The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Meat Wagon

Lloyd didn’t look for Artie Kane that night. He barely looked at the road. Driving down Beachwood, he was consumed by the lingering sensation of Audrey’s lips on his. Then, in heavier traffic on Sunset, Lloyd looked in his soul. Not too deep—nothing really back there but lost baseball cards, he figured—just far enough to sense a taut tug of war going on.

To get involved with Audrey Kane would be unethical and nothing but. He’d known private detectives who were little more than gigolos, racking up the hours shacking up with the client. Lloyd knew he wouldn’t consciously not look for Artie because he’d fallen for Audrey, but if he got just one inch closer to her, he didn’t know if he’d trust himself to know if he wasn’t.

Because the opposing team in his head was shouting that it’s dishonest to the universe not to recognize and cherish such a love when it hits your hood. Lloyd had been in love a couple of times—once in high school, once with a hooker with an overbite—but nothing like this yearning he felt now.

In his last case in uniform, he thought he’d maintained a good balance between the defendant, the presumed victim and justice while screwing two out of the three, but he still had stinging wasps buzzing in his conscience from when the judge and everyone else thought otherwise. It wasn’t like he’d meant to sleep with them. He just had. Lloyd hadn’t loved those women, but he admired their spirit and playfulness, still there in the threatening letters one sent from Chino.

He arrived at the rooming house by reflex, was barely aware of parking, setting the brake and getting out. Rounding the corner, he nearly tripped over the Greeter yet again, who was again leaning against the wall.

“The sea speaks to you of your death,” he greeted.

“What?” Lloyd said, more startled by the Greeter’s sudden presence than he wanted to show.

“The first amphibian that crawled from the sea, he didn’t know what he was doing. I tried to tell him. The sea claims us all. Why bother leaving? In the Korean War they did tests: torture someone with water, he might stand it; torture him with seawater and he’d break, leaving a man as helpless as he was in his mother’s womb. Odysseus feared the waters of the sea. You should too.”

“Who are you, Hemo the Magnificent now?”

“Laugh all you like, pretty boy. I’ve got your number, and it’s H2O.”

Lloyd was chock full of people telling him what he should be doing. The Greeter smelled like old cabbage, and up this close under the streetlight his teeth resembled Stonehenge. And he was giving Lloyd advice.

A few weeks earlier, a pianist in a Westside bar had asked him where he lived, and when Lloyd told him, he’d said, “Ah, Venice, where the debris meets the sea.” Lloyd was starting to understand why.

He didn’t fall asleep for a long time that night, thinking of the smell of Audrey’s hair; of her mouth finding his; of her unintended but ever so vivid hand gripping his penis through his pants.

When he did sleep, he dreamt a dream so unlike Dr. King’s. Lloyd was looking for his mother in a huge hotel. He’d see glimpses of her hat, which had a cat’s head where a flower should be, but whenever he got to the floor she was on, she was gone. He wanted a hot dog, but the vendor had just packed up. He joined a table outside with his old division commander and several cops he’d worked with. They were divvying up assignments, but there were none for Lloyd and no one even acknowledged him. “What about my body of work?” he asked, to no response. He waded into the pool, wet his pants, and was underwater in a dirty, soupy sea. Wherever he swam, he bumped into luminescent jellyfish, waterlogged accordions and ventriloquist dummies. A fish with a face like Edward G. Robinson’s swam up through the murk and said, “You’re in my spot. Scram.”

Lloyd woke to find his sheets were soaked in sweat. The dream seemed so real he checked to make sure he hadn’t peed the mattress. If he had, he thought, he’d drag it out to the street and smother the Greeter with it.

It wasn’t 6 am yet, but he was done with sleeping. His muscles still ached from the day before, as did his sores from the night before that, and he resolved to move a lot slower today. He went down the hall and showered, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, bought a taco platter from the nameless café down the block and walked to his office.

When Audrey parted the night before, she’d pleaded, “Find Artie.” But she’d said that once, and had said, “Call me” twice, and that’s what Lloyd kept hearing. He’d make some calls, head downtown and do his best to find Artie, but to Lloyd now, he’d do that to make the “Call me” part go as well as it could. Would 3:30 be the best time to call her? 4? At 8, to show what a day he’d put in, though that would lessen the chances of seeing her today? Lloyd hadn’t fretted over the timing of a phone call before, not even in high school.

He sat at his desk, troweling into his rice and refried beans while reading about Artie in When Radio Was King. It was interesting enough stuff, but nothing of any help in finding Artie. The book reprinted sections of Artie’s radio scripts, including a gangland send-up where tough-guy Woody mouths lines like, “You’re going to take a burlap nap in the river.” In a wartime one, Woody was Laidoff Poplar, an out of work dictator who got by selling his mustache hair to a toothbrush manufacturer.

The phone rang. That’s why he’d gone to the office. He didn’t have a phone at the rooming house and on the off chance that Audrey called the office, he didn’t want it wasted on an empty room.


“Lloyd, I hope I didn’t wake you.” It was Billy Down.

“This is my office, Billy.”

“I forgot. Have you been watching the TV? There’s a guy might be your guy, except he’s dead. Old guy, curly hair. No ID.”

“Where? Did they find anything with him, like a wooden case or a suitcase?”

“Nothing. He was stuffed into a trashcan in an alley off Spring. Downtown’s handling it. They say it’s total throw-up city at the scene. The guy was cut up bad, and whoever did it shoved a pair of dice into his eye sockets.”

Jesus, the last thing he wanted was for Audrey to hear about this on TV. Lloyd didn’t have any friends at Downtown, and a couple of decided enemies. The county coroner’s office was another matter, though.

He thanked Billy, and called the Westside desk hoping Ed Lafferty or anyone else who didn’t think he was a shit would answer. It was Ed who answered, and with a minimum of small talk, Ed told him he knew nothing more than Billy had, but said he’d check to see where the John Doe was in the custody chain.

Fifteen minutes later he called back to say the body, pried from the trashcan, was in the meat wagon and en-route to the coroner. Within five minutes, Lloyd was en-route, too.

Four years earlier, he’d helped the chief coroner out of an embarrassing situation involving the disappearance of a deceased movie star’s panties. He was an exceptionally thorough coroner, and a real boon to cops trying to make their cases. So what if he kept a harmless souvenir or two? It wasn’t like anyone was going to need their panties where they were going. Lloyd happened to be around when investigators dropped in to question the coroner about the errant underthing. From what Lloyd had heard from staffers, it wouldn’t have surprised him if the coroner had them on under his slacks while he talked to the investigators. Lloyd hopped over to the jail, asked several hookers of his acquaintance in lockup if any happened to be wearing a panticular match to the deceased’s, which one did. Lloyd dropped them behind a gurney in the OR, where one of the investigators was delighted to find them; absolving the coroner and allowing the movie star to head into the afterlife wearing a hooker’s panties.


In the light Saturday morning traffic, Lloyd made it to the coroner’s office in eighteen minutes. Reporters were clustered around the front entrance—they only seemed to care about the homeless when they were colorfully murdered—so Lloyd went around back, where the guard recognized him and waved him in.

He wasn’t sure where to go first, but ran into Roy Narawamu, an assistant coroner he’d been friendly with, in the hallway outside the OR.

“Lloyd, you get reinstated?”

“Not in this lifetime. I hope you don’t mind me trespassing, but I might be able to ID your John Doe.”

“Only if you can tell cuts of meat apart. This guy’s a mess.”

“I’d like to look, just the same.”

Roy was right. The deceased was awfully sliced up, and what was left of his face was a pulpy mass a few shades of red away from the dice in the eye sockets, showing a one and a deuce. Lloyd hasn’t seen any photos of Artie that were more than five years recent, so he couldn’t tell much by the hair or the nondescript pants, shirt and jacket, also cut up and bloodsoaked.

He doubted Artie had ever been fingerprinted, and couldn’t think of much else to ask. Maybe Audrey knew of birthmarks or something, but he was hoping to spare her even thinking about this.

“Hey,” he asked Roy, “if someone’s had—what’s the rheumatism that affects your heart?”

“You mean rheumatic fever.”

“Yeah. The guy I’m looking for had it as a kid. Would there be signs of it now?”

They’d been walking toward the door but now Roy headed back to the table.

“If someone had it bad, there’s often lasting nodules of collagen that form on the wrists, knees and elbows,” Roy said.

He prodded each of those areas before telling Lloyd, “This guy doesn’t have any, which does or doesn’t mean he’s your guy. If he did have the nodules, that would make it a lot more likely. It’s a rare disease. Who is your guy, by the way?”

“A ventriloquist named Artie Kane. Familiar with him?”

“Just while changing the channels. Those dummies gave me the creeps.”

“He’s been missing since last Monday, and his wife’s hired me to help find him.”

“If I hear anything, I’ll let you know. But then, if I hear anything, the news is never good. Where do I get ahold of you if I find anything more about this guy?”

Lloyd gave Roy his card, thanked him, and went looking for a phone to try calling Audrey before she saw anything on the news. He wished he had something definite and cheering to tell her, though a part of him was also thinking, what if that is Artie in there, and I can be there to help his widow through her time of grief? Wouldn’t there be some good in that?


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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.


what? dr. frank baxter too? remember the cliffhanger at the end of reel one? the answer was “sea water”, if i remember correctly. man, you got all kindsa stuff running around in yo’ head ! and….. those sure sound like real dreams to me, too weird to be made-up. reading this stuff is like riding a bicycle down hill. you don’t have to pedal, just enjoy the ride.

2010-05-25 by s.s.

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