looked to be another bunch of political mailers, topped by one from Mr. Death Valley Days himself.

On a less tedious day, he would have shit-canned the pile unopened. Now, sifting through them, he came across a blue envelope with Audrey’s name embossed on the return address.

He opened it along the seal. The only thing inside was a check for $300, with no note to say whether it was an advance for a week’s work or a kiss-off for services no longer required. He checked the cancellation stamp: she’d mailed it Saturday from Hollywood. Before or after they’d talked on the phone? She could have mentioned it, but then that would have meant her talking to him like an employee. And he didn’t know what he was.

He thought about that until the phone rang at 2:10.

“Hello?” He had forgotten his cool, professional tone.

“Lloyd, this is Audrey. I’m so glad you’re there. I just got in.”

“I’m just in to be glad,” he stammered, his tongue aiming for clever or sincere but landing on the floor between them.

She overlooked his gibberish. “Listen, this weekend was a revelation to me. I’ve never felt closer to someone in my life than I felt with you being somewhere else. I was in Ojai, but I felt this constant connection between us, like a current through the air. Tell me it’s not just me.” She sounded breathless.

“I don’t know about a constant connection. I go entire seconds without thinking about you.” Who was he, Cary Grant? Why not just tell her how thunderstruck he was to be hearing her words even over Pacific Bell’s connection?

“No kidding, Lloyd. This means the world to me, and turning it upside down. I had a long talk with someone I trust. I did a lot of thinking, sitting looking over the valley. And I want you. You are the mess that’s in my heart. I can’t fight it because I’m not supposed to.

“This is all new to me. I feel like I’ve seen a flying saucer, and I want someone else to have seen it too. I want you to have seen it. I can’t guess what you see. I know what I feel but I don’t know you.”

“You know me,” he said, and was quiet for a while, feeling what it was like to feel known. “I get scared when things get good. I’m not set up for it. I intentionally don’t see good things coming. But I see you. I can hardly see anything else.”

“Can you see me tonight?”

“Christ, I want to. Maybe I can. I have a longshot lead on Artie I have to follow up in South Central tonight.”

“Can I come with you?”

“Too many buildings have already been torched down there without us throwing off sparks. It’s not much of a lead, and it’s not too inviting of a place, but I have to cross it off the list. If I get done early enough I can call you.”

“Call me whatever time you get done, will you? I mean it. If it’s 3 am, you call me.” She paused for a second, then said, “You really are doing everything you can, aren’t you? That means a lot to me.”

“I’ll show you all the scars when you see me.”

“No one else has barfed on you, have they?”

“No, but the day is young.”

“Call me?”

“I promise.”

He heard her receiver click and that connection was gone. That covered a lot of ground, he thought, moving from the love of his life revealing herself to him just a little too briskly to his recent acquaintance with Cochise’s vomit. The Indian would make a hell of a best man.

Lloyd had the sensation that he was floating on a cloud, but that he was petrified, as motionless as he was just then in his office, trying to understand why everything suddenly felt different.

He barely roused himself in time to go to the bank. He deposited $200 of the check and cashed $100. If he got mugged, it wasn’t going to be for $1.31.

With Audrey’s money in his pocket and her voice still in his ear, he drove towards Compton, reminding himself not to die that night, because nothing was going to keep him from kissing Audrey Kane again.


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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.


Well, that relieved some tension…

2010-09-12 by Brandao Shot

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