Supermodel walks into a bar, sits beside a guy wearing a Polo shirt and blue jeans. Guy’s drinking Guinness and reading Scientific American. She says, “Hi, I’m Nikki, what you reading?” He goes, “It’s not Cosmo, I can tell you that.” To which she responds, “Well, what can you tell me?”
No joke. True story. Except she wasn’t really a supermodel, just looked like one. Her name was Nikki, though.
I’ll never forget that.
I introduced myself as the writer of the article I was reading. Or rather checking to see how I’d been edited. As Nikki sipped a vodka collins, she peered down at the slick page like a swan at a tepid pool, and read my name between my stretched fingers.
“So,” she said, looking into my blue eyes, now, with her pale greens, “what’s your article about, Mister . . . Alan Dyson?”
I must have smiled somehow, because she smiled back. Her incisors lent a sharpness to her smile, and made mine cling to mellow. “It’s all about aging, Nikki,” I heard myself reply. “How it might be possible someday to stop the aging process, or at least slow down the relentless slide. Something I’m involved in personally, as a researcher. Does this sound like a subject of interest to you?”
Her smile turned sly, like I hoped mine appeared, hers curling all the way up one side of those wide, smooth Heidi Klume lips. Then she arched one of her thin eyebrows at me like a weapon.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said, and continued. “You see, Nikki, we’re all born with an internal clock, at the cellular level. As we get older, there’s a shortening of what we call telomeres, which correlates with how cells divide and replicate. Parts of our DNA structure tend to break down over time, so the blueprints for the divisions have missing pieces. This happens in conjunction with shortening telomeres, so what I’m trying to do is stop the telomeres from—”
“Getting shorter?” she interrupted.
“And now you want to save me from wrinkle creams and Botox, is that it? So my skin might not have to look like an alligator’s one day?”
I shrugged and was reminded of my dad, a bonafide geezer since Mom died. And how I didn’t want to end up like him. “You forgot lasers, sonic skin tightening blasts, and calcium hydroxylapatite injections,” I said. “But who said anything about helping you? I’m doing this for all mankind.” I paused significantly. “That, and a hefty bonus if I succeed.”
I sipped at my Guinness, and for about two point three seconds there she looked intrigued. Then she said, “So who do you work for?”
“Tactar Pharmaceuticals. Who do you work for?”
“That would be telling.”
“You want my phone number too?”
We were like creatures from different planets. Although opposites attract, or so they say. Still, most scientists don’t even understand gravity, much less the dicey polarity of sexual magnetism. So it was only a vague hope of mine that she was actually weary of those empty-headed sports nuts who drove muscle cars.
“By the way,” I said. “It’s a Cavalier.”
“The car I drive. It’s your basic compact, no options. Not even a CD player. And no, I don’t have any tattoos, I don’t smoke, and I live alone. My work is my life. You want my phone number, now? Or are you hard-wired to go after some idiot NBA star who gets twelve million to pitch cola drinks to his fat fans?”
She laughed at that. So I told her I was also investigating the existence of the gene involved in sports obsessions. The “couch potato” gene, I think I called it. With tiny green chromosomes called “chives.” As it turned out, much to my astonishment, she followed me home out of curiosity. But that was only for one night. I may have been a novelty for her, but the thing about novelty is that it wears off quick. By dawn’s early light she was gone, along with the cash from my wallet, and a really nice brown leather bomber jacket from my closet. Maybe she thought it might fit her quarterback boyfriend, or his nerdy brother. It appeared she’d attempted to abscond with my computer, too, before deciding it was too bulky. But at least she was kind enough to leave me some coffee and aspirin so I could make breakfast.
On that fateful day before my life changed forever, I counted seven people seated at the Tactar conference table. At the preeminent spot, across the polished expanse of dark mahogany separating me from upper management, sat Russell Winsdon, the sixty-eight year old head of the company. A man who resembled Warren Buffett. To his immediate right sat Carson Jeffers, the lanky redhead who was V.P. and head of public relations. When the update on my work concluded, all eyes turned to Jeffers, expecting him to speak first. And when he did, Winsdon’s regal gray head nodded slightly in both affirmation and from mild Parkinson’s. But he was still strong, his demeanor asserted. He was fit, by God. Not some crazy old coot quite just yet.
“It’s interesting, Alan . . . even exciting, I have to say,” Jeffers commented, giving me a nod that Winsdon seemed to mimic.
“Thank you, sir,” I replied.
The others around the table nodded mechanically as well. They were yes-men, all of them. Aspiring young executives jostling on Tactar’s career ladder, that rickety termite-infested fire escape leading up to where it was high enough to use a golden parachute one day.
“You’ve done well, too, with documentation on your uncovery of gene 565 in the bristlecone pine, using RNA interference. We definitely like that. What you’ve found here is a unique controller used to maintain optimum plant cell division. But whether we should continue funding your screening for a formulation to deliver the gene to other plant or animal species remains to be seen. What can you tell us?”
“Well, we have tried replacing a phenol with an ester, altering the molecule with an antioxidant at one end to aid absorption, and with some success. Then I realized that it might be better, for any future clinical trials on animals, to use a benign virus as a transport mechanism for the gene.”
“Interesting. Go on.”
“Whether the modified virus would be able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier is questionable, but it would deliver the gene transcribed to it before it’s targeted for destruction by the immune system. I’ve tried it on caenorhabditis elegans, which as you may know has roughly nineteen thousand protein-coding genes and ninety-seven million genome base pairs.”
“What’s a whatever-you-said elegans?” one of the green yes-men asked.
“It’s a worm,” Jeffers replied, neglecting to add ‘like you.’ Then he turned back to me. “How did that go, and what’s the virus?”
“Yes, and why wasn’t I told about this test?” Winsdon added.
They were all staring at me now, like CEOs posing for the cover of Fortune. I took a moment to savor the attention, knowing it might be my last such moment. “The delivery method was a success,” I announced, finally. “Our preliminary biologic binding studies indicate that the pine tree gene was incorporated by c. elegans, which has fully half of the genes found in humans.”
The old man emitted an audible gasp. But then he sneezed, and I realized it wasn’t a gasp at all. “Excuse me,” he said, and pulled out a handkerchief to blow his nose.
Jeffers leaned toward me. “What’s this benign virus? Strep? The common cold?”
“No, sir,” I said. Then I lowered my voice. “It’s rather sensitive, actually, sir. A need-to-know basis kind of thing, if you know what I mean.” I looked over at three of the youngest execs.
Jeffers followed my gaze, and then waved a hand to dismiss them. When they were gone he said, “They’ve signed confidentiality agreements on all Tactar projects, so this better be good.”
“Oh, it is, sir.”
“We’re waiting,” said Winsdon.
“Well?” said Jeffers.
“Well, sir,” I replied, at last, “the virus I used as transport for the bristlecone pine’s longevity gene was none other than HIV. The virus that causes AIDS.”
“That’s simply impossible,” declared Kevin Connolly. “You said the virus was benign.”
I turned to Jeffers’ right hand man, an experienced administrative and legal assistant in a dark blue three piece suit. A schmuck who looked like actor Ray Liotta. “Yes, I did,” I admitted. “And so it is, after I genetically altered it. This can be done relatively easy in a petri dish, before the virus has entered a host. Such alterations are made all the time on many viruses and genes in labs all over the world. I simply rendered the virus harmless prior to splicing 565 onto it, and the resulting match proved to be . . . well, perfect. So the killer virus has now become the ideal transport mechanism to insert the pine tree’s longevity gene into an animal species.”
Connolly was taken aback, and appeared stunned. Then he chuckled. “But what about side effects? Like what if, oh, say . . . some woman pops out a litter of limbless retarded freaks? What happens then?”
“You mean in human testing?” I smiled. “This isn’t thalidomide, it’s a single gene transported by a genetically altered virus.”
Jeffers momentarily lifted both of his hands from the table. “Wait a minute, Kevin. You’re getting way, way ahead of yourself. We haven’t determined if we’re even going to pursue this yet. Some questions. Can we patent this gene? I’m not sure. Will we even want to try? What about that, Alan? How long have you been tracking your worm?”
I took in a slow breath, and exhaled even slower. “Two weeks,” I said. “On a lifespan of three.”
“And the results are inconclusive.”
“Meaning we, ah, haven’t detected any measurable longevity gains.”
“So the worms are aging normally?”
“That’s essentially correct. I mean they were. They’re dead now.”
Jeffers leaned back. Winsdon sighed. But Connolly chuckled. “Good work,” he said, and then, unseen by the others, winked at me. It had been determined on several previous occasions that I was a suitable brunt for jokes, although any dry, dark humor I possessed had probably grown out of insecurity and the seclusion of bachelorhood. That was something Kevin and I shared, as equals on the career ladder, but his own humor leaned toward put-downs and sardonic cruelty.
I smiled nervously at Jeffers before attempting to bypass Connolly’s hostility. “What about rat tests?” I suggested.
“What about them?”
“Would you consider a timetable for that? I hoped that’s what this meeting would be about. Now that we have an ideal insertion mechanism for the gene, and considering the costs so far to achieve this—to say nothing of the luck—shouldn’t we move forward with rodent or primate testing?” I paused, gauging their silence. “How many labs do you imagine are working on the bristlecone genome, sir? Giving up now would be like tipping our hand to the competition. What if a drug could be developed from this that slows the aging process and the incidence of genetically caused cancers? What if the telomeres at the end of chromosomes were to remain long for far more than just seventy cell divisions, so mutations were less likely, and the breakdown of DNA averted for just ten more years? Do you have any idea how much people would pay for ten more years of youth? Bristlecone pine trees live for thousands of years.”
Jeffers leaned back and laced his hands behind his head. “That’s true, Alan, but pine trees are not humans.”
“Nor are worms,” I said.
We studied each other across the wide table. An impasse had been achieved here, I realized, and at some expense. Results were what counted. Was it worth the risk to continue, in pursuit of billions, without them? That was the question.
“And there’s this other problem you’ve just thrown at us,” Jeffers continued. “Even if this gene pans out, like you’re hoping, you’ve got to know that no one will accept your delivery mechanism, which is the injection of a viral infection they’ve come to associate with wasting away and dying, often in great pain.”
“So call it something else. Call it . . . I don’t know . . . M-Telomerease.”
“What’s the ‘M’ stand for?”
“Uh huh. Still, the word would get out. Then it would be like with people who object to food irradiation or the genetic engineering of corn to increase yields. Or fetal stem cell research. There’d be picket lines a mile long out in front of this building. Preachers talking about our playing God. AIDS research lobbyists accusing us of using HIV to make money at the expense of dying people. If we can manipulate the virus this way to benefit rich people, why can’t we manipulate it to save poor people?”
“I have the answer to that,” I responded.
“Maybe you do, but who’ll be listening? They’ll be too busy throwing rocks through our windows. And can you imagine what kind of pressure the FDA would be put under, regarding approval on something like this? After we spent millions on testing, I’d say we’re looking at, what . . .” He squinted toward Kevin.
“Four . . . four and a half years, depending on the clinical results,” Connolly concluded. “And maybe that long, too, before we obtain approval for any kind of patent.”
I felt my stomach clench. It was news I’d dreaded hearing, and so I instinctively complained: “Four years? I hoped for two on the gene or the process patent. Tops, sir.” I tried to look hopeful, but was met with glassy stares. After giving me a dry smile, Connolly lost it, and looked as if he’d just taken downers. The generic kind, with fillers that left the sickly tailings of a smirk around the lips.
“The FDA may seem like monkeys on our backs sometimes,” Jeffers said, trying unsuccessfully not to be too discouraging, “but when it comes to public safety, they move slower than tax lawyers being paid by the hour.”
Winsdon strategically coughed, tapping his wide forehead with one bony index finger. “I don’t see much future in this, either,” he added, his voice deep and even. “What we needed to see was a less controversial delivery medium, and some kind of positive results for this gene. I see hope of neither here.”
There was a long pause that seemed longer. I sucked in a deeper breath, and tried one last time. “I can’t believe you’d consider letting this research go, sir,” I argued, this time from the weakness of defense. “The potential if we succeed is enormous. Can’t you see that?”
Jeffers waved a hand at me. “We saw the potential, Alan, or we wouldn’t have continued to fund your project as long as we did.”
Past tense. They were already talking past tense. When was the decision made? I wondered. In a millisecond?
“Think about all the baby boomers retiring, though,” I blurted, and then, after this final lame response, realized that if the baby boomers could live another ten years, it might bankrupt those paying to keep them alive. What the world needed now wasn’t longer lives, but shorter ones.
Connolly glanced at Jeffers, then turned to Winsdon. He lowered his voice slightly in a deliberate mask of pretended privacy. “Now,” he summed up, “if your gene was actually effective, Alan, and you had a better medium to deliver it as a drug, a case might be made suggesting this was an orphan drug. That would be one way to merit early approval. Of course it would need to be marketed as such, with development underwriters brought on board, and projections drawn showing it’s not going to be profitable for us, but that some people really need it in high risk cancer cases.” Connolly smiled thinly at me, showing a competitive ego, bolstered by an unjustified disdain. “Well,” he said, “isn’t that the truth of it, anyway, Dyson?”
“Absolutely not,” I reiterated, in now reckless defiance. “This wouldn’t lead to some orphan drug. At least not in my opinion. You aren’t a scientist, Kevin, and don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” I looked at Jeffers for support, but the V.P. only pursed his lips and folded his hands in front of him reflectively.
“Really,” Connolly said. “In your opinion.”
“Come on,” I said, struggling to keep my tone in bounds. “The groundwork has been done, and clinical testing of mice wouldn’t be that expensive here. Dr. Bischoff has approved what I’ve done so far. There are no excipients to worry about either, or medicinal chemists to hire. I’ve been working my ass off to arrive at this point!”
“Then why,” Ray Liotta’s lookalike asked the ceiling, with raised eyebrows, “do you think you can circumvent the drug approval process?”
I felt heat surge in my forehead as though the conference room had just become a boiler room. “I don’t, Kevin. Where did you get that fr—”
“Did you know the antibiotic Terramycin took fourteen years to approve, and over a hundred thousand soil samples to validate?”
“I know that. Why are you—”
“And have you developed any kind of pilot plan to push developing this into a drug, using whatever trade name you come up with, like maybe ‘Bristalene’?”
“Well, of course I haven’t had time to—”
“We really have to move cautiously at the company now,” Jeffers suddenly interjected, as though part of a tag team. “That’s all Kevin is saying. This is an election year, too, and we can’t afford another failure at a time like this.”
“A time like what, sir? Is there something I don’t know? I thought this was no different than—”
“What? Last year? Last week? Prescription drug subsidies are turning all eyes toward our industry. And with Baycol recalled due to fatal muscle breakdown . . .” Jeffers stopped himself, pausing. “Bottom line is . . . nobody here wants to rock the boat, Alan. And from what you’ve told us, we’d be in for some major rocking here, once we declare. And the results just aren’t there.”
How fast a mood can change. Looking at them, it occurred to me that their decision hadn’t been made in a millisecond, but had been made long before they entered the room. I studied my own reflection in the shiny mahogany table for a moment, and when I looked up again, still amazed by the transformation that had just occurred, Winsdon held my gaze. “You’ll keep up your good work, though, won’t you, boy,” the big man concluded, simply. Then he got up to leave.
Winsdon’s stooped, hulking figure retreated from the dim chamber. Dutifully, Connolly followed him like Santa’s gleeful little elf. Last to go was Jeffers, who turned at the last moment to suggest, “We’d like you to see someone about the stress you’ve been under, Alan.”
“Stress, sir?” I said in disbelief.
“Associated with working your ass off. Your own words.” He paused to look up the hallway. “Take some time off. You’ve earned it. Play some golf, take a cruise. There’s more to life than what can be seen under a scanning electron microscope. Okay, boy?”
Boy, I thought, sitting there alone for a moment. Oh, boy . . .
Little did I know, it was my last day to drive. When I dropped off the other two nerds in our car pool, Darryl Alexander slid into the front seat of my Cavalier with his laptop. As Tactar’s computer programmer, Darryl always dressed impeccably in one of the four tailored outfits he owned, all a different shade of gray. His ties were his only act of rebellion, and whether they were silk or cotton or rayon, they all possessed some eye-catching motif in bright colors. “Nice tie” was a comment to which Darryl was so accustomed that he took it as “hello” or “good morning.” One rumor had it that Darryl’s uncle once owned a tie store in upstate New York, another that Darryl’s collection rivaled Mrs. William Gates’ collection of shoes. How many did he own, anyway? I’d often wondered. A thousand? No one could ever be sure they’d seen the same tie twice. Today it was a pattern of tiny mousetraps against a yellow Swiss background. Darryl’s grin above the tie resembled Samuel L. Jackson’s as the actor snagged another plum movie role.
“What’s with you?” I asked Darryl, in sour humor.
“Who, me?” He held an index finger against the central mousetrap on his chest.
“Don’t play games. What’s with the cheesy grin lately?”
“You should try it,” he said. “Hey, I’m a happily married man, buddy. What can I say? Hannah just passed her first test with flying colors, too. Did I mention that?”
“Your wife went back to school?”
“Man, you really do have blinders on, don’t you, Dyson? No, she didn’t go back to school.”
“Then what the devil do you—”
“Pregnancy test, man. She scored perfect on the first try. So did I.”
He leveled a wide-eyed stare at me. I stared back at him briefly in shock. “Congratulations,” I said, numbly. I tried unsuccessfully to smile. “What do I call you now . . . sir? Pops? Studley Doright?”
Darryl wagged his head at me. “Your Honor will be fine. Now tell me what’s with you today.”
“Whatever do you mean, Judge.”
“You know what I mean. Why the funk?”
“Rhymes with bunk. Dunk. Sunk. Punk.”
I hesitated, wondering whether Darryl might be likely to repeat any confidence in casual conversation in the plant cafeteria. Then I felt my frustration flare again, and like a self-absorbed fool I opened my mouth wide enough to insert a few fat toes. “We want you to go see someone, Jeffers tells me. You’re under stress, he says. Like I’m on intravenous caffeine, maybe got an IV bag filled with espresso stuck in my arm. But if I were developing a new headache remedy or nasal decongestant, you and I both know they wouldn’t be looking at me like I just landed from Mars with a doomsday device.”
“What—you mean that pine cone formula you’re working on?” Darryl asked. “What is it again, Pine Sol?”
“Just forget it,” I huffed.
“Hey, chill out, will ya? Or you’ll be giving me a headache soon.”
“Well, you should have one. I didn’t see you represented at that conference table, discussing my project. Or any women.”
Darryl sniggered at that. “Your project? Wake up and smell the cappuccino, buddy . . . bonus someday, maybe, but if yer thinking percentage, forget it. You may be white, but you ain’t one a’ them white.” He paused. “Ya get their FDA speech—that what’s burrowed up your nose?”
I sneered. “You referring to that buncha red tape bureaucrats got their fingers in their bums, wonderin’ which way the wind will break?” I took a corner sharply.
Darryl leaned into it. “You need to get laid, man, that’s what you need,” he concluded. “How long has it been now? A year? No, on second thought, please don’t tell me. And slow down. You’re gonna end up behind bars. You already live in a jail as it is.”
“How would you know?” I asked. “Have you ever bothered to stop by?”
“I’ve heard it described.”
“Really? By who?”
“By you.” Darryl cleared his throat, glancing around at the traffic I dodged. “Hey, you joining the road rage brigade, now? Take it easy. And while you’re at it? Get you a wife, or at least a life.”
We arrived at the Bel Aire subdivision where Darryl lived in a split level red brick house with at least sixty feet of white fence separating his own suburban castle from his neighbor’s. Darryl got out with his Dell laptop just as his wife opened the front door of their home. Hannah waved at us, her face cherubic, radiating life. I’d always suspected her to be as beautiful inside as out—sweet, charming, witty, intelligent, and now radiant. The kind of woman I wouldn’t meet until God reset my personal cosmic slot machine to pay out something other than slugs.
At the last minute, as if reading my mind, Darryl turned and leaned toward the Cavalier’s window. “You know, there’s a company barbecue coming up. Maybe you should ask Rhonda or Joan to it.”
I chuckled at that. “Yeah, that’s right, I heard they were trolling for catfish again, too. They hook’em, then haul’em onto the pier and whack’em with a bat. Watch’em flop around before they slice’em up for bait.”
“Hey, come on, now,” Darryl chided me, “it’d be a new experience for you, wouldn’t it? And tell me, truthfully now. Has it really been two years since you been with a . . .”
In reply, I pulled away abruptly, leaving behind a distinct tang of burning rubber in exchange for words that lingered in my car like a question mark all the way home. “Been with a woman?” I completed Darryl’s sentence. I wasn’t sure about that. Maybe the creature I’d been with the previous night wasn’t a woman, but an apparition. Or a land shark like the idiot behind me, driving a dark Toyota Land Cruiser.
The stars were just starting to come out when I pulled into the parking space fronting my suburban Alexandria duplex. I cut the engine, and withdrew the keys from the ignition to just sit motionless for a moment, trying to calm down. It did nothing for my headache, though. Adjusting the rearview mirror, I stared into it. My face seemed tired, and uncannily older than my thirty-nine years. I looked like actor Michael Keaton now, complete with thinning hair. And was that a strand of gray hair amid the dark brown? Maybe I’d be as gray as Winsdon before I was much into my forties. Considering Darryl’s comment, probably still single, too. What masochistic species of female would want me anyway, once my thinning hair had gone white, or had simply gone? Would I soon be taking Propecia in a vain attempt to stave off my upcoming and inevitable mid-life crisis? Would I be jotting down those 800 numbers like so many millions of other men out there, ignoring the warnings of what not to take with the little pills?
I reached up and tried to separate the single long gray hair from the other strands between my forefinger and thumb. I paused, studying it in fascination: a faulty follicle, fresh out of pigment. A first indicator of my body clock on its relentless countdown to cardiac blast off. No matter what I did, I knew there’d be no stopping the slide either. So far, time had waited for no man—not even for N’Sync or the Back Street Geezers. Certainly not for some biopharmaceutical drug researcher who’d only recently started taking vitamin pills. Those DNA strands broke down for Liz Taylor and Liz Zugglewort alike, joints stiffening and teeth falling out and skin sagging and—here I sighed at the thought—and as the same women who complained about men being obsessed with female body parts searched for more virile chests and tighter male buns?
I jerked the solitary defective gray hair out, wondering how long it would be before the only pigmented hair I had left was the stuff growing in my ears. Only a split second, on any geological scale, I consoled myself, getting out of the car.
On my way up the walk, I was approached by a man almost to that proverbial cliff himself. Roger Sandford was ready to show me the way, too, coming out for his biweekly walk to the video store. A movie buff like me, my neighbor was barely into his fifties, but white as an albino already, and with copious ear hair. Enjoying a dubiously painful early retirement, thanks to an accident at work.
“Hi Roger,” I said, in passing.
He only grunted this time, and continued past me, a bag of DVDs clutched in one hand. I sighed again, remembering that I’d once made the mistake of asking him what it was like being a garbage man, before learning that the recluse preferred to be called a ‘refuse engineer.’ Implication, of course, was that he was an engineer too, just like me. Except that Roger still collected seventy percent of his full wage on disability by pretending to be sicker than he really was.
“Anything worth watching?” I asked on impulse, having seen the corner of a movie sticking up from his bag. I didn’t expect an answer, and got none. Instead, Roger walked golem-like down the yellowed brick road, already far enough beyond me that I didn’t exist anymore. Not even worth a belch.
Upon entering my apartment, I was about to snag a beer from the fridge when I spied a roach in peripheral vision. I bumped my head on the door while jerking back, and spent the next five minutes chasing the thing with a broom until I finally got it cornered and skewered with repeated straw stabbings. Slumping onto my couch to turn on the TV, I saw that HBO was replaying a horror spoof featuring a blond teenage cheerleader, eight dopey football players, and a guy in a cape running around with a knife big enough to filet Moby Dick. Bored, I tapped the power button again. Then I looked down at the beer in my hand, and set it down too.
What a life. No life at all, really, outside of work. Darryl was right.
I considered calling Mindy, a lady I’d met at the last company picnic—a friend of Bill’s wife. But then I remembered that I actually had called her, and a man with a deep macho voice had answered. Yeah? he’d said. Oh yeah. Even the fives were taken. Forget about the tens, like my klepto one-nighter. Those were for drug kingpins. Or ball players. Meaning both, these days.
Toggling my computer’s power switch, I waited as the flat screen G5 iMac booted. Then, to log onto AOL, I typed my password: Going Bald.
“You’ve got mail!” the bright mechanical voice announced.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Just spare me the mystery meat.”
I expected my sister Rachel in Wisconsin might be e-mailing to tell me about some job prospect there filling Viagra prescriptions for snow birds. What I saw was a contest to win a date with a supermodel. I stared at the entry form that appeared in amazement. Was fate offering me a second chance here, or what? I typed my name and address mechanically onto the electronic entry form, my thoughts as absurdly ironic as a monk’s at a mafia orgy. Next I visited my usual chat room, which again quickly turned into the usual trash talk, although the heading of the chat room was Science Tecs. Finally, I got an instant message.
It was Cindyboo again. My own screen name wasn’t AlanDyson, which was too long, but simply ‘Bored919.’ Apparently there are 918 others who were bored enough to want the same screen name as me, too.
>That you again, Alan? Cindyboo wanted to know.
I typed: Take a wild guess. How are you?
Bored920, then. She is bored . . . and frustrated, too?
Come on over, then, and we can be bored together.
>That’s a no-no.
A no-no? She sounded like Jessica Simpson. Or Marge Simpson.
Why? Are you a legless nut case with a goiter the size of a softball?
>Are you a serial killer?
Who wasn’t, these days.
Sorry, I’m just a drug dealer. Or rather creator.
>So you told me. Working on something to do with the Fountain of Youth, right? Wanna tell me more?
Not really. I’m convinced that most people shouldn’t live as long as they do, anyway.
>I’ll send you my photo this time.
I stared at the entry. Well, well. Finally.
Will I delete it?
>Who knows, you might frame it.
Fat chance of that.
You think so, do you?
>Are you a man?
Hmm. Good comeback. Or tricky question.
I’m not sure anymore. Anyway, the process was complex. IS complex. And I still can’t talk about it. It’s classified.
>Just tell me, then—would it keep me sexy forever?
Depends on if you’re sexy now, I typed.
>Ha! Are YOU using it to stay young and vigorous?
It’s not like Viagra, if that’s what you’re asking.
Or even Ginkgo Viagra, so I could remember what the hell I was doing to my love life.
>I wasn’t, but go ahead. I’ll send my pic in trade, and that’ll be your Viagra.
I needed something, for sure. Maybe Yocon or Caverject, if not a shot of liquified potassium cyanide.
Okay. I guess it doesn’t matter now. I was hoping to use a virus as a way to deliver a gene that might stop the aging process.
>You’re kidding. A virus? What virus?
I really can’t talk about that.
>You better, if you want my pic.
Catch 22 again.
My boss would fire me for telling you.
>Don’t worry, we won’t tell him, darling.
You want my password too?
>LOL.....didn’t know you were so paranoid!
Post 9/11 and pre-Great Jihad? You bet.
>Well, take some tranquilizers then, to calm down, okay? And turn off the TV.
I already did that, mom.
>Careful, son, or I’ll search your room for dirty pictures. What would dad say?
He’d probably ask to see them too, if he still spoke to us.
He’d say gimme a shot of everything ya got.
Trash talk, all of this. Chat rooms, e-mails, instant messages. I started to sign off, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. But suddenly a little online flag went up, announcing that I had more mail.
>You have mail, Cindyboo messaged me.
How did you know?
I clicked open the e-mail, then waited impatiently as her photo downloaded. At last the girl appeared on my screen. She was beautiful, late twenties, long blond hair, with bright, sexy blue eyes. A peek of generous cleavage showed between the spaghetti straps of her black slipover. I grinned despite myself as I typed: About coming over, maybe you better not.
I began to print out the photo, selecting high resolution as a printer command. Then I returned to the Instant Message window and typed: Have any other photos just laying around? he asked hopefully.
A pause as I waited for the punch line, and maybe another pic—real this time—with Cindyboo so ugly that if she’d lived during the French Revolution they’d have guillotined her for it, and there’d be a lid on the basket.
That’s me. Just another D.O.G. in training.
Dirty old geezer.
>Oh. Well, whoa there, boy. You haven’t answered my question yet.
>Is this drug going to make you rich?
I hesitated, and then—to hell with it—decided it wasn’t worth lying about.
Alas, no. Not me. Not this year. Or next.
After exhausting the subject, I signed off with a sigh, and then gave the finger to the boob tube on my way out the door. Adios alter ego. Driving out of frustration was unusual for me, but I definitely had some tension to release. In fact, I’d recently been labeled as ‘stressed out’ by people who wanted me to see someone. Like Darryl. And who outside of cyberspace had time to talk anymore? The men I knew were either married with children, or they lived for ESPN and the shot clock. The single women I knew were either picky or desperate, aware of another kind of clock. With them, there was either a preexisting agenda with strict rules about the goal, scoring, and timekeeping, or they’d take anything in pants. As for the company psychiatrist, he wasn’t available after hours, and talking about that enigmatic old fart in Florida known as my dad didn’t sound like an exciting evening, anyway.
Cruising the night streets, I rolled slowly past a bowling alley, a strip club, a sports bar, a malt shop, and an all-night laundry. They all impressed me equally. In mounting desperation, then, after an hour of wondering if Ms. Right was out driving too—obviously in another part of town—I pulled into a coffee café for a late cappuccino. I told myself that at least it would beat beer, pretzels, and some late night standup routine. It would be different, for sure. A break in my usual pattern, kinda like Ozzy Osborne coming out on stage on a pogo stick. If only I was Ozzy, and owned a pogo stick.
I was getting out of my Cavalier in the back lot when I saw a large dark vehicle pull to the curb across the street. It occurred to me then that I’d noticed an SUV just like it before, somewhere. But that was still just a passing thought in my preoccupied mind, not sufficient to push out contemplations of suicide by caffeine overdose.
Inside the Dark Roast Roost I appraised an eclectic mix of summer school flunkees, dinks on dates, borderline vagabonds, and government worker zombies, each of them imbibing the magical elixir that would steer them into the wee hours, and past any deeper realization of their own situations. Some were working off alcohol while studying the checkerboard tiled floor or the ceiling festooned with silver ventilation ducts. Others were animated in conversational high, almost like those mysterious yuppies I usually saw sitting inside trendy middle class cafes like TGI Friday’s, having ten dollar burgers with their Mudslides.
Naturally there was nowhere for me to sit, except at the end of the long wooden counter in front of the espresso machines. So I took a stool next to a middle-aged man who looked like he’d just stepped off the set of a Star Wars pre-prequel. Except this guy was no clone—he was from one of those dusty planets shown at the beginning of the epics, where hobbit-like humanoids come and go from igloo shaped mud huts. He wore what could only be described as a green tunic, although faded blue jeans were visible beneath. He turned a wrinkled face to me and sniffed at me with an enormous nose. I was prepared to be asked for spare change when he suddenly said, “I know why you’re here.”
He looked down at my buttoned white shirt, my black wing tips. “You’re on a mission,” he whispered.
I smiled. “Mission? Impossible. I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness, promise.”
He studied the remaining dark matter in his cup, and nodded to himself. “A mission of mercy, if I’m lucky,” he added, then sipped.
Here we go, I thought, and ordered my cappuccino to go.
When I didn’t make eye contact with him for a while, he continued with renewed urgency. “I just need to help one person tonight, so I can sleep,” he confided. “That’s all. Won’t you be the one?”
“I thought you said I was the one on the mission,” I responded, still not daring to fully face him.
“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.” He said this with not unfeigned significance, his shape a peripheral blur to my left. “What are the odds you’d come through that door alone, and sit beside me, anyway?”
“It’s the only seat in the house,” I pointed out. Then from sheer curiosity I turned to look into his earnest gray eyes, and at his scarred cheek. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Jasper Devane.” He held out one hairy hand. “One time stockbroker, now fortune teller. Since faith can’t be found anymore. You got faith to be a believer?”
“These days, I’ll believe it when I see it,” I replied.
“Your eyes can deceive you, though,” he insisted. “That’s the catch. Take WMD, or me. Bet you wouldn’t guess I used to be rich, once wore white silk shirts and Florsheim shoes.”
“You’re right about that,” I conceded. “What happened to you? Martyrdom?”
“Close enough. Embezzled a quarter mill and did five years hard time.”
“Oh. Well, at least you got that out of the way.”
He leaned closer, the stale odor of sweat and peanuts emanating from him. “So what is it that you don’t want to believe?”
I scanned the tables of bored or pretentious patrons, each its own small world. Before answering I focused on a guy wearing a tee shirt reading ONE TEQUILA, TWO TEQUILA, THREE TEQUILA, FLOOR. “That this is all I’ve been missing,” I replied at last, and half to myself. “That my life will continue like this, playing the same joke on me that it plays on everyone getting older.”
When my cappuccino came, I pushed it over in front of Jasper, and ordered a beer instead. They didn’t have beer, but they had wine coolers. I ordered two of those, and scarfed the first in one long upender like the college kids do with a pitcher of Bud. To impress their phony frat brothers. I wasn’t out to impress anyone, but the unexpectedness of it impressed Jasper anyway.
“You want to know the meaning of life?” he asked as I started on my second cooler.
“For the coffee. I always earn my fee.”
I sighed. “The meaning of life. Whose—mine, or just in general?”
“It’s simple, really. We’re here as God’s test subjects, to see who will kneel and who won’t. Either way, your sense of freedom and autonomy here on Earth are just illusions. That’s why you can never be satisfied with your life, and why you’re always looking to the future.”
“Or to drugs?” I suggested. “Or to fortune tellers?”
Jasper nodded, although I was still trying to remember when I’d last heard a bum use the word autonomy. “That’s right, because time is an illusion too. It’s just a stage to play out this experiment of free will. Like a game where everything just seems random. But it’s what’s hidden behind all the randomness that counts, though. Inside the so-called laws of the universe. Until time runs out.”
“What happens then?”
“Then the game ends, and God collects His winnings. Hey, He’s not playing solitaire, here. It’s more like poker.”
I smiled. “Lovely. You sound like my mother now.”
“Maybe you should have listened to her. I did.”
“You listened to my mother?”
“Thank the dealer. For a second there I thought I had a long lost sibling. And now I’m wondering where all this is leading.”
“Back to a thick black book that’s sold more copies than King, Grisham, and Patterson combined.”
“But not Rowling?” I smiled and looked beyond him, toward a busty freckle-faced redhead just wild about Harry. I upended my second bottle before adding, “And don’t give up on Patterson yet, either. I hear he’s hoping to beat the Old Testament with a bestseller about a serial killer who uses a linoleum knife.”
Jasper ignored the comment. “You know all those galaxies out there? The endless expanse of planets and suns?”
Which one are you from? I wanted to ask, but didn’t, and just stared at him.
“Anyway, they’re all empty, lifeless. Only life is here on Earth. Because, you see, the experiment is for us alone.”
“The experiment,” I said, nodding. “You mean like phase one clinical trials? Like, say . . . oh, I don’t know . . . Genentech’s attempt to beat Pharmacia to a VEGF receptor protein blocker?”
He paused, studying my blank expression. Still unfazed. “You want chapter and verse?”
“That usually included in the fee you charge?”
“Absolutely. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Call me the Watcher.”
“The who?” he asked.
“No, that’s an old rock group,” I told him. “I’m the Watcher. Like in the old Marvel comics, but I don’t have any super powers. I’m not omnipotent, either. And alcohol is my drug of choice.”
Jasper blinked at me, then continued, undaunted. “All right. Turn to Revelations chapter twenty-one, verse seventeen when you get a chance. ‘And he measured the wall of heaven,’ it says, ‘an hundred and forty and four cubits.’”
He spread both hairy hands, as though his argument was clinched.
“Cubits? What’s a cubit?”
“Doesn’t matter. Means heaven is finite. As in opposite of infinite. It also means—”
“That there isn’t room for all those other civilizations?”
“Exactly. Bible says, too, that ‘There shall in no wise enter into heaven any thing that defileth or worketh abomination, or maketh a lie, but they that are written in the Lamb’s book of life.’ Question is . . . do you want to be in that book?”
“I take it that one’s not a bestseller?”
Jasper’s grizzled, hairy head angled at me. “If you’re not in it, it’s Revelations twenty verse fifteen for you. Look it up, friend.”
Finishing my bottle, I stood and sighed. “Did you know there’s a dog-bone shaped asteroid between Mars and Jupiter over a hundred miles long, Jasper?”
“Kleopatra. That’s its name. Looks exactly like a dog bone. You reckon God, at least, has a sense of humor?”
Jasper started on the cappuccino I’d given him. “Well,” he conceded, “He made us, didn’t He? You and me?”
“If He did,” I said, turning away before I made the mistake of ordering a third drink, “I hope He didn’t also make a dog the size of Texas.” At the door I turned and flashed him a Vulcan peace sign. “May the Farce be with you, Captain.”
Jasper smiled, lifting his cup in salute, mission somewhat accomplished. Then he looked back down at the empty stool next to him. It wasn’t the only stool empty now, but that didn't matter anymore.
At my car I looked over at the curb across from the back lot, but the dark Land Cruiser that I somehow hoped was waiting for me was gone. Looking higher, I saw that the stars seemed faint amid the light pollution, and impossibly distant. I wanted to make the wish that I wasn’t as alone as I felt, but I couldn’t decide on one specific speck of dim light to project my wish onto, much less if God would listen to someone still hoping to try out for one of His usual roles while He was off scouting other locations. I drove back to my apartment instead. As I steered, though, I imagined how my conversation with Jasper might have gone down. I even spoke aloud as though Jasper was in the car, still sitting next to me.
“Sure, I feel lost sometimes, Jasper,” I confessed. “I have my work . . . I have science. But will I ever know what it’s like take my own little Chubster to a baseball game to encode him for a lifetime of ESPN watching and Internet wagering? Or will my legacy to the future be that I changed the spin and tone of an astronomical number of cosmetics commercials?”
Oh, you are nuts, Jasper seemed to concur, his voice an echo in my head now.
“I mean,” I continued, “if we’re defined by our family and friends, who am I, then? Even my mother didn’t know.”
Whose does? Jasper conceded.
“Not even Mel Gibson’s, I’m betting. Could just be maternal instinct, is all. Mother sure didn’t figure Rachel. No discussion about free will there, or choosing between good and evil. Oh no. Sis got the hell out. Didn’t sit for any of those guilt trips on Long Island with Dad and me in the back seat.”
Guilt trips? queried Jasper.
“Yeah, and we played the blame game on that road, too. Got great at that. Not as good as Mother, though. She steered Dad right into a nervous breakdown. Then came their divorce. And when she died of a stroke, holy martini if Dad didn’t flip out and flap off like some crotchety old bat eager to mutter to strangers at Wal Mart and drink gin in strip clubs.”
Is that where you’re headed?
“Halfway there already. Stayed too long in that house, Jasper. Going to college, grad school. She broke Dad with guilt. Bent me too, so I could never believe in myself even the little bit you need to sustain some kind of relationship. And I still hear her voice, from the grave, to this day.”
You mean . . . like mine?
“Right. Before long, I’ll be just like you, too. Wandering the shopping malls looking for kids to convert.”
You can be that person, too. I just know it.
“An evangelist to geeks and freaks? Right on, Jasper. That’s the ticket. Maybe I’ll buy me some friends by distributing party favors at raves and Star Trek conventions. Thanks for the idea, buddy. Thanks a lot.”
With half a dozen rabid monkeys jumping up and down on the muscles in my shoulders, I soon reconsidered both the Late Show and my computer with disgust. It was too late to call anyone, now, including my sister. But I knew if I didn’t occupy my mind with something until I got sleepy, that old gremlin self-pity would propagate in my brain like a virus in a petri dish. And what a fitting end to a bad day that would be.
I scanned my bookcase for something entertaining. Something other than old science texts and chemistry reference manuals. Next to a battered copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man was a mystery by John D. MacDonald titled The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper. I fished it out, tossed it onto my bed, then went to the refrigerator. I poured myself half a glass of milk, which I used to down a 10 mg. Melatonin tab and a 100 mg. Valerian root capsule. The milk was on the verge of turning sour, so I didn’t finish it, and poured out what remained in the carton too. Then I took a hot shower, and joined Travis McGee, sidekick Meyer, and whatever girl they might help me conjure between my plain brown sheets while a lonely silver rain angled lightly against the window sill outside in the otherwise tan and sandy silence. And when the phone rang hours later, I woke screaming from a dream in which I shared a sleeping bag in the woods with a large white snake. Had to jerk spasmodically to free my arms, now wrapped tightly in my bed sheets. My reading lamp was still on. It helped me to find the damnable ringer.
“Hello!” I yelled into the receiver, after fumbling up the line for it.
“Sorry to wake you,” a smooth voice I recognized as Jeffers’ said with suggested impatience. “Up late last night?”
“Last night?” I reached for my alarm clock, which fell to the floor.
“Get down here now,” Jeffers insisted, his voice taking a stern edge. “Or do you want me to have someone pick you up?”
I blinked rapidly, trying to find the clock with my free hand while remembering my car pool buddies. Had they driven themselves? Were they bitchy, and asking questions? “Sorry, sir,” I said, “I’ll be right there.”
“Don’t make me wait in your office all morning, either,” Jeffers added.
“My office, sir? Why . . . are you waiting in my office?”
“Why?” He laughed, as if the question was ludicrous. “Why, because yours is the only office that’s been trashed. That’s why.”
The line went dead. I hung up and found the clock. I stared at the clock in