The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Glen Green

Audrey Kane had been specific on the phone about when he should pick her up, 6:40, and gave an address on the cul de sac end of Glen Green, off Beachwood in the hills. Lloyd had allowed for traffic on Santa Monica and there wasn’t any, so he arrived fifteen minutes early, parked a couple of houses down, and cased the neighborhood. It was mostly old wooden bungalows of modest size, housing Hollywood’s would-bes and never-wills. His sound effects friend Bob Conjugal lived in a similar house on Dearborn, with technicians, musicians and nudists for neighbors. It was probably the same mix here, though the tetherball poles and tree houses in a couple of yards put families in the mix.

Audrey and Artie Kane’s house wasn’t much wider in the front than most of the bungalows, but, being on the curve of the cul de sac, it widened out behind, along with having two stories and a basement. It was Spanish style, like all the movie stars had bought in the ’30s. They were made of stucco instead of adobe now, but they still looked as inviting as a tamale. The Kanes’ had a matching wall, surrounding a terraced yard that went back Lloyd couldn’t tell how far up the hill. Their TV antenna was planted near the ridgeline, hard to make out amid the blackened skeletons of homes that remained from the ’61 fire. It had whipped along the hilltops, leaving canyons like this relatively untouched.

The Kane house looked a little sooty itself, in need of a paint job, and the small front yard was overgrown with intermixed ivy and geraniums. The place looked like it was still worth movie-star money, though. Lloyd hitched himself up on the neighbor’s low brick wall to take a look over the Kanes’, and he saw a well-tended garden, ringing a brick patio overhung by magnolia and avocado trees. And what’s that other tree? Cherimoya, like the avenue.

After Mrs. Kane gave him her address on the phone, Lloyd wondered, Why hire me? Everyone in Hollywood knew lawyers and fixers, who each had trusted investigators. Why had she gone to an unknown in Venice Beach, whose office was a block in from the hustler-strewn boardwalk? He’d wondered that again driving up Beachwood, and again looking over her wall.

Lloyd glanced at the house and saw Audrey staring at him through a window. When she saw that he saw her, she pantomimed machine-gunning him, and he dutifully fell from his perch.

He got to her heavy, carved door just as she was opening it. She stepped out and locked it behind her. So much for seeing anything of the life she shared with her misplaced ventriloquist.

She was wearing a white lamb coat over a pair of black fuck-me-nots, Lloyd’s term for the body-stocking leotards favored by artsy types. Not many women looked good in one, but Lloyd was getting the definite impression that, in all respects, Audrey Kane was not one of the many.

“Do you like my house?”

“As much as I can without trespassing.”

“You were doing pretty good as a Peeping Tom.”

For the second time that day Audrey had him blushing. He opened the newly-waxed MG’s passenger door for her and changed the subject.

“You know, Vic Morrow lives two blocks from here. Has an MG like this one. One night he didn’t set the parking brake and it rolled down the hill right into my friend’s Imperial. He lives in a Spanish-style like you.”

“So? Are you looking to sell maps to our homes?”

Lloyd wasn’t fond of slow women, but he was starting to wonder if sharp ones weren’t entirely too much work.

“No, I just wonder why things are how they are. Why do coffee shop roofs get ruffles at the same time potato chips do? Why did tailfins come and go? Remember Khrushchev and Nixon at that trade show where Khrushchev had a fit over a Cadillac’s fins—‘What are these for? They do nothing!’ You’d think after that we’d start putting fins on the front of our cars too, just to give Russia the finger. Instead, they’re all gone.”

“And this has what to do with my house and Vic Morrow?”

 “I just wonder why, with everything else changing, the Spanish architecture stayed after we kicked the Spanish and Mexicans out.”

“It’s part of the package isn’t it? Most of us wouldn’t be here if California wasn’t sold as a cut-rate Xanadu, orchards dripping with citrus, everyone drinking sangria on their own haciendas like a Spanish don.”

“There is no home so comforting as the one you’ve taken from someone else.”

“Who said that?”

“I said that. I say things sometimes.”

“And you quote yourself for the edification of others?”

“Lady, not to question your judgment, but why did you hire me?

“Let’s say that the classifieds aren’t the only section of the paper I read.”

She let that hang until Lloyd realized she was talking about his ouster from law enforcement, which made the local sections of three papers. Lloyd knew his fellow cops had read the stories, as had his parents and friends, but it was a dull shock to realize people unconnected to him had also read and noted them.

Meaning that Mrs. Artie Kane hired him because he got the job done whatever the cost to himself? Or because he’d banged both the defendant and the purported victim in the process, and the press had made him out to be such a moral turd that maybe she figured he’d be up for something underhanded if she needed it done?

Or was it that, with those last two women he’d slept with now receiving mail at Chino Women’s Prison, he was overcautious and suspicious and couldn’t see a good thing sitting in his adjacent bucket seat?

He’d zigged from Beachwood to Franklin to Gower to Hollywood, where the MG’s motor, gears, and the rush of wind discouraged conversation. He’d warned Audrey it was a convertible, and her auburn hair was in a kerchief.

Lloyd watched the traffic, and the sidewalk activity. Once a cop ... Longhairs hanging out; other people rushing to or from work. What’s that stuff that sticks in your arteries? Maybe that’s what these hippies are, clogging up these streets they’d done nothing to create.

He’d kept an eye out for Artie Kane on the sidewalks on the drive from Venice. If you don’t know where a guy is, everywhere’s a good place to start looking. He wondered, if he spotted Kane now, if he’d just keep driving and see how the evening progressed.

He’d spent the afternoon at the Santa Monica library, refreshing himself on what Artie looked like, and checking out The Great TV Funnymen, When Radio Was King, and How to Throw Your Voice.

When he’d called Mrs. Kane at 5:02, she’d answered, “Hi, I’m just watching the other Lloyd on TV.”

“Bridges?”

“Thaxton. You’re not terribly with it, are you, because Lloyd Thaxton’s barely with it. He’s the guy with the crew cut with all the rock groups on Channel 13. It just started.”

“Sorry, I’m more of a Sheriff John guy.”

She told him where and when to pick her up, and where he was taking her. Then, “Gotta go. The Bobby Fuller Four’s coming on. Don’t be late, Lloyd.” She’d dragged out his name, making it sound to him like it meant lugie or sap.

Now she sat, inscrutable in his car, her face lit by the last soft rays of the afternoon sun streaming straight down the boulevard. She hadn’t mentioned her missing husband since their first talk that afternoon, and Lloyd hoped she wasn’t going to ask how he was going to find him, because he hadn’t a rat’s ass of an idea. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a Dr. Zorba-haired elderly celebrity who half the kids and drunks in the city had watched on TV. Problem was, he could be sleeping in the ice plants under a freeway overpass or he could be getting a haircut at the Knickerbacker. If Lloyd had still been a cop, he’d have told her the same thing the cops did: Give him a couple of weeks to turn up and he probably will; besides, they could have added, you might notice it’s been 20 years and we’re not especially closer to finding the Black Dahlia’s killer yet.

When Lloyd was a cop, things felt like they were fixed in place. The job defined you. He might like listening to Gerry Mulligan and Lenny Bruce records at home, but you left that at home. Even working plainclothes he’d felt like he was in uniform, and all he had to be was a cop.

Now, Lloyd’s world was teeming with possibility: the air was balmy; the slowly darkening sky looked like a painted movie set; his pockets were filled with the promise of money; the MG was responding like a playful lover, and the woman next to him was a beguiling irritation. So why feel like a clueless fraud, like the summer breeze might at any second whisk everything away like kite paper, and he’d be left standing at Hollywood and Ivar in his Penney’s underpants?

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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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bob conjugal?

2009-12-14 by florence

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