The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet

Cochise wasn’t a bad driver, just one indifferent to the laws of man. If traffic lanes and signs were like notated classical music, Cochise was like Charlie Parker; probably aware of the rules, but not letting them confine his muse. Pioneering eastward on the Santa Monica, there were three near-collisions before Lloyd began to relax and appreciate the Indian’s driving, which seemed primed for navigating the minute gap between near-collision and collision. Lloyd had never been to Europe, but from newsreels he’d seen, Roman motorists had nothing on the Apaches.

He didn’t want to distract Cochise, but to take his own mind off the caroming world outside the VW, he asked, “Did you find a good home for Bonzo?”

“Good for him; good for the guy who took him; good for me, except I miss him. You’re good company, but Bonzo and I are more like spirit brothers. But he belongs in this civilized hell of yours even less than I do.

“I gave him to a guy named Jack. He’s built his own little jungle down in Anaheim, with a zoo and coffee shop. He’s a good guy as palefaces go. He first found me in one of his cages once trying to wrestle a giraffe.”

“Who won?”

“I don’t remember any of it. But Jack calmed me down, sat me on a bench, brought me a thermos of coffee and let me sober up. Later he brought me hash browns and eggs. I was more or less conscious by then and he told me what I’d done. He said on account of me being a savage he’d let it go that time, and I was even welcome back if I could keep from strangling his animals.

“He sat there quiet for a while. Then he told me about his old chimp, and it was the saddest goddamn story I ever heard. I’m not even telling you. Jack said you should never take an ape out of the wild, that no matter how good you are to him and the good times you have, it only comes to grief.

“I asked him, ‘So? How is that different from everything else in this goddamn life?’ And he said, ‘That’s stupid talk. There’s new beauty in every waking day if you keep your eyes open. Tragedy happens to you regardless; you have to make the good things happen.’ He couldn’t get over his chimp because he’d been convinced he was making a good thing happen raising him, then it turned to misery.

“He’s keeping Bonzo in his jungle a short while, then he’s driving him down to a real jungle in Southern Mexico, where other chimps have been freed. Even if he can’t get the hang of it there, he’ll die happier than he was any day chained up at a car lot. I may not be done talking to Chick Singer about that yet.”

Cochise glared at the unaspiring skyline ahead as if it was all an extension of Singer’s automotive empire. It crept closer for a few quiet moments, then he said, “I’m going to tell you a knock knock joke. Say ‘knock knock.’”

Lloyd was game. “Knock knock.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“That’s the joke?”

“You asked me earlier about Bunk Ailes. The first time he arrested me, they handcuffed me to a chair in that basement of his and he said, ‘Knock knock.’ I said, ‘Who’s there?’ He said, ‘Your head,’ and rapped me twice with his nightstick. He kept repeating that, harder each time, that until I was in a rage. Second time he arrested me, same thing. Third time he said, ‘You must like knock knock jokes too much,’ and beat me with a hose. Then I guess he got bored with me. I only had a couple of small scrapes with him since. So I’m just telling you, if he ever says ‘knock knock’ to you, you may as well get right to the point.”

Lloyd felt abashed that he’d been upset over how Ailes and his goons had manhandled him, which didn’t amount to much compared to Cochise’s treatment. He doubted he could ever be that blasé about being beaten. They were nearly back on Ailes’ turf now—no avoiding it if Lloyd intended to look where the lost people go.

They still had most of the day before them. Cochise parked the somewhat stolen VW bus in the PE lot and they got out. It was sticky-hot and smoggier than usual.

Lloyd handed Cochise a stack of business cards and Artie photos and asked him to work north, while he canvassed south, meeting back for French dip sandwiches at Cole’s Buffet at 4:30. The big man seemed to be on his best behavior, but Lloyd coached him anyway. “Stay off the firewater. I’ll buy you a pitcher later. Try not to tear any establishments apart. We want to be on good terms so people will contact us if they sight Artie.”

Cochise bristled a bit. “Can I at least scalp some white babies? They’re of no use to us.”

“Find Artie first and you can scalp a bassinette full for all I care.”

They parted. At the driveway where the electric cars used to exit, Lloyd was surprised to find a “Danger” sign still inlaid in the sidewalk. As he’d done when he was a kid, he made a point of stepping right on it. Take that, Danger.

He hadn’t walked a block south on Los Angeles St. before he started wishing he’d already tucked away a French dip. He could smell them in the nearly still air, and they filled his stomach with longing.

Office buildings, a small printing press shop, a perfume store, notions and sundries in little shops run by persons of indeterminate nationality, a new office building going up on the right, girdled in scaffolding. None of it seemed like anything that would hold an attraction for Artie.

The block ahead promised more of the same, so he headed left on 8th. At a hole in the wall coffee shop next to an industrial sewing machine shop, an unshaven counterman looked at Artie’s photo with no recognition. Lloyd walked another block to Maple, where he got the same response at another coffee shop at the corner of a parking lot.

He continued down to San Pedro, where he headed right. He knew he should be walking a grid, but the town was too vast, and the shot at coming across any sign of Artie too random, to bother with logic. He’d recheck the neighborhood where Artie’s dummy case had turned up later; for now he was going by Braille.

He showed Artie’s picture at two more liquor stores, an Armenian grocery, a diner, two barber shops, and a dentist, figuring even enigmas must get a toothache sometime.

One of the barbershops was on the ground floor of the Union Hotel, a fleabag brownstone at the corner of San Pedro and 9th. A pair of overworked air conditioners rattled in the windows of two upstairs rooms. Those must have been the deluxe accommodations, with everyone else stuck breathing hot car exhaust.

He checked in the lobby, a place of gold foil and red velveteen wallpaper, where the old biddy behind the counter did a double take when she saw the photo.

“I knew he was somebody! That’s Artie Kane?” She pointed with a tobacco-stained index finger at the name printed at the bottom of the publicity shot. “Sometimes I know somebody, but I can’t remember if it’s from seeing them working in a store or from TV. He’s older now.”

“You’ve seen him?” Lloyd was pole-axed to finally have a real live Artie sighting.

“Standing right where you are. He rented a room last night.”

“Is he still here? It’s very important I find him. There’d be a reward for you.”

“Checkout time was 11. Most people just leave the key in the room and don’t bother with the front desk.”

“Can we check? If he’s already gone, I’ll pay you $5 just to open the room for me.

“I don’t know that I can do that.”

“Why not? For another $2 I could rent it for the whole night.”

“You’ve got a point. Give me a minute.”

She addled behind a curtain, where he got a glimpse of cluttered living quarters, with a caged hamster stacked atop a fish tank. While she was gone, he checked the ledger. There were only two entries for the night before. One signature appeared to be in Chinese. The other, as best he could make out the writing, said “Joe Nobody.”

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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

Comments

Finally! A solid clue! Take that, Danger.

2012-02-25 by Leslie

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