He is dying.
He has been dying for six months now. The aruspices of modern medicine prophesied three possible deaths: cardiovascular complications, liver failure, neuronal autophagy. In the end, as is so often the case these days, it was cancer, a harvest of tumors taking root in his lungs.
He’d never smoked, but according to his doctors, that didn’t matter. They predicated an explanation on the fact that he was cosmopolitan. Cities, sighed a black woman in white, are carcinogenic, slow-acting vectors of disease. The decades he’d spent sipping carbon monoxide from the air, chasing it with tap-water bromodichloromethane, chromium, and chloroform—these all counted. Death by urban living was absolutely a thing.
Noon-light cuts through the hospital window, honeyed by the tinted glass. On a power line outside, a parliament of pigeons holds court while sparrows bear witness. He watched them for a while. In half an hour he’d retweet himself to the ghost town of Twitter. Thank god for backward compatibility. Thank god for the sentimental and for nostalgic Millennials, the ones who built their platforms on the rotting ribs of the original.
Without them, he’d be alone.
Virtualization technology lended an intimacy once lacking in yesterday’s social media. He’d been an early adopter for that reason. Work had squeezed his middle age of all its best hours and it was always easier to choose the worship of the flat-screen TV. Always easier to self-anesthetize than to self-improve, to stay home than to go out, speak up. There was always someday, one day, the next day. Until there weren’t any left.
But the digitization of three-dimensional company helped.
He rotates through a palette of suits, oxblood and maroon, navy and silver, every last one of them perfectly matched to jocular socks and silk ties. His sons spared no expense. It has been years since he last took pleasure in his reflection, but that didn’t matter, not when he could tease each filament of hair into place, adjust the shine of his scalp, even control the consistency of his five-o’clock shadow.
Today, he’d wear black. Black with full brogue Oxford dress shoes the color of bronzed sandalwood, and a wine-dark tie striped with gold. Black so deep, so rootless, it knows no ancestry with light, a chthonic velvet relieved only by the accents he’d elected. The program he’d subscribed to was decadent. It wasn’t just visuals that they provided. Audio, olfactory feedback, tactile sensation, taste, all of it came parceled with the monthly package, all for less money than he’d expected, more than he should have spent.
If he’d not been so keen to indulge his vanity, perhaps they would have unearthed his cancer sooner.
No point in wallowing, however.
He takes a screenshot, uploads the image via a third-party service, which then broadcasts it in triplicate, neural network sanding down the imperfections. The gallery opening is in three days. His last, crowed the myriad PR companies, hoping to wring that last vestige of relevance from the dregs of his name.
And it worked.
For the first time in years, they came, runneling through decayed RSS feeds, a few faithfuls at first: old friends, old acquaintances, colleagues still tethered by some whimper of loyalty; although, if he could still stomach honesty, he’d admit it was more likely pity that drove them to the newsletters. But as marketing was so fond of saying, all press is good press, no matter how it debases the subject.
So, he played the decrepit fool for them, jingling anachronisms, callbacks to what once was, what could have been, the glory days of their city and its hosannas of fame and fortune. Like a lapsed Catholic come full circle, he goes down on his knees, prays to the two-for-one gods of sympathy and scandal, puts his life on their altar, stacks it high with promises: Remember that rumor you heard? Remember the gossip, that piece of hearsay? Remember, remember?
First you have to come to the show.
He fumbles for his remote control, the black plastic pleasingly rounded. Another callback, another nod to what once was. His fingers trace the stubbling of buttons, worn down by frequent use. He chooses one. He presses down. The walls that bracket his cot bleed to translucence: glass panes mottled with pixels of light. At his attention, they cohere, coming together into lean, long shapes: a mural of the past, as told with state-of-the-art calligraphy.
He browses the bodies. Every last one of them hangs suspended in time, still beautiful, still with the blush of hope along their brow bones, the bend of their mouths. He stares at them, willing them to move, to speak, to worship again at the lap of his conversation. Still, however, they remain, lips half...