The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Nowhere Man

Audrey’s thigh: Lloyd pledged allegiance to it. It was his foundation, the thing keeping him tethered to this newly unhinged world; her perfectly warm skin reeling him back when his mind would start roaring through a sluice box of old fears and new sensations. He was swimming and falling at the same time, into a deep, frozen ocean of caressing darkness, then her soft flesh drew him back. Copper wires were growing out of his wrists. He was going to be crazy for the rest of his life. There was no way the thoughts he was thinking could fit into his old brain. His head was fizzing and his drool was electric; even his saliva seemed foreign. Maybe the beatings he’d taken in the last week had liquefied his mind. He could feel it pouring out the top of his head, twining with the orange energy rising from the last candle still burning in the room.

None of that was as convincing, though, as the warm pulse coursing through the leg his ear rested on. Audrey had drifted off to sleep some time before, but she still felt tremendously present to him, watching over him from a dream.

Just the same, he got up, quietly not to wake her. He needed to see if there was still a world he recognized outside. He looked down where his head had lain, and could actually make out the impression of his ear in her skin.

 He stepped weightlessly over the wooden floor to the door, inched it open and slid out. As a boy in La Puente, he had an early morning paper route. Out on his bike on the darkened streets, ahead of the roosters and milk trucks, the undawned day had been his alone. Stepping outside now, the night air felt reassuringly the same.

He stood on the wooden deck a few moments, afraid to trust his senses to venture any farther. He kept one hand on the studio’s wall to not lose contact with it. Then his stubborn streak kicked in, and he followed the breeze up the hillside, scrambling, running, stubbing his way through the intense chaparral until he reached a ridgeline.

There, he followed a firebreak trail. The moon was only starting to rise, but the trail was a ghostly ribbon stretching before him. He ran full-bore, his mouth open to draw in every particle of oxygen. “Catch me if you can,” he told the LSD in his system.

He didn’t know how long he ran. He welcomed the burn in his leg muscles: one more familiar sensation he’d reclaimed. Finally, he tumbled to the ground in exalted exhaustion. He cried to feel so alive, and his vision was blurred when he looked up from the dirt to see an illuminated rug of glistening jewels spread before him.

He stood to behold it. His eyes cleared, and he realized it was Los Angeles. It was still a jeweled carpet, but also a huge electrical circuit, like the guts of a transistor radio stretched over miles. The taller buildings and oil refinery tanks were the capacitors, inductors and other components; the roads were the wiring. It was also alive, a huge pulsing organism. Red taillights coursed like blood through its major arteries. Every part of it seemed to be churning with stolen life.

He’d learned in school that Southern California was essentially a desert, its sparse acorns and mackerel barely supporting the few Indians who lived here. Then we built mighty aqueducts to take water from where nature had intended it. We built power lines, to wrest energy from water and the earth. All to feed this shifting, living thing before him.

Hadn’t anyone else seen this? It was like discovering your familiar tetherball pole was the periscope of a Polaris submarine. Had it always been like this? Were people just the lice on this impossibly beautiful animal?

Somewhere down there, a hulking Indian and a chimpanzee were leaving a trail of banana peels; an asshole was dreaming of selling cars; a pitiful dwarf slept in a cardboard box; a morgue was filling with bodies slain by a cold, crazed killer; and an elderly ventriloquist was probably wandering around, as oblivious to all that as everyone was to this living machine that tolerated their presence.

The glistening sight of it made Lloyd lonelier than he’d ever felt. He sat on a tree stump and wept like he hadn’t since he was a child. He sat for a small eternity, tumescent with grief, so filled with loneliness he couldn’t move, his tear ducts aching from exertion. The sorrow poured from him, but had no place to go. The alien city below had no use for it.

There was something else Ohm had said that night about man’s search for meaning: “Truly, what are any of us ever exploring but the breadth of loneliness in our own lives?” Lloyd wondered if he’d been on this summit.

The near-half-moon had risen in the sky, and its warm luminescence reminded him of Audrey. At first he’d wished he could have shared this with her; now he prayed she never had to feel this alone. He would bottle it up, the beauty and sadness, and protect her from it always.

The sun was not long off, painting the far horizon with its molten intentions. Lloyd rose ahead of it, and he eventually found his way back down to the canyon he’d left an age before. He found a road and then the house where Ohm had spoken. The fires in the pits had gone out. A few sleeping bodies lay on the wooden decks, covered in blankets.

He slipped into the studio shack and found Audrey still sleeping where he’d left her. Her mouth was agape and she had the innocent look of a child. He sat on the floor and watched her for a while. He thought briefly of the horrible beauty he’d seen from the crest line, and when he again looked at Audrey, it seemed the same bluish electricity was sparking through the bones of her face.

He forced the vision to stop, to see no more deeply than her perfect skin.

After a time, he heard a stirring outside, and he realized he was thirsty and famished. He left Audrey there and stepped out.

The world still seemed slightly different in every way. The leaves on the scrub oaks each seemed to possess a tiny consciousness. A pair of blue jays flying between the branches left contrails in their wakes.

Ohm stood on the edge of the courtyard, naked but for a towel. He was peeing into the ivy. He finished up, spotted Lloyd when he turned and gave him a wan smile. He walked unsteadily toward Lloyd and asked, “Well, did you see God?”

“No. I saw Los Angeles.”


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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.


“...his vision was blurred when he looked up from the dirt to see an illuminated rug of glistening jewels spread before him.” The voice of experience. Excellent!

2011-07-24 by Tom A

Man, you got that one just right.  Genius.

2011-08-8 by Brian Langston

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