The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Pet Sounds

Audrey drove, in a smart turquoise T-Bird she expertly backed down a narrow geranium-lined brick driveway from the detached garage to the street. Lloyd hopped in, banging his left knee on a Muntz Stereo-Pak mounted under the dash.

“So that’s what one of those feels like,” he said, rubbing his knee.

“If you liked that, try this,” Audrey said, turning up the knob nearest her on the chrome unit. As she nudged the car onto Beachwood, a hymn-like song pulsed from the speakers—car stereo she had, a first for Lloyd—and a choirboy’s milkshake voice came in singing, “I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be ...”

Lloyd listened, and he’d never heard a song put together like what he heard. It evidently was important to Audrey: she shifted out of gear and coasted down the hill, so the engine wouldn’t compete with the stereo.

The Strip, when they zigzagged onto it, was moving at its usual weekend crawl. Lloyd wasn’t so intent on the music that he didn’t also watch Audrey’s legs as she drove, and a small part of himself was kicking a still smaller part for not going ahead and peeking at her in the bath. Naked women amazed him.

Lloyd’s reputation as a ladies man was largely unearned. There was no place he liked being more than in bed with a woman, but whenever he wound up there, it was nearly always the woman who had made the first move. That amazed him too, every time.

But he’d never felt anything like he was feeling for Audrey. He hardly knew her, but he knew her, while the unknown parts beckoned; she was a mystery so deep he knew it was presumptuous to think he might ever plumb it. But he did, and he didn’t know what do to about it.

He was pulled out of his reverie by Audrey asking, “Are you religious?”

“Only if buying a crucifix to ward off vampires counts.”

“Me neither, then, but this album is like an instant Bible to me. The way some people find solace and wisdom in that book, that’s what I feel from this music.”

“Whose Bible are we listening to here?”

“The Beach Boys.”

The Beach Boys with the fucking goats on that record cover? With their nasal affront of a front man now sporting a beard like he was a goatfucker from way back? Looking at that album at Audrey’s, he’d pegged the long hair on desperation, and figured the Boys would be scrambling to catch up with the British sound, since the Beatles had torpedoed surf music out of the water. But this stuff sounded like they were catching up with Debussy and the Four Freshmen. The world’s changing too much too fast, he thought. Next thing, John Wayne will be doing Hamlet.

“You’re certainly attuned to the sounds of today,” he said to Audrey, not without sarcasm. “What’s the attraction?”

“Partly it’s professional. I write jingles, and I appreciate a direct approach in music. Plus I absolutely love the stuff. There is so much going on now in pop music that it’s cracking the world open. It’s as close to a Renaissance as I need, and we’re in the middle of it.”

“You don’t find it simple, loud or repetitious?”

“Plenty of it is, like everything else, but there’s something more human about it, that speaks right to you. What’s wrong with singing what you mean instead of elocuting your way around it all night? If you’re trying to build something, why not hit the nail on the head? Have you heard Otis Redding?”—Lloyd nodded—“The guy sings ‘fa fa fa, fa fa fa fa, fa fa’ and it gets right in your chest. Who needs the tophats and tails?”

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Ben Frank’s looked like an orange and gold chalet a giant had stumbled over, tilting and crushing the coffee shop’s A-frame into more of an L. Lloyd liked it. In 1959, it had looked like somebody’s idea of the future; now it looked just like 1959 to Lloyd, and he’d liked 1959. Then, the world had seemed as open to him as a prom gardenia.

Audrey found a parking spot a block past the coffee shop. On the way in, she bought a Free Press from a newspaper rack out front. Lloyd didn’t even like the smudgy ink it was printed with. The paper was always attacking cops, describing them as the hired thugs of the ruling class.

A young, worn-out waitress led them to a booth. As they passed the counter, a lantern-jawed man looked up from his plate and brightened into a salesman’s smile when he spotted Audrey. When she didn’t acknowledge him, his less sunny gaze fell on Lloyd, then they were past him. Audrey took the far end of the booth, so Lloyd didn’t see the guy again. He looked familiar.

Audrey was drawing his attention to someone a couple of booths behind her.

“Here’s another reason why I like rock music: everybody worth hearing is headed into it. Last month I saw a folk-rock band with a bald jazz drummer. Now, see that guy in the madras shirt in the booth there? Two years ago: total folkie, didn’t cotton much to anything but ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe.’ Now he plays the electric guitar with Captain Beefheart.”

“His mother must be very proud.”

Audrey ordered breakfast, two eggs poached, sausage, hash browns, wheat toast, Pepsi. He did, too, over easy, hash browns crispy, cinnamon toast, 7-Up.

The waitress scurried off. Audrey leaned in, saying, “You had something to ask me?”

Lloyd explained the empty slot in the basement’s dummy rack, and the old man with the black wooden case seen by the shoeshine man near Pershing Square. Audrey folded her hands as he talked, and began nervously squeezing her fingertips in order, then starting again.

“I think that’s Artie, and it makes sense,” she said when he’d finished. “Even if he left everything else behind, he’d probably take Barnabas with him. He was Artie’s first dummy, one he made himself from scrap wood when he was a boy.

 “Artie had rheumatic fever when he was eleven. He came down with it right after he’d finished making Barnabas. He told me he wondered for a while if God was punishing him for copying him, for making a person. For a while he wouldn’t have anything to do with the dummy.

“With the fever, he was on doctor’s orders to lie flat as a pancake in bed for a year, no pillow even, for fear of straining his weakened heart. Friends rarely came by. Times were hard. Even his family was too busy looking for work to spend much time with him. One morning he woke with the dummy next to him in bed. He thinks his brother put it there, though he always denied it. Artie started practicing, with the dummy lying flat in bed beside him. That’s how it was for a year, the two of them and the conversations Artie dreamed up, versus the ceiling. He still can’t stand looking at ceilings.

“I didn’t stick my head in the basement much when Artie was down there, but sometimes I’d hear him talking with Barnabas. Sometimes it was about me. I think that’s Artie and Barnabas that man saw. What do we do now?”

“I start looking down there more, though he’s only a bus ride from being anywhere. I’ll update the word with the cops I know. An old man with a dummy stands out a lot more than just an old man.”

Audrey excused herself and headed for the restroom, her own kind of beautiful in a Roddy Fishing Tackle sweatshirt. She looked as good walking away as she did approaching. Lloyd became aware a person was standing beside him, sharing his view; the lantern-jawed man from the counter, who, when Lloyd looked up, said, “Man, how’d you like to conduct that orchestra?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, the old bed-spring symphony. You guess she’s a moaner, or a screamer? Because I know you don’t know.

“Chick Singer. Chick Singer Chevrolet,” the man continued, saying it like he was extending his hand to shake, but he didn’t.

“I didn’t recognize you without your monkey,” Lloyd said.

 If looks could kill, Singer’s look would have at least grazed Lloyd. Singer said, “Who recognizes you? Anyone? You look to me like a guy who eats two bowls of cereal for dinner, while he’s watching me on TV.”

“I’m sorry to have come over and wasted your time like this.

Singer grimaced, and it occurred to Lloyd that he’d have a hard time defending himself if things turned stupid, wedged into the booth like he was.

But Singer backed down half a notch. “I’m not wasting your time, Bud. I’m sharing vital information. What’s your business with Miss Woodenheart there?”

“None of yours.”

“Well, whatever your job prospects, fucking her is not one of them. I’ve been defrosting that meat far too long to let anyone else cook it. If you don’t understand that, I can help you understand that.” His voice was hard, and he had muscles that looked like he’d been wrestling Chuck Connors.

Lloyd considered his options, one of which involved a fork he’d palmed, now under the tabletop in his right hand, then he said in a quieter tone, “You’re messing with the wrong guy. You see that guy at the counter?” Lloyd pointed to a nondescript longhair who was staring vacantly at his salad.

“Yeah?”

“Go mess with him. He’s not busy.” Lloyd turned back to his hash browns. Just then, Audrey returned down the aisle, and Chick Singer faded back and out the door like she was the Spanish Armada, though he did manage a feeble wave.

“What was that about?” she asked Lloyd.

“Man tried to put me in a new Chevrolet.”

“I’m sorry. He’s an incorrigible asshole. I wrote a jingle for him years ago. He seems to have assumed I came with it and has been pestering me ever since. He tries to impress you with his conquests. He told me he’d screwed a woman he met at the country club, in the back seat of an Impala he’d taken off the lot. Then she convinced her husband to buy the car, so she could think about Chick’s good screwing every time her husband pulled in the driveway, is how Chick told it. Why I didn’t fall into bed with him the minute I heard that, I’ll never know.”

“You seem to have him pretty cowed now.”

“Amazing what a court order will do.”

 

Audrey had her Beach Boys on again on the drive back to her place, where she parked the T-Bird midway down her driveway, under a tall pine. She shut off the ignition and the voices on the tape slowed to a comic drawl, leaving a bemused silence. Audrey made no motion to get out of the car, and the silence was growing less bemused by the second for Lloyd. The electric charge he’d felt on the dance floor the night before came welling up in him. Audrey was the other pole, and he could feel the potential arcing between them. Was she feeling it? Was she thinking about her husband lost on the street? Was she about to admit some dark secret? Was she intent on a bit of sausage casing stuck between her teeth?

The silence crept past the point of reason, and Lloyd turned to Audrey, to say he didn’t know what, just as she reached out and rested a hand on his right forearm. He was surprised to feel warmth instead of an electric jolt, but it startled him just the same.

“Lloyd, listen. I ...”

A human-sized thud landed suddenly on the T-Bird’s hood, Ponk! Only a foot away, a pair of eyes stared at them through the windshield. Lloyd might have shrieked if Audrey hadn’t first, and her arms flew out, clutching at him like she was falling. His own impulse was to fly out the passenger door and reach for the fork he’d pocketed in case they hadn’t seen the last of Chick Singer.

Instead, he pulled the headlight switch. Light bounced off the garage door, showing an oversized raccoon gazing back at them, doing its best to look like it had meant to fall out of the tree.

Lloyd guffawed like an idiot horse. Audrey leaned in and silenced him with a kiss; awkward at first until Lloyd brought an arm up to steady her, then it became probing, immediate and maybe forever. A tear rolled down her cheek onto his, and it felt like part of forever, too.

Slightly after forever, he became aware she still was clutching him, from the swelling in his slacks where one of her hands had found a purchase. Rearing, its motion seemed to also bring Audrey around to what her hands were about. Barely loosening her grip, she traveled his length a time or two, as if to confirm what it was.

She slowly broke off from the kiss. There was enough light for Lloyd to see she was blushing and, for the first time around him, disarmed. The raccoon continued to regard them from the other side of the glass, like it was watching a species mate at the zoo.

Audrey spoke slowly, one word at a time.

“Lloyd, I know perfectly well my hand is not where it should be, but I’m damned if I can let go. Hello. Hello, you. This is a mess. And I can’t do this. I really can’t right now, any more than I can let go of you. I need to think or my head will explode. I need your help. No kidding, would you please be a gentleman and pry my hand off of that thing?”

The way she’d explored him through his pants didn’t feel cheap. It felt like the warmest hug he’d ever had, and he wouldn’t mind if it never ended. But he did pry her hand off that thing, and held that slender artist’s hand in his, finding nothing to say, but feeling its aliveness, until she opened her car door and got out.

“I’m sorry. Lloyd. I’m sorry. Find Artie. Call me. Call me. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

She rushed in her door, leaving Lloyd staring at the raccoon, which if it could have talked, would have told him, “Lloyd, this is just how detectives get in trouble in the movies, but ain’t it a grand thing to be in the Hollywood Hills on a starry summer night, and in love?”

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The first of the bodies showed up the next day, folded into a downtown trashcan.

 

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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.
jim@fourstory.org

Comments

very nice, what bodies? and why were they folded and not on hangers? Sorry couldn’t resist, keep up the great work. Rick

2010-05-10 by rick

i like the way you worked ed cassidy and ry cooder into the mix.!

2010-05-11 by STEVE SOEST

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HN5AoYkrJyw

2010-07-5 by Brandao Shot

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