The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Walk, Don’t Run / Apache ’66

A row of phone booths sat in front of the coroner’s office, but more reporters than before were clustered there. Some were sure to recognize Lloyd, and he’d had his lifetime fill of reporters. He walked until he found a phone a long block away, fished out a dime and dialed Audrey’s number. Someone had etched “book you” into the booth’s glass alongside a crude image of a penis tied in a knot.

Audrey didn’t answer until the fifth ring, blurting a terse “Yes?” through the Bakelite earpiece. Did she always answer the phone like this, or was she in the middle of something? It struck Lloyd that this is what she sounded like when she was talking to someone else; that she had a full life full of friends, parents, yoga instructors, maybe lovers, thousands of days and nights of struggles and exultations, all of which had the common trait of having nothing to do with Lloyd Sippie. He didn’t know her world, didn’t want to. He just wanted her, and was jealous of her life without him.

He was also suddenly without something to say, sideswiped by the realization of what a slow detective he was, at least where Audrey was concerned. He’d had nothing more to tell her than that there was a man on a slab who maybe wasn’t Artie, because he didn’t have the growths on his joints that Artie might or might not have from his childhood ailment. As if, he just realized, she wouldn’t be the one to know better than anyone whether Artie had knobby protuberances on his knees.

“Hello, is someone there?”

“Sorry. Audrey, it’s Lloyd.” Now his name even sounded stupid to him in his own voice. “I’m at the coroners’ office.”

“Oh, Jesus. What’s happened?” He could almost hear her slumping into a heap.

“Most probably nothing to concern us. But can you tell me, does Artie have bony spurs on any of his joints?”

“Yes, all over, from the disease I told you about. Oh, Lloyd! The body on the news, it’s Artie, isn’t it? It has those growths?” She let out three short sobs.

“Listen to me. It’s the exact opposite. This body has nothing of the kind. From what you’ve just told me, it is most definitely not Artie.”

She was silent for half a minute, then, “If the dead man doesn’t have them, how did you even think to ask about them?”

“That’s why you hired me instead of Earl Scheib. I’m supposed to think of things,” he said, not mentioning that he’d just barely done so.

“Well, you’re some kind of genius.”

“That’s right. Thanks to my deductive powers, I’ve just been able to cross one of the two million people in this town who isn’t Artie off the list.” He was trying to keep things light, as far as possible from the flayed human meat back in the morgue. “I’m going to see if I can talk with the shoeshine guy who may have seen Artie the other night and get a lead on where he was headed. If he is on the street somewhere, he’s going to be a lot easier to find lugging a dummy around.”

“I hope so. This is killing me. Listen, I know this sounds irresponsible, but I have to leave on a retreat for a couple of days. If you hear anything call my number and let it ring. It’ll go to my answering service, and I’ll be checking in with them.”

“OK. Try not to worry. I’m sure Artie’s fine, and we’ll find him.”

“Thank you, Lloyd. Unless you hear something, I’ll call you when I get home Monday. Bye.”

Bye? Lloyd stood in the booth, staring at the pretzelized penis etched in the glass, wondering if he should make it the Sippie coat of arms. She hadn’t said one word that hinted a syllable of the awkward, perfect intimacy they’d shared the night before. Which was more yearning than anything, with both Lloyd’s heads in agreement about the strength of it, but it was a yearning that was better than any fulfillment he’d ever known. She’s going to a retreat? With, what, Gypsy Boots and spinach juice in Big Sur? Playing tetherball at Elysium Fields?

Leaving Lloyd downtown, stepping out onto the sidewalk on a day that was already way too hot for 9 am. A dry Santa Ana was wafting in. He smelled hot bread from a bakery that must have been nearby. He thought of walking to Skid Row, then thought the better of it. Back at the coroners’, he stopped in on Roy Narawamu, to tell him who his victim wasn’t. Then Roy told him something.

“Find your guy quick, because you do not want him on the street. This guy”—he motioned to the gurney while lowering his voice—“is not the first guy to come in like this. There have been two others, the most recent we found two weeks ago. Both were older, probably harmless guys. Both were treated something horrible. Both had their eyes out, and the second one had red dice pushed in the sockets like this guy.

“So this isn’t looking like an isolated craps game accident?” Lloyd deadpanned.

“Do not tell anyone what I told you or I’ll have your eyes. We’ve already got the press and gore hounds mucking things up enough for us. You let the word out someone’s murdering old people, and families will be dumping their in-laws down here.”

“Discretion is my middle name.”

“And ‘No’ is your first. I seem to recall you losing a badge recently.”

Lloyd liked Roy, maybe because neither of them gave a fuck but they both still tried to.

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 He parked four blocks east of Pershing Square, in the Pacific Electric parking lot, which always had space these days. That put him equidistant to the square and to the real scuzzball part of town. He wanted to familiarize himself with the streets Artie might have walked, so if the shoeshine man, Abraham, mentioned any landmarks he could nod his head knowingly instead of like a dog being talked to.

He walked up Los Angeles Street and took a quick turn through both the PE terminal and the Greyhound one, to see who might be sleeping on a bench. He’d have to return with recent photos of Artie and canvas the clerks, and be wearing something closer to a suit than the T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops he had on. He realized he didn’t even have his wallet, just a couple of bucks change in his pocket.

He continued north, turning left at United Cigar, then left again off 4th to head back down Main, past nondescript luggage shops and drugstores, a couple of gaudy theater marquees. At 6th he crossed the street and walked through the Santa Fe and American bus terminals, and down to 7th where there was another United Cigar, in case you needed a cigar every two blocks. Lloyd knew there was yet another down the block, which was nothing compared to the profusion of drug stores. A foreigner here would have to think Americans rattled with pills when they walked.

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He walked down Spring, up Broadway and down Hill, watching the sidewalks on both sides of the streets. He didn’t see any beat cops around. They must have been canvassing where the body was found, in an alley further up Spring near the Times. There were a few bums on the street, but none anywhere close to being Artie. He thought of describing Artie to some and asking if they’d seen him, but the first sour-smelling guy he approached scurried away from him like a crab.

At the General News stand at Hill and 6th, another man was working the shoeshine booth and said Abraham wouldn’t be in until six that night. Lloyd decided to head home for some fresh clothes and cooler air. Walking past the Quality Cafeteria, he was nearly drawn in by the scent of chicken gravy, which somehow set him to thinking about Audrey again. He’d pictured the two of them snuggling on her plush beige carpet, but the phone call had pulled that rug from under him.

But along with feeling cut adrift, Lloyd also felt a little relieved to have a couple of days to gather his wits and play detective, without all the electric static in his brain that being near her caused.

He took 6th back toward the parking lot. In the building to his right, a row of bars and restaurants sat recessed half a story below the sidewalk level, with a striped awning above the narrow sunken patio. Some figures lounged against the patio’s railing in the shade near the stairwell at the far end, beers in hand. One of them was lounging significantly larger than the others, and Lloyd was almost even with them before he realized it was Cochise.

One of his Mexican friends was saying something to him, looking Lloyd’s way, and now Cochise was, too, and the man immediately stepped up to the sidewalk and into Lloyd’s path. He held his right hand out, the same hand that had nearly rasped Lloyd’s ear off the last time he’d seen it.

“I understand we met the other night,” Cochise said in a bemused baritone, and continued to hold out his hand. He looked to have been drinking, but was not drunk. Lloyd couldn’t outrun him in his flip-flops and was in no mood to see if he could outfight him, so he took the giant’s hand, three-quarters expecting a bone-crushing grip followed by other entertainments for Cochise’s friends.

Instead Cochise shook Lloyd’s hand warmly and said, “I can’t say I remember you, but I understand I was not a gentleman when we met.”

“Well, you didn’t exactly weave me a basket.”

The big man laughed, and he reflexively squeezed Lloyd’s hand tighter. There was no malice or affectation in his laughter, only mirth. Lloyd was happier about cracking this guy up than he had been about Lenny Bruce, because Lenny Bruce wasn’t a beer-breathing grizzly bear with a grip on him. He’d read about Apaches who routinely ran 20 miles a day barefoot over mountain trails, and Cochise could probably do it standing on his hands. He decided the guy must hoist girders for a living.

“The white race may be a plague upon my people, but some of you are so damn funny you can’t be entirely bad. May I have your forgiveness?”

 Two nights ago, the speaker had been the most brutish bar fighter he’d come across, and now he’s practically handing him a heart-shaped See’s sampler? He’d seen booze be the hyphen in several Jekyll-Hyde personalities, but how much drink did it take to swing so far?

As if reading Lloyd’s thought, the Indian said, “Tonto drink heap firewater, tomahawk the fuck out of Lone Ranger. Now Tonto sorry. OK?”

It was OK, to his own surprise. So few people had ever asked for Lloyd’s forgiveness, or had given it to him, that forgiving a repentant, pleasantly drunk thug on a downtown sidewalk seemed like probably the best thing he was going to do that day.

“Sure. No hard feelings. Vaya con Dios.”

“You hear that?” Cochise said to his friends, still down on the bar patio. “Hey, which of you Mexicans told me you’d kicked and punched this guy?” All five raised their hands. “Well, you’d better apologize, too,” he told them. They each tipped their hats about as little as they could to Lloyd and mumbled something.

To Lloyd, Cochise said, “Let’s ditch these guys and get some Mexican food. It’ll sweat some of the heat out.”

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A quarter-hour later, two blocks away, Lloyd sat at a counter with Cochise, in a narrow, dark cantina that looked as if it had been built in the adobe days, and the modern buildings had been squeezed in around it. There had been a fire in the place in some distant past, and the ceiling beams looked to have turned to charcoal.

The waiter brought Lloyd a bowl of chili, and Cochise a hellish-looking soup he called posole, with two very cold beers. Cochise started talking and Lloyd learned he wasn’t named Cochise but Glen King; that a construction foreman had nicknamed him after the Chiricahua chief because of his size; that he was full-blood Apache, but from the Mescalero tribe, where his maternal great-grandfather had been a clan chief named Nautzili; and that he was no judge of food.

Cochise was mopping up the last of his oily red soup with a slice of Wonder Bread, when he asked Lloyd, “How’s your chili taste?”

“Like it should be served in a diaper. How’d you wind up in Los Angeles?”

“I wanted to be a movie star. I did get hired as a warrior on a Rin Tin Tin episode. But I got pissed off that the chief was played by a white guy wearing Man-Tan, and beat up four of the cavalry guys for real in a fight scene. Been working construction ever since.

“I try to be a nice guy, but I have to tell you, I am most times angry as fuck at white people, at what they’ve done to my people and at the shit world they’ve built on the land you took from us. And it burns me up that you think we’re the savages. You ever hear what happened to the real Cochise’s relatives? Your Army would lure them in under a flag of truce, then murder them. When I drink your alcohol, sometimes it tastes like liquid hate to me. Like that other night when you came in the Heigh-Ho. You were just white at the wrong time. You sure there are no hard feelings?”

“As long as you give me plenty of advance notice the next time you’re getting in that mood. Let me tell you a bit about myself, because maybe you can help me with something.”

Cochise ordered another round of beers.

 

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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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