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Word of Mouth

by Morris J. Marshall

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Saturday morning he awakened early, wondering why he hadn’t noticed earlier that Judy’s long brown hair had been newly styled. He got dressed, drove to the flower store and returned with a dozen red roses. He cooked eggs Benedict and bacon, Judy’s favourite breakfast.

Halfway through the meal, she paused and pointed at Mike. “Hon, your face!”

Mike swallowed a piece of bacon, turned around and felt his cheeks.

Judy’s green eyes widened. “Your hair...”

He felt his bald spot. His heart raced and his breath lodged itself in his throat. A carpet of freshly grown hair greeted his fingers. He ran to the bathroom and opened the door.

Judy’s voice followed him down the hall. “When did you get a hair transplant?”

“What are you talking a—”

“How much did it cost?”

He closed the door and went to the mirror. His crow’s feet, the dark circles beneath his eyes, even his laugh lines had disappeared. He heard Gale’s voice: It reads your thoughts and affects only those areas of your mind or body that concern you. Judy hovered outside the bathroom door. “Have you been eating better, Hon?”

“That must be it,” Mike said, opening the door and returning to his bacon and eggs.

Saturday evening they watched a movie, not the “chick flick” Judy frequently suggested but a martial-arts movie starring a bodybuilding, karate-wielding action hero.

“I could look like that if I had the time,” Mike said, flexing his biceps during a fight scene. “Do you think that guy would look so good if he had to teach classes all week?”

Judy laughed. “Whatever you say, Hon.”

Sometime during the night, the sound of her voice wrenched Mike out of a deep sleep. “Are you okay?”

His sheets were drenched and his pillow lay scrunched up on the floor. “I’m fine.”

“You were having a nightmare,” Judy said.

Mike thought he’d screamed, but couldn’t be sure. “It’s nothing, dear. Go back to sleep.” He reached over, hugged Judy and kissed her on the forehead. Then he lay back down and stared into darkness.

Most people forget their dreams within seconds, but Mike’s remained painfully intact. He and Judy had been sipping drinks on a beach in Varadero, Cuba. The bodybuilder from the evening movie swaggered by with no shirt on, hoisted Mike up by the neck with one hand and tossed him headfirst into a sand dune. Judy grabbed the actor’s left bicep and they walked away laughing, leaving Mike with an empty beach chair and two half-consumed mojitos.

He awakened early Sunday morning, determined to begin a workout regimen. As he brushed his teeth, his eyes wandered in the mirror from his face down to his neck, shoulders, arms, and chest. An average person would have required months of weight training to develop the tone he had received overnight. His stomach had morphed into six horizontal striations.

By Monday morning, he looked fifteen years younger with his smooth face and buffed body. He donned a T-shirt that hadn’t fit him since his mid-twenties. Even better, he didn’t have to suck in his gut. He left the car at home and drew admiring glances from attractive young women on the subway ride to work.

During his morning lecture on “Price Elasticity” Mike’s students seemed quieter and more attentive. A couple of guys asked him about his workout techniques and several female students stayed after class, wanting to accompany him back to his office.

At the photocopier, Mike met a part-time professor he’d known for years and called him “Ted” instead of “Fred.” During lunch, he opened an email from a student asking for her mark on a make-up test. Mike rummaged through desk drawers, lifted textbooks and spilled papers on the floor. To his horror, the test had disappeared.

He was still thinking about the day’s events that night as he lay in bed. He looked over at Judy in her hair curlers and baggy plaid pyjamas. “Hon?”

She glanced up from her romance novel. “What?”

“Am I developing Alzheimer’s?”

“You’re only 45, Mike!”

“I know, dear, but I find myself forgetting simple facts. Your friend, what’s her name? She went through the same thing, remember?”

“Good night, Mike.” Judy’s curlers bobbed as she shook her head and turned off the bedside lamp. She threw the covers off her side of the bed, while Mike snatched them and doubled his own blankets.

He found her sitting at the kitchen table the next morning, staring at a piece of paper. “What’s that?” he asked, pouring milk on his cereal.

Judy sipped her coffee and continued reading. “I found it when I came downstairs. It has your name on it.”

Mike peered over her shoulder. “‘An Economist’s Reworking of the Slutsky Equation’. That’s my handwriting, but I don’t remember writing it.”

“Strange,” said Judy. “You got up around three this morning and said you were going downstairs for a glass of milk. You were gone for almost an hour, Hon.”

Even stranger, Mike understood the doctorate-level paper that, only yesterday, would have been light years beyond his comprehension. Numbers and facts danced through his brain as his synapses fired at warp speed. He felt like the transformed version of Charlie Gordon in “Flowers for Algernon.”

Mike’s Thursday evening class focused on the Economist’s way of thinking. Nobody texted during the lecture and several students answered questions about the concepts of scarcity and opportunity cost. He ended the lecture by stressing that every choice involves a trade-off, or giving up something.

After class, he cleaned the whiteboard and sat down behind his desk to check his email. He drummed his fingers against his leg and glanced at his watch. He’s not coming, he thought. He turned off the computer and picked up his briefcase.

Footfalls sounded outside the lecture hall. The door squeaked open then slammed shut. David Gale came down the centre aisle, wearing his blue suit. He sat opposite Mike and put down his briefcase. “I see you’ve been taking Panaceax-40.”

Mike took out his wallet. “How much—”

“I guess I didn’t make myself clear last time.”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t buy Panaceax-40,” Gale said. “Remember, we only use ‘Word of Mouth’ to promote it. You can have it for $30 per month provided you sign this contract.” He opened his briefcase and removed a blue sheet of paper.

Mike scanned the contract. “This says that if I don’t get at least five new people to try it each month, the price rises to a thousand dollars!”

“Chris found ten new clients last month. Once people try Panaceax-40, they can’t resist it.”

“I think I’ll just stop taking it,” Mike said. “I hate sales.”

“That’s not advisable. As you’ve discovered, Panaceax-40 has huge benefits, but discontinuing it will cause withdrawal effects.”

“What kind of effects?”

Gale smiled. “They’re unique to each person, and they are life-changing. One of my former clients jumped in front of a subway because he couldn’t deal with them.”

“You want a drug dealer,” Mike said, throwing the contract on the floor.

“I thought you’d be happy with the results, Mike. You look and feel great. Just continue taking the product and ‘pay it forward.’ Sales grow exponentially. It’s win-win.”

“How many clients do you have?”

“Thousands,” Gale said, his eyes glazing over. “And that’s only across Canada. Youth restoration is a thriving business.”

Mike glared at him. “I could call the police about your pyramid scheme. I’m sure they’d be interested.”

“Oh, they are, I assure you.” Gale leaned back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head. “Every Toronto cop over forty is a client of mine. I had coffee with Officer Markson this morning. He’s very happy with his results.” He put two photos on the desk, a “before” shot of Markson and an “after” shot.

Mike shivered as he pictured an army of middle-aged Supermen peddling Panaceax-40 to unsuspecting victims. He could continue taking it, but there might be long-term side effects. If he stopped taking it, there’d be withdrawal effects. Unless Gale was lying about them. Oh, this is win-win all right, he thought. For Panaceax Laboratories.

Gale picked up the contract and handed it to Mike. “Sign on the dotted line, please.”

One morning seven months later, Mike sat on his favorite sofa in a large, open-concept room, his face lit up by sunlight streaming through the bay windows. He stared at the large screen TV in the centre of the room. Beside him, an elderly woman sat hunched over, wringing her hands together. Every so often, she pulled at her hair and screamed, “Help! Help me!” Across from Mike, a fifty-something blond man sat in a wheelchair, a perpetual smile plastered to his face.

In the afternoon, grey clouds drifted in and snow began falling. A middle-aged woman with long dark hair appeared at the front door, a red scarf wrapped around the top of her fur coat. The attendant at the nursing station buzzed her in, briefly exchanged words with her and pointed in Mike’s direction.

Judy’s high-heeled boots clicked against the blue linoleum floor as she walked toward her husband. She took his hand and gently caressed his hair. “Do you know me, Mike?”

The staff doctor, who was in his mid-forties, looked up from treating another patient and came over. “I’m not sure he can hear you, Mrs. Donovan. He’s been like this for a week and doesn’t respond to anyone.”

“What’s wrong with him, doctor?”

“Some kind of degenerative mental condition, but we’ll have to run more tests to determine exactly what.”

“I found these orange pills in our dresser,” Judy said. “Do you know what they are?”

The doctor examined them. “Do you mind if I get these analyzed?”

Judy shook her head.

He put the pills in his jacket pocket. “When did you first notice a change in your husband’s condition?”

“He was fine last spring,” Judy insisted. “He’d started working out and eating better. In June, he began forgetting things, little things at first. By October, he couldn’t remember how to get to work.”

The doctor put a stethoscope to Mike’s chest. “He’s in great physical shape despite his mental condition.”

At the end of his shift, the doctor noticed that the elevator was out of service. He climbed the six flights of stairs to his office. Five years ago it would have been easy, but today a sharp pain rifled through his chest. His knees and ankles ached. By the time he arrived upstairs, sweat coated his face.

He closed his office door, removed a bottle of water from the fridge and began drinking, savoring the coolness as it spread through his body. He took the orange pills from his jacket pocket and added all except one to a bottle of identical pills on his desk. Then he chased the pill down with the remaining water, collapsed on his sofa and waited for sleep to come.

Copyright © 2012 by Morris J. Marshall

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