The story I’m going to tell you is the same story I told the cops. I wasn’t there the night of the murder. But I wish I had been. I would’ve killed the fuck. That’s the cold sound truth.
It was Bales who came up with the plan.
We’d stage the Artist’s death, watch his paintings soar in value, then sell at the peak. It was brilliant, actually. The Artist would get famous, go viral, and we’d all get a cut. Except for the Artist, of course. Or so they’d all think.
But it didn’t work out that way. We never executed the plan, but I know now it seeded something nasty inside that troubled mind of Bales’s. And even to this day, I’m still trying to work through it all. Let alone comprehend it. It’s not easy writing about the death of a loved one. But you do the best you can.
So forgive me, I’m still raw.
My real name is Richard Jenkins. But you won’t hear it much in this tale. Most of the time they call me Clean. My father is a retired high school principal, my mother a State Farm agent. I grew up in Van Nuys, California, in a nice ranch house in a leafy suburb, and graduated from San Diego State University with a business degree that time rendered moot. Along with silly dreams, girls I’ve loved before, and old tarnished trophies. I’m fifty-three years old now, and I was once a “successful” real estate agent in the San Fernando Valley.
Now I’m not.
And that’s all you need to know about me. Because for all intents and purposes, I’m invisible.
So what do you do when you find yourself on the wrong side of history for the first time in your life? How do you survive? Well, you make decisions. Moral decisions. And then you live with the consequences. That’s what you do. That’s all you can do. Because for so many years, you had it so good. So good you slept through wars, had sex without condoms, raped the land, and hogged the dream. And then suddenly—bang!—you find yourself at odds with the day at hand. What used to work just doesn’t anymore. So you take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and ask that mediocre reflection, Who the fuck am I? Where do I go from here? And then you realize who you are, where you came from.
We were the late boomers, born between 1956 and 1965: three-channel kids, told what to watch, how to live, and what to think.
We drank the Jim Jones punch. Mastered the fine art of consumption. And now America has left us for dead, our distended bellies rotting on the side of the road, forever jonesing.
We were going to film the Artist’s death on my iPhone. Dark and grainy, like that Pollock documentary. Have him rant into the camera about how his life had become unmanageable and that the best thing to do would be to kill himself. I suggested a handgun. The Artist had intimated a fondness for pills. But it was Bales who brought the plan down to its base. Suicide was too conventional, he said, too clichéd, and what the public needed was a murder. That’s when he pulled the samurai sword off the mantelpiece. He unsheathed it from the red leather scabbard, dropped down on one knee, and studied its polished blade by the soft glow of firelight. The Artist thought he was joking, but I knew he was serious.
The sad thing was, I didn’t do a damn thing about it.
I don’t blame myself for what happened to the Artist on the night of December 21, but it still haunts me. These days, I blame the Great Recession. That horrible time of crippling stagnation that left us feeling suspended and hollowed out. I mean, what can I say? It stole our lives, then broke our hearts.
All you had to do was look around. The signposts of our demise were plain as day. The Artist had become increasingly distant, withdrawn. Some said emotionally unhinged. And then there was Bales, dredging the abyss of cheap alcohol and drugs, an entitled punk looking to save his own ass. He didn’t know it then, but he was mining for table scraps from a bygone era—a fruit fly darting from one scheme to another. And me, nothing more than a bald, fragile shell of my former self, philosophically at odds with the decline of the empire. Give me liberty or give me death!
Those were just words now.
I guarantee you this: you take away a man’s rice bowl and you’ll watch him turn into a savage. Watch him descend into hell.
Maybe I should have seen it coming, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. There wasn’t a damn thing I could have done about it. End-of-the-world forces were working beyond my control—beyond everyone’s control.
So what follows here is only a fragmented recollection of my own personal fog of war, a hazy recounting of unaccommodated men gone mad. It is often harsh, sometimes brutal, but always honest.
My father once said, “Everybody’s got a story in Los Angeles.”
This is mine.
BALES MEETS MR. CLEAN
The night I met Bales, he was screaming at his wife in the courtyard about the sorry state of their financial affairs. The first thing I noticed about him was his sharp, mean nose. I remember the evening clearly because I was watching the third presidential debate with the Artist, the famous “horses and bayonets” beatdown. The night Obama sank Romney’s battleship and cruised into history. It was Monday, October 22, 2012. The debate had just wrapped when the shouting started next door.
“Who the hell is that?” I said.
“It’s my neighbor,” said the Artist. “He’s getting a divorce.”
We leaned in, listening through the thin apartment walls: two voyeurs of misery.
He: You’re dead to me! Don’t ever talk to me again, you fucking whore!
She: Why is it me? Why is it always me? Look at yourself! Drunk and broke. Drunk and broke.
He: Get out! Get the fuck out, you bitch!
There was a loud crash, and something thumped against the wall. I cringed and looked at the Artist. He shrugged his shoulders. We heard a door open and then slam shut, voices spilling outside.
The Artist got up off the couch and peeked through the miniblinds. He motioned me over. I looked through the large picture window and watched an all-too-familiar scene go down in the grassy courtyard. A husband and wife fighting over money. Divorce, American style.
He: You know I’m outta work. I don’t have that kind of cash.
She: No shit. Drinking thirty beers a day tends to drain a bank account.
He: That’s not fair. I’ve given you everything you’ve ever wanted. And you’re still not happy!
“All hands on deck,” I said, peering out through the blinds. “He looks like a Nantucket Prep. Blue button-down. Red club pants. Those ridiculous Top-Siders.”
“Don’t let the plaid boat shoes fool you,” the Artist said. “He was an all-city QB for Cate.”
“Remotely interesting. How old is he?”
“He said he was fifty-one.”
I scratched my chin. “Huh. Looks older with that gray hair. That gaunt jaw.”
“He’s in top shape, though,” said the Artist. “I mean, look at him. Tall, lean, and cut. The cold stare of a Burmese python. I wouldn’t want to mess with the guy. He said he’s competing in the CrossFit Games.”
“At fifty-one?” I said. “Yeah, right. And I’m starting for the Chargers on Sunday. How long have you known him?”
“He moved in four months ago. But we just started hanging out. His name’s Bales. John Bales. He calls me A instead of the Artist.”
“How sweet,” I said. “You’re on nickname terms.”
The shouting match continued in the dimly lit courtyard. Two humans circling each other like cage fighters under a sliced moon.
She: Get your shit together. Be a fucking man!
He: Bye. I’m leaving you now. Bye.
She: That’s it. Run away, little man. Just like you always do.
It was at that moment that a Talking Heads song swam into my brain. “Once in a Lifetime.” A distressed David Byrne wailing about the trappings of modern life. Staring out at the silver-haired man being flogged and stripped of his dignity, his dark raccoon eyes filled with resignation and futility, I sensed that he too was hearing the same song inside his head.
I felt sorry for the guy. Even if he was the loser that she proclaimed him to be, I’d lived long enough to know that it took two to tango. His wife, bless her heart, could have starred in any number of reality shows, her face stretched and pulled into something that might sneak up on you in the dark. A skinny, middle-aged, frozen-faced creature with short, dry hair the color of Nebraska straw. I’d often wondered what these plastic surgery mavens saw in the mirror that I didn’t. Whatever it was, it cost money, and lots of it. And it was clear that she was taking him for all he had.
“Shit,” the Artist said. “He’s coming over. Quick.”
I glanced out into the night and saw the guy racewalking toward the Artist’s apartment, head down, arms swinging like pendulums.
We dropped out of sight and dove for the sofa.
The door banged open and Bales entered like a bull. “My fucking daughter wants an Icelandic pony for Christmas,” he said. “An Icelandic pony.” He threw his arms up. “Un-fucking-believable!”
He ranted for another full minute before he noticed me.
“Who the fuck’s this?”
“This is Richard,” the Artist said. “A buddy of mine from work.”
“Richard,” he said, rolling the R like he was revving an engine. “What are you, a fuckin’ fighter pilot?”
He pointed at my bald head.
“Believe me,” I said, “a naked scalp wouldn’t be my first choice.”
“No, no. You’re rockin’ the shaved look. I get that. But from now on, your nickname is Mr. Clean. Not Laurence Fishburne Clean, but Mr. Clean. You know, the bald guy that cleans things.”
I slumped back on the couch. “Whatever makes you happy,” I said. “You seem to be the fraternity president. The big man on campus.”
He laughed a low, cruel laugh. “I’ll call you Norwood if you like,” he said. “Or how about Male Pattern Baldness? Or just MPB for short. How’s that grab ya? Hey, MBP, what’s happenin’? Need a lift over to your Bosley appointment?”
I knew he was having a go at my expense, but my skin was bunker-thick by now. One of the many perks of living in L.A.
“Mr. Clean is fine,” I said. “And you? What do I call you?”
He raised a hand. “That’s a great question, Clean. And one that I mulled over in this large brain of mine for more than a few nights.” He paced the living room, tapping his temple with a slim forefinger. “I’ve narrowed it down to three options.”
He shot me a cold stare, then punched his words. “Stop Me Before I Fuck Up Again, Fuckface, or just plain ol’ Fucko.”
The Artist laughed, but the dude was serious.
“So which one did you choose?” I said.
Bales rested his forehead against the front door. “You can now address me as Fucko. Just plain ol’ Fucko.”
“Is that Just Fucko?” I said. “Or Plain Ol’ Fucko?”
He advanced with clenched fists. “It’s Fucko,” he said. “Just Fucko. What part of that don’t you understand, bald man?”
The sound of his voice felt like a hot knife at my throat.
“Okay,” I said, backing off. “Life’s about choice. Flavors. It’s your call.”
He took a deep breath, then ran a furious hand through his spiky gray hair. “Until I produce an income again…I’m Fucko. That’s because I’m a loooser who can’t buy his family a fucking Icelandic pony!”
Bales kicked over a zebra-skin chair, jarring a nearby painting. “I got nothing! Fucking nothing!”
“Easy,” the Artist said, rising from the couch. “That’s a work in progress.”
The Artist, clearly rattled, picked the canvas up off the floor and carefully leaned it against the wall.
“Sorry, A,” Bales said, massaging the back of his neck.
The Artist tried to lighten the mood. “Hey,” he said, grinning, “did you watch the debate? Obama made Romney look like a jackass when he started talking shit about the Navy.”
“No,” Bales said softly. “I didn’t see it.”
“You missed it. Obama spanked him. Had Romney backpedaling like a little bitch. Here, watch this. It’s epic.”
I watched Bales roll his eyes and throw his head back in exasperation, as if nothing could be more painful at the moment. The Artist rewound the DVR and played a clip from the debate. Obama was on-screen, chopping the air with his right hand, armed with a quiver of barbs. “We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we are counting ships…”
The Artist laughed and froze the screen. “It was great, man. Verbal judo. One zinger after another.”
“Congratulations,” Bales said. “I hope he wins the election.”
There was a fatalistic air about him, I thought, the stench of baronial rot. Somewhere along the way he’d given up, or someone had beaten the up out of him. You could see that he didn’t give a damn. And it was clear the White House would be of no help.
Bales managed a strained smile. “Look…I gotta go.”
He turned to me with an underlying sense of sadness, head down, eyes locked on the floor. “Sorry for the drama, man. The name’s Bales. John Bales. Nice to meet you, Clean.”
“Yeah, you too,” I said.
We fist-bumped in the glimmering light of the TV, and then he was gone.
And I remember thinking that night he was just like Hurricane Sandy. Blowing in with no rhyme or reason, and no clue about the destruction that lay ahead.
THE ARTIST OF SANTA MONICA
The Artist’s real name was Jimmy Miller. He lived in Santa Monica on Ninth Street, south of Wilshire, in a one-bedroom apartment. It was just like all the other low-rent structures on the Westside. Tired and run-down, several years of deferred maintenance sagging its bones. The two-story, fifteen-unit U-shaped building, typical of Southern California, was a stucco shitbox with a smooth facade of institutional beige. I should know, I lived in one across town. Beach-weathered front doors opened out to a small grassy courtyard that offered just enough space to trick its inhabitants into thinking they were living the high life in vintage luxury. This was common in these parts.
Fooling yourself is an L.A. pastime.
Nothing much happened in the courtyard except for the occasional semi-hostile neighborly exchange—who parked in whose spot, and who was over-the-top loud last night. Sound was of the utmost importance because the walls were so thin. You knew every neighbor by the shows they watched, the music they listened to, the company they kept, and what they said on the phone.
Common courtesy walked a thin line.
The name of this rathole was the Wilshire Arms Apartments. It said so in olive-green script right above the stucco entrance—a gap between two palms. Once a proud testament to boosterism, the featureless building now rotted under the pressure of a bleached-out subtropical sun.
If the wrecking ball didn’t find its way here soon, most of the people would die here. It was what they wanted anyway. Most lived in constant fear that the building would be sold out from under them—torn down to erect playgrounds for the rich—and they would lose their treasured rent-controlled units. Which was a valid concern. The one-bedrooms now fetched close to three thousand dollars a month on the open market. Most of the residents were middle-aged and low-income, with nowhere else to go. And they were all acutely aware that once you lost your apartment, you lost your community. No one likes change, but…it was in the atmosphere. And in these troubled times, if you weren’t moving forward, you were just hanging on.
A new fish restaurant had opened next door, and depending on when you arrived, you could smell the pungent catch of the day assaulting the stale courtyard air. We used to joke about what dish we were going to eat that night. I would start with the clam chowder and crackers, and finish with the albacore tuna melt. The Artist, oysters on the half shell, followed by the swordfish sliders. But it was only a fantasy. Neither of us had much money. It never failed to make us laugh, though. And a laugh was something we desperately needed at the time.
I’d met the Artist fifteen years earlier at a ranch house in Westwood. I’d had the real estate listing and he was a painter with the house-staging crew. We were in the kitchen one day when the hardballing owner came in and shouted, “Who the fuck’s the brilliant artist that painted the foyer shit brown?” There was dead silence for a moment, and then the Artist stood up and stepped forward, legs shaking. The Mexican workers held their breaths.
“I am the artist,” he’d said.
And he’d said it like he was standing up there in front of the great and powerful Oz. Legs quaking, body shivering, and I remember saying to myself, Jesus Christ, the guy needs help.
So I helped him.
“I’ll fix it this afternoon,” I’d said. “My bad.”
“See that you do,” the owner had said. “Goddamn realtors. Earn your fucking pay.”
The Artist never got used to the ugly L.A. attitude or the arrogant my-shit-don’t-stink crowd. He still clung to his refined, well-mannered upbringing like a Southern gentleman clutching a shotgun.
“Thanks, dude,” he’d said.
“Don’t sweat it. The guy’s an asshole.”
We became good friends after that. I’d often call him up and tease him. “Is this the Artist formerly known as Shit Brown?” We’d both laugh. But after a while the joke ran its course, and I took to calling him the Artist all the time. Everyone else did, too. Like most artists, he was passionate but gentle. Born in Natchez, Mississippi, from hearty working-class stock, he possessed a soft, smooth Southern drawl that women wanted to swallow and men wanted to trust. He said his lazy delivery came from many warm summer days of playing on the banks of the Mississippi River.
He dropped out of college and moved to L.A. in ’82, headed west to pursue his dream of becoming a contemporary painter. It was the same year I graduated from State. For a while he’d been a legend in the emerging downtown arts scene, but eventually he tired of the posers and pop painters and moved to Venice Beach (when it was still cool). He was mentored for a spell by Billy Al Bengston, met his heroes Ed Moses and Laddie John Dill, then rented his own studio on Fourth Street in Santa Monica—when such things were still affordable. For a few years he supported his work by painting buildings and house interiors, and later on made big money staging mansions for Hollywood stars. But then, just like everything else during the Great Recession, it all dried up. People no longer needed his services, and nobody was buying his paintings. He’d lost his studio and was now painting in the alley behind his building.
That’s where I found him on the evening after the debate, bent over a canvas like Jackson Pollock, paintbrush in hand.
“What’s up?” he said, glancing sideways at my approach.
He was a midsized man, slender and tan, with a signature blond flattop. He wore a white V-neck T-shirt, paint-splattered Levi’s, and a worn-out pair of black rubber flip-flops. Though he was approaching fifty, he looked ten years younger.
The last beach boy.
“Just checkin’ in, man,” I said. “What’s up with you? You seem far away. Still stinging from the Cardinals loss?”
He shrugged. I could tell that something was wrong.
“You know what?” he said. “I’m broke, man. I’m in deep, deep, deep trouble. And I’m scared to death. I’m short rent—that’s it. I’m homeless.”
“You’ll sell something soon,” I said.
The Artist sighed. “Have you ever just kept waiting for something that never came?”
“Yeah, and so has everyone else in town. It’s slow for everybody.”
He shook his head. “Nobody’s buying anything. They’ll let their insurance lapse, they’ll fuck over the painter, but damn if they won’t spend three hundred dollars on a sushi dinner. It’s insane.”
I stood silent in the gloaming.
“It’s these rich people,” he said. “Waiting for the election. Waiting for the fiscal cliff. Waiting for the world to end. It’s driving me nuts.”
“I know,” I said. “They’re gutting the middle class. Me included.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t want to bore you with my problems. It’s just these last few years, I’ve been living like a dog. I don’t know how much longer I can take it.”
The economic times had broken us down. And some of us had been dancing on the edge for so long, we were approaching a breaking point.
“I understand,” I said.
He pointed across the street to a building on Wilshire Boulevard.
“You see that flower shop?”
“Ten years ago I did a job for the owner and he paid me twenty grand. And at that time it was a bargain. Well, you know what? The owner’s son calls me yesterday and says he wants to repaint the inside.”
“That sounds promising.”
“That’s what I thought. But immediately he leads with ‘we don’t have much money’ and says the budget is fifteen hundred dollars.” He looked at me in disbelief. “Fifteen hundred dollars? That won’t even cover the cost of materials. I had to turn it down. I walked.”
“And then he goes out for sushi?”
The Artist smiled. “Yes! That dick.”
I pointed down at the painting on the ground, dominated by an autumnal-red Ferris wheel, striking in its resistance to modesty. “Is that from the Santa Monica Pier?”
“Yeah,” he said. “The amusement park.”
“Very cool. The red pops. Almost like it’s breathing. And I love the stick people on the roller coaster. Hands up, screaming.”
A homeless old black man pushing a shopping cart wheeled up. He wore a floral shower curtain like a toga.
“Hey, Willie,” the Artist said. “Looking good in embossed fabric.”
“My man,” Willie said. He shook hands streetstyle with the Artist. “If it ain’t the alley master. Van Gogh behind the Dumpster.” He looked down at the painting, contemplating the riot of color before him. “Whoa! That’s some explosive shit. Like somebody dropped a crack pipe. That’s beautiful, man.”
“Thanks,” the Artist said. “Hey, Willie, did you see Obama last night? He was on fire.”
“I sure did,” Willie said. “Watched it at the VA. He’s gonna be in town tomorrow, you know. Gotta defend them accusations from that Trump fellow.”
“Yeah, I heard. Gonna be on The Tonight Show.”
“Uh-huh. I’ll be watching.” Willie adjusted the blue plastic tarp on his shopping cart, securing his belongings, all the belongings he had on earth. He said, “But right now I gotta bounce. Brother got work to do. You take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, you too,” said the Artist.
Willie rolled through the alley, checking the trash cans for golden nuggets. Something we were all doing at the time, scrounging for the almighty, elusive buck.
“Hey, man,” I said. “How’s your neighbor, Bales? I mean that dude was seriously close to imploding last night. I thought his neck muscles were going to snap.”
The Artist managed a laugh. “He kept insisting I call him Fucko, but I refused. He’s a fascinating guy. Really smart. And I guess he used to be rich.” He paused. “I heard him say on the phone he didn’t know how much longer he could keep slumming it here. Saying anything east of Lincoln is the ghetto.”
My eyes panned the Artist’s shabby apartment building, the cockroach cluster at the base of the stairs. “AWOL,” I said. “Always west of Lincoln.”
Lincoln Boulevard, I thought. The main vein between Santa Monica and LAX. “Cash for Gold” to the east, ocean views to the west. Back in the day, the mean street had represented nothing more than a parking lot of metal gumbo, an endless slog through mind-numbing beach traffic. But it was more than just a clogged artery now. To some it was a state of mind, an acronym, their Alamo. The dividing line between the rich and the rest of us.
AWOL. Always west of Lincoln.
“Yeah, that’s the vibe I got,” the Artist said. “You know what he told me once?”
“He said he used to work for one of the big tech companies, making over eight hundred grand a year.”
“No shit,” I said. “That’s serious coin. What happened?”
The Artist shook his head, looking grim.
“He got fired.”
“Huh. Did he say why?”
“He told me not to tell anyone.”
“Sure he did.”
The Artist grabbed a can of paint from the garage. He gave me a look. “You gotta promise me, dude.”
People told the Artist things in the alley they wouldn’t tell family. He was just that guy.
“Like I’m gonna blog it on the blog I don’t fucking have,” I said. “Seriously, who am I going to tell?”
The Artist swiveled his head, inspecting the alley, then whispered, “He said he got fired for sexual assault. Kind of hinted at rape.”
I thought for a moment, stood there with my arms crossed under a blazing sunset. “Wow. Kinda makes sense, though,” I said. “I mean, the way he went off last night. The dude’s aggressive. Clear anger-management issues.”
“He said he didn’t do it. Said he got railroaded by some new hire.”
“Maybe so. But he’s definitely got that bang the secretary look. Was he married at the time?”
The Artist wiped his hands on the front of his jeans. “I don’t know.”
“Did he give you any details?”
“He didn’t volunteer any, and I didn’t ask.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t have. The bigger question is, do you believe him?”
The Artist looked away, weighing the gravity of the question. “Yeah. We had a heart-to-heart. I’ve got no reason not to.”
I took off my shades in the low October sun. “Well, one thing we know for sure. He’s a pretty jumpy guy.”
“You’d be too if you’d lost it all. He said he’ll never get another job like that again.”
“I believe that,” I said. “Times are tough. We all have to reinvent ourselves now.”
I stared off into the California twilight, hands in my pockets. Palm trees clicking in the wind.
“Hey,” the Artist said, “why don’t you meet us for happy hour? He wants to buy me a beer at Barney’s. I think he feels bad about last night.”
“You scared he’ll go off again?”
The Artist shrugged. “Maybe.”
“What the hell,” I said. “I’ll be your bodyguard. Fuck it.”
I met Bales and the Artist at Barney’s Beanery on the Third Street Promenade. They were sitting at the bar watching the Lakers game on the big screen. The Artist had changed into a fresh white T-shirt and a clean pair of 501s, a Cardinals baseball hat cocked atop his head. Bales looked breezy in a yellow Lacoste polo and a slim pair of chinos, like he’d just played eighteen at Wilshire.
“Mr. Clean, so good of you to join us,” Bales said, looking up from his barstool. “Whoa, you’re fucking tall. I didn’t notice last night.”
“Six-four,” I said. “And that’s because I was sitting last night.”
Bales turned to the Artist. “Jesus, A. Look at this guy. He’s a beast.”
“All-state wrestler junior year,” the Artist told Bales proudly.
“Right on,” Bales said, looking back at me. “You play any ball?”
“Just wrestled at Van Nuys High. Until I blew my knee out.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Bales said. “Did you do an intense rehab?”
“What for?” I said. “I healed and moved on.”
Bales smiled. “So what have you moved on to now? I mean, when you’re not out in the alley watching the Artist paint.”
I looked away. “I’m not sure.”
And I wasn’t, not anymore. If I’d known how deep I was in financially at this point, I would’ve done something about it. But even now, I couldn’t tell you what that might have been.
“Ah,” Bales said. “Floating untethered like the rest of us.”
I shrugged. “I was in real estate for over twenty years, before it all tanked.”
Bales nodded and slid out a barstool. “Have a seat, big man.”
I sat down and Bales motioned to the bartender, then looked at me. “What are you drinking?”
Bales ordered and said, “So how long you gone without a deal?”
“Really? I heard it was picking up.”
“It is,” I said. “The Westside’s on fire.”
“So what’s your problem?”
“No clients. Most of them were middle income—wiped out in the recession. They either can’t afford a house now or can’t get a loan.”
“Then who’s buying all the real estate?” asked the Artist.
“All cash buyers,” I said. “Middle East investors, private equity, and the Chinese. And let’s not forget the teenage billionaires.” I grabbed an olive from the bar caddy and popped it into my mouth. “The tech boom rolls on.”
“So how are you eating?” Bales asked.
“Savings, mostly. I was selling stuff on Craigslist and eBay for a while. Buying at thrift stores and eking out a small profit.”
“Sounds like hard work.”
I stared at him, trancelike. “Yeah,” I said finally. “It’s dead. The Goodwill’s jacking prices. Margins have shrunk. So I’m looking for a job.”
Bales poked me in the shoulder. “Welcome to the club, big boy.” He studied me for a moment, head tilted. “Look,” he said. “I’ve got some shit to sell on eBay if you’re interested. It might make us a few bucks.”
“I’d be happy to look at what you’ve got,” I said.
He winked. “I’d be happy to show you.”
I nodded and sipped my beer, watched Kobe jack a three ball.
“The Lakers suck this year,” I said, returning the conversation back to the neutral zone.
“They shoulda got Phil Jackson,” the Artist said.
“Fuck Phil Jackson,” Bales said. “You know who the true Zen master is?”
“Who?” I said.
“The handsome Artist here.”
The Artist looked surprised. “How so?”
“You’re the only one who really knows who they are anymore,” Bales said. “You get up every morning with a sense of purpose and passion. I mean, every day I see you holding court in the alley with garbage soldiers, Saudi princes, and hot chicks with Chihuahuas. And they’re all out there just to watch you turn that canvas into something beautiful. It’s amazing. Not many of us can bring people together like that. It’s a gift.”
“Yeah, but I’m not making any money. They’re not buying anything.”
“You don’t need money,” Bales said. “Just let the universe do its work.” He turned to me. “I mean, Clean, look at that face.” He pointed at the Artist. “He looks like fucking Tab Hunter. The ‘Sigh Guy.’ Am I wrong?”
I examined the Artist. More of a Mickey Mantle type, I thought—blond flattop, tanned face, clear blue eyes. He was the only guy I ever knew who had not been online to find a date. He didn’t need to. He was that good-looking. All he had to do was show up. It was something that most men would never understand.