The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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The Summer Wind

Lloyd drove randomly for a while, the MG’s open windows doing little to ameliorate the heat radiating through the canvas top. He spotted a phone booth near a wall-side mural for Farmer John Meats, and stopped to call the coroner’s office with his suspicions about Nolan Bentine and his marching band helmet.

He wasn’t sure whether to call Roy or Dr. Ted, but that was settled by the office’s general number being entirely busy. Dr. Ted answered his private line on the third ring. Lloyd gave him what little he had on Bentine’s description and background, adding, “He was evidently a Hollywood stuntman for a long time. I don’t know if they have a union. If so, maybe they have a record of his injuries or someone there might know of identifying marks he may have had. I assume the killer removed your stiff’s fingerprints?”

“With acid, both entire hands dipped to the wrists, evidently while the victim was alive,” Ted said evenly “This is not a nice guy we’re looking for here. He must have some remote lair or soundproof basement where he can be confident he’s the only one hearing the screams. He’s taking his sweet time with these killings.

“I’ll get homicide to check out this Nolan character and see if he matches our guy. Thanks for the tip. You make a good ex-cop. If this pans out at all, where can we find this marching band hat?”

Lloyd gave him the encampment’s intersections, and asked, “Can you make sure it’s plainclothes detectives that canvas the place? Some downtown uniformeds were there last night laying on the charm, and the citizens are pretty shook.”

“Will do.”

A breeze had started up, blowing in from the shore. Lloyd climbed into the MG, rested his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. He’d had moments like this when he was a kid, when, as shitty and removed as La Puente was from the surf and stars’ homes, the summer breeze made him know he was lucky to have been born in California.

He opened his eyes a slit, and saw a palm tree down the block swaying in the breeze like a vision from a Polynesian island. Even from where he was, he could see its dried fronds ascamper with rats, roused by the tree’s motion. When he was nine, he’d accidentally set a California Avenue palm tree on fire with a bottle rocket. Like most of his neighborhood, he’d been out celebrating the atom-sealed surrender of Japan, when his thumb-sized rocket went zizzing right into the thatch of the tree, which smoldered for a few moments, then went up like a festive torch. So many burning rats came tearing down the trunk it looked like the firefall at Yosemite.

Lloyd closed his eyes again and thought about his life. He envisioned the saga in five chapters:

Childhood: Misery; fear of God and father; occasional moments of loving the hell out of life—blowing up aerosol cans; daydreaming on a morning like this; riding his bike to Whittier to find a hill worth speeding down; watching a meteor shower; enjoying a root beer float and a comic book; the rest of his time pretty much spent waiting for something bad to happen, and he rarely waited long.

Adolescence: Misery plus yearning, the latter brought on by the discovery of girls. He could barely bring himself to talk to one, but he yearned like crazy for them. Other hallmarks: his disbelief in God and father, though one still wielded a strop; his first time hearing Johnny Hodges play “I Got it Bad”; and, starting with his parents on outward, learning such contempt for the whole adult world that he determined never to become one.

Adulthood: Junior college, majoring in yearning with the occasional profound blessing of beaver; deciding to become a cop—it was that or else becoming an adult, he figured; adulthood caught up with him anyway, something he realized the first time he heard himself call a kid “sonny” at the Hollywood Ranch Market one day, while there looking for starlets.

As a beat cop he’d rescued a few stray dogs and kids, but mostly just saw the worst of people day-in, day-out: guys who’d beaten their wives with a beer stein or the buckle-end of a belt; women who’d nearly deserved it, plotting with their no-account lovers to turn hubbie’s Impala into a death trap and split the insurance; or rousting other guys too stupid to think their way out of a paper bag, who’d compounding their stupidity by sniffing glue from the bag; watching hookers have a hair-tearing fight in a liquor store parking lot, battling over a warm bottle of Thunderbird. That’s the word he heard.

Detective: Out of the Cub Scout uniform and into a sharp suit; dealing with a higher order of grime—people who preyed on the stupid and weak—he liked catching them and was good at it; renting an apartment with a dreamlike swimming pool, where someone pretty was always giving you a hamburger right off the grill; sleeping with more women and loving every senseless, unfulfilled minute of it; he was somebody, and was so busy at it he hadn’t time to wonder what the adolescent Lloyd would have made of him. He could have coasted that way for a long time.

Audrey: He’d thought being ousted from the force would be the shaping event of this part of his life. Now it just seemed a minor prelude to meeting Audrey Kane. That had moved his world in ways he didn’t even think the world could move. Every bit of his lifetime’s yearning coalesced at one point, on a cul de sac in the Hollywood Hills, in her bedroom, in her. Having that yearning fulfilled wasn’t how he’d imagined it. It was perfect, complete, yet it meant so much it threw every particle of his life into turmoil.

Everything mattered now more than it had before. He didn’t have a badge, but he felt a sense of duty like he never had before. He didn’t know how long that could coexist: this duty to find Artie, and how that could destroy what he’d found with Audrey. Be holed up at the Knickerbacker, he wished as the sun glowed crimson through his eyelids, order steak from room service every night and expire peacefully watching your reruns. Don’t make me find you. And let Audrey be at peace in my conflicted arms, Amen.

He thought of her lips, and the moans she made when she couldn’t keep from moaning. Every minute not touching her felt like a minute wasted. Yet he kept thinking about that matted marching band helmet, and the buffoon attached to it. He thought about Abraham and his furiously grieving daughter. He barely knew these people, but they mattered to him now.

Friends he had, plenty of them at times, but none too close. It had been nearly the same with his scattered girlfriends. He got the impression they usually felt the way he did: that they were launching into something together with no future.

What future could there be with Audrey? Married, rich, hip in ways he couldn’t comprehend. How long before she caught on how dull he was? That damned Albert Ayler album sounded the way he’d felt lately, this week where he’d suddenly been finding himself drunk, bludgeoned and punched, plunged into menace in decrepit buildings and negro carports, and caring about people he’d never known before, including an Apache berserker who’d been among the bludgeoners. He even cared about that horrible little dwarf, left charred and alone in the world if Bentine was indeed dead or vamoosed. He resolved right then to check in on him, and help him if he could, though he’d much rather never see him again.

Audrey. While he was daydreaming in his car, next to a mural full of pigs, she was probably making small talk with the four most famous Beatles in the world. He thought of the tenderness he’d found with her, how deep and real it was. Yet he wasn’t of her world. He didn’t go on retreats with radio gurus, or know everyone at Musso and Frank by name, and wherever she was at this moment, she probably wasn’t dreaming about John, Paul, George and Lloyd. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Even so, he’d trade the other four chapters in his life for this one in a flash. Eyes still closed, he started his engine and put the car in gear. He could look where he was going later.


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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.


The firefall at Yosemite. Nice reference…

2011-05-10 by Ek

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