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Contemporary Speculative

Elliott retired years ago and Maxmillion Pennyworth, his financial advisor, compliments him on his glowing health. Until today, when he frowns. “The challenge, Elliott, is longevity risk.”

“Longevity?” Elliott chuckles. “That’s a nice problem to have.”

“In these high-inflation times, you might outlive your assets. That’s not so nice.” Maxmillion says. “Of course, you could consider a ‘top up’… do you have a preference for right or left arm?”

“Right, right…” Elliott has been nodding along as usual to Maxmillion’s polished phrases and is caught off-guard. He says abruptly, “er no, left,” because he has a busy day of gardening planned. Time to transplant the brocco-mato seedlings.

Maria the technician ushers Elliott from the advisor’s office to the hemo-extraction machines and soon his account is balanced again. “Afterward you may feel light-headed,” Maria says, gently holding his left elbow as she applies the band-aid. “You should take iron pills. Don’t worry—no prescription is required.” Elliott feels relieved on both counts.

On his way home, Elliott feels like the inflatable 15-foot Rudolph, barely tethered to a parade float. He detours to a pharmacy. While browsing the dietary supplements, he runs into a guy he knows from volunteer work. “Howdy, pardner,” Hobart says. “You coachin’ pickleball next Friday?” He glances at Elliott’s arms. Too late, Elliott nudges the sleeve over his puncture patch.

“For sure,” Elliott says, feeling as if his Rudolph head is talking down from a great height. Crikey, how much hemo did Maria extract? He’s in no shape to be coaching disadvantaged youth, even if it is just pickleball. But he doesn’t want to admit anything’s awry because Hobart is so damn full of advice. “See you Friday.”

Hobart grins, gives the thumbs-up, and takes granola bars from the shelf. The box is emblazoned, “Iron enriched!” and Elliott wonders, hey, was Hobart paler than usual? He wishes he’d taken a closer look. But too late; they’re heading to different aisles.

Besides the iron pills, Elliott is tempted by a crossword puzzle book. Such a quaint item. Paper. With a graphite stylus.

The two men arrive at checkout at the same time. Not really checkout; that’s all done by electronic sensor; but bagging the items sustainably takes time. “Wow, those are some great Green-Thumb Specials,” Hobart says, pointing to the back cover of the puzzle book, which carries an ad for cauli-cumber seeds. Elliott is intrigued by the new varietal and forgets to look for a puncture patch on Hobart, who speedily bags the granola bars and a pack of adult diapers.

 “I’ll check them out,” Elliott says. “I’m growing brocco-mato this year.” He bags his purchases. As he walks across the parking lot, the world turns shimmery and he feels lightheaded again. The car drives him home while he struggles to open the childproof cap. The instructions for opening are printed white on white. He pierces the seal with the graphite stylus. He’s so irritated by the time he arrives, his low blood pressure has become high. Dizziness gone.

Beyoncé is in the kitchen, making a smoothie. “Hee-e-ey, it’s the man of the hour!” She points to the blender. “Would you like one? With Bifidobacterium or without?”

“With Bifido, please,” he says, trying to match her tone of ironic excitement. He stretches to get his venti cup from the shelf. She glances at the band-aid that covers his puncture wound.

“What happened to you?”

“They were giving out sample band-aids,” he says. “Do you think this matches my skin? Or is this one better?” He points to the knuckle band-aid he’s been wearing to cover the scrape he got moving garden stones around, making room for the brocco-mato.

“Hm…” she studies the two different shades. “Neither,” she concludes. “I don’t like to think of my widdle Elly getting damaged in any way,” she says in a mock-pout.

She picks up the iron pills. “Hey, where’d these come?”

“Oh, uh, impulse,” he says. “I saw an article about common pitfalls of the vegan diet.”

“I stopped menstruating ages ago,” she says. “The minute we decided for sure we didn’t want kids, I signed up for that suppression treatment. Remember?”

If he has enough spare blood circulating, Elliott knows he’ll be showing a blush. Bey has never said the M-word to him before, and hearing it reminds him of all the years he hasn’t been a supportive, period-positive guy. Just a period-silent guy. He grabs the bottle and shakes out two pills and fills two shot-glasses with water. “The supplements are recommended for all vegans,” he says.

She lifts her shot-glass. “Well, down the hatch.”

Elliott swallows his pill. “Besides, let’s support our local pharmacy. Their business has fallen off so much, with the pandemics over and all…” The store looked weird without its signage for masks and sanitizers and one-way aisles that people ignored anyway. The vaccination area was replaced by an enormous band-aids display, with varieties of shapes and skin colors. He says, “Do you know they have hand-sized bandages now?”

She laughs. “Like, gloves?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

The band-aid display made him feel nostalgic. There’s less need for band-aids these days but, while the true need is declining, their use is being celebrated, and made more prominent.

Bey’s cellphone chime sounds. They turn toward her screen. “Did you invite anyone? Did you order something? Is there an election?”

The screen shows a UPS woman at the door. with. She’s lifting a big envelope up to the camera to show the return address.

“Gumby Electric!” Elliott shouts and he dashes to the door. He signs for the envelope and tears it open. “They want me at work first thing Monday,” he announces, eyes flashing.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Bey says, tearing her gaze from the screen. “Did you actually hug that courier?” She mumbles something about assault charges but he’s too busy singing “We are the Champions” and doing a jig. Spillover joy brings a smile to her face.

They carry their smoothies to the rec room and settle in to play video games. For Christmas, Bey got them each deluxe cup holders, the head-mounted kind with the long flexible straw so their hands are free to use the game controllers.

Right after retirement, when Elliott was underfoot at home full-time, their relationship hit a rough patch. Bey decided they needed couples counseling. So now they do Grand Romance Mud Wrestling, which combines entertainment with a therapeutic app. Bey picks the biggest, beefiest avatar, a Jean-Claude Van Damme type. Elliott’s avatar is a sylph-like princess. The game designers have really outdone themselves with the mud. It oozes and flows, sometimes splats right at the screen in 3D, making them flinch. The muddied bodies of Jean-Claude and the princess suction together. An evening of grappling with each other clarifies their “couple’s issues” more than a year of therapy. Bonus: Elliott forgets to worry about his pending re-entry to the workplace.

Until that night.

Lying abed after their wrestling catharsis, Elliott recalls a message added to the Gumby Electric contract. It was from Myqeel, his former colleague, warmly welcoming him back to the “amazing” team. Elliott frets that everyone is indeed awesome, and he’ll hold them back. Or worse; he’ll make them backslide. He wishes he had information on the ESG targets of the company. Which area will he have to focus on: environment, sustainability or governance? The note ended with a reminder to bring steel-toed boots. That Myqeel—such a card! Elliott falls back to sleep.

*       *       *

On Monday, Elliott stands at the kitchen counter, preparing to eat his breakfast. Bey flounces in and tilts her head. “What on earth are you doing?” She speaks quietly as if to avoid shocking a sleepwalker.

“Getting ready for work,” Elliott says.

“But you’re retired!”

“No, I’m back full-time. Remember the envelope?” He grins.

“Surely they mean as a consultant, dear—you know, afternoon meetings and signing off on reports nobody reads.”

“C’mere,” he says and gives her a one-armed hug. She’s so clued out that he feels sorry for her. “I’ll miss the mulching today,” he says. For a nanosecond it seems a little unfair that his golden years—no, stop it, he tells himself. No moping.

“Well, you’re lucky,” she says brightly. “Called back to work—it just shows how valuable you are.”

“Seventy’s the new forty,” he says wryly.

*       *       *

Elliott walks up to the new Gumby headquarters, a stone’s throw from the original building. There’s no door on the main floor, only a tunnel to get into the building from below. Like a rat’s nest, Elliott thinks, instantly ashamed that the analogy popped into his head. He scurries through the tunnel and enters the security line-up where he sets off the detector and must prove his umbrella is not a weapon.

Elliott reports for duty. He strains to hear properly; Myqeel speaks quickly and softly about Elliott’s new duties in the “360 transformation” of the company. Gumby Inc. used to be all about molded plastics, so its environmental rating was on par with Exxon Valdez. Now they’ve retooled as a “boutique energy producer” that makes all its own energy and sells the excess.

Myqeel brings Elliott to a series of meetings, introducing him as the “ESG consultant” at 9 AM and effusively lauding him as the “ESG VP” by 5 PM.

Elliott relishes a sensation he hasn’t felt in years: doing a real day of work in exchange for a real day of money. His bliss is scarcely dimmed when he gets trapped in the revolving door as he is leaving. Myqeel appears and helps him escape.

“I’ll give you a quiz on people’s names first thing tomorrow,” Myqeel says, also in high spirits. After a beat, he adds, “Just kidding.”

“That reminds me,” Elliott says. “Were you kidding about the steel-toed boots?”

“No, that’s for real,” Myqeel says. “Also… bring some work gloves.”

Elliott has gardening gloves already. “I absolutely must buy you a drink, Myqeel. You’ve given me a fantastic first day of introductions to the amazing team.”

“Why not,” says Myqeel. Off they go to The Stock Exchange, which Myqeel assures him is actually a pub. After they clink glasses, Myqeel says, “Funny, the last time we drank together, you told me you’d bought a boat. You were planning a world trip.”

Elliott ruefully picks at his coaster. “Well, Beyoncé wanted to keep working. So we bought a canoe for weekend paddling. And now… well, my financial advisor said there’s too much life left at the end of my money.”

“Yeah, mine says that, too. He’s suggested this new… ‘top-up plan.’”

Elliott noisily gulps his ale.

“Isn’t it great to be part of the next healthcare revolution?” Myqeel says.

“How so?”

“Immunoglobulin treatments have increased five-fold since 2020,” Myqeel says. “They need a pool of committed donors. Well, here we are. My fear is that they’ll figure out how to grow immunoglobulin in the lab and we won’t be able to top up our portfolios anymore.”

Elliott notices a band-aid in the crook of Myqeel’s elbow.

Myqeel notices that Elliott has noticed. “Literally bleeding us dry,” Myqeel says, sardonically. “I’ve joined a revolutionary cell planning to overthrow the system.”

Elliott straightens in his seat, glances around.

“Just kidding,” Myqeel chortles. “I’ll send you the meme. ‘Bump up the iron,’ it says.”

Between the beer and the fatigue, Elliott falls into a daze. Social cues are hard to read for hours on end. He wonders: did I just yawn?  

“We better get you home,” Myqeel says. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

 “I can hardly wait.”

*       *       *

Bey is ready with smoothie and joystick when Elliott gets home. This time the referee / marital counselor must intervene. “Princess Elliott down for the count.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he says, “I keep falling asleep. Long day at work.”

Bey ends the game; her Jean-Claude avatar looks sulky and unloved.

A lightbulb goes on in Elliott’s mind. “Hey, could we check out that maze game?” The gloves, the boots: tomorrow must be landscaping. Perhaps Myqeel was too embarrassed to explain the “amazing” team was a “mazing”, i.e., maze-building, team.

That night, he falls asleep dreaming about making a maze at the new Gumby Electric HQ. Decorative edging, a ten-minute meditative walk. That kind of maze.

The next morning, Elliott appears pale and underslept. He cooks another “working man’s breakfast” and Bey walks in, sniffing the frying sausage. As he takes his Tater Tots from the toaster oven, one falls on the floor. She bends to retrieve it and notes his footwear. “You’re not wearing boots to the office!”

“Yes…”

“Myqeel never mentioned this….” she says, her face full of disbelief.

“What? When were you talking to Myqeel?” Elliott says.

She answers vaguely. “Oh, you know… your retirement party…”

He rolls his eyes. “That’s ages ago. Before they restructured.” Get a grip, he thinks; sexual jealousy is so retro. “I was told to report at seven. Wearing boots and gloves,” he says, speaking between bites of sausage. “Gumby has transformed itself. I’m VP of Sustainability.”

“Well, I better get dressed for work, too. I have a lunch-hour meeting. The head honchos want to meet our sustainability goals, too.”

“Talk to Myqeel about sustainability,” he says, “instead of talking about me.” He glances at the clock and grabs his jacket. He doesn’t want to be late for work on day two.

“Mudpen tonight?” she says.

“Mudpen,” he says.

*       *       *

All the way to work, Elliott reminds himself he’s lucky to have a job in post-retirement; many places simply won’t hire septuagenarians. “Your golden years,” HR told him, although there’s little gold to be found in empty pantries. They gave him the bum’s rush the first time he left Gumby—no party, no cake, only a “Happy Birthday” card that was repurposed to say “Happy Retirement” and was signed by several colleagues.

At least he hadn’t burned bridges like Danielson, whose excoriating cc-all emails were saved by some as templates to be used should the need arise.

Sans umbrella, Elliott reports to a ground-floor office, where he receives a password and security card. Peeter introduces himself and says, “I’ll take you to your workstation.” He brings Elliott outside and shows him the large rock and minuscule manual forklift. “Just bring that rock right up the slope. When it falls onto that piezoelectric square, the potential energy of its height is converted to the energy driving the turbine. That’s how Gumby Electric creates sustainable energy. The method of Sisyphus.”

Elliott spends the day pushing the rock up the slope. At lunchtime, an intern places a wedge underneath to hold the rock halfway while Elliott grabs a falafel. At end of day, when the rock is teetering on the edge, a screen flashes, asking for the password. He can’t remember it and the intern with the wedge is already gone for the day.

The rock returns to the starting gate. Peeter is philosophical about it, chalking it up to “a simple newbie error.” He chuckles. “See you tomorrow.”

Elliott dallies near the exit for twenty minutes. Will Myqeel drop by—or have I been fobbed off on Peeter now? Also, does pushing a rock around actually meet the sustainability goals? He collapses into the backseat of his car. He remembers the olden days, when he used to drive himself, but he’s glad this is a self-driving model; his arms are too tired to lift them up to the steering wheel.

Maybe he should talk to Bey about her uncle. Wayne, too, left retirement but Bey insists it’s because he couldn’t think of anything except work. They never hear from him anymore. Has he died? Elliott hopes he’s just “busy-busy.” He hopes the nonagenarian is not having hemo-extraction and pushing a rock around. Or, at least not a very big rock.

*       *       *

Three days later, after work Elliott drags himself into the pharmacy for high-dose iron pills and a pack of those hand-sized band-aids. For the blisters. Any damn color will do. Then he remembers it’s Friday. He’s supposed to coach pickleball this evening. Better pick up a pack of bennies, too.

Elliott shows up at the recreation center curiously wired. He’s twitching and shouting at the players, but he lacks the physical strength to lift the whistle to his mouth.

“Howdy, partner,” Hobart says, looking concerned. “Everythin’ hunky-dory?”

“Right as rain,” snaps Elliott. “If only these lard-bottoms could hustle on the court…”

“Ah, come now,” Hobart says with a laugh, handing out gear to players. “Hey, how ‘bout them-there crossword puzzles?”

“Halfway through,” Elliott says. He hasn’t started; his arms are too sore to lift a pencil. He keeps coaching the kids, purely by voice because it hurts to move. The clock barely creeps along.

He thinks maybe he should go home early. Take the weekend off and do puzzles. Maybe he should contact Myqeel, and quiz him about the method of Sisyphus. Tell him to stop chatting up his wife. But no, Myqeel will laugh and say, “Just kidding.”

As he falls asleep that night, Elliott remembers a funny thing they used to talk about at dinner parties. “Freedom 55.” The idea that you could retire at 55 and go traveling, visiting grandchildren. But now people don’t want to travel. Hurricanes, sicknesses, and fires ruin the fun. And there are hardly any grandkids, due to fertility postponement.

But he could still get into gardening, he reckons. Tomorrow he’ll order that cauli-cumber. Watching the plants grow: that should be fun to do in his final years.

The End

October 07, 2022 22:50

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