By James Van Pelt
REMY MET THE CONNECTION in a lower downtown Denver bar where scars marked tables, chairs didn’t match, and the place smelled of bad malt and old kitchen grease. A joint you wished you’d brought your own glass, and if you danced, you wanted to spray your partner with disinfectant first, but he’d heard that the guy had smuggled Chinese proLong.
The college-aged kid put a fanny pack between them. He didn’t open it. “Just so we understand. I’m not representing the product with guarantees or an endorsement of its efficacy. It would be illegal to sell you a prescription medicine without a doctor. It’s for demonstration purposes only. You got the money?”
Remy nodded. He’d heard the speech numerous times. “It’s the real deal, right? I’m not popping cash for sugar pills.” He put an envelope by the bag, keeping his hand on it.
The guy leaned close, “Between you and me, the stuff’s better than what you’d get straight from Mayo Clinic trials. How old do you think I am?”
Remy studied him. No lines in the corners of the guy’s eyes, no grey, clear nails, unblemished skin, brilliantly white teeth. “Twenty-two,” Remy said.
“Forty-one.” The kid flopped a driver’s license on the table. The date checked out.
“Sampling your wares?”
“Would you buy from anyone who looked older than me? It’s an advertising expense. How old are you?”
“Sixty-six next month. Let me see.”
The guy put the fanny pack on the seat next to him, hiding it from the room, not that anyone was looking their way.
The three capsules were called Lady Kisses or Ruby Slippers. Pink on one end and red on the other. Highly prized. Practically impossible to get. Most thought they were an Internet legend.
The kid reached for the envelope. Remy said, “You know if you were dealing with someone else, you could get killed.”
Startled, the young man’s hand froze, fingertips almost on the money.
“Those pills are as fake as your ID.” Remy put the envelope into his jacket. “You trying to pay your way through school?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Steal bikes on campus and sell those. Less risk. People like me ... well ... we’re desperate.”
Remy slid from the booth and walked out into the rain and dark. A passing bus splashed his shoes. He didn’t care. Another dead end. Another tick of the clock.
Outside his hotel, Remy checked his watch’s medical readouts. Blood pressure, heart rate, O2 intake, white blood cell count, cholesterol, electrolytes, and thirty other metrics. The data streamed to an autodoc that adjusted his meds based on real-time data. It flagged problem areas, recorded everything he ate or drank, suggested diet and exercises, and synced data with his toilet that analyzed his waste products. He also waded through numerous screens filled with ads for drugs, nutritional supplements, athletic clubs, acupuncture centers, and yoga classes.
The watch picked up traces of immunoglobulins in his blood six months earlier, cancer’s harbinger. It caught the beta-amyloids not long after, Alzheimer’s calling card. He’d heard a joke once about an elderly man talking to his doctor. The doctor said, “I have bad news and horrible news. First, you have cancer.”
“Oh, no,” said the old man. “What’s the horrible news?”
“You also have Alzheimer’s.”
The old man looked glum. “Really?” Then he brightened up. “Well, at least I don’t have cancer.”
The prostitute knocked on his hotel room door at 11:30. Tina was plump, long-haired and perpetually late. She also had a shy smile, when Remy could get her to smile. Thursday night was their regular date.
“It’s raining like crazy,” she said. “If I wanted weather like this, I could move to Seattle.”
“Colorado’s changeable. Give it a couple of hours and something else will come along.”
She hung her coat and unbuttoned her blouse. “You sleepy tonight? My kid’s running a fever.”
Remy looked around his room. Cheap nightshade on the one lamp. Clean but faded bedspread. Mold stain on the wall near the corner. Antiseptics in the bathroom didn’t really cover the whiffs of whiskey and bad plumbing. Outside, busses and trams passed occasionally along Colfax Ave. “I’m sorry to hear that. You want to skip this week?”
“My sister is sitting. I’m good. She charges me the same no matter when I come in.” Tina dropped her blouse on the nightstand and unbuckled her jeans.
Remy shrugged. “Just as well. I could use the company.” He undressed, turned off the light and joined her in bed. Her back was to him. He pressed against her, draped an arm across to pull her close. She smelled like a beer, but in a good way.
She said, “No luck today?”
Remy rested his head on the pillow. “Another rip-off. I didn’t even have to test the pill. He’d laminated something from his printer for an ID. He misspelled license, for crying out loud. Put two Ss in it.”
Tina laughed, rolled over, and massaged him for several minutes without result. Remy let her. He imagined it was working. He imagined the passion. Finally, though, he pushed her hands away. “I appreciate the effort, but things are falling apart in the old body.”
She kissed his forehead. “Have you tried Viagra?”
“I took it before you got here. Aging sucks.”
She rolled onto her back. “You’re not that old.”
Remy wrapped himself around her again. She was warm, soft and comforting. “I am old, and getting older by the minute.”
He let himself relax. That’s what he paid her for. Sleeping alone night after night became too creepy. His knees ached. His back throbbed. He’d lay awake, thinking about mortality, about not being able to run or jump or throw, about forgetfulness; and when the sun rose in the window, he would have not slept at all. With Tina, he could sleep.
Tonight, though, he faked the deep breathing and soft snore. After a half hour, she rose quietly, dressed in the dark, and left.
Her kid was sick, after all, and needed her.
Remy ran into Mark Roundel coming out of The Turning Tide, an upper class grey bar near Coors Field. Nobody there was under sixty, and most were much older than that. Lots of canes, walkers, and oxygen bottles. It was a hotbed for geriatric pharmaceuticals: anti-inflammatories, sleep-aids, anti-rheumatoids, heart stimulants, memory augmenters, industrial-strength vitamins, and the rest of the shopping list for the aging. Folks swapped drugs like trading cards. Remy met Mark six months earlier when Mark had been the go-to guy for senolytics, a drug class that combatted aging by repairing eroded telomeres. The supply dried up when the FDA shut down the company for operating without approved regulatory oversight.
“Let me buy you a drink,” boomed Mark. He clapped Remy on the shoulder and went back into the bar with him.
Remy liked The Turning Tide for more than the drug connection. They displayed posters from the ’80s and ’90s: “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pulp Fiction,” and played music from the era. It was like a permanent reunion for the class of ’95. Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” started.
Mark led him to a table in the back.
“You’re looking good,” Remy said suspiciously. Mark’s hair was no less grey, but it seemed thicker, and the last time they’d met, Mark walked with a cane. No cane and no unsureness in his step now.
“Beer first,” said Mark. “I got a bit of a windfall.”
They drank. Remy observed Mark’s hands, how he held his mug without a shake. Mark told a story about fishing with his dad when he was fifteen, the same year as the Twin Towers. He told it without hesitation, without repetitions or digressions. When the waitress, a winsome blonde with an athletic step, came by with the second round, Mark flirted. He suggested he might help her manage school debt. He wrote his cell number on his business card and gave it to her. As she walked away, he eyed her appreciatively.
Remy whispered, “You scored!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mark’s posture, a tightness in his skin, his quickness, gave him away.
After the fourth beer, Mark started talking. He leaned in, kept his voice low. “Hypothetically, let’s say I ran into a drug rep who was down on his luck. Gambling debts, you know, and kids who need education; he might be willing to part with a sample. Something he ordinarily sells to the elite. Something that costs a fortune. Let’s say theoretically that he ran into a guy like me with a hefty retirement fund, someone who believes all the money in the world means nothing if you don’t have the health to enjoy it. Then he might drop a Ruby Slipper on the sly. It’s a sample. Not inventoried. Who would miss it? In the right hands, though, not trivial.”
Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” played in the background. Mark wasn’t the only winner he’d found, but the rest came to nothing. Their sources were one-time only or flukes. A drug rep, though, that could mean something. “Let me get you another beer.” Remy flagged down the waitress and a fresh round. “Theoretically, where would someone find your drug rep?”
Mark peered slyly at him. “Let’s say an older fellow was feeling his oats and had money to spend. He might trade information for pliable company.”
Remy looked around. At other tables prescription bottles came out of purses and briefcases. Pills were counted out and swapped. Cash slid from hand to hand. The Turning Tide existed for grey trades. Everyone looking for an edge, a tool in the perpetual battle against age. Youth was the underground currency. They wanted it again. He could see it in their eyes, in their swelled knuckles. The Turning Tide was a market, and everything was a commodity.
“She’s not like the barmaid,” said Remy as he wrote Tina’s number on a slip of paper. “Whatever she asks, pay double.”
Mark took the paper. With the fragile care of a man who has drunk too much, he typed a number into Remy’s phone. “Don’t mention my name,” Mark said. “We didn’t have this conversation.”
Harold the drug rep met Remy in the top row seats at the Pepsi Center during a Denver Nuggets exhibition game. The arena was seventy-five percent empty, and there wasn’t a soul within twenty-five meters. Harold said, “It’s an unacknowledged war, and you, my friend are cannon fodder.”
Remy nodded. He kneaded his left calf that had cramped climbing the stairs to these seats.
Harold continued, “The way I see it is insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, lawyers and government are in it together to milk money from the population while delivering the least compassionate care imaginable. Your role is to pay premiums, fork out for unreasonable deductibles, and then die without straining the system. I’m working for bloodsuckers.”
Remy nodded. Harold was one of those people: the conspiracists who saw medicine through paranoid glasses. Remy met bunches of them at The Turning Tide.
“Look, I get that medical care is expensive. I don’t mind that it’s expensive. What I want is the medicines we’re not being offered, the miracle pill. I want the universal cure. The fountain of youth. I heard you’re a guy who can connect me.”
Harold slumped into his seat and appeared to be watching the game. “It’s a myth,” he said after a while. “Who have you been talking to?”
“Friend of a friend.” Remy’s knuckles whitened on the chair rest. This was the make or break moment in the negotiation. If Harold didn’t like the smell of it, all he had to do was walk away. No deal, and Remy would be starting over. “I have disposable income.”
Harold looked him over. Remy knew what he saw. He saw it in the mirror every morning: hanging skin under the neck, age spots, watery eyes. His hands trembled. Nothing dignified about the vehicle falling apart.
“How much disposable income?”
“It really works then? It exists?” Remy’s breath tightened in his lungs.
Harold leaned close. “It works better than anyone imagined. It doesn’t just stop ageing; it reverses it, at least for a year before the effects begin to wear off. proLong eliminates cancer cells. It repairs joint damage, clears arteries, resets the metabolism. Dementia goes away. The body is reborn from the inside. One drug! Everything a snake oil salesman claims, proLong actually does.”
“What’s the downside? Why aren’t the drug companies tooling up to release it? Everyone will buy; they’ll make a fortune.”
Harold laughed bitterly. “proLong is a job killer. This one drug eliminates the rest. You’ll only go to a doctor for traumatic injury or cosmetic surgery. Hospitals will close. Other pharmaceutical agents will be obsolete. They’ll never release it.”
“That’s awful. The world will lose a wonder.”
“Only part of the world, Remy. It’s too effective to be made generally available—just think what would happen to world population if everyone lived hundreds of years—but powerful people aren’t going to let it disappear. No, there’s a secret program tooling up right now. The pills will be made still, but you won’t see them.”
“I won’t see them?”
On the court below, a player made a spectacular dunk. The small crowd erupted into cheers.
“Not through a legitimate channel. Just how big is your disposable income?”
Remy named a figure. “A lifetime of working and investing.”
“That’ll buy one pill. You wire the money to my account. I make sure it’s strings-free, and then I deliver.”
Remy thought of the other sellers he’d talked to. Everyone a fake, a scam. “What guarantee do I have that you are legit? I can’t clean out my account on a promise.”
Harold nodded. “That’s the beauty. I can give you a taste. The real deal works in stages. Sort of a time release mechanism, except that it imbeds itself in the system instead of sitting in your stomach. The effects accumulate. That’s how it makes repairs. It’s not instant, but I can let you try the basic drug without the long-term effect. You’ll get a day or so to see what it does. If you’re convinced, then call again and we can talk about a full dose.”
He produced a small cellophane envelope from his jacket, dangled it from two fingers. “Mix it in a glass of water. Give it an hour and you’ll start feeling it. Twenty-four hours before it fades.”
“Side effects?” Remy took the envelope. A teaspoon of semi-clear crystals like table sugar shifted in it.
“Some people report depression. You taste the fruit of the vine, and you remember how good it was.”
On the basketball floor, a player made a steal, raced up the middle with two opponents pursuing. The ball moved in a blur. Faster than Remy could believe possible, the breakaway player reached the top of the key, launched himself in the air a fraction ahead of the defenders. He rose, impossibly high, avoiding outreached hands, then kissed the ball off the backboard for two. Remy remembered when he played basketball on the driveway with a friend long gone now. Hours and hours of games to three, win by two. They never tired. Sweat flowed from them like rivers, and they laughed and strained and played again and again.
Remy tucked the envelope into his pocket and stood.
Harold grabbed his sleeve. “If you have a lady, this would be the night to call her.”
Colfax after sunset. An evening thunderstorm rumbled through, soaking streets and sidewalks, leaving low, ugly clouds that hovered like great, wet vultures, but Remy felt good. The air smelled clean and moist. Water drops falling from a tree plinked as clear as fairy bells in puddles. Bikes whipped by on the street, tires ripping through the watery sheen. He took his glasses off to wipe away spray and realized he saw better without them. Two hours earlier, he’d mixed the crystals and drank. He’d started walking, too antsy to stay still.
Were the crystals just an upper? Was this a placebo effect? He wanted proLong to be real more than anything. He yearned for a do-over, a chance to relive wasted days, to absorb minutes as if each were a pearl. How much had he lost not walking outside, not visiting friends, not reading books he meant to read? How many chances had he passed?
It wasn’t that he’d been lazy. Once he’d gone to Europe, toured castles and cathedrals. He’d spent a week on a Caribbean cruise. He’d gone skydiving another time. There’d been romances. But when he added up his accomplishments, they seemed small. A list small enough to fit on a tombstone. A poor epitaph. When he looked at them, none of them measured up to the moment right now. He turned his face to the sky to feel the mist, to fill his lungs. Nothing he’d ever done matched walking down Colfax this very second.
He crossed a street. Before him stretched a single city block, store fronts to the side, a rain-drenched street reflecting city lights to his other, like a runway, like a launching ramp. Remy picked up the pace, noticing the persistent ache in his hips had faded. His back didn’t hurt. Faster he strode until he’d broken into a trot, arms swinging, chin high. He ran down the sidewalk, grinning. Air whistling. His feet left the ground, splash, splash, splash, like an Olympian, like a gazelle; and before he knew it, he reached the end of the block. The light turned red against him, so he stopped, bent over, laughing at the audacity. Oh, god, it felt good to run.
Then he coughed, a great wrenching cough. His lungs worked to expel thirty year-old tarnish. He laughed again, dots swimming behind his eyes, dizzy for an instant, and then strong again, breathing evenly.
He called Tina. Offered her triple to stand up a client and see him instead. They reached his hotel door at the same time. “You’re looking chipper,” she said.
He kissed her before they’d closed the door. They didn’t sleep, not once. The sun rose on them together in bed. He took her for breakfast before saying goodbye. It was only as he walked back to the hotel that he realized he’d figured an eighteen-percent tip for the bill in his head. He hadn’t felt confident enough with numbers to do that for several years. A fog had cleared. Memories crowded. His brain felt nimble, curious, questing; zinging on fire from image to image. So this is youth, he thought. This is what I took for granted most of my life.
By dinner, Remy couldn’t walk. Every muscle in his back felt sprained, and his calves cramped on top of Achilles tendons that turned to marble. It took ten minutes to get to the bathroom where he had a bottle of Diazepam to relax the muscles he imagined were in the midst of an extended spasm, as if his entire body was trying to make a fist.
Harold met him at a Starbucks the next morning. “You all right, guy?” Harold asked.
Remy put his hand on chair tops to keep himself steady as they walked back to a table. Suddenly, he understood the necessity of a walker. He had a new respect for his old friends who relied on them to get around.
“I’ll do it,” said Remy. “Give me the details.”
Harold nodded, knowingly, while opening his computer. An hour later, it was done. Remy’s entire retirement account had been drained. Harold handed him an unlabeled prescription bottle with one pink and red capsule in it.
Harold said, “How long have you been looking for this?”
“It’s effects last about a year, then whatever you suffer from today will come roaring back. You spent seven years and a lifetime of earning for one good year. Will it be worth it?”
Remy bounced the pill in the container. It clicked in his hand. “When I need it again, I just have to find you, right?”
Harold shrugged. “A lot can happen in a year. I might not be able to get anymore. I might be out of the business. I hear already that they’re tightening up distribution. For all I know, they could find out that I sold some and kill me for it.”
“No, surely not.”
“Can you think of a secret more important than this one?” Harold looked pensive. “I’m a rebel, Remy. The system can tolerate a thief, but not a disbeliever. Besides, the price is the same a year from now. Do you think you can gather together a sum that took you your entire working career in twelve months?”
Remy put the bottle into his jacket. He hadn’t popped the pill yet, he already felt immortal. A wise part of him said, “It’s the overconfidence of youth,” but the rest of him trusted, really trusted, that in a year he could do it. Nothing stops you when you’re young. No mountain can’t be climbed. No ocean can’t be swum.
Remy felt the power aching to get out. He was young, or would be soon, and possibility is never ending.
James Van Pelt is a former English teacher who is now a full-time writer. His stories have appeared in “Asimov’s,” “Analog,” “Clarksworld,” and elsewhere. His two latest novels are “Summer of the Apocalypse” and “Pandora’s Gun.”