Linda King is digging past a mound of dirty clothes and clutter, into a corner of her bedroom, where the air is stagnant and stale, to find her inspiration.
"This is my muse," King declares, followed by a nervous giggle, as she lifts the clay bust she molded of Charles Bukowski back in 1970 above her head of wiry, reddish-brown hair, and then slowly cradles it into her arms.
The base of the bust is caked in dust. Behind Bukowski's left ear, remnants of a molding done to create bronze replicas of the piece dot his neck.
Friends and Foes of Charles Bukowski
The Paper Heart, 750 Grand Avenue
Will be on display through October 31
This, King admits, is no way to preserve such an infamous work of art. Then again, the five years of infidelity, drunken outrage and jealousy King and Bukowski -- the iconic author and poet otherwise known as "L.A.'s favorite dirty old man" -- spent together in the early 1970s, were no means by which to cultivate a loving, secure relationship.
Bukowski died of cancer in 1994, but in many ways, he's still very much alive for King.
Since fleeing both her "muse" and Los Angeles in 1975, driven to Phoenix by "one extended nervous breakdown," Linda King, now 64, has made a modest living off loving Charles Bukowski, who was 20 years her senior. While odd jobs -- as a waitress, bartender, and now as a part-time caregiver to the elderly -- have kept her afloat and her traditional clay busts have helped pay the mortgage on her small home in central Phoenix's Oakland District, it's the treasured booty Bukowski left behind that has King dreaming of a big payday. Or, at the very least, a decent studio.
"I always wanted a studio built like a pyramid, and every step has a sculpture on it," she says in the backyard of her home, where an empty trailer serves as a workspace to paint and sculpt in the winter months.
The sun is setting, and the shadows of the trailer and a wooden fence begin to creep across the back wall of her home, on which local artist Jason Rudolph Peña's mural of Audrey Hepburn weathers and chips.
Inside the house, through a pantry en route to the living room, tiny ceramic figures of children playing ukuleles and snare drums stand guard on the kitchen window sill.
"I get those at the dollar store," King says. "It's amazing what these people in China will sell for a dollar."
Selling wares cheap isn't exactly foreign territory for King.
Over the years -- as Bukowski's widow, Linda Lee, has made a fortune off the Bukowski Empire, which includes the seminal books Post Office, Love Is a Dog from Hell, and Ham on Rye, and others conceived or published during Bukowski's and King's relationship -- King has profited, as well, albeit to a much lesser degree.
She's sold dozens of first edition books by Bukowski, most of them endearingly signed to her. This past summer, King sold an original clay sculpture Bukowski himself created one night in 1971 -- guzzling booze at King's Burbank home -- to Bukowski collectors in Germany for a measly $500. She's replicated and sold a dozen of her Bukowski busts in bronze at $5,000 apiece. And she's published several poems that read like an Alanis Morrissette anthology; for example, this 1997 piece:
I am the woman who knows for sure
that Bukowski's balls were bigger
I am the woman who knows
that he liked hot chilies
in his stew
I am the woman who
introduced him to shampoo
and Lucy Ball and Jerry Dumphy
I'm the one who removed
all the blackheads from his back
and front and face and behind
Inside the home where King has now lived for the past 25 years, she finally finished a book, appropriately titled Loving and Hating Charles Bukowski, two years ago. But after sitting on the desk of an uninterested New York publisher for more than a year, King's 300-page manuscript is now collecting a layer of dust. (In 1978, Bukowski made money off his own semi-fictional memoir of their relationship, Women, in which King is referred to as "Lydia.")
"I sure would like it if you could get someone's attention," she says, "and get this book published. I might have to sell my house if I don't make some money soon."
To help her cause, King has taken to the circuit -- of Phoenix art galleries, that is. Throughout October, The Paper Heart is displaying King's poems, busts and paintings, as well as documentary films about Bukowski, in an exhibit titled Friends and Foes of Charles Bukowski.
And the show includes controversial "love letters" Bukowski sent to King, most of which were dated between 1970 and 1972. Controversial because King, despite being in possession of and the inspiration for them, has no right to publish the letters, almost 60 total.
Aside from those on display at The Paper Heart, and a few excerpted in two recently published books about Bukowski, the collection in its entirety had never been seen before King shared it with New Times.
In Women -- and in reality -- King often called Bukowski the "Old Troll." He acknowledged the affectionate diss in a letter to King in 1971:
The Troll, as he has told Linda, the Troll is a stupid man, that's why he hides and writes . . . almost masocistically [sic] torturing himself with his failures.
On February 11, 1971, Bukowski displays a tenderness rarely seen in his brash poems and books in which he scribes, for instance, of "fucking" being the "best cure for a hangover":
I like to hold my hand flat against your belly, my arm curving over your side. I wish I were there now, sleeping against you. well, cornflakes,
The letters are covered in plastic liners, collected in a black three-ring binder. And there they'll remain, until, King says, someone makes her the right offer.
John Martin, Bukowski's former publisher who has since retired and sold his Black Sparrow Press, once offered her $11,000 for the entire collection, an offer at which King scoffed. According to King, Martin procured dozens of Bukowski letters shortly after his death -- at no cost to him -- and made a profit of $75,000.
Martin, contacted at his home in Santa Rosa, California, tells New Times that King has no right to publish the letters Bukowski sent her. "The letters belong to her, no question about that," says Martin, now 73. "But the publication rights remain with the estate of the author. Without getting permission, no way she can publish them. It doesn't matter whether they're written to her or someone else."
King says she had the letters appraised by a collector in Santa Barbara, California, last year for what she and her son, Scott, an aspiring filmmaker who goes to ASU and lives in a spare bedroom, felt was a low-ball figure of $20,000.
"There are Bukowski letters that people sell on eBay for $1,000 apiece," Scott says. "I've seen some go for $5,000."
"I don't really want to sell them, but I might have to," Linda King says. "I'd prefer to just sell the rights to them. I inspired them. I don't see why I shouldn't make some money off of them."
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As for the bust, its sentimental value makes it the lone link to King's past with Bukowski she isn't willing to part with.
"[Bukowski] always told me that I couldn't write without him," King says. "So I keep it next to me when I write.
"You could always tell if we'd had an argument or if we'd broken up by where the bust was at," King recalls. "If everything was fine, he'd have it at his place. Or else I'd find it on my doorstep if we were fighting."
Maybe it's found its resting place. Or maybe not. Keep an eye on eBay. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 602-744-6557.