The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Summer in the City

Lloyd motored east on the Santa Monica Freeway, top up, windows open. The sun was still blazing away behind him, and he’d already been tempting a sunburn all morning.

He planned on being at the shoeshine stand at seven to ask Abraham if he could remember anything more about the man who might be Artie, or if he’d spotted him again. He also wanted to talk to him about enlisting other eyes to keep a lookout, as he had Cochise, and to let them know there’d be a reward.

If it came to it, he’d pull the reward out of what Audrey was paying him; not that he knew when he’d see a check from her. She wouldn’t stiff him, he knew, and she would almost certainly back a reward. In the meantime, Lloyd was down to his last $20 and change, and the last thing he wanted to do was ask her for money.

Cochise had insisted on buying the lunch and beers, and Lloyd didn’t argue it. There was something beguiling about the big man. Sitting across a wooden cantina table reminding Lloyd of a time in his teens when he was swimming out past the waves at Redondo Beach and three dolphins started swimming and cavorting alongside him. He didn’t know much about dolphins, and any of them looked powerful enough to kill him if it wanted. Two swam so close they nudged his torso, then reared out of the water and jabbered at him. They eventually moved on, and Lloyd swam ashore convinced he’d experienced something unique in human history. The lifeguard assured him it happened all the time, and further dampened Lloyd’s sense of mystic event by telling him, “You’re lucky they didn’t ejaculate on you. That’s usually why they rub up against people.”

It felt just as unlikely to him to be talking with this guy who’d seemed so like a raging shark at the Heigh-Ho. His ear still hurt like a son of a bitch. At one point, Cochise asked him, “Did I do that the other night?”

“Yeah. Surprised?”

“I’m surprised you still have ears. I’m usually pretty thorough.”

“Well, the police did intervene.”

“Of all the pasty varieties of white people, pigs are the lowest. You going to argue that?”

“Nope. I was a cop for six years.”

A blast of laughter came from the man. “No shit? You, a cop? Did you get a lot of pussy?”

“Less than the Culligan man, probably. Most women think the hat looks stupid. That’s why I made detective, but it didn’t make much difference.”

“What sort of stuff did you do?”

“I worked vice, but I didn’t have the taste for it. Switched to bunko squad.”

“What do they do?”

“Mostly try to keep swindlers from swindling bigger swindlers. It was chasing down the usual grift; keeping tabs on the residual mobsters left over from the old days; and trying to prosecute brokers and bankers for crooked swaps I still don’t understand.”

“Why’d you stop?”

“It got a little stale after they fired me.”

Another guffaw from Cochise.

“Am I turning into Artie?” Lloyd wondered, “clowning around town with every bootblack, coroner and carpenter I meet?” But it was keeping things friendly, and he liked the Indian’s honest laugh. He also liked that the man apparently hadn’t read about his own minor infamy in the press.

It was time, and Lloyd started to explain that he was looking for someone.

Cochise’s face darkened, but before he could form the words “I’m no snitch,” Lloyd explained he was only looking for a lost old man, no law involved. He described Artie and the wooden dummy case. Cochise didn’t seem to register Artie’s name, so Lloyd didn’t mention he’d been famous, because famous means rich. He’d worked guys in the street who were straight as rain when the only payoff was a few cartons of cigarettes; once they sniffed money they’d start working angles, and you’d get more accurate intel out of a garden hose.

Lloyd didn’t say how much the reward was, only that Cochise would be eating steak for weeks if he got it. He borrowed a pencil from the cook and wrote his name and number on a matchbook. Cochise launched into a long and disgusting joke about the dog-eating Sioux, which Lloyd imagined Apaches had been laughing at around campfires for centuries before the white man ever troubled their dreams.

He took his leave, arranging to meet in the PE terminal at eight, when Cochise would give him a guided tour of places the homeless called home. He’d walked to his car, drove to the rooming house, showered, changed and spent the afternoon back at his office, wishing he had a beautiful secretary so he wouldn’t have to wonder what calls he might have missed.

He’d read some more about Artie in the books from the library. He tried making some sketches from the photos in the books, but they ended up looking like a ball of twine with a nose. It made him miss working out of a police station, where they had artists and Verifax machines.

As he’d been getting ready to leave for his downtown rendezvous, a call did come in. It was Billy Down with a tip he’d heard from a patrol cop in South Central, that an older guy with a dummy was doing shows in a carport in West Athens. He gave Lloyd the nearest intersection and the apartment name. There’d been a sign saying the next show was Monday night. Lloyd had thanked Billy for the tip, though he’d already filled Monday with rich imaginings of he and Audrey picking up where they’d left off in her car.

Before getting into his own car, he had stretched his legs on the boardwalk and bought a corndog there, to break his $20, and because he wanted a corndog. A group of guys in swim trunks and sandals were on the sand, strumming guitars and banging on bongos, passing a red plastic sand pail that Lloyd knew from past experience was filled with rum and Hawaiian Punch.

Now, driving decidedly away from that, to a kind of downtown Petula Clark didn’t sing about, he wondered if they didn’t have life figured out better than he. Consider the lilies of the field, soaking up the sun and booze, singing “Barbara Ann,” impressing some easily impressed beach bunnies, who later share their scant few untanned regions with them. Maybe that’s the life, while what Lloyd thought was a life was just sweeping up after someone else’s.

While the luau cinders were burning low at the beach, he’d be downtown, pushing amongst the careening, dull and ajar—lost people all looking for something that was never enough. Car exhaust, spent condoms, barfing clowns, hollow women. And Lloyd, looking for a man whose goodbye note said, I’ve gone hoboing. Don’t try to find me. I’m simply gone, leaving Lloyd nothing to go on except to go where the gone go.

He parked on Broadway—he had no intention of being underground in the Pershing Square lot again—and walked up to the General News stand. This time Abraham was there, in his immaculate blue smock, bent over at his work, with a man in his chair and three in line. Lloyd became the fourth, and scanned the adjacent sidewalk and the one lining the park across the street, an eye out for his former brothers in blue.

Abraham seemed unusually quiet, letting the slap of his buffing rag be the only competition with the street noise. When Lloyd finally got in the worn leather seat, he asked the old man, “Remember me?”

“I remember your shoes,” he said without looking up from his work.

“I was the one a couple of nights ago looking for the frizzy-haired old man. You said you’d seen him with a saxophone case.”

“Suppose I did.”

“Look, I’m only trying to find him and get him home safe. There’s a reward. Can you keep an eye out for him, maybe ask some other people to do the same?”

“Nope. You’d better make this shoeshine last, mister,” Abraham finally looked up and made eye contact with Lloyd. “This is my last time here, ever. Thirty-two years, I’ve seen things down here no Christian man should see. Now, I’ve seen things no man should see no how, no matter how ungodly. I’m settin’ up on Central Avenue. The money ain’t nothin’ like here, but if a man kills you there, he’s at least got a reason for it. Good-bye to all this, and good day to you.”

He finished buffing and gave a nod toward those still waiting for a shine. Lloyd rose and left him 50 cents. Abraham was already greeting his next customer, evidently a longtime one: “Hey, man. How many years I been shining the same shoes on your feet? You better not be wearing them when I see you in the hereafter ...”


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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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