Rubber Band Man

The guy always wears a rubber band around his wrist—to remind him of what he is.  It’s a thin brown band about the color of his skin, so it’s impossible to see unless you’re looking for it.

That’s what I do, look for it, when I show him to his favorite table in the back of the dining room, away from the crowd.  It’s a nice place, our restaurant, with thirty round tables with white tablecloths and a classy martini bar. It’s illegal to smoke inside, of course, but it’s an old place, and the terracotta walls still carry a hint of the aroma of tobacco. Been in the family five generations, and Mr. Oldham is one of best customers.

He always reserves a place in the back if there’s going to be a scene—and every indication points that way. As I seat him, he’s playing a voice message.  Not used to gadgetry, he’s left the volume too high, and I can hear the woman’s voice clear as a bell:

“Sam? Elizabeth. We need to talk. I want to meet as soon as humanly possible.”

The emphasis doesn’t escape me. He clicks off the message and looks at me like he doesn’t know where he was or why I am standing there in my frigging tux and bow-tie holding out his chair.

I say, “Good to see you again, Mr. Oldham,” trying to shake him out of it.

He thanks me, flashing the white teeth and chiseled features.  Oldham, that’s the name he’s using now.  Thinks it’s some kind of joke.  He’s a kidder, this one. Good looking guy.  Could be a lady killer if he wanted.

After he’s comfortable, I return to my station and wait for the woman that’s sure to be coming in any minute.  He asks for a bottle of Cabernet, 2017.  There’s nothing special about the vintage—’17 wasn’t such a good year, and I have my suspicions about his reasons why.  I don’t pry. In my line of work, you never pry.  It’s a good way to end up dead. Or broke, which is worse.

The new guy, Eddie, takes the wine to the table.  One look at Mr. Oldham, and he cards the guy.  I can’t freaking believe it.  I scuttle over, thinking Oldham’s going to blow his top.  He opens wide for the retinal scan, and Eddie’s eyebrows arch so high, they almost touch his hairline.  I’ve got Eddie by the elbow and yank the scanner out of his hand before any of the other guests can notice.  The restaurant is cozy, which means it’s cramped as hell, with two-tops almost crammed on top of each other. The lighting’s dim, but acoustics are damn good.

“Something’s wrong with this scanner,” Eddie says, too loud.  “The guy looks not a day over twenty-one.”

“Shut up,” I murmur.

I’ve got the bottle of Cabernet out of Eddie’s hand.  “I’ll take it from here, junior.”

He starts to argue. Not in my freaking dining room, he doesn’t, and I dismiss him with a withering look.

“Sorry about that, ah, Mr. Oldham.  Hard to get good help, you know how young people are.”

He smiles like he’s bitten into something sour.  Wrong thing to say.  I suck my teeth.  Apologizing will make things worse, so  I pour the wine.

He sniffs the glass of Cab, enjoying the bouquet, and then takes a sip.  It’s to his taste, so I pour a second.

When he’s settled, I set the bottle on the table and pass him off to one of the older guys, Gus, who knows the score.  I take my station just as she walks in.  There’s no doubt about it.  She’s his type—tall, angular, with chin-length hair, and laugh lines around the eyes.  Likes his fruit ripened, Mr. Oldham does.

She doesn’t even tell me his name before I say, right this way, and lead her over.  Her dress is red silk, with a slit appropriate for a conservative business woman in her late thirties.  Bet he bought it for her.  That’s his kind of dress.

Sam is waiting.  He’s watching her through the distorted lens of the glass.  From my angle, his nose looks too big for his face.  I wonder what he sees, looking back at us.         He stands, welcoming her.  He offers a cheek. Elizabeth leans in, but her kiss is a phantom.

“You look wonderful tonight,” he says as they sit.  “How do the pearls wear?”

She runs her fingertips over the surface of necklace.  “Sam.  We need to talk.”

“I got that impression.”

He nods, and I leave them to it.  I’ve been around the block enough times to know what’s coming next.  So does he.  It wasn’t so long ago that Sam and me would knock down a few at the bar after closing, two middle-aged guys between wives. He was a different guy then.

Back at my stand, I greet two couples and show them to their tables, keeping an eye on the table in back.

Sam pours her wine.  It sits untouched.  He has emptied his once, at least, and he refills it when the old guy Gus returns to take their order for an appetizer.

When that’s done, Elizabeth leans over the table.  It’s time for business.  I move to spot near the coat room.  There acoustics are very good here.

“It might be best if we stop seeing each other,” Elizabeth says.

He makes that sour smile face again.  Although he has to know it was coming, the taste is still bitter.  It would be for me, too. A guy works hard, does what he’s asked, and suffers his life like he should. All he wants is a little comfort once in awhile, and even that rug gets pulled out from under his feet.

“Why?” he says.

She half-smiles, creasing the laugh lines around her eyes. “You know perfectly well why.”

“Not the age thing again.”  He combs a hand through his thick, black hair. Wish I had hair like that again, I catch myself thinking and running a hand across my on empty pate, envying him one a split second.  Then I wonder, would I trade places with that poor schmuck, even for the thickest hair in the world?

“Look,” he says to her, “don’t say you’re too old for this. I said it didn’t bother me.”

“That’s not what you meant, though, was it?”  She picks up the wine glass and points it at him.  It’s the beginning of the end for them. He knows.  I know it.  Hell, every frigging customers in the room knows it if they’re paying attention.  They don’t.  Pay attention.  Even in this day and age, a young man with a middle aged woman, it just isn’t done.  If they only knew.

This is how it always starts.  It has the last three times, anyway.  Something he says or does will tip them off, and all of the pieces fall into place.  Maybe Sam hoped it would be different with this Elizabeth.  Maybe she’s a widow or something, with a couple of teenage kids. Maybe she needs a husband as much as he needs a wife.  He’s got a lot to offer a woman.  Not love precisely, he’s too old for that, but guidance and help with the kids.  Affection, too, maybe, if she could settle for that.  I  know where he’s coming from.  I’d want the same things, if I had the energy.

Gus comes up, needles me in the ribs. He’s as interested as I am.

“Some racket, he’s got, eh?” Gus says out of the side of his mouth.  “I’d like them younger, myself.”

“I don’t know,”  I say.  “There’s drawback, if you think about it.”

He starts to argue.  How can you explain to a guy like Gus about living long enough to see your wife and kids and grandkids all grow old, all the while you’re getting younger by the day?  He’s sort of a hero, just for lasting so long.

“I can’t hear nothing,”  Gus says, adjusting his hearing aid.

Oldham is Gus’ last table. Most of the others are clearing out. It’s about closing time for the dining room, although the bar action is heating up. We move to another spot, near the kitchen, and pretend to shine the silverware.

The kitchen signals Gus.  He scoots off to pick up their order.  Sorry you’re going to miss the show, buddy.  Gus has always had dumb luck like that.

“Look at you,”  the woman says.  “Young, boyishly handsome, thick hair, flat belly.  Any woman in this room would be glad to have on her arm.  How old are you, Sam?”

He runs a finger around the lip of the goblet. His smile is glass. “Not a day over twenty-four.”

“And how old will you be on your next birthday?”

“Twenty-three.”

She blinks at his frankness. He empties his wine and then refills it.  She refuses to drink.

“What gave me away?” he said, sipping.

“The photo of the old couple on your night stand. The people you allowed me to believe were your parents?”

Sam nods.  Probably, she saw it when she was over at his house or something.  I bet it was the photo of Sam and Louisa on their fiftieth anniversary party.  They had it right here, in this dining room.  This was before I was born, of course, but Sam’s told me lots of times about.  Happened a couple weeks before Louisa died.

Ah, who knows. Maybe I’m projecting myself into the situation—my ex said I was bad about that.  I like to walk a mile in a man’s shoes, I’d tell her.  Yeah, she’d say, you’re trying to wear his pants, too.

“You’re a rubber band man,” Elizabeth says, accusing him.

He rubs the non-existent wrinkles on his forehead. “I’m not, um, really fond of that term.”

Sam looks toward me.  We make eye contact.  I hold up a spoon and turn it in the light, like it’s the most interesting thing in the world.  He looks away, and I use the cutlery like a periscope, scanning the other diners. No one seems interested in this conversation.

“Why not use it?”  Elizabeth says.  There’s an ugly edge to her voice.

Sam hears it, too.  He wipes his chin with the napkin.  It’s not much of a shield. “I’d rather you didn’t, um,  use slurs to describe me.”

Gus returns with the appetizer.  Neither of them touches it, but it breaks the tension. He fusses over the presentation just long enough to give Sam a breather. Good man, that Gus.

Elizabeth takes a sip of water.  Her lips look dry.  “I thought all of them—all of you—were dead.”

“Some are.  I lived a longer life than most.  Well, longer than all of them, actually.”

“So you’re the last one.”

Sam smiles like he’s got a toothache.  Yeah, he’s the last one, I want to tell her.  It wasn’t like the government hunted them down, for Christ sake.

“So on your next birthday,”  Elizabeth says, “you’ll truthfully be…”

“One hundred and eighty-eight years of age.”

“And people say you’re too young for me.”  She looks away blinking.  Her eyelids are rimmed with tears.

It breaks Sam’s heart to see her like this, I can tell.  Elizabeth is a fine woman, and he hopes to spend his last years with her.  I’m projecting again, I know, but he’s got that look in his eye. It’s an old man’s look.  He knows what he’s getting into, you know?

He takes her hand again, and she softens a little.

“We can still make it work,”  he says.  “I know it’s a little unorthodox.”

“Unorthodox?” Her nose wrinkles up like he’s spoiled milk.  “It’s disgusting. My oldest daughter is fourteen. In only four years, the two of you would be the same age. And in twenty years?  You would be almost a toddler.  I’ve lived through the terrible twos and changing dirty diapers.  Frankly, I’m not interested in wiping my husband’s butt.”

It’s a low blow, but Sam takes it like a champ.  Me, I would’ve excused myself right then.

He slowly pours the rest of the bottle of wine into his glass.  It almost overflows, which tells me he’s a little rattled.  Maybe he’s thinking of what it’ll be like, a man stuck in a toddler’s body, an architect like him having to play with building blocks instead of fiddling with offworld pre-fabs.

“That’s not how it works,”  he says finally, after he’s taken a sip or two. “Once my milk teeth started remerging, the agency would arrange for my last few years. That’s the way it worked with the others.”

“Not that I give a damn about the others,”  she says.

By others, she means the couple hundred other volunteers who underwent gene therapy to reverse the effects of aging.  They thought they’d go living forever, not aging.

“I don’t know why you people allowed the government to screw around with your genetics that way. All that for nothing.”

The newsnets were called the experiements a failure because nobody stopped aging.  They got older and older, and then some of them, the ones that would have died in their forties and fifties, they starting going backwards, like a stretched out rubber band snapping into place.  The government propagandists were all over it, calling them heroes—until some of them lost their minds.  It was too much stress, they snapped, some of them.  That one woman who killed her family.  Those three men who blew up that school.  President Nelson, who started the last Great War.

“It seemed like a good idea the time,” he said, sadly.  “to be a modern Lazarus.  A immortal Ulysses.  To strive.  To seek.  To find. And not to yield.”

Sam volunteered in his twenties, and that’s where he met Louisa. They were both supposed to live forever.  They loved each other so much, I think it could have lasted forever, except Louisa’s gene therapy didn’t work.  Chromosomal prolapse is what Sam calls it. That’s technical for a guy like me.  In my mind,  Louisa was a rubber band that didn’t snap back.

“Such a poet.”  She pats him on the back of the hand, patronizing him, and I hate her for it. “You’re a good man, Sam.  I’m sorry you never got to live a normal life.”

He’s more normal than either one of us will even be, lady.

“Louisa, listen to me—“

She stares at him  Blinks.  Blinks again.

He doesn’t realize he’s messed up.  “Did I say something wrong?”

She puts a small, velvet covered box on the table.  “Under the circumstance, my answer is no.”

“I wish you’d think about it.”

“No, Sam.  I’m not getting any younger, you know.” She half-smiles at her bad joke. Nobody’s laughing.

She tries to pay for her part of the uneaten food, but he waves her off.

“You really should try to live out your life happily, maybe meet someone of your same—“

“Age?”

“Affliction.”

With that she’s gone. She can let herself out, I decide.

Sighing, Sam drops the ring box into the pocket of his suit coat.  Gus makes for the table with the check, but I cut him off.

“I missed the show?”  Gus whispers.  “Damn it.”

“Not much of a show.”  I lie, but it makes Gus feel better. I pocket the check, and start clearing the table.

Everybody thinks, if I only knew then what I know now, I could go back in time and change things.  Me personally, I’m glad I don’t have that chance.  My heart couldn’t take it.

“How was the Cab this evening, Mr. Oldham?”  I ask him, taking the empty bottle.

He swishes the last of the Cabernet in the glass.  “It tastes like water.”

It’s time to put a little flavor back into your life, Sam.  I glance back at the bar. “You really should go out dancing or something.  Maybe visit the bar.  Have a martini on me.”
“Nah, it’s not me.  I’m too–” He rubs his head, once again rubbing his proceeding hairline.

At the bar across the restaurant, a young lady catches Sam’s eye.  She’s a pretty girl, with long hair tied up in a French braid, and there’s a tattoo of a butterfly peeking out of the bottom of her open-backed dress.

“You think so?”

I look at the lady and then at him.  I nod and wink. Why not? The night is  young.

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