The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Some Velvet Morning

Lloyd slumped next to the kid, fading in and out to the strains of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right. He must have slept soundly for a while, because the next thing he heard was Davey and Goliath. The slow-talking dog was telling the claymation boy, “I don’t think Jesus would shoot that squirrel, Daaaa-vy.”

He opened his eyes. The kid was still sitting next to him on the couch, silent as a dormouse, rocking ever so slightly back and forth while watching the screen. Along with his jelly-stained underpants, he was wearing pajama tops the color of Crest toothpaste. He had light brown hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a long time.

Lloyd took stock of himself. His ass hurt, probably from hitting the bar’s floor the night before, though he only remembered the falling part. The way the back of his head felt, he’d either hit something or something hit him. Otherwise, he didn’t seem much more ruined than he’d been heading into the fight.

His best guess was that once Cochise had his fill of mayhem, he’d dragged him to a friend’s apartment, and that it was Cochise’s snoring he heard in the other room.

Abraham, the shoeshine man he’d talked with only the night before, had been murdered, as gruesomely as the corpse he’d visited in the morgue. With those two murders on the books, it wouldn’t be long before the press got wind of the other two and knew what Lloyd did: that there was a full-fledged, whack-job serial murderer on the loose downtown.

Lloyd looked at his wingtips, among the last shoes Abraham had ever polished. They were scuffed and dirty, and Christ knows what he’d stepped in the night before. And now, he had to take a leak.

He nudged the kid next to him and asked, “What’s your name, son?”

The boy earnestly shushed him, never looking from the TV. Lloyd got up and found the bathroom himself, at the end of a short hallway. Dirty dishes and Parducci wine bottles littered the kitchen counter. Pictures of storybook characters hung in pastel Styrofoam frames on the hall wall. He passed the open bedroom door from which the snoring came. Cochise lay naked on the bed, the covers on the floor, the brunette from the bar pinned under his sleeping arm. Her eyes were open and she had the look of a trapped animal.

Lloyd gave her a little salute and went in the bathroom. A tube of Stripe toothpaste sat on the sink ledge, next to a shot glass. Like an errant jellyfish, a condom floated in the toilet bowl. At least the kid in the living room wouldn’t be winding up with a hellacious sibling.

He did his business and went back to the living room. He looked for his windbreaker and flashlight, but they must have been lost at the bar. He figured he’d skip out and find a bus downtown, then realized he had no way of getting ahold of Cochise. Best to wait until he woke up.

He sat back next to the still silent kid, and watched commercials for Mr. Bubble and the Wham-O Wheelie Bar, two more accomplishments the Russians would probably never catch up with.

The snoring in the next room stopped, and was soon replaced by a rhythmic female moaning that made Lloyd blush.

He asked the boy, “Hey, how about we go out and I buy you some breakfast?”

“No, I wanna watch TV.”

The kid seemed unperturbed by the alley cat sounds coming from his mother’s throat. Lloyd had never heard these noises from his own parents’ bedroom. He and his sister were the only evidence that they had ever coupled. He’d been in his twenties before he’d heard a woman make such sounds, and even then it was a while before he caught on that it was a good thing, that she wasn’t necessarily sustaining internal injuries.

What had that asshole called it, the bedspring symphony?

Lloyd found a pencil and a piece of dry cleaner’s cardboard. He didn’t count on Cochise still having the matchbook with his number in it. So he wrote it out again, thanking him for a lovely evening and asking that he call the office Monday at ten.

Fishing in the couch’s cracks earlier, he’d come up with a quarter. He handed that and the cardboard note to the kid and asked him to be sure to give the note to the big man. It was a commercial break, so the kid paid attention to him.

Out the door and on the street, he could still hear the gasps and moans.

It was another bright, hot morning. Missing his watch yet again, he guessed it was around 10:30. His stomach was empty and queasy. He checked his pockets and had $3.67 left to his name.

He took his time walking a couple of blocks of drab apartment and houses. None of the street names registered, but he could finally see where the downtown skyline lay. A busier street lay ahead, which he found was 4th Avenue. He bought a Payday bar from a corner market, and ate it while sitting alone on a bus bench.

A sooty bus ambled along, and he caught it. It wasn’t crowded, but it was an array: Mexican families in church attire, solitary Japanese riders, two longhairs with instrument cases, a couple of bums, an old man in black, bent over as if in prayer.

How many buses were on the city streets just then? Hundreds? Artie Kane could be on any one of them, going anywhere. He could be in any of thousands of alleyways or sleeping in the ice plant under a bridge along a freeway. He could be on the big white steamer to Catalina. How many more craphouses like the one he’d been through the night before did the town hold?

Maybe the honest thing to do would be to tell Audrey he was on a fool’s errand; that even the police, if they could be induced to take Artie’s disappearance seriously, would be hard-pressed to find him in this teeming anthill. Lloyd figured he ought to call it a day and head for home.

But he didn’t. Between the train yard and Little Tokyo, he saw homeless people, maybe 50 in all, clustered in small groups or still cocooned in sleeping bags despite the morning heat. There was a weed-grown field where some had pitched old Army tents or had made crawl-in homes out of corrugated washing machine or refrigerator boxes.

One of the latter was set up just off the sidewalk, against the wall of a brick building that abutted the field. A dwarf sat atop it, chewing the fat with a heavyset guy drinking from a canteen, who was wearing a blue shag marching band helmet. Next to the fridge box, the owner had made a mailbox out of a shoebox mounted on a cardboard wrapping paper pole, doubtless waiting for a corrugated mail truck to deliver equally nonexistent mail.

Maybe hope and folly were indistinguishable to the passing eye. Lloyd got off the bus a few blocks later and found his car. He still had the better part of a tank of gas, $3.52 left in his pocket, and the determination that when he did talk with Audrey, he would have done all he possibly could to find her missing damn husband.


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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.


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