The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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The Chicken Delight Twist

Lloyd drove around the south end of downtown without much purpose for a couple of hours, leaving his business card and a photo of Artie at whatever flophouses, liquor stores and barber shops he passed. Some people recognized Artie from his movies and shows; others seemed disinterested with recognizing anything.

It was late afternoon when he got back to his office. Venice was not a tidy town, but the six banana peels on his doorstep were enough outside the norm to tell him he’d missed a visit from Cochise and his new mascot. It wouldn’t take a genius to make the same assumption, and since Bonzo’s owner, Chick Singer, was not a genius, Lloyd took the peels and tossed them in a trashcan in the alley to the side of the office. It wouldn’t surprise him at all if Singer came snooping around, and he didn’t want to give the jerk any more cause to suspect Lloyd was the source of his recent miseries.

In his office, the nickel had shaken from its perch on his receiver, so he’d probably also missed a call from Cochise, or maybe Audrey, whom he called right away.

She answered on the third ring, out of breath again. “Hello?”

“How were your Beatles?”

“They were the Drab Four, sorry to say. I kept thinking about you.”

“Really?”

“Really. You’re fab. Plus, it was sad seeing them look that beat and bored, tired of reporters asking about their hair, and more tired of being asked about Jesus. Afterward, I overheard John with the band’s old publicist, talking about Americans. He said, ‘If their bloody Jesus ever came back, they’d probably ask him if he was wearing a wig, too.’”

“You were standing that close to them?”

“Close enough that John asked for my phone number.”

“Did you give it to him?”

“I gave him a number. If he calls, he’ll get Chicken Delight, and they don’t deliver in the hills. Are you sorry you doubted my faithfulness?”

 “Well, he is a Beatle.”

“A married Beatle, not that I should talk.”

Lloyd changed the subject, telling her a bit about his day, minus the gory details he’d heard at the coroner’s.

Then she asked, “You remember me telling you about Alan Ohm?”

“Yes,” he said, though he meant, Jesus, don’t go off on another retreat, not when you’re my only retreat.

“He’s giving a talk in Topanga Canyon tonight. Would you come with me?”

“Yes.” He had a longer answer there, too, one peppered with doubts about how he’d mesh with her whole hipster, yoga-posing, fuzztone-using crowd.

“Why don’t you come by at seven, and I’ll drive from here?”

separator

A little after 8:30, they pulled up to a sprawling Japanese-style house in the canyon, Audrey having expertly navigated Topanga’s curves. Lloyd had spent nearly an hour trying to navigate hers, hoping from her front door kiss that she’d change her mind about going out.

Now they were at a pair of red double doors standing open. Audrey walked right in without ringing the bell. The place looked to Lloyd like something out of Teahouse of the August Moon, with cane mats covering the floors and paper and balsa interior walls. Lloyd felt like he was inside an elaborate kite. Shoes were lined up along the hallway. Audrey took hers off and Lloyd followed suit, glad at least that she hadn’t invited him to a nudist colony.

He could hear a voice and soft flute music from further back in the house. They came out on a broad courtyard done in natural stones. People were seated cross-legged on the ground facing the inmost wall. The house extended along three sides, each with a wooden deck raised a foot above the courtyard, lit by Japanese lanterns. The walls each had sliding door panels, and those on the inmost wall were fully open, blurring the line between indoors and out.

The flute music was coming from a Danish modern hi-fi; the speech from a raffish Englishman in a black kimono and sandals. His goatee, like his hair, had a striking dash of white running through it. He had the air of someone who was entirely at ease talking to any number of people. Lloyd recalled now that he’d seen him on Merv Griffin, and thought, then and now, that for a man brimming with the wisdom of the East, he had the complexion and belly of someone also frequently overflowing with hooch.

He and Audrey floated as quietly as they could to an empty spot at the rear of the courtyard and sat, Indian style.

Ohm had evidently been speaking a while. He paused to sip from a tumbler, held a finger in the air as he gathered his thoughts, and launched in anew.

“In ancient Persia, there lived a Sufi holy man named Nasrudin, who had a talent for mischief. It bothered his neighbors, particularly the rich merchant next door, that Nasrudin would stand in his back yard every morning, eyes closed, arms raised, and pray loudly for money. To shut him up, one day his neighbor thought it would be funny to toss a sack of gold from his balcony to Nasrudin’s feet while he was praying, so he did. Nasrudin appeared to be amazed, and carried the bag into his abode.

“The next day the wealthy man came to Nasrudin to admit his joke and ask for his money back. The holy man was insistent the money was his and refused to return it. The neighbor had no recourse but to sue him.

On the morning of the trial, Nasrudin went to his neighbor and pleaded, “How can this trial be fair when the judge will see you arrive in all your finery, while I am but a pauper?” Moved, the neighbor said, ‘Let no one claim I am not fair! I shall loan you my finest coat.’

“‘But still I shall be arriving exhausted on foot, covered in the dust your horse kicks up.’

 “‘I shall loan you my finest horse! No one will be able to say the court hasn’t weighed this case fairly!’

“The neighbor was true to his word, and Nasrudin arrived resplendent on a fine steed, wearing not only a coat with gold brocade, but a plumed turban and other finery. In the court, the neighbor laid out his claim to the money. Then came Nasrudin’s turn.

“He told the judge, ‘Your honor, I regret to say this, but my neighbor is insane. Of course, he thinks this gold is his. He thinks everything belongs to him. Just ask him. He will probably tell you that this is his coat on my back.’

“The wronged man cried out, ‘It is my coat!’

“Nasrudin continued, ‘See his madness? He likely even will tell you this fine horse belongs to him, as well as these shoes and the turban on my head.’

“Now the man was furious. ‘It is my horse! It is my turban! The shoes are my shoes!’

“What choice did the judge have but to rule in Nasrudin’s favor?”

Ohm paused, waiting for the fable’s moral to sink in, which eluded Lloyd completely. Was it the transitory value of material things? That appearances were deceiving? That crime pays?

Ohm’s voice was mellifluous, bemused and very upper crust. Audrey had talked about him on the way over: Born into an upper middle class family, he’d become an Episcopalian priest, and was a young golden boy of the church until he abandoned his collar to study Eastern religions. Since then he’d bounced from campus to Zen monastery to yurt commune to a series of private benefactors, becoming one of those outsiders who was expert at nipping inside for a grant, fellowship or TV appearance. The only thing that kept him from seeming inordinately pleased with himself was that he pleased others so much. He was so charming he could sell air conditioners to the Eskimos.

Lloyd had rarely talked to groups of people. Usually it was in a squad room, and he had looked anywhere but at the people he was talking to. Ohm looked right at the crowd, not just as a group, but he let his eyes linger on each person. Following his gaze, Lloyd realized that the winning smiles punctuating Ohm’s speech usually coincided with him regarding the foxier women in the courtyard. Enlightenment evidently didn’t preclude one from being a poon hound.

Some women returned his smile. Others, like most in the room, had their eyes closed like they were listening to a radio. Lloyd was so caught up watching he only was catching Ohm’s punch lines—“and that, my friends, is what we call bringing the mountain to Moe Howard”; “... initially, early man worshipped the Earth Mother, a Jehovah Lollobrigida, if you will”; “the learned hand burns best”—and little of the gist. He was glad this oneness stuff worked for John Coltrane, but it didn’t make him want to by a prayer rug.

He hadn’t eaten since that morning, and his thoughts turned to whisking Audrey off to a late-night diner for a brief stroganoff, and then off to her bedroom. He remembered imagining it, the bed surrounded by Artie’s dummies on shelves leering down at him. Then he remembered the room itself. It had more of that lush beige carpet from downstairs, a queen-sized bed, a modern bedroom set in walnut, and little else, except boundless potential. No dummies, no framed photos on the walls, no sign that Artie’s head had ever rested on a pillow there.

A warm breeze still wafted through the canyon. The stars overhead seemed to flicker and shift. The flute music on the hi-fi had switched to some droning Asian instruments. Lloyd focused on Ohm again just as Ohm fixed his smile on Audrey. Before Lloyd could look to see if Audrey was returning it, Ohm’s gaze shifted to Lloyd.

The smile stayed on his lips, but shifted ever so slightly into a wholly different thing. This smile had its own intimacy, that of a fraud recognizing a fellow fraud in the crowd. It was a look Lloyd had seen pickpockets exchange at Santa Anita, and it was one he had shared with other undercover cops on a bust. Lloyd returned Ohm’s smile, and almost felt he should add a little salute.

Ohm’s discourse had continued on its own separate track, drawing, he could tell, to a close:

 “There is a man. He is old and losing his memory. The names of things. The things themselves. The events of his life. He could feel their absence, but he no longer knew what they had been.

“At the same time, he comes to notice that every week there are fewer of his things in the house. The bookshelves thinned out, and the remaining titles were unfamiliar to him. There were fewer pants and shirts in the closet. There had been more art on the walls, he was sure. There were never any knick-knacks at hand now. He accused his wife of doing this, of subtracting his concrete memories to hasten his mind’s departure.

“Soon, even she vanished, as did the floor, ceiling, walls and all things beyond them. Only a wan light filled the prospect. It was cold, and the man realized it was the temperature of death.

“It would seem a place of despair and loneliness, and so it would be. Except the man pulled a kazoo from a pocket he no longer had, and blew upon it, a great razzing chorus so beguiling that the stars, sun and planets, along with all the monstrous filth of living, decided to give existence another go-round just to hear his next refrain. And so man endures.”

 

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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

jim- excellent ! your story flows like an enclosed waterslide; twisting and turning, but never losing forward momentum ! can’t wait for the next installment.  s.

2011-05-25 by steve soest

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