When the Last Man Exits

These days I imagine light to be a swarm of insects. They crawl up my arms and tingle my face, their infinitesimal feet slipping into my wrinkles. A poet once told me that children forget how to think in metaphors as they become adults, but they remember it again as they approach the threshold of death. Imagination, like many other things, thrives under pressure. 

The tingling grows aggressive. Unbearable, taunting. I have to throw myself out of bed, thump, and stumble across the room, push against the door. But where to? My knee burns with every step, the cruel insignia of age. The living room is much too wide, cavernous almost, as if it exists to swallow me alive, as if designed just for that purpose. How could this much space be for one old man like me? Someone else must live here. That sounds right, vaguely; I think I must be living with someone. 

Fear is something I feel often these days. Fear, too, tingles at every marrow of my bone. 

I rush to the balcony. Everywhere I feel exposed to the stabbing presence of unfamiliarities. A wide TV sitting on the black cabinet. A low table with a glass cover stained with ring marks. An oriental quilt of orange and emerald hanging on the wall, next to a collage of clipped photographs. I cannot dare to look at those, to confront their information. So I rush to the balcony. All the while the light pricks at me, those incessant insects. The door slides open; beneath the balustrade, a height of sixteen stories greets me with the nonchalant nod of a metropolis wide awake at night. My knees ache so much, but the balustrade is low enough for me to jump over it. It all feels logical. 

A paper sign is tagged to the railing , flapping against the wind. I stoop to read it. 

This handwriting I recognize; my handwriting. Is it true that ego is the last man standing on the battlefield swept by time? 

It reads: “Don’t die yet.” 

Then I remember. I remember something remains to be done. 

______

I roam across the city blocks with my eyes fixed downward. It’s good to direct my attention this way. Derby heels, Wellington boots, Adidas sneakers jogging past. Long socks and leggings and khakis. At the end of the day, we’re all just shapes moving on two sticks. 

Crazy old man, I must seem to them—mumbling constantly, unable to make eye contact. Perhaps they’re right. But this is what I was advised to do; otherwise, I might lose myself in the middle of nowhere. St. Francis Hospital, St. Francis Hospital, St. Francis Hospital. Funny how that expression gets used, middle of nowhere. This place, this boisterous and boiling city, must be the last thing anyone imagines upon hearing the word “nowhere.” St. Francis Hospital, St. Francis, St. Francis. How can anyone look at this sea of people, this unceasing stream of heels and sneakers, and christen it “nowhere”? Yet it’s as accurate as any metaphor can be. 

I once saw, while I was still a working man, a lady in a party dress convulsing on the sidewalk, clutching the manhole cover and shouting, “O hail Mary, hail Mary!” Bubbles formed at her mouth. Her steel blue eyes darted in all directions as pedestrians walked by one after another. I don’t quite remember what I was doing; walking home, probably. This was some ten, fifteen years ago. In fact, I think it happened right around this corner, below that checkered awning. I stood by the lamppost then, and I watched her twist and squirm for a good two minutes. No doubt she was in a lot of pain; help was clearly needed. My hand slid into my pocket several times, but each time it reemerged empty. I don’t think this was because of some sadistic voyeurism or the bystander’s complacency. I remember feeling powerless. Completely incapable. Even more so than the lady’s fear-stricken face. 

“Self-expression is a display of one’s power. There are, broadly speaking, three ways to do this: mercy, criticism, and destruction.” Nietzsche said that, I believe. 

As I keep walking, my eyes meet those of a panhandler covering himself with the last two weeks’ worth of newspapers. His eyes twinkle with anticipation beneath the rim of the black beanie. His face is the first face that I have looked at today. St. Francis, Francis. I pull out my wallet and sprinkle a couple of twenty-dollar bills into his bucket. The guy’s beard twitches with a smile, and he bows slightly. Some actions carry the gravity of habit. How much money have I given this guy? 

Light and noise wash over me as I turn around the corner. The click-clack of business shoes, lots of honking. My head goes white. The tingling sensation returns everywhere in my body, threatening to erase me from inside. I feel a sudden urge to break out into a sprint, though towards what and from what, I don’t know. Beads of sweat roll down my forehead even in this cold.

Across the street there’s a café with a French flag hung over one of its windows. Instinct tells me I have been there before. France. That sounds right, vaguely. The door jingles as I push through. The cozy, saccharine scent of soufflé and profiterole welcomes me. Again, I feel that familiar pull of gestures as I wipe my shoes on the mat. 

Immediately, a red-haired woman approaches me. 

“Gosh, Gerald! Not again! What would you have done if I hadn’t stopped by to check?” 

“You are…?” The ghost of a name hovers above my tongue. The woman looks resigned and annoyed. 

“Have you been doing what I told you to do?” 

“You’re not Claire. I know that for sure.” 

“Of course not. Why would I be your daughter?” She reaches into my right pocket and pulls out a creased memo folded many times over. The paper rustles in exasperation as she unfolds it and holds it up to my eyes. 

“3pm appointment at St. Francis Hospital, with Dr. Regina Collins. Do you need me to take you there?” 

“Oh.” 

“Your right pocket has your phone and the memo. The tag around your neck—” She taps at my chest, where I’m surprised to feel a flat plastic object—“has your name and your address. If nothing else, remember that.” 

She sighs as she turns me around, pushes me out the door like a shopping cart. Another wash-over of light and noise. I have to do a 360 turn to make sure she’s with me. We’re heading to St. Francis Hospital now, St. Francis, St. Francis.

______

Some other things that I have jotted down: 

– Call Amber (212–XXX–XXXX) for help 

– Don’t take the cab. Ten-minute walk 

– Let Claire know??? 

– Don’t give to the beggar by the cigarette shop. SHAM 

I suppose Amber must be the woman from the café, and I suppose she can be trusted—only insofar as I trust myself, of course. 

Curious, that last one. In what way could such a person be a sham? And what does it matter if he is? He’s still the last face I remember seeing today. 

— 

Claire was with me in the doctor’s room to hear the MRI results. The doctor, a brown-skinned woman in her mid-forties, enunciated every word. I think her name rhymed with Tina. Her voice rang clearly in my ears like the doorbell chime of a well-decorated clothes store. She was one of those people who naturally drew about themselves an aura of authority and purpose. In the past, I would have found that an attractive quality. For all I know, I did find her attractive at the time. 

“The hippocampus has shrunk quite a bit, unfortunately. There are ways to delay the progression, but to tell you the truth, stopping it completely is impossible.” 

“Alzheimer’s?” Claire asked, her brows folding in horror. A pitiable tremor in her voice. Claire’s reaction shocked me more than the doctor’s diagnosis. When was the last time she had expressed such concern for me? So this is what Christians must mean when they profess that suffering is God’s blessing in disguise—that it gives us the opportunity to communicate our love in new ways and reaffirm what’s really important in our lives. Her soft hands clasped in desperation, trying to hold as much devoutness as can be managed by a daughter raised in an atheistic family with nothing to look up to but the tall shadows of metropolitan wealth. The child in her was so transparent. How could a parent live if not for memories like this? 

“It’s okay, Claire. I’m fine.” 

“The newest memories will be the first to go. You might find yourself forgetting where you are in the middle of the street or how to get home. My advice is to wear a tag with your name and your home address.” A moment’s hesitation. “Soon you might have trouble recognizing family as well. Do you live with anyone?” 

Rather cruel of her to say something like that in front of my daughter. But did she really say it? Remembering is like stenciling, applying the pigment again and again and not knowing what pattern will emerge until I lift the sheet. 

“Do you live with anyone?” 

“I have a daughter, she does physics research at the Peasley University, almost at the end of her PhD program, her main topic is supercondensation and—” 

“Do you live with anyone?” 

“My apartment certainly seems too spacious for one man; I think my daughter—” 

“Do you live with anyone?” 

“No. But I have a daughter, Claire, she’s quite busy…”

“You should call her. Let her know your condition,” said the doctor, her voice purposeful, clear as water. 

I did call someone immediately afterwards. I talked about the MRI results, things the doctor said. The voice on the other end of the line was a woman’s. Not the transparent ring of the doctor, not the exasperated sigh of the red-haired social worker. Someone once said that when a man grows old, he doesn’t need a woman—he needs women. The women in my life get jumbled up. The voice: I’m trying to remember the voice. 

“Hi, Dad. I’m at lab right now.” 

“I just met with the doctor. She says I have Alzheimer’s. It’s probably best that I—Claire, are you crying?” 

Why would anyone call me Dad? And do I know a different Claire? 

I can picture her face so well: the brows laden with anxiety, the mouth half-open in horror, so much unspoken love between her lips. But no. How could I have seen her face if we were on the phone? 

“Why are you crying, Claire?” 

Rewind. Go back to the MRI scan and the black and white drawings of my bodies with regions marked in red circles and the doctor’s voice, authoritative and undeniable. Was she not there with me in the doctor’s room? Didn’t she put her hand on my shoulder and say, “It’s okay, Dad. You’re fine”? Wouldn’t a good daughter have done that? 

“What’s the matter?” 

“I’ve been getting death threats. Somebody’s stalking me!” 

“Stalking…” 

“I get letters, text messages, knocks on the window—”

“Oh God—” 

“It’s so scary Dad, I can’t even tell you…” 

I can’t even tell you, she said. I can’t even tell you. 

Someone was stalking Claire. Someone is stalking Claire. 

______

Claire was born in 1984, same as George Orwell’s novel. She graduated from Peasley, class of ’07, and went on to continue research at the same university. She wanted to gain some working experience in-between, but I told her it’s better to do what she knows she wants to do for sure. I made sure she never had to worry about tuition, rent, and the like. Putting my daughter through her education, that was a man’s job. A proud job. 

Claire likes country music; she used to complain that the one thing she inherited from me had to be my taste of music. She played tennis seriously up through the first year of college. She likes lemongrass tea and toast with Nutella for breakfast, sometimes the Special K cereal. She goes head over heels about bubble tea, can’t stand a drop of alcohol. As far as I can tell, she’s seen a string of different men since college— never seriously, just dating willy-nilly. 

Her birthday is February 26th, 1984, the same year Willie Nelson released City of New Orleans. She could hum along to the whole album even before she learned to talk. I was 35 the year she was born. Her mother left us when I was 42, moved to the West for a managerial position at a consulting firm. My friends used to say, “She came for the money, stayed for the money, and left for some more.” 

Claire has always been an independent child. Never caused much trouble, never had the teenage breakdown, never complained about the family situation. Her reply to “Do you want anything?” was, almost invariably, “Nothing really.” I thought asking questions like that was the mark of a good father; she must have thought answering it that way was the mark of a good daughter. 

She has now been receiving death threats from a stranger. She receives letters and text messages and gifts by her door. Mysterious knocks at night. 

I have all this written down on a diary somewhere in my drawer. 

______

“Mr. Mason? Are you still with me? Mr. Mason?” 

The most trifling conversations now require arduous cognitive labor. This man calls me Mr. Mason. We must have been in a business relationship, I must have been his superior. What was the name of that company? 

“Yes, I’m still here.” 

“How’ve you been, sir?” 

Frankly, I don’t know. “Fine.” 

“Well, I was just calling to follow up on our previous conversation.” 

“Our previous…?” 

“About the remaining share of your stocks. Mr. Lopez and a few other directors thought it best to distribute it equally within the board, but of course the final decision should come from you.” 

Lopez. Board of directors. The company’s name was Holtz Pharma. 

My whole adult life, or at least a good part of it, I spent working for pharmaceutical companies, climbing up the ladder rung by rung. 

Countless experiments and analyses and concoctions. Formulas and ingredients, rehashed again and again in different ways. It took me a while to see that many of the things we call “creation” are, in fact, just rearrangements. What gets created is shell after shell after shell. The question, of course, is what remains once I have shed them all. 

“Mr. Mason?” 

“My shares haven’t been transferred yet?” 

“No, sir. You’ve entrusted them to me.” 

Someone once said that the two ways a man could express his power were mercy and destruction. Marx, I believe. 

“Say, didn’t you get yourself into a swamp of debt after standing surety for a friend?” 

“Stand surety?” 

“Your former colleague tried to start an insurance business and failed, then fled abroad? To Argentina?” 

“That happened to Aileen from HR, not me. To Portugal, I believe.” 

“Yes, Aileen. She has kids?” 

“Three of them.” 

“Right. Transfer the stocks to her, would you?” 

“All the shares?” 

“Yes.” 

A moment of silence. “I trust you’ve thought through your decision carefully. I’m just not sure that the other directors on the board wouldn’t consider it rather…unexpected.”

“Yes.” 

“Okay, sir.” 

“Anything else?” 

“Oh, I don’t know if you’ve heard—well, there’s absolutely no reason you should know, but I’m, uh, getting married next month. On the 17th. Big step for us, Catherine and I.” 

Marriage. That word sounds familiar but unusable in my head, like an old chair with a broken leg that I found in the attic. I sweep my finger over the seat, and dust gathers on my fingertips like dandelion seeds. Dust is shapeless, weightless—it only carries the faint scent of boredom. It’s good to hear the young talk. They teach me more about myself than the mirror does. 

“I’ll remember to come.” 

______

The moment I hang up on the phone, a wave of vertigo sweeps over me. I stumble and fall, realize that I’m—again—in an unfamiliar place. Why am I in this room? Who brought me here? I feel entrapped by walls of question marks. I can feel my breathing grow fast. There’s a queen-size bed with a crumpled cover as if someone had just been writhing in it moments ago. The leather band of a sapphire Cartier watch is carelessly sprawled next to the pillow. Light squirms through the opening between the damask curtains and comes crawling for my feet. An oak dresser stands in the corner of the room, supporting an array of expensive skincare products and a few books, a couple of them in German. Also sprach Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche. So I know how to speak German, then. And I can recognize fancy cosmetic brands. A photograph of a balding man posing next to a much younger blonde woman. Claire. The one memory I will never forget, even if she forgets me, even if she has forgotten me. 

This is my room. This is my room. This is my room. 

— 

Sometimes I get flashes of random images in my head, memories that abruptly return. I cherish these moments. The clarity and the certainty they bring—I don’t need to imagine how it feels to discover an oasis in the middle of a desert. 

When these flashes occur, I have to seize them, no matter what memories they represent. This is how I connect the dots, how I cross the bridge from myself to myself. In my mind, I see a white plastic bottle, small enough to hide in my fist. I know exactly where that is. I have to find it. 

I wish my mother could be here to tell me it ’s okay, that I can just go back to bed. I wish the red-haired woman from the French café could pat me on the shoulder and speak soothingly. I wish the brown-skinned doctor could announce that I’ve been cured, deliver it like a verdict. Where are the women of my life? Above all, I want Claire to be here. But she’s busy writing her college applications; that’s why she couldn’t come last week either. The best an aging father can do for his daughter is to not be a nuisance. 

I open the first drawer of the oak dresser. Beneath the crudely folded underwear and socks, I find the bottle. There’s a sticky note wrapped around its column. 

It reads: “Don’t die yet.”

______

“How have things been? You haven’t called for a while.” 

“Fine. You?” 

“You’re not fine. You’re being stalked, you said.” 

Claire looks both reproachful and affectionate. It feels nice to be looking at someone in the face, to meet their eyes. It makes me feel safe. “So you remember that, at least.” 

What does she mean, at least? Have I forgotten something? Her birthday, perhaps. No, her birthday is in February. But is it February now? It’s cold today, colder than February. Her birthday’s coming up. Claire was born in February 1984, George Orwell’s novel, Willie Nelson’s City of New Orleans. I was when that album came out. 

“You’re not getting married next month, are you?” I’m half-serious, but I say it in such a way that I can pass it off as a joke. Claire’s lips almost curl up. 

“No Dad, I’m not even dating anyone, and at this rate I’ll probably die single.” 

“But the stalker?” 

“The whole situation is getting better. I mean, I think he’s still around— but I don’t think he means any harm.” She sips at her straw, even though she finished her bubble tea a while ago. Silence falls between us like a streetlamp lighting an unkempt alley. 

“You’ve lost some weight. And you look paler than before.” 

“You’re just saying that.” 

“No Claire, I mean you really do.” 

“How is Amber?” Claire changes the subject adeptly. I can tell she has done this often while talking to me. “You know, I’m so glad that she’s there to take care of you. It’s such a huge relief to know you’re not on your own.” 

“Yes, of course.” Who is Amber? “She’s great.” 

“Too bad that mom’s not coming back. I’ve asked her a number of times, but she has her own issues to take care of.” 

My wife left me and Claire a long time ago. Frankly, I haven’t missed her much. At least, I don’t remember having missed her. Strange that I should miss her now. Strange that this disease makes me remember feelings that never were there. Someone once said that when a man grows old, he doesn’t need a woman—he needs women. But what kind of woman wants to waste her life nursing for an old man? God knows what she’ll have to deal with. I’ve read stories about Alzheimer patients rubbing their own shit against the wall. 

“That’s good that you talk to her still. Family is family, no matter what.” 

Claire smiles sheepishly, still sipping at the empty straw. “Dad, I’m sorry I can’t check in on you more often. It’s just that I have a lot on my plate right now. Our lab is trying to apply for a new grant from the university, and we need some results before the next application cycle.” 

Claire is a physics PhD candidate at Peasley University. She does work on supercondensation. 

“Don’t worry about it.” 

“Just remember to call Amber if you need anything, okay?”

There’s that name again, Amber. Abruptly, a thin hope enters my mind. Even as I think it, I tell myself it’s unlikely, it’s impossible, I’m being ridiculous. But hope always grows thicker in the face of reprimands. 

“This Amber person…she’s not my mother, is she?” 

I can already read the answer from her face. 

“Grandma passed away two years ago, remember? Complications due to pneumonia? I stayed by her side the whole time.” 

“I wasn’t there?” 

“You were in Japan for an international conference on clinical research. It was an important trip for the company.” 

Something breaks deep inside me. I already fear the next time I’ll have to re-learn this news. 

“It’s okay, Dad, it’s okay. She’s at a better place now. I was with her till the end. It’s okay, Dad.” 

Where are the women of my life? 

______

Shell after shell after shell. My wallet is full of it. I take out a bundle and drop it into the beggar’s bucket. His eyes twinkle at me, and I get the sense that he recognizes me. 

“God bless you, mister. God bless.” 

He thinks he’s better than me. I can tell it from the way he twitches his beard. He’s concocted a little competition between us two, a game of who can outlive the other. The way he looks at me square in the eyes says it all. Here I am, fading away bit by bit, while he nourishes himself from the sympathy of passersby. He’s a warrior battling alone and resolute in the middle of nowhere. But I? I have no such energy. What power do I have, except these shells in my wallet? 

A conversation flashes in my head. Someone is stalking me. I can’t even tell you, it’s so scary. 

“You! It’s you, isn’t it?” 

“What the—” 

“You’ve been stalking my daughter, haven’t you? You filthy piece of garbage! You ungrateful bastard! Piece of shit!” 

“Mister, what are you doing? You’re a good man, mister! Good man! God bless, God bless!” 

“Get your dirty hands off Claire…” 

______

“The newest memories will be the first to go. You might sometimes find yourself struggling to understand expressions—idioms and proverbs, things like that. You’re going to start misattributing traits to people. This can lead to unexpected quarrels, so try to get in the habit of associating each person with a determinate feature. You know, maybe they have a strange habit with their hands or a really peculiar hairdo. Soon you might have trouble recognizing family as well.” 

“When that happens, will I treat them the same? Will I still love them the same?” 

“Don’t worry too much. Even Alzheimer’s can’t make everything go away. If you really love someone, that feeling will remain.” 

“Okay. Okay. Thank you, Doctor. Thank you.” 

“Who are you most afraid of forgetting?”

“My daughter, Claire. With an i.” 

“Do you live with her?” 

“No. She’s busy with her college apps. It’s that time of the year.” 

“College apps? How old is she?” 

“She was born in 1984, like George Eliot’s book, when Willie Nelson released City of New…City of New…” 

“What does your daughter do again?” 

“She’s a PhD student at the university. She does physics.” 

“You should call her. Let her know your condition. In the end, family is all you have.” 

______

I’m in my living room, watching TV. Amber, the red-haired woman who introduced herself as a social worker, just left after dropping off some stuff. Grapes and clementines in the first drawer of the fridge. Fat-free milk and ginger ale. A Subway sandwich on the dining table; eat it while it’s warm. 

She made me tea before heading out. Careful, the water is hot. Steep it for a couple minutes. 

What’s the name of the tea again? 

Earl Grey. Earl grave. Early grave. 

______

Once again, I find myself in an unfamiliar place. Is this my room? No, it can’t be. This room has nothing but a bare table. It’s too small and too dark. Who is that man sitting across from me? 38 

“Are you playing dumb now or what?” 

There is not a hint of hospitality in his voice. He’s wearing a uniform. Either a police officer or a soldier. 

“I’m sorry?” 

“Did you or did you not try to strangle Miss Claire Mason?” 

“Claire Mason? Claire? That’s my daughter.” 

“You knocked on her door at two in the morning. As soon as she opened the door, you pinned her down on the floor while yelling at her. These red marks on her neck—do you admit that you caused them?” 

The man shoves into my face a photograph of a woman’s neck with a red ringmark around it. 

“No, it wasn’t me. I don’t remember doing this.” 

“The fingerprints found on her neck are a complete match with yours.” 

“No, no…it can’t have been me. I could be wrong, but I—my memory—” 

“What? You don’t remember?” 

“I really don’t, I really don’t remember.” 

“Then maybe this’ll help.” He slams down a few letters on the table between us. I have to bend over to read in this dim lighting . It’s familiar handwriting; my handwriting. 

“For the past few weeks, you’ve been threatening to kill her unless she came to live with you.” 

I go through the sentences. He’s right. I did write that. I wrote that I couldn’t stand an ungrateful brat like her.”

She’s withheld these letters from us out of fear that you’d be arrested. But almost getting killed was the last thread for her.” 

I called her “bitch.” I called her “garbage.” I called her mother “bitch” too. 

“I can only conclude that what you did last night was premeditated. You realize that calls for a stricter punishment, yes? Even worse if you refuse to plead guilty. Let’s not make things any harder than they already are.” 

This handwriting, this woeful mirror of myself—it’s the same hand-writing from the balcony, from the bottle of pills. “Don’t die yet.” And this? This is what I had kept myself alive for? This is what remained to be done? 

“Where’s Claire?” 

“She’s still recovering from the shock, under our supervision. She doesn’t want to see you ever again.” 

“Of course not.” 

For once, I am grateful for my condition. 

______

I wake up. Not from sleep, but from a previous moment. It’s like passing through that sweeping darkness as I take my shirt off and reemerge with one fewer layer of artifice around my body. A little less protected, a little lighter. 

She and I are separated by a glass window. My eyes are accustomed to looking down. It takes a certain kind of courage to meet someone’s eyes, for it means subjecting myself to their gravity. I have grown used to freedom from such weight.

“Who are you?” The words come out of my mouth, parched and feeble. I have no faith in their power to penetrate the thick, transparent wall. I visualize them as hunched arrows swimming listlessly across the air, hitting the glass, and returning to me in resignation. Who are you? 

“How have you been?” She asks. Her voice sounds slightly muffled. I am even less confident that she can hear me. 

“I said, who are you?” I raise my voice a little. There’s a uniformed officer standing in the corner on my side of the window, his cap pushed down to cover his eyes. 

“I’m—” 

“No! Don’t answer!” I pound my fist against the glass. She can be anyone I want her to be. Why relinquish my hard-won liberty? She can be a person or a symbol. She can be my mother. This is my one reward, is it not, that I shall live with the comfortable knowledge that death can take nothing from me. Not a single thing. For nothing remains to be done anymore. I feel at ease and free. Light bothers me no longer. 

I stand up. I have no reason to stay. The chair screeches against the floor; she flinches. The officer approaches me and says something; I mumble something in return. Within the span of these few seconds, I wake up and I wake up and I wake up. Again and again.