This is a second draft of a short story I wrote for one of my creative writing classes. It started as an exercise in writing a rant about a pet peeve. In the end though, it seemed it needed a little more motivation and I added in the Pyramid Scheme angle.
The store was situated opposite an eight-story retirement center for “active seniors.” It was 10am and the residents were trekking across the road towards the Albertson’s, like turtles returning to the sea after laying their eggs. The ones in the walkers were only barely crossing the dashed yellow line in the middle of the road when those in the Rascal and Hoveround electric wheeled chairs were jockeying for position at the automatic doors. Millicent Vibrato noted them with mild disdain. Live with Regis and Kelly must be over, she thought, as she wheeled the pink Cadillac into the grocery store parking lot.
She sized up the “Compact Car” parking space. It was a tight fit and she briefly considered heading for the next nearest space, three cars further down the line. “No. I am not parking out in East Bhumphuk, Egypt,” she told herself determinedly, as she slid the huge boat of a car into the closer of the two slots. There was not enough space to easily exit the car and she had to suck her stomach in to squeeze out the door, mashing her breasts as painfully as any mammogram she’d experienced. A tiny corner of jagged metal on the door frame created a long rip in her new blouse, a blob of greasy dirt on the rocker panel smeared across the back of her white stockings. She was determined not to let this stop her. The bag she carried—one of those screened nylon affairs used to carry particularly pampered dogs—stuck between the car door and its frame. She tugged and it released with a violent jerk. Her arm swung back, the bag arcing through the air and hitting the neighboring car with a thump. She peered cautiously into the bag. No harm—no foul, she thought as she turned towards the store, tripping over the cement parking stop and laying herself out firmly on the asphalt. Struggling to her feet, she observed with not a little dismay, the large globs of chewing gum and, what was quite possibly, phlegm, which now dotted her clothing.
Inside, she fixed her face as best she could. She’d had to walk the length of the store twice to find the restrooms—tucked away as it was through the double swinging doors marked “Employees Only.” There were only minor dirt smears across her cheek and a slight scuffing on her chin. It was the mascara that had run, as she wept over the great muck-up the whole thing had become, that had made the biggest mess. If she had known the makeup was not waterproof, she would have purchased some from a real store, and not taken it from her own stock.
She and her husband, Theodorus “Ted” Vibrato, had built one of the largest multi-level marketing empires in the region. They did them all; Amway, Mary Kay, Tupperware, Avon, Melaleuca, HerbaLife, Mia Bella, Pampered Chef. And not one at a time, either. Once Millicent sold her first box of SA8 detergent (“It makes water wetter!”) to her sister, she was hooked, and within a two-week period, she’d added the makeup distributorships. When, after a mere four months, she got her pink Mary Kay Cadillac, Ted quit his job as assistant evening-manager at the Dollar Store and joined her. They quickly signed up for the other programs, with Ted helming the vitamin, cooking, and candle arms of their network.
In the otherwise empty Albertson’s restroom, Millicent sighed. At 39, she was too old for this shit. She told the mirror as much as she worked to wipe the eye makeup off. She tucked back a few strands of red hair that had escaped from beneath her streaked brunette wig, gave her skirt and blouse another quick brushing and returned to the store.
A pirate ship-shaped cardboard display of spiced rum and bottles of cola guarded the entrance to the liquor section. The one and three-quarter liter rum bottles were stacked in the form of the ship’s sail, the colas serving as its cannons. A life-size accompanying cut-out of a pirate captain asked if she had “a little Captain” in her. She snickered. At the sales meetings they held for their downline, Millicent always introduced Ted as “The Captain.” Part of her purpose in coming to this store this day was to purchase a pregnancy test. If her suspicions were correct, she really did have a “little Captain” in her. Nonetheless, the cardboard pirate’s bold stance made her think that perhaps rum and cola should become her signature drink. It could make a daring statement about who she was. As she selected a bottle of the rum, the display teetered like a drunk on roller blades. The bottles shifted precariously and then tenuously settled. Millicent scurried away as fast as she could to the pharmacy.
For five years, the Vibratos worked tirelessly to build their domain. They struggled to fight against the popular misconception that what they were doing involved a so-called pyramid scheme. “Of course it’s not a pyramid,” Ted would tell potential new members as he drew a diagram on a white board with a dry-erase marker.
“Pyramids are illegal.” He would draw a star, indicating himself and Millicent. Then beside that, two more stars, one above the other. Then next to that, four stars, and so on. “See?” he would say, with an enthusiasm that bordered on religious zealotry. “These levels are side-by-side—in a sideways triangle! In a pyramid scheme, they are one level under another.” Despite this horizontal movement concept, members recruited by the Vibratos were referred to as their “downline.”
Their mantra was “Each One Reach Two,” and so they did. Every member was required to recruit at least two more members. At its peak, Milli-Theo Enterprises, as the business was called, was thirteen layers wide, and had over eight thousand associates in its downline. Peak earners became members of the elite Diamondelle Inner-Circle Club®, receiving exclusive audiences with the Vibratos to ask questions about what it was like to be able to take off to any country in the world on the pink Mary Kay jet, or to set sail to Amway’s exclusive island nation at a moment’s notice. At these audiences, the men talked about golfing at St. Andrews and deep-sea fishing with Fidel Castro. The women members (the Diamondelle-ettes) wanted Millicent to tell them what it was like to wear a new designer original every day and hang out with other shining stars of the multi-level marketing world, or to not have to stand in line for anything. And she never tired of telling them.
The heck-on-wheels grandparents that Millicent had observed when she drove up to the store were now in line at the lone open register, their baskets piled with Little Debbie cakes, and bottles of Mogen David wine. It was behind a group of them that she found herself, juggling her bottles of cola and rum, several pregnancy testing kits, and her animal carrier. In front of her, an old man sniffed at the air. It seemed he had detected a precious flower or, possibly, a fresh-baked cinnamon roll. He rotated the captain’s chair of his off-brand mobility device to have a better look. The effort was hampered by a slipping, flesh-toned eye patch which he continuously slid back into position. With the working eyeball—rheumy but apparently functioning—he ogled her, taking in the gaping tear in her blouse.
He smacked his gums. “Dollface, I’ll be danged if you’re not the hottest thing since sunburn.”
Get a grip, gramps, she thought. You’re old enough to be my grandfather. Hell, you’re old enough to be my grandfather’s grandfather. At the front of the line, the cashier chattered loudly with each shopper. It appeared she knew them—along with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren unto the tenth generation—by name. Each decrepit patron was buying only three or four items and the checkout time was averaging a minute and a half per item as chit-chat, excavation of exact change from tiny clasp-purses, or the writing of personal checks dragged the process out. Adding insult to injury, three times so far, the cashier had called for a price check on the same item. She checked her watch. There was not much time left before Ted would be taken into federal custody.
The Vibratos’ fairy-tale-dream-come-true life took a turn the day they got recruited into an exclusive new MLM plan. It was in the Sky Lounge of the Sheraton Hotel in Kowloon, where they were enjoying a plate of fresh oysters and champagne after speaking to a conference of their newly developed China downline. A well-dressed African approached them—a friendly, almost familiar face. Thrusting out a lanky ring-bedecked hand, he introduced himself as Dr. Clement Okon, a Nigerian businessman. He was a member of an MLM plan known as SPREE, whose program was designed for the “best of the best.” He’d heard them speak that evening, he said, and felt Ted had what was needed to really take off. Furthermore, since the Vibratos’ already had an established downline, they were naturals. Over several more bottles of champagne, Dr. Okon explained the plan, drawing a series of diagrams on the tablecloth. Millicent didn’t quite understand how the plan worked, but Ted nodded excitedly. All she gathered was that it involved mortgages. As a member, you made no-money-down low-interest mortgage loans to families unable to attain conventional mortgages. After a month, you sold the loan to your downline for a tidy profit. After another month, they could do the same and, like any MLM plan, everyone up the line got a percentage of the sale. It was a win-win/can’t-miss deal.
The line of geezers with walkers behind Millicent in the grocery store was extended up the Plastic Wrap/Aluminum Foil/Waxed Paper aisle. She fumed silently. There were twenty people in the line and only one register open. She vainly searched for a manager, but none were in the store. She believed the head of a man on the cell-phone appearing through the front window—now on the third cigarette since she’d first spotted him—was the manager, but she had no way of attracting his attention.
It was in early 2007 that Millicent began to suspect something was wrong. While they were still sending money to their upline, via Dr. Okon, the money from their downline was disappearing. She scanned their financial records and ran a few graphs on the computer to see if there was a trend. There was. Exactly one day after they’d sold their first loan, their finances began to level off and then drop, then rise, level, drop. It was a monthly cycle. Before calling Ted, who was in St. Louis signing paperwork on a dozen new loans, she did some research—she Googled “SPREE.”
Sometime around 11:00, Millicent’s turn in the checkout line was imminent. From the locked office at the front of the grocery store a fresh-faced cashier walked out with a cash drawer. Oh, like Hell, Millicent thought. Like Hell you are going to hold up me up while you switch out drawers. She was ready to get nasty now. But the new cashier set up at the next check stand. Millicent watched as the woman placed the drawer in the register and began cracking various paper-wrapped coin tubes open. She applied several coats of lip-balm, ran the rubber-belt a few feet as if checking its tensile strength, rotated her neck, ran in place, touched her toes, cracked her knuckles, and put on fresh lipstick. Finally she flipped the switch lighting her check stand number and announced, in a voice displaying cultivated boredom and disdain, “I can take whoever’s next.”
“Hi, Mill,” Ted said, when Millicent called him with the news about their fluctuating finances. “Make it quick. Were just finishing up and I—.”
“Stop,” She yelled into the phone. “Do not sign anything.”
It took a few minutes to get Ted to realize she wasn’t playing around. SPREE, she’d found out, was an acronym for Sub-Prime Real Estate Enterprises. Yes, she had told him, like the companies in the news that are filing Chapter 11.
“OK,” Ted said. “It’s OK. I just signed these new contracts. Just flip a few more loans to the downline and we’ll be—.”
“Oh, Ted, it’s worse,” Millicent wailed. “Dr. Clement Okon is in our downline!”
“In our downline? And our upline?”
“Yes! We recruited him in Macon last year. No wonder he looked so familiar when we met him in Kowloon.”
Millicent’s own cashier, after talking nonstop for the last thirty-five minutes, had now become a mute, possibly a deaf one. She picked up the bottle of rum and ran it over the scanner. Then again. And again and again and again. Millicent mentioned that the sign on the display she’d gotten the bottle from read $25.99. The cashier ignored her in the manner of a pediatrician who has listened to one to many mothers’ diagnoses and began dragging the barcode across the scanner even harder, determined to come to her own conclusion on the price. All good things must come to an end and, sighing heavily, she picked up the intercom. Giving Millicent a sideways glance, the woman turned her back, as though on a personal call. She shrieked into the microphone her need for a price check. Rather than simply say what the item was, she summoned a zitty bagboy from the back of the store. Millicent and the cashier looked down the aisle to watch the boy’s meandering progress toward the check stand. The fifteen people in line behind her, now wobbly on their walkers, glared at Millicent.
“It’s like that snake that eats its own tail or something,” Millicent said when Ted returned from St. Louis. “It’s a circle. All our money is just going in a big circle. The trick is that we have to catch it while the largest amount is ours.”
One might have thought the rum bottle was a relic from an alien spacecraft the way the bagboy examined it, turning it every which way. “Where did you get this?” he asked her. She suppressed the urge to tell him “from the seafood department” and instead directed him toward the display where he spent the next five minutes looking for the neon pink 1 x 2 foot sign with the price written in bold marker.
The boy returned with the news. “$25.95.” The cashier made no effort to stifle her smug grin as she keyed the price into the register. “Saved you four cents,” she noted.
Millicent hoisted the animal carrier onto the counter.
“Is ’at your purse?” the cashier asked in awe.
Millicent did some calculations and figured out when their money should be back at its peak. They had a custom-built program for their computer which showed them the current status of their entire network, upline and downline. All they needed to do was sit on the computer and when the funds went through, transfer them to a different account and shut down the network. Which is what Ted was doing the night the Treasury Department kicked the door in and arrested him for running a Ponzi scheme—more commonly known as a Pyramid Scam.
He called Millicent from the jail. “I’m innocent,” he hissed. “I watched the money move. When it hit Clement Okon, it disappeared. He took it out of the loop. No money, no evidence.”
She went to the bank to withdraw bail money for Ted, but the account was frozen. She called a few members of their immediate downline for help, but was met with repeated silence. In desperation, she dialed a contact number for Clement Okon, the Nigerian businessman who seemed to be the source of their problems. The phone rang, clicked, rang again.
“Federal Bureau of Investigation, Western Regional Office,” chirped a young woman. “How may I direct your call?” Millicent hung up.
“Biggest damn purse I ever saw,” the cashier said. Millicent unzipped the bag and reached inside. Her hand shook as she pulled out a sawed-off shotgun. Ted had bought it at an auction of Hemingway memorabilia; it was the very one the great author had used to commit suicide. Millicent had to saw off the barrel in order to fit in the carrier, and now she thrust it at the cashier. “Fill it up,” she snarled. She waved the gun at the other cashier. “You too.” Both women opened their drawers and began withdrawing cash and checks. The store manager passed by, talking on a cellphone. He put a hand over the receiver and, in a stage whisper to Millicent’s cashier, informed her he was going out for a smoke.
What she would do next, Millicent Vibrato didn’t know. She hoped the registers held enough money to at least get her safely a state or two away from here. Surely she could pick up a job. Maybe get into a downline. She’d heard of the remarkable income to be had selling pre-paid legal services.
Copyright 2008 Rick Raab-Faber