The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Poor Side of Town

Lloyd’s stomach grumbled and clenched as he walked to the PE station. It felt like his corndog was having puppies in there. He resolved to eat better one of these years. For now, he’d try to settle it with a 7-Up from Cole’s Buffet when he got there.

Under less stormy gastronomic conditions, he’d have sprung for their French dip sandwich too. It was one of the few things he liked about downtown. He remembered the first one he’d had as a kid, when his family had ridden in from La Puente to catch the line to Newport Beach. It hadn’t been a great day, except for the sandwich. Nothing involving his parents and sister was ever a great day.

There were a handful of cops who knew Lloyd was totally Jake, and that he’d knowingly jettisoned his career to get a conviction. That’s how he preferred to think of it. When he tried explaining that to his dad three months ago, his dad had slapped him, barking, “Shut up. You’ve shamed your mother and me. You’re a degenerate. Don’t be a sniveler too.”

They hadn’t spoken to him since, not that he’d called. After all he’d been through to show his dad he was tough—he’d become a cop, for Chrissakes—that slap was the biggest insult of his life. He still felt it.

And his brother police? Aside from those few who’d told him otherwise, most of the straight-arrow cops thought he’d tarnished the badge they all wore. The bent ones, he was pretty sure, were just as pissed, because it’d be bad for their wallets if their paymasters got to thinking cops could be corrupted by something as cheap as pussy.

Other detectives who’d gone private or who’d jumped to the Feds still had the benefit of a lot of their former colleagues’ eyes and ears. Lacking that, and with the Pershing Square squad eyeing him, Lloyd had counted on winning Abraham’s assistance. As he neared the disused PE terminal, he felt as derailed as the Red Cars.

The last had stopped running five years before, and the cars had been sold to South America or dumped in the sea, as if nothing but a biblical finality would do for the businessmen who’d dismantled the system. The terminal had then been used for buses, and now he’d read it was to be converted into another parking garage, which would probably mean the end of Cole’s. He considered getting a French dip while he still could, regardless of how his stomach felt.

He half hoped Cochise wouldn’t show. The Indian was half-drunk when he left him that afternoon, meaning he might be full-drunk now, ready to treat Lloyd to some fresh avulsions. On the other hand, Lloyd hadn’t noticed until he’d met Audrey how much he missed having intelligent conversations, and Cochise semi-sober was some odd kind of smart. On yet another hand, if he showed up in any condition and was expecting payment for helping tonight, it was coming out of the $19.37 Lloyd had left to his name.

“Hey, Kemo Sabe!” Lloyd was being hailed from across the street by a large man in a too-small suit and fedora. Despite the big frame, it took Lloyd a second to recognize Cochise. The suit he wore looked like it was from Penney’s and should have a clip-on tie with it. The pant legs ended two inches above his ankles. His black locks were either cut off or pushed up into the hat.

He sauntered through the traffic to Lloyd’s side of the street, where he said, “I thought you’d be dressed sharper, man. I got all duded up for nothing.” Lloyd was wearing a gray knit sports shirt and slacks, and carrying a windbreaker wrapped around his police flashlight in one hand. His wingtips had steel toes, just in case.

“I’m glad you showed up when you did,” Cochise said. “I’ve been smelling those goddamn sandwiches for a while, and it’s imperative I eat one. And that means one you’ve bought me. I’m skint.”

Lloyd laughed, and hoped that was okay. “Where do you get a word like imperative?”

“Why, does the white man need it back? He can have it if he’ll give Massachusetts back.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just not used to hearing more than three syllables on the job. You’ve surprised me a couple of times with things you say.”

“Tonto hide in library from posse. Tonto read book, better than white man can. Tonto put ear to book, can hear horses running pages later in book ... I got a quiver full of big words, Jack. And I learned them one at a time, like everybody else.”

“You go to school much?”

“Six years on the reservation. I educated myself after that. Still do. Central Library. I can show you places, they never find you when they’re closing up. You’ve got it to yourself all night, any book you want, a refrigerated water fountain, a rest room. I have a flask. Sometimes I sneak some food out of an office. It’s like that Twilight Zone where the guy’s alone in the world with all those books. Quote me a line from Moby Dick and I’ll tell you what chapter it’s from.”

“Never read it. Christ, now I need a French dip. They must have fans blowing that scent out here. Come on. I’ll spot you one. But don’t expect anything more out of me tonight. I left my money in my other pants, in my other life.”

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A half-hour later, Lloyd’s gut had settled a bit, with all that sliced beef weighing down the balky corndog. The sky was nearly dark, the air still warm and spiced with car exhaust. They walked east, at Cochise’s direction, to where the street and sidewalk traffic thinned. In places, Mayor Yorty’s mixed trash lay strewn over the sidewalk, the cans overturned and crows pecking through the mess for a last meal of the day.

A sandblasted Pontiac drove down the block, the driver not letting off his horn the whole way. The horn’s pitch made a subtle Doppler shift when it passed Lloyd and Cochise, and kept up its complaint until the car passed out of sight. Lloyd got a look at the driver: He had a beaked nose and his head jerked on his neck like a bird’s, fervidly scanning from side to side like he smelled a cat.

Cochise didn’t pay the car any mind, and was telling a joke. “You ever see that cartoon with the brave and the mermaid? The mermaid’s on a rock saying ‘Come screw me,’ and the brave’s saying ‘How.’”

They took a left on Wall Street. Cochise marched him past the mission—Lloyd had thought that might be their destination—and turned right on Winston. Half the streetlights were out, and the one nearest them sputtered on and off. Some of the doorways were already occupied by bums curled up in soiled blankets or crumpled heaps of newsprint. Three guys stood near a dumpster, arguing over a bottle.

 Cochise hadn’t struck Lloyd as the type who could have cut up the body he’d seen that morning. That was a whole other school of crazy. But if the big Indian did harbor any ill intent toward Lloyd, this would be a hell of a place to find out, he thought. Maybe a little conversation was in order.

“Do you work in construction?”

“When there is work. I helped build the Music Center. Haven’t set foot in it since it opened. Mostly they seem to be tearing things down around here, starting with all the fleabag hotels. I’ve done a lot of stuff. You ever see that ad where they show an Indian in silhouette on a ridge, “He’s the man with the Yucatan tan”? That was me.”

“Really? What’s something like that pay?”

“Enough to keep me drinking ’til the next work showed up. And that was in the Hollywood Hills, the home where the gigolos roam. There was this actress—a gentleman doesn’t divulge names—who’d been in a few westerns. Her character was kidnapped by some braves in one. She told me that ever since then she couldn’t stop thinking about having a buck force himself on her while she squirmed on a rough woolen blanket on the ground. When she saw that suntan lotion ad, she tracked down my agent and had me up to her place. She already had the blanket.”

“Sounds like a dream job,” Lloyd said, only shocked by one thing: Cochise has an agent?

“Actually, it was my shortest job,” he said, laughing. “Where I come from, it is not a turn-on to be laying on top of a white woman who’s shouting for help. Besides, she had knees like Tater Tots. This is our destination.”

They had crossed San Pedro, and Cochise stopped in front of a six-story building. It looked like it had once been a manufacturing plant on the ground floor, with offices above. The edifice had all manner of fancy ornamentation, heraldic designs and spears in relief, like this was where modern knights worked. Each floor looked out on the street through rows of large windows, each made up of sixteen smaller panes. Most had been blacked over, and many had been knocked out. A flickering orange light, as from a fire, came from some.

“The two-bit hotels that got knocked down, a lot of the tenants moved here. Other people are just passing through. If your guy wanted to see how people live on the rough, he’d probably be told about this place.”

Cochise turned away from Lloyd then and began chanting, “I am coming in sight. I bring the whirlwind with me, that you may know one another. Because I am poor, I pray for every living creature.”

“What was that?”

“Part of the ghost dance. This building we’re going into, it’s sort of like hell inverted. Every level we go up, it gets worse, and the way out gets farther away. If you’ve got something to say to your god, do it here. He’s probably not following you inside. I hope that’s a flashlight you brought. A gun won’t provide much light in there.”

They hadn’t taken ten steps into the building before Lloyd regretted it. The stench of human waste and urine mixed with mold and stale Thunderbird. Broken glass crunched underfoot. A bottle rolled off into the darkness when his foot brushed against it. His left foot stepped into something squishy.

He’d kept his flashlight off, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark, but screw that. He slid the switch, and realized he hadn’t checked the batteries since he’d left the force. Its wan light barely cast more than six feet ahead of him. Even that modest space was roiling with rats and ants, the latter so thick on some dead thing he couldn’t make out what it had been. The rats scurried to darker corners. Lloyd’s stomach lurched and he had to swallow hard to keep the French dip down.

The Indian was right beside him. “I guess you’d call this the commons. Everybody tosses their shit here, and some people hunt rats. No one sleeps on this floor, unless they’re too shit-faced to make it to the stairs.”

Lloyd’s eyes had adjusted enough to tell it wasn’t totally dark. Some light seeped through the windows. He shined his flashlight in a few directions, and nearly lost control of his throat again when the light played across a human form standing to their immediate left, holding something metallic. Reflexively, he turned to one side, to present a slimmer target with fewer immediate organs. Then he saw the figure was two-dimensional, a liquor store’s poster-board cutout of Lou Rawls holding a big can of malt liquor.

Cochise barked a single sudden laugh. “That wasn’t here last time. This place is really coming up in the world. Head for the stairs over there.”

Dimly ahead, he made out a wide steel staircase in the middle of the hall, narrowing as it rose and then divided to form two ways to the floor above. In the tarnished light, it looked like the ghost of optimism. Whoever built this place must have had high hopes for their business. Now the building reminded Lloyd of ancient bat caves he’d visited in the Grand Canyon, where the cave floor was heaped with thousands of years of bat guano. Is this what the human race amounts to: we flit around and shit and sleep in the dark?

Some piles that might be people lay in odd corners, and a few furtive forms stood under the stairs, drinking from a gallon jug, ignoring the two of them as they passed above on the stairs, which were nearly as littered as the floor had been. There was more waste, the filthy remains of clothes, diapers and blankets, an apparently unopened Cracker Jacks box. Lloyd smelled smoke from above.

It was darker here. He only climbed a few steps at a time, first shining his light over the stairs right before him, then raising the beam to try to see what might be ahead. He took the left split of the stairway, and they came up to the second floor, which ran off in hallways to either side of the staircases, each lined with offices.

He looked at Cochise, who shrugged and said, “Just look for your guy, and try not to look like you’re looking at anyone else. Some people here don’t like that. I call this level ‘the mall.’ Lots of small businesses and entrepreneurs.”

The office stalls he could see were all missing their doors. Some had blankets hung over the doorways. A gaunt figure stepped out of the first office on the left and moved past them, grunting “got a big one on” before stumbling down the stairs. Lloyd looked in and the space was vacant except for a small pile of broken Benzedrine inhalers and well-thumbed beaver mags on the floor.

A towel hung over the first doorway to the right, with light and marijuana smoke leaking from the sides of it. Lloyd pushed the towel partway aside with his flashlight: a Coleman lantern sat on the floor, with three black guys standing over it sharing a joint. One glared at Lloyd and lifted his shirt to show a knife scabbard on his belt. Lloyd let the towel drop.

The next two offices to either side were empty except for mounds of trash and spent condoms on the floor. He heard scuffling and moaning sounds from the next one on the right. He looked in and his beam landed on a pasty fat ass pumping up and down between a pair of impossibly skinny legs. The guy froze when the light hit them, and he didn’t look up. The girl under him did, a vacant look in her eyes. Even in the dim light Lloyd could see the track marks on her arms.

It was probably just what it looked like, but Lloyd had to ask, “Pardon me ma’am. Is this consensual?”

She sneered back, “If you got two dollars it is.” The guy atop her still hadn’t moved or looked up. The girl slapped his ass and said, “C’mon, Mac. I haven’t got all night.”

Cochise had been silent all the way down the hall, and only grinned now. Three doors remained. Inside the first, four junkies were nodding out, a shared set of works and a needle sitting on a tea cozy between them. More feral sex noises came from the last two rooms and Lloyd didn’t bother looking in.

They retraced their steps to the stairway and started down the hall on the other side. A wavy line of dried excrement decorated the right-hand wall. Firelight came from the first two rooms, the rest had blankets nailed up in the doorways. Looking at the opposing rows of them, Lloyd thought of the advent calendars his dad had brought home from a liquor store one Christmas afternoon, a stale surprise waiting behind every door.

 Would Artie have walked down this hallway, or through that shit rink downstairs? Lloyd was pretty sure none of this figured in any Joel McCrea hobo comedy.

In the first door on the left, the light came from crumpled newspapers burning on an inverted tin trash can lid. A fat woman had a couple of hot dogs skewered on a wire clothes hanger heating in the flames, and some hamburger buns on a paper plate. “Twenty cents, you want one. Two for fifty,” she said with a near toothless mouth.

Lloyd thought of correcting her math. Instead he asked, “Have you seen an old man in here this past week, bushy hair, maybe had a big puppet with him?” Then he saw her milky eyes and red-tipped cane.

In the door on the right, a guy was burning newspapers directly on the cracked linoleum floor, lying beside the blaze reading a Bible. Lloyd saw him finish a page, tear it out and add it to the fire.

The other doorways just yielded more combinations of drugs, sex and rot. A votive candle wavered outside the final one, where a wiry man blocked the entry, rattling a can and saying, “See something astounding, ten cents” in a monotone. Lloyd ponied up a quarter and the man stepped aside for him and Cochise. There were more candles inside, illuminating a naked longhaired man on the floor, his legs thrown back past his head. It looked like he was doing some yoga position, until Lloyd saw the man had his own cock in his mouth.

Cochise guffawed, and was so convulsed with laughter he was barely able to say, “Excuse me, sir ... is this ... consensual?”

Lloyd pushed past the guy in the doorway like he was fleeing a contagion, followed by Cochise, whose laughter filled the hallway. “Jesus Christ,” he bellowed. “I never knew white people were so self-reliant!”

At the stairwell, Cochise finally contained his mirth, and Lloyd said, “Maybe you better tell me what’s on the other floors. My stomach can’t take four more like this.”

“It’s quieter up there, but it’s sadder. Mostly just people sacking out. Some of them been here a couple of years; some been on the nickel since the war; some are fresh from the Vietnam mess. That’s most of what you have the next two floors. Above that, you got people who don’t move around much at all. There’s TB cases, emphysema, cancer. Sometimes church people come in and help them a little. Sometimes the winos here do. Mostly they just lay there praying to die. Unless you’re wearing a diving bell or something, I wouldn’t trust the germs up there. And I’ve never been on the sixth floor. If there’s anything worse than that fifth one, I don’t want to know about it.”

Lloyd didn’t make it past the third floor. Most of the spaces there had bedding made of old clothes, blankets, even straw. Some were vacant, others had human forms folded in among the rags. Some rooms had decrepit bits of furniture, or melon crates holding canned food and Sterno stoves. When Lloyd looked in one room, an old man made an animal noise and waved a section of a clarinet in his direction like it was a pistol.

In the eighth room they looked in, another newspaper fire crackled on a trash lid. In the sooty light, Lloyd saw a heavy, retarded looking woman sitting against the far wall. She was singing “Fee fi, fiddley-eye o” in an off-pitch sing-song, and she suckled a giant albino rat at her shapeless breast. The creature’s skin was translucent, like a bloated, uncooked bratwurst, and it was drawing blood from the woman’s teat.

Lloyd recoiled back into the hallway, and dropped his flashlight. The corndog and French dip sandwich in his stomach reached a sudden accord and came spewing up his throat, splattering against the wall. He felt lightheaded, like a wave had just hit him full on.

There was a steadying hand on his back, and Cochise said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here, man. We’ll find a bar and I’ll show you what alcohol’s good for.”

 

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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

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2010-07-11 by Brandao Shot

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