The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Tomorrow Never Knows

Lloyd was four blocks from the tent field before he found a phone booth and called Audrey. It was another two before he spotted a cab, which he took to the Pacific Electric building, where he and Cochise forewent the French dip sandwiches, because Audrey had been adamant about finally meeting Cochise, and promised them barbecue in the hills.

Cochise was up for it. Lloyd decided he needed to relax and let fate have its way, since it had its way regardless. He’d already told Audrey he loved her and the sky hadn’t crashed down. She’d heard about most of his and Cochise’s escapades, so she was forewarned. The Indian could even be charming up to a point, though one shot glass past that point he gained a rampaging talent for obliteration.

Also, since Lloyd was reporting the first Artie sightings since poor dead Abraham’s, he didn’t want the news overshadowed by his looming sidekick. He’d given her just the briefest version over the phone. Audrey’s initial response was to offer to drive down and resume the search, then she abruptly changed her mind, saying it would be better to make a fresh start in the morning. Lloyd wondered if she was thinking what he was: Let’s have this night together, in case they do find Artie and there are no other nights.

And since he and Cochise hadn’t eaten, and she was expected at a band’s barbecue further up in the hills, let’s do that first, she said.

Audrey looked typically radiant when they picked her up at the end of Glen Green, in jeans and a red sweatshirt, its hood trailing behind her kerchiefed hair. Lloyd met her at the door, then ushered her to the front passenger seat in Cochise’s VW camper, so she could direct him up the canyon. Lloyd got in back, pushing Bonzo’s hammock to one side.

Cochise twisted his wide frame to face her. “Our pale friend has described you to me, but his capacity for beauty lags far short of the mark. My name’s Glen.”

“Lloyd told me your name’s Cochise. What’s with that?” She was blushing and cast a glance to the backseat.

Cochise said, “He just hates Indians, I suppose. You should hear what he calls you.” Then he grinned.

It took Lloyd a moment to remember that Glen actually was Cochise’s name. He’d never asked what the man wanted to be called.

The late afternoon sun was only hitting up on the ridges, where big, modern homes had sprung up after the fire, with requisite glass walls for looking down upon the city. Those surfaces sent shards of sunlight glaring off windows and chrome in the dusk below, blinding when you drove through them.

“You might want to slow down.” Audrey suggested. “The streets get narrower past the walls.”

To Lloyd’s surprise, Cochise actually slowed. He’d been more than curious how his bridle-like approach to steering would fare on the sharp curves and oncoming traffic above. They passed the Beachwood Market and the canyon narrowed into deeper dusk. Audrey directed Cochise to a left on Ledgewood, which he climbed with a Mr. Toad-like verve. Nonchalance must come easier when you’re driving a stolen car, Lloyd thought.

Next was a hairpin right on Rodgerton, a lane of successive blind curves defined by a stone retaining wall on the left, and houses and sharp drops on the right. An older wooden home had a patch of lawn with a statue of a deer on it. Then its head looked up at the van and Lloyd realized it was real.

There was no opposing traffic, and a curvy quarter mile later they pulled into a U-shaped driveway. A deep rhythmic thud came through the green-paneled walls.

“Let me introduce you to the band, then Lloyd and I can talk outside for a bit, then we’ll eat some food and vamoose.”

Great. A rock band by the sound of it, more of Audrey’s artsy friends to look down their granny-glassed noses at him. What drugs will they slip me this time, he wondered.

Aside from their splash in the ocean that morning, he had yet to see Cochise look uncomfortable in any situation, and he strode toward the door like he already knew anyone inside.

Audrey pushed the doorbell as a formality—no one would hear it over the din—and a few seconds later turned the old brass doorknob. It was suddenly a lot louder, and they walked into a house that seemed to be mostly living room, with one of those glass walls with a sweeping view of the LA basin. Closer at hand was a sweeping view of one of the bands he’d seen in Audrey’s record stack: The New Sweaty Minstrels. He didn’t know how old their album was, but they looked to have spent the interim sprouting even more hair.

The band and its gear were spread through the room, interspersed with ragged furniture and various people sprawled on same, listening to the band’s raucous sound. A couple of band members looked up from their efforts and acknowledged Audrey, but they showed no sign of letting up.

Audrey said something to Cochise, who headed left to the refrigerator, while Audrey led Lloyd past the hippies and their head-high guitar amplifiers, through a sliding glass door onto a brick patio. 

They sat at a small wrought wire table and chair set that looked like it was stolen from Wil Wright’s. It was still warm out. They were shaded by the hills, but ahead of them LA was still awash in sunlight.

“Can you point to where Artie was?”

Lloyd did his best, then recounted his day, with the twin Artie sightings at the Union Hotel and the toy store. She’d occasionally nod, such as when he noted how neatly the towels had been refolded. He downplayed the ickier contents of the hotel wastebasket, but asked, “What would he want with that Clens-Oil stuff, unless he’s still doing some sort of showbiz out there?”

Audrey allowed herself a small laugh. “I wouldn’t make much of that. It’s not just for makeup removal. Hollywood people use it for everything short of pancake syrup. I’m more interested in the almond cookies. You said they were from a bakery in San Merino?”

Lloyd told her the name, Duck Kee.

“Now that is weird. Those are Artie’s favorite cookies, and Pool Man Chu would bring him a box every week. They’re not in any stores, as far as I know. How would he get them?”

“Could he have packed some with him from home?”

“No, our weekly box was still there. I finished them.”

Lloyd remembered the only other new name in the hotel register was in Chinese. “Do you have your pool man’s number?”  

“Chu doesn’t have a phone that I know of. He just shows up. And I told you, he’s never even spoken to me. For all I know the conversations he and Artie had were in gibberish. Why?”

“It looked like a Chinese name in the ledger right ahead of Artie’s. I’m wondering if maybe Mr. Chu is still supplying Artie with cookies.”

Audrey thought about that for a moment. He was having trouble reading her. She’d seemed so worried about him when he was in Ailes’ clutches the night before, but now was distant. Maybe she was angry with him for not coming right to her when he got out of that dungeon. Maybe, with Artie on the horizon, she was feeling conflicted. Maybe she was bored with him. Through the glass, he saw Cochise settling on a couch next to a striking young woman, a 16-ounce malt liquor in his grip.

“I can’t imagine that,” Audrey said. “Why would Artie walk out on his entire life, except for his pool cleaner?”

“Maybe Artie’s moved into a swimming pool.”

Audrey’s look told him that wasn’t funny. Inside, the band had switched to a Bo Diddley tune while the spastic singer riffed on the lyrics.          

I got a cobra snake to play hopscotch,
Use a chicken-fried steak for a washcloth,
I got John the Conqueroo,
Soda pops an’ some airplane glue
So doo be doo be doo be with me Arlene,
An’ tell me who do you do?
Who do you do?

“Just the same, I’d like to talk to him,” Lloyd said.

“Chu?”—Lloyd resisted an impulse to say “Gesundheit”—“He shows up every Thursday. We’ll find Artie before then, won’t we?”

She wasn’t as composed as she gave off. Audrey had a habit, he’d noticed, of pulling on her fingers, in order, when she was nervous.

“You look beat, Lloyd.” She said it gently, and he felt she’d only just now seen him.

“Not too beat.”

“Let’s dance then. Please?”

That was the last thing he wanted, until he saw the pleading in her eyes, and then it was just what he wanted, holding her close, moving with her, getting to that place where they could both shut up and love each other.

He led her back through the sliding glass door. Cochise, his new teenybopper friend and others were already dancing. Lloyd smelled marijuana. Several eyes were on him, and he realized it was because he still looked like a cop. So what? Audrey’s hand was in his and he felt the same electricity he had at the Whisky, though it now coursed through sadder wires, frayed by the thought the circuit might be ending.

The band had switched into a slow R&B groove, and soon his and Audrey’s bodies were swaying in a sea of two. He didn’t care how many hippies and Indians stood on the shore watching. It was just him, Audrey and the tides.

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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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