“So,what wisdom, “ Judy asked that afternoon at Fab Friends Factory, in that lull between the time they opened the store and the time it was flooded with guilt-ridden parents bringing in their children after school, “Did you gleam from your latest trip to the Berenstein Center? I have to know.”
“Not Berenstein,” Levi corrected her. “Braunstein. They’re fake Jews, not fake Bears.”
They had reset all the store’s displays as described to the inch by the planogram sent out to all stores by the corporate office, and were standing at the empty store’s front doors, teddy bears in their arms as if babies–Levi’s bear dressed as a Hollywood star with cellphone, sunglasses, fashionable jeans, tee,and footwear. Judy had dressed hers in the style of a crack addict fond of ballet tutus, too many hairbows, and mismatched sandals.
“Sorry!” she cried as if she had caused great offense. Holding up her drug-addled prostitute bear to his face she wondered loudly, “I wonder why I might have bears on my mind. . .”
“Well, I start my classes next week so I’m still only reading the textbook. But. . .try out this gem: ‘If you want lemons, do not plant an orange tree.’”
For a moment, Judy was silent, motionless, absorbing in the wisdom of the salesperson-turned-spiritualism student. And then she howled, “And why would they plant an orange tree if they want lemons? Lee, you’re mixed up in some seriously stupid shit. Get your ass a refund!”
“Well,” Levi countered, almost protectively, “It makes sense if you think about it. It sort of means you have to lay the foundation to get what you want.”
“By planting the right kind of tree? Shit. Everyone knows that. If I want an apple tree, I plant an apple tree. I don’t plant a motherfucking tomato plant, right? Because then I get tomatoes and you can’t make apple pie with tomatoes. No, you can. . . not. . . do. . . that! Who wants tomato pie, other than one of those vegan people who think cheese is evil–how dare you milk a cow!–and who put pineapple on pizza? Plant a lemon tree,” she scoffed, “And people are paying to learn this shit?”
“Two hundred-fifty dollars a class.”
“Shit. You and me should be starting our own little cult,” Judy told him. “A nice little cult for all them Beverly Hills bitches with the botoxed faces that all look alike, and them plumped-up duck lips and those big cheek implants that make them look like pornstars. We’ll call our cult something fancy like. . .something French—”
“Cirquee la Stupide,” Levi offered.
“We take over a Rodeo Drive boutique. Put out a nice awning. Be all snooty like, ‘This is where the fancy people come to get their God on.’ And, ‘Bitch, you ain’t getting no spiritual enlightenment here til you show up in this season’s Gautier.’ And when they do come back, then we can charge them real big to teach them shit like, ‘If you want brownies, don’t let me find your ass making pancakes’.”
”Ssh. Customers approaching,” Levi whispered, and, on practiced cue, both Levi and Judy propped their respective teddy bears up and, by manipulating the material on their backside, made them appear to be looking this way or that.
“Well, look at you!” Judy cried, her Hollywood Meth Head teddy bear looking down at a young blond girl with blue eyes—the type Judy would normally describe to Levi as “the type the media cares about when they go missing, as opposed to a colored kid or an Asian kid–or a redhead.” And when Levi would look shocked, she’d lock eyes with him, daring him to disagree and say, “Oh, you know it’s true!”
“Are you here to make a new furry friend?” Judy asked her, taking mother and daughter, as Levi had taught her, from the door to the store. The salespitch was on and the bill was already mounting. She was the master of the salesfloor now.
A few more tourists strolled by, more gawkers than shoppers, and the occasional Starline Tours tour group—“Follow me now! The bus to the homes of Beverly Hills is right this way!”–waddled past their dead-end part of Hollywood & Highland. For all the passing crowds, to lure a shopper or two inside, Levi held his teddy bear up, turning its head gently to make it appear to be watching the passing shoppers while Levi pretended to be looking elsewhere, a trick he had gotten quite good at and, as now, elicited a laugh from a couple who remarked, “That’s so cute!” As a retort, Levi smiled with a nod to the passing admirer of his retail puppetry talents while he manipulated his teddy bear to lower its face, as if shyness had taken possession, into its paws.
“If my parents were still alive,” Levi thought, “they’d most likely lie to their friends about how I’m earning a living.”
He stood there in the doorway, occasionally stepping back inside the shop just to be sure Judy was having an easy time with her little client and the little client’s mother and, seeing her already at work on the stuffing machine, returned to the doorway. There, he found the hallway mostly quiet, as the tours passed by in waves and the tourists didn’t always make it up to this level of the complex. But then he was jolted by the sight of a man approaching him with a young boy who gleefully jumped up and down in steps before him.
He had a moment of confusion, as happens when one sees someone they should not be seeing in their world—a moment where he thought that this man looked familiar but, familiarity aside, Levi couldn’tquite place how he knew him. A friend or rather, an acquaintance of a friend? No, he had several, different groups of friends in Los Angeles—he intentionally kept most of his friends from knowing one another, Kyle and Amber aside, as if compartmentalizing and separating them in case two should team up and side against him in an argument–but none of them were. . .this handsome.
So.. .why that odd note of recognition? A friend from home? No, not there. Someone he had worked with at one time; someone he had gone to college with? All these questions took just microseconds, rising and falling in his racing mind. And then, his back stiffened and his eyes shot straight to the man’s face down the hall as he realized why the man looked so familiar.
The man was a movie star.
It was as if Levi was becoming a movie star magnet. First, there had been Box Office Megastar at the Braunstein Mixer a few weeks back, Teri Howard had been in the store just last week, and now. . .this guy. . .um. . .who was in that movie. . .um. . ..What the Hell was his name?
Levi nervously racked his brain as the man made his way down the long terrazzo-tiled floor toward him—boutiques to his right, the chasm of the Oscars Walk to his left, and Levi gayly ahead. The man wasn’t one of those movie stars who get the covers of magazines, although somewhere in Levi’s memory he recalled there was some scandal attached to a divorce or affair he had a few years back—something that got splashed allover those magazines at the supermarket. But he wasn’t a “name” movie star—more a prestigious one. He belonged to that loftier yet less appreciated classification: the serious actor who happened to act in movies, apparently blessing celluloid and cinemagoers with an occasional on-screen display of his talents. And,of course, the occasional attempt at box office blockbuster, such as this winter’s upcoming action flick in which he was starring as the title character in an origin story about how Santa Claus tamed a team of wild reindeers, battled a dark army of evil elves, and, in the spirit of the best entrepreneurs, turned a toy-making hobby into a lifestyle to become, “SantaClaus: Christmas Warrior”.
Levi had seen those stupid ads all over town; Hollywood studios liked nothing better than to drape entire high-rises in roof-to-ground advertisements touting their latest grab at the easiest buck from the stupidest moviegoer. And the serious thespian heading his way—Oh ,Levi could strangle at the frustration of not recalling his name!—was all over town, the very image of a hunky, sun-tanned, young Kris Kringle, flying rightoff the billboards, bare-chested and doing battle from his flying reindeer-fueled sleigh. All in the name of Christmas,too.
Unfortunately, Levi’s instant, natural response to being in the jurisdiction of a Hollywood star, to suck in his already flat stomach and stand a tad bit taller, was wasted for the man—what was his name? David Linchester? Danny Lincoln?—turned to go into the too-chic-for Levi-Hastings boutique one storefront ahead, against the wishes of his son, who pointed at Levi and cried, “Bear!”
His father looked up, tendrils of wavy brown hair flopping down over his tanned, almost leathery forehead, toward the store doorway where Levi stood and where, frozen in place yet bug-eyed with a rare case of celebrity-sighting panic, Levi made his teddy bear wave his paw up and down in slow- motion.
“Not now,” the actor said gently, lovingly, to the little boy, his hand on his son’s head, looking down into his scowling face. “We have to go in here.”
He waved a “not interested” hand toward Levi and guided his son by a gentle twist of the skull into the men’s shop.
“Not interested,” Levi thought. It felt like a rejection of Levi, himself, not so much the bear he was carrying, the store whose wares he was selling, or the bill he would have to pay for his child to experience it.
He slyly slid his phone out of his pocket and looked up, “Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior”. There it was:
Now it all came back to him—largely due to internet searches. Yes—Damien had been nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award a few years before. Levi suddenly, clearly remembered how he had howled as he had watched the Academy Awards with Kyle that year, his blind friend listening to the broadcast with him, when Nicole Kidman had to read, in all seriousness, the description of the role for which Damien Lanchester had been nominated:
“Damien Lanchester, as a widower who takes a soul-wrenching journey to France, only to suffer from the onset of Tourette’s Syndrome, in Francois Dubutain’s Excuse My French.”
And how, in the clip of his performance shown, Damien Lanchester managed, in just thirty seconds, to laugh, cry, shout and have to be bleeped—thanks to his character’s Tourette’s outburst upon seeing a drag queen—and all while throwing in all sorts of Serious Thespian tics, like waving shaky fingers and running a hand through one’s hair and absent-mindedly scratching his arm while looking at an actor offscreen. No wonder he got nominated.. .only to lose to that SNL comedian who changed gears, played an alcoholic, and was awarded with a trophy for inserting quiet space between his words and managing to look serious and not fart, burp, or pee himself for a whole ninety minutes.
“The Oscars are so unjust,” he thought, immediately bitter with a sense of overwhelming injustice that Liza had not been nominated for 1991’s “Stepping Out”.
He continued to search his phone for more information about Damien Lanchester, now remembering that he had actually liked him in that Stanley Ehrenstein drama, “Cruise into Darkness”, in which he had played a cruise director falsely accused of rape, and—he had completely forgotten this one!—as the detective who falls in love with the Instagram account of a dead woman, only to find that she’s faked her own death, in “Otto and Lauralee”.
He glanced up from his phone and involuntarily, his mouth dropped open. He thrust his phone back in his pocket.
“Hi,”Damien said, standing before him and pointing with his thumb at the little boy beside him, “My boy wants to make a bear really badly.” He smiled a gleaming, warm and white set of teeth bared by upturned pink lips that were framed by the tanned skin of his face and, in return, Levi beamed instinctually, reflexively as Levi met Damien’s honey-brown eyes with his own sparkling green ones . “Can you help me?”