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 weightless 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.
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. 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.