The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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The Endless Sleep

Lloyd woke at 7:15. He woke again at 10:47 and didn’t like it any better. The sun was streaming in between the blinds and at least two radios were blasting in the rooming house. Turning in bed, he’d winced from a dozen sore spots. Sitting up, he felt like hammered dog meat. There was a raw scrape across his left ear. His back and kidneys were sore from catching punches. His thighs had been boot-kicked. His chest felt like it had been in a nutcracker, while his nuts had caught a knee.

He’d never come close to being that beat-up as a cop, and it wasn’t a promising first night as a private investigator. He’d thought the hardest part of the gig would be learning the F-stops and other camera bother, and bringing himself to point the thing through drapes to catch people screwing the wrong partners.

He considered putting on Chet with Strings and curling up in a ball all day. When he stood up, he had to lean on his dresser until his blood figured out where his head was. His image stared back from the wall mirror, so he took stock. The ear had a raspberry tire track running across the upper lobe, but his hair could half cover it. The lump he felt on his forehead from being head-butted barely showed. His eyes were dull from lack of sleep, but a very pissed off sort of dull. Pissed off that the hulking stranger in the bar would show such contempt for another stranger; pissed off at that corned beef-faced sergeant and his kind, the sort he’d so disliked on the force, who could now so casually fuck with him; and mainly pissed off at himself for walking into a situation so out of his control.

Steadier, Lloyd pulled on a swimsuit and sandals, draped a towel over his shoulder and headed to the beach. He ate an orange on the way, saving the peel in one hand until he passed a trashcan.

He dropped his towel and sandals a few yards above the water line and kept on until he was up to his neck in the surf. He bent his legs, plunging his head, and pushed off the bottom to begin his swim. He figured on at least twenty strokes before he reached where the waves were breaking. At twelve he opened his eyes to check. A wave was nearly on top of him and he didn’t have the thrust to dive under it. When he tried, the wave curled him back like a question mark and sent him bouncing off the bottom.

Salt water flooded Lloyd’s nose and his brain was orbiting Jupiter. When he tried pushing to the surface, his head hit sand. Not twelve minutes earlier he’d been getting out of bed; now he was thrashing through malevolent water, surfacing in time for another wave to flip him over, choking on water that hit him mid-breath.

Fighting panic, Lloyd caught his bearings and stayed under, swimming frantically for deeper water. He came up on the rise beyond another breaking wave, gasping, salty snot pouring from his nose.

He turned to watch the wave roll to shore. Screw it all: the sergeant, the Mexicans, the Yardbirds, the entire Pacific Ocean. He turned to the horizon and started to swim in earnest.

Every few months for years now, Lloyd had found himself doing this, swimming out to a point that he reckoned was the maximum limit of his exertion for making it back to shore, and then he’d swim out a good ways further. He never thought about it when he did it, but afterwards, wondered if he wasn’t just a dishonest suicide; that you could only pull a death-defying stunt so many times before death wouldn’t be defied. He decided it was more that he was testing himself to see how much he really wanted to live. So far so good, though it wasn’t like he had any great goal in life. He just liked breathing more than not-breathing.

This time he didn’t take any measure of how for out he went. He swam until the fury left his muscles, and when it did he had nothing. He felt like a rag in the water, his limbs loose as he bobbed in a trough. On the rise, the hotels on the Venice boardwalk looked like models for a train set’s town. Had he really swum that far? Had a rip current helped? He couldn’t tell if he was holding steady to the shore or was moving away from it.

Softly, to himself he said, “Congratulations, Lloyd, on a wholly untenable situation. Bravo. Have a cigarette.”

His lungs ached. His side hurt. The water wasn’t cold, but a shiver ran through him every couple of moments. His ear burned like a son of a bitch. Surfers had told him seawater was the best thing for healing wounds, and it had worked for him, but never without pain.

“Well, do you feel like living, stupid, or are you going to float to China?” Lloyd rolled onto his back and began to slowly kick his way toward shore, letting his arms rest. Every so often he’d flip over to see that the shore was growing minutely closer. Would Audrey wonder, if he were sucked out to sea forever, just what sort of flake she’d hired? And how lame is my life, he wondered, if he’s facing the endless sleep and all he can think about is what someone he’s barely known for a day would think?

Just the same, he kept thinking of her. He kept his eyes closed as he floated, the sun a red storm on the other side of his eyelids, and he thought of how she’d looked lit in the booth at Musso’s, of her shivering on the sidewalk, her in his office with her arched eyebrow, her on the dance floor, their bodies touching. She was older than him. She was exasperating, the way he never knew if what she was saying would turn into a sarcastic dig.

“With renewed vigor, spurred by a vision of Lady Liberty herself, the brave lad swam toward near-certain death on the Normandy beachhead,” ran a newsreel in Lloyd’s head. He flipped over, saw the beach and boardwalk one more little bit closer, and started sluicing his arms into the water for a proper swim.

A half hour later, he hit the wave line, now his friend, and body-surfed in to the beach. He could barely stand, but found his blanket, folded it around himself as best he could to be out of the sun, and took a silent, dreamless nap amid the beach babble. Lloyd didn’t think he had many talents, but one was the ability to nap almost any time. It wasn’t something that could win a prize on the Amateur Hour, but it had come in handy with his job.

An hour later, he put his sandals on and trudged down to the exercise equipment at Muscle Beach, a series of overhead bars, hanging rings and such. He forced his body through a couple of circuits. Every rung hurt, but when he finished, he felt his left bicep and was much pleased. That’s right, come fuck with me now. I’ve been on monkey bars.

 

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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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