The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Instant Party

Whatever true darkness Los Angeles might have once possessed had all seeped into the canyons. A purgatorial grey haze was the best the basin could do in even its darkest hour. It was genuine night in Topanga, as dark as it had been when the Greeks were seeing hunters’ belts, scorpions and assorted baklava in the pre-Bible-black sky. This night, with the warm Santa Anas blowing off the coastal soup, the stars stood crisp and silent overhead.

While Alan Ohm’s discourse wound toward silence, Audrey slid her hand into Lloyd’s. He was glad for the darkness. He assumed discretion was required; that he shouldn’t look like her boyfriend, but also not like hired heat. He was just a friend squiring her around while Artie was off sleeping in the ice plants. She squeezed his hand. He squeezed back. That was all the universe he needed.

Most of his consciousness remained there, with their joined whorls, but some was on the surface, casing the scene. It was an automatic habit from his cop days, scanning for the guys in the crowd selling bootlegged Dodgers tickets, the hard guy on the barstool looking to roll a conventioneer.

He hadn’t realized how much a job shaped a man until he’d helped his desk sergeant friend Ed Lafferty move once. A fireman friend of Ed’s was also there. With no prompting, he proceeded to educate Lloyd on the flammability of every object they lifted. Huffing a mattress up a flight of stairs, the fireman, not nearly so out of breath as Lloyd, asked, “Ever see one of these babies catch fire? The batting smolders a while, then, whomf, what a torch!” Lloyd figured the guy could tell him the flash point for dog shit.

 Now, Lloyd the not-cop was asking his eyes, What’s in play here? Right off, he spotted three longhairs on the fringe of the gathering, looking for the right time to sneak off for a little smoke. Scattered through the crowd of deep listeners, some few men and women, he could see, were casting about for someone new to go home with. Maybe they’d be good for each other.

The foremost thing Lloyd always looked to see was who else might be casing the joint. Separate the predators from the dromedaries, make sure they weren’t watching you watching them, and try to glean what they were watching for.

One man stood out, by not standing out. He sat perched on the edge of one of the wooden decks, leaning back into the darkness. He was wearing the sort of lambs wool vest that idiot in that singing duo on TV did. It was hard to make out the features of his head with so little light, but the haircut seemed right at the maximum allowed on the force.

No immediate threat. The simple aliveness of Audrey’s hand in his was beginning to give him a hard-on. Whatever Ohm had been saying, he’d finished, and began chanting his own name in long, sonorous tones. That done, He took a gleaming brass bowl and rolled something around its interior walls, like Elvis on a motorcycle in Roustabout, until the bowl rang, louder and louder until it seemed crazy that such a holy din could come from cookware. Then Ohm stopped and sat cross-legged as the note faded to pregnant silence.

The audience sat immobile long into the silence, then long after that. Lloyd was reminded of some art house film he’d seen, where a group of people was so worried about broaching social convention that they were unable to leave a party when the wrong word was said, and were trapped for weeks, subsisting by slaughtering goats that wandered in the front door.

The awkward silence continued until Ohm himself stretched, cleared his throat loudly and asked, “If there is any one person left here who has not ascended to the realm of eternal bliss, would he or she please direct me to the bar?”

Within minutes the mood went from monastic to semi-sybaritic. Someone replaced the drone music with some of the new “raga rock” that sounded like a 12-string guitar funneled through a jet engine. Card tables were carried out and laden with crockpots and fondue accoutrements. Two women—their hosts, he presumed—hurried to stack wood in a pair of fire pits in the yard.

“Come with me,” Audrey said, giving his hand a final squeeze before releasing it and going to help with the wood. She piled pine logs onto Lloyd’s arms while introducing him to the women.

“This is Kimiko. This is her house, and thanks for having us. This is Bernice. She has that big yellow house down the road. This is Lloyd. He’s from Venice.”

That seemed to be introduction enough. Their hostess was in her early twenties, and he wondered how she warranted a spread like this. Bernice looked to be in her mid-thirties and was more the earthy type he’d seen hanging out at the Topanga Corral. Neither were snooty, as he’d feared Audrey’s friends would be.

He’d kept an eye out for the wool-vested man, and when he saw him in the light, it confirmed what Lloyd had suspected from his haircut. The guy was a cop. He realized he knew the guy. He was narco squad. Lloyd had worked an undercover investigation with him three years earlier, when some canyon cowboys were dealing pills on the Westside. Lloyd didn’t like him, and wasn’t entirely sure the guy hadn’t planted evidence in the case.

Which left him with a dilemma. Did he tell these nice women, friends of Audrey, that a wolf was prowling in their home? That wasn’t something one did to a fellow cop, but he wasn’t a cop any longer and his sense of fellowship had been strained by that brutal sergeant in Pershing Square. Maybe the narco cop was on a big case, or maybe he was just looking to nab a celebrity and a headline. Ohm wasn’t exactly a movie star, but Life magazine and others lumped him and his Eastern mysticism in with Timothy Leary’s LSD boosterism as a force leading America’s clean-cut kids astray. He’d make a nice collar for a cop on the climb, and Lloyd had a hunch that Ohm wasn’t too particular about what he ingested.

Kimiko was from a Japanese family that manufactured traditional pharmaceuticals, Audrey was explaining, while Bernice was married to the jazz drummer she’d mentioned, who’d played with Art Pepper but also with rock bands. Interesting stuff, but Lloyd excused himself and strolled first toward the food tables—there looked to be chili and fried chicken, not just yogurt and birdfeed—then doubled back to come up behind the cop.

“Don’t turn around,” he told him, and placed a hand on his wooly shoulder to make sure he didn’t. “I’m working here, too. We’ve worked together before and you need to know I’m not the only one who’s made you. I overheard four guys who’d nailed you for a nark. They’re talking about dragging you down to the creek. If they do, I can’t blow my cover to help, so I advise you to call it a night.”

Lloyd backed into the darkness, then headed into the house to find the bar. Ohm was there, drinking from a bota bag, surrounded by fans listening to him riff on Greek mythology: “...young gods, scarcely aware of themselves, when their father, Cronus, himself only one step away from the chaos of unbeing, ate them, pajamas and all ...” Up close, he looked even more of a rummy than he had from the courtyard, rakishly handsome, but with burst veins in his nose and sallow fat under his chin.

Lloyd took a can of Burgie for himself and a white wine for Audrey. One room in the C-shaped house seemed to flow into another, so Lloyd walked through a few. The furniture was handmade from figured woods, and many had Japanese vases on them with fresh wildflowers. It was all very rustic and traditional, in contrast with the big, crazy art on the walls. In the open room from which Ohm had been speaking, Lloyd checked out the blaring stereo. The components looked expensive but they weren’t brands he recognized.

On the patio, the fires were starting to catch. He found the three women by one of the pits. He handed Audrey her wine and asked the others what he could bring them. Audrey went with him, with orders for a gin and tonic and a lemonade.

“I saw you talk to that man, then saw him leave in a hurry. What’s going on?”

“Nothing now, but you should tell your friends to scratch him off their invite list. He’s got cooties.”

They were inside now, and Audrey was stopped by a fortyish man, desperately hip in a velour turtleneck and granny glasses, who took her arm and said, “Darling, you must see my newest painting for Kimmie.” With just a quick glance at Lloyd, he led them to the next room, where a large canvas was painted in an unvariegated asphalt hue, like a chunk of pavement turned sideways.

“It really needs better light,” he said. When Audrey said nothing, the artist turned to Lloyd, who was really starting to get hungry, and asked him, “Do you like it?”

“Not one bit.”

“Really?” the man sniffed. “And what, pray tell, is your artistic background?”

 “I ate a Crayola once. What’s my background matter? You asked if I liked it, not if I understood it.”

“And do you think you understand it?”

“I understand that I don’t like it.”

He also understood that he was uncomfortable with this whole scene. He’d habited more than his share of jazz spots and beatnik cafes, but he felt like he was on enemy territory here, the enemy being anyone in Audrey’s world who might bring it to her attention that Lloyd Sippie wasn’t much of anything.

The painter gave Audrey a world-weary shrug and moved on to find his next victim. She put her hand in Lloyd’s again and didn’t seem to care who saw it. She told him, “If detectiving doesn’t pan out, consider becoming an art critic. The man’s abominable. Kimiko only buys his paintings because she feels sorry for him. Can I leave you for a moment to powder my nose? You won’t start any melees?”

“I’ll be cool as satin sheets.”

The twin fires threw a flickering light over the figures outside. It seemed more people were arriving, including that two-man bacchanal who had been dancing at the Whisky when he’d been there with Audrey. With them in the mix, the mood was shifting all the way from monastic to spastic, as they danced through the throng with a careless abandon, even while carrying baskets piled with six-packs.

The fatter of the two even jumped over one of the fires with his load, then bounded to the wooden deck and into the room. If Albert Einstein had a genius for dissipation, he might have looked like this guy; hair flying everywhere and his mustache carrying the reminders of a week’s meals. He seemed to recognize Lloyd.

“Hey, Audrey friend, you want a beer?”

“Why not?”

The man put his load down on the wooden floor, kneeled, fished a church key out of the basket and spent a long fidgety time opening a pair of Brew 102s.

He stumbled back to his feet, handed one can to Lloyd, clinked it with his, looked Lloyd in the eye and toasted, “To a better world!”


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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.


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