Word of Mouth
by Morris J. Marshall
part 1 of 2
Mike put down his whiteboard brush and turned around, thinking a student had come after class to ask a question. His Thursday evening lecture on “Principles of Demand and Supply” had been lively, a refreshing change from the customary sight of students sleeping or doing crossword puzzles.
The man coming down the centre aisle of the college lecture hall looked more like a banker than a student. Tall, slim, with salt-and-pepper hair, he wore a blue pinstripe suit. He manoeuvred around stray desks, stopped beside Mike and put down his briefcase. “David Gale,” he said, smiling and extending his right hand.
Mike reached out and took Gale’s hand, pleased by the firm handshake. He hated limp, wet-noodle greetings.
“You don’t know me, do you, Mike?”
“We talked on the phone last week,” Gale said. “I’m Marketing Manager for Panaceax Laboratories.”
“I remember, but I thought we were meeting next week for lunch.” Mike had been snoozing in front of the TV when Gale had called. If he had checked the call display, he probably would not have lifted the receiver.
Gale’s blue eyes glinted behind his black-rimmed glasses. “I was so excited about this meeting that I couldn’t wait. Your colleague, Chris, said I’d find you here.”
Thanks, Chris, Mike thought. What else did you tell him?
“He also mentioned that you just celebrated your forty-fifth birthday.”
Mike absently touched his bald spot. “I wouldn’t say ‘celebrated’, but my wife and I went out to dinner.”
Students lingered near the front of the lecture hall, comparing notes. “Can we talk somewhere private?” Gale asked.
Mike tucked his lecture notes under his arm. “I share an office on the seventh floor. It should be empty this time of day.” He walked into the hallway and automatically headed for the elevator.
Gale grabbed his arm. “Let’s take the stairs instead.”
Mike had competed in the CN Tower stair climb years ago, achieving one of the best times in his age category. He’d gained a few waist sizes since but on warm days parked his car further from the college and walked. Seven floors would be nothing.
He breezed up the first two floors. By the third, his lungs felt like water balloons on the verge of bursting. A throbbing pain sliced through his chest down to his stomach, causing him to bend forward for relief. Mike hobbled up the last flight of stairs. He collapsed, back first, against the first door on his right and slid downward until his butt hit the floor. His lecture notes scattered.
“Are you okay?” Gale smiled and adjusted his tie. He looked as if he’d just returned from an afternoon stroll.
Once his breathing slowed, Mike collected his notes, scrambled to his feet and dusted himself off. Sweat trickled down his forehead into his eyes. He rested his free hand against the grey door to room 705. He thrust his key into the lock, turned and pushed the door open. The smell of recently brewed coffee seeped into the hallway. A cup of that would go down great right now, he thought as he flicked on the lights. He glanced around and waved Gale into a small tutorial room at the back of the office.
They sat down at a long boardroom table and Gale rested his briefcase on the floor. “How much did Chris tell you about Panaceax Laboratories?”
“He said you’d explain everything.”
“Chris has been with me for only a month, but he’s already my most productive client.”
“I don’t mean to hurry you, Mr. Gale, but I’m tired and—”
“This won’t take long. Tell me, Mike, have you started experiencing any changes recently?”
“You know, bags under the eyes, declining physical shape, diminishing libido. Every man experiences them. Some go out and purchase a 1965 Mustang, while others—”
“I get it,” Mike said. He felt his bald spot. Only this morning, he’d noticed a new wrinkle under his right eye. Yesterday a persistent ache stabbed his left wrist. He stared past Gale through the tutorial room’s large bay windows. The Toronto skyline, dominated by the CN Tower and surrounding office buildings, lit up as the last remnants of May sunlight disappeared below the horizon. In the twilight, the Tower looked taller than he remembered. He thought: Did you really climb all 1,776 stairs to the Main Deck? Now you can’t even walk up seven flights of stairs without dying.
Gale opened his briefcase and removed a white pill case. He snapped the top off and deposited an orange, oval-shaped pill into his palm. “This is Panaceax-40,” he said, leaning forward. “It reverses the effects of mid-life. Actually, it eliminates them entirely.”
“Better. Panaceax-40 is the newest advancement in medical technology.”
Mike nodded. Laughter erupted outside the office as a group of students walked by.
“Once absorbed into your bloodstream, it reads your thoughts and desires, and then responds accordingly, affecting only that area of your mind or body that you’re most concerned about.”
Mike smiled. “You mean if I’m sitting in a fast-food restaurant eating a triple-decker burger and notice that my stomach looks larger, this pill will remove inches from around my waist?”
“Precisely,” Gale said.
“Sounds like a drug with ESP.”
“Good analogy. Suppose you’re reading a textbook and suddenly notice you’re having difficulty seeing the words. Panaceax-40 will restore your vision to 20-20. It reads your thoughts and corrects whatever worries you.”
Mike stood up and looked around. “Where’s the hidden camera?”
“This isn’t a joke. How old would you say I am?”
“I don’t know.”
“Take a guess.”
Mike stared through Gale’s glasses into his sparkling blue eyes, searching for indicators of age. The absence of wrinkles was startling. Gale’s dark tan, full head of salt-and-pepper hair and complete set of even white teeth only added to the mystery. He couldn’t be more than fifty.
“I’m seventy,” Gale finally said. “I’ve been taking Panaceax-40 for several months now. That’s why the seven-floor walk to your office was so easy. And these glasses? Fashion only. This pill is amazing.”
“You could make millions if you advertised it during the Super Bowl.”
Gale shook his head. “We don’t use traditional advertising media. Our only marketing tool is ‘Word of Mouth.’ We’re looking for intelligent, articulate, middle-aged men to promote Panaceax-40.”
Gale removed his laptop from his briefcase, powered it up and went to the Panaceax Laboratories website. He scrolled through “before” and “after” photos of men who had taken the pill, including doctors, lawyers, construction workers, police officers and professors. A glowing testimony appeared beside each photo. “Here are my photos,” Gale said, pointing to the laptop screen. “And here are Chris’s. What do you think, Mike?”
“I think I have to go home now. My wife’s probably wondering where I am.”
Gale reached into his briefcase and produced another pill case. “I’d like you to try this seven-day sample of Panaceax-40 and provide your feedback. Take one pill each night before bedtime. You won’t be disappointed. I’ll come back next Thursday for a follow-up consultation.”
Mike put the pills in the front pocket of his briefcase beside an apple and the minutes of last week’s staff meeting. While driving home along Yonge Street, he thought about Gale’s condescending tone and smug smile. Salespeople, he thought. They’re all fast talkers whose sole objective is to make you feel insecure enough to buy their product. Mike’s own stint in sales had consisted of three weeks of telephone surveys while in college. He quit after his supervisor asked him to tell survey respondents that a questionnaire would take ten minutes when the actual completion time was thirty.
Of course, Gale was right about the changes. They’d stalked Mike like a knife-wielding mugger, robbing him of his appearance, physical prowess, even parts of his marriage. While most couples fought about finances, Mike and Judy argued about a suitable definition of room temperature. She felt hot; he felt cold. She turned the air conditioner on; he shut it off. This tug-of-war persisted for hours or days.
There were other changes as well. His teaching career, which he’d always found satisfying, had recently become perfunctory. A culture of entitlement had settled like a dark cloud over the educational establishment. Students, it seemed, no longer cared about learning economics. They’d paid top dollar for their courses and wanted high marks just for showing up.
Gale’s presentation made Panaceax-40 sound like the Eighth Wonder of the World. What had he said? “It reads your thoughts and desires and responds accordingly.” The “before” and “after” photos were remarkable. In his “before” photo, Gale had been a pale, puffy couch potato. In the “after’, he was tanned, toned and had his arm around a beautiful woman. Still... Mike had reservations. His cautious side needed more reassuring.
Upon arriving home, Mike went upstairs to the bedroom and opened the bottom drawer of his dresser. He burrowed his way through a pile of underwear and mismatched socks. He inserted the pill case and covered it up. Judy would never find it there.
He went to the computer and Googled “David Gale.” Gale had graduated summa cum laude with an MBA from Harvard Business School. He had worked at Panaceax Laboratories for twenty-five years and become marketing manager in 2010 after the previous manager died of a heart attack. The firm itself had an extensive line of wellness products: vitamins, skin creams, workout supplements. And it was currently testing some secret product that would top them all.
Judy left her office on Friday evenings and shopped at the Eaton Centre, Toronto’s largest mall. On past occasions, Mike had joined her, armed with reading material. By the time she’d finished trying on dresses, he’d gone through half of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Once, he secretly booked a root canal appointment to coincide with her shoe-shopping excursion.
This particular Friday, he’d called Judy at work, coughing frequently as he told her in a raspy voice about his unexpected flu symptoms. He spent the evening bonding with his sofa and TV converter. An infomercial appeared featuring an aging actress gushing over the benefits of a new type of plastic surgery. When the show finished, Mike went to the bathroom and peered in the mirror. The crow’s foot beside his left eye had sprouted several new claws.
Later that night, he listened to the steady rise and fall of Judy’s breath as she slept. When she began snoring, he eased back the blankets and tiptoed to the dresser, hoping the bottom drawer wouldn’t creak as he opened it. He removed the pill case, went to the washroom, and dumped a Panaceax-40 pill into his palm. He peered in the mirror, then back at the pill, cradling it between his thumb and forefinger. He glanced behind him, swallowed the pill and chased it down with a glass of water.
Copyright © 2012 by Morris J. Marshall