by Jack Alcott
I can still see gramps when he was really old, flailing around in his wheelchair with his electric guitar in hand and his Pignose amp going full blast in the basement family room. Back then he only had a shock of white hair on his head and his hands were all mottled and cramped, but he still managed the chords to ancient Rolling Stones numbers like “Dead Flowers” and “Start Me Up.”
This was way before he started taking the youth drugs, of course. Those damned drugs.
Anyway, he played loud! He’d crank that pint-sized amp up, getting maximum distortion out of it, all the while singing at peak volume in that sandblasted old-guy’s voice of his. Then he’d start windmilling his arms around, hitting the chords right on time until I thought he might just fly up out of the chair and start doing splits like he used to with his band when he was a kid in the 1960s.
Actually, he sounded pretty good, not that I’m into that old-timey music or anything. Anyway, pretty soon grandmom would come down and tell him to turn it down or he’d wake the dead.
“My parents used to tell me to turn it down,” he’d yell back at her, though not in anger, just to keep up with his guitar. “And later my kids told me to turn it down. Well, I ain’t gonna do it. No way! I’m going full tilt right to the end!”
He knew better than to use “ain’t” that way; that was the cranky old rock ‘n’ roll rebel in him. I mean he was a retired professor of geophysics, after all.
Grandmom would just kind of huff out of there, careful to close the door behind her so all the noise wouldn’t make it upstairs. She’d been sweetly tolerant of his musical side for many years — they’d been married more than five decades at that point — and sometimes I still get sad thinking about what those insidious youth pills did to that beautiful elderly couple.
My mom and dad had a house just down the street from my grandparents, and it was my job to kind of keep an eye on them after I got home from school, at least until my parents came home from work. I got an allowance for mowing their lawn and taking out the trash and chores like that, and I didn’t mind.
Both grandma and grandpa were smart and funny and had all their wits. So I’d hear lots of stories about what the world was like sixty, seventy years ago. Gramps was always trying to give me guitar lessons, too, and I picked up a few things.
So I was there that Sunday when the New York Times website’s top story was about the breakthrough. People didn’t have to get old anymore; they’d found a cure for aging. What’s more, scientists had succeeded in reversing the process and had already returned several elderly people to their early twenties.
“Yiii-hah!” grandpa yelped. He was so excited he shouted for grandma to come on down to the basement, they were going to be young again!
Grandma didn’t greet the news with quite the enthusiasm gramps did. “Settle down, Cliff, you’re going to have an aneurysm if you’re not careful. Anyway, it says here it’s experimental and they’re not sure if there are any side effects or what the long-term impact on society is going to be. I mean, if everybody stays young and lives forever, how on earth are we going to support everyone?”
“You need to read the whole story,” gramps said with some agitation. “We’re not staying on Earth. If you elect to take the treatment and you’re older than eighty — that’s us, my dear — you gotta go to the Mars colony for the next fifty years. Anyway, that’s the prediction. How great is that? You get a second chance at life but you gotta go to the Red Planet to help settle it. It’ll be like the Wild West, and we’ll be young again in a time of discovery and adventure, like when we went to live in San Francisco in 1975 — except it’s Mars. Let’s do it!”
He started cackling and whanging away on his guitar again, practically dancing in his wheelchair.
But grandma didn’t look so convinced. In fact, I thought I saw tears in her pale blue eyes.
Personally, I blame Mick Jagger for what happened next to the world. He’s that old rock ’n’ roll ‘bad boy’ — I think he’s in his late 90s now — who decided he wanted to live forever; so he formed a consortium of other rich, geriatric rockers, rappers, hip-hoppers, movie stars and other super-vain, super-rich celebrities to found The Jagger-Venter Longevity Institute with genome-guru Craig Venter.
David Bowie was on board, among many others: Madonna, Dr. Dre, Brian Seacrest, Will Smith, Stephen King, Bill Gates, to name a few. Even Chuck Berry, for crying out loud, who was like on his last legs at a hundred and something. Together they raised billions to speed up anti-aging research, and they got lucky. Genetics and computer science converged at just the right moment and bam! “The Other Pill” was born.
Not since that last big game-changing pill, the one that ironically enough ended life — the birth control pill that started the sexual revolution — had there been such a civilization-upending event. And from what I’ve seen, calling what followed a “revolution” is putting it mildly.
At first, the Federal Drug Administration tried to keep the lid on the Jagger-Venter pills, saying it would take another ten years of research and review before the experimental drugs were ready for prime time. But try telling that to millions of superannuated Boomers and Gen X’ers, fully a third of the United States’ population. Some were so old they were going to expire way before the pills were available, so they wanted the treatment now, immediately, pronto.
“They’re worried the side effects might kill me?” I remember grandpa saying incredulously as he scratched tenderly at a patch of basal cell carcinoma that had taken up residence on his thinning scalp. “I’m freakin’ eighty-seven; old age is gonna get me first. What do I have to lose?”
It was a rational argument.
After the AARP sit-ins and riots in practically every city in America, including The Million Geezer March on Washington, D.C. — more like a hobble than a march, actually — and organizers’ threats to use gray power at the polls in November, politicians woke up and went into panicky overdrive to push for the pills. When a revitalized and militant Gray Panthers Party led by antique Vietnam vets began rallying everywhere with loaded M-16s, the Feds sped things up and got the pills to market in six months.
Such was the power of old age and treachery.
As soon as they hit, everyone started calling the black and white gel caps “jaggers” although Big Pharma had a less catchy sounding brand name that never caught on. Soon they were all generic anyway and were just “jaggers.” The black half of the generic cap had a tiny white skull and cross bones; the white end was stamped with that lascivious red tongue and leering lips logo. Sex sells, I guess.
* * *
“Let’s do it!” grandpa had said, and so they did. Cheaply, too. Oh, sure, Big Pharma had tried to make big profits by initially charging a fortune for the drugs. At the original price, only the rich could afford them — and what gave them the right to a long life over the working guy? More riots ensued, but soon it was moot anyway, because the black market took over once the formula was out there, and before long the jagger pills were everywhere. There was no stopping them.
So grandpa got his dose and he got a dose for grandmom, too, although she seemed reluctant. For grandpa, though, it was 1969 all over again... “Yiii-hah!”
That’s when my world really got weird.
* * *
I’d heard from my mother that “grandmom and grandpa were on the jaggers,” and I remember thinking it was kind of interesting and funny. Would the drugs work? Were my grandparents going to get younger? Would they go all the way back to their teenage years?
My mom told me that wasn’t possible. “The drugs can only take you back to somewhere in your twenties, for reasons scientists don’t quite understand yet,” she said somewhat wistfully. It was soon after that I noticed her skin was looking smoother and her hair darker, and although I never asked, it was evident she was on the jaggers. My dad, too. His pot belly disappeared and his hairline went in reverse, with a thick crop of wavy black hair returning within weeks.
But it was the effect on my grandparents that was the most dramatic, at least initially.
They were both in their late eighties when all this started, pretty much at the end of their tether on earth. My mom told me they were flying off to Paris one last time; they’d always loved the City of Light and tried to make a trip there every few years. We took them to the airport, and I helped wheel gramps through security. We all waved and threw kisses as airline personnel helped them on the passenger bridge to their waiting plane.
A month later, when the airport limo pulled in the driveway I was out in front of their house mowing the lawn in a last minute attempt to spruce the place up. I waved to the limo, shut the hovermower down, and started toward the car to help them out.
Before I got there, though, a middle-aged guy with longish black-and-silver streaked hair fairly leaped out of the vehicle and held the door for a tall, attractive middle-aged woman. I didn’t recognize them and thought maybe they were going to help gramps down the ramp with his wheelchair. I couldn’t see through the limo’s tinted windows and was momentarily puzzled.
The skinny guy with streaked hair smiled at me and pushed his cool sunglasses down on the tip of his nose and stared at me through his startling blue eyes. “Yiii-haaa!” he shouted and began doing a jig. I noticed for the first time that he was wearing bell bottom jeans and a gaudy, flowered shirt.
“Yep, that’s me, kid!” he answered in voice that was still sandpapery. “That’s me!”
Of course I was stunned. You always wonder what your grandparents looked like when they were younger — vids and photos go only so far. So here they were, all healthy and strong and unbent. It was really strange, like meeting people who reminded you of your grandparents but couldn’t possibly be them.
“C’mon kid,” grandpa said heaving a suitcase at me with one hand, obviously showing off his arm strength. “Help me get the old lady in the house,” he chortled, and slapped grandmom on the rump.
“Oh Cliff — don’t embarrass the boy,” she chastised him. But I could tell she kind of liked his attention, so I really was even more embarrassed and I felt my face flush. I mean, I always thought grandmom was beautiful in a grandma kinda way, but now I could see she was just a beautiful woman, period.
“Hah, hah, hah,” gramps was laughing. “I can’t wait to party with you tonight, babe! Let’s go freshen up and we’ll burn down the town.”
Now I was really embarrassed.
“Oh yeah, kid,” gramps said glancing at the iTat on the inner wrist of his left hand, tapping it until a vid went streaming across his skinscreen. “Check this out.”
He tapped his wrist again and I couldn’t help but notice how black and curly his arm hair was, like an animal’s — like a bear’s! It used to be snow-white. And his skin was tight and had lost its saggy, melted cheese look.
There was flicker as his tat went to widescreen and expanded the length of his now-muscular forearm. First up were a bunch of old farts holding various electric guitars and laughing as one of them strummed the chords to “Wild Thing.” Gramps had taught me that one. “That’s my band; we’re getting back together,” gramps said. “They’re all on the jaggers. This time we’re gonna do it right — nothing less than world domination.”
“Wow, gramps. That’s crazy — but it sounds like a blast.” That’s one of gramps’ favorite expressions; I only use it around him.
“I’m glad you said that, kid, because you’re our new bass player.” He touched his wrist again and a vintage violin bass stretched along his forearm in all its sunburst glory. “It’s a custom-order Beatle bass, and it’s on its way. I always liked John Lennon better than Sir Paul, but it’s my way of thanking McCartney for kicking in a stray half-billion for jaggers’ research. Now it’s just him and Ringo — but they’re planning a reunion, too. Yii-hah!”
Copyright © 2013 by Jack Alcott