“Phone Me in Central Park”
By JAMES McCONNELL
There should be an epitaph for every
man, big or little, but a really grand
and special one for Loner Charlie.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Charles turned over on his side to look at her. She lay quietly in the other bed, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was blonde to perfection, exquisitely shaped, and the rich promise of her body was exposed to his view.
“Why?” he thought as he looked at her. “Why did it have to happen like this?”
The whole thing was still like a dream to him, and as yet he couldn’t decide whether it was a good or a bad dream. A year ago she had been unattainable, a face to conjure with in erotic dreams, far beyond his ken. A year ago she had been a public idol, the most popular actress of the day. And he had been a nobody, full of a nobody’s idle hopes and schemes.
And now he was lying in the bed next to hers in her swank Manhattan apartment in the most exclusive hotel in town. The unrealness of the situation overwhelmed him. His mind was a picture of confused thoughts. Meanings and answers to his questions slithered out of his reach.
“God,” he said. It was not an exclamation, nor yet an expletive. It was a mere statement of fact.
A thought teased at him. Charles looked at the woman again and decided that she still looked beautiful in spite of the harshness of the room’s lighting. He touched buttons by the edge of the bed and the illumination quieted to a soft glow, wrapping her in a radiant halo. Charles smiled wanly and got up. He stood by the bed looking at her.
“I could have fallen in love with you once. A year ago, perhaps, or longer. But not now. Not now.” He turned away and walked to the window. “Now the world is dead. The whole world is dead.”
New York lay quietly below him. It was the hour of indecision when day has not quite made up its mind to leave and night has not yet attacked in force. The streetlights were already on, making geometric patterns through the dusk of Central Park. Some of the billboards were shining, their relays activated by darkness-sensitized solenoids. A reddish-orange pallor hung from the sky.
It had been very pleasant that afternoon. She had given of herself freely, warmly, and Charles had accepted. But then he had known that she would. It was not him, it was the circumstances. Under the circumstances, she would have given herself to any man—
“Why did it have to be her—or me? Why should it have to happen to anybody! Why!”
She would have given herself to any man—
His thoughts beat a rapid crescendo, activating emotions, stimulating sensations of angry rage. He wanted to cry, to weep angry tears of protest.
To any man, WHO HAPPENED TO BE THE LAST MAN ON EARTH!
Charles picked up a heavy book end off the table and crashed it through the thick pane of window glass.
A gust of wind from the outside breezed through the shattered opening, attacking his olfactory patch with the retching smell of decaying flesh. Charles ignored it. Even smells had lost their customary meanings.
He felt the rage build up inside again, tearing at his viscera. His stomach clenched up like an angry fist.
“But I don’t want to be the last man alive!” he shouted. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know where to go, how to act! I just don’t know—”
A paroxysm of sobbing shook his body. Trembling, he dropped to his knees, his head against the cold firmness of the sill, his hands clutched tightly around the jagged edges of the window pane. In spite of the sharp pain that raced through his system, in spite of the bright, warm, red stream that trickled down his face, he knelt by the window for several minutes.
“Maybe I’m not the last!“
The thought struck him with suddenness, promisingly, edged with swelling comfort to fill his emptiness.
Charles got up slowly, noticing for the first time that his fingers were badly cut. He wrapped a handkerchief around them and forgot them. He had to know—he had to find out.
As he turned to leave, he noticed again the woman lying in radiant state upon the bed. He walked to her side and leaned over, kissing her gently on the forehead. As he straightened up, his leg caught against her arm, pushing it slightly. The woman’s arm slipped from its position and dangled from the edge of the bed like a crazy pendulum. Charles picked it up and folded it across her now cold breasts. He started to pull the sheet over her nude form, then stopped, smiling at his conventionality. After all, it didn’t make any difference now.
The phonograph was near the door. On sudden impulse he switched it on, turned the volume up full, and in grim jest left it playing Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead on full automatic. The music haunted him down the hall to the elevator that he had to run himself.
The lobby was littered with debris, human and otherwise. Charles ignored it. The street that led towards the Bureau of Vital Statistics was a mess of desolate carnage. Charles overlooked it. Shop fronts smashed, stores looted, gyro-cars wrecked, proud buildings defaced.
“That was it,” he said to himself. “Pride. We called this the ‘Proud Era.’ Everything was better and bigger and nicer to have. Buildings were taller, men were healthier, most of the problems of humanity seemed licked, or nearly so. It was a time of free power, each small unit of population, each section of town operating on perpetual, ever-lasting, automatic atomic piles.
“We were free. We seemed, almost, to have accomplished something. The world was running well. No wonder we called it the ‘Proud Era.’ Life was fun, just a bowl of cherries, until….”
Two years ago the animals had started dying. Strangely enough the rats had gone first, to anybody’s notice. Sales of poison dropped, scientific laboratories chained to a perpetual rodent-cycle began to complain bitterly.
Then the lovers who hunted out and haunted the lonely lanes through the countryside began to remark that the locusts were late that year. The Southern states joyously reported that mosquito control was working to an unprecedented degree. The largest cotton crop ever was forecast and rumors from Mexico had it that no one had died from scorpion bite in several weeks.
A month later the meat animals, the birds and the household pets began dropping as rapidly as the flies which had dropped earlier. Congress was called into special session, as were all of the national governments around the world. The U.N. met at emergency sessions to cope with the situation. The president of the world-wide Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals committed suicide.
Within a year it was obvious to everyone that man was the only animal left on earth.
The panic which had begun with the death of the animals was quieted somewhat by the fact that humans seemed immune to the pandemic. But the lakes full of dead fish caused a great stink and residents along the coasts began to move inland. Sales of perfumes and deodorants soared.
Then just one year ago, the first human became infected with the strange malady. Within six months, half of the world’s population was gone. Less than a month ago no more than a few thousand people remained in New York. And now….
“I’ve got to find out,” Charles told himself. He meant it, of course, but in a sense he was afraid—afraid that his trip to the Bureau might give him an answer he didn’t dare listen to. “But I’ve got to try.” He walked on down the bloody street.
Before the plague the Bureau of Vital Statistics had been one of man’s crowning achievements. Housed as it was in a huge metallic globe of a building, it contained computers which kept exact account of every human on earth.
Compulsory registration and the classification of each individual by means of the discrete patterns of his brain waves had accomplished for man what no ordinary census could have. The machine knew who was alive, who was dead, and where everybody was.
Once a year the Bureau issued The Index, an exact accounting of Earth’s four billion inhabitants. Four billion names and addresses, compressed into microprint, a tremendous achievement even for the “Proud Era.” In all of his life, Charles had never once glanced at The Index. The average person had little necessity to do so since the Bureau information service would answer questions free of charge at any time.
Reaching the gigantic building, Charles pushed aside the body of a young man and walked into the main foyer. Passing behind once-guarded doors, he entered the giant computer room and paused in admiration.
Only once, before the plague, had he seen the interior of this room. But he still remembered it and he still recalled the powerful emotional experience it had been those many years ago.
All children had to have a brain-wave recording made by the Bureau during the first month of their life. And again at the age of 10 each child returned to the Bureau for a recheck. It was for this latter recording that Charles had come to the Bureau some twenty-two years before and a friendly guard had let him peep briefly into the computer room. The impression of intense activity, of organized confusion, of mechanical wonder had remained with him the rest of his life.
“So different now,” he thought, surveying the room. “Now it’s empty, so empty.” The machine seemed to reflect the stillness, the very deadness of the world. The silence became unbearable.
Charles walked to the master control panel. With newly acquired dexterity he switched the computer screens on and watched them glow to life. All around the world sensitive receiving stations pulsed to activity, sending out searching fingers, hunting for elusive patterns of neutral energy, mapping and tabulating the results.
The main computer screen dominated one wall of the room. Other smaller screens clustered around it. On these screens could be graphed the population of any and every part of the globe. An illuminated counter immediately above it would give the numerical strength of the area being sampled while the screen would show population density by individual pinpoints of light that merged to form brightness patterns.
“I’ll try New York first,” he said to himself, knowing that he was a coward, afraid to check the whole world from the start. “I’ll start with New York and work up.”
Charles activated the switches that would flash a schematic map of New York on the screen. “There’s bound to be somebody else left here. After all, there were at least twenty of us just a couple of days ago.” And one of them, a beautiful woman, had invited him up to her apartment, not because she liked him, but because….
The main screen focused itself, the patterns shifting into a recognizable perceptual image.
“Why, it was just yesterday (or was it the day before?) that ten of us, at least, met here to check the figures. There were lots of us alive then.” Including the blond young woman who had died just this afternoon….
Charles stopped talking and forced his eyes upwards. Peripheral vision caught first the vague outlines of the lower part of the map. His eyes continued to move, slowly, reluctantly. They caught the over-all relief of Greater New York City—and then concentrated on the single, shining dot at the very heart of the map—and he understood.
His eyes stabbed quickly for the counter above the screen.
The counter read one.
Charles was by himself, the last person alive in all of New York City.
He began to tremble violently. The silence of the room began to press quickly in on him. His frantic fingers searched for the computer controls.
New York State. One.
The entire United States. One.
The western hemisphere, including islands.
(Was that a point of light in Brazil? No. Just a ghost image).
The Pacific area, Asia, Australia, Asia Minor, Russia and the Near East, Africa and then Europe.
There was a light in England! Someone else still lived! The counter clicked forward.
His trembling stopped. He breathed again.
“Of course. London was at least as populous as New York City before the plague. It’s only logical that—”
He stopped. For even as he spoke, the light winked out! The counter clicked again.
The bottom dropped out from under him!
Such a simple question, but in those three letters lay the essence of human nature. Why. The drive of curiosity. Stronger, in a way, than the so-called “basic” drives: hunger, thirst, sex, shelter, warmth, companionship, elimination. Certainly more decisive in the history of the race. Man began to think, to differentiate himself from the other animals, when he first asked the question: “Why?”
But thinking about “why” didn’t answer the question itself, Charles thought. He looked around him. He was sitting on a bench in Central Park, alone except for a few stray corpses. But the park was fairly free of bodies.
“You’ve got about ten minutes warning,” he said to himself. “I guess that most people wanted to die inside of something—inside of anything. Not out in the unprotected open.”
The silence was like a weight hanging around his neck. Not an insect noise, not the chirp of a bird, not the sound of a car nor the scream of a plane. Not even a breeze to whisper among the leaves, he thought. Civilization equals life equals noise. Silence equals….
Why. His mind kept returning to the question. Of all the people on earth, me. The last. Why me?
Average, that’s what he was. Height: 5’11”. Weight: 165. Age: 32. Status: Married, once upon a time.
The Norm, with no significant departures, all down the line. Church member, but not a good one. Could that be it? Could the most normal be the most perfect? Had he led the best of all possible lives? Was that it? Had God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, spared his life, saved him, singled him out because he was most nearly a saint, most nearly Christ-like, most nearly….
Lies—His mind snapped back to reality. He half smiled. Saint? Christ? The Second Coming?
He was no saint.
Chance. That was it! The laws of probability, the bell-shaped curve, normal distribution, rectilinear regression. More people per square foot in New York than elsewhere. The first person who died was from New York, so the last person who gave way to the disease should come from here too. Spin the wheel; throw the dice; toss the coin.
So simple to explain by the laws of chance. No need for any underlying assumptions about good and evil, no need for teleological arguments concerning cause and effect. Simply explain it by chance. Somebody had to be the last to go and that was—
“No,” Charles said, standing up in the quiet of the spring evening. “No, chance won’t do it. No man can reckon with chance. The mind rejects such things. There must be something beyond mere accident. There must be!”
He sighed slowly.
“So now I’m a hermit, whether or not I like it,” he said in derision to the gravel path as he walked along it. “A hermit in the midst of a city of millions of—No, I forgot. There aren’t any more people, are there?” It was hard to realize, even now. “A hermit, alone—and I haven’t even got a cave….”
Charles stopped walking suddenly. No cave, he thought. No place to sleep out the long one, no place to rest while time came to change things around and make them for the better. No place to hide.
And suddenly it was the most important thing in life to him to find his “cave.”
It took him almost an hour to find the proper tools, and better than two hours more of hard, nighttime work to get the hole dug to his satisfaction. It took almost three hours to find the right sort of casket, durable but not too heavy for one man to handle. He carted it out to a grassy plot close to the center of the park where the grave was. He let the coffin down slowly into the depression, then piled up loose dirt on the sloping sides of the hole so that the rain would wash it down over him.
“I can’t very well bury myself,” he said. “I guess it will rain after I’m gone.” He looked carefully down at the metallic container.
Wait now. There was something wrong, something missing. It was—oh, yes, he caught it. It was the stone. There wasn’t any stone to go at the head of the grave. “I’ll have to fix that.”
A sheet of metal, bent double, served for the monument proper. A nearby tool shed yielded up a can of paint and a brush. By the glow of one of the streetlights Charles worked out the inscription.
“It ought to be something impressive,” he thought out loud. “Something fitting the occasion.”
What did one say on these situations? There was so little chance to practice up for things like this. But it ought to be good, it ought to be proper.
“‘In this now hallowed corner of the planet Earth—’ No. That sounds too … too….”
Make it simple, he thought. And he finally wrote:
HERE LIES THE BODY OF
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH
Yes. That was it. Simple. Let whoever came afterwards figure out the rest. Let them decide. He smiled and finished the painting.
Charles was hungry. He got up and started for one of the restaurants near the park. Later on, when there was more time, he’d find a piece of granite and move it to the plot. He could spend his free time carving on it, copying the inscription. He would make it into a real shrine; maybe he would practice up a bit and try to carve a statue to go with the stone.
Somehow, though, since things were ready and it didn’t make too much difference, it seemed to Charles that he’d probably have a long time to wait. “Maybe it’s just a disease, and I’m immune. I was immune to smallpox. The vaccination never took. That’s probably it.”
He smiled. Strange, but now he wanted very much to go on living, alone or not. There were things he could do, ways to keep occupied. He wouldn’t mind it so much. But he wanted more and more desperately with each passing second to retain his foothold on the tenuous path of physical existence.
The tantalizing thought of “why” puzzled its way back into his mind. But it seemed less pressing now that he had almost come to the conclusion that he would live for a long time. Later, in a few days perhaps, he would think about it. In a little while he’d have plenty of opportunity for hunting down the answer. This seemed good to him, for now he thought he almost had the answer, if there were an answer. He thought he had seen the solution peering out at him from the recesses of his mind, and he didn’t like the expression on its face. Better to forget.
Charles reached the broad boulevard. There was a large cafe just across from him, its front window caved in by a large truck. He stumbled and almost fell as he stepped from the curb.
“Look at me, nervous as a cat.”
He was trembling noticeably as he started across the street.
“I—” He started to say something, to think something. But some hidden part of his mind clamped down, obscuring the thought, rejecting the concept.
The tremor turned to a shake before he reached the far curb, and the first burst of wild pain came as he laid his shoulder against the door to the restaurant. This was the way the plague began, but—His mind quickly repressed the idea. It couldn’t be the plague. He was immune!
Another burst of pulsating, shattering pain crashed through his body, tearing down the defenses of his mind, putting an end of his thoughts of immunity. Colors flared before his eyes, a persistent, irresistible susurrus flooded his ears.
He wanted to protest, but there was no one to listen to him. He appealed to every divinity he knew, all the time knowing it would be useless. His body, out of his voluntary control, tried to run off in all directions at once.
Charles struggled to end his body’s disorganized responses, to channelize all his energy into one direction. His mind came back into action. He set up his goal; everything else seemed irrelevant: he had to get back to the park, to his hermit’s cave, to his long, narrow home. He couldn’t die until then.
He was allotted ten minutes before the end.
It could have been ten years or ten seconds, for now objective time meant nothing to him. It was not a matter of measuring seconds and minutes. It was a matter of forgetting time and measuring space.
He concentrated on the grave; he forced his body to become an unwilling machine. While he could, he walked, forcing himself on. When his legs gave way, he crawled. When his knees buckled, he rolled. When his stomach protested, he vomited. It made no difference.
Charles refused to think. Machines, especially half-broken machines, do not think; they only work. Sweating, straining, bleeding, retching, he pushed himself towards his goal, trying to add one final touch of grace and custom to the rude irrationalness of it all.
His eyes gave out a few feet from the pit. He felt his way towards it. Convulsions shook his body like a cat shakes a captive mouse. He humped his body forward between the seizures, hands outstretched, searching for the grave.
And then he was upon it. One arm reached out for grass, and clutched bare space instead.
He was home.
He gathered energy from his final reservoirs of strength for one final movement that would throw him headlong into the shallow grave. He tensed his muscles, pulled his limbs up under him and started to roll into the hole.
Instantly the thought struck him with paralyzing devastation. The answer to it all poked its face out from the recesses of his mind and sapped the last bit of his energy, corroding his nerves and dying muscles. Now he knew, and the knowing was the end of it.
He collapsed at the edge of the pit. Only one arm hung loosely down into it, swinging senseless in the air, pointing accusingly at the empty coffin.
The world will end, not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with the last man’s anguished cry at the unreasonableness of it all.
The large, invisible, ovular being that hung suspended over the Empire State Building rested from its exertion. Soon it was approached by another of its kind.
“It is finished?” asked the second.
“Yes. Just now. I am resting.”
“I can feel the emptiness of it.”
“It was very good. Where were you?”
“On the next planet out. No beauty to it at all; no system. How was yours?”
“Beautiful,” said the first. “It went according to the strictest semantic relationship following the purest mathematical principles. They made it easy for me.”
“Well, where to now?”
“There’s another system about four thoughts away. We’re due there soon.”
“All right. Let’s go.”
“What’s that you have there?”
“Oh, this?” replied the first. “It’s a higher neural order compendium the Things here made up. It’s what I used.”
“You can’t take it with you, you know. They don’t allow souvenirs.”
“All right, all right. You’re so good, see if you can compute the scatter probability.”
The first being moved imperceptably and the heavy plastoid binding of the book disappeared. The thousands of pages dropped softly, caught at the wind like hungry sails, separated, and pulled by the fingers of gravity, went their disparate ways.#ENGLISH