The Last Baby Boomer is Chris Rodell’s debut novel. One publishing industry big shot described it as “Kurt Vonnegut meets Christopher Moore. It’s what happens in the near future when greed tempts the entire world to sign on for a reality show where no one wins until death does. Satire worthy of Joseph Heller. Flat-out hilarious.”- Book cover
In the year 2076, the sprawling Baby Boom generation is down to one last survivor, 117-year-old Martin J. McCrae. The distinction earns McCrae a luxury suite at a New York City museum where contestants pay $25 each to spend 15 minutes with him as part of the ultimate ghoul pool. If they are in the room when he expires, they win the $980 million jackpot.
Contestants pass the time asking McCrae genial questions about the past 117 years and silently praying he’ll die for them. Questions trigger recollections and the story flashes back to the rollicking times through which McCrae waged war with boredom. In 2039, he finds himself marooned among a people who claim to know Jesus through His frequent visits. McCrae misses Him by two days and suspects the Prince of Peace is avoiding him.
As the ghoul pool grinds on, McCrae lapses into a coma and people begin to resent for not having the good grace to just die. Conspiracy theorists speculate he’s been dead for years and the government is keeping him alive to reap lucrative tax revenue. His wealthy friend, Will Ponce, revives him with an offer to secure eternal life and the news that Jesus’s return is imminent. Thus tempted, McCrae must decide whether to take the potion or allow his life to expire naturally.
In the end, THE LAST BABY BOOMER is a coming of old, old age story.
Because everyone has to die.
But only one of us gets to die last.
The line to behold the dying man throbbed and pulsed within 5,000 feet of velvet rope. The crimson tethers were like arteries rushing blood to the center of a sick heart. They stretched down the marbled hall past the restrooms clear back to where they’d hung the crappy Andy Warhol. The ceaseless multitudes bore the pained expressions of hens consumed with thoughts of trying to lay square eggs. They clutched their $25 tickets and rubbed their good luck charms with urgent impatience. The doomed man’s chain-smoking primary care physician hadn’t scanned a single chart or much less bothered to visit his patient in more than 18 months and remained dogged in his shrill conviction that the patient, Martin Jacob McCrae, would drop dead any second.
That’s when all the real fun would begin.
Nurse Becky Dudash knew just what she’d do when he died. She’d use her fresh millions to insulate herself from a humanity she’d grown to loath. For the past three years, her every dream was of the old man’s demise, a death she was by Congressional fiat restricted from either preventing or hastening. She loved him with her whole heart and found it odd how often she dreamed of taking a pillow and laughing maniacally as she pressed it down without pity over the once-handsome face that had begun to look to her like it had been whittled from a giant meatball. But his was legislatively ordained to be a natural death no matter how much a moral quagmire his endless life was proving to be.
McCrae lay motionless in the room across the hall from the nurse’s station with its glowing security monitors, the stacks of take-out menus, and not a single thermometer, stethoscope, syringe or item that resembled even the most basic nursing equipment. At the foot of his bed standing directly on top of a big black “X” was the latest contestant who, like millions who’d stood there before him, was saying quiet, earnest prayers the all-loving God would take this used up old relic and hustle his bony little ass to whatever heaven or hell awaited men like him. “Please, God, I need the money,” begged the thrice-divorced 53-year-old trucker from Louisville. “I’ll use most of it to help the poor. I promise. Please ... I’ve got just four minutes left! C’mon, Lord! Hurry!”
A rumpled easy chair in a darkened corner had been engaged in a stalemate staring contest with McCrae’s hospital bed for nearly five years. The once-grand chair had become an upholstered host organism to a parasitic slouch named Buster Dingus. To the right of Dingus was the lever he’d robotically tug in exactly -- tick, tick, tick -- 3 minutes and 56 seconds. Had anyone bothered to gaze upon him -- no one ever did -- they would have seen a wan face numb with sleepless fatigue. His stare never drifted from a large screen wall-mounted television. His jaws ceaselessly worked an ever-present gum wad whose spearmint flavor had long since vamoosed. The constant chewing accentuated temples so pronounced that every chomp seemed to turn his face peanut shaped. Buster was maybe the only person on the planet with a vested interest in hoping that McCrae’s death was distant. He knew what he going to do the instant the old man died, he hoped, many oppressive years from now.
But when it finally came -- and almost everyone believed it was bound to come -- he was going to reach into the right hip pocket of his garish purple uniform and pull out the antique cigarette lighter he’d stolen from his grandfather when Buster was just a boy. He’d cross the white linoleum to the balcony of the white room where the 105-pound white man had lay dying for years. He’d slide open the glass doors and reach across to the platform where the box marked, “DANGER. EXPLOSIVES. FIREWORKS.” stood. After nearly a dozen or so thumb tickling flicks, flame would be lowered to fuse and the 50-pound pyrotechnic would be on its way. And as the throng 47 floors below gazed up in wonderment and anticipation at the expanding starburst in the sky, Buster was planning on finally spitting out his gum and hoping it hit a deserving face staring -- cross your fingers -- gape-mouthed toward the heavens.
The world’s last baby boomer would be dead. The day-long parades would commence within scant hours.
But until then, monotony would reign as long as the endless line of men and women who had come from around the solar system to pray for the death of Marty McCrae kept surging through the etched glass double doors with the ceaseless regularity of the eternal tides. Buster had spent nearly five straight years seated in the small room with the speechless McCrae, a former couch potato who had graduated to a persistent vegetative state. In that time, Buster had never said a single word in the direction of McCrae. And whether it was out of contempt or simply a reflex function of a comatose body, the only sound McCrae had ever made in the direction of Dingus was produced by the gentle trumpet of uncontrollable flatulence.
Not that Buster was insulted. The prehistoric old man was his meal ticket and Buster felt an abiding affection for anyone who had buttered his bread as deeply and evenly as McCrae buttered his. People were paying Buster $25 a pop to step into the room with McCrae for precisely 14 minutes and 59.5 seconds. The line that had slammed into formation in 2078 had run without break, day and night, for five consecutive years. From his easy chair, Buster was witness to tales of epic poignancy and pathos. He’d heard prayers in so many foreign tongues that he figured he could now bluff his way through supper table grace in more than a dozen different languages. Some would have been moved to pen poems and epic odes to the sweeping majesty of human desperation. Buster just watched television and kept counting the money.
When the clock ticked down to near double zero, a prerecorded phone sex voice would gush, “Your time's up! Better luck next time! You can play all day, any day, so come back soon!”
This was followed by a businesslike male voice speaking at auctioneer speed:
“ThiscourtesymessagewasbroughttoyoubythemakersofCoca-Cola,nowavailableonKeplers-22b-f,” and the slight, crisp ding! of a wall-mounted bell.
That’s when Buster would non-nonchalantly reach to his right for the 3-foot lever and give it a short tug. The trapdoor could be set on automatic, but Dingus enjoyed a quick burst of adrenaline every time he gave the creaky lever a yank. The action would trigger a spring releasing the large trap door beneath the X, thus voiding the dreams, not to mention the presence of the dreamer standing upon it. Down they'd go. Before the echo of the falling screams had fully faded, the exterior doors would open and a conveyor belt would deposit the next contestant on the X a split second after it’d slammed shut. The clock would reset and the prayers that were being routinely ignored by both Buster and other beseeched deities would begin anew.
It had been this way for 18 months since the old man fell from consciousness and this is the way it would be until the old man was finally, mercifully, declared dead. Rain or shine, night or day, they lined up no fewer than 400 deep and took their chances. Even today, with angry lightning approaching Manhattan from the southwest, a throng waited patiently on the sidewalk to purchase tickets in hopes they’d be the lucky one who got to watch McCrae breathe his last.
Buster relied on McCrae the way worms did dirt. Like McCrae, Buster hadn’t set foot outside of the suite for five years, way back in 2078. He would not leave until McCrae’s demise, something the old man, too, had been endlessly eager to achieve. Buster remembered his ceaseless complaints. “Nobody should have to live this long,” McCrae’d often moan back when he was still fully capable of speech and rational thought. Still, McCrae’d been enjoying the attention, the pampering and the fragrant nearness of the luscious Nurse Dudash. Her eyes were the color of Elvis Presley’s turquoise belt buckle and Marty thought she was sweet enough to cause cancer in lab rats.
But then came the collapse in March 2081. McCrae was talking for days about nothing but humbug, humbug, humbug, and how Charles Dickens had stolen it from the rest of the year and saddled it upon Christmas.
“It’s a perfectly good year-round word,” he said in between spoonfuls of marshmallow-studded cereal. “True humbug can happen any time of year. It happened in Oz, smack dab in the middle of the Emerald City. Really, humbug has nothing to do with Christmas.”
But no one listened or cared, especially the prim, impatient, preternaturally mature and pony-tailed Girl Scout from Jakarta who was rushing through a list of prepared questions that would earn her the coveted Girl Scout Gold Award. She was efficient. She was intense. She was business-like. She was mature. She was everything McCrae had never been so began making making up ridiculous answers to serious questions about the past 117 years. If she didn’t care about humbug he might as well inflict some of it on her, right there in the middle of March.
“Next question: Do you remember the moon landing?”
“Yes, I was just a boy, but I clearly remember the fuss my father made. Little did he know then that nearly 60 years later his son would help make the Sea of Tranquility like a lunar Myrtle Beach. Tell me, have you ever enjoyed a round of moon golf? It’s, indeed, a soulful diversion.”
“No. Golf’s boring. And please don’t distract me with any more of your questions. Time’s short. Do you remember the Kennedy assassination?”
“No. I was still in the womb. My mother carried me for 10 months and three weeks. Quite a long time. If things would have worked out the way I wanted, I’d still be there today. It was quite pleasant and I loved my mommy. That’s why I always took long, warm baths throughout my life. It was the nearest I could get to being back in the womb without inconveniencing Mom.”
“Do you remember being on board the Titanic?”
“You mean the blockbuster movie set? Oh, sure. I was earning $250 a day for three weeks until they fired me for blowing the whistle about the drowned extra. Nobody believed me until I threatened to go to the TV stations. But at that point, they weren’t going to let the death of one lousy extra stop the filming of a $200 million mega-hit. They offered me a cool $500,000 to keep my mouth shut. I was never one to let principle stand in the way of a nice payday. But I held out until they agreed to let me be in an underwater scene with Kate Winslet so I could feel her up while she was fighting for her life. We said, ‘Deal!’ they said, ‘Action!’ I got to feel up the comely Kate Winslet, and nobody ever heard of that poor bastard again. Name was Vince Oberberger, I think. That’s all I remember about Titanic’s last victim.”
“To what do you attribute your longevity?”
“Everything that didn’t kill me only made me stronger.”
“At your advanced years, is there anything else you do remember?”
“The three things I’ve always remembered with absolute clarity are laughter, being born, and the day the music died.”
“You remember being born? You’re putting me on.”
“It’s true. I remember complete and perfect happiness one second and cold, naked -- and I really mean naked -- fear the next. Then I remember the doctor holding me by my feet and saying, ‘It’s a boy! A healthy baby boy!’ I remember looking around the room and everyone was upside down and smiling at me. I remember being dumbfounded that I’d have to go through life upside down, but I smiled back because I didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaking instigator. Then I remember this big son of a bitch taking his beefy hand and cracking me hard on the ass. I remember being hurt and mystified. I spent a good deal of my formative years believing being a healthy boy pleased them because they’d all get to watch the big doctor whack me on the ass. And this gratuitous violence was somehow pleasing to them. It wasn’t until years later I learned that back then they whacked everybody on the ass. Healthy boy -- whack! Healthy girl -- whack! Unhealthy girl -- whack! Unhealthy boy -- whack! White, black -- whack! Whack! It’s safe to assume that unless you come out carrying a loaded revolver, chances are pretty good you’re the one who’s going to get whacked. The doctors back then said it was good for the baby, but I haven’t trusted a single doctor since the precise second my butt started to sting. It was like the time I got stung on the ass by a hornet while I was racing naked through --”
“Stay on track, please. I don’t have much time. You said you remember laughter.”
“Yes, I do. I don’t remember events, dates, presidents, lovers, the mundane or the magnificent, but I do remember laughter. All my life, it’s as if someone’s been tickling my ass with a giant invisible feather. Very pleasant. I assume God simply enjoys seeing my teeth and is intent on filling my life with laughter. I have no other explanation, but it’s been wonderful, really.”
“You don’t have any teeth.”
“Yes I do. That’s them in the glass on the table. Now, if God wants to see my teeth He need only peek into the glass. I’m sure it’s much simpler than tickling me with a giant invisible feather.”
“Tell me about the day the music died.”
“Ah, yes. It was 2039. I was getting all gassed up with the last surviving member of the Rolling Stones -- say, you are familiar with the Stones aren’t you?”
“I’m not here for a dialogue. Answer the question.”
“Well, I’m not trying to be rude, but it’s important because you can’t have a party without the Stones. Anyway, the last surviving member of the Stones, the one who’d outlived all the others by two decades was . . . gack? Gack? Gack! Gaacck! Gaaaaaaaaaaaa. . ."
A violent seizure. Pandemonium ensued. The old golfer had taken one final stroke.
The nurses ran in. The docents ran out and the bratty and suddenly euphoric Girl Scout began fumbling for her camera phone. McCrae splashed face first into his Lucky Charms. The nurses checked his breathing. They checked his pulse. And because a camera was out, they all checked their makeup. A paramedic crew came crashing through the door.
One! Two! Three! They heaved him onto his back. The first paramedic took a needle attached to a small tube and put it in a tiny vein in the patient’s left hand. The second took a needle with a slightly larger tube and put it in a pulsing blue vein in his right arm. A third paramedic took a tube about the circumference of a pencil and shoved it up a cavernous nostril. Then into the room came a slight, balding man toting what looked like an angry garden hose.
“All right, roll him over,” he ordered.
McCrae, momentarily reviving at the threat of imminent penetration, hissed, “By God, you’d better not be thinking of sticking that thing up inside of me.”
If you exclude the shouted expletive that followed insertion, these were widely reported to be his last words.
To Buster, those days seemed about a hundred years ago. Jarring lightning split the sky outside and he glanced at the monitors above McCrae’s bed. The meaningless lines blipped and beeped with clinical indifference to the raging tempest. Paying customers were dripping puddles down the marbled hall and the more nervous types were jumping at each crack of the increasingly frequent bolts of blue lightning. On television, a game show contestant squealed in perfect synchronization with the lightning, almost as if it’d zapped her right on her nice, round bottom.
Then --CRACK!!! -- she was gone. The building took a direct hit. Lights flickered and died. Alarmed, Buster glanced at the monitor above the prone man’s bed. A look of pure joy crossed the face of the Louisville trucker who’d mistakenly allowed himself to believe it’d been McCrae, not the TV, that had tanked.
The lights on the monitor above the bed began to dim. McCrae, otherwise motionless for the past 18 months, gave a short start. His chest rose slowly and then settled back down again. An emergency generator kicked in seconds later. The blaring television filled the room with dysfunctional static. Buster ran to the hall, his heart pounding in his chest. “Dudash! Dudash! Get in here! Now!”
She was there in seconds, her face white as her uniform. “Is it over? Please, please, tell me this is finally over.”
“No such luck. The lightning knocked out the satellite. Get up there and fix the television. That blonde’s about to spin again.”
Of course, Dudash knew less about television repair than she knew about critical nursing, which was less than nothing. She wasn’t a nurse, the museum wasn’t a hospital and McCrae wasn’t a patient. There wasn’t a single patient anywhere in the building. In fact, everyone was impatient and had been that way for more than five years. The people who waited in line were impatient. Dudash was impatient. Dingus was impatient. Staffers were impatient. The only soul in the entire Lucius B. Bolten Museum of Art and Natural History who seemed remotely patient was the serenely comatose McCrae. Enduring the endless crowds and the dirge-like monotony, McCrae seemed like a man with all the time in the world.
And that was the problem. He would not die. Alive and dying for the better part of five years, he just wouldn’t get on with it.
The sign above the final door beyond the security corridor, past all the gaudy kitsch of the Bolten, had drawn the attention of every single eyeball that had strolled through the front gate. Each contestant stood alone in the isolation chamber for 90 seconds where they were alone with their dreams. For 90 seconds they could do nothing but stare at a gray, tombstone-shaped LED screen that read:
The mood at the Bolten Museum was changing. Where as people used to bubble with a giddy enthusiasm about being involved in something so historically silly, they were now becoming sort of antsy. They’d exchanged pleasantries, asked some questions, but now it was all about the money, which was today residing in the posh, green-lawned neighborhood of $570 million. They didn’t care about McCrae’s feelings, what he had to say, or what he thought about the latest political silliness to come from the warring moon territories. Milton Kessler was typical. He and Marty used to talk about kids, baseball, or their mutual contempt for people who preferred cats to dogs. But after a year, he’d walk in, nod hello, and start reading the Daily Racing Form. He was a Manhattan jeweler and an astute gambler to boot. He was pushing 50 and had a rim of crackly gray hair around the temples and a bald, blunt skull that reminded Marty of a .44-caliber slug emerging from a puff of gun barrel smoke. He dressed well, was precise in manner and expression, and Marty asked why he’d clammed up recently.
“ ‘scuse me?” Kessler said.
“I asked why you no longer share your thoughts with me. We used to talk about little things, but it was enjoyable conversation and I looked forward to your visits. Now, you come in more, but say less.”
Afternoon sunshine was slicing through the fall clouds and the waning of summer had left Marty feeling melancholy.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kessler said, not sounding at all sorry. “I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just I’m a gambler and I realized you were simply a gambling proposition to me and it didn’t make sense to talk to you. I go to the track all the time but you don’t hear me asking the horse how its weekend went. And, frankly, I’m starting to resent your longevity.”
“That’s right,” Kessler said. “You’re living too long. When the doctors said you’d live two, three months tops, it was fun, it was interesting and it was a pleasure to be here with you. But now, for guys like me, you’ve become a nagging reminder of our obsessions. My wife’s to blame, too. She keeps reminding me how much time and money I’ve spent here just waiting for you to die. She’s another kind of nagging reminder, but you know women.”
“Ah, no, actually, I don’t know women. I’ve married ‘em, loved ‘em, been mystified by them - - even shot at by a couple of ‘em -- but I’d never profess to know women.”
“See, that’s another thing,” Kessler said, seizing on the statement. “You weave these conversations that get my thinking all tangled up. Now, I’ll spend the rest of the day thinking about whether or not I really know women. Very distracting. Anyway, my wife thinks you’re never going to die. She thinks this is all some kind of government plot to raise money instead of raising taxes. She thinks you really died two years ago and this is an interactive government hologram being used to perpetuate the pot.”
“Is she some spooky sort of detective?” McCrae asked.
“No, she’s a spooky sort of P.T.A. member. She’s got lots of time on her hands. She’s always complaining about my gambling. She doesn’t like all the time I spend here. I can bet on horses and she never hears about it, but because of your aggressive marketing department, every time I come here she gets a call at home thanking the household for participating, and offering discounts with your sponsors.”
“I have nothing to do with those obnoxious tactics,” McCrae offered defensively.
“Still, no horse has ever called home to thank our household for betting on it in the fifth at Saratoga.”
“Well, why do you keep coming back?” Marty asked. “In fact, our records indicate you used to come by once a month or so, but now you come every week. Twice last week.”
“C’mon, Marty, it’s the odds. The longer you live, the more likely you’ll die.”
That was a true fact. Marty’d always said facts were more factual if they were true facts, even though he’d admittedly never seen nor heard anything that could be classified a false fact. Those were simply lies. And a truer fact there’d never been.
They said nothing more during the four minutes that elapsed until Kessler dropped -- ding! -- down the chute. Nothing, in true fact, ever again during the ensuing 168 times he’d come in with the fervent hope that the old man would die and he’d win back the $19,225 he’d invested and the mega-millions that awaited. Kessler’d zip in and nod at Buster and Marty, unfold his racing form and stand there mute for the next 14 minutes and 59.5 seconds.
Kessler wasn’t even the worst. There were 189 players who’d been there more than the 769 times he’d been by. Many of them, too, were professional gamblers who saw his demise as a good bet. They’d come early and often. They, too, were becoming increasingly angry at McCrae’s persistence. One popular website offered hourly updates on symptoms, but the hardcore gamblers never bothered to check it anymore. Like much of the internet, the site was full of false facts and wild distortions about Marty’s supposedly failing health. In fact, twice the site had incorrectly predicted that McCrae would die within 2 days, false facts that caused spooky Patti Kessler to tell everyone at the P.T.A. the government was running short of money and needed to inflate the McCrae pool to bail out a fiscal crisis.
But the true gamblers never fell for it. They all knew McCrae never coughed, sneezed, wheezed or had so much as a heart flutter. They knew he was in the pink of health and had the iron constitution of a giant sequoia. Like the trees, he’d withstood hundreds of years of exposure to the elements and was still confounding all the earthly elements. Still, they came, because everyone’s got to die someday. Even Marty McCrae.
That was a true fact.