Saturday, June 4, 2011


            It really began with Chuck. Chuck is morbidly age conscious in the way that people who are still young often are. Acutely aware of his prematurely graying hair, he invariably estimates the age of anyone he mentions in conversation, regardless of the relevance of the datum. He has rewritten his will twice. Since he is unmarried and without any close family, I can’t imagine why the fate of his possessions matters to him.
A few weeks ago we had lunch in Equus, an old stone tavern in Bernardsville, New Jersey. The aroma of old wood underlay the smell of food and drink. George Washington’s troops, once camped a mile away, swilled porter in this very place. The prices have gone up since then. Chuck was in character: he aired complaints about his employer, an import-export company, and boldly guessed ages.
“You know that hot receptionist Nicole I told you about? She’s 25 or so. She got Tom in trouble with Serena who heads HR. She is about 42 but looks pretty good for that. You know Tom. He is the blond guy about 37 with the bald spot and glasses who was at the barbecue at my house a couple months ago. Anyhow, Nicole said Tom kept making advances and they made her uncomfortable. At least, that’s what I heard. Truth is, I’d kind of like Tom’s job, so it’s no skin off my nose if he gets canned. Of course, the company probably will give it to some 22-year-old who they can pay less. CargTraxx is like that. Bastards.”
Chuck is 28, several years younger than I.
After a few more complaints about CargTraxx, Chuck moved on, as he usually does, to more eschatological matters. He wondered if an uncle who was 86 would leave anything to him when the time came, even though the two hadn’t spoken in years.
“I don’t plan on leaving anything to anybody,” I answered lightly, “because I don’t plan on leaving. Why age and die just because everyone else does? Would you jump off a bridge just because all your friends do it?”
“Alexander, you’re going off that bridge whether you do it on purpose or not, and you might as well face it. I’m not the only one who thinks so either. There’s a guy about 32 at a table over there who smirked when you said you weren’t going to die.”
Chuck calls me Alexander instead of Alex whenever he corrects me about something. My name isn’t Alexander, it’s Alexios, but Chuck never remembers that.
I looked over at the other table. A single diner carved his steak. He had dark brown hair, sideburns, neatly trimmed mustache and masculine good looks. His clothes were unfashionable, to put it mildly. The tie was too wide, the jacket was too long with an odd cut to the lapels, the pants were pleated and too high on the waist, and the short vest had an ugly floral pattern. I wondered if he had raided his grandparents’ attic trunks.
“Maybe he agrees with me,” I said. “He looks like he dodged death a long time ago.”
“Nah. He’s about 32.”

Late in the afternoon, the phone rang in my property management office in Morristown, NJ. Managing rental properties is a much steadier business than sales brokering. The market may rise and fall, but rents still need to be collected, strip mall parking lots plowed, and furnaces fixed. Few owners of investment properties want to do all that themselves. I sub out all the actual maintenance work and tack my own fee on top.
“Continental Management,” I answered. My business doesn’t span a continent, but I like the sound of “continental.” Besides, the old Continental Army encampment gives it some local relevance.
“May I speak to an Alexios Barba?” the caller asked.
“You are speaking to one of those. You can call me Alex.”
The caller identified himself as Angus MacDuff. He requested that I stop by his house to discuss a business matter in person. I knew the name and knew MacDuff was rich. I usually agree to business meetings with rich people, and I didn’t make an exception this time. From local gossip I knew he was a recluse who lived on an estate in Harding with an eccentric nephew.
As I drove up the long driveway to the MacDuff residence, brown leaves swirled in the wake of my car. The leaves still on their branches had lost their October reds and yellows.
The house was smaller and less garish than the new mansions in the area built for the high fliers of Wall Street, but it was substantial enough and it had a solid look. The walls were stone, and the recess of the windows indicated they were at least a foot thick. The roof was slate. The lot had few decorative plantings, but it was intelligently landscaped to keep groundwater away from the house foundation. Everything seemed designed for minimum maintenance.
Angus answered my knock on the heavy mahogany door. He sported white hair, a white beard, fluffy sideburns and rimless glasses. There was a trace of Scot in his pronunciation as he invited me to follow him to his study. I wondered if he was aware of the resemblance to Scrooge MacDuck.
“The house feels very well built,” I commented as my leather soles clapped across the slate foyer.
“In the 1920s the house was framed with steel and reinforced concrete,” he answered.
“That’s very unusual for a private home,” I said. “Especially at that time. Do you know why it was built that way?”
“This house was built to last. Notice the combustibles are held to a minimum.”
He was right. The house lacked draperies, carpets were few, and most of the furniture pieces were leather, ceramic, or marble. The few wooden pieces were bulky and looked impossible to set on fire with anything less than a blow torch. We entered his study. He sat behind his steel desk, and waved me toward one of the leather chairs.
Angus peeled off the beard, removed his glasses and ruffled his hair. Talc dust bloomed and revealed dark brown hair underneath. I recognized the younger man beneath the disguise. This was the same fellow who had eavesdropped on my conversation with Chuck at Equus.
“I’m Robin MacDuff,” he said. “I got your name from the waiter who took your check at the restaurant.”
“In that case I over-tipped him. You are Angus’ nephew, aren’t you? Why the disguise?”
“I am Angus.”
“OK, I’m confused,” I said truthfully. I took quick note of doors and windows for possible lines of escape in case my encounter with this strange person took a dangerous turn. Yet, I was curious.
“I have a story to tell,” said Angus or Robin. “Please do not interrupt.”
 “More than a hundred years ago, I was an enthusiast for the British writer H.G. Wells.”
“It feels that long ago to me too,” I remarked understandingly. “I loved his tales as a boy.”
“I asked you not to interrupt.”
I gestured apologetically.
“One of his stories was called The New Accelerator,” he continued, “in which two inventors brew an elixir that accelerates human metabolism vastly. To the accelerated, other people seem not to move at all. Falling objects seem to hang in the air. The inventors also create a decelerator. I was an amateur inventor and chemistry student when I read the story, and the idea intrigued me.
“After giving the matter much thought I surmised that an accelerator wasn’t practical. The human body would burn itself up if pushed so hard. But the decelerator was another matter.
“Think of the benefits a potion to slow down our bodies could provide. We waste so much of our lives waiting. We sit through boring events. We wait for maintenance workers to arrive. We wait for a check to come in the mail. We wait for the weekend and a big gala. All the time our life clocks are ticking away.
“Suppose we could tick at a slower rate, say at a 1/1000 scale. An hour for the world at large would pass subjectively in a few seconds. If our bodies aged at this decelerated pace, how much more of our youth could we enjoy? True, subjectively our lives would be the same length, but wouldn’t its quality be improved enormously? All that waiting time could be skipped. We could save the time for those events that really matter to us.
“Today, I know too much in the way of sound physics, chemistry, and biology to believe there was a realistic chance of concocting such an elixir. I didn’t know as much then, so I just went ahead and made one. A great many mice sacrificed their lives before I got the formula just right, but eventually I tested a mixture of snake venoms and exotic plant poisons fixed by my own blend of inorganic chemicals. It proved effective at slowing the metabolism of mice dramatically while preserving the flesh.”
            “Are you going to tell me you tried this stuff on yourself and that you are literally over a hundred years old?” I asked.
 “Mr. Barba, I asked you not to interrupt me. The answer to your question, however, is yes.”
I nearly spoke up, but restrained myself. The man clearly was crazy but he seemed harmless. I decided to hear him out.
“My first self-administration involved a near fatal miscalculation. I scaled my dosage up from the body weight of a mouse to pass an objective hour in slowness. I drank my potion and stared expectantly at the clock. It was 5:22 PM on a Monday. For a while the minute hand crawled so slowly that I wondered if I had gotten the effects of the formula reversed. Suddenly the hands of the clock blurred. The hands then became visible again and stalled at 6:31. I was ecstatic at my success. Imagine my shock when I discovered that fully two days had passed. I had returned to normal at 6:31 on Wednesday evening. There plainly was not a linear relationship of body weight and dose.
“Any number of accidents could have befallen me during those two days. What if a kerosene lamp had started a fire? What if someone found me, misinterpreted my state, and sent for the coroner? I resolved to take greater care in the future.
“My sweetheart at the time was a young woman named Vicky, named, so she said, not for the Queen but for Victoria Woodhull, the women’s rights activist. Vicky cut a daring figure with ankle length dresses and, whenever she had an audience, cigarettes.
“Like many spoiled young women of the privileged classes, she was a socialist. She scandalized whomever would listen with harangues on suffrage and free love. On the piano she forwent anything sedate and instead played tunes such as There’ll Be a Hot Time on the Old Town Tonight.
“Yet, her radicalism did not translate into personal liberal behavior. At the beginning of the 20th century, far more went on in haystacks than anyone now would suspect, but Vicky virtuously left me frustrated throughout our courtship.
“Still, I was in love, and my first thought was to share my new discovery with her. I eagerly told her about it and immediately offered to extend both our lives with the elixir so we could see the distant future together. Her fierce reaction took me by complete surprise. She contrived to find something grossly unethical in my proposal. Not that she really believed me, you understand, but it was, she said, “a matter of principle.” I never was clear what principle, but it was a principle of some kind. She demanded that I stop my experiments. I said no. With an offended air, she told me to cease calling on her. She left.
“When I was older I realized that Vicky was enjoying a little self-indulgent grandstanding. She intended to throw me off balance, but she expected me to show up at her doorstep afterward and beg her forgiveness. My research didn’t really offend her – she thought it was all nonsense anyway – but by my firm “no” did. Then I aggravated the crime by taking her at her word and failing to call on her. It seemed to her as though I didn’t care. The thing is I did care. I still do.
“We never did patch it up. I thought we would as soon as I had demonstrated my elixir publicly. I was sure it would bring me fame and fortune, and that these would improve my standing with Vicky; in short, I planned some self-indulgent grandstanding of my own. I waited too long and the opportunity slipped away. While I tested various doses and tweaked the formula to perfection, I paid her no attention. Just as I was prepared to go public with my discovery, I read in the newspaper that Vicky had married a dealer of motor cars. It was a rushed ceremony. I never spoke to her again, but I did check on her from time to time. She bore four children, and the one-time socialist voted for Hoover in ‘32. But that was still in the future.
“I decided then and there not to go public. Somewhat meanly, I fantasized of introducing myself as a still young man to a future middle-aged Vicky. When that became possible, though, I no longer wanted to do it.
“So, as you surmised, I used the elixir. I saved time in a way no efficiency expert ever did. The more time I saved, the less time I felt there was to spare. The potion was in that sense addictive.
"The problem, you see, is that time – the subjective human lifespan – is still limited. Consider this. If you have a set number of hours in your life, which of them are you willing to spend now and how many do you wish to save for later? To me, most hours seemed better reserved for later. I found myself saving more and more. At first I entered this state, which is much like suspended animation, for a day or two per week. Then I opted out for whole weeks at a time. I tried seeing other women after Vicky but my new lifestyle wasn’t conducive to romance. The women I met saw me so infrequently (I told them I traveled for business) that they invariably moved on to other men. I continued to lengthen my periods in slow mode. My friends grew older. Some died. I was rushing through the world on an express train.
“In the 1920s I made a concerted effort to get back in synch with normal world time. I locked away the elixir and strove to lead a normal life. I had made some sound investments and, of course, my expenses were minimal, so by the ‘20s I was fairly well to do. I hired an architect to design this house. It was built to my specifications in 1926. There is a secret chamber in the house where I safely can go into slow time when I choose.
            “My old acquaintances looked at me with amazement. They all wondered at my youthful appearance. I was aging normally again, though, and one day in 1928 I noticed in a mirror some lines in my face. This scared me back into a serious time saving program.
“My return to the elixir led to my accidental financial masterstroke. In August 1929, I announced I was going on a long trip. I paid necessary bills in advance. Remembering the Panics of ‘93, ‘07, and ‘20, I withdrew from the stock market and exchanged my bank deposits for gold and US government bonds. I quaffed the potion. I snapped back into synch nearly a year after the Crash and found that the purchasing power of my wealth had tripled. A few years later I reinvested in stocks, and my fortune soon was unassailable.
“I found it necessary to emulate aging in order to avoid unwanted attention and suspicion, but this was getting increasingly difficult. In 1948 I invented a new identity, a nephew of the same name. I faked my death and left everything to my nephew, who was myself. The time has come to do this again. I’ll leave my estate to Robin – which is to say to me. It was much more difficult to manufacture an identity this time around. Government record keeping and general bureaucratic nosiness is much more intense than it was in the 1940s. I have some particular concerns about the transfer this time."
Angus stopped talking and looked at me expectantly. I hesitated to speak out of turn again.
“Go on,” I ventured at last.
“I’ll arrange for some drowning at sea or some such thing where there will be no body of Angus for which to account – perhaps I’ll rent a fishing boat and he will ‘fall out.’ I’ll report the accident as Robin. It would help if there were a witness. That way there will be fewer problems with the death certificate and fewer reasons for the police to be suspicious.”
“You mean you want me as a witness? Why me?” I asked.
“Who else can I ask? My old friends are long gone. My attorneys? I don’t trust my attorneys as far as I can spit.”
“Yet you trust me?”
“In this particular matter, yes. You also can manage the property while I’m suspended.”
“Won’t the police be suspicious of me? They might think Robin and I conspired to shove you overboard.”
“No. You have no motive. The job is without pay. Robin won’t give anything, not even for the property management. Since you get no money, there will be no reason to suspect you.”
“Without meaning to be obvious, if there is no money in it for me, why should I bother with it?”
Angus picked up a translucent bottle from the floor next to his chair and placed it on the desk top. The bottle contained a shimmering blue liquid.
“‘Why age and die just because everyone else does? Would you jump off a bridge just because all your friends do it?’”

I sit alone in my den. The stereo is playing a Rolling Stones CD. The first number is Time is on My Side. It is by no means certain to me whether I have spoken with a brilliant 130-year-old chemist or a lunatic nephew of Angus MacDuff. My good sense inclines me toward the latter. Still, I wonder if the phone will ring and Angus will inform me that our fishing trip is in the morning.
The sun has set and the room darkens rapidly. The blue liquid in the bottle on the table in front of me luminesces.

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