The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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The Tears of a Clown

“I hear you’re looking for me. Here I am. Now stop looking.”

Lloyd couldn’t tell if the voice on the other end of the line was angry or just addled, but it sounded like the Artie Kane he knew from TV, older now, and with the rasp of the street.

“Where are you?”

“In your hand, a little man in the telephone, with so many wires in here you’d never find me.”

“Does it tickle when I do this?” Lloyd stuck an index finger in the dial’s zero hole and spun it.

“I don’t work duos.”

“I hear you’re playing Nichols and May with every chef, doorman and store clerk you meet. You leave a trail of mirth behind you.” Keep him talking. He’s probably dying to explain himself to someone. Be that someone. “Cesar at Musso misses you. Audrey misses you.” Does your pool man miss you, he almost asked, or is he your cookie man, too? But why spook Artie by letting on how close he’d come to finding him?

“I’m done with missing things. I let go of my life. You should too, you get to be my age. I’m not here. I’m just the friendly ghost. I’m only still around for my friends.”

“You’ve abandoned your friends.”

“I’ve got others. You seem like a nice fellow. Leave me alone.”

“How do I know you’re even Artie? You could be his kidnapper.”

 “You want me to throw my voice for you?”

“How about you answer a couple of questions? For starts, how did you get this number?”

“You’ve left it plastered all over town, along with photos of me. You should have been my publicist.”

“What is La Pergola?”

“That’s my old workshop.”

“Why not just call it a workshop?”

“Because it was my consolation, OK?” Artie coughed, away from the mouthpiece. “That’s Latin: the consoler. When I was sick on my back as a kid, my first dummy was my consolation. Since then, it was my consolation making and fixing dummies.”

Everything in the past tense. While Lloyd listened for anything in the background—a church bell, a train—to suggest where Artie was, he struggled to understand what was driving the man’s mind. Artie sounded rational. Behind the immediate exasperation in his voice, Lloyd sensed calm, as if Artie had indeed shuffled away from his life, the way dying Indians would take to the woods alone.

“Don’t you still have dummies you could be sprucing up at home? If you think you’re wrapping up your life, you’re sure leaving a lot of loose ends. You’ve left your wife hanging, your home. Nobody knows if you’re missing, dead, kidnapped or bonkers. Shouldn’t you come home, get well, and tie up your loose ends? No one’s going to stop you from leaving again if that’s what you want.”

“Life’s nothing but loose ends. No, listen: Life is the disease of matter. You agree with that?”

“I can’t say I’ve given it much thought.”

 “My wife’s mystic friend said some German said that, then he threw in his two cents that life’s not a disease; it’s a parasite. If we weren’t vampires taking energy from something else, we’d just be rocks. We soak up sunlight, take nourishment from living plants and animals, which take it from others. All of life is theft.”

“But it’s still life. No one said it was a cakewalk.”

“I did. I said it every day on the radio and TV. Kids ate their vegetables, grew up and learned I was lying, didn’t they?”

“You ever think maybe you’re thinking about things too much? You struck me as more of a seltzer-in-the-face sort of guy. What got you on this track?”

Lloyd heard a coin going in the slot on the other end.

Artie said, “I didn’t think much of what that Ohm was saying at the time. He sounds like a snake oil salesman to me. But a couple of weeks after, we’d been to dinner with Audrey’s artist friends; later, I went down to work on my dummies. I’m sitting with my magnifying goggles on, and a moth crosses my vision, but in slow motion, like an airplane in the sky. Then he lands on the side of the cabinet, and I can see exactly what Ohm was talking about.

“Waves of light—like gold dust in water— flowed into the moth, making him ecstatic. That’s why he couldn’t move. The light was also filling Woody, my dummy, and I thought maybe that’s why he couldn’t move. I could feel the light entering my skin, but I could still move. I couldn’t feel the happiness everything else was.”

 Lloyd could guess who one of the artists he’d had dinner with was, and asked, “Did anything different happen when you moved your hands or arms around?”

“Yes! It was like one of those strobe-light photographs! I had arms everywhere. I’d drunk some of that Greek wine, that pinesap stuff, but not that much. I thought I must be going crazy.”

“I wouldn’t worry. It’s something that’s going around. ”

“This wasn’t some flu. It was the universe showing me I didn’t know squat, that even moths and wood knew more than I did. Here’s the thing, I could see that Woody was also giving off energy, and that was flowing into me, too. And me? Nothing going out.

“I got really sick after making my first dummy as a kid, and I thought it was God punishing me for trying to create life. Now I saw that all I’d been doing was stealing life from my dummies. That’s something else I’m done with now.”

“But you took a dummy with you, didn’t you?”

There was a long silence in the receiver, then, “You’re a nice man. Leave me alone.”

“Wait. Where are you? We can get a cup of coffee and talk. Maybe there’s other ways of looking at things.”

“Tell me if this sounds like I’m hanging up.”

The line went dead.

separator

That could have gone better. It left him no closer to finding Artie, though there was no doubt now that Artie didn’t want to be found. Maybe that would be enough for Audrey, but he didn’t think so. You don’t abandon crazy, frail, sore-ridden husbands to the streets just on their say-so.

Artie was clearly crazy, yet he couldn’t quite disagree with anything he’d said. Life didn’t make any damn sense, and if it wasn’t parasitic, it was at least predatory, where nearly everybody able to was squeezing work or money from those below them, and pumping the sky full of smog for good measure.

He felt pretty sure Artie’s actions had been precipitated by an LSD trip, which wouldn’t have occurred to him without the revelations he’d had on his own unbooked trip. Had Artie been intentionally dosed by Calchas, or did he just sip from the wrong cup? Could Audrey have been a party to it, to jump-start Artie’s mind out of its post Kandy Kane Town funk, or to better align him with her hipster friends? He doubted it, though he also briefly wondered if she might have orchestrated the same for him at that Topanga gathering. Could he be that in love with her if he harbored such suspicions?

Christ, he had to get moving. He was going to be late if he didn’t hurry, and Audrey had their approach to the Beatles concert planned with military precision. He placed a quick call to the Westside desk and found Ed Lafferty wasn’t in. Like half the force, he was at Chavez Ravine. If the downtown killer wanted to go on a spree, he’d have the streets to himself tonight.

Lloyd drove to the rooming house, had a short shower to top off the one that morning, and dressed. He wore the same slacks, and a madras shirt that had hung in his closet since he’d bought it at Orbach’s in a fit of trendiness the previous autumn. He grabbed a canvas windbreaker in case it grew chill later, and locked the thin door behind him.

A half hour later he was at Audrey’s far more substantial door, telling her, “I just had an interesting phone call.”

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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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