“Chanel Number Five?” said Jerry. He and his brother, David, had entered the store at Fifth Avenue and were making their way toward the center of the ground floor. They had expected to find one perfume station in the department store; instead there were half a dozen, each with its own sales people, each designed and lighted differently. Jerry recited what was in front of them. “Lancôme. Estee Lauder. Elizabeth Arden. Bobbi Brown. Who he? Or she?”
“You’re the one who lives here,” David said. To Jerry’s ears it sounded like an accusation. “Remember Catherine Deneuve selling Chanel Number Five on television? ’He knows what you want.’” The commercial had been shown more than thirty years earlier, before David had leaned happily into European exile.
“Chanel isn’t Mom’s style,” Jerry said. “She’d never open it.”
“You don’t know Mom very well, do you?” said David. “Somehow I still see her more than you do.” Jerry knew it was true. Arlene lived in Los Angeles with her third husband; Jerry lived with his family some thirty miles north of New York City, in Westchester, and visited Los Angeles as infrequently as possible. Whenever David came back to the States, he took the trouble to go to both coasts. “Let’s try over here,” David said, leading Jerry to an amber-lighted L’Oreal counter.
The sales clerk behind the counter had cinnamon-colored skin, her black hair tied back with a violet ribbon, and large eyes so dark they were almost black, too. The eyes tracked the brothers as they approached the counter, then professionally looked away. The clerk seemed to be busying herself with flowers in a vase behind her.
“Stop leering,” said Jerry.
“Leering is good,” David said. “If we weren’t leering, she wouldn’t be doing her job.”
“I’m not leering.”
The brothers stood over the counter.
“Hello, gentlemen,” David said, playing ventriloquist to the clerk’s dummy. “Would you like to sample some perfume?”
“You’re makin’ my job easy,” the clerk said. Brooklyn or Bronx, Jerry thought. “You’re brothers, I can tell,” the clerk said.
“Cousins,” David half-sang, “Identical cousins!”
“Cousins? Are you serious?”
“It’s the theme song to The Patty Duke Show,” Jerry said.
“I’m not familiar with that show,” the clerk said.
David and Jerry looked at each other. With each passing year, they felt increasingly ancient, superfluous.
“The show was on when we were kids,” Jerry said. “Patty Duke was an actress.”
“Isn’t she still?” said David. He turned to the clerk almost apologetically. “I’m not up on American obituaries. I’m based abroad,” David said.
“He’s in Lapland,” Jerry said. “Where reindeer come from.”
“Oh, like there’s such a thing as reindeer!” the clerk said, smiling prettily.
You’re confusing reindeer with Santa Claus, Jerry thought, but he didn’t say it.
“I live in Norway,” David said. “It’s where the Liberal party is reactionary, and the Conservative party is relatively liberal.”
“Are you in politics?”
“Politics? No no. Music. I’m the manager of Oslo Filharmonien, a very old orchestra. Maybe it’s just a different kind of politics.”
“You were correct earlier,” Jerry said to the clerk. “This is my younger, taller, handsomer brother.”
“Aw, I’m sure you have good qualities, too,” the clerk said, holding two tiny bottles, each tweezed between thumb and forefinger. “Would you like to sample some perfume? For your wives?” Each brother wore a wedding band; the clerk was glancing at David’s left hand, Jerry noticed, though not at his.
“For our mother’s birthday,” David said.
“She must be a great lady,” the clerk said, her eyes flashing at David.
“Oh, she is,” David said. “Even if my brother here doesn’t think so.”
“Of course she’s great,” Jerry said. “I just don’t necessarily have the same relationship you have with her.”
“Aren’t you the guy who refers to her as Miss Passive-Aggressive of Nineteen Fifty-eight?”
“I said that once.”
“Why don’t I show you a couple of things she might like,” said the clerk, unscrewing the brass-colored cap to one of the bottles.
David said to Jerry, “You shouldn’t talk about Mom that way.”
Jerry said, “You’re behaving like that Marine in Hail the Conquering Hero, the self-appointed defender of mothers everywhere.”
“No. I’m defending my mother,” David said. “And the character’s name was Bugsy. He was fixated on mothers because he wasn’t lucky enough to have one himself. You’re the film professor. You should know these things.”
“Bugsy was a little off,” Jerry said.
“No, he wasn’t.”
“See the movie again. He was wacked out. He kept threatening Eddie Bracken.”
“Sir?” said the clerk, offering her antelope wrist to David. “Shall I tell you about this one?”
David leaned over the counter and sniffed her wrist. “Mmm, yes! This is fantastic!”
“Lanvin. Our very best.” The clerk glanced at Jerry. “Would you like to try, sir?”
Jerry could remember the first time someone called him sir without irony. He had the window seat on a Peter Pan bus traveling from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York to the bus station in Springfield, Massachusetts. A soldier stopped in the aisle, poised to stow his gear in the overhead rack. “Is this seat taken, sir?” said the soldier. Jerry was twenty-four and felt, for the first time, middle-aged. And that had been decades ago. “I must defer to my brother and his taste,” Jerry said. “Or do I mean sensibility?”
“Mom always liked you best!” said David.
“You guys don’t need perfume,” the clerk said, retracting her wrist, “you need a referee.”
“He’s doing Tom Smothers,” Jerry said.
“Tom’s mothers?” the clerk said. “Should I know who they are?”
“Please. One more sample?” said David, who reached across the counter for her wrist and tugged. Her resistance surprised him, and so it surprised Jerry—that’s how he would remember it later, anyway—and the push-pull tension caused the open perfume bottle to topple from the countertop and crack on the floor.
“Wow, that is strong!” said Jerry, the fumes rising to his nostrils.
The clerk muttered, “Fuck,” and strained to press something on the underside of the counter. She came around the display case and knelt to examine the mess, one knee emerging from beneath her skirt.
“Let me help you,” David said, hovering over her.
“Hold it there, sir!”
The brothers froze. An enormous man in a gray suit approached them. The suit itself looked like it was on steroids. The man’s skin was as coppery as the clerk’s, but shiny on his shaved head. His eyes were so unrevealing that he might as well have been wearing sunglasses. An earpiece was clipped to his ear, a plastic nametag pinned to the breast pocket of the suit. He held his arms slightly away from his body—a gunslinger without a gunbelt.
“There’s glass all over the floor,” David said, his elegant hands displaying the glittery, aromatic puddle.
“Just back away from her, sir!”
David stood up straight and took an exaggerated, giant step back. Jerry noticed that they had drawn a group of onlookers who were pretending, New York-style, not to look, tacitly implying that confrontations like this were merely part of the cityscape. Up close, Jerry could read the gray-suited man’s nametag: Arroyo. Satisfied the brothers would not move, the man turned his broad back on them. David shrugged quizzically at Jerry. After half a minute, Mr. Arroyo put a finger to his earpiece. He seemed to be speaking to the air.
“This is Arroyo, Loss Prevention.”
Jerry turned to David. “He’s in Loss Prevention.”
“Can he tell us how to prevent loss of testosterone?”
“Loss of face, maybe.”
“We’re in Fragrance and headed upstairs,” Mr. Arroyo said.
“Think he has handcuffs?” David whispered.
“Sidney Poitier cuffed to Tony Curtis! The Defiant Ones!”
“Come with me, please,” Mr. Arroyo said. It took Jerry a moment to realize that he was speaking to the brothers and not to someone in his earpiece. Jerry threw an apologetic glance to the perfume clerk, who looked up at him neutrally, neither pleased nor upset. Mr. Arroyo led the brothers to an unmarked elevator at the western end of the store that was separated from the passenger elevators. Following him down the aisle was like a perp walk with mood lighting and no catcalls, just some curious faces and the sound of Muzak. Mr. Arroyo pressed the button for the elevator without ever taking his eyes off his detainees. Jerry could hear the rumble of the old elevator descending from a floor or two above.
“Are we in trouble?”
“Hoo, boy, are we in trouble!”
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Arroyo said when the elevator door opened. Jerry went in, followed by David, then by Mr. Arroyo, who let the door close behind him. The elevator began to lift. Mr. Arroyo did not turn around to face front but kept his eyes on the brothers.
“Wasn’t this a Candid Camera episode?” said David.
“We saw that episode at Grandma Elsie’s, didn’t we? On her black and white TV.”
“The show was in black and white, Einstein,” said David. “Elsie had a color TV.”
The elevator cables hummed. As he often did while riding in an elevator, Jerry imagined the cables snapping, the car dropping suddenly.
“Are you staring at my feet?” said David.
“I’m not, I swear,” Jerry said.
“Yes you are! You’re staring at my goddam feet!”
“Gentlemen,” Mr Arroyo warned.
“Salinger,” Jerry explained. “‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish.’ After that scene, he goes into his hotel room and blows his brains out.”
The Loss Prevention officer narrowed his eyes. The elevator stopped; the door opened; Mr. Arroyo stepped aside so the brothers could exit. They found themselves in a long, narrow room, painted in a color somewhere between gunmetal gray and boys’ nursery blue, given over to security. At the moment a techno-rock version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” was piped in from somewhere near the ceiling. Braced against one wall was a large rack with shelves tipped slightly down, as if to display invisible shoes. The opposite wall space was empty, except for two paintings that must have been made more than a century earlier. One was of a man with slicked-down hair, ice-blue eyes and thin lips. The other was of a man with wispy hair and muttonchops and a monocle. Against a third wall stood a console of monitors showing various parts of the store.
“I had an apartment like this once,” Jerry said.
“Your identification, please, gentlemen.”
Jerry reached for his New York State driver’s license.
“I only have a passport,” David said.
“That’s acceptable,” Mr. Arroyo said. He took Jerry’s license and David’s passport and looked at them. After a few seconds he glanced up at their owners, from one to the other, as if confirming their identities. “Wait here,” he said. He stepped back into the elevator, which closed again. The brothers could hear it move.
“He didn’t say please that time.”
“He’ll be sorry,” David said.
They looked around the room. “Man, they got everything bolted down!”
“They don’t want you stealing anything.”
With only the techno-rock playing above them, the brothers’ paranoia wafted about the room like cigarette smoke in search of a vent.
“You ought to film this,” David said.
“Those days are over,” Jerry said. “I’ve become just another parasite of the arts.”
“Then what am I? I spend all my time making reservations, procuring music stands and folding chairs in Prague, arranging for a piano to be tuned in Seoul.”
“But you’re a real composer.”
“Because once every five years I write down a few notes? At least you still pick up a camera.”
“Eh, they’re home movies. And teaching film at a community college does not make me a filmmaker.” Jerry glanced at the video console. “All that stuff is being recorded for security.”
The brothers took a few steps closer. One screen showed two women fingering dresses, one of them lifting the hem of each dress to find a price tag. Another screen showed the escalators, patrons going up past patrons coming down. Jerry’s cell phone rang. He looked at the readout.
“Take it,” David said. There was nowhere to go to give Jerry privacy, so David bent farther over the monitors, as if to pay closer attention to each screen.
“Yeah, honey, we did find one. But we’re being detained. . . . David was a bad boy. . . . We were both bad, I guess. Call it a mishap. . . . No, I don’t think so.” Out of habit, Jerry put the phone to his chest and said to David, “She wants to know if we need a lawyer.”
“I can always use a lawyer,” David said.
“Christ, I’m already in the doghouse, now she thinks we’re going to jail.” Jerry put the phone back to his mouth and said to Helen, “No, don’t call him yet. If we get taken to Riker’s, you can visit us tomorrow.”
“Tell her to bring an iron file,” David said.
“David sends his love,” Jerry said to Helen and clicked off.
“Trouble in paradise?” said David.
“Helen sends love back.”
“Well, she’s a nice woman.”
“Uh oh, Here we go.”
“What? Didn’t I just say she was nice?”
“Davey, it’s no secret you don’t like my wife.” For years Jerry had experienced it as part of David’s superiority, and it kept him off balance. Jerry liked David’s wife, Astrid, well enough. Astrid designed sleek furniture, was dazzling to look at, and didn’t seem to care one way or another how Jerry perceived her.
“Not true. I figure Helen doesn’t have much interest in me. I don’t take it personally. You once said yourself she became a children’s librarian because she’s more interested in children than in grownups.”
“I said she was more interested in children’s books.”
“Okay, I guess that’s what you said. So why are you in the doghouse?”
“Last weekend I said something I shouldn’t have about Girls.”
“Maybe because you called them girls instead of women,” David said.
“Come into the twenty-first century. Girls is a television program, created by and starring Lena Dunham.”
“I’ve never heard of Lena Dunham. Lena Olin? Oh, yeah!” David glanced again at a monitor. “Jer, you’ve really got to take a look at this.”
Jerry went to his brother’s side. A camera was fixed on a bench—it seemed to be outside a ladies’ room—where a woman of pale complexion and stringy hair sat breastfeeding a baby.
“That kid is slurping away!” said David. “That’s right out of the London street scenes of Hogarth, you know, where the breastfeeding mothers all look drunk.”
“I’m thinking Fouquet’s Virgin and Child,” Jerry said. “Now that’s a painting!”
“Except the Virgin isn’t actually breastfeeding. Look over here.” David pointed to another monitor. “This guy’s wearing half the store.”
“And he’s walking right out! Jesus! Should we tell Mr. Arroyo?”
As if on cue, the elevator door opened again. The brothers hopped away from the console as if they’d been caught looking at pornography.
“Anything interesting?” Mr. Arroyo asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary, Mr. Arroyo,” Jerry said. “Not that I know what the ordinary would be.” He could feel his brother throwing him a look, though he wasn’t sure why. Should he have told the Loss Prevention officer about the shirt thief? A line came to him from his all-time favorite movie—I don’t eat cheese for no cops—but he wasn’t about to say it right now.
Mr. Arroyo produced Jerry’s New York State driver’s license and David’s American passport. “I am returning these to you, gentlemen. Ms. Perez has made no complaint against you.”
The brothers looked at each other. “I’m sorry I made her so nervous,” David said.
“The store would like you to pay for the breakage, however.”
“Of course. How much is it?”
“They’ll have to tell you downstairs. Please come with me.”
They followed Mr. Arroyo back to the elevator. “The fellows on the wall?” said David as they entered. “Founders of the store?”
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Mr. Arroyo said.
Jerry said, “The hairy brother was preferred by the father. The other one pretended to be the hairy one so he could get the old man’s blessing.” The elevator door closed on them. The three men descended. “Used an animal skin. The hairy brother sold his birthright to the unhairy brother.”
“What’s a birthright?” said David. Mr. Arroyo smirked. “What? I never knew!”
“I can’t tell if you’re mocking Genesis or you’re both just uneducated,” Mr. Arroyo said.
“Oh, the latter,” Jerry said. “I often don’t know what I’m talking about.”
The elevator stopped on the ground floor. Mr. Arroyo led them out by placing one meaty hand in the middle of Jerry’s back. Yet it was a light touch: Jerry could barely feel it. “You get a lot of shoplifters, Mr. Arroyo?” he asked.
“Some of them get away?”
“I guess shoplifters aren’t the most violent types.”
“You could say that. Except for the ones who hit you with a ball-peen hammer or try to slash you with a box cutter or a switchblade.”
“Jesus!” said Jerry. “How do you handle it?”
“He’s a security expert,” David said. “He can handle anybody.”
“I have some training,” Mr. Arroyo said. “We’re walking this way, gentlemen.”
Several steps ahead of the brothers, Mr. Arroyo navigated the narrow center aisle. Passing the L’Oreal counter, Jerry did not see Ms. Perez; the broken glass had been cleaned up, but the powerful fragrance remained. David turned to Jerry and whispered, “You keep insisting on using the man’s name. Is that an American thing?”
“Is what an American thing?” whispered Jerry. “He’s wearing a name tag.”
“Do you refuse to consider the name tag a badge of class identity? Security guards. Waitresses. Bank tellers. They’re all there to serve you. And they don’t call you by name.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Jerry moaned. “Many of them already know my name. And yours.”
“Gentlemen, say hello to Ms. Bostic,” Mr. Arroyo said, stopping to present a woman who appeared on the other side of a counter. She seemed a beguiling mix of African-American, red-hair and freckles.
“Hello,” Jerry said.
David put up his hand close to, but not quite touching, the Prevention Loss officer and said, “One quick question, if you don’t mind.” Then he added, “Mr. Arroyo.” Almost imperceptibly, Mr. Arroyo nodded his shaved head. “Did Ms. Perez say anything? About us, I mean?”
Mr. Arroyo did not smile with his mouth, but he did with his eyes. “She said, “Son hombres suaves antiguas.”
“Suave?” said David. “What’s that again?”
“If it’s not in Norwegian, French, or English,” Jerry said, “my brother won’t understand.”
“She said you’re a couple of harmless old geezers,” Mr. Arroyo translated.
“Well, that puts it in perspective, doesn’t it?” said Jerry.
“These are the gentlemen making restitution,” Mr. Arroyo said to Ms. Bostic. He retreated from the counter and was soon moving toward the store’s entrance.
“With tax, the perfume’s cost is one hundred and thirty-seven dollars and forty-six cents,” Ms. Bostic, all business, said.
Jerry extracted a wallet from his inside jacket pocket. “I have a Diners Club card here somewhere.”
David pulled a tiny Scandinavian purse from his outside jacket pocket and unzipped it. “Forget that! I’ve got Mastercharge!”
“We accept VISA, Mastercard, and American Express,” Ms. Bostic said.
David snapped a card on the counter in front of her. “It’s VISA, as you can see.” Annoyed, Ms. Bostic inspected the card, then swiped it through her machine.
“Why couldn’t you just hand her the card?” said Jerry.
“I’m paying, aren’t I?”
“Well, thank you, Mr. Rockefeller!”
“Marjorie Main! She played a bag lady in some movie that takes place in New York.”
“It was Bette Davis. We saw the movie with Dad, summer of sixty-three or -four.”
“But you can’t remember the title.”
“You’re thinking of A Pocketful of Miracles,” Ms. Bostic said, handing David’s credit card back to him, along with a receipt for the perfume.
“Hey, a cinephile hiding in plain sight!” said Jerry.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Ms. Bostic said, focusing on her computerized cash register.
Lacking an invitation to linger, the brothers headed for the exit. Jerry got a glimpse of Mr. Arroyo, one hand clasping his opposing wrist; although Mr. Arroyo seemed to be looking right back at him, there was no recognition. Jerry was aware they were passing through the merchandise detectors, and he half-expected an alarm to go off, even though neither brother was taking anything away from the store. They stepped onto Fifth Avenue but, for the moment, stood back from the swarm of pedestrians.
“Well, that was fun,” Jerry said. “Should we try Saks?”
“Anyplace that doesn’t have fifty American flags hanging over the door,” David said.
Jerry looked up. “Funny, I never noticed those.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. You take them for granted.”
The brothers began to walk south on the avenue, neither of them certain where they were going.
“I am famished,” David said.
“There’re a couple of Irish bars, one on Madison, one right off it.”
“I’m Irish bar’d out this trip. What else?”
Jerry said, “There’s also pretty good Korean a few blocks down. We could order oyster pancakes and have ‘em shipped to California, never mind the overpriced perfume.”
“Mom told me the best birthday present she could have is for us to get along.”
“Yeah, well, maybe next year,” Jerry said. “Speaking of The Defiant Ones, remember the ending? Sidney Poitier cradling Tony Curtis and singing the blues?”
“Bowlin’ gree-een!” sang David.