The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Underground

At the rooming house, Lloyd took a long lukewarm shower. He wasn’t any too sunburned, and his grueling swim had leveled the field between his night wounds and the unbruised rest of his body.

He dressed, grabbed the library copy of The Great TV Funnymen and drove, top down, to the Snack-O-Rama on Sepulveda, where at the counter he got three eggs over-easy and a double-order of sausage and hash browns, extra-browned, and grabbed a booth near the back.

Cracking the book, he found Artie Kane rated a short chapter of his own, headed by a still from Kandy Kane Town, showing the cartoonish slap-board set with a kiddie-park railroad snaking through it, Kane crouched in the engine cab and his various dummy characters riding in open cars behind him. Lloyd counted 13, though he only recognized a few of the goofus faces.

He read that Ed Wynn, who’d known Artie from vaudeville, got him his first break on radio in the early 1930s, guesting on Wynn’s The Fire Chief. In 1937 Artie won his own show on the Mutual network, though Woody got star billing: Woody Kane’s Knotty Predicaments. Under various names, networks, and sponsors, Artie and his dummies were rarely off the radio until 1949, when Artie made the jump to television, having also appeared in several forgotten RKO movies.

He and Woody were a year behind Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy getting on TV, but in the early 1950s they were neck and neck in popularity. One reviewer of the time said Bergen was the Cadillac of ventriloquists, but that Kane was the Redstone rocket, soaring to heights of comedic invention never imagined by Bergen.

Lloyd thought of the pots and pans, and of the zany stuff he’d seen on Artie’s Alcoa Antics as a kid. Kane had worked aluminum foil into nearly every sketch: covering a robot dummy in it, fashioning foil watches, foil handkerchiefs, foil tennis rackets, foil tennis balls and nets. One week he came out sporting a foil pompadour, strumming a foil guitar, accompanied by a hound dog with foil antlers. When Artie smiled, it revealed shiny foil-capped teeth.

Skits like that had made Lloyd wonder why some adults could have fun and why some couldn’t. Dinnertime at the Sippie household never included singing butter trays or chowder-spitting wooden dummies. His dad liked silence. His mom liked Jesus. Dinner was a halfhearted attempt to look like something other than asparagus and walnuts. His glass was always filled with powdered milk, with a splash of buttermilk from a pint bottle from the drive-thru dairy next door; the Sippie clan’s way of insisting they were better than your average broke-ass powdered milk drinkers.

Lloyd looked at his plate now, at the rich yolk he was mopping with his hash browns, and suddenly liked being right where he was. He took a deep breath in his aching lungs, that morning’s air warmed in the restaurant, aromas of kitchen grease cut with coffee, contrails of sugar and cinnamon. Outside the window, a seagull was pecking at a cigarette butt, looking as satisfied as Lloyd felt.

Artie Kane’s audience, he read, strayed in the late ’50s, lured by more urbane programs that no longer looked like warmed-over vaudeville, and by handsome new actors that audiences could imagine having sex with, though the book didn’t put it that way. Kane moved from New York to Hollywood, went on NBC with the one-hour variety Artie Kane Show. It lasted two seasons. The chapter ended on an up note, gushing over Kane’s retrenched success on Saturday mornings with Kandy Kane Town. The book had been published before the show was cancelled.

Lloyd Sippie at 2 pm: tan, exercised, fed, informed, content. Not very awake, though. He got his thermos from the car and had them fill it with coffee at the counter. Feeling a little too virtuous, he bought a cinnamon bun. It sat on the passenger seat on the ride to the rooming house, but as soon as he parked he had it out of the bag.

Walking around the corner, he nearly bumped into a man leaning at an absurd angle against the wall like a plank. It was the Old Greeter, who Lloyd, like most locals, took pains to avoid. Most beach towns seemed to have one, some robust old guy in a red flannel shirt who felt everyone deserved to be yelled at. A local hotel owner, a fellow Swede, gave the Greeter a room, so he wasn’t technically a vagrant. Since he was there to stay, Venice boosters tried putting a good face on it, promoting him as a jolly old soul welcoming everyone to town, when as often as not he was cursing motorists and slapping cars with his bamboo cane or shouting menacing Bible passages at pedestrians.

The Greeter didn’t relax from his yoga plankedness, but he glared like John Brown at Harpers Ferry, directly at Lloyd’s cinnamon bun. Lloyd reflexively handed it to the gnarled outstretched hand.

The Greeter took a huge bite, riming his beard with frosted sugar. Through a stuffed mouth he huffed, “I don’t want your goddamned charity!”

“Then why are you eating it?”

“To teach you a lesson. Assume nothing!”

Lloyd had seen the Greeter’s rap sheet. Given name: Smeg Gunderson. Indeterminate age, no Social Security number, various minor arrests: vagrancy, defrauding an innkeeper, drunk in public, and urinating at a camerawoman on the “Show Us Your Lark Pack” truck.

“What’s your name!” Smeg shouted at Lloyd. Without waiting, he went on, “I’m the Greeter. When the first amphibian crawled from the sea, a greeter greeted him.”

“And how would you know?” Lloyd asked, his good mood having slipped away with his cinnamon bun.

“I was there. That was me. I have always been. And you want to know how I know that?

“No.”

“Because the only moment that has ever existed for all time is the present. And here I am, right in it.” He looked away from Lloyd like he’d suddenly lost interest and recommenced chewing.

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Lloyd arrived at Audrey’s nearly a half-hour late. He’d napped again and his clock radio had slipped between stations, making a soft crackle that hadn’t woken him.

When he knocked on Audrey’s door, a dog on the other side started trying to bark a hole through it. He heard Audrey’s footsteps and the dog went silent.

She opened the door, and a stout, short-legged Guernsey-colored dog rushed out and sniffed his slacks intently before rushing as quickly back to Audrey, pawing her forest green leotard and yelping. She held a treat at shoulder height, admonishing the dog, “No! Beggars can’t be chewers.”

The dog flattened itself on the floor, and looked up expectantly. Lloyd wondered if he had the same look on his face. Did Audrey sleep in a leotard? She had that poured-into-it Emma Peel shape.

“I was just doing my yoga, since you weren’t here yet,” she said, brushing a lock of hair from her face. From another room, Lloyd could hear a recording of Asian flute music and a man intoning, “Assume the downward dog position. Exhale ...”

Audrey looked at Lloyd with concern, “Jesus, Lloyd, your ear.”

“Yeah, some drunk barfed on it last night.” He’d wondered what to tell her about being in Pershing Square the night before, and decided none of it.

She nearly doubled over laughing, repeating “Barf!” like it was the funniest word ever. When she’d gathered her wits, she said, “You’ve evidently got a rich social life I know nothing about.”

“It’s top hat and tails all the way,” he said, smiling, imagining the previous night’s Indian in a top hat.

“Why don’t you poke around in Artie’s workshop while I finish up? Take your time. You’ll find me in the living room when you’re done.”

Aside from the tiled entranceway, from what he could see the Kane house had been redone in a clean, modern style, with the wall-wide plate glass windows he’d seen from the outside looking out on a serene garden. She led him to a narrow stairwell leading to the basement. A wooden sign hung above its doorway, looking like something torn from a movie’s pirate ship. In gilt-edged yellow letters, it said La Pergola.

Audrey had already turned on the light switch at the bottom of the stairs for him. Even so, the large basement was dimly lit, stretching back into the gloom in ordered rows of shelves, boxes, and filing cabinets.

Once his eyes had adjusted, Lloyd began a methodic walk of the aisles, to get a feel for what was there and for what might matter. The stairs had descended along one wall of the basement. Continuing straight from there was the widest aisle, with a large workbench halfway down along the wall. A light hung above it, and a high-intensity desk lamp sat on the bench top, alongside a large magnifying glass on a gooseneck.

Lloyd turned both lights on, illuminating a round, lidded dummy’s eye staring blankly up at Lloyd from the bench. Tweezers lay next to it, along with strands of horsehair, from which eyelashes had obviously been cut and glued one-by-one to the eyelid. Lloyd admired the handiwork, though it didn’t seem much of a way for a man to spend his time.

He looked above the hanging lamp to see two lifelike heads gazing down on him. One was clearly meant to be Marilyn Monroe, a remarkable likeness in flesh-colored latex. The other looked like a bald, bullet-headed wrestler Lloyd used to see on TV, but with hideous, charred scars across his temples, blood pouring from both ears and a lobotomized look on his face. The eyes in both heads were recessed, so that when Lloyd moved, they appeared to follow him. He’d seen far more grisly things, with real blood, but just the same the sight had the hairs on the nape of his neck quivering like an English pointer’s tail.

He expected anything of interest would likely be at or near the workbench, but he continued down the aisle, the rest of which was lined with large wooden cubes each containing a black wooden box with a name stenciled on the end: Artie’s dummies. He lifted the first box to make sure there was something inside.

The next aisle was mainly filing cabinets, with the drawers all marked with headings like “Scripts, 1951-1952” and “Unused Ideas.” The next was shelves, with sections labeled “Awards,” “Costumes,” “Props” and so on, with the appropriate statuettes, dummy-sized space suits, and rubber sandwiches on them. The last aisle had more shelves on one side, while against the wall things lay in unmannered piles. Even those looked as if they’d been playfully balanced, and, like the rest of the basement, there wasn’t a speck of dust on anything.

He wondered what yoga pose Audrey might be in upstairs; wondered if she was thinking of him below.

Lloyd returned to the workbench, and under the gaze of the unseemly couple, began going through drawers, cubbyholes, and cabinets: Actor’s makeup, putty noses, bottles of a yellowish fluid called Clens-Oil; a shallow drawer with designs and patterns for costumes; another filled with woodworking tools; a deep bottom drawer with painted wooden objects Lloyd didn’t recognize until he pulled some out. They were carved wooden organs: hearts, livers, intestines; other ones he didn’t recognize.

Lloyd put them back and wiped his hands on his pants, though the organs were as clean as everything else. He moved to the cubes. The coffin-black box nearest the bench was labeled Zsa Zsa. He opened it to find a buxom female dummy in a green sequined outfit. It was probably lovely, but it just gave him the creeps. Dummies, marionettes, midgets, dwarves, even little ears of baby corn all made him uneasy, suggesting to him that whatever it was that caused people to be people, and everything else to find its shape, might suddenly unspool, leaving a stunted chaos in its wake.

He put the dummy back, and just looked at the names on the next few boxes. There was Schmingo, Artie’s truncated Beatle. He went down the line until he came to Woody. That one he had to look at.

Unlike Zsa Zsa, the interior of Woody’s box was lined with red velvet, making it seem that much more a coffin. And there Woody was, in recently repainted color, unlike the black and white image Lloyd had grown up with. He had the same wise-guy, half-leering countenance, but the shine and color in his cheeks made him look like the wax fruit in a mortuary.

Lloyd lifted Woody from the box, sat at the stool by the workbench, and put Woody on his knee, as he’d seen Artie do on TV so many times. His left hand felt its way under the back of the dummy’s dinner jacket, finding a fabric channel there for his forearm. He felt through the fabric, also velvet, and as he’d guessed, wooden organs were knocking around in there. The tingling at the back of his neck returned full-tilt, and his hand felt hyper-aware, like he was reaching into something intimate.

His fingers connected with three wooden rings, each tied to its own fabric strap. He slipped his middle finger into the middle ring and pulled. Woody’s mouth jerked into motion and the jaws snapped shut with a sound like a castanet. He repeated the motion, slower, until he had a feel for it. He put his two adjacent fingers into the other rings, and soon had Woody’s eyes blinking and rolling.

He regarded the wooden head a foot from his own. “Well, Woody, where would you say Artie is right now?”

“Fuck if I know, mister. I’m not a Ouija board.”

“If I wasn’t brain dead right now, what would I be noticing?”

“If I had any brain at all, I wouldn’t be looking at what’s here. I’d be looking for what isn’t.”

Last night’s escapade in Pershing Square felt like it was years in the past, and that’s where Lloyd wanted it. But now he was thinking of something, of someone he’d talked to. It wasn’t the cops, certainly wasn’t the Indian. The shoeshine man: He’d said he’d seen someone fitting Artie’s description, and that he’d carried a black wooden box, like a saxophone case, or like one of these boxes Lloyd had been staring at for the last half hour.

He put Woody back in his box and closed its two latches. If Artie had taken a dummy, wouldn’t it have been Woody? He looked down the three-tiered line of other boxes. Some had names on them he remembered from the show—Chippy, Sapnoggin, Delores—some he’d forgotten. At the very end, at the bottom, there was a cube with no box in it.

He counted the dummies that were there, tallying 14. There had been 13 dummies on the Kandy Kane Town train. Zsa Zsa hadn’t been one of them, neither had Schmingo—they were too new—so one of the dummies that had been on the train was not here. Meaning that had probably been Artie Kane down near the Square, and that wherever Artie was now, he wasn’t alone.

 

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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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