The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Coming on Strong

Lloyd Sippie behind the wheel, in control, in heavy traffic, his brain in heavy syrup. The residual LSD in his system occasionally rose like a burp in his consciousness, but he generally didn’t feel much different now from times he’d been hungover and exhausted. The MG purred in place on the Santa Monica Freeway. Artie’s dummy case was in the trunk, a palpable if probably useless clue in tracking Artie’s whereabouts. It creeped Lloyd out a bit knowing it was there. Oh that, officer? It’s just a baby vampire’s coffin.

He remembered that Artie did indeed have a vampire dummy in his basement, Count Jocular. The vaudeville circuit of Artie’s early days couldn’t have been a picnic, but he couldn’t help envying a guy who for most of his life had been paid to be playful. You sit around daydreaming some funny stuff; you write it on a napkin; and next thing you know millions of your hardworking fellow citizens are sitting around the radio or TV laughing at it and buying the dog food and cigarettes you tell them to buy, so you can play house up in the hills with a wife young enough to be the death of you. That’s the life.

He wondered if the dwarf would fit in Artie’s dummy case. It would be a cheap way to travel. Pack him in there with a sandwich, and mail him someplace where there’s a shortage of dwarfs, someplace conveniently out of Lloyd’s life. As it was, he felt responsible for the guy, since Barney was at best one person removed from having no one in the world.

He couldn’t figure why he’d unburdened his woes to him. He felt both burned up and bemused that he’d poured his heart out—all his conflicted feelings about Audrey and his task of finding her inconvenient husband—only to realize it had been to a halfwit who had been hoping for a story with ducks and pigs in it. Well, this duck fucked a swan while her little piggy went to market, and he was feeling a little piggy about it himself.

The traffic moved at an inchworm pace. The top down, he put the MG in park and stood on the seat to get a look at the road ahead. Two small trucks had collided in the right lane, and seeing what they appeared to be made him laugh. Twenty minutes later he was alongside them, and confirmed that the one in front was a Good Humor truck—its cloying tune repeating over and over through the tinny horn on its roof—while the front end of a Helms Bakery truck had rear-ended it and was stuck atop its bumper. Slowing traffic down even more, both drivers were selling their wares to the captive motorists.

Lloyd bought a bear claw from the Helms man, telling him to keep the change from the quarter he handed him.

“Thanks, mister. This is the best sales day I ever had.”

“You two should crash into the Weinermobile next time, and have all the food groups represented.”

“I got hot dog buns if you need them. I got French bread, apple pies, you name it.”

“Save some donuts for the Highway Patrol. I don’t know what law you’re breaking, but I’ll bet there is one.”

Once past the trucks, traffic sped up to an ox-team pace. He turned on the radio. It was still on Audrey’s station, KRLA. After a Dean Martin song and someone noisily stuttering about his generation, the news came on. The Beatles are coming! The Beatles are coming! That, and it was a bad week in Vietnam, the Dow/Jones was down and vandals had been in the central library, leaving overturned shelves, feces and banana peels behind. Lloyd had a pretty good idea what that was about. At least there weren’t any fresh corpses in town.

It was after 6:30 when he parked near his office in Venice. Each day had been growing a little shorter and, while it was still a good ways from night, his little block was crowded with long shadows.

Lloyd walked past a panel truck and was sorting out the right key on his chain when four hands grabbed him from behind and propelled him into the narrow alley alongside his office. He was pushed roughly against a cinder block wall. He felt two hands grabbing each of his arms. Then there was a shuffling and only one hand held each arm, but they were like vises. They pulled him back and turned him until he was facing Chick Singer.

“You don’t listen very good, do you, asshole? There’s what, a couple of million women in this city at least, and the only one of them I tell you not to fuck, you fuck. I take that personally.” He punched Lloyd then, right in the hamburger and bear claw in his stomach. “Not to mention you were licking her beaver. That’s the most goddamned un-American thing I’ve ever seen.” Another punch, again to his lunch. “That reminds me of a poem. You like poetry? ‘The French they are a funny race, They fight with their feet and fuck with their face.’ That sound like anyone you know, fuck-face?” Another punch, this one to the kidneys.

Lloyd couldn’t take much more of that battering, nor did he want to. His arms were useless, and he had nothing against the French, so he pulled his legs up to his chest in a cannonball and kicked out with both, hoping to push off against Singer and topple the unseen guy behind him. Singer had stepped back enough, though, that his gambit did little more than elicit an “Oof” from the heavily muscled car dealer when Lloyd’s feet hit his pelvis, while doing nothing to dislodge the man who gripped him.

He immediately tried stomping on his captor’s feet, but the man must have been wearing steel-toed work boots. Singer stepped so close to Lloyd that their stubble nearly rubbed. He jammed two knuckles into Lloyd’s solar plexus and kept pushing. The same self-infatuated voice that was on TV day and night hawking cars to the unwashed was now selling Lloyd his own used life.

“Do I have your attention, shit brain? You like the new racing stripes on your car? Maybe you’d like some, too. I’ve had nothing but shit luck since we met. I don’t know how much you have to do with it, but you’re a bad penny. I’m not done with you here, but when I am, you can either roll away on your own, or I can flatten you on the railroad tracks.”—Singer jammed his knuckles in even harder, and the pain was becoming intolerable—“You get out of my town, out of Audrey’s snatch; you get out so far that when they land on the moon, they find you driving a Rambler on it. You understand me?”

Singer’s eyes widened, to emphasize his point, Lloyd thought, but just then he heard and felt a thunk! behind him. The grip loosened on his arms and the guy who had held him crumpled to the ground.

Singer backed deeper into the alley, giving Lloyd a chance to turn and see what had happened. A big bruiser in mechanics’ overalls lay on the ground. The Greeter stood behind him, blocking the alleyway with a two-by-four, a wild grin on his bearded face.

“Don’t just stand there,” he told Lloyd. “I’m not your damn slave.”

Lloyd turned to see Singer had backed as far as he could into the alley and was holding a galvanized trash can lid like a shield. He was carrying maybe twice the muscle on his frame as Lloyd had, but he’d seen guys like him before, obsessed with their muscles but unwilling to lift a finger to ever do anything useful away from the exercise bench. He also suspected Singer didn’t know the difference between a punching bag and an opponent, and he was about to show him.

Lloyd had one simple rule about fighting: He didn’t start fights, and had no respect for people who did, so there were no rules. Anything that got him out of the fight soonest and with the least damage to himself was fair.

“You planning on doing anything with that lumber?” he asked the Greeter.

“I was going to whittle a toothpick, but here.” The old man handed it to Lloyd, who immediately approached Singer, feinted toward his face with one end of the two-by-four, then spun 360 degrees and swung the stick so it hit Singer behind his knees, dropping him.

Singer shielded his gut with the trash can lid, and Lloyd pushed hard against it with the wood, pinching Singer’s left hand between the handle and the lid. It must have been excruciating, because the big man let out a bellow that turned into a shriek.

“Do I have your attention now? Listen up. Go ahead and stay in my town. Come see me anytime you like; I might get to like this. But if I even dream that you’re anywhere near Audrey again, I might just kill you dead, and you’ll wish I had.

“I’m going to let up on the pressure now, and you’re going to put that trash can lid where it belongs, and I’m going to put this stick down, and I’m going to beat the shit out of you fair and square, not because either of us is a fair and square guy, but because I want you to know I’ve got your number, and I can ring it anytime I feel like.”

And that’s just what Lloyd did.


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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.


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