I got the idea for this story while attending a multi-level marketing seminar some twenty-five, thirty years ago. I still remember as I sat in the audience (on folding chairs) and looked around, everyone (except me) was focused in what seemed to me enraptured attention at the speaker. The speaker bored me. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I’d had this same feeling when I’d later attended an AMWAY seminar at the urging of a friend. That was the weirdest multi-level marketing program I’d ever attended—and my last, and where I may have actually birthed this story. I’d learned my lesson. At that AMWAY seminar it literally felt like a cult (sorry those of you who participate in AMWAY; you may not feel this way, the culture may have since changed, but that is how I felt all those years ago). All the women had been in conservative “church-goin'” dresses, all the men in dark, conservative suits with power (red) ties. And the smiles—
Oh, God, the sickening, saccharin smiles….
Unnerving posters were up around the auditorium with “positive statements” and other things I no longer remember…except that it was all decidedly creepy.
The way everyone talked…what they talked about and how they presented themselves…the speakers, the layout. The attire. How they all seemed to have the same “certain point of view” on life, religion, world view. Then there was this line in my story that I remember so well: “Shaking his hand was like holding a sea cucumber.” Yes, the guy described in this story…his handshake…it was real, and that was exactly what I remembered thinking while shaking his sweaty, clammy hand.
And had there really been a gong onstage?!
Anyway, I’d attended these seminars because I was still in the Air Force and had been looking for a way out…something to get into that could support my exit from the military. As I sat there and observed everyone, I thought…what if…what if….
This story originally appeared in Tyro, issue #26,on June 1990.
© F. P. Dorchak, 1990
Hi, I’m Alex. What I’m about to tell you, you will not believe. Why should you? Nobody else did. I can scarcely begin to believe it myself, even though I’m sporting all the proof I’ll ever need.
It all started, innocently enough, with one of those “Hey Come see Us, We’re Great” cards I got in the mail one rainy afternoon. It came sandwiched between the usual bills for the Visa, furniture and utilities (why do they all come at once?), waiting patiently for my retrieval from the tiny silver box apartment complexes use. That day I remember in particular because I had gone to interview for a certain very desirable management position at McGraw-Hill Books. It was a position, I regret to inform you, that did not come my way. Somebody better than I had secured the reigns. As usual, I would remain in the background.
Had my brush with that form of mail-advertising ended there, there would be nothing to tell and I’d be able to walk out of this room on my own. But it didn’t happen that way. Later that night I also received, free of charge, the complimentary phone call. It, too, was extending the same invitation that the piece of paper had already screamed at me.
I remember I regarded that call—true to form—with much suspicion. I’ve always prided myself on my cynicism: it’s the one thing I can always count on without letting it go to my head! Anyway, as I lay on the floor, as I usually do when I’m on the phone for any length of time, I began listening to the voice on the other end. Not to what was being said, mind you, but how it was being said. There was something in this guy’s voice that bothered me. He sounded slimy.
Maybe out of pure curiosity, maybe out of sales pressure, I decided to show up at the designated place, at the designated time. When he started saying stuff like: “All your co-workers are coming, why not you?”, I felt like a worm. You know how it goes, can’t show your face at work the next day because everyone at work is walking around with shit-eating grins on their faces ’cause they’re privy to the Greatest Deal On Earth and you’re not.
That card has since disappeared. I never was able to relocate it. Presumably it was lost in the myriad piles of paperwork littered about my apartment table. I never did clean it up. And so it goes.
So there I sat, considerably more casual then the other bodies around me and finding the atmosphere of the auditorium rather oppressive. Somewhere I heard the sound of an air-conditioner, but it surely wasn’t in this room. It wasn’t so much that it was hot (though we could’ve done with a few degrees less), as it was stuffy. It reminded me of how dank cellars can smell on a good day. It was indeed an odor that was very much out of place, and why no one else was unnerved by this was, at the moment, beyond me. But that wasn’t the only thing out of place here. I was out of place. This looked more like a business convention what with all the formal evening wear galore and I wasn’t even wearing a jacket.
Up on the front stage, aside from the screen and podium, stood a small brass gong complete with hammer. How cute, I thought. The velvety backdrop was swaying to some movement from behind it, and I noted how there were two guards to either side of the gong. They were smartly dressed in the official uniforms of a bodyguard, their hands folded to front. Watching them for a few minutes, I noticed how they didn’t seem to be looking at any one thing in particular, just staring straight ahead, unblinking. I thought I had seen something peek through the bottom of the curtain, but couldn’t identify what it was.
The speaker, who was to shortly take the stage, was mingling with the crowd and shaking hands, trying to get elected into whatever office he thought he was running for. It was only an investment seminar.
His person bothered me.
Appearing dumpy and pliable, somewhat like the Pillsbury Doughboy, there was something about him that seemed as stolid as granite. Like ones and zeros in a computer, when he was on, he was congenial…and when he was off, he was cold, almost lifeless. He was a contradiction in terms, two people occupying the same space; impossible yet irrefutable.
It didn’t take too long before he made his way to me. I shuddered at the thought of having to meet him, for it meant that now he could associate a name to a face. My name, my face. I wished to remain as anonymous as possible in this crowd. The only fame I had ever collected came from the local gym where I found (much to my surprise) that I could move mass quantities of weight all by myself. My strength quite belied my size, at five foot eleven, a hundred and sixty pounds. Nothing much a girl would look at.
Shaking his hand was like holding a sea cucumber—have you ever held a handful of snot? There was no substance to his sweaty grip, or to his personality for that matter, and I quickly wiped my hand on the seat of my pants. Why were people so taken in by this guy? Conservatively clad in some nondescript men’s wear, there wasn’t a speck of dandruff on his lapels as he emitted an odor of impeccability.
His face was clean-shaven to the point of boredom. He had a nose that was small and unassuming, looking more like an afterthought than an intention—and his lips! His lips were puffy looking—like someone had spent the better part of an afternoon beating on them with a rubber hose! Topping his head, his graying hair was slicked back with some form of hair crème. But his eyes were the screwiest part of him, resembling dark pieces of coal stuck into a pale, chubby face. There was no two ways about it, this man just plain looked weird.
The congregation assembled and niceties completed, the gong was rung. We were ready to begin.
“…and so, friends,” ejaculated the speaker, “I believe I can convince each and every one of you to invest in our program. How you ask? Well, allow me just a moment of your time…”
Yes, it was indeed getting very boring. I kept waiting for his tongue to get tangled up in his lips. We’d only been there some, oh—let me see, fifteen minutes? Fifteen minutes, and my butt was already feeling that wet, prickly sensation. There he stood before us, gesticulating with the authoritative air of a southern Baptist evangelist when I finally noticed something, even sitting all the way to the rear where I was. His eyes had taken on a strange, new quality.
By virtue of his taking position at the podium, his eyes transformed from the lifeless pieces of dark coal they had been earlier…to that of a strangely disquieting quality that seemed almost as if they belonged to somebody else. Or that perhaps someone else was looking through them at us. There was a fever being injected into those orbs, an infusion of near-righteous frenzy that seemed to increase with every sentence…forcing you to desire nothing else but the depths of his gaze. It was as though everyone in the room was being converted.
Everyone that is, but me.
So, unaffected and quite bored I decided to take advantage of this time by attempting total character assassination of our speaker. He did seem quite different now, more like another person had suddenly taken over. He still looked the worm, mind you, but I tried to find a description that would now describe the new him. The only thing I could come up with was roadkill.
Aside from his new steely gaze, he was still disgusting to look at. Everyone in the room was absolutely riveted to his gaze, his word, his every movement. The only way I could try to explain this was to look at it from the point of view of roadkill.
Dead animal meat alongside a highway is a disgusting thing to look at, but everybody does it. There are just some things in this world that defy explanation, and craning your neck about a bug-stained windshield to steal a peak at some roadway slaughter was one of them. What is it that attracts those passing stares from motorists? Fascination? Fear? Was that the secret to this whole audience fixation thing? Was it a fear of looking away—a fear of death?—the curiosity of trying to feel what it must be like to die, either among friends or alone on some deserted byway, hot screaming metal suddenly splattering through your brains and sending their remains all over the pavement? Feeling your last breath slowly ebbing away, your lifeblood warming cold, uncaring asphalt and your last view of the world some topsy-turvy angle of dirt, an unknown but active ant scurrying past your clouding vision and knowing—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that you are indeed dying, your life ended. You try to figure out what must’ve gone on within that animal’s mind during its last few moments, vainly attempting self-conciliation in a fleeting nanosecond to console yourself and your frail mortality…that swatting a roadside mammal is no different than swatting a household fly.
Who knows. All I knew was that he reminded me of roadkill, causing me to look out of curiosity, and all philosophy aside, I was dying here! This “free” dinner had better be worth it…
“…yes, our property is like no other! In the heart of the Heartland! Ripe for both the daring and the conservative at heart! All we ask is…ah—but just a minute. I’m not going to tell you that just yet! If it were that easy, I wouldn’t be here. In fact, I’d be out of a job (roar of devised laughter)! Now take a look at these figures for a moment…”
No, nothing’s worth this! How in the hell did I ever let myself get suckered? I guess I had nothing better to do on a Saturday night. But as I sat there in the very last row, watching all those Good Little Citizens hypnotized by this joker at the podium, I knew that I could be doing something better—like beating off in the john with Miss August. What tits.
But hey, no. I’m here. Listening to Mr. Charm and Charisma Himself, Joe Fishlips, or whatever he claimed his name to be (you never quite get their names, you know, and when you do, it seems to keep changing…).
“…now if you’d just be kind enough to bear with me…”
Oh yeah, right, like let’s play to the dain bramaged audience as if there were a choice! Fellow acceptance to a yuppie is everything! Besides, he got his laughter, and now he’s just one o’ the gang: “Hey, how ’bout that ‘ole Fishlips…”
“…you’ll see we offer something that absolutely no one else in the industry can offer…”
Yeah, public dumps offer something no one else can offer.
It was getting pretty deep, so I just tuned out ‘ol Joe and started eyeing the crowd, to see how many of them were actually that brainless as to be totally duped by this patronizing orifice. Scanning, I lost all respect for the Human Race. Was I the only one? It was indeed a dark day for Humanity, let me tell you!
But that wasn’t all. There was something…something else. I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time, but there seemed to be an uneasiness rippling through the crowd—an undercurrent of something indescribable, and though it bothered me greatly, it didn’t seem to bother the lot of them. There seemed to be a sudden abundance of casual shifting among the audience as they sat there in their rickety chairs, cigarette smoke weaving dreamy patterns in our oppressive enclosure. I hate cigarette smoke.
All of them had that same sick grin of blissful ignorance on their faces, that way people get when they think they’ve found the Answer to Everything. Had I been listening to my intuition, I would’ve—should’ve—gotten out of there, then and there. But like the yuppie I so detest, I stayed, picking at the stiff hairs along my arms. Forget the dinner, Arby’s would’ve been a lifesaver!
No, something sinister was underway and I was too entwined in my own cynicism to take heed. For one thing, can you imagine being seen as the only one getting up and leaving from an assemblage like this one? I’d have no one to talk to at work—not that that in itself especially bothered me, but I did have to deal with these people sooner or later.
So I stayed.
Yeah, I sat and I observed—not Motormouth the Charismatic, but the audience and the “bouncers.” They seemed to be eyeing the audience too, and apparently hadn’t yet noticed me noticing them. There was something definitely not right here, a dream-like quality to the whole affair. There were several times in which I had to actually concentrate on what I was doing. All the smoke, the incessant droning of our speaker and the stuffiness tried vainly to win my attention, but I wouldn’t concede.
Then something unfair happened, something so cunning and devious that it capped my stay for sure. Dinner was announced. It totally threw my whole evening.
So we were all herded out, instructed to follow those stupid little cards marking the way to the dining hall, even though everybody already knew how to get there (the paranoia of those guys at losing even one individual!). There seemed to be much conversation going on along the way to the dining hall, but each time I tried to focus in on any one of them, I couldn’t make anything out. It was as though it was all gibberish, meaningless dribble devised to give the impression of conversation. I was beginning to feel very much alone.
The meal wasn’t all that great—pseudo-adult portions of some bastardized version of a Swanson TV dinner. You had a choice, (and what a grand selection it was too!) either the chicken cordon bleu, or Spam.
Scattered randomly throughout the dining room, a few of us relaxed after our allotted 45 minutes of entrée. Just then the bouncers came back to see that there were no stragglers. Shit, after a muddy parfait one hardly had time to enjoy Dom Perignon-Ripple, served chilled. Oh well, the show must go on.
Marching some 20 paces to the rear and right of us, the Guard herded its quarry back into the corral. We “be-sat” ourselves in the Great Chamber. Isn’t it amazing how everyone gets the same chair they had previously?
No sooner had I “be-sat” myself, when that same feeling of uneasiness once more returned. The other, intoxicating quality, however, had not yet overtaken me. I attributed this to being able to leave the microcosm, reorienting my psyche back to its rightful compass setting. I know not why the others were not similarly affected, maybe I have some gene they don’t have. Whatever the case, by this time I was marked—the door-thugs had spotted me. Great, now there was absolutely no chance of sneaking out.
The room seemed darker, the rickety folding chair I sat in, squeakier. Everyone was so hypnotized by our narcissistic speaker except for me, and that, my dear friends, bothered the hell out of me.
Why was it that I, out of all these other people, was immune? Were there that many fools on this planet?
There it was again, that same rippling movement throughout the crowd. That same squirming.
Except for me.
Someone brushed at one of my legs. I shifted my foot.
I looked back at the thugs, who, unfortunately, were still there. Damn it all, if it didn’t seem like the room was getting darker! Was it just me, or were the lights actually growing more dim?
Think I’d get the hint? Hell, no!
I had lost all interest whatsoever in our arrogant speaker a long time ago and just had to find out what it was that was going on here. It wasn’t until some five minutes later that I didn’t give a damn and just wanted to get out as fast as I could—to erase that whole night from both my mind and the consciousness of the Human Race.
Once more I felt my leg brushed, but this time noted that the people around me hadn’t moved, or even affected their heartfelt apologies for breaking the Unwritten Law of—oh, heaven forbid!—touching another body! I looked down at my feet and lost all interest in Miss August.
Entwined around the lower structure of the puke-brown folding chairs were—and I kid you not—tentacles! Sickly-green and vomit-yellow! I looked up and down the rows around me, my mouth agape.
They were everywhere!
But more than that, they were attached to everybody’s legs. Everyone’s
What in hell was I supposed to do now? Ee-yuck, it still sickens me! No one even knew what was going on. The tentacles sucked and sucked, their huge trunks swelling with bodily fluids, looking like snakes apregnant with swallowing prey. There was a sick, puss-like film over each extremity, but there was not a one on Yours Truly. Some people had several on them, blood oozing from the inflicted wounds. Listening closely, I could hear the sucking sounds beneath the drone from the front. Gag. It made me wanna chunk right there!
Yet I was amazed at how calm and collected I remained. I guess that came from reading Stephen King. All I knew was that I had to get out of there, and now—not in three seconds, but yesterday! I looked back over at the bouncers, still there of course. It was just about then when one of ’em looked over at me again. I was nailed, no two ways about it. The guy stared right into me, he knew I wasn’t in the least bit mesmerized. Terrific. I had to do something. Be calm.
That’s when it all dawned on me why we were here. We were offerings to this—whatever it was—demon-god. Somehow we were all to be hypnotized, then fed upon. But something had gone wrong with me. Too tough for ‘ole Fishlips, I guess. Well let’s see how tough I am against a squid!
I started to get up, metal chair squealing at the release of my weight, tattle-telling to my naughtiness. That was when I felt tentacles sliming after my gams. Fawwwk, it was disgusting! Sliming after my legs—me!
No one in the audience moved. Fishlips stopped momentarily to take note of my singular movement, but masterfully continued, motioning for the Guard to deal with me. No fuckin’ way Hoser, I was roiled. Adrenalin pounding, I grabbing my chair from the clutches of a slime-hand and smashed it into the side of an approaching bouncer’s head, who went crumbling into a heap on the floor, but three others were soon joining in, not to mention those suckers. The audience continued focusing in on Joe’s chanting, several people silently collapsing either to the floor or onto the shoulders of those adjacent to them. The demon was feeding, and feeding well.
I just managed to sidestep a tentacle when one of the guards got up behind me, attempting restraint. Lifting weights gave me an edge the dude didn’t expect, considering my size, or lack of it. As strong as these thugs were—and they were strong—I managed to wiggle free enough to butt my head up into the guy’s jaw. I heard a crunching sound as he reeled back, his grip released, but a tentacle snagged me. Terrific.
It pulled me in. It was pretty tough, and I thought of all those other tentacles already out there and of the hellish damage they could—and were—doing. Quickly I grabbed my bent chair and started wailing away on the slime-fiend. It didn’t have too strong a grip on me yet and I managed to pull free, but I still had two bouncers to contend with, plus the bludgeons they were pulling out. I really didn’t need this.
I worked my way into a corner, preparing for the worst. There was no way this creature was getting me: I’d die first. I’d really rather die first….
The first thug lunged. I side stepped him easily, smashing the other across the face, blinding him and causing him to stumble right into the network of hungry suckers. Before it had even registered on my mind what had happened, the tentacles had whipped themselves around the figure and pulled him to the ground with such violent force that his body ruptured in several places. For the first time, I really looked at the bouncers. They seemed slightly sluggish, as if they too, like pal Fishlips, were not all there.
The other turned around, handling his weapon with both hands, eyes boring in on me. We paced around each other, my clothing ripped in several places, scrapes and cuts beginning to sting. Fishlips started to look real worried. Unfortunately for me, I maneuvered right into the zombie’s trap, two tentacles again grabbing me, but with firmer grips, pulling me to the ground. No way, I kept telling myself, no way! I wasn’t going to give this creature—or Fishlips—any satisfaction! I was going to make it out! Frantically I kicked and fought like a drowning man attempting to keep his head above water, tentacle vomit covering me.
The thug stood over me staring—no expression on its pale face (which I now noticed, was indeed pale). With both hands, it raised the club over its head. The tentacles that had latched onto me bit deep into my flesh, causing me to wince, but I had other things on my mind just then. The mindless guard swung at my head. Twisting, I managed to evade him at the last moment, sending a crack through the weapon as it bounced off the hardwood floor. The suckers weren’t making my life any more pleasant, either, but I got free of most of them.
Chair still in hand, I swept it across the floor and swept the guard off his feet, landing him (it?) on his back with a muffled thud. In a comical kind of way I noticed how his neatly combed hair flew up from his head as he fell, coming to rest about his forehead in a less-than-neat manner as he landed. A tentacle lashed out at one of the guard’s flailing arms, loosening it from its socket. As situation would have it, the bat rolled over to me and I grabbed it. The guard was simultaneously trying to get at me and undo the tentacle that was on him, drawing blood. I swung at him but missed. He got closer and I swung again, missing. Shit, fine time for the getaway car to stall, I thought. The zombie tried to right itself, but fell back down to the floor towards me, its useless arm banging helplessly at its side. I took advantage of this and swung the club with all my might, splattering the guards brains all over myself and the floor, not to mention splintering the bat, which now resembled more of a short spear.
Immediately I started hacking away at the tentacles on my legs. It was tough going, especially since others were still rooting for my corpuscles, but the sentinel’s remains next to me managed to divert the demon’s attention for the moment, and I wasn’t sure how long that moment would last. I lost all feeling in my right leg, my other one fast losing all sensation.
I managed to cut free, crawling as fast as my elbows would carry me. Fishlips was definitely worried now. His sales pitch, if indeed he was pitching anything, was much more hurried and higher in tone. The Watchmen up front with him made a gesture towards me, but he halted them.
He had let me go.
Well, to make my long story short, I managed to crawl out (and curiously enough, didn’t see a soul—or shin—the whole time exiting). But by then, I had lost all feeling in both legs, and they were actively bleeding out open gouges. I lost consciousness somewhere near Cascade boulevard….
So here I lay now, in a hospital bed, one leg gone, half of the other still in my possession.
No remorse you say?
I once remember reading a story asking the question of how much pain can a person endure? The answer was how much did that person want to live? Well, I want to live. Yeah, it’s my own fault. I guess I deserved what I got for being shallow and spineless—but what a price to pay for so trivial a problem! Of course no one believes me. I tried to tell them, and anyone else who would listen, but they all thought—think—that my story was brought about by my condition.
Fuckin’ A right of course it was, I yelled!
No dice. Of course, when they did check out the hotel, all there was was an empty convention hall reeking of smoke and B.P.O.E. stickers. Terrific.
All I can say is that no way am I ever dealing with an another telemarketing scam again, or “free” seminars. Ever. And I am going to find that Son-of-a-Bitch Fishlips if that’s the last thing I ever do….
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