The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Her Favorite Martian

Lloyd had driven past Musso and Frank any number of times, but never assumed mere mortals ate there. You tend to meet flawed people when you’re a cop, and the bit-part actors he’d met were no exception, but he could no more picture eating in a restaurant frequented by the likes of Bette Davis and Douglas Fairbanks than he could see himself supping at the Rawhide chuck wagon.

The maitre d’ knew Audrey. So apparently did the headwaiter and bartender, who both gave “Mrs. K” a welcoming hug while Lloyd was still taking in the room: wood paneling, red leather seats and booths, heavy roof beams like something out of a ship, Italianate frescos in vanilla and gray on the upper walls. It was all a little dark, and seemed at first glance filled by people looking back at him, as disappointed as he that none of them were famous.

The maitre d’ was back, apologetic. “I’m sorry, Mrs. K, your booth is occupied tonight. May we seat you elsewhere?”

“Of course.”

He showed them to a slim booth for two. Audrey hung her coat on an adjacent rack and lit a small cigarette.

“That’s a charade they’ve maintained for four years, the sweethearts. I’ve never understood what pope decides who rates their own booth here, but one day Artie and I did. About a year after he lost his show we were just as summarily de-boothed. It could be Morey Amsterdam’s booth now for all I know or care. As long as it’s not that fucking Paul Winchell.”

She looked as if she’d expected that to startle him, and it did some, this classy, unclassifiable lady in a swank joint, swearing worse than an off-duty beat cop. If she was begging a question, he decided not to proffer it, instead asking, “This place looks like it’s held together by a film of nicotine. Any idea how long it’s been open?”

She exhaled. “Since before the conquistadors arrived, I’m told. Artie started coming here in the ’40s. He’d have Woody with him and, whatever Artie was eating, they’d bring a tiny portion of it out for Woody on a saucer. He brought me here on our first date, and damn if they didn’t bring me a little saucer, too. Artie laughed his head off over that.”

“When was this?”

“1959. You were probably in diapers then. I’d been in town a month, trying to sell jingles to the radio stations. I’d have had better luck selling aspirin to Christian Scientists. I got a job at a shoe store, still trying to peddle songs on my day off. I was walking into KFI. He was walking out and banged right into me with Woody’s box. He didn’t stop apologizing until we were sitting here. He was just the sweetest, strangest man, so unlike other men I’d met you’d swear he was a Martian.”

“And he didn’t worry that you might be a gold digger, being so much younger and broke?”

“Artie didn’t think like that, even when he should. Are you asking if I was a gold digger? If Artie had only been a jolly elevator operator, would I still have married him? Probably. I was doing my cooking on a hot plate and using it for heat. And I like to be warm. But the money and the celebrity just seemed like a part of what he was, not something I saw separately. I think if Artie had been an elevator operator, he and the elevator would have wound up on the radio and TV. He was that special.”

“Was? Are you talking like he’s dead?”

“Please let’s not even think that. I’m talking like Artie, that Artie, hasn’t been around for a long time. He changed after he lost Kandy Kane Town. He wasn’t resentful, wasn’t jealous of others’ success, even when they stole his schtick. He was always gracious, always funny. He could kid for hours with the dry cleaner. But something was missing. I keep thinking about that note he left. I’m simply gone. It’s like whatever animated him, whatever had a hand up his backside making his mouth move, had stopped caring.

“He’d go out less, then hardly at all. At home, he’d hole up in his workshop with his dummies. I know people sniggered about our age difference, but in bed our first couple of years, he was like a jackhammer, pardon my frankness. Then we’d sleep curled up so snug we could have been seat-belted together. As he drifted away more, he wasn’t even sleeping on the same floor of the house as me.

“These past few weeks, Artie seemed to snap out of it a bit. He was more playful. He’d rush through breakfast like he had a purpose for the rest of the day. He got out more. We ate here just last Thursday. That’s why we’re here tonight.”

Their waiter was coming and Lloyd hadn’t even opened his menu. “The chicken pot pie is very good,” Audrey said. He ordered that. She ordered New York steak and a chiffonade salad, then told the waiter, “Jesse, we’re going to pop into the kitchen to pay our compliments for a mo.”

“Go right ahead. You know you’re always welcome.”

The aging waiter, who maybe had arrived with the conquistadors, led them most of the way, then veered toward the bar. Audrey continued to the kitchen and held the door for Lloyd.

It was three times as bright in there. While waiters were hustling through and a young helper was bringing foodstuffs from the fridge, there was only one chef amidst a dozen pans, pots, and sizzling steaks on the grill.

“Hi Cesar, are you flying without Jean tonight?”

The chef, a middle-aged, disarmingly distinguished Mexican with heavily lidded eyes, looked up. “He’s in Vegas, Missis K, giving his money away. Anything on your plate tonight, I cooked it.”

“Then I’ll look forward to it twice as much. How’ve you been?”

“I dunno. My son, yesterday I tell him to do his homework. He tells me to go stuff taquitos up my ass. A twelve-year-old! When I was growing up, I honored my father. He beat me like a horse anyway. I never beat my son, and this is what I get.”

“Sorry to hear that. I have some sorry news, too. I want you to meet my friend Lloyd. He’s helping me find Artie. He’s been missing since Monday.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Missis. Maybe he’s in Vegas too. And nice to meet you, mister. Don’t mind I cook while we talk.”

Audrey told Lloyd, “Artie would disappear into the kitchen for the better part of an hour sometimes to talk with Jean and Cesar. I was usually in the booth. I can recite the menu word-for-word. Test me if you like.”

Lloyd asked Cesar, “When you talked, did he ever give any hint that he was up to something, going somewhere, that he was having trouble with anything?”

“You kidding? Here’s what we’d talk about.” He took the lid of a large stew pot and began flipping it open and closed like a mouth.

“I’m all steamed up about something!

“You think you’re steamed up? My son, he wastes taquitos.

“That’s baaad, muey bad, a son of his dad to do so.

“Don’t you think that I don’t know?

“He’s a muey malo muchacho. I’m boiling over, gotta go.”

Cesar smiled, pleased with his performance. He was no ventriloquist, but he nailed the voice Kane had used for Pot O’Woe, Kandy Kane Town’s talking stovetop character.

Was this Artie Kane’s old life: running around town, living out a cavalcade of comic scenarios with chefs, bootblacks and dry cleaners, with time-outs to bang the bejabbers out of his young wife? About whom Lloyd was already beginning to feel a proprietary longing? That seemed like purpose enough to him. What had sent Kane spiraling?

“Was anything different at all last Thursday?”

“Nothing, except maybe he seemed a little happier than before. You sure he’s missing, Missis K? You know him. Maybe he got talking to a bus driver and didn’t notice the bus was going to New York. Maybe, for real, he’s in Las Vegas with Jean. I give you his number there.”

A Hindu god might envy Cesar’s arms, sautéing with one, writing in crisp numbers with the other. “You don’t worry, Missis K. He’ll show up, probably with an elephant or something.”

Coming from the kitchen, the dining room seemed doubly dark. Only when they were passing one booth did Lloyd notice Ernest Borgnine and Forrest Tucker were seated there.

A couple of steps farther, Audrey was at his ear. “Have you ever seen two bigger fags in your life?”

“You’re kidding!”

“Yeah, I am kidding. I couldn’t help myself.” They were back at their table, where Lloyd now knew what a chiffonade salad looked like. “I do know one Forrest Tucker story, though,” she continued, “the one where there was an ongoing argument at the Friars Club: Milton Berle’s partisans claimed he had the biggest dick in all of Hollywood, while Tucker’s camp made their own claims. One night both men were present and the argument heated up. Bets were laid. Finally, there were calls for them to produce said dicks. Being modest men, they demurred. ‘Come on, Milton,’ argued one on his side, ‘just pull out enough to win.’”

Lloyd didn’t know any good Hollywood stories. He did know he’d felt at a disadvantage with Audrey Kane since she’d first spied him that morning with his most certainly sub-Tucker dick out on parade. Which she was most kind in not mentioning, unless she just sort of had.

“Are you getting some sense of what Artie’s like? He is childlike. He is a Martian. His mind does not work like yours or mine does. He’s had an uncanny knack all his life for walking between raindrops, and I’m trying not to worry, but I am worried. I worry when he goes to the market. Now I don’t know where in the world he might be, or if he’s warm enough. I don’t know if there’s any more joy in being with him, but I do love that man.”

“Is there any possibility something’s going on with him, medical or financial, that might cause him to leave, to spare you the burden of it?

“We have the same doctor, who knows to tell me if Artie had anything that required a rational decision, and he’s evidently as fit as Gypsy Boots. I don’t keep a good track of where we are financially because we’re so hilariously well off that I don’t need to. Artie’s main expenses are wood and fabric, and mine is music. My understanding is, he could buy Wallichs Music City for me and have enough left over to buy the Capitol Records building.”

“Is it possible you’ve done something that might have caused him to leave?”

“Artie knows he’s left me high and dry emotionally. He’s told me as much. And he’s told me there’s nothing I could do in this world that could ever make him disappointed in me.” Audrey Kane’s eyes actually teared up a bit. “I’ve never tried testing that.”

She stabbed at her salad. “This always reminds me of the piece of furniture Brock Peters busts up in To Kill a Mockingbird, that chifforobe. I used to wonder where Southerners ever came up with a word like that. I found the real word is French, chiffonier. How do you get from that to chifforobe? It’s like crackers have a fuzzbox in their heads. Do you know what a fuzzbox is?”

“I know what I wish it was.”

“Have you heard anything by the Yardbirds?”

“I wouldn’t know if I had. Are they a rock group?”

“Just one of the best. You’ve heard ‘Satisfaction,’ haven’t you? The Rolling Stones?”

“That I’ve heard.”

“That’s a fuzzbox.”

Their dinners arrived, and the pot pie was very good, even if it seemed outgunned by Audrey’s steak. Lloyd looked up to find her eyes meeting his.

“Is there a Mrs. Sippie?” she asked.

“Yeah, between Arkansas and Alabama.”

“I walked right into that, didn’t I?”

“With your eyes wide open. I was starting to think you were going to get all the good lines.”

“Would you excuse me a moment?”

It was more like ten. When Audrey returned she explained, “I called Las Vegas. No answer. I called our service and a neighbor. There’s been no word and no sign. Will you take me to see the Yardbirds?”

“Are they still a rock group?”

“Nothing but. Think you can stand it?”

“I’d rather they were Coleman Hawkins, but sure. When?”

“Now. They’re at the Whisky tonight.”

Now was delayed by the bartender bringing her an Irish coffee.

“On the house. You say hi to your husband for me.”

“Thank you, Luis. I will.”

“Hi, mister. Can I bring you something? We’ve got plenty of it.”

Lloyd ordered a scotch, which he cared for as little as he did most hard liquor. He’d drunk rum and Cokes till he read that’s what the Beatles drank and figured it was past time to adopt a more adult beverage.

He was feeling tipsy and jittery before he had a sip. He’d been holding things together pretty well, he thought, asking the right questions, doing the job, being a lively dinner companion and hopefully comporting himself in a manner that would suggest he did not spend the greater part of his time peeing in sinks. Holding it together, but barely, because his brain was running like a fifteen-year-old’s, awed and frightened of the perfection he saw in her face, lit like some Dutch painting by the wall lantern, a face so flinty and funnily sad.


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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.


This is really wonderful, Jim.

Also, I have danced with Gypsy Boots.

2010-01-7 by rebecca

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