My Midnight Confession
Lloyd parked his MG around the corner from the squatters’ field, not wanting to affront its residents with such a jaunty car. He still wasn’t judging distances with any aplomb. The curb feelers scraped a song along the concrete as he pulled up beside a warehouse wall.
Driving, he’d been only vaguely aware of a scent in the air. It concentrated once he stopped. A hot, cheerless breeze was blowing from the south, where Dairy Valley raised a fetid stink for miles around, farther with a favorable wind. The stink had been a frequent companion in La Puente. The town had its own little dairies. You could stand at the fence line of one, though, and it was nothing like the rank effluvia wafting from the west. The Dairy Valley smell was like having a cow shit under your covers.
Just the same, the smell now reminded him of his youth, of La Puente’s blighted walnut trees against the twilit sky and candy corn Halloweens. He briefly felt like crying again.
He needn’t have bothered keeping the car out of sight. The field was nearly deserted now. Whoever had remained had aggregated the slashed tents and other wreckage, forming ungainly new shelters at the back of the field. Up front, the trash fire had gone out.
The dwarf’s box was still where it had been, against a wall to the field’s left. There was an empty space farther back where Nolan Bentine’s car had been. It would be in an evidence yard now. Two rows of flattened weeds showed the tow truck’s route.
The dwarf was slumped awkwardly to one side atop the box. Lloyd wondered if he was dead now, too, like two other people he’d met in the past week. Meet Mr. Lucky.
He stepped closer than he’d yet been to the little man. He put out a hand to tap his shoulder, then thought the better of it. What if the dwarf had burn scars all over? If anything creeped him out more than a charred dwarf, it was a charred dwarf waking up screaming in pain.
Lloyd said “Hey!” a little too loudly.
“Who goes there?!” The dwarf spluttered to life, startling Lloyd. He fought a reflex to throw a punch.
“It’s just me.”
“Me who? Stand back where I can see you! ”
Lloyd gladly took four steps back.
“Oh, you, the ventriloquist hunter ... You had a rough day? You look like you could use a seltzer.”
“I could use a pillow.”
“I’ll loan you mine.”
“Why, you afraid of scabs?”
The dwarf, Barney, had been saying everything in an aggrieved shout since he’d woken, and it was cracking Lloyd up. He couldn’t decide if the guy was funny or deeply nuts. He began forming a sarcastic response, but it didn’t come. It occurred that he shouldn’t be so jocular when he was about to tell Barney his only friend was in the morgue.
“Listen, I need to tell you something, and it’s hard any way I tell it. Your friend, Nolan, was murdered, it looks by the same killer who’s been in the news.”
A few seconds passed and tears started rolling down Barney’s cheeks, but he said, “I already knew. The police told us yesterday, but I thought maybe they were wrong.”
The man said nothing for a minute, then, quieter and higher-pitched, he asked, “Was he hurt much, like the others?”
“No. It looked like it happened quick. Nolan must have put up a fight.” Dead was bad enough, he didn’t mind lying to soften it a little.
“You gonna catch him?”
“That’s not my job anymore.”
“Why, you stop being a human being?”
“No, but I’m not a cop. I don’t have their resources, and my chances of crossing paths with the killer are nearly as small as yours, maybe smaller, since you’re in his hunting grounds. Which reminds me: I’ll help you move somewhere safer and nicer if you want.”
“Nah, I’m just getting settled in here. ”
“It doesn’t look like you’ll have much company. Didn’t Nolan help you out a bunch?”
“Pat’s still here. He helps me. I don’t need much.”
“Is there anything I can bring you or do for you?” Lloyd asked, thinking, Like liquor to get stewed for the rest of your life? I don’t see your prospects improving. Do you wear a diaper? Can you brush your own teeth? Can you stand it when even a kind woman looks at you with revulsion?
“You could tell me a story. I like stories. What’s yours? Did you dream about catching ventriloquists as a kid?”
“I’m not trying to catch anybody. Artie Kane is an old man who’s probably lost and confused. I’m just trying to find him before he gets in trouble.”
“Why you looking for him? He your friend?”
“Never met him. His wife asked me to find him.”
“Is she your friend?”
“I suppose.” Lloyd felt a sudden impulse to talk. It may have been the residual drugs, or the rollercoaster week he’d had, but he needed to unburden himself. He scarcely talked to anyone about his feelings, didn’t see any harm in unloading to a wreck so removed from human society that it was almost like telling your secrets to a dog. An old lawn chair with half its webbing missing stood nearby. He fetched it, sat cautiously, and started talking.
He spoke a little about his police career, but mostly about everything since the moment Audrey walked in his office door. He wondered if he felt what Christians did after they’d been dunked, that he’d been reborn, his true life starting then.
He told Barney about discovering the dummy case earlier, his frustrations looking for a man who could be anywhere, and how he half wished he’d stay missing. He left out the lovemaking, but talked about how enraptured he’d become with Audrey, and how he felt out of his depth with her, afraid to lose her to any of the Beatles, beatniks and gurus she hung out with, not to mention her husband.
He talked about Cochise, Chick Singer and Alan Ohm; about the noisy tumult of the Whisky A Go-Go and the electric sparks that passed between him and Audrey; about Watts and the other wrong turns he’d taken on Artie’s trail. He left some things out, like the chimp and the Old Greeter, because his story was obtuse enough as it was.
Most of the time he talked, he looked everywhere except at Barney. He watched the overlaid tent walls billowing at the back of the field. Near the water tower the cops had destroyed, someone had placed what looked to be several five-gallon jugs of water. He watched newspaper pages blown down the idle street by the turd-laden wind.
Every so often, the dwarf would grunt or say, “Go on,” in a way where Lloyd couldn’t tell if he was really listening or just filling in the pauses. When Lloyd finished recounting his LSD trip, though, Barney started asking questions.
“This Audrey, why do you think she hired you?”
“As opposed to someone else? I don’t know.”
“No, why is she looking for this husband who you say gave her so little?”
“Because even so she loves him, and worries about him and would probably stay by him while he crumbled, because she’s that straight of an arrow. And maybe because now her arrow’s a little bent and he’s become a loose end, an obligation she has to be done with before shooting to something new, and I still don’t see why that’s me.”
“Don’t ask me about what women want. I never was the cute Beatle. I only know women in comic books. They need rescuing a lot.”
“I don’t. I’m king of my castle, and no one wants my crown.”
He had a point, Lloyd thought. There’s not much competition when your castle is an appliance box with air holes poked in it. Barney knew who he was when he woke up. Lloyd felt like a fraud wherever he went—Ohm seemed to recognize that in him—while Barney appeared at ease with being the crazy charred guy at the edge of a hobo camp that even hoboes had abandoned. You could sink lower, but not without a bathysphere.
Lloyd stood and the lawn chair came with him. Something sticky on the webbing had glued it to his ass. He pushed on the chair’s arms until the webbing ripped loose from his slacks.
“I’ll come visit in a couple of days. I’m sorry about Nolan. You want me to bring you anything?”
“Either some comic books or a new story,” Barney said, fixing his gaze on Lloyd. “The one today was for the birds. Electricity! Drugs! Rock, rock, rock! Next time, try something with a puppy or a bear in it. I like stories with animals in them.”
So says my confessor, the one man in the world who knows my heart, thought Lloyd.