The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Working in a Coal Mine

At the Snack-O-Rama, between handfuls of two cinnamon buns and half of Lloyd’s, Cochise did tell him secrets of the lost Tayopa mine, fabulous stories and all conflicting, with even the general location of the mine spanning several Mexican states. A couple of the stories sounded straight out of J. Frank Dobie’s Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, but the most consistent and vivid were the ones the Apaches told amongst themselves. Some, Cochise said, were word-for-word accounts, minus the screaming, that his Mescalaro forebears had been told by captive Yaquis under duress.

Retellings from the1650s to modern times had honed the stories into an epic, relating with great detail and jubilation how the Indians had turned on their Jesuit masters, repaying decades of cruelty and toil in two days of mayhem and slaughter in which none of the Jesuits or their soldiers were left alive, except those sealed crippled in the mines with their precious silver.

The Indians had little use for the metal, and piled most of it in the mines, then covered over the entrances. They destroyed the smelter, and burned or tore down the church and the rest of the village, leaving no trace so the Spanish could never find the mine and again send the Yaquis underground where no man was ever meant to go.

The carnage concluded with the Yaqui altar boys pulverizing the rector with bars of silver bullion, working so slowly and carefully from his feet up that his skeleton was crushed into grit, yet he still lived, and tried to thrash about, only causing the remaining tendrils of his muscles to twitch like worms in the gore.

Christ, Lloyd thought. Doesn’t anyone like white people?

“That is pretty, dare I say, savage,” he told Cochise.

“You think so? You should hear what the Spanish and their priests did to the Indians. Don’t get me started, because it’s too nice a day. You haven’t seen me one quarter as angry as I can get. I got into a fight with a bronze statue of Junipero Serra once, and I won.”

They talked for a while about other lost mines; Lloyd had read a lot about them as a kid, wishing the flat fields of La Puente had at least a possibility of caves.

Then he asked if Cochise had any other ideas of where a guy like Artie might hole up.

“It might be easier to find one of these mines,” was his answer. “This is a big town. If I wanted to stay lost in it, even I couldn’t find me. What’s this guy’s motive? If he’s slumming to see how the huddled masses live for some arty reason, a night or two of sleeping in alleys will make him feel enough like an expert to know he’d rather rent a room somewhere. Does he have money? But if he ain’t sensible; if God told him to renounce his worldly goods and wear a hair shirt, he could be anywhere.”

“That’s my problem. I don’t know his motive. I don’t know much of anything. His wife thinks he’s seriously chucked it in for some moral or spiritual reason, though she’s not so sure of that she doesn’t also think he might have been kidnapped.

“He’s old. He might be crackers. I never met the guy, but I gather he’s sharp enough to improvise comedy bits on the spot, and outgoing enough to strike up conversations with every chef and doorman in town, but he’d also hole up for weeks in his basement with his dummies.”

“I like the kidnap angle, because it’s interesting. Just looking around for a lost old man is woman’s work. I knew a guy who once kidnapped a sheep because it was worth more than any of us on the reservation.”

“If Artie was kidnapped, there’s a guy who I have reason to think might be involved. Are you any good at tailing people?”

“My people invented stealth. As a boy, I once snuck up on a deer so softly that I suckled alongside her kid without her noticing.”

“That’s just the job I had in mind, except it’s a car dealer instead of a deer. Can you borrow a car?”

“Sure, depending how loosely you define ‘borrow.’ Who is this guy, and what do you want to know about him?”

“It’s Chick Singer. You’ve probably seen him on TV with his chimpanzee. I’d like to know where he goes; who he meets with; if he’s got a secret garage or Batcave. Keep a distance from the guy. I don’t want him to suspect anyone’s watching him.”

“I will be like the dawn sneaking from the east.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. Can you be more like a new moon waning in the west? You won’t have a lot of foliage to hide behind downtown. Singer’s got three dealerships, but I’m guessing he’s usually at his flagship one there.”

“I know it well. I sometimes find an unlocked car to sleep in on the used car lot.”

Cochise ate the last of Lloyd’s bun while he finished his coffee. Lloyd fished out two twenties to pay him for the past days’ work.

When they headed out, some of the Snack-O-Rama patrons—not the best groomed bunch themselves—looked askance at Cochise in his stained jeans and weathered poncho, and he could sense the man starting to boil at that. Please don’t head-butt the busboy, he thought. Please don’t uproot the cash register. Please, without tearing out its hinges, just continue on out the door like a good Indian.

Cochise did, freeing Lloyd to move on to his greater worry: Audrey and whatever it was she had to drive to Venice to tell him. Can a married woman break up with you? If that’s what she had in mind, he wanted to be at his most unbreakupable: shaved, showered, relaxed; both his office and, God forbid she should want to see it, his cubicle of selfdom at the rooming house looking their best. Which meant shaking Cochise pretty soon.

“Ya-hay!” Cochise suddenly shouted at a man down the street, backlit by the sun.

“Ya-hay right back at you,” the figure shouted. It dawned on Lloyd that it was Smeg Gunderson, the Old Greeter.

“You guys know each other?” he asked Cochise, incredulous. It was like Albie Pearson knowing U Thant or something, but much more fucked up.

“We go way back. We share ancient wisdom, he and I. He’s also a hell of a drinker.”

Cochise had quickened his step, as had the Greeter, and a meeting of the minds was looming.

“I think I’ll leave you two to it. Try to save a few quarters for gasoline.”

“Hey, wait, c’mon. I’ll introduce you.”

“We’ve met, thanks, and considering how the both of you decimate my cinnamon buns, I’d worry being around you empty-handed.

“Don’t tell him about the case we’re working,” he added. “I’m trying to maintain an aura of mystery around here.” No need to tell him how much the old guy creeped him out.

They parted, and Lloyd turned left to take a parallel block, to avoid the Greeter. He wondered if that bothered the crotchety bum. When he was a uniformed cop, he was always aware of people going out of their way to not be where he was, and it always saddened him.

The side of the block he walked down was in shade, but it also seemed like a big bronze light had gone out when he’d rounded the corner. Am I so dull that everyone else around me lately seems to spark and shine? he wondered.

 

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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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