Not including a visit to a dentist’s office, is there a worse way to spend an hour than to attend a time- share presentation?  Two experiences in early adulthood caused me to pledge to never again endure such an ordeal.  On a recent visit to Charleston, however, when a torrentially rainy Tuesday morning held scant prospect of more enjoyable activities, an opportunity “too good to be true” proved irresistible.  Directly across the street from our hotel, a sodden man held a sign offering $150 cash, guaranteed, to any qualified couple who would spend an hour in the office building behind him, the local branch of “Vacation Inspirations.”

“How bad can one hour be?” I asked.

“$150 will pay for lunch, a museum and a covered carriage ride,” noted my wife.

“Sit there for an hour, have a donut and coffee, and then it will be over,” I agreed.

We crossed the street, entered the building, and approached a cheerful receptionist.

“Are y’all here for the presentation?” she chirped.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, y’all are in luck!” she enthused, as though the sales pitches did not take place every hour on the hour all day long.  “We’ll get started in about five minutes.  I just need you to fill out a couple of forms, to make sure y’all are qualified.”

“You’re running a background check, in South Carolina?” I asked, feigning shock.  “Isn’t that against some constitutional right?”

“Behave,” warned my wife.

The girl indulged me with an angelic smile.  I took a pencil and began to provide basic information.   As always, in similar situations that held potential for follow-up harassment, I provided a long-expired e-mail address.  I checked boxes for income and assets that I imagined were sufficient to “qualify” us, but not high enough to excite special attention from the company.  When I finished, I handed the card back.

The girl thanked me and advised:  “When the presentation is over, and y’all come back down again, your envelope of cash will be waiting right here on the desk, with your name on it.”   I registered that crucial information, just in case.   She directed us towards a stairway.

Once upstairs, we joined three other couples in a conference room.   We nodded greetings and I wondered if any were serious prospects or if all of us were motivated solely by the cash payment.  There were eight tables available but we all gravitated to the rear, as far from the lectern as possible.  Everyone was trying to limit their engagement with the presentation, I imagined.    After another moment, an improbably bright and enthusiastic young man bounded into the room.  With slicked-back hair, a lavender polo shirt and stylish glasses, he looked every bit like a fraternity rush captain at a large southern university.  He greeted us warmly:

“How y’all doin’ today?   I hope Charleston is to your likin’.  My name is Rhett, just like the fella in Gone With the Wind,  and mah family’s lived he-ah for ten generations.   Hey, folks, I don’t bite!  Since we don’t have a full room at this early hour, how ‘bout y’all come sit closer.”

“We’re okay back here,” said one man, indicating himself and his wife.  The rest of us nodded.

“I’d really appreciate it if you would all take the closer seats,” said Rhett, the folksy accent and affability draining from his still well-lit smile.  “Please move up for my sake, so that I do not have to shout.  I’d also appreciate it,” he continued, “if you will turn off your smart-phones.   I’ll review these while you get re-arranged,” he said, brandishing our qualification sheets.

He paused to scan the room.  “I’ll wait a moment for y’all to get comfortable.”

We collectively recognized that we had to play by house rules.  Our envelopes might be hanging in the balance.  All four couples moved closer and the sound of phones shutting down reverberated.  Satisfied, our presenter, now sounding completely like a speed-talking native of New York or New Jersey, began:

“The first thing I am going to stress is that this is not a time-share.  This is different; this is unique!  We are an exclusive vacation club, and we are inviting you to be members of our club.  We pay wholesale for weeks at wonderful resorts around the world and club members reserve four weeks each year from our selection at deeply discounted prices.”

“Isn’t that like a time share?” asked a woman.  I nodded, since I was also failing to understand much of a distinction, though I had not listened carefully up to that point.

“That’s an excellent question,” said Rhett.  “We buy weeks in bulk so we get the best price and you buy the weeks from us for no mark-up whatsoever.”

This last statement succeeded in gaining my attention.  “How do you make money?” I asked.

“That’s an excellent question,” said Rhett.  “You just pay one, incredibly low, up-front payment.”

“How low is low?” drawled a man.  “Where ah come from, in Mississippi, we like to know what we are gettin’ into.”

“We will get to that,” said Rhett.  “First, I’d like to show you some of the properties.”

He dimmed the lights and a slide show dazzled us with impossibly beautiful young couples frolicking in front of pools, beaches, ski slopes, boats and sunsets.  I surveyed the other couples in the room and could not fail to notice that my wife and I were the youngest by ten years, and we were at least double the age of the people pictured.

“Didn’t that look awesome?” asked Rhett, as he turned back on the lights.

“What’s it cost?” persisted the Mississippian.

“Well, that is something that can vary,” said Rhett calmly.  Sensing  rising discomfort in the room, however, he added:   “Normally, it would cost $8,800…”

A man whistled.

“…but if you sign up today,” Rhett hastened to add, “the cost will be just $4,400.”

“And that’s all?” asked a woman.

“Just some small monthly dues, maybe $150,” said Rhett.  “But I’ll speak to the bosses if you buy today and there could be some discount.”

“So,” I said.  “There’s $4,400 up front, and monthly dues, and… that’s it?”

“Just some maintenance,” said Rhett, “maybe five hundred a year or seven hundred a year, depending on when and where you take your weeks.”

One couple was taking notes feverishly.

“Are there discounts for hurricane season?” asked the woman.

“That’s an excellent question,” said Rhett, possibly relieved to not be listing further costs.

I leaned over to my wife.  “What kind of a question would he not consider ‘excellent’?”

A man next to us raised his hand.  “What about availability?  For instance, if I wanted to switch out a week from a resort in North Dakota to one in Paris, would it be easy?”

“That question might not be ‘excellent,’” I whispered.

“Folks, folks,” said Rhett.  “Let me explain it this way. You are paying for vacation insurance.  You will know each year that you will take four weeks of vacation.  Not only will you have access to world class accommodations, but you will get a psychological benefit for free.  Think about it.”

I thought about it.  Not only was I not tempted by Rhett’s presentation, but I was appalled that something so sketchy could be taking place.  It was clear the requirement of turned-off smart-phones was not to promote silence, like at the movies.  If someone could search Vacation Inspirations for just a few minutes on-line, the word “scam” would almost certainly appear.   I was tempted to speak up, lest one of the other couples was tempted.

My wife sensed my rising discomfort and touched my arm. “Don’t stress,” she whispered.  “Just hang on for twenty more minutes, and collect $150.”  I resolved to remain silent.

At that point, Rhett launched into his next talking point:   “And the best thing about belonging to the club is that your ownership is perpetual.  For an extra fee of just $2,000, it can even last for a lifetime.”

“Oh, my” I thought.  I could not contain myself from speaking:  “Isn’t that what perpetual means?  Why would you have to pay more money?”

“Well,” said Rhett, “that depends on your definition of ‘perpetual.’”

“That is my definition of ‘perpetual,’” I said.

Everyone murmured.  Rhett looked frustrated.  “I’m going to call a supervisor.  He can explain it to you.  Just wait a minute.  I will be right back.”

Rhett walked out of the room.

“Shall we run for it?” I asked.

“Let’s go,” said my wife.

We rose from our table, waved at our somewhat bewildered fellow inmates, and hastened down the steps.  On the way, we saw Rhett on a cellphone, agitated.  He looked up just as we passed.  “Hey!” he shouted.

We kept going to the bottom of the stairs and saw four envelopes on the reception desk.  They were not of the same importance as the ring was to Frodo, but they still looked special to us.  We grabbed the one marked “Sanders” and exited to the street.  At that moment, as though to confirm we made the right decision, the sun shined through the overcast.  We counted $150 at the corner and looked forward to enjoying the rest of the day.