The GENEration Pyramid
I wasn’t sure I had the right place. When I plugged the address into my GPS, it took me to what looked like a semi-abandoned industrial park, all concrete with overgrown grass and broken bottles littering the parking lot. I pulled up next to a half-dozen cars under one of the few working lights in the parking lot. Safety in numbers, I thought.
I saw a thin, tall but stooped-over man in his early 60s wearing a golfer’s visor get out of his Subaru. I immediately sized him up as a divorced middle-aged alcoholic. In other words, someone just like me. “Is this the place?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
We walked toward one of the buildings, which seemed to be totally vacant, and then around the corner, where we saw people unloading identical small cardboard boxes from a white mini-van. The boxes all had “GENEration Nutraceuticals” printed on the side.
“Is Generation Nutraceuticals the name of the company?” I asked.
“My friend didn’t say.”
“Neither did mine. Let’s check it out.”
A muscular man in his early 50s came out of a stairwell exit of one of the buildings and grabbed a stack of three boxes. “Is this the place?” I asked him.
“This is the place!” he said, grinning, and shifted all three boxes into his left arm so he could shake my hand with his right. His sinewy hand gave me a firm handshake. “Jeff Butler, North Shore Regional Manager. And who might you two be?”
I identified myself and my golfer friend introduced himself as “Hal.”
“Would you gents like to lend me a hand?” Jeff asked.
He gave Hal and me each a box, and I was a little surprised at how heavy they were, given that Jeff was carrying three of them. As we carried them inside and up the stairwell, Jeff leading the way, I asked him, “What’s this all about? My friend didn’t really say that much.”
“Once we get up there and settle in, I’ll fill you in and answer all your questions,” Jeff said.
As we climbed, Hal got short of breath and paused at the very first landing. “You guys …go on ahead …I’ll catch up …”
When I got up to the meeting room, I saw my friend Sandy schmoozing. I had just inherited millions from my mother and didn’t really have any stake in this “business opportunity.” What I did have a stake in was Sandy, a divorced woman in her 40s who I knew through the yoga circles and who managed to retain a great body and youthfully bratty good looks. She had gone through a bitter and nasty divorce with an attorney, of all people, and had gone deeply into debt—hence her interest in get-rich schemes.
As Hal and I piled our boxes in the corner, she looked in our direction, waved, and winked. After a couple minutes, she headed over in our direction. To my surprise, the first person she threw her arms around was not me, but Hal. “So glad you could make it!” she cooed, and then turned to me and gave me the same greeting. I wondered how she knew Hal and whether he was here for the same reason I was.
As we seated ourselves, Sandy placed herself strategically between Hal and me so we could vie for her attention. Jeff took center stage at a podium and addressed the 30+ people in the room. He didn’t have a microphone. He didn’t need one. His voice carried and resonated. “Good evening, all of you!” The audience responded, as if on cue: “Good morning!” I wondered whether the other audience members had been to one of these meetings before.
“Before I begin, I’d like you to close your eyes and join me in a little visualization exercise. Go on, close them! No peeking!” Titters in the audience. “I want you to visualize the things you want in your life. Maybe it’s a comfortable early retirement. Maybe it’s a home on a Caribbean island overlooking white sand and turquoise water, the sun radiating down on your face as you have your morning coffee. Maybe it’s taking care of the loved ones in your life or giving money to your favorite charity.” I had all the creature comforts I needed, save one. I had elaborate and vivid sexual fantasies about Sandy. “Don’t just imagine it. See it. Hear it. Feel it. Smell it.” I followed his directions and started to get aroused. “Now let’s talk about how we’re going to make your dreams a reality. Through the mere decision to show up tonight, you’ve been self-selected to take part in a bold business venture, marketing a product that is sure to change the entire landscape of nutritional supplements, if not medicine itself. It was designed by our founder, Tobias Schlesinger, who is a Professor of Pharmacogenomics at the University of California. Dr. Schlesinger identified those genes that confer strength, vitality, and longevity and has used an orally administered vector to turn on these genes. In other words, this product will change your DNA.”
I raised my hand and Jeff pointed to me. “If it changes your DNA, how can it be available without a prescription?”
“Good question! GENEration Nutraceuticals are marketed as a supplement and not a drug, so that clears up a lot of red tape. We didn’t have to run clinical trials because we’re not making any specific health claims, and we don’t even have to run trials to prove their safety. We expect that, once people know about this product, it will fly off the shelves. This is where you come in. GENEration’s marketing director, who happens to be a close personal friend of mine, has decided that the best way to market this product is through network marketing.”
At this point, I turned to Sandy and muttered, “You realize, of course, that ‘network marketing’ is a euphemism for ‘pyramid scheme.’” I expected her to get angry, but, instead, she just turned to me and put her finger in front of her lips.
Jeff proceeded to produce a slide with a flow chart that moved upward. It was fat at the bottom and narrow at the top. “A pyramid?” I muttered. “Really?” Sandy didn’t look at me but smiled wryly.
“This is a brand-new product we expect to really take off, and you’re on the ground floor,” Jeff explained. “This is a pay-to-play situation, and you start by buying the starter kit, which contains a gross of the product pills. But every time you buy the product, a portion of your investment shoots up the chain to your immediate superior. At this stage, the important thing is to get a team of people working for you. They start paying it upwards, and the people under you start paying it upwards. Assuming six people to a team, if you have six people under you, you start earning $120 a month. If you have two tiers under you, you earn $720 a month, and so on. The market is far from saturated here, so I expect everyone in this room to make a lot of money. Any questions?”
I raised my hand and he pointed to me. “Assuming you’re not lucky enough to be at the top of the pyramid,” I said, and Sandy jabbed me with her elbow. “Assuming you’re one of the drones at the bottom of the pyramid, can you make any money?”
“The trick is to get as many teams under you as you can.”
“I guess what I’m asking is will this product sell to people who aren’t part of the GENEeration family? In other words, does the product itself have anything to offer?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “I take it every day and I’ve never felt better. I hate to go into cheap theatrics, but . . .” At that, he picked up the podium, which appeared to be made of wood and looked quite heavy, creating a collective gasp in the room. Then he lifted it straight over his head in a military press, and there was a collective, “Whoa!” “Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, but after using the product, I’ve been able to build a ton of strength and energy.”
At the end of his talk, Jeff directed us to keep coming back and bringing our friends. “Don’t tell them anything about it other than that it’s a great business opportunity,” he said. After he was done speaking, a number of audience members, men and women, young and old, surrounded him and began asking questions.
“What did you think?” Sandy asked me in conspiratorial tones.
“Pyramid pyramid pyramid,” I said, patted her on the shoulder as if to say, “Stay!” and I went over to the podium. I half expected it to be made of painted Styrofoam or at least flimsy particleboard, but it was solid wood—and it was extremely heavy.
A hand came down hard on my shoulder. It was Jeff, staring at me with a hard gaze, and grinning. “That’s what I like to see—healthy skepticism! Skeptics wind up being some of our best marketers!”
Jeff went into an adjoining room, where people were already gathering. Sandy came up behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. “You’ll be under me,” Sandy whispered, and as I was visualizing that statement and processing it, she herded me the other room, where Jeff. “Right now we’re recruiting as many marketers as we can. You want to build at least one tier of marketers under you, and then they’ll build tiers under them and pretty soon you have a money stream moving upward like an oil geyser,” he was saying. “You need to contact as many people as you can. Everyone you know. You don’t’ have to tell them what we’re doing yet. Just get them into the room—that’s the important thing.”
And then he mimed being on the phone. “Hi, it’s Jeff. Listen, I just found out about an amazing business opportunity that can make us all rich, and we’re getting in at the ground level. I’m going to send you the link to the address where you want to go.” At this, he broke from his role and asked, “What if he starts asking questions? People?”
“Someone’s at the door!” someone called out. “Tell them someone’s at the door!” It was Hal, who suddenly seemed all jacked up. It was as if someone had finally pushed his “on” button.
“Great!” he said, and then said into the phone. “Listen, I’ve got another call coming in—but you’ll be there, right?” Click.
I raised my hands. “I don’t think that’ll work!” I said. “My friends would never just show up to a place without knowing what it’s all about. Especially if I’m being obtuse.”
People were staring at me, including Jeff. Some of them were actually glaring. “Thank you for bringing that up. The answer is you’ve got to convince them. You’ve got to convince them through your level of enthusiasm. Are you enthusiastic?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, “and…”
“I’d work on that if I were you!” Jeff said, and the audience laughed. “Our first goal is to get one person to show up at a meeting. One friend. Do you think you can do that?”
When I got home, I went online and did a search of “Tobias Schlesinger.” The first thing I found was an entry in Wikipedia: “Born August 29, 1949, in Taos, New Mexico. American herpetologist and early pioneer of gene therapy. After receiving his Bachelor of Sciences at Harvard University, he returned to New Mexico to earn his Ph.D. in biology at the University of New Mexico, where he stayed on to study gene mutations in iguanas. He later helped to found a small biotech start-up called Gila, which specializes in designing oral vectors for gene delivery, before abruptly retiring from his CEO position and living in seclusion. He is believed to be living in rural Brazil.” I was a little surprised that the entry never mentioned GENEration Nutriceuticals and I wondered whether he had anything to do with the company at all.
Sandy called me up and asked me out for a drink. I was flattered and intrigued. We met at a nice little restaurant overlooking some marshes in Essex. She was dressed in a short, tight skirt, which I appreciated. We ordered drinks. “What do you think?” she asked.
“About the Company.”
“It looks like a pyramid scheme but it looks like we’re getting in early.”
“Well, it doesn’t just happen, my friend. You’ve got to get out there and get people in your chain. Friends. Family members. Your yoga students.”
I sighed. The problem was, I liked all these people, they all trusted me, and I had very mixed feelings about getting them involved. After all, there was no telling when the market would get saturated or even if they could line up prospects. I could afford to roll the dice. There were plenty of them who couldn’t. “I’m not very good at selling stuff,” I finally responded.
“You’ll learn,” she said, definitively.
“Is your friend Hal on board?”
“Fuck him!” she snapped, which I thought was a good sign—eliminating the competition. “And Jeff! Hal signed up to be on Jeff’s team so the whole process bypassed me. Jeff stole my prospect, and it pisses me off! When I complained, Jeff told me I wasn’t being a team player!”
I did have a prospect in mind, a beautiful actress who was a yoga student of mine. I thought she might be an excellent salesperson and could be a real asset to my team. But I wanted to be upright and honest about it. “Do you have any interest in getting in early on a pyramid scheme?”
Veronica’s ears perked up and she said, urgently but cheerfully, “Tell me more, Rob!”
I told her all about it and how it worked, with no sugar coating. I said that it was downright cultish but possibly represented an opportunity to make money. I asked her whether she would like to go to a meeting. She said yes, along as I was there, and as long as I didn’t give anyone her e-mail address or phone number. I thought it would automatically raise my standing in this group to bring a beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic prospect into the meeting.
The meeting was at Sometimes a Great Notion, owned by one of the marketers, which sold high-end shoes and handbags and was one of those boutique-y places rich women buy to manage and keep themselves busy and feeling successful. When I arrived, there were only half a dozen people there, including all the usual suspects, including Jeff, Sandy, and the store owner. I announced that I had a great prospect coming. When she did arrive, they swarmed her excitedly. By their questions, I realized that Veronica was the only potential recruit in the room. I had thrown her to the wolves. Jeff went through how the “network marketing” worked, but of course, Veronica knew all that. She finally stood up and started for the door. Jeff interrupted her exit to ask “Where are you going?” and Sandy stood between her and the door.
“I love this product and it was great meeting you guys and I’m very excited!” she said. “But I have to get up early tomorrow! I’ll be in touch through Rob.”
As she left, Jeff, Sandy, and several others followed her out the door. I went out, too, and kept an eye on things from a distance. Jeff was talking non-stop, and Veronica was smiling warmly but shaking her head. When she stepped into the car and pulled out of the driveway, I noticed another car suddenly pull out and follow her.
“Hey, who are you?” I called out, causing the driver to suddenly jerk his head toward me, almost like some kind of reptile. Except for the fact he was wearing a hoodie and had a steely gaze, I would have sworn it was Hal.
Concerned, I got into my car and pulled out to follow them, but the car listed to the right and I realized the tire was flat. I immediately pulled over and looked at the tire. It had been slashed. Or rather …
“My tire was just slashed!” Jeff called out and Sandy echoed it. “Not just slashed—it looks like it was clawed!” he added.
I looked down at my tire and saw what he meant. It wasn’t just a clean cut like with a razor. Something had savaged it.
The next morning, I had e-mails from several of the pyramid people, including Sandy and Jeff, with the subject line: “Veronica.” “Veronica’s great! We need to get her to one of the meetings. Do you think it would help if I called her or e-mailed her? Do you have any contact information for her?” Sandy’s e-mail said essentially the same thing and I responded, “Veronica has kindly asked me not to supply her phone number or e-mail address to anyone. Please respect her wishes.”
The next time I saw Veronica in class, several days later, she was looking a little pale, with circles under her eyes. “How are you?” I asked, making her jump a little.
“I’m fine!” she answered. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“It was an innocent question!” I said.
She laughed—a forced laugh, it seemed—and said, “I’m sorry!”
I thought about asking her whether she was on board with the GENEration company, but thought that it might be rude to pressure her, especially in class. And yet, when I started teaching, I saw her whispering to another student, pretty much ignoring my instructions. Then I saw her reach for her bag, pull out a business card, and give it to another student.
I continued to teach the class, trying to not become distracted by what had just happened. And then, by God, she started on the student on her other side. After she whispered to that student for a couple of minutes, I said, “Okay, Veronica. I’m finding this all very distracting. We’re here to do yoga. Would you like to join us?”
“Sorry!” she said and put her hands together in the “Namaste” position. But, instead of returning to the yoga practice, she pulled another business card from her bag and gave it to the student. Then she picked up her bag and yoga mat and quietly disappeared out the door.
When I got home from class, I e-mailed her with a generic, “How is everything?” I never heard back. I texted her and never heard back. When I called her, I got a voicemail that said, “You’ve reached Veronica of Generation Nutraceuticals, supplements for the next generation! Please leave a message!”
I left another message: “Who are you working for? Is it Hal?”
Meanwhile, I kept getting all kinds of e-mails from the GENEration, full of online seminars and invitations to various meetings. Of course, the meetings cost money, and I thought: If they wanted us to sell their product, why were they charging us money for marketing training? It only made sense if we were the product and not the supplements.
I did open up a message came up from Sandy: “Greeting, team! The other day an email was sent out by Customer Care with a whole list of Webinar Business Presentation times. I just want to advise everybody that you shouldn’t direct any prospective marketers to these webinars. They are all under a different group and at the end of the presentation, they direct anybody watching these to go to their website, they could sign on as a marketer in another team. It is very misleading and a new marketer would not know any better. Our presentations always say: “contact the person that gave you this info … “
Part of me was wryly amused by the fact that the pyramid was feeding upon itself. “Who do you think is doing it?” I responded.
“It’s Hal. He’s really taking over things.”
“Have you contacted Jeff? What does he think?”
“Jeff’s gone missing. He’s not responding to e-mails or voice mails.”
“What should we do?”
“I Googled Hal’s street address. We should go pay him a visit. Bring a baseball bat if you have one.”
“Do you think that will be necessary?”
“He might have his people with him.”
Within the hour, Sandy was driving us to Hal’s house in Georgetown. I had put a shovel and a kitchen knife in the car. Sandy’s face was determined. Her eyes looked hard and she didn’t blink. I was also surprised to see that, rather than her usual shorts, which showed off her nice legs, she was wearing a skirt and a long blouse. She also seemed to be wearing plenty of make-up, as if hiding a skin condition.
My cell phone buzzed and I pulled it out of my pocket to see that I had a text—from Veronica. “What is it?” Sandy asked.
“Nothing important,” I lied.
I opened the text and began reading. “So sorry I had split from UR class. One of UR people named Hal followed me home and made me start working for him. He was very intimidating so I went along. I finally skipped town and I’m not telling anyone where I am.”
“Why didn’t you just go to the police?” I responded.
“It wouldn’t have done any good. Hal is a MONSTER! Watch out!”
“Here we are!” Sandy answered. Hal’s house was set back from the road, with a driveway hundreds of feet long. At the end of it was a small one-story house with an overgrown lawn and two cars in front of it–a Toyota and a Mercedes. “That’s Jeff’s car,” Sandy said, and then added, “Interesting.”
We got out and walked up the front walk. I could pick up a sickly sweet stench, like a stockyard. Now I could see that there were plenty of empty boxes of our product on the side lawn.
“What’s he doing with all this product?” she asked aloud. “Why isn’t he selling them?”
“Maybe he’s been consuming it!”
“There are twelve boxes there, easy, and he’s only been working for us for a month,” Sandy said, and I saw her shiver.
The first thing I noticed as we came to the front door was the groaning of metal, which reminded me of the sound of the metal dock at Magnolia Harbor. As Sandy rang the doorbell, I peeked in the front window. The noise was made by a man I assumed to be Hal wearing a hoodie and jeans bench-pressing a huge stack of weights on a Universal machine. The room was lit up harshly by a bright light, maybe some kind of sunlamp. After the fourth ring, the man grunted loudly and dropped the stack of weights with a loud clang. When he opened the door, he nearly ripped it off its hinges.
There was something in the face that looked like Hal, but everything else was different. He now seemed a foot taller and had gained an extra 30 or 40 pounds that looked like muscle. Though he was dressed in long pants, long sleeves, a hoodie, and a baseball cap, I could see of his face looked mottled. Or scaled. Or something. The house was unusually warm and smelled like a giant goldfish bowl. He smiled the smile of a crocodile, and I could have sworn his teeth were now all pointed. He looked back and forth between Sandy and me, and then grabbed Sandy by her armpits and lifted her several feet off the doorstep. She screamed and began wriggling around. Her long skirt and blouse came loose, revealing unnaturally muscular arms and what looked like tattoos–but I soon realized they were the beginning of scales. As muscular as she was, she was no match for Hal. He bit into her throat, sending blood spurting everywhere, and the sound that came out of her wasn’t quite human.
I backed away. I would have run for the car, but Sandy had the keys, so I ran around the side of the house to get to the backyard. There was a tall wooden fence in my path but that’s not what stopped me dead: There were various body parts strewn about in pools of blood, including what looked like Jeff’s clean-cut head. I turned to run in the other direction but saw that Hal was now there, standing directly in my path. He came closer. “You’re going to clean up this mess now!” he roared. “From now on, you work for me!”
About the Author
Rob Dinsmoor is the author of three fictive memoirs: Tales of the Troupe, The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime. He also co-authored a children’s picture book titled Does Dixie Like Me? His story in Lowestoft Chronicle, ‘Kundalini Yoga at the Arkham YMCA,’ was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recently, he appeared on stage on The Moth Story Slam. He lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Visit his Website at www.robertdinsmoor.com