When I was six my father developed a drinking and explaining problem. He moved out on a day I remember like loud TV and my mom met and married Alan. A home needed a man and a woman, ours had lost its man, and here came another one, with longish hair and a chinchilla moustache. I was fine with it, open and expectant. When he arrived in our house he was probably all of thirty-five.
Alan fixed and modded motorbikes and had some money from a childhood misdiagnosis of his left eye, which drooped like a comma. He wore a belt he called his JuJu rope, made of bright colors of cotton twisted together. Except for my graduation day I never saw him in anything dressier than a jeans jacket. Most fathers don’t know what kind of kids they’re going to get. Alan saw me and said yep, sign me up. No matter what, I owe him for that.
I’d been out of high school six weeks when he came home one day with a flyer someone had given him at work. Brandon, he said, pressing the shiny paper into my hand, besides being a great learning experience, an opportunity like this swoops down once in your lifetime. Okay, I said. Cool. Thanks.
Now here I was outside a store in a mall, accosting strangers and considering things deeply.
“Measure your wedge, sir?”
“Would you like to step inside and have your wedge measured? Only takes thirty seconds!”
“Most men aren’t aware that the male wedge, as you age…”
Day Two was going crummy. I was kicking myself for choosing straight commission. They’d whipped the six of us up like Friday night football, making us feel unpatriotic if we went for a cash draw, saying that’d indicate in a manner that did not reflect well upon our suitability for the job. We didn’t believe in Dr. Corbin J. Laymats and his patented product. The product that Alan had examined and determined was “top-notch, trust me, Smiler.”
It was the summer of 2003 with war happening and with everyone either nervous or all go-get-‘em. A pair of Laymats custom undergarments was $16 retail. If you worked five-day weeks, selling 20 pairs a day – “five lousy four-packs!” – the commission was $390. Why would we choose a $200 draw, Trainer Randy had demanded, spinning the whistle on a string that he never blew into, plinking random blue-brown notes on the upright piano, when we could easily make twice that? We would have to abandon self-interest and common sense. In our group at the training seminar in a church basement in Eagle Rock we laughed at the craziness of the thought. Maybe kids in one of the other training seminars were dopes, but not us. One girl my age sat at the back with a straight face, taking notes in a binder. She dropped out at the break, her dad had waited for her with the engine running. When Alan heard about Quitter Girl he shook his head. Some people, he said, are unable to benefit from a learning experience.
Except, by Day Two no one was buying the four-packs. Nobody was buying the UnderPairs™ clipped together with a white question mark plastic hanger. Nobody had bought a single undergarment. This was the groundbreaking innovation that Alan had said was the wave of the future? A business to get into right now on the ground floor?
“Measure your wedge, sir?”
“Wedge, sir. The inguinal trapezoid, a poor fit of which accounts for ninety percent of the discomfort of…”
The words up to inguinalwere the most I usually got out, even if the shopper showed initial curiosity. Curiosity, I learned, is not interest, the way kicking at something dead on the beach is not picking it up.
Wow, look at that guy go, Cory said, chewing his gum. Cory made me think of the actor Ned Beatty, twenty years old, wearing his shirt and tie like he’d been sentenced to it. Greta, at the counter, had no engagement with the customers until they’d been on the Analyzer, which Cory had started calling the Crotchalyzer. Greta moaned let’s just make some money and get out of here. She was quiet and cute, but then I thought all girls were cute.
Sometimes one member of a couple examining the engagement rings in Hanhardt Jewelry across from us in the mall would leave Hanhardt’s long glass counter and venture towards us, squinting to avoid having to come all the way, like we were a car on fire. Then the person would edge back in Smirk Mode, pointing us out and saying something smart to the other person who’d stayed behind. What’s so funny about underwear, I said to Cory. Everyone buys it, usually in a store, and this was a store.
Cory just chewed his gum and looked at me. I asked him, what?
What I was learning at nothing-an-hour was that sometimes a person whose opinion you respect because of their soundness, to use my birth father’s word in his L.A. Times Op Eds – their soundness based on you and the other person liking the same stuff – this person can be revealed to also enjoy and praise a second thing that’s crap. Just adore this piece of self-evident rolling-down-a-hill crap. At first you’re like, where’d that come from? Then you start unhappily reconsidering all the earlier things the person said were wonderful. Such as how, when you were little, you used to dance through the sunbeams where they snuck around the kitchen chairs, singing your made-up Sunbeam Song to the person and your mother. Or your animal sculptures made from the metal cages around champagne corks that the person always said were the most beautiful and clever things in the world, but which are now put on the same scale in your mind, the same level of artistic merit, as the total piece of dangling crap.
Dr. Laymats got his idea in a mall, watching customers in a shoe store stepping on a high-tech machine that displayed their feet on a colorful screen that looked like a heat-map from space of who to bomb. The machine took their email address, so the chain had a list of customers who could be bugged every six months to come back in. Happy Holidays, Brandon. We show your last shoe purchase was June 17th. As they age, all shoes lose their elasticity and fit... Dr. Laymats decided to do the same for men’s underwear, which are cheaper than shoes to design, manufacture, ship, store, mail. And as personal and stylish, said Trainer Randy, as shoes, especially now with everyone seeing the tops of them when we remove our belts at airports.
The Analyzer had no colorful screen like the shoe store’s, displaying the customer’s trapezoid for everyone to see and enjoy, just a readout that flickered through the possible size combos before declaring one like the ball finding its cubby on a roulette wheel. You wrote the two letters on a wallet card with the store’s other two locations, then you tried to get the customer’s email. This was the idea, anyway.
On the second afternoon two black dudes in their late twenties came by, one of them short and very dark with a shaved head. He said, “Hell yeah I want my wedge measured! Measure that wedge, son, let’s get this thing on!” I smelled the hospital smell of alcohol. The funny talky guy bopped around looking at the informational display and sample undergarments, drumming on the counters, as Cory seated his friend on the Analyzer and put his feet in the stirrups. The moment it started up, the guy popped out of the chair like he’d been electrocuted, screaming, “What the hell that thing doing to my nuts?” while his friend bent and laughed airlessly like windshield wipers on rapid. People in the mall stared, and a security cop skiddered in with one hand on his walkie. The short bald guy wanted to try the Analyzer too, like it was some kind of party drug, but the cop told him he’d probably better move along with his shopping and whatnot.
My true father was on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, undergoing a series of “professional and personal trials,” as he described it in an Op Ed about late-life job retraining in the L.A. Times. When there were a lot of phone calls in the kitchen and Mom’s answers turned into all uh-huhs, I’d know one of his columns had touched on something close to home and her friends were calling to see if she wanted them to come over. There was no restraining order but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a force field, with Alan and my mom and me inside it, and my father outside like a dog park coyote. I don’t know what my father would have thought about my bunny-foot sunbeam dancing, or my champagne wire sculptures. It seemed perverse to expect he might have any opinion about me at all.
“To the virtuous, the spoils,” Alan used to say with a comical fanciness when he found a perfect parking space in Mom’s old car in the summer, with the air on high so it blew his hair around the goalpost headrest. Now I sometimes say this phrase to my wife and daughters. Maybe this is how the things we’re wrong about get passed down, stuck in our head like a fast food song.
The undergarments were in blond wood cases, facing up like jewelry so you couldn’t see them unless you walked in. There was a round red leather bench in the middle of the store that six people could sit on in a circle, as if customers were going to perch on it while trying on underwear. Do you have this in a boxer? The whole thing had been worked out with the same attention to detail that junior high students use to decorate their classroom for Back To School Night.
Late on Day Two a skinny guy with tortoiseshell glasses, smelling of mall chicken, came in by himself. He had a package from PacSun, a puffy bag he fussed with as he sat super straight on the Analyzer. He looked like the uptight person who fires the hero at the beginning of a movie. When Cory turned it on, the guy made a strangled yipping noise and slipped sideways on the saddle like someone who’d fallen halfway off a horse. We had tried it ourselves, Cory and Greta and me, but maybe because of working there we hadn’t had the screaming, freaked-out reaction.
Unhappy Glasses Guy got back upright, the machine did its secretive thinking and concluded he was a BB. We wrote it on his wallet card. He gave us a phony email and didn’t buy any undergarments. Thank you, Cory said. Come back soon. Don’t drive into any brick walls at high speed.
When he gave me the flyer, Alan had used his here’s-the-true-lowdown voice. The one with which he introduced me to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Krispy Kreme donuts and Apollo 11 Field on Woodley in Van Nuys, where we fired the toy rockets he’d helped me glue together on the kitchen table, lofting into the mixing-bowl sky a toy soldier, some hapless bugs, and a camera meant to snap our pictures from 600 feet up, using a film cartridge so antiquated nobody would process it. Thanks to Alan I discovered Thai food and Loteria cards, the Marx Brothers and Bob Marley. His was the judgment I never questioned, that I took in as my own opinion.
The second afternoon when I came out of the back someone had underlined the ANAL in Analyzer with a Sharpie. Greta was reading Harry Potter. I went to Sephora for nail polish remover. Cory was out front, holding his tie straight out, leaning on the wall. He looked like a pissed-off outboard motor. It was 36 hours into the life of the chain and already things were going sideways. We had no idea what was up with the other two outlets, we didn’t know yet about the underwear riot in Alhambra.
The pen mark wouldn’t come off so I took a Sharpie from stock and neatly underlined the whole word. As I kneeled in my pressed pants and stiff shoes, I smelled the brand-new carpet and got dizzy. Away from school and the routines of home I’d forgotten to eat.
By noon on Day Three it was like they had a sign in the parking lot telling people to avoid us. If any of us had had smart phones we would have been Googling Better Job, Not Underwear-Based. I would have looked up What if you learn the person on whom you’ve based your self-worth has lousy judgment? And: If so, what are you?
Never get Botox, Alan told me once. We were shinnying down a grass slope from where we’d parked, towards a Pee Wee baseball game. Don’t be with someone just because she’ll do your laundry, was another one. I knew he wasn’t talking about my mom, who tussled with him over money but who adored Alan as much as I did.
Late on the third day, I told Cory to keep an eye out front – he saidhe might as well keep an eye for mushrooms to grow out of his ass – as I removed the side-panel from the Analyzer. I peeled off the Laymats Labs sticker to reveal the heads of the bolts on the thick grey plastic cowl, which we learned later was the base from an exercise bike. I got pliers and pull-turned the bolts until the nuts and washers fell off inside, and I put a stockroom flashlight in the hole. There was a motor with a metal weight mounted off-balance on the shaft so when it came on it vibrated against a dirty foam pad.
“What’s in there,” Greta asked.
The Analyzer was hollow, except for a toffee-colored circuit board glued to the far side with colored wires going to the display panel. There were computer chips on the circuit board with numbers. The brains of the Laymats Technology. “Greta,” I said, lying on my side, “write this down.”
I mean, if Alan had been mean or an idiot I could have bundled this experience with his other bad-guy idiot advice. Like if he’d told me to jump off the garage roof holding an umbrella. But now where was it supposed to go? With my champagne wire sculptures in a row on his desk, labeled Brandon, Age 8?
The internet said chip AM-MC2020 was made by American Microsemiconductor. It was a “3-bit random number generator.” The other one was a 5-bit random generator. No wonder we were supposed to give customers cards with their numbers on them. The machine measured nothing, remembered nothing. All the underwear was basically the same underwear. The whole thing was a poorly-thought-out scam.
I walked off the job and went to the movies. At home that night, I got into it with Alan like I never had before. I shouted the word old against him for the first time, implying uninformed, dangerously out-of-touch. I asked him what the hell was he thinking? An underwear store? I asked him what did he know about anything, anyway? He just sat there with his colorful dopey belt and took it like Mr. Sad Hippie. I told him the next day I was sorry, that I’d been upset. He said he understood. But he looked bent-over in a way that crushed all the joy of escaping the job out of me. Two months later I moved out, got a job at Outback Steakhouse and rented an apartment with a guy I’d been on high school track with.
Web-search Corbin J. Laymats today and you don’t learn much. What he was a doctor of, where he is now. Mostly you find the Daily News story about the Alhambra customers figuring out what was what a day before we did. All three stores opened and closed inside of a week.
You can’t be a kid forever, I know that. Trusting everyone like some kind of puppy. Because really, what do they know? What if everything they love or everything they claim to know is random and doesn’t connect up to anything inside their heads at all?
These days I live in Camarillo for work. I’m a subcontractor; big places for the newly rich of Conejo Valley with ceiling-to-floor windows. My wife and I rent at the end of a long street that runs to the foothills of the Santa Susanas. Our daughters are one and three. I call mom and Alan once a week. If Alan answers he says, hey Smiler what’s up, then says he’ll put my mother on. When I went for mom’s birthday last month I looked in the second bedroom. My wire animal sculptures are still there, pushed to the back behind vacation photos.
It’s a big thing to commit to a house in a new neighborhood. You get an impression based on how it makes you feel, but you have no idea what it’ll look like in fifteen years when the trees grow in. When the baby in your wife’s belly is getting into trouble with other kids who also aren’t born yet. Nowadays when I build, walking the maple floorboards of a dance studio or checking the rise and curl of a marble stairway, there’s a phrase that comes to me I can’t shake. It moves in my head until I can’t go on with my work without letting it out. I walk to the spot with the grandest view and say it out loud. I say, one day this house is going to be the worst decision someone ever made.