The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Electricity

By the time they left the Whisky, the night had turned misty and cool. Audrey clung to Lloyd’s arm as they walked down Sunset and up Larrabee to his MGB. The seats were damp and the towel he kept behind the seat was little better. He dried the passenger side as best he could and put the top up while Audrey shivered in her lamb coat.

He had just about enough gas in the tank to get her home and himself back to Venice, which wasn’t want he wanted to do. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, except to have a moment to himself to think because, goddamn, sitting next to this woman, all he could hear in his head was the snap of sparks flying off her, right at him.

When he was a small boy, Lloyd begged his parents to let him sleep with a light on. They couldn’t understand that tiny green, red and orange arrows came shooting at him through the dark, and the green arrows stung when they hit. He’d pinch his eyes closed, but always had to open them to see if the arrows were still coming, and they always were, flying in faster than he could close his eyes again. It didn’t matter if he was curled in a ball far under his covers. The dark was just as big there, and the arrows came from everywhere. If he couldn’t see them, he couldn’t feel them. He wondered if maybe the arrows weren’t flying all day long but he just didn’t see them.

As real as they were, one day when he was six they simply weren’t there anymore, and the dark was just dark.

This wasn’t like those arrows, but it was the closest thing he’d felt since then, except now, along with the fearful stinging, there was also exhilaration and desire. Another thing different: He couldn’t talk to the arrows.

“I’m sorry about the heat. This car’s only two years old but the fan’s busted.”

“It’s English, right? They don’t do electricity. Have you seen their gargantuan wall plugs and how they put four fuses on everything? It’s like electricity’s some evil spirit they’re trying to keep out of their wiring. I think the English regret not sticking with the waterwheel.”

“You’d expect more of their rock stars would have been electrocuted.”

“You’d expect, or you wish?”

“Hey, they weren’t bad, for the loudest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard. That guitarist was hilarious. Did Artie go to any of these rock shows?”

“A couple. He was curious to see what all the fuss was about. You’ll have to meet his dummies. One of the last ones he’s made is a Beatle-wigged one named Schmingo. That’s about as far as he went with rock music.”

Audrey went silent as they motored on. Lloyd wondered if she was feeling any of the tingling tension he was. When they got to her home, was she going to invite him in? He caught himself imagining her and Artie’s bedroom, and that the bed was surrounded by watchful dummies.

Now Lloyd was shivering. They passed Queens Road, the street the ambulance had driven to cart Lenny Bruce’s body down from his home in the hills three weeks earlier. Ed Lafferty, the desk sergeant that night, knew Lloyd was a fan and had called him, and he’d mailed Lloyd a print of the coroner’s photo of Lenny lying dead on the floor next to his toilet and heroin works. Ed had signed the back of it, “The Genius at Work.”

Lloyd had become a fan four years earlier when he was working vice and had been one of seven plainclothesmen on hand to bust Lenny at the Troubadour. Driving the handcuffed comic to the station, Lloyd had told him, “I dug your act.”

“You’ve got a unique way of showing it.”

“Just doing my job.”

“So was I, putz, and people were digging it,” Bruce said. “Only one person walked out on it, and that was me, thanks to you. You notice it was a sold-out house?”

“Of course it was. Half the audience was cops.”

That made Lenny laugh. “Great. Two years ago I couldn’t get arrested in this town. Now I’m playing the policeman’s ball.”

It was a source of pride to Lloyd, if no one else, that he’d cracked Lenny up. He thought it wouldn’t hurt to share that with Audrey.

“You ever see Lenny Bruce?”

“Wasn’t that so sad? We saw him at the Crescendo—two blocks back there—five or six years ago. Artie liked to check out new comics, to see if their acts gave him any ideas. I adored Lenny. Artie thought he was wasting his talent, and told him so in his dressing room: ‘Boychik, you’re handsome, got a good head of hair, and you’re so smart. Why you gotta work blue?’ Lenny got excited and asked him, ‘Can you say that again, but throwing your voice?’ When Artie did, Lenny made this Gookie face and pantomimed to it perfectly. Artie usually loved anyone who was so quick to play with him, but he always found reasons not to go see him again. I think he was uncomfortable with the way Lenny looked at people.”

“How?”

“It was this sly look, as if he’d seen you masturbating and was letting you know he was OK with it. I don’t think Artie was OK with that.”

Lloyd turned on to Beachwood and was about to tell Audrey his Lenny story when he saw the flashing red light in his mirror. He pulled to a stop next to the corner school’s tetherball courts. A helmeted cop got off his motorcycle and walked up to the driver’s side door.

“Hello, sir. Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“Because you’re an asshole?”

The cop reached in, grabbed Lloyd’s collar, and pushed the lens of his flashlight up against Lloyd’s jaw before he turned it on.

“Jesus, Lloyd. Hi! I didn’t recognize you with your Beatle haircut.”

Lloyd’s hair had grown maybe half an inch past his regulation cut, but Billy Down was never good with details. He was a nice kid, and Lloyd had helped him study for his exam. Billy was determined to make detective, which would happen on the same day pigs got tired of flying and took up scuba diving. The kid spooked easily, and was dumber than a bar of soap.

“Audrey, meet Officer Down. Billy, Audrey.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

She nodded, “Likewise.”

Lloyd got out of the car, shimmied out of his jacket and draped it over Audrey’s legs. “Be right back,” he told her.

He and the cop walked back to the motorcycle.

“That’s a nice car, Lloyd. Yours?” Billy didn’t seem to remember Lloyd giving him a lift home in it right after he’d bought it. Billy drove a Rambler, so he often needed a ride.

“Yeah. It was the closest thing to an Ambassador I could afford. I’d like to catch up with you, Billy, but my heater’s broke and I’d like to get the lady home. You got a number I can call you at?”

“She your girlfriend?”

“My employer. She’s hired me to work a case for her.” Unlike most of his blue brethren, Billy thought it would be cool to be a private eye. Billy also thought it would be cool to be Gigantor, which was now his nickname at the station house.

Since Billy wasn’t making any move to, Lloyd took Billy’s pen, tore off the top sheet from his ticket book and wrote his office number down for him. “Maybe you can help me. The guy I’m looking for, her husband, is an old Hollywood character named Artie Kane.”

The Artie Kane? I watched him every day! He had Woody with him, and I met him at a Zody’s grand opening. That Woody cracks me up.”

“Well, he’s missing, though maybe not. He left a note saying he was going out to live with hoboes. So I’m damned if I know where to look for him. Can you put the word out to be on the lookout for him? You know what he looks like, right? Maybe you should describe him to me.”

“He’s an old guy, about this tall, medium build, small ears, medium nose, got hair like Larry in the Three Stooges, but gray now, and bushy eyebrows.”

Not bad. If criminals had afternoon TV shows maybe Billy would stand a better chance of catching them.

“That’s him. Let me know if you hear anything. And it might be better if you don’t mention me. Just tell the boys you’re looking for him.”

“Glad to, Lloyd. It’s not the same without you there.”

Billy still wasn’t making any sign of moving, so Lloyd began sauntering toward the MG, and Billy followed, saying, “You take care. Goodnight, ma’am.” He was halfway back to his cycle before he turned. “Oh, and you didn’t signal your turn back there.”

“Thanks. I’ll practice that this weekend.”

separator

Audrey’s house wasn’t that much higher up in the hills, but it felt a few degrees colder when the MG pulled up in front. There wasn’t even the chance for an awkward goodnight at her door: Audrey was out of the MG’s passenger door before he’d shut the engine off, and was handing him his coat.

“I’d invite you in for coffee but I’m beat. Can you do whatever detectives do tomorrow and then come by the house around four? You can look through Artie’s stuff and see if you can learn anything. And thank you, Lloyd. You have no idea how much I needed a night like this.”

That was that. If she’d been seeing sparklers and roman candles all night when she looked at him, she wasn’t showing it. But she wasn’t saying his name like it was a toad in her mouth anymore, either.

She was in her door already, and it closed. Lloyd shuddered with the cold, drove down the cul-de-sac, and didn’t put his coat on till he was stopped at an intersection halfway down Beachwood.

He needed sleep. This was the most exhausting day of doing nothing he could remember. He needed time alone with a beer to get his bearings. He needed warmth. He needed to lie in bed and think about Audrey Kane.

Instead, he stopped at the gas station at the bottom of the hill and put $1.25 in the tank. He bought a Snickers bar from a machine, and a chalky coffee from another machine in the Laundromat next door. He fished a cold sweatshirt out from his trunk and put it on under his sport coat. Then he drove to Pershing Square.

 

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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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