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The Plateau by Nicholas Roth | Word Riot
Short Stories

October 22, 2016      

The Plateau by Nicholas Roth

I’m looking at a pair of “Levi’s 501 1978’s.” This is what the tag says they are, though the pant itself is indistinguishable to my eyes from a normal pair of Levi’s 501’s. When I ask the manager of the store what this extra number at the end means, he says it means they’re cut exactly like Levi’s were cut in 1978. I ask him why their being cut like they were in 1978 makes them cost six times as much as a pair of regular Levi’s. He says, “Putz, it’s because they’re a limited edition.” He can talk to me this way because he happens to be my ex-brother-in-law, but I still don’t appreciate it. So I ask if some new technology has had to be created to cut a pair of Levi’s like they were cut in 1978, and if so, how is it possible they didn’t need this technology to cut the pants in 1978. But I don’t want to get into a sarcasm match with this numbskull. I’m not married to his sister anymore, so I don’t have to debate him about pants. So I go into the dressing room and try the pants on. Incidentally, this is in Malibu, where I like to drive for lunch with my Korean ladyfriend who isn’t my girlfriend yet. I’m working on it. I’m too old for her. Maybe in a month when she turns thirty I won’t be too old for her anymore. On a sunny day I like to drive to Malibu and window-shop in the little mall they have there not so far from the ocean. So I take her there. I say she’s Korean, but she grew up in Torrance. In the dressing room, I realize right away why these pants cost $278. Mainly because when you put them on you can imagine paying $278 for them. This is my great insight. But what’s the idea behind these pants? To transport you back to a simpler time? Why should I want to be transported back to a simpler time? I like a more complicated time. Then the question that occurs to me is why does the Levi’s company think this is a good idea? Is the Levi’s company owned and operated by the Chinese? Maybe that sounds like a crazy jump in logic but I think nationality would have something to do with it. I think only the Chinese could come up with such a crazy idea as charging $278 because a pair of pants is cut like it’s still 1978.
      I’ve been living my whole life inside this particular Levi’s pant, the 501’s, and, besides, I’m an active stock trader, so you would think I would know more about the company, but here’s what I know about the company without looking it up on the Internet: It was started in, I want to say, 1848, but that doesn’t exactly make sense because the Gold Rush only started in 1849 and I feel like the company was started in California, specifically in San Francisco. I’m also not going to take my pants off and look at the label under the belt, where I think it tells you when and where the company started, so I’m really guessing. I’m guessing the American owners of the Levis’ company sold it at some point probably during my lifetime and it’s now in the hands of the Chinese. I don’t know it for a fact, of course. It’s probably in somebody besides America’s hands though. Chinese hands just strike me as the hands most likely for the Levis’ company to now be in. Most things that America invented are now in the hands of someone else, so it stands to reason that even if the Levis’ company isn’t in Chinese hands, it’s still in someone else’s hands. If you want to know more, go look it up. One thing I do know for sure though is that a pair of Levi’s 501’s shouldn’t cost nearly $300.
      I ask my ladyfriend if this sounds like the kind of idea the Chinese would come up with. But like I say, she’s Korean. It wasn’t like I hadn’t noticed she wasn’t Chinese. I know the difference. But she took slight offense. Not at the idea that this was the kind of crazy idea only the Chinese could come up with, but at the idea that she would have any great insight into the minds of Chinese executives at the Levis’ company just because she happened to be Korean. I told her I wasn’t offended when she asked me why the Jews study the Torah, despite the fact I’ve never read the Bible in my life. So, why should a young lady whose parents grew up a few hundred miles from the Chinese border be offended when I asked her about Chinese executives at the Levis’ company? She always has to have the last word, so I got my answer. Which I’ll skip. It’s not germane. Anyway, I don’t know who came up with the idea of the $278 pair of Levi 501’s or if they were even Chinese. Another theory might be someone at the Levi’s store there in Malibu, maybe even my idiot ex-brother-in-law, looked around at the Porsches and suntans and all that white linen draped all over the suntans and came up with the idea of a $278 pair of Levi’s 501’s, a pair of pants that normally costs around fifty bucks where I get them at the Levi’s store up in Oxnard. I drive up. It’s worth the drive. Up in Oxnard you have mainly farms and working people and they know what a pair of Levi’s 501’s should cost. I buy six pairs at a pop. I go through them fast. The thing is I wash the pants every time I wear them even once and I don’t like when they start to get light blue. I give them to Goodwill after maybe ten washings. You do the math you realize I can go through six pairs of Levi’s in about six months.

# # #

      We’re headed down the coast back toward Santa Monica and my Korean friend asks me, “What happened in 1978?” She wasn’t born yet in 1978 and she knows practically nothing about history, so she asks me questions like this. Once she asked me who Doc Severinsen was. I said he was the bandleader on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was the host. I said I never watched Leno, so it was possible Severinsen stayed on as bandleader for a while after Leno took over, but I didn’t think so. She vaguely remembered Johnny Carson being the host. She was three when he retired. I was already in college in New York when Johnny Carson retired. I remember watching the last show he did and being sad to see him go. I dropped out of college but that’s another story. Nothing to do with Carson retiring. Anyway, these are the kinds of questions my ladyfriend asks me. Sometimes I think she does it to make me feel old. But it doesn’t work. I like being able to answer questions. I might have made a good professor if I hadn’t dropped out. I was a history major and I dropped out in my junior year to trade bonds. I made money. That’s another story. I had no money when I was a junior in college and I have money now, but I don’t usually throw it away on things like a $278 pair of Levi’s 501’s. Anyway, she asks: “What happened in 1978?”
      I say, “What do you mean, What happened in 1978? How do you not know what happened in 1978?”
      “Jimmy Carter was president,” she says.
      “That you know, but you don’t know about the Plateau?”
      “What plateau?”
      “Famous. This was the last time, according to practically every poll ever conducted, when Americans last felt good. It’s generally referred to as ‘The Plateau.’ It has no real meaning, maybe, because were things so great in 1978? No, not really. But it’s the last time Americans felt good.”
      “Felt good about what?”
      “What do you mean, ‘everything?’” Are you trying to tell me they haven’t felt good about anything since 1978?”
      “Did I say ‘anything?’ I said ‘everything.’ It was the last time Americans felt good about everything. It doesn’t mean, obviously, that every American felt good about every single thing. It means that a majority of Americans, when their responses to various questions were taken into account, felt substantially good.” I can talk this way when I try to. I was always good at double-talk. “It was the last time, taken as a whole, the American public could be said to have felt good about everything. Granted, of course, this is just a product of the way averages are figured in polls, the kinds of factors they considered, et cetera, but it’s referred to as the Plateau and we’ve basically been sliding downhill ever since. Last time I checked, most polls now show that, not only are we nowhere near the Plateau anymore, we’ve entered some kind of trough or well, a very deep well. We’ve fallen down this well and there’s no one around to rescue us. That’s the situation we’re in according to all the polling I’ve looked at. No wonder the Levis’ company wants to remind us of 1978. It’s the last time Americans felt good about everything.”
      “What about the hostage crisis? With the hostages in Iraq?”
      “First of all, that was Iran, and, second, it wasn’t until 1979.”
      “What about the malaise?”
      So, she knew a little more about the late-seventies than I thought. Fine. “You’re talking about Carter’s crisis of confidence speech. Also 1979.”
      “But people felt good when I was growing up,” she tells me. “When I was a kid and Clinton was president, people felt good.”
      “Well, even in the 90’s they never felt as good as they did during The Plateau, and they only felt good for so long as they thought the Internet was going to make America great again. The Internet held out a lot of promise at first, but in the end what it delivered was mainly videos of cats doing things cats don’t normally do and a constant report of all the boring crap your friends are up to, which for reasons no one quite understands, we’re all obliged to look at a half-dozen times every day.”
      “It’s depressing when you tell me things like this, Harvey. Look how beautiful it is here and you tell me depressing things like this. Why do make things up just to try and depress me?”
      True, it was beautiful. Cliffs on one side, waves crashing against rocks on the other. I said, “You don’t believe in the Plateau?”
      “No,” she said. “But I like the fact you go to so much trouble to put me on.”
      “I put you on like a pair of Levi’s.”
      “You’re fat, Harvey. I wouldn’t fit.”
      I knew then that I’d fallen in love with her because this cut me. It wasn’t good that I’d fallen in love with her either, because she didn’t love me and never would, even if she’d gone to bed with me, which I’d been working my way up to without any success for close to a year. It cut me, being called fat. I’m not vain, but I don’t like being called fat. Am I fat? I don’t know. I take a 42 waist, but I’m six-two. I don’t know where this puts me on the fat index. But it cut me to be called fat. Also, I was pretty sure it was her way of telling me I was never going to sleep with her.
      I dropped her off at her apartment in Westwood and drove straight over to the Goodwill on Pico. “Just these?” the guy asked me. It was a guy named Arthur I’ve dealt with before. I’m usually dropping off a half-dozen pair of Levi’s so Arthur was a little surprised. “Just those,” I said. He said, “These still have the tags on them. You’ve never worn them?” “I’ve never worn them.” He read the tag. “What does it mean, 501 1978?” “Means it’s all downhill from here,” I said.

nick_roth_bio_photoAbout the author:

Nick Roth attended UCLA and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His stories have appeared or are upcoming in Failbetter, The Forge Literary Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, Flexible Persona, Rivet Journal, Duende, Your Impossible Voice, Punchnels, Feathertale, and Prick of the Spindle. He lives in Los Angeles.

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