The Last Man
by Matt Rubinstein
genre Literary Fiction
If superheroes didn’t exist, would we have to invent them?
THE LAST MAN is a novel based on the superhero comics of the golden age but placed in a contemporary realist setting. Its characters have secret identities and pseudonyms; they are orphans, they watch over the city but feel apart from it. Their powers and weaknesses are distinctive but not preternatural – the power to ease someone’s loneliness, insomnia – and instead of capes and masks they wear their favourite T-shirts or their waitress uniforms.
Larry Lester is a particularly ordinary Australian bloke. He’s 30, a bit scruffy and overweight, he likes AC/DC and video games. He works nights at the 000 call centre, answering calls and putting them through to the dispatchers. While he was at uni his parents died within a year of each other and now he can’t take anything seriously. He’s almost pathologically easygoing, always ready with a joke, and everyone likes him until they have to rely on him.
Jill Jeffries has lived with Larry for three or four years now and isn’t sure what future they have together. She wants him to get his life back on track. She’s not sure she wants a family, but she wants a real relationship with an adult, like her friends and her adoptive parents seem to have. She’s studying hard and working at a café and takes Larry’s lack of ambition personally.
When Larry gets fired from the call centre he knows it’ll be the last straw for Jill. So until he can find a new job he pretends he’s still going to work every night and walks the empty streets. He finds a new city in the shadows: the sparse all-night cafes and pubs, convenience stores and emergency rooms, populated by shift workers, drunks and tragics. They all seem lonely, they all want to talk through their troubles but have nobody to listen.
And Larry’s surprised to discover he can help them. He doesn’t get weighed down by their stories, he makes them laugh. He’s still wearing a nametag from the call centre, it’s not his name but they call him by it. He feels like someone else, travelling the city at night, doing his best to help. He finds allies and enemies among the night-dwellers of the city.
To this point the novel has followed the classic superhero origin story, in which an ordinary person comes into his or her power and purpose. But now things start to go wrong. Larry can’t help everyone and the city seems to be falling into a worsening malaise. Jill finds out that he’s lost his job and is devastated, but Larry can’t give up the city and the night.
Jill leaves him, and it sends him into a spiral. He’s confronted all at once by all the pain he never dealt with, it swallows him up, and now he welcomes it. Now instead of easing people out of their worries he makes them worse. He’s poison to them all, as he always was to Jill.
He isn’t a hero, he’s a villain – and in particular he’s Jill’s nemesis, and also her Kryptonite. Jill is the hero and was all along. Can she redeem him – and if not, can she love him? She has to try.
When Jerry Siegel published “The Reign of the Superman” in 1933, the Superman was a monster, and the story seems to be a direct response to Nietzsche’s übermensch. In THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA, the Superman is contrasted with <em>der letzte Mensch</em>, the pitiable “last man” concerned only with peace and material comfort – just like Larry.
My novel explores the dual nature of the Superman and the maligned Last Man, and the small ways in which we are heroes and villains in our own lives.
The novel’s antecedents include Michael Chabon’s THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY and Jonathan Lethem’s FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, recent reflexive comics series like Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and the Marvel and DC Comics of the Golden and Silver Ages.
The peaks and canyons of the harbour city.
Shadows hatched and cross-hatched against the steel and stone.
A man in a plain suit, turning his back.
His wild hair: his matted eyes.
His sandwich board.
Hurry! Last Days!
The sounds of a helicopter and a car alarm.
Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!
A modernist cylinder looming through the darkness.
At its summit, a band of electric yellow.
Dark figures against the everlit windows.
The last workers of the city night.
They sit in concentric rings, looking inward to the lift shafts or out to the glass and the shadows beyond. Each workstation is a chipboard desk, two flatscreens wedged together, an ergonomic chair. The darkness clings to everything, making edges thick and borders impermeable. Even the workers are outlined in these bounds of night as they all talk at once into their headsets.
There are about twenty of them, mostly young. Men and women, about half each, all the skintones of the world outside. They’re wearing all kinds of clothes but they speak in one voice.
Police, fire or ambulance?
An operator reads out a reference number and hangs up the call. Emergency. An address flashes across the screen. Police, fire or ambulance? No address: this is a call from a mobile phone. Under the bed, in a whisper: Police. The operator asks, What state and town is the emergency in? She punches in the answer, hits the button, reads the number. She used to wonder about every call, but not now.
On the night shift there’s a call every second. Sometimes nobody’s there, just the sound of breathing or wind in the wires. The operator asks again, Police, fire or ambulance? and waits and shivers and presses a different key to route the call to a recording, and the caller has three chances to press two buttons if her throat has been cut, if she’s choking on smoke.
Or the callers are drunk and hilarious, or they want the sound of a human voice, or they have a casual sense of emergency.
It’s my mate, eh. He <em>really</em> needs to get laid.
Can I get one supreme and one, uh, ham and pineapple?
It’s just—you know—sometimes it’s just—
There are legislated targets, they have to pick up 85% of calls within five seconds, 95% within ten. The phones keep on ringing, it may be a dickhead or nobody at all but that’s why there are procedures. Answer the phone, say the words: they’ve been researched and tailored for clarity and ease of saying. Through to the police, the fire, the ambulance, the voice recording, answer the next one, say it again.
Police, fire or ambulance.
What state and town.
A young man hurries in, scruffy in a battered old overcoat, a black tangle of hair, a scratch of stubble. He’d be in his early thirties, not six foot even in his scuffling basketball shoes, he’s kind of on the heavy side with a wide face, slack cheeks and a heft to his body. He pulls a set of headphones from the mess of his hair and lets them close around his neck, a tinny wail and a tikatish! from the foam.
A supervisor in a white shirt and a dark tie and a nametag that says George turns and scowls.
Bit late, Larry.
Larry pushes the hair out of his eyes and looks about as guilty as he needs to. Sorry, chief, he says. Can’t work the bloody alarm. Is midnight AM or PM?
It’s AM, growls George.
Nah, that can’t be right.
Larry reaches into the pocket of his overcoat, and with a click and a final tish! the headphones are silent. He shrugs the coat from his shoulders. He wears an old T-shirt with a company logo on it, the letters TAA slanted to suggest flight: an airline renamed and sold and wound up years ago.
George points at his soft chest.
Where’s your tag?
Couldn’t find it, Larry says. Didn’t want to be late.
Everybody needs a tag, George says. I can’t let you work without a tag.
Larry gives him a weary look. Come on, mate, he says. Everybody knows who I am. You know who I am. It’s not like anybody comes and knocks on the door to, you know, call bloody triple-O in person, do they?
There’s spares on the board.
George points to a gap in the inner circle of workstations, where a noticeboard lists emergency procedures—<em>don’t</em> call 000—and stray nametags wedge pin-first into the cork. Larry looks over in disbelief.
Well that’s just retarded.
Just choose one, George says, and as Larry slouches off in surrender he calls after him: And don’t say triple-O, we’re supposed to call it triple-zero. We have to set an example, he says.
Larry stops at the corkboard and pulls out one of the nametags. He remembers Lakshman from a couple of months back: he used to work in Hyderabad taking calls from all over the world; he could do any accent and knew how the weather was everywhere. Larry shoves the pin through his TAA shirt with a tiny pock!, leans back as far as his chair is configured to let him, and pulls on a headset.
Quick, says the voice on the other end. Who sung on <em>You Shook Me All Night Long</em>? It’s Bon Scott, yeah?
Larry knows he’s supposed to hang up, but he can’t let that stand.
Nah, mate, he says, it’s Brian Johnson.
The operators to the left and right pause, like they can’t remember whether police or ambulance comes first.
Aw, that’s bullshit, it’s Bon.
It’s Brian, off <em>Back in Black</em>, says Larry. Bon’s dead.
Now he hangs up, and the room finds its rhythm again. Police, fire or ambulance, what town and suburb. Larry gets a couple of Caller No Responses and a choked call from an old bloke who keeps saying She won’t wake up, she won’t wake up. A woman answers Police so firmly and calmly that he’s sure she’s just murdered someone. The moon moves from one pane of glass to the next, and through the window he can see that the famous bridge has gone dark, like it does every night, though he’s never seen the moment when it’s happened.
After three the calls space out and the operators take their breaks in shifts. Larry pours a cup of thick coffee for himself and another for Tina, a middle-aged woman with a staggering chest who’s been here longer than he has. She looks down at his nametag.
Oh, Lakshman, she says. They told me you’d left.
The coffee gives Larry a hollow kind of feeling but he needs it to see him through the night. This is the sleep debt, the fight against biology. It’s hard not to float through these last empty hours, wide-eyed and raw with caffeine; you have to keep checking that your body’s still under you.
A young mother wakes up cold, her baby’s gone too long without crying. There’s someone downstairs. There are fewer calls but more of them are real emergencies, more of them mean someone’s going to die.
Police, fire or ambulance?
There’s no answer, so he says it again. It’s a textbook CNR, and ordinarily he’d be on to the next call by now, but it’s the darkest time of night and the coffee’s not working right, so he fumbles at the keyboard and presses a button that does nothing, and in that moment he hears a rasp of breath.
Hello? he says.
It’s not an approved word, there are legislated targets and laminated flowcharts and all for good reasons. But Larry’s heard someone about to say something. He’s almost sure.
Can I help you? he says.
And at last a voice says I don’t know, can anybody help anybody?
It’s a woman’s voice, full and throaty like a young woman’s but something worn and old about it. And again Larry knows he should hang up, she’s clearly a waster, a drunken princess, but there’s something about that voice, and there’s something about that question.
Well—sure they can, he says. The police, you know, the firies, the ambos—they help people all the time.
Do they really?
All the time, says Larry. Firies more than anyone. They’re great blokes.
Well, then, says the woman on the phone.
I’d better find a kitten and stick it up a tree.
A click and the line goes dead.
He says Hello? and Ma’am? but it’s no good.
He rubs his eyes and scratches his cheek. He hopes he didn’t sound too casual there. People can help each other, can’t they? Not always, but sometimes.
As he reaches for the next call he sees movement in the reflections of the screens. He turns and it’s George again.
What was all that? says George.
Nothing, Larry says. Wrong number.
George frowns and bends the sheaf of paper in his hands. I’ve been looking at your numbers, he says. You’re dragging down the whole team.
Larry fingers the headphones that meet at his throat. Come on, chief, he says. It’s a slow night. It’s almost five in the morning.
That doesn’t matter. We have to meet our targets. We need everyone to stay on their game. Otherwise you can go back to the—George waves his hand for a moment. Toaster hotline, he says at last.
That wasn’t me, Larry says. That was Lakshman. He went back to the toaster hotline already.
He watches George staring blankly at his nametag. He doesn’t blame him. It’s almost five in the morning, they’ve all been up all night. Your short-term memory’s the first thing to go, then your attention span, your reaction time.
I’m Larry, he says, trying to be helpful.
George’s eyes snap to his. I know who you are, he says.
Paternoster Row catches the first of the light as Larry turns the corner, hunched into his overcoat, dark glasses to preserve his melatonin and protect his rhythms. The terraces were rigged up in the nineteenth century to serve the little peninsula’s heavy industries: the ironworks, the woolstore, and the yellow sandstone quarries the workers called Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole. They’ve all been renovated into airy homes and tasteful offices—all except one.
It’s cool and dark inside as Larry unhooks his headphones and unpockets his walkman. A tray full of pastries sits on the kitchen counter, a note with his name on it tented alongside. He unfolds the paper and sticks a Danish in his mouth. It’s a bit stale but that’s how he likes them, and the tryptophan in the almonds will ease his sleep.
Sorry I had to go to work, the note says. I’m meeting with Warren this afternoon but I’ll try and finish early. Hope these are still good. Love, J.
The morning sun catches on the kitchen, but the back of the house will be dark until the afternoon. Every piece of furniture is worn and comfortable. The walls are covered in photos, frames full of cutouts. Larry as a child, wearing corduroy and cowboy shirts, wearing tracksuit pants, head to toe in stonewash.
He slumps up the stairs to the master bedroom.
A stripe of light has found its way between the curtains, and Jill’s stripped the boxspring bed to the mattress. He could almost flop down and sleep there anyway but he pads down to the laundry and finds the clean sheets in the dryer. But now he can’t seem to get the fitted sheet onto the bed, it keeps curling up, the elastic goes bwoing!, he’s doing it sideways, it’s too hard.
He leaves them all twisted on the mattress and slumps up the hall to his old bedroom, the room he left and came back to, where rockband posters still cover the walls, action figures crowd the shelves, and his old single bed is always made up.
He falls onto the bed beneath the changeless watch of the old hero, the jutting chin, the curl on his forehead, the letter on his broad chest. The red and the blue, the cape and the tights and the undies. Surely people can help each other. Some people, sometimes. Stick it up a tree, he thinks to himself, a smile in the stubble of his face, and then all is snnkkk! and runnnk! and finally zzzzzzzzzzz.
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