Hand, cigarette, & empty beer glass

Bankrupt: An Excerpt From Driven: A Kunstlerroman

by | June 15, 2021

She’d wanted so much, too much, more than she could afford, and more than she would ever be able to repay. CJ had hoped her talents would take her far, as far away from her vagrant childhood as possible. Now, here she was in Los Angeles, driving east for a meet up at the House of Pies with her ex-boyfriend, Whit. Bankrupt. She owned the car she drove, her books, clothing, and the few paintings she’d managed to save from the dumpster. That was it. She lived in a single car garage converted into an efficiency apartment. She’d filed for bankruptcy and had just signed the Statement of Correctness declaring she’d read in full the papers prepared by her lawyer to file in Bankruptcy Court. She signed those papers, including petitions to the court, schedules of assets and liabilities and a statement of affairs. Listed all her assets and properties of any nature. Bankrupt, almost forty, newly single again, and driving her only asset: a Hyundai Excel.

She changed lanes. Settled into the middle lane of the ten-freeway east, the lane easiest on her bad tires and wrecked suspension. Thirty-eight years old, and twenty years transitioned out of foster care. Uncle: she’d given up. But she’d done so with style, Italian wedges and an expensive haircut charged to the only credit card she had left.

“You have earning potential,” the guy at the debt reduction center told her as he ceremoniously cut up all her credit cards save one: good ole American Express. He slid that piece of green plastic across the desk and said: “As of now the rest of them are no longer usable. Like I said, I’ll negotiate a minimum payment with the lenders. Most likely it will take a period of three to five years to pay off the reduced principal. Then you’ll be sound. Got it?”

Easy Credit Santa
Downtown Los Angeles, 1999. photo by Geoff Cordner

Got it. Time to learn how to make good decisions. A social life made of nothing but work and anonymous meetings where the only thing she couldn’t reveal was who she was in the world.

At CalArts she’d had a work-study job in the library. Student loans helped with living expenses. Whit had paid the rent on their apartment. He’d been the one with the full-time job. She believed she owed him, that she had to pay him back. When she graduated with her master’s in fine arts, instead of pursuing her career, she’d turned her considerable and practiced attentions toward him, thinking she could pay him back by helping him, loving him the only way she knew how.

She tried to get his drinking in line.

Once again, she’d focused on his potential.

Not her own.

After graduation, she needed a job. She got one in the court-reporting agency, where Whit worked as an accountant. For five years she’d trusted him to file her tax returns. Signed them on the line at the bottom of the form, confident he would write a check from their joint account and mail what was owed to the appropriate government agencies.

“The one thing I won’t forgive is a liar,” she always told him, questioning his trustworthiness while trusting him with all she made.


Cloverfield Boulevard.

Centinela Avenue.

Bundy Drive.

She sped by red-tiled roofs atop white stucco, electrical lines, and bright graffiti. The sound of wheels and wind through the window felt like home.

Just before the La Cienega exit, the vehicle to the left of her piss-green Hyundai pulled up alongside. Slowed down to keep pace and cruised.

A black Ford SUV with a man behind the wheel. She hit the gas and moved forward. The SUV also moved forward. She decelerated. He slowed. They drove in tandem for a good half-mile until he changed into her lane, driving steadily just behind her.

La Brea Avenue.

She’d waived any conflict of interest in having the lawyer who represented her also represent her live-in boyfriend. She understood that Whit would name her as a potential creditor, which would prevent any future claims against him. She’d agreed to pay “our” attorney nine hundred dollars, in three painful installments, all due before their upcoming court date. Her ex said he’d help her with those payments, which was the least he could do. She’d lost her job and was living on unemployment checks.

After he got out of rehab, the court-reporting firm where they both worked had fired her. Their bosses were angry that he was unreachable while in rehab. They had taken that anger out on her. She made $24, 899.00 at that job. Now, she made nothing. Had nothing.

Nothing but her own will to move forward.

She sped up. Kept pace with the SUV. Watched her pursuer’s face in her driver side mirror. Saw his smile of appreciation for her. Her face. Fer body. Dressed in the way Whit hated her to dress, in wrap-around Lycra, top a bright magenta, black skirt too short and riding up her muscled thighs.

Crenshaw Boulevard. Almost to Western Avenue, which was her exit, if she decided to take it.

When they’d met, Whit claimed to be a writer. But in five years’ time the only thing she’d ever seen him write was his name on a check or a credit card slip. She had no idea about all the credit cards he had taken out in both their names until it was too late.

She’d stayed home from work, sick with the flu and a fever so high, all she could do was lie on the couch hallucinating. Social security numbers all over the popcorn ceiling. A new pack of Camel Lights on the coffee table, unopened. She’d watched those numbers float in the air and thought if she could somehow compute this, pull all those numbers together in the correct sequence before she fell asleep, figure it all out, maybe she’d wake up in a new life, a life which worked. Instead, she woke up to the sound of mail through the door slot, and a pile of collection notices from banks she’d never heard of for credit cards she never even carried.

When debt reduction wasn’t enough, she’d met with a bankruptcy attorney, listed everybody she owed, and anybody who might make a claim against her in the future. It was a typewritten list of creditors, mostly credit card companies with names like First State, Interstate, First Select and Colonial.

She and Whit had never married or divorced. They were legally tied by consumer debt and legally separated by the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California.

She’d signed on the designated line. Acknowledged being advised that credit reporting agencies would report this bankruptcy for the next seven to ten years, making it hard for her to get a lease on a house or an apartment. She understood that none of her student loans would be discharged and that she would remain obligated pursuant to the terms of said loans. She recognized she would still owe her entire student loan debt from her very expensive master’s in fine arts program, because she’d chosen to file Chapter Seven, instead of Chapter Thirteen, as advised by her attorney.

She knew filing Chapter Thirteen would erase all her student loans. Sure. But it would also saddle her with monthly payments so high she would not be able to contribute to her son’s financial support. As it was, after her car payment and student loans, there would be little left to send to his father.

Meanwhile his anger never went away. It was like a shadow. CJ would call and he’d never put her son on the phone.

She hit the gas. On the road in the middle of the afternoon, pursued. Wanted again, desired and chased, down a road, held in place by want, slammed by want, sadistic want which kept her hoping, held her loose and then tight, loose, and then tight again, until she couldn’t take the pressure and the pain, the lies and self-delusion and she left, always left, and left everyone and everything behind. Broken family. Wrecked finances. Bougainvillea and concrete out her car window, helicopters beating into her brain, severed from bloodroots, and nothing she did good enough.

She touched her own neck and felt the heat. Gripped the wheel at ten and two, just like they teach you in driving school. After adjusting her rearview mirror, she caught sight of him again. Behind her now, higher up and behind, his SUV chassis bigger than her tin can Hyundai’s. Stronger too. She had to floor it to keep him off her bumper. She hit the gas, turned the volume up on the radio, and jammed, right hand on the wheel, left hand trailing along her body.

She passed a Bob’s Big Boy sign, a McDonald’s, a Taco Bell; source of all the plastic trash blown along the shoulder of the road. Her mouth watered for a bagel and cream cheese from the best deli in town: Canter’s. Whit had a paper menu from Canter’s in his menu collection. CJ was so sick of eating out that she swore she’d go down on anyone who took her on a date to someplace other than a trendy restaurant or beer bar.

On their first real date, he’d taken her to an IHOP and professed his love. Too confused to answer, she shot up from the table and ran to the bathroom to have a think. Someone had etched this sentence in the stall door: he don’t love you or he wouldn’t take you to no IHOP.

The SUV moved to the right, into the exit lane, but he didn’t exit, he slowed down and cruised up on her. Slowed, as if to say, stay awhile.

Take it from the rear.

Semi-precious and proud of it, she was a woman who’d never worn a diamond, never said yes to a man on bended knee. She leaned forward, chest against the steering wheel, right hand in her crotch. Wet against the bucket seat, cheap black skirt riding further up her thighs, V-neck plunging lower. Hot and sweaty and lost, she rocked against the edge of the bucket seat.

Arlington Avenue.

Western Boulevard.

She had to get off before the split for the I-110 south, needed to exit and turn back before that or.

Fuck that.

She wasn’t going to meet Whit at the House of Pies. After miles of leapfrogging, she left the SUV behind and took the Arlington exit, circled around, and took the on-ramp for the 10W back to the Westside.

The last time she’d seen Whit he was spilling credit cards out of his wallet onto the sidewalk in front of their Los Feliz apartment, muttering: “It’s all gone, it’s all gone.”

“You can’t help him,” friends told her.

She knew they were right; still she closed her ears, deaf to their warnings. She was convinced everything would be okay if he just quit drinking.

liquor store
Liquor store, 2007. photo by Geoff Cordner

First, she tried to teach him how to count his beers. “Like this,” she told him, suggesting a tallying system, hash marks on a post-it note by his trusty stein.

“Don’t go there,” he said.

She ignored him and said, “It’s easy. Once you have three pen marks on the paper, you just don’t pour anymore. Ta-da!”

From the moment she could walk and talk, she thought it her job to take care of the drinkers. To tell everyone she loved, Mama, Daddy, Sister, Brother, to watch out, don’t jump, don’t climb, and most especially, don’t lose control. Be careful. Stay out of the ditch.

“At least I’m human,” Whit had responded. “I have a pulse. I have needs. Not like you.”

She should’ve known a change in location wouldn’t change him. He drank in Los Angeles just like he drank in Oklahoma City. Only now he didn’t drink to get drunk, he drank to stay drunk. His eyes glazed over, Whit sweated liquor. By the time she was done with graduate school they were both underwater.

“I’m living with a very troubled person.”

While she lived with Whit, she said that to anyone who’d listen. After she began living alone, she discovered she could still say the same thing.

“Just stop drinking,” she told him. “Everything will be okay if you just stop.”

“No,” he said. “That isn’t true. You don’t listen to me. That’s the problem.”

She poured his liquor down the drain. Counted his drinks. Told him if he didn’t stop drinking, she’d keep going to those Al-Anon meetings. She pushed him against the living room wall, unzipped his perfectly pressed jeans, and tried to get him hard. When sucking didn’t work, she switched to a furious hand job, focusing not on him, but on the nicotine sheen coating their beige rental walls, the night sweat soaked bed, the hidden bottles she knew were stashed at the back of the kitchen cabinets, the moving violation tickets piled on the kitchen counter, and their overdrawn bank account. With every stroke, she willed whatever had done them in to disappear: the German beer stein, the collectibles he fiddled with on his desk, the classic books he pretended to read as he sipped, the antique lighter he used to light cigarette after cigarette, even the pretty labels on the bottles she counted when she hauled out the trash. Everything he touched underscored the nightly ritual of numbing out. It began the minute he got off work, a job he could do in his sleep. He drove straight to the liquor store for supplies and hurried home to sit at his desk for the evening hours, where he flooded his brain with a well-stocked supply of cheap beer.

After he staggered off to bed, she stayed up to paint and write. Instead of loving him, she made art about him. Pushed opposites around on the page; describing things she could not give voice to.

“Okay,” Whit had finally said. “I’ll tone it down,” promising to stay dry during her son’s upcoming visit.

He stayed dry but not for long.

One night she and Eli returned to the apartment and found Whit dressed in a kimono. He wept into the phone, a cigarette burning through the wood floor of their rental, his trusty beer stein in hand, and a cassette tape of his long-dead mother’s evangelical voice wailing a redemption sermon through stereo speakers jacked up full volume.

She stood watching and listening, aghast. Her son stood at her side, giving the evil eye to the man she lived with.

“Are you prepared to do something about this?” Eli asked.

“Yes,” CJ answered. “Yes, I am.”

AA Card on Fridge
photo by Geoff Cordner

Mother and son packed a bag. The pair gave the bag to the drunken boyfriend and asked him to leave. Within a month Whit was in an expensive rehab in Santa Monica, and CJ was out of a job and living in a converted garage in Venice, a few blocks from the beach. In exchange for free rent, she checked in on the elderly woman who lived in the front house.

“She’s an artist like you,” her conservator had said. “There’s a nice little room out back you can use. She’s becoming more absent minded, and I just can’t do it anymore.”

How hard could it be?

She and Eli had driven across town to check out the property. The place was located on a crowded beach street lined with telephone poles draped with snaking wires. Facing a clapboard beach, it sat behind a chain link fence. Front yard vegetation ran wild. Paint peeled away from its exterior, flaking.

“Are you so desperate,” Eli had asked, “that you’d live in a converted garage behind some throw-Mama-from-the-train woman you don’t even know?”

“Her name is Willie. And, yes.” CJ needed the space in every way.

Bankrupt in body and soul, bankrupt, and alone in a city of incomprehensible abundance. She’d told the conservator of Willie’s estate she’d give it a try. She stowed most of her paintings and furniture. What didn’t get placed in storage she destroyed. She cut objects with a hand saw and stuffed them in the trash. Waved good-bye again to her son. Had the utilities turned on in her new place. Moved in.

If there was ever a time to return with him to Oklahoma it was then. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She wasn’t ready to leave. LA was hope to her, in LA she’d found a sense of possibility. She couldn’t leave yet and so she put Eli on a plane and waved good-bye. Again. Despite her dwindling funds, she still wanted to make something of herself. Lately she’d thought about stopping painting. Devoting herself to writing. Using her words. Pencil on paper, portable and cheap.

Her new landlord, Willie, was a gorgeous crone in a shiny blue caftan. She met CJ at the gate, golden jewelry in her ears and on her arms, silver hair in a thick twist. French antiques in a beachy front room, no rugs on the floor. CJ perched on the edge of a kitchen stool. Willie lounged in a chair across from her and began talking about her own life. How she’d lived for fifty years with her blind husband in that very house. How lonely she’d been since he’d died.

“It never goes away honey,” she said. “The need for love, for family.”

“Mine are all dead,” CJ lied.

“I don’t even know why I’m still alive,” Willie said. “But people are trying to keep me that way so I may as well let them. Do you want to live here, honey?”

“Yes,” CJ answered. Playing along. She’d already moved all her stuff in. Already put her name on the mailbox.

“I guess you could move in today,” Willie said. “But there’s no lock on the door.”

“It’s all set. Remember? Your conservator had the phone and utilities turned on. And I called a locksmith who said he could meet me here today. I wonder if he’s here already.”

“Oh, yes, my dear. Of course, you are right,” Willie said, and stared into space, as if across a great distance. “I forgot. He’s back there fixing it now.”

“You know,” the locksmith, said, “when I got this call my wife asked me, ‘Why are you going to that part of town, especially on a Friday night?’ And I told her, ‘You don’t understand, it sounded like an angel on the phone.’ I had to come and put a lock on this door.”

CJ listened to him talk while she unfolded the futon she and Whit had purchased together in Little Tokyo. Maroon with deep creases. And sweat stains. Books in stacks on the floor; she didn’t have shelves for them. She didn’t have pots or pans, plates, or cutlery in the kitchenette either. She ate out. Takeout in Styrofoam containers, easy to down in her car while waiting for another meeting door to open.

Venice Beach Freak Show
Venice Beach Freak Show. photo by Geoff Cordner

Morning, noon, and night she attended Al-Anon meetings, twelve step meetings for the families and friends of alcoholics, the people who loved the people with the harrowing stories to tell about heroin. Helpers who met with other helpers in church basements, in community rooms, in park and recreation buildings. People like her who needed to talk about how they’d tried to keep it all together, the mess they’d made of their own lives while trying to make somebody else’s life work better. She sat on hard folding chairs and spoke for her allotted three minutes, all out of ideas, talent beside the point. Only. This. What the people in those meetings called “bottoming out.”

She’d let a drunken boy handle all her finances. That was the truth.

In the end, he’d told her that she was too good for him. Asshole. If that was how he treated the good people in his life, how in the hell did he treat the bad people?

Who were the bad people, anyway? She didn’t know anymore.

On the phone her son had said: “You’re a lot more alert since you started going to those meetings.”

And she was. Alert and in debt to the IRS and to the California State Franchise Tax Board: on the hook for five years of unpaid taxes.

The day she’d received those letters she drove straight to the Cal Fed on the corner of Pico and National, parked her Hyundai in the customer lot, walked inside, and instructed the teller to empty the joint bank account she’d shared with Whit. By that time, she’d changed banks, but she knew Whit hadn’t. He was lazy like that. He would never expect her to take back what he’d stolen from her. Never imagine she’d do such a shitty thing to him. Not like he’d done to her.

“Empty it and close the account,” she’d told the teller. Slid a withdrawal slip through the window and went all hot in the head.

Heart pounding, she’d left the bank. Exhilarated, not afraid. Justified is how she felt. She took back what was hers, even if it were merely money. That money would make a difference. She would use it to pay her car payment, which was two months in arrears. Fill her refrigerator and buy some gas.

Religious folks say: The meek shall inherit the earth. But CJ knew better.

The meek don’t get shit.

Free From Christ flyer
Free From What? photo by Geoff Cordner

“You an artist or something?” the locksmith asked, pointing towards a pile of sketchbooks.

“I guess so.” Truth was she didn’t know.

She recalled a professor critiquing her best efforts at CalArts. “This isn’t saying all you have to say, is it?” he’d asked about a precarious stack of freestanding boxes in the middle of the school’s main gallery. On the flush side a pile of painted bodies, stacked one atop another, on the flipside the empty shelf painted a blood red.

Each night after school, she’d drive the I-Five south to their Los Feliz apartment, watch Whit stagger off to bed, and stay up late to draw and paint.

Alizarin crimson. Prussian blue. Cadmium yellow. Burnt sienna. Yellow umber. With pigment and thinner, primary colors and earth tones, mixed with the extremes of Titanium white and mars black, she drew vaginas and penises, eyes and hands, entrances and exits. She worked on cradled composition board and 100 percent rag paper, surfaces with little bounce. Body parts obsessed her. Some were reconfigured and others were repositioned body parts. Some were fragmented in sexual power plays, neither abstract nor figurative, neither fish nor fowl. Foul. Foul play. As points of departure, she used glossy images taken from girlie magazines She also used older images that existed only in her head.

When Mama left stepdad, she’d accused him of molesting CJ.

“He touched you, didn’t he? Go on. Admit it.”

CJ was eight years old.

“Write about it,” her sponsor in Al-Anon-said. “Write about why you care so much what she thought of you.”

Duh. Because she was my mother.

It was also suggested that she find a hobby.

“What’s your hobby?” her sponsor asked.

“Brooding,” she’d answered. “Brooding is my hobby.”

“You know,” said the locksmith, “I started meditating when I was nineteen, and boy howdy did it change me. One day a truck drove out in front of me—coulda killed me really—and I just smiled. That, and the fact my room was clean for the first time in what? Nineteen years. Made my mother think something was wrong with me.”

She looked at him.

“My mother was an alcoholic,” he said. “Drank herself to death.”

She looked away. Perhaps, the locksmith found her expression haunted.

He said, “Sometimes spells are put on folks that stay with them for years. You look so sad…”

She could not get through that door fast enough. She hurried across the four short blocks it took to get to the boardwalk. She sweated and searched for a sign among the card tables teetering in the sun. Spying a grat braid, she sat on a green lawn chair opposite an aging hippie who’d set up shop half in the sand—right on the edge of where the beach met pavement.

“Nice day,” the tarot reader said. He cut the cards.

She inhaled salty air and relaxed.

“Twelve card or Celtic cross?”

“You choose.”

The tarot reader laid down card after card on the wobbly table between them. After examining them, he picked one up and studied it.

It featured the image of a man lying on a bier. A horizontal sword was pictured beneath him.

“Fire, conflict, fighting. Old issues come to rest. That make sense to you?”

Cold wind kissed her face. She heard Mama’s voice again, wailing.

I’m lost. I’m trapped. I’ll never find my way now.

“It’s all right,” the tarot reader said. “You can let her go.”

She stood up, too dizzy to stand, and immediately sat back down.

“You should let that child go,” the tarot reader said again. “It’s time.”