CHAPTER 1

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME PAUL THE PERVERT?


The climax of the performance, so to speak, was an enormous dildo that the clown had hidden in his pants. He'd rigged it with a squirt bottle that held hand lotion, and he pushed the dildo through the slit at the fly and masturbated it while singing the birthday song with pornographic pleasure until he shot the lotion out of the dildo all over Danny's office floor—Happy birthday, dear Danny; happy birthday to you.

The clown called himself "Paul the Pervert."

He wore a rat-shit clown costume he'd found deep in a dumpster on Van Nuys Boulevard. It was stained with grease and filth and what looked like blood, as if the last clown to wear it had been murdered mid-performance. Danny thought he might murder Paul the Pervert too.

The rat-shit clown costume colors were faded, the edges were frayed, and the sleeves were torn. Rather than wear big funny shoes on his feet, Paul the Pervert wore beat-up Docksiders supinated beyond recognition. His creepy makeup—black eyes, red bloody nose, blue skin that made him look like a stone-cold corpse—would terrify a two-year-old birthday boy or even a twenty-two-year-old. His teeth were painted as well—blacked out with silver highlights so they looked like barbed wire. He wore a rainbow wig he took off a Mardi Gras hooker. He smoked a cigar that smelled like a bad body odor. Or maybe it was Paul the Pervert's bad body odor. It was hard to tell.

Danny Miller sat behind his second-hand desk and tossed Paul the Pervert a box of tissues. The desk had pineapples carved into the walnut trim. A hula dancer lamp provided amber light. Plantation shutters on the windows allowed the brutal LA sun to shoot between the wooden slats and make horizontal lines of light and shadow on the opposite wall. Danny gestured for the clown to clean up the mess and said, "Nice touch, my name in the song." Then he shuffled papers as if somewhere between the headshots and printouts and Post-its and casting reports and back issues of Variety was the gig the clown would be perfect for.

"A moment of magic," the clown said.

"In this town, magic means money," Danny said. "But where does it come from? The magic, I mean. How does someone become Paul the Pervert?"

The Miller Talent Agency was two rooms on the second floor of a dilapidated two-story strip mall on Reseda Boulevard in the distant northern reaches of the San Fernando Valley, so far from Hollywood, Danny thought when he'd rented it, that it might as well have been Key West. The front room, the reception room, was much smaller than the big back room, which was Danny's private office. With the Key West concept in mind, Danny had decorated the place with thrift store wicker and bamboo furniture in shades of brown. The cushions were floral prints, blues and red and greens. There was a rug with palm trees and parrots—and now several shots of hand lotion. There was a sitting area on the other side of the office with a rattan sofa and armchairs and a bamboo coffee table showcasing industry magazines. There was an honest-to-God Tiki bar with swivel stools in one corner. In another corner, Danny had set up an audition area, including a used digital camera on a tripod with one ancient Fresnel and a blue-screen backdrop. Danny's feng shui was out of the tropics, very Casablanca.

"I was minding my own business, working for LA Water and Power, a guy on the line, and I got electrocuted on Fairfax," Paul said. "They told me I was in a coma for two days. I didn't give a shit because when I came out of it, like right when I opened my eyes and got back in the world, I had the idea of being a pervert clown. It was like a movie running in my head—Paul the Pervert, Paul the Pervert, Paul the Pervert, running like that the minute I work up. I went to some other talent agents, but they turned me down. I was going to give up, then I saw your ad in the paper—Last Chance to Dance."

"And that, Paul, is the silver lining to your story," Danny said. "Before we make it official, let me ask you a question. Did LA Water and Power cover your medical expenses, honor your pension, give you a severance? How are you paying for your life now that you've got it back and you're Paul the Pervert instead of a guy on the line?"

"I got a settlement," the clown said. "It's in the bank."

"Good for you," Danny said.

The clown cleaned the lotion off the rug and looked for somewhere to deposit the tissues. Danny forced a smile and held out his hand. He had signed worse talent, but none more repulsive. Paul gave him the tissues, and Danny discarded them.

"I have an idea," Danny said. "It's big, and it's bold, and it's got your name written all over it. Call me crazy, but you're perfect for porn."

"This isn't my dick," the clown said. "It's a dildo. Nobody wants my dick in a porno. Ever since I got electrocuted, it does weird things I can't control."

Danny didn't want to touch that with the far end of a flagpole. "Not as an actor, Paul, as a clown at porn parties."

"Porn parties?"

"Porn people have parties all the time—premieres, anniversaries, weddings, birthdays, cast parties, wrap parties, just general orgy parties."

Danny watched the gears burning in Paul's brain—there was a large vein in the clown's freakish forehead that pulsed abnormally, as if sending out a warning in Morse code: crazy man at work, crazy man at work—and wondered if the effect wasn't similar to the moment when Paul had been electrocuted.

"You could get me those jobs?" the clown said.

"It'll take two, three months to get your name circulating, but I'm thinking you'll be the richest clown in the Kingdom of Clowns when it's all said and done," Danny said.

He had meant to say Los Angeles, but it had come out of his mouth as Kingdom of Clowns. He wrote it down. He had coined a new phrase for LA, and there was money to be made. He didn't know how yet, but he would figure it out. He had figured out Paul the Pervert; he could figure out anything he put his mind to. He could find an angle, make a wedge, and work his way in.

"Where do I sign?" Paul the Pervert said.

"Danny slid the contract across the desk and held out a pen for Paul. "It's a ninety-day deal. It says I represent you exclusively in all media. Either one of us can terminate the agreement after ninety days, or we can agree to renew. I'm thinking renewal is in our future. There's a clause on page three that outlines my commissions and fees and expenses—contr:act, administration, headshot photography, audition video, postage, phone calls, travel, meals, meetings, and whatnot, but you get that money back out of my commissions until you're paid in full. It's a standard, non-signatory agreement that allows me to dig deep and get you working."

"I pay you?" the clown said, forehead pulsing.

"You invest in your career," Danny said. It was almost true if he put it like that.

"Spend money to make money," the clown said, and he signed the contract.

Danny countersigned, checked his calendar, and said, "Exactly. That's a hundred for today, contract fee. We'll meet tomorrow at four and shoot your headshots and audition video. The fee for that's two fifty. Cash is best for me."

The clown fetched his wallet from the depths of his rat-shit clown costume and counted out five twenty-dollar bills. He put them on Danny's desk and said, "Big damn day for Paul the Pervert. Want to celebrate?"

"After your first gig," Danny said, putting the twenties in his pocket and thinking when hell freezes over. He decided against shaking the clown's hand and walked him to the door. The clown exited Danny's office and crossed the reception room, supinating past a young woman sitting quietly in one of the wicker waiting chairs.

The clown paused before expelling himself into the debilitating Valley heat, where he would be sucked into the rushing tide of normal human people not expecting to see a Paul the Pervert at the post office, say, or the grocery store or, God forbid, the community pool, and turned back to Danny. "I'm not a bad guy when you get to know me," he said.

"Neither am I," Danny said. And then the clown was gone into the ether.

Danny turned to the woman in the chair. She wasn't pretty—that was the first thing he took in. It was always the first thing he took in because he knew it was always the first thing everyone took in. He knew it was often the only thing people took in. He knew—personally—that in the Kingdom of Clowns, looks mattered first and most.

He was six feet tall and one hundred sixty-five pounds, thin and trim and wiry. He lifted weights and rode his bike back and forth across the Valley to stay young and fit and handsome. He wasn't a regular smoker or drinker or drug user, though he wouldn't turn those things down if they crossed his path in the course of business or pleasure—as they often did. He had a hip, scruffy beard and a full head of stylishly long brown hair that he kept behind the ears. People told him he looked a little like Brad Pitt. He agreed with that assessment and liked the sound of it. "I resemble that remark," he'd say when someone mentioned it.

He liked the sound of it so much that he made sure to catch a glimpse of himself in the bamboo-framed mirror he'd hung on the reception area wall—ostensibly to make the space feel larger but actually so he could see himself walk across the room. He liked that mirror a lot, but then again, he'd never met a mirror he didn't like. He had been a runway model in his twenties, which was how he'd gotten into the talent game in the first place, and he still looked damn fine at the age of thirty-seven. He looked better than he actually was, in fact, which, he told himself, meant he was better than he actually was, which was how he had to think about things these days because he was back living with his mother because it had been a bad couple, three years, and the money he made he needed to pay the rent on his office and place the occasional wager on a horse. Once he signed some real talent, he would get his own place again, maybe a small house just south of the Boulevard in Studio City, maybe a nice apartment on Dickens Street in Sherman Oaks. Anyway, he looked like a leading man—just ask him, he'd tell you.

He never held it against talent if they were unattractive, but it made his job less Sisyphean if they were as easy on the eyes as he was, and though she wasn't exactly unattractive, she wasn't a looker either. She was as plain as a gum wrapper, as vanilla as a young nun.

"I'm Danny Miller," he said, taking the chair next to her, "President of Miller Talent Agency." There was a bamboo reception desk, a wicker loveseat, the two chairs, the big mirror, and a fan that made a dying animal noise. There was no receptionist.

She was sitting, but Danny thought she might be five foot five or so. She had straight-as-string brown hair that was pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her skin was smooth and clear and white, as if she never went out into the Southern California sunshine. She wore zero makeup. No gloss, no eye shadow, no blush. She wore thick black glasses. She was thin, he thought, but he couldn't really tell what was happening under her blousy blue shirt and gray Catholic-school skirt. She wore knee socks and sensible shoes. She had brown eyes that made him think of coffee. She was younger than him, late twenties. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring. She was unadorned in every regard. It was as if she were trying not to be here—or anywhere—trying to be unnoticed by any and all. There was no guessing what kind of talent she thought she had.

"I'm Jenny Stone," she said in soft voice void of confidence, a voice that in and of itself was trying to be unnoticed.

"What do you do, Jenny Stone?" Danny said, putting his hand out.

She shook his hand and said, "I bring dead people back to life."