The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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For No One

The desiccated desk clerk talked the whole way up the stairs: Her name was JoAnne, from Kansas, never did get the hang of all these hills in LA, and sorry for the Pine-Sol smell on the landing, but it’s a sight better than the smell it’s covering.

The hallway was hot, fetid and dark, reminding Lloyd of the hellish squatter’s palace Cochise had led him to the week before. A weak flutter of the sunshine flooding the downtown seeped in from a tobacco-stained window at the far end of the hallway. A dusty light sconce halfway down was missing its bulb.

Treading the threadbare carpet towards the room the potential Artie had rented, Lloyd found himself shushing the woman with a finger to his lips, foolish since the first thing she was going to do was knock on the door.

 Lloyd’s heart pounded like he anticipated a wild boar on the other side, not a dotty old man, or the empty room where he or someone like him had been.

JoAnne’s knocks hit the door with dull thud, drawing no response or sound from the other side. It had an old lock, the type you could peek through into the room, which he’d done a few times working vice. It took a moment for JoAnne’s old fingers to work the key into the worn mechanism.

The door opened with a creaking sound straight from a horror flick, but nothing waited beyond it except a drab, uninhabited room. Maybe that was horror enough. Lloyd didn’t think much about growing old, but when he did, he imagined himself in a room like this, enfeebled and entirely alone, with no one to care when he banged his shin on the awful furniture.

If Artie had been in the place, he wasn’t now. The woman stepped aside to let Lloyd enter, then followed him in.

The room’s window was half-open. Lloyd went to it and looked down, in case Artie improbably was climbing down the fire escape. He did a cursory check of a closet, the bathroom and behind its bathtub curtain to make sure there was nothing obvious, like a body, then he got down to details.

The bed had been neatly made. JoAnne sat on one corner and watched Lloyd work. He didn’t appreciate the audience, but couldn’t think of a polite way to shoo her.

“This is nice,” she commented. “Some people, they make such a whoop-tee-doo you want to clean the room with a hose. We don’t allow unmarried couples, and married ones don’t come here anyway, but some sneak women in, and they have filthy habits.”

 The way she eyed Lloyd and uncrossed her legs gave the impression she wouldn’t mind a wallow herself if he had another $5. Was she that addled, he wondered, or did he have such a sad sack look she felt he needed paid comfort?

He retreated to the bathroom. The deeply chipped tub was wet from recent use. A damp washcloth was neatly folded over its lip. Artie or not, the occupant was fastidious.

He lifted the toilet seat: nothing of interest there. He lowered it, sat, and pulled an oval wastebasket from beneath the sink. Someone had given himself a haircut. Tufts of kinky silver hair lay amid Kleenex that were lobed with thick yellow snot. More of the same covered a handkerchief. He saw a jar of VapoRub and wadded bandages below that. He plucked the handkerchief out by one corner, wishing he’d packed rubber gloves. Once unfolded, the cloth was scarcely the size of a cocktail napkin. Were these the pocket-handkerchiefs Audrey told him about, the ones Artie made for his dummies’ suits? If so, both dummy and owner had a hell of a cold.

He was going to have to pick through all of this, and then probably kill five minutes while the faucet got hot enough to wash his hands properly. He put the handkerchief down and looked in on JoAnne, who had the Gideons out, evidently turned to a random page. She looked at him questioningly over its rim.

“This is going to take me a while,” he said. “Don’t let me keep you.”

“I’m comfy here. It’s good off my feet. The rummies don’t come drifting in ’til later, and I’d hear the bell as long as this door’s open. Do you mind this door being open?”

“Not at all. Put in a firehouse pole if you want. I just don’t want you getting bored on my behalf,” meaning Creepy Lady, out of here! She didn’t get the drift.

“I like watching a man work. You just go on picking through the Kleenex.” She rolled on her side to switch on the clock radio, showing thighs that would look at home in a Chicken Delight bucket. Lloyd turned purposefully back to his work.

Soon, the trash lay arrayed with an archeological precision on the bathroom floor. Proceeding from the left wall was the top layer of hair and tissues, followed by the handkerchief and VapoRub jar, which he’d opened to see that nearly the last of it had been scooped out by hand. If there were no other leads, he could have the jar dusted for prints and see if they matched those around Artie’s workbench at home. All the other solid surfaces in the hotel room looked like they held hundreds of prints.

Next, he pulled out the bandages, some crusted with blood and dried scabs. He wasn’t anxious to examine those closer, but he would. He was suddenly arrested by what lay below the bandages, an empty bottle of Clens-Oil, the Hollywood makeup-removal solvent he’d seen in Artie’s workshop. He couldn’t imagine anyone but Artie having that down here, which, with the hair, cinched it for him. Artie Kane had indeed been here.

He heard JoAnne rustling on the bed. Dean Martin was on the radio singing “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On.” He took a quick look at the bandages, unraveling them to see blood, maybe just from bedsores or bedbugs. The scabs were more bothersome: some gleamed with pus. It didn’t reek of gangrene, but a lot of common sores that came from being old on the street could turn ugly without treatment; he’d seen that in the lock-ups. Artie clearly wasn’t sleeping in a hotel every night. Maybe he’d only gone to this one to shake a cold.

He put the bandages, Clens-Oil bottle and VapoRub jar in a sanitary napkin bag, and stepped into the main room. JoAnne looked up from her Bible, pointed, and with a hint of disdain said, “There’s another can of trash under the desk. Knock yourself out.”

Dean Martin had been followed by the Mamas and the Papas, and now an announcer was rattling off the call letters. It was Audrey’s station, KRLA.

“Did you put that station on, or was it already set there?”

“I didn’t touch the dial. I’m hardly listening to it. It just cuts the traffic noise.” That was coming in strong through the open window, though Lloyd hadn’t noticed it until then. Now he was anxious to finish casing the room and hit the street, in case Artie was still in the environs.

All the desk’s trash can held were some folded grocery store bags and a pink box with a label identifying the former contents as almond cookies from a Chinese bakery in San Marino. He checked the bags to see if there were any receipts showing where Artie had shopped, but no such luck.

He put them back in the trash and searched the desk and dresser drawers, which held nothing but old lint. He felt awkward looking under the bed with the desk clerk laying on it, but did, finding nothing of note. He made a more careful check of the closet, feeling with his hands on the high shelf, and getting a coating of dust for his trouble.

He spent a good while washing his hands. While toweling them dry, he asked JoAnne, “The man in this room, have you ever had him as a guest before.”

“Not that I’ve seen. I have a couple of days off, though.”

“Did he say anything at all when he was signing in? How did he seem?”

“Like an old man with sniffles. He said it was a real consolation to see a friendly face and to expect a hot bath.”

“Thanks. Don’t get up. I’ll let myself out.”

“Easiest $5 I’ve made all week,” she answered, wanly waving one hand.

 Lloyd started out the door, then thought for a second and retrieved one of the grocery bags, putting his file of Artie photos in it along with the sanitary napkin bag, which he figured would make a poor calling card at the other stops he’d be making.

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Later at Cole’s Buffet, Lloyd told Cochise of his finds, and pulled the bag out. All the big man said was, “Ug, Kemosabe, fresh spoor.”

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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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