Damien and Levi had been chatting for a few moments—Damien’s son had been begging to “go back to see Mister Lee” since Track had made his first teddy bear at Levi’s store—when Levi noticed Damien’s eyes catching repeatedly, as if distracted (or disturbed) by something behind Levi’s head. Finally, Damien asked, nodding to a mannequin behind Levi, “The bulge on that underwear form is sort of extreme, no?”
Levi turned and, seeing what Damien saw, burst out with his bark of a laugh—loud, precise, and sharp. “Oh my God. I passed that all night long—but I never saw it from this angle so. . .” He turned back to Damien, “Yes, it’s huge.”
He had already explained to Damien that the dark blue underwear—which he admitted seemed a strange thing for the Braunstein Center to merchandise—had an alleged “spiritual” connection and, supposedly, Levi explained, a team of Braunstein Center rabbis prayed over the bamboo cotton from which the snug, soft briefs were spun, and believers were expected to therefore believe that the underwear was imbued with mystical abilities. Its wearers had a connection to God, the promotional blurb claimed, with sacred underwear against their flesh. They also looked good on a good body, one could assume, given that they didn’t cover much and fit as snug as a second, soft skin over what parts they did barely conceal. But the bustform—or, maybe, crotchform, as Levi called it since it was just a cast of a man’s lower abdomen, crotch and the top of his legs—did indeed seem as if the briefs had been overly. . .almost aggressively. . .quite intimidatingly. . .overstuffed.
Damien and Levi were laughing about the massive bulge and pointing at it in tear-covered hysterics when a rabbi—a tall, stern, rather full-bodied rabbi Levi hadn’t seen before—came to the booth to see why there were two men laughing in the presence of the sacred underpants. (Which were available in the Center’s bookstore for $48 a pair but free to that evening’s celebrity guests, a reason why Levi confessed he could not say if they were comfortable as, “I can’t afford magical unmentionables.”.)
“I’m sorry,” Levi said in the face of the rabbi’s disapproval. “But, the uh, the form there? It seems like someone really overstuffed the crotch region.”
The rabbi turned, inspected the mammoth mound, and announced, “I don’t think so. No. Not at all, in fact. Looks very normal to me.”
“Suddenly I feel inadequate,” Levi whispered across the counter to Damien. And, like that the tall, stern rabbi who apparently had a huge, otherworldly endowment moved into Levi’s mental “I’d fuck him” column.
“Hey! Son of Jacob! You talking about your cock again?”
It was the Big Movie Star he had met at the Braunstein Center mixer, that good old boy with the killer looks, non-stop gum chewing, and eternal grin. He clapped Levi on the back and began rubbing his shoulders. He was definitely a hands-on man. . .and Levi was totally fine with that.
“Haha! How you doing, man? Good to see you here, Hastings! And you!” He pointed to Damien and stepped toward him like a dueling swordsman, only to reach across the counter and grab his hand. “Lanchester! Getting yourself some Braunstein Briefs? Wearing mine right now! Check ‘em out, buddy! See that waistband? Softest underwear ever. Your balls are cradled all day long by these like. . .big cotton hands. Nothing is closer to God, am I right or am I right? Hastings—wrap him up some manties. The man needs some good undies. Lanchester—you’re what? A 32? Hastings—give the man a medium in the black, the blue, oh—the red. Can I tell you? My girlfriend goes through the roof when she sees me in my reds. Says my ass looks like two bongos—and man does she beat those babies, yes she does! Loves seeing me walk around the house in just these and a cowboy hat. Give him two pairs of the reds, Hastings. And the purple. How’s your boy doing? You have full custody, am I right?”
Levi carefully rolled and packed each pair in Braunstein Center tissue paper and placed each inside a Braunstein Center gift bag. Around the thick rope handles he attached a label and wrote, “D. Lanchester” so that it could be retrieved at the end of the night with the other complimentary items the Braunstein Center was going to foist on celebrities—the same items it would expect its hardworking students to pay for.
He noticed that, with the Big Movie Star, Damien seemed more ill at ease. Maybe it was Levi’s imagination but it seemed Damien had been enjoying himself more with Levi than with his Hollywood peer. And then:
“So when am I gonna get you to come check this place out? I tell you, it has done wonders for me—opened up my whole view of—”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Damien said, smiling but gently firm. “I have my own beliefs and—”
“Oh, but this isn’t a religion, man. No, no. It’s like. . .you take your religion and you add in what the rabbis teach here and it’s like—Bam!—it all comes together. And you start to see how you are the problem. You know; all this shit in the world. It’s all. . .us. But here’s the thing—we can change it. When we change us. Look—Hastings. What’s your poison?”
“Uh—sorry. My what?”
“Your poison. How do you poison the world?”
Oh—that list they had to make out in the first class. Levi blurted out, “I’m a smartass and my snide commentary makes the world an angry place.”
With the Big Movie Star turned back to Damien, Levi mouthed to him, “I just made that up.”
Damien smiled the smallest of conspiring smirks at him—so small only Levi would have caught it. But the Big Movie Star continued. “So, look at Hastings. He makes little comments and things. And they’re probably funny, right? But they’re aggressive and tey put an energy out there and that energy, it grows and it magnifies and, man, what started out as a little bitchy joke, it gets heard by other people and they feel angry toward whatever he was talking about. Hastings—gimme something.”
“Uhhhh. . .Donald Trump. Incompetent, liar, blowhard and bully. But, on the bright side, he’ll eventually die.”
“Right? I think we all agree on that one. But how do we feel when we hear that? We grow negative. We become negative. We want to punch Donald Trump, just beat that little piece of shit and tell him, ‘Donald? You’re fired’ And all because Hastings here makes this little comment. And—”
Wait. Levi was to blame for Donald Trump’s incompetent presidency? What type of cult was this?
Damien hushed him with a raised palm. “I hear what you’re saying. I do. And what you believe? That’s you. But I’m really not all that interested. Maybe later.”
The Big Movie Star seemed to put himself on pause. He shook his head, nodded, and resigned. “Maybe later. Hey—in your gift bag, there’s gonna be a book. It’s called, ‘Braunstein Way Secrets’. Just do me a favor and read through it. I’m telling you, man, it’s gonna change your life. Hastings—am I right or am I right?”
“Um-hmmm!” Levi said, giving the Movie Star the perfect exit and Damien a grin.
“So,” Damien asked him when the Movie Star left the booth and was swamped by some young starlets/models/whores who wanted a photo with him for their Instagram accounts, “Are you really into this?”
“Ssssh,” Levi said quietly. “But no. I’m just observing it. Taking from it what can help me, ignoring all this weird other stuff.”
“Isn’t it all weird other stuff?”
“Well. . .there are some non-weird things that I like. Like, when it makes me look at me. I’m not perfect. And if I can be made to look at my imperfections and fix them. . .you know. . .maybe I can make myself a better person.”
“But really—aren’t you already a good person?”
“Am I?”, Levi asked. Immediately, X’s voice was in his ears, telling him how he was the worst human being who had ever lived, that never ending Muzak: Spoken Word Edition, always playing in the background. “I don’t think I am. Look—you’re constantly striving to improve your art, right? I mean, you don’t just reach a point where you’re a good enough actor. I imagine you always want to be better. You aren’t like—” he pointed to the Big Movie Star—“Where he plays the same character over and over again. Himself. You refine your skills, you look for ways to make your characters more believable, right?”
“Yes. My upcoming turn as Kris Kringle is a ground-breaker.” Damien seemed to be mocking himself.
“Well, I look forward to seeing you in that, by the way! But you do, right? You strive to constantly improve your talent or skills?”
“Well . . .I’m not an actor. I have no talent. I’m just a person. And even at that, I’m a nobody. So, if I’m going to be a nobody, I might as well be the best nobody I can be.”
“You are not a nobody. My son thinks the world of you,” Damien said, his head tilted to the side, as if studying him, first from this angle, then from that.
“Well, I just want to be as good a person as I can,” Levi said before whispering, “The religion stuff? In one ear, out the other. That’s the cult stuff. But the other stuff? Maybe I need to listen and learn how to be a nicer person. Or a better person.”
“Well, I think you’re a very nice person, “Damien told him. “Before they came over here, we were having a great chat. You’re really easy to talk to. Do you know that?”
Levi laughed quietly. “All too well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just—look, I love my friends and this sounds awful but—”
“But they never shut up. They’re the ones who always talk. They just occupy all the conversational space of any room we’re in. And I’m just there to listen. Or to celebrate their successes. That’s another thing I do. They get promoted? I make them celebrate. They have a baby? I’m first to buy a gift. But. . .it feels so lonely. They just talk. They just take. And I feel irrelevant. Unimportant. I told a friend once that they needed to listen to me and he said, ‘Okay. Talk. Go ahead.’ It wasn’t like he was sorry. Or even interested. It was very passive-aggressive. So, I like to listen. I just wish I could be listened to myself every now and then.”
He made an embarrassed face.
“And you just listened.” He sighed. “I am so sorry for unloading that on you.”
“I’m glad you unloaded that on me,” Damien said. “You’re a—”
He was interrupted by the sudden emergence of the man Levi had filled in for so the man could take what turned out to be the longest cigarette break in history.
“I’m back. You can go back to the stockroom now or whatever.” The man said flatly, nudging Levi aside and turning his attention to Damien. “Have you tried these?”
“I already have some,” Damien said, walking away as Levi slipped from behind the booth and crossing the event space with him toward the makeshift stockroom. “Hey—are you going to be at your store Sunday?”
“Uh-yes. Yes. I’ll be in around 10am and we close at 7pm.”
“Good,” Damien said. “Track and I will be by.”
“Fantastic,” Levi said, pausing at the door into the stockroom. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“Track needs a visit with Mister Lee,” Damien said with a wink. And, like a detective in an old film noir, he nodded, turned, and disappeared into the night.