Damien Lanchester seemed torn between an instinctual, parental horror and the more rational “knowing better than that” when, after Levi had shown both Damien and his son the array of teddy bears and dolls and action figures they could make, his son Track announced with deafening happiness, “I want to make that girl bear!” and pointed to a pink and purple teddy bear with golden locks and heavily-lashed eyes.
Levi, never trained in such matters but quick to recognize the needs of the children who came into the shop, made only a quick glance at Damien Lanchester, in his fashionably vintage, fading brown leather aviator jacket, white shirt opened halfway down his trimmed-but-hairy tanned chest, and obviously seven hundred dollar jeans for any sign of disapproval over his boy preferring a girl bear over a boy bear or a tiger or a lion or a dinosaur. Seeing a resigned expression, and a nod of permission to him, Levi took the lead:
“Well ,absolutely!,” Levi announced, guiding Track to the bins under the pigtailed bear display. “Why don’t you reach on in there and pick out the perfect new bear for you?”
As Track dug through and picked out one empty, sad-looking, deflated teddy bear, inspected it and replaced it with another and so on, Damien leaned in and whispered, “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” Levi whispered back before getting on the floor—it was always best to be eye-to-eye with children, he believed—and helping Track find the perfect bear body.
“Ah! How about her?,” Levi asked, taking out onebody and dusting her dust-free carcass with a grand flourish. “Do you think she’ll look good?”
“Yeah! I like her!”
“All right! Then come on over here! I need you to help me shape her! Come on!”
Track followed Levi, who waddled on his knees, over to a giant machine filled with whirling white clouds of polyster plush animal stuffing. Levi took his place on a stool at the machine and told Track where to stand. “Now, I need you to help me here,” Levi explained. “In order to get all that soft stuffing into your beautiful new friend,I’m going to put her here—” Levi attached a small opening on the deflated teddy bear to a tube that came from the machine. “We’re going to make her all fluffy and soft and you get to tell me if we need to add more stuffing or less.” Track turned to his father with a round mouth and wide eyes. This was the most wonderful thing he had ever done, his face seemed to say.
“Now, watch this. . .” Levi said. He stepped on a pedal and the machine, with a sudden whoosh, shot stuffing out the tube and into the flattened carcass of a Swiss Miss teddy bear’s arm which inflated and rounded as stuffing filled it. “See that? Here,” Levi said, taking the bear and handing it to Track. “How does that feel?”
Track reached out his tiny hand and felt the arm, and the stuffing inside, and bounced with delight.
“Do you like that? Is it too soft?”
“No! I like it!”
“You don’t want me to add more?”
“No more!” Track cried.
“Oh—okay, ”Levi joked, acting as if the stuffing process was all done. He handed the limp bear to Track with stuffing in just the one arm and said, “Well, here you go!”
Track was confused and took the bear, looking at Damien and then Levi.
“Should we put more stuffing in?” Levi asked with a playful wink.
“Well, here. I’m going to need your help. Here. You hold her. Hold her nice and tight like this—hold her here, by the ears. Now, what I’m going to do is insert this tube and together, you and I are going to make her nice and round. Okay? Now, hold her tight. Here comes the stuffing.”
As expected, when Levi hit the pedal, the stuffing blasted out at such a force and the bear, not firmly attached to the tube, came loose, and something akin to a poly-fill snowfall exploded all over Track. First surprised into silence and then howling with delight and jumping up and with joy, Track waved the bear above his head and picked up the stuffing to throw it at Damien, who acted as if he were being walloped by a giant snowball. Acting as if he had made a mistake, Levi stopped the machine from blowing its blizzard of white stuffing and cried, “Oh, no! You made it snow!”
“You made it snow!” Track argued, giggling.
“I made it snow?” Levi asked with mock offense. “Well, I better not do that again or all our bears might get mad at me. Here—” he said, taking the bear fromTrack, “Why don’t I hold the bear and the tube. . .but you press the pedal?” Levi’s foot pushed the pedal toward Track showed him how, when Track pressed the pedal with his foot, stuffing would leave the machine and travel through the tube into his new bear. As he knew he would be, Track was amazed, often stopping the stuffing to reach out and check the thickness of the bear, Levi always asking if it was too hard or too soft. When Track and Damien both agreed the bear was perfectly stuffed—a tightly packed head and soft but firm arms, legs, and middle—and the bear had been handed over to Track for its First Hug, which Levi commemorated with another blast of stuffing, Levi explained with a stage whisper,“Now. . .I need you to do some really special things for your bear.”
Seeing wide eyes asking what that could be, Levi said, “She’s going to be your new best friend, right?”
“Uh-huh!” Track answered proudly.
“So I need you to hold her tight, like this—” Levi took his own teddy bear and buried it in a tight hug, “and do some of the things you’ll do with your new friend. First of all. . .do you like to sing?”
“Well, hold her tight and sing really loudly. Like this.” Levi made a comically torturous sound, more like a fart than a note, and Track mimicked it with a giggle. “And I need you to jump. Jump as high as you can. This will teach her to jump when you jump. Go on! Woooo! That’s great. Let’s see. . .We need her to be healthy. Do you exercise? No? Well, let’s exercise together. Now, hold her tight, but do this—” Levi ran in place, Track mimicked him, and Damien looked like he thought Levi was a sweet guy but possibly had a few screws loose. Probably some missing drywall, too. Some stolen shingles, damaged doors. “Okay! Whew! She’s going to be really healthy! Now, we also want her to be really smart so put her head to your head—like this—and think really hard so that you make a sound like me.” Here, Levi held his teddy bear’s forehead to his own and made a high-pitched squeeling sound. Track did the same, following Levi’s instructions with the type seriousness found only in a toddler. “Wow. Now she’s as smart as you! Now. ..what’s your favorite thing to eat?”
“Smaghetti? With meatballs?”
God, sometimes he hated California, some tiny remote Italian part of his ancestral geneticcode thought.
“Smaghetti with Tofu!” Levi cried, as if it were the best thing in the world. “Think about smaghetti and tofu and rub her belly so she knows how yummy smaghetti and tofu is!”
After several more exercises in personality-by-osmosis, Levi brought Track and Damien to the Fab Friends Factory Fashion Center, where fashions of the day were reproduced in teddy bear sizes. Track immediately picked out a silver ballgown for his new teddy bear and Levi helped him put it on her. After checking with Damien, Levi showed Track the shoes that his bear could wear with her lame ballgown and they put those on and added some silver panties and a pair of hot pink sunglasses and a hot pink purse.
As Levi brought Track to Judy, who would help him name his teddy bear—the name eventually chosen after much deliberation was the flowery “Helga”—Damien pulled Levi aside.
“I had no idea he was going to pick out a girl bear,” Damien admitted. “Thank you for, you know, letting him be him.”
“Of course. Anytime.” Levi whispered back. He hesitated saying anything else, explaining what had driven him, but he blurted out—damn that Depakote!—anyway, whispering back, “He may not say it until he’s a grown adult but he thanks you, too. You know, a parent who lets their child be? That’s a good parent. You could have come in here and, when he reached for that girl bear, made him get a boy bear and dressed it in military stuff and boots and all that stereotypical manly stuff. And he would have gotten a message that regardless of who he might be or might not be, some impulse in him is wrong. He would have felt shame. Over something he can’t change and he doesn’t understand yet. You didn’t do that and he feels accepted. So, until he can say, ‘thank you’, I will. Not everyone gets that growing up.”
He smiled at Damien who, in turn, winked at him in a surprisingly mainstream box office way for such a serious thespian.
“I’ll go get the bill rung up,” Levi told him.
Turner Classic Movies was showing Levi’s least favorite classic film that night, His Girl Friday, and, not wanting to get dressed to go out, he ordered in.
“Hey. How are you doing?” he texted Barry.
The response was almost immediate: A smiley face emoji and “Cuddles?”
Levi typed back, “Yes. Cuddles. If you’d like and if you’re free tonight. Are you working or—”
Before he could finish and send the message, Barry sent the message, “B right there. Leaving Hlywd Stn. 2blocks away.”
He arrived ten minutes later and, after being buzzed into the garage of Levi’s building and riding the elevator up to Levi’s floor, he was through the door in his uniform, a kiss burning onto Levi’s lips, his uniform scratching Levi’sarms, and a boring story rambling out of his mouth before they even made it from door to couch.
Sipping the glass of beer Levi had poured for him, he sat on the couch, the beer in one hand and Levi’s head on his lap. “Ah, this is good,” Barry informed him. “You know, I went to a brewery once. I was eight or nine. Nine, I think. I was in fourth grade; I remember my teacher was Miss Gardner. Miss Gardner. That would be fourth grade. So I was. . .nine? How old were you in fourth grade?”
“A hundred and twelve.”
“Ha. Yeah, I think I was nine. And we had a field trip to the Coors brewery. Isn’t that a funny field trip? To take little kids to a brewery?”
“American schoolchildren can never be indoctrinated into alcoholism too soon,” Levi said, sipping his soda.
“Yeah, that is sort of funny, isn’t it? I mean, we were just kids. Kids. At a brewery.”
“My school brought us to a meth lab,” Levi claimed. “It was great; they gave use free chemistry kits and we all went home and baked some crystal meth. Eight of us died.”
It took Barry a moment to realize it was a joke. When he did, he continued rambling about that field trip. . .starting with the bus trip from school. Actually.. .boarding the bus.
Oh, God, Levi thought, the uniform itching against his cheek as he sat there, he was never going to shut up. It was going to be one of those nights. Which would have been fine if Levi were sleepy but he was unusually, strangely, superamorous. “Amorous”, made him feel more adult than admitting he was “horny” but he was indeed horny as a teenager. And it wasn’t because of the uniform; Levi hated the LAPD police officer uniform. Yes, Barry looked hot in the shortsleeves and the dark pants and the heavy boots he wore and the radio and all those accoutrements. But Levi was imagining him in far less, rubbing against him, pinning him down atop a mattress—or the floor. Or the wall. Or hell, maybe even the kitchen counter again. Because, as good as their cuddling sessions were—which were as good as their conversations were bad—the sex was pretty damned fantastic.
And God, he wanted those full, thick lips to stop talking and start smothering him. And that dark stubble on his chin to scratch against Levi’s face as Barry moaned and said lots of filthy things..
There was only one way to shut him up:
“Barry.. .honey. . .sweetie. . .” Levi announced, getting off the couch and unbelting, unzipping, and then pulling Barry’s pants down to his ankles, “I am sooooooo horny. I really need you to shut up so we can fuck.”
Thankfully.. .there were just two things Barry liked more than talking to Levi. One of the others was cuddling with Levi. And the other was. . .not cuddling exactly. . .
* * *
From Amber, he had heard of the Jewish concept of the 72 Names of God before but. ..not in the way that the Braunstein Center taught it—bastardized, simplified,and, most obviously, hurried. “We have a lot to go through tonight,” the rabbi announced, like a salesperson trying to close a sale before the customer could ask about a warranty or a return policy,“We have a lot to go through. If it doesn’tmake sense, it will make sense later on but we have to move on so we can get to the other things that will make it all make sense.”
In the first, rushed hour of the evening’s first class, Levi had learned:
- That he was a bad person as all people are inherently evil beings,
- That evil beings can change through the ancient wisdom of the Braunstein Center (which, Levi noted silently, had been founded in a very non-ancient 2007),
- That all things came to be when the Hebrew letters sang to some mystical flame that burned in space—“How? There’s no oxygen?”, Levi asked in his textbook’s margins—and begged the Flame for a world in which to live,
- The Flame shed light over seventy-two days, and each day created a new element ofthe world: one day sky, one day the sea, one day soil, the next the trees,
- The seventy-two days of creation were each given a name, each name being a attribute to the Flame (aka God) that created those things,
- This Flame was definitely lazier than the other Gods Levi had been exposed to in hislife; the others had only taken six days and then chilled out on the seventh while this do-nothing Flame took a whole seventy-two to accomplish the same amount of work,
- A book was available to explain the Creation in greater detail in the center’s bookstore—but they were running out so the students should be sure to buy it before they left for the night if they wanted it because there was no telling when that book would be back in stock (tomorrow),
- Every student in that room had to start making a list of how they poisoned the world—because they did and the mess the world was in was all their fault,
- Yes, previous generations had screwed things up but until the students fixed it, the students had to own it,
- That annoying “housewife” from one of those Real Housewives shows asks way too many questions,
- In addition to their textbook, the new students should consider buying an official Braunstein Way journal, with supple leather covers and paper made from pulp blessed by a Braunstein Center rabbi in Israel, and
- Volunteers were needed for a press event the Braunstein Center was hosting to debut their newest discovery: Water
Before the rabbi had even finished oh-so-casually mentioning that the Braunstein Center needed “volunteers”—a term Levi assumed meant, “Unpaid labor that will do all the set up so we don’t have to pay the party decorating company to do it”—an overly ambitious new student had his hand in the air. The type of adult who, as a child Levi assumed, was always the first to raise their hand to give an answer to the teacher’s question, and would stretch and strain and make all sorts ofcontortions until the teacher selected them. Levi had never been that child. Levi had been the one who, annoyed by that one, offered immediate competition by raising his own hand, sometimes without knowing the answer to the question posed by the teacher, just to make that annoying know-it-all teacher’s pet all sorts of miserable.
And, as a thirty-something single person, that personality trait was still firmly in place. And so he ended up, in his first class—even before the cigarette break midway through—volunteering to help set up the next week’s press event and subsequent party that would promote bottled water blessed by Braunstein Center rabbis. He could feel the Real Housewife roll her eyes—though unable to furl her brow–probably privately naming him, “Rabbi’s Pet” for being so eager to help support the Braunstein Center’s newest sharing of its ancient wisdom: Water. Bottled water. In a plastic bottle which would cause more problems the students would have to solve, Levi thought in annoyance, for disposing of the bottle poisoned the world further.
As the rabbi informed the mostly awestruck class as they were sent to the session’s fifteen-minute bathroom-and-cigarette break—that special Braunstein Center bottled water was available tonight, as a sneak-peek special offer before the upcoming press event, in the center’s bookstore.
For just twelve dollars a bottle!