For the first time in nearly five years, Michael Jackson released an album yesterday. Sales in the Washington area were:

(A) So strong that record stores sold half of their stock and noticed that every other customer left with a "Bad" album, compact disc or cassette.

(B) So weak that record-store clerks listened to customers mock a life-size poster of Jackson and answered more calls about REM's new album, also released yesterday.

(C) All of the above.

The correct answer is (C).

Michael Jackson's album resembled Michael Jackson yesterday: entirely unpredictable.

"I thought we'd get about a billion phone calls," said Kenny Wasley of Waxie Maxie's Records in Alexandria. "But we didn't get that many at all."

Wasley said a life-size poster of Jackson -- adorned in black leather and doused with heavy makeup -- stood at the entrance of the store, but proved not much of a draw.

"We had people of all races coming in here, making fun of the way he looks," Wasley said. "They were being pretty cruel. Some guy said he thought Jackson was trying to look more like his sister, he had so much makeup on."

Mike Henry, manager of Kemp Mill Records at Iverson Mall in Marlow Heights, said he expected at least a dozen "Bad" customers to be lined up waiting for the store to open, just as some Beatles fans were when the Beatles' compact discs were released earlier this summer.

"I don't know what happened; I thought they'd be here waiting," Henry said, "but it was still a busy day. It seemed like every other person left with the album. It wound up being real strong."

Jackson's last album, "Thriller," sold an unprecedented 38 million copies worldwide, 20 million of those in the United States. Anticipating a similar sale for "Bad," record stores have purchased huge stocks of the albums, cassettes and compact discs.

"I think it's in the category of 'Top Five Ever' for presale purchases," said Howard Appelbaum, vice president of Kemp Mill Records, which has 29 stores in metropolitan Washington. "I've bought as much stock for this album as for any other I can remember."

Still, Jackson's five-year sabbatical between albums, coupled with his highly publicized, unusual life style -- collecting llamas, sleeping in plastic oxygenated bubbles, offering millions for the Elephant Man's remains, etc. -- has caused some record-store executives to think twice before pronouncing great expectations.

"To be honest, I'm a little leery of the record," said Kenny Dobin, album and cassette buyer for Waxie Maxie's Records. "Has he become too strange to sell? I still wonder about that."

"We expect huge sales, but we're not certain," Appelbaum said. "A lot of people look at him differently now. He's not so cool anymore in many people's minds. And you hear him being made fun of a lot. But I think this music will speak for itself. It's strong, and I'll think it will wind up selling big."

At Douglas Records on F Street, that was instantly the case. Store manager Kenneth Davis said more than 50 albums were sold in one hour, and more than half of his 420-album supply was gone by the end of the day.

"It's been just tremendous in here," Davis said. "And the phone hasn't stopped ringing, with people asking 'Is Michael's album there yet?' "

The "Bad" supply did not arrive at Tower Records on Pennsylvania Avenue until 2 p.m., and within two hours at least 100 albums were sold as television camera crews filmed the brisk buying.

"They're grabbing them as fast as we can put them out," said Chip Tennille, a store clerk. "But it's not been a mad rush. Actually, we got the same amount of calls for REM's new album 'Document' as we got for 'Bad.' So who knows what's going on?"