Featured Fiction: Paul Handley


While We’re Old

Paul Handley

It first happened while my new girlfriend, Catrina (Pet name Kat with emphasis on the K) and I were watching our favorite TV show, When They Were Vulnerable, about the childhoods of successful musicians. The electronic eyes that are everywhere made it possible to stitch together enough video to choose the highlights from solid months of computer generated images. It was a costly process, so the producers piggybacked on the House of Age which could always use the money to fund their efforts.

Narelle was on today. She had a current pop hit and was age eleven at this point in the program. Narelle, then called Emma was being shuttled to a cult by Randy, the latest boyfriend of Narelle’s opioid addicted Mom. ‘Angels of the Prodigy’ was located amidst abandoned wheat fields in Nebraska. Rusty old threshers had been dragged to the perimeter to stand symbolic guard.

The scene was an immaculate set-up for our favorite part runner-up. We savored like chocolate raspberry ice cream held under our tongues when Narelle’s mother, “Uncle” Randy, spiritual leaders, and co-cultists treat her like shit.

The payoff was revenge and it was the ultimate revenge. How could they all fail to see the future greatness of Narelle? The show broadcast for the world the lack of insight, petty cruelties and ignorance of her detractors. That should have been the highlight of the show and it was the climax, but the best was awareness of what was to come after the program concluded, the anticipation of wrongs being righted in a humiliating way.

Kat was looking at me and I expected tender expressions of affection. “Roy, you’re getting crow’s feet in the corners of your eyes.” “I’m squinting,” I said raising a hand for shade against the gentle glow coming through the stained glass window fountain pattern.

“What’s this?” she said running her middle finger over a bump rising from a vein just above the inside of my leg above the knee. It was obvious; a disgusting varicose vein. “I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe a bruise.” She gazed at me with intentional doubt.

I knew I was done. She was eighteen and I was getting on twenty-one. How could this have happened? I hardly left the house and if I did, I traveled through the cities web of tunnels. They had just added bike paths.

I wouldn’t go outside unless I was slathered in sunscreen and hoisted an umbrella. A popular gadget was an artificial light tube that was inserted in the orifice of choice (Mouth for me) to receive interior doses of vitamin D. I also wore wraparound sunglasses, pants, long sleeves and a floppy hat.

I thought Catrina was exaggerating my aging as an excuse to get rid of me, but, then I started to receive indicators from multiple sources. For instance, my younger siblings recoiled when I came down to breakfast if I hadn’t splashed water on my face or flagellated my cheeks. They loved me, but only a mother could love the deformities of age.

I had every evidence of Mom’s devotion, but those were growing fainter. We didn’t see her much after she moved to the elder section of the city. The transfer had seemed so natural at the time, but now I understood how much pain it caused her when the family turned her in. There might have been others, but she must have known when none us testified on her behalf at the inquest plus our rare visits.

If I had been awake to the obvious, I wouldn’t have been sitting around watching teen idols get their revenge over childhood slights. I was in denial. There were clear signs, the most inconvenient being the longer hangover recovery times. The nail in my youth was that Catrina was forbidden to see me by the House of Age. Catrina or her friends must have petitioned them. When I drove by I could see the Order taped up in the window for public notification.

The window of youth was a spider crack in a windshield. I relented a bit and refused to recognize my age a lot. I wore younger clothes, attended age inappropriate concerts, bars, and sporting events.

The problem was that only people my age and up populated the allowed venues. The stores I was allowed to shop for clothes were less frivolous. Firms that were bunched together had separate chute entrances that led to shops demarcated by chronological age and physical appearance. Some were less stringent, a loophole that became obvious when surveying an establishment upon entrance.

It was a legitimate concern. Comingling made people uncomfortable. The anxiety palpable to the point that patrons put their heads down and fast walked out the door. I would not invest in their market success.

At a leather shop I headed toward a display of glistening mahogany and tan belts strung up like newly killed game. I inhaled their rich scent from twelve feet away. I was intercepted by a fit young man with the name Rod stitched above the left breast pocket of his shirt. “Can I help you?” he inquired with determined pleasantry.

“I’m looking for a belt,” I said continuing toward the lustrous rack. He took a step alongside me, placing his hand on my upper arm. With a subtle push he directed me in the opposite way. I started to panic and Rod returned my look with a perfect smile. Great teeth. Healthy gum lines.

“This will be more of what you’re looking for,” he said. The belts over here were bunched together with limited care; the colors duller, smaller buckles, less studs and rhinestones. The buttery leather scent was less rich as if such an overload of that sense might cause overripe organs headaches and queasy bellies. I turned and gazed back across the room with longing. Rod entered the space of demarcation half frowning and showing arctic eyes.

I agreed with Rod and his overlords. The laws are discrimination, but positive discrimination. The people with whom I was being herded were boring. I just wasn’t there yet. There had to be allowance for emotional immaturity. Perhaps this would be a category in the future, but society hadn’t evolved to that point.

Then I was ticketed. I attended a concert ala solo. None of my new acquaintances could have made it through the door. Even then, I wore sunglasses and a turtleneck. Due to a confluence of excellent drugs and music that seemed designed to touch every pleasurable sense I possessed, I began to dance with complete abandon.

I was roughly pulled aside by an officer of the law. After providing me with a summons, Officer Wade said, “Let me give you some advice and stick to the jam bands, okay?”

Incredulous, I asked “What?” I hated that pseudo hippie shit and was revolted by the constellation of veins that appeared as if a formfitting jellyfish had settled on her nose.

“Are we good,” she didn’t ask.

“I couldn’t be gooder,” I replied.

“You just got yourself on the watch list, smart-ass.” She gave me a ride home in the back of the squad car and made me consider the video of myself dancing over and over again that played on the back of the front seat’s passenger headrest. I cut a ridiculous figure, but since everyone else was fuzzed out I didn’t have much of a metric of comparison. I gave myself a pass.

It was time for serious measures. My boss described me the other day in a mock serious voice at a meeting as “He was young, behind his years,” after shredding a report that I had cocked up.

All the geezers laughed it up and I felt a flush in my face that was no doubt taken for shame. In reality, it was unseemly pride rouging my countenance. Although I did envy the unwritten snark privilege that was part of the management hiring package.

I went to be reborn. Not completely, but an act of gestation. It all depends on how long a person can stay in the artificial womb (Mine was named Ma67). Since I had a life, albeit one in decline, I couldn’t just exit life for a few months. Let me tell you it also costs a pretty, pretty penny; a proposition that cannot be attained, for example, on a cop’s salary. Clients do save on nutrition and rent if they go whole rebirth. I was not in that position.

My contract was a four month night engagement with youthanizer, Ma67. A sleepover. I snuggled into my mechanical womb in the evening and exited the next morning from what, let’s face it, is my new Mother. They supplied coffee to shake off my maternal hangover and I rushed home for my morning routine then off to work.

Immediate results. I felt great and more important was the youthful bloom that shone not only from my person, but was a halo. An aura. I used to mock Catrina who believed in a assortment of intangibles of lucky streaks, bad omens and other freak accidents that she picked, dropped and sometimes came back to. Perhaps, it was excessive experience that brought on cynicism.

Speaking of the disloyal, I started to visit my old haunts when I was de-natal. Club Shrine was as comfortable as slipping into my favorite toilet stall for a pick-me-up. Soon I ran into Catrina, inhabiting her own private snug with a handsome guy ready to tap out in the next fifteen months. Oh, what I could tell him.

“Hi Catrina,” I shouted over the interchangeable music. The voice was a preteen female voice with lyrics that resembled baby talk and were further obscured by the overlay of heavy synthesizers and bass. I will never voice this opinion out loud. The music and Catrina made me think of Narelle. I hadn’t heard her in a while and suspected her time had passed.

She couldn’t hear me. The club music must have been crimping her inner ear apparatus. I raised my voice. Catrina looked at me and turned away with distaste, then turned back with a baffled look as she scanned me with officious eyes. I wish I could have filmed this. Perhaps I could get a copy from the club owner, but it would be expensive and my rebirth was chewing up beyond my disposable income.

It was a moment that I would mentally retrieve over and over for the next week. Faster than flutters of an eyelid was an electric succession of dispositions: annoyance, dismissiveness, realization, curiosity, guilt, possible missing out, some more pronounced and tinged with others to provide shading like a photograph bringing in different elements, but never resignation which is what I liked about her.

“Hey. What brings you here?” She said, overlaying her simple statement with various shades of meaning with characteristic facility, pissing me off. Playing stupid-ass games that used to amuse me.

“Just hanging out,” I said, playing it cool. Which I knew would irritate her as much as a finger flick to her nose. I didn’t care since landing in her pleasing range was a precision undertaking. I went to the bar to get a drink. I noticed a familiar scent as Catrina sidled up to me. “I know what you’re doing?”

“Good for you. Why doesn’t everyone do it?” I sipped my drink.

“It’s fake. Artificial.”

I laughed so hard my mouthful of a Manhattan bubbled up in my nose and leaked out. I rested my head on the bar as if the mirth could knock me off balance. She was gone by the time I regained vision through my tears. The staff threw me out after Catrina and soon-to-be over handsome guy complained (and I’m sure made intimations of violence), but it was oh so worth it.

After my initial contract expired I signed up for two more months then spent time away from Ma67 after that ended. I couldn’t stop, but I had to in order to attend to the basic necessities such as heat and food. Work was also becoming more demanding.

My colleagues didn’t so much as give me a sidelong glance. Why weren’t they indulging in a next best thing to gestation? To call Ma67’s uterus in vitro, while technically true was an insult that could make me throw a punch under the right conditions. They made much more money than I did. They were resigned to anti-science for whatever reasons-religious beliefs, ennui.

Aging accelerated when spending my nights neonatal. After six weeks of abstinence I was older than when I began my treatments. I went fetal whenever I could put a stake together and dropped out when I couldn’t. I was yo-yo aging. I reminded myself of old rock stars that had opiates riding through their veins who received blood transfusions to recycle the tainted blood.

I began to miss Ma67 after I spent my liquidated retirement account. I only felt whole when I was with her, which is funny because a fetus is mostly not whole. My wholeness lasted through the entire day and then I wanted to hug Ma67’s representation of a fallopian tube.

I felt genuine affection for her/he/it and was physically hooked. How else could I explain my rapid aging when I was disconnected from Ma67’s life blood? I did not dismiss mental illness as a possibility.

Funding with crime was out of the question, at least blue collar crime for which I was too squeamish. White collar crime was fine, but I wasn’t smart enough to put together a decent enough caper to keep me out of prison.

I decided to go and talk to the reps at Youthanizer which I hated to do, because my leverage was for shit. A representative directed me to a cubicle where I suspected they would confer a loan at a criminally outrageous rate. Sarah was dressed in a severe dark blue business suit.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t read the fine print?” was her opening gambit.

“Fine print?” I ventured.

She gave me a ‘long suffering this is what I get paid for smile’ ignoring my imbecilic comment. “Let me summarize, ‘body parts’,” she said with an appraising look.

I wanted to ask “Body parts?” but my previous two-word question had elicited scorn and it began to feel like I was playing the straight man in her private routine. Instead I was going to put her back on her heels?

“Is that a summary?”

I was rewarded with a genuine smile, “Not yet, Mr. Impatient. We are willing to work on a barter system with you. Since you don’t have legal tender to give us so we can purchase flesh to maintain,” she stopped to look at her computer screen, “Ma67, with whom I suspect you have developed a attachment.”

“You want me to steal body parts? Break into funeral homes and carve out some flesh, preferably from the waist down so the family can have an open casket?”

“That is enormously insulting Mr. McDede. Plenty of people donate bodies to science as a matter of course when they get their driver’s license. All one does is check a box.”

“I don’t think this is what the donors had in mind.”

“You are able to insert yourself in the minds of millions of donors? How interesting.” She gathered herself. “We would never ask anyone to break the law or cause undue emotional duress to the loved ones of the deceased. Live bodies are also an option.”

“How does that happen? Beat them over the head and toss the body over my shoulder?”

“Please listen. We have reasons for our requests. A live body is for your own convenience since I suspect you do not possess the necessary skills to relieve one of an organ. The beauty of it we never question methods, but should you accept our offer, you will be surprised how willingly some women will offer their uterus for a fee of course that comes out of your cut. No pun intended,” she added with a small laugh that meant sad puns were part of the act.

Her self-amusement was reprehensible. “You will receive a finder’s fee, of course.”

“Sounds a little more than a finder’s, also a bringer-in fee, at the least.”

“All eventualities will be considered.”

Everyone seemed to know what I was doing. My own family wouldn’t let me pay respects at my mother’s funeral. They hushed up the location as if there aren’t plenty of other sources, although it would have helped with the compatibility issue. To stretch the value of my harvest I began learning rudimentary cuts for student medical cadavers, bodies in morgues, recently buried, and the dead or near dead in emergency rooms. I tailed decrepit users after drug buys.

There was also a sliding scale of freshness based upon decomposition. The uterus was the most valuable. Soon I met others in my predicament. At least two had given up one of their own limbs. Occasionally, body parts were scarce and as a last resort I visited the old part of the city for retirement homes, hospices, whatever, I began to trail oxygen delivery trucks.

There were bars where we attractive ghouls would hang out to trade stories of near misses with authorities and caretakers, even the organ carrier themselves. It began to seem all normal after a couple of drinks, then those who stood in our way were evil and we were high achievers willing to take risks.

It couldn’t last forever, although that was the goal.

The betrayal is what is hurt most of all. Youthanizer had lied to me. They said they would not question my methods, but the authorities began to receive pressure at the highest levels. I was sentenced to a long stint in a filthy, disgusting prison. Worst of all, I look like a lifer, just before the end of the end of the sentence.