The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Feelin’ Groovy

Softly, Lloyd drove, fearing any bump or altercation would break the tenuous link between his mind and the world at large. LA felt like it was curling around him to either side of the road, as if his MG was driving at the bottom of a deep, dirty record groove. That made him the stylus, and any failure to track the road ahead could skip him out of the groove.

He passed a longhaired male on the sidewalk, dressed like he’d wandered off from a renaissance fair. Did his ilk say “groovy” all the time because they’d felt the same way coming off an LSD trip? Lloyd thought of stopping and asking the hippie what groovy meant, but that could be a bump. Better to wait and ask Audrey. He still was having trouble accepting that she’d willingly taken the drug. He’d had no suspicion of it in the grand week he’d known her.

Billy Down had told him some of his fellow street cops were now calling theses hippies “hombos: half-homo, half-hobo.” From what he’d seen of longhairs, they liked tail as much as the next guy. Some of the hippie chicks he’d seen were knockouts. They also weren’t like any bums he’d known. Hobos at least laid on some blarney when they panhandled you; these hippies—runaways or the spawn of the Beverly Hills rich; he couldn’t tell the difference—acted like your spare change was their sullen birthright, and they could barely lower themselves to ask you for it.

They thought they were so far out with their fuzz boxes, but they’d never even heard Charles Mingus. No skin off his nose. Traipse on, Hippie Longstocking with your maryjane roach. He was driving where real hobos got high on Sterno.

He nearly slid onto the 101 out of habit, but kept to the surface streets, picking quiet residential ones when he had a choice. The dappled sunlight through the elms, the kept-up yards, the absence of other cars to sideswipe: all gave him the sense that even if things weren’t quite normal, he could handle it without, as the kids called it, freaking out.

As he neared downtown, things got noisier and grittier, but he found he could handle that. It did remind of the vision he’d had the night before, the city as a living machine pulsing with light. A voice told his mind, “Just push the switch; I’m still here.”

He stopped to buy a watch in a pawnshop on Spring Street, deciding on a used, gold-toned Timex with a Twist-o-Flex band for $3.90. He asked the owner for the time so he could set it. 4:17. He’d had worse times.

Little things spiked in his consciousness: the spittoon smell of the shop; the way sound reflected off a mirror; the grittiness of the dust on the hard Italian candies sitting in a bowl on the counter. He wasn’t hallucinating. He was just getting different details from the world. He wondered if that was what Sherlock Holmes got from cocaine.

The pawnshop was run by an old jeweler, who looked a little like Artie, with tufts of white hair to either side of his head. Lloyd went to the MG and came back with one of the publicity photos.

“Of course I’ve seen him, on movies and television, yes,” the man said when Lloyd asked. “It’s Artie Kane. And that’s strange, because I just got this in. You a fan of his? You might want to buy this then.”

As the man talked, he slowly lifted a black painted wood case to his counter. It was similar to the ones in Artie’s basement, except near the handle ARTIE KANE was carved in raised block letters.

“Did he bring this in here?”

“No, just a bum, said he’d found it in a trash can. I get plenty of famous types in here though. I sold a guitar once to Carl Sandburg. Said he needed it to serenade the young lady with him.”

“Does this bum have a name? Can you describe him?”

“You interested in buying this?”

“Sure.”

“Twelve dollars.”

That was probably six times its worth, but Lloyd forked the money over.

“So this bum?”

“He was a bum, and dressed like a bum.”

“That’s it?”

“Mister, if he’d stayed longer, I’d have had him put his feet and handprints in the cement outside, so I could make the Grauman’s Chinese of bums, just for you. I’m sorry. A bum’s a bum. It’s like telling cockroaches apart. There’s no pawn ticket with his name, because junk like this I buy outright.”

“I don’t suppose he said where the trash can was.”

“No, he did not. You want to ask me when? That I can tell you. It was a week ago Wednesday.”

He gave the jeweler his card, and said he’d buy a courting guitar, too, if the man saw the box’s seller again or got other information.

He carried the box by its wooden handle to his car and set it on the trunk. He opened it, hoping there’d be a flophouse receipt, matchbook or Artie’s detailed account of what the hell he thought he was up to, but there was just a green flannel lining and a musty smell. He felt around for anything under the cloth, but detected nothing.

He put the case in his trunk, locked it, and walked to the Husky Boy Burger stand on the corner. He bought three burgers, two Cokes and a large fries. He ate one seated at an umbrella-covered round table outside, and mulled what his find meant.

Just over a week earlier, Artie had been downtown, near enough that a vagrant had found or stolen the case in the walkable vicinity of the pawnshop. For the first time since Abraham had told him he’d spotted someone like Artie, with a case like this, Lloyd felt encouraged. He was sure now the dead shoeshine man hadn’t just seen someone like Artie, but Artie incarnate, then a couple of days later Artie’s case walked into the pawn shop. There were dozens of possibilities: Artie’d put both the dummy and his clothes in a duffel bag and caught a freight train; Artie’s getting forgetful and wandered off without his box, with his arm up the dummy; Artie was doing his act in an alley when a thief grabbed the dummy and ran, so Artie abandoned the box.

None of these seemed likely to him, certainly not the last, since to his thinking even a junkie would have to be pretty desperate before he’d stoop to snatching a creepy little dummy. Even an old wooden box would be more honorable prey. So maybe the box was stolen, or Artie had just dumped it because he’d settled in somewhere and didn’t expect to need it. If he could abandon a house in the hills and Audrey, leaving a box, no matter how useful, was no great leap.

If so, when he surfaced sooner or later, he’d be far easier for people to spot and remember with a chattering dummy in his arms. Lloyd had a sudden conviction that the reason Artie had headed down here was to perform. Now that success had abandoned him, maybe Artie saw a poetry in winning a new audience among the city’s outcasts, doing skits for the Sad Sacks in line at the missions. All Lloyd had to do was keep looking, put his feelers out, and find Artie before rats, murderers or natural causes did. Sippie Solves First Case! Totally Fucks Self Out of Only Good Thing in His Life in the Process! What Next From Our Dashing Hero?

Lloyd remembered the remaining food, and that he’d bought it with the intent of sharing it with Barney the dwarf. He stood up, was dizzy for several seconds, then shook his head like a wet dog’s and headed back to his MG. It shone a profound red in the late afternoon sun, with the scratches Chick Singer had gouged into the sides standing out like tribal scars. Vengeance will be mine, sayeth the Lloyd.

 

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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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