Brand Values

"Brand Values" was first published in the Summer 2014 (Vol. VIII, No. 2) issue of TSR: The Southampton Review. On July 14, 2017, actor Maulik Pancholy read "Brand Values" for a recording of the Public Radio International show Selected Shorts at Avram Theater in Southampton, New York.

“He said anything less than fifteen thousand,” the redhead said.

“Isn’t that sixteen-fifty?” said the woman in heels.

“It’s fine,” said the redhead. “He won’t notice.”

The two women did not look at the security guard as they left the shop, handbags dangling from their wrists. He cleared his throat and rolled his head from side to side. Seven more hours, he thought.

Leonard could describe at length almost any of the handbags in front of him, each worth more than four months of his salary. Day after day he watched people survey them, touch them, and give speaking looks to their companions, either of pleading or of promises. A few times he’d had to remind people not to wander off with them. Mostly, though, he preferred to say nothing.

“We’re a lifestyle brand,” as Leonard’s manager had told him on that first day, five years earlier. “Every person who walks through these doors is a client, not a customer. You know what I’m saying?”

Leonard understood. He was happy to have a job that required he wear a suit and a tie without having to say much. Leonard wasn’t boastful or particularly ambitious, and he tended to daydream. This suited the work of an asset protection specialist just fine. The last five years had passed in a blur of routines, each day’s opening, its closing, each holiday promotion building on the next, until Leonard wasn’t sure exactly what he’d done with his time, besides serve and protect Italian leather.

Shoppers who came into the store often already carried or wore the brand’s purses and shoes. People collected the merchandise as if it were a matter of necessity, as if in a great flood one would run to the house of the neighbor with the largest assortment of clutches. Still, Leonard had to hand it to the customers. Backs straight. Lips pursed. Polished exteriors. Cost is no object, their expressions promised. Most performed as if on a date with a high-profile celebrity: anxious, self-conscious, proud. The managers and shop assistants bestowed their varying moods upon these shoppers at whim, dialing between indifference and judgment.

“I’m having trouble deciding,” a customer would say, “between the canary or the grapefruit.”

“The canary really goes with your look,” Rachel would respond, and then sigh after the customer left with a yellow bag hanging from her arm. She was a bitch, she’d announce to Michaela or Jessica, whoever was working the cash register.

Leonard never spent time with his coworkers after the store closed. Once or twice Michaela or Rachel had invited him for drinks at the hotel bar across the street, but Leonard was certain they saw him as a token: How amusing if we could get the security guard to go out with us! They were all two decades younger, 20-somethings with coiffed hair and elongated vowel patterns.

“Lenny!” the girls would plead. “You have to come just once.”

“Maybe next time,” Leonard would say.

It was April when the changes came. It was unseasonably warm, and the shop kept its front door propped open. Representatives from the flagship store upstate kept coming in for visits, taking managers out to lunch. A few headed to meetings from which they didn’t return. Since the shop was relatively small— only three connected rooms, clean and white and full of sunlight—Leonard heard his co-workers talking.

“I saw Jenny’s file,” said blond Nancy, who worked afternoons in the back office.

“How?” said Kari, from shoes.

“I have access to all of them,” Nancy said. “I’m organizing the annual reports, so they gave me a key to the filing cabinets. Anyway, Jenny didn’t quit. She was fired.”

That will happen to me, Leonard thought, panicking. Near a softly-lit rack of designer umbrellas, a girl half his age was describing his fate.

But the next week Leonard still had his job, and the week after that, too. He was not asked to the hotel bar. Anticipating cutbacks, he picked up extra shifts. He stayed alert. Though he rarely spoke with those who worked the cash register or assisted customers in sales, he saw, as the weeks passed, fewer and fewer familiar faces. He was e-mailed a series of increasingly cryptic executive memos, which he read on the bus on his way home.

“You may be aware of staffing changes during peak hours,” the first memo said.

“We are taking exciting steps to enhance our brand appeal. What this means FOR YOU is dependent on your willingness to convey brand values in the months ahead. Monitor your inbox for further information.”

The memo was signed by someone named Gort Johnson. Gort’s postscript invited Leonard to download an attached file, which offered two free passes to a new gym on 55th Street.

Brand values? thought Leonard. Did he—all 6'2", 240 pounds of him—embody brand appeal? He pictured the men and women who shopped at the store. Young usually, but not always. Perky mostly, but sometimes perky could be difficult. It seemed to Leonard that it might be wealth and stature (toned, twiglike) that unified them. If these were the brand’s guiding principles, he didn’t stand a chance.

By the middle of May, logo scanning, the trendiest of emerging technologies, had replaced the fingerprint scanning machines that had replaced the credit card scanners that had originally eliminated the cash registers. To ease the fluidity of transactions and reinforce commitment to the three stated tenets of the brand—defined in a recent memo by Gort Johnson as taste, style, and loyalty— customers could have the brand’s logo tattooed on the inside of their wrists. During the process of “logoing,” customers’ financial data would be encrypted onto a microscopic chip embedded underneath the brand’s inked image, a one-inch-long diamond with a halo around it. Leonard thought such drastic measures would cause outrage among the clientele. Many, however, seemed quite pleased, and relished opportunities to show off their wrists.

New security appeared at the main doors, identical blond dimple-chinned men dressed in white suits and white ties with gold-tipped shoes. Leonard got the sweats when he first saw them, but they let him pass without eye contact and did not disturb him at his post by the handbags.

The changes to the restrooms were similarly striking. In the men’s room, a woman’s sultry voice trilled out of an overhead speaker: “I love my luxe, luxe luxury brand. Sexy. Beautiful. Don’t you? Don’t you love me?” Then she started to scream.

Or maybe laugh. Leonard wasn’t sure.

A new memo arrived from Gort Johnson.

“Dear Staff,” it said. “Those of you still remaining are doubtless aware of certain exciting changes to our appearance and maintenance. Some new security measures:

1. All staff are expected to be logoed by June 1. This is a requirement. Please see me, Gort Johnson, for details.

2. Please do not stand by, block, or converse with any of the attendants posted at the front entrance. For security purposes they should remain undisturbed (unless by senior staff).

3. For your own safety do not enter the yellow door behind the back room. This is prohibited for all staff below Level Five. Violators will be treated as shoplifters. (See measure four.)

4. If you find someone attempting to shoplift, please report him or her to your senior staff person immediately. Other than this immediate reporting, do not attempt to handle the situation on your own. Similarly, if someone tries to negotiate prices or refunds, please follow the same reporting procedure. As a luxury brand, we must safeguard the value of our products. We will not tolerate a bargain.

Had Leonard known what would happen when the violators of store policy were reported to senior staff, he might have never followed procedure. But one simply does not go into work imagining such things.

It was late afternoon. Two teenagers had been lingering in front of the display of summer purses. Leonard as usual was standing against the wall as they debated the merits of a glossy yellow bag.

“They would never,” the first girl said.

“Who needs to know?” said the second. She had a bored look and wore a great deal of makeup.

The first girl picked up the bag and turned it around. She inspected the lining, zipped and unzipped the inner compartments. Slipping her arm through the bag, she examined herself in the full-length mirror, head tilted to one side.

“Would you mind not staring?” A voice broke Leonard’s trance. The second girl was beside him, arms crossed under her chest. She had see-through braces with a smear of lipstick on one tooth.

“Beg your pardon?” Leonard said.

“Uh, beg your pardon?” she mocked. “Are you serious? You keep staring at us. It’s making me uncomfortable.”

“I’m sorry, miss,” said Leonard. “I’m just doing my job.”

He backed away from her, only to notice the other girl was gone, and so was the purse.

The men in white suits escorted the girls into the back room and through the yellow door. When he started the job, Leonard had hated this part the most—the embarrassed mother, the crying teenagers, having to act stern while he filled out the report. Now, this responsibility was left to someone else, and Leonard was free to merely shepherd the offenders along. Just a simple here they are, sir.

A week later Leonard was at his apartment, breakfasting on the last of his rolled oats and watching morning TV. On the news was a press conference with two sets of parents at the podium, red-eyed and looking lost.

“Please help us find our girls,” one father said. He had dark hair and a narrow face and kept looking down at the podium. “We won’t rest until they’re safe.”

On the screen flashed school photographs of the two missing girls.

Leonard dropped his spoon.

That day Leonard’s eyes darted from one white-suited security guard to the other, imagining their sinister activities. The guards stared straight ahead, eyes only on the main entrance.

The girls had been taken through the yellow door in the back room. On break Leonard lingered there, waiting until it was empty. Five minutes before the end of his lunch, Leonard found himself alone. He took a step toward the yellow door.

“Leonard Haskins,” said a voice behind him. “What is your plan?”

Leonard turned. It was Gort. It had to be. Gort, tall and impossibly thin and dressed in black.

“You are Leonard, yes?”

Leonard nodded, and felt the first drops of sweat on his back.

“You have not yet been logoed,” Gort said.

Leonard exhaled. “I know,” he said. “Could I do it tomorrow?”

That evening, a new memo arrived.

“Dearest Staff: We understand the media has been circulating images of two young girls who were last reported to have been seen in our store. This is a sad day for us, as the safety and security of our loyal customers is of the upmost importance to us. We will join in the fight to find the missing girls and bring them back into the fold of our brand. Meantime, if you feel the need to discuss this issue, please see senior staff.

On a more exciting note, we are pleased to inform the staff that we will begin distributing paychecks through our new logoing system. This means you will receive your payments automatically upon logo scanning. We will continue to issue paper or direct deposit paychecks for the next two weeks, until all staff is transitioned. We stress that this is a vital part of our brand reenvisioning, and your cooperation is essential. If you have not yet been logoed, please see me immediately.”

Leonard had wanted to avoid a brand on his wrist, particularly a diamond-shaped one that seemed to mock his financial status. He’d been wondering if he could get an artist friend of his to design him a fake—ink or henna, nothing embedded. But now that his paycheck was tied to it: Well, shit. Leonard felt he had no choice.

“We are trained in this, Leonard,” said Gort. A set of chairs with wide armrests had been arranged in the back room to accommodate the procedures. A woman with white hair and a pearl necklace was milling about, smiling, swiping hydrogen peroxide on the wrists of three people Leonard had never seen before— customers?—with small cotton cloths.

“Just so we’re clear,” Leonard said. “My credit score is 550.”

“That is none of our concern,” Gort said. “I hear you are one of our best employees.”

Gort slipped something under Leonard’s tongue—an “anesthetic”—and Leonard put his head back. The procedure was painless, surprisingly. It actually felt good. Gort tapped him on the shoulder when it was all over.

“I am pleased to show you your newest accessory,” he said, and pointed to Leonard’s wrist.

After logoing, Leonard felt a great improvement in his spirits. Blissed out, really. Recent issues—his shitty pay, the missing teenagers, the off-limits yellow door—seemed inconsequential.

Anyway. What had he been worrying about? That the store did away with a couple of kids? It was laughable. Ludicrous. A lot had been put into making the brand’s products impeccable. Stealing from the store was deeply offensive, and put everyone’s job on the line. Leonard began guarding the handbags with zealous appreciation.

That summer he saw his first correcting treatment. A customer in a gray power suit wanted a refund on a pair of pumps on which a heel had given way.

“So you’ve already worn them,” the salesgirl said.

“Well, of course,” said the woman. “I wore them once and they fell apart. It was three days ago. Go ahead and scan me.”

“I don’t need to scan you to know you’ve worn them more than once,” the salesgirl said.

“Excuse me?” said the woman, her voice louder. “I paid $3,000 for these shoes. I expect a refund.”

The salesgirl sighed audibly. There was a flash of blue light, and where the customer had stood was a pile of ash that looked not unlike the steely color of the brand’s new “Haute Torture” line. The smell of musk and copper filled Leonard’s nostrils. A mere foot away, a customer in a white lace dress stood watching with her mouth open, flexing a pair of sunglasses like a stress ball. She looked up at Leonard from the place where the woman had stood and was about to open her mouth when she was knocked to the ground by a second customer, a flailing middle-aged woman with a bleach-blond blowout who was trying to escape the room. Gort appeared as if by magic, and hit a few buttons on the logo-scanning console at the front desk. In an instant, both customers had picked themselves up off the floor and returned to shopping.

“Is this the Fall Red line?” the one in the white lace dress said to Leonard, pointing to a rack of purses. He nodded silently.

They paid no notice to the men in white suits, or the young gray-clad teenager sweeping the pile of sooty remains into a discreet metal dustpan.

By October everyone who worked in the store had been logoed. Leonard was working seven days a week, sleeping in the back room on a cot management had set up for that purpose. He no longer laughed at the voice in the men’s bathroom. “I do love you,” he said, while urinating. Crowds came in to shop around the clock, attracted to the brand’s improvement and desperate for inclusion. If a person didn’t have the brand’s logo on their wrist, well—Leonard didn’t want to know them.

He was often, and inexplicably, hungry. For sustenance he skulked behind the yellow door, digging through the possessions of people who had insulted the brand. Occasionally he found a melted granola bar, or piles of burnt almonds, which he rationed out to himself. His pay, received twice a month, went directly back into the store. In his staff locker he stored his new collection: the scarves, shoes, and watches he loved best. On his first day off he would have many pieces to choose from.

EMILY BUCKLER is a writer, editor, and the creative programs curator at StoryStudio Chicago, a creative writing center for adults. She is a graduate of Stony Brook Southampton's MFA program and lives by the beach in Rogers Park, Chicago, with her husband, three friends, and three cats.