Martin DiCarlantonio was born and raised in Camden, New Jersey. He is the author of four unpublished novels. "Mind
Game" is his first short story to be published online. He lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.
Turning thirty years old never bothered me. Neither did forty prove to be a particularly traumatic event. Fifty, I must admit,
got my attention, but even that milestone wasn't enough to plunge me into despair. I was in good health and physical
condition for a man who had reached the half-century mark. People told me I looked at least five years younger than my
age, and I tended to agree with them. So I took comfort in soothing clichés — "You're only as old as you feel" and (my
favorite) "Fifty is the new forty" — and moved on, undaunted.
Approaching my sixtieth birthday, however, turned out to be a much different story. There was now no getting away from
the fact that I was entering the twilight of my sojourn on this planet. The final innings were upon me. And despair, indeed,
did set in.
It's difficult to put into words exactly how I felt. No overt signs of physical or mental deterioration were apparent. I was still
healthy and fit and working out regularly at the gym. My hairline was intact, my stomach reasonably flat, my blood pressure
under control. And yet, knowing that I had most likely lived more than twice as many years as I had left to live gnawed at
me day and night. I was not obsessed with the feeling that my life was sadly incomplete. Like all mortals, I had had my
share of disappointments — a marriage that had ended in divorce, virtually no contact with my ex-wife and the two
daughters the marriage had produced, a career in business-to-business publishing that could only be called modestly
successful at best. But I was a pragmatic man, not given to grand ambitions. I made a decent living, had a good many
friends, and was settled into a comfortable relationship with an intelligent, green-eyed woman more than ten years my
junior. We lived in a three-room apartment in a co-op building in New York City with a wood-burning fireplace and a
tricolored cocker spaniel that greeted me every night when I came home from work with a furiously wagging nub of a tail,
absurdly happy to see me again, as though I had been gone for weeks and not just hours. It was the high point of my day.
No, I was not an unhappy man, but for the first time in my life I had begun to think seriously about getting old, becoming
sickly and debilitated, and — here was the word that resonated above all others — dying. I had no faith to speak of; I didn't
believe in heaven or hell or anything in between. I was convinced that death was the end of consciousness, that just as we
remember nothing of all the billions of years that had passed before we were born, so too would we be oblivious for all
eternity to anything that transpired after we died. Perhaps there was something to those reports of near-death experiences
— the tunnel of blinding light, seeing loved ones who had long since passed away, a vision of Jesus or whatever religious
figure had been significant to you in your life. But ultimately, I believed, thinking about the matter logically and without
prejudice, those final moments were almost certainly the result of a few final synapses in our brains firing weakly and then
flickering out, for good, forever.
Suddenly death, it seemed, was everywhere around me. I read horribly depressing newspaper stories I had always avoided
in the past. Stories about children dying in Darfur, dying by the hour, by the thousands, of malnutrition, with swollen
bellies. Their deaths were now painfully real to me, no longer abstract. Most of them would never live to see the age of six,
let alone sixty.
Whenever Claire took our dog out for a walk and they were gone for longer than what seemed a normal amount of time, I
paced the apartment in a nervous sweat, certain that something awful had happened. I dreaded the sound of sirens, of
police cars and emergency vehicles rushing to the scene of a terrible accident. I recalled the tragic death of a young woman
in the East Village only a few years earlier. She was out walking her two dogs on a Friday night in January when she stepped
on a Con Edison plate in the icy street and was electrocuted. What torment had her boyfriend or husband gone through,
waiting for her to return, alone in their apartment, hearing those sirens wailing? Did a similar fate await me?
Commuting to my office in a leafy corporate park in New Jersey, I was confronted every morning by the grisly sight of deer
that had been killed during the night as they tried to cross a highway. Their bodies lay in grotesque positions by the side of
the road, their heads and necks twisted at hideous angles. I prayed they would not be there the next day but they always
were. No one had come to cart them away. Driving by, I would avert my eyes at the sight of their frozen carcasses.
At the rock-bottom depths of this despair, I found myself wishing that it was ten years earlier, that I was turning fifty again,
not sixty. What I wouldn't have given for that to be true, to go back in time, to have that full decade to relive. It wasn't so
bad then — fifty. What a joy it would be now.
While brooding on exactly this thought late one winter night, with Claire and the dog asleep in the bedroom, a fire burning
in the fireplace, and an Irish whiskey in hand, it occurred to me that I could take this impossible notion and turn it on its
head, in a way. What if instead of wishing it were ten years earlier, I imagined that it was ten years later, that I was about to
turn seventy instead of sixty? How would you feel if that were the case? You think you've got it bad now. What if you were
about to turn seventy and you were wishing you could be sixty again?
There was something immensely liberating about this thought. As bad as things were, they could be worse. On the eve of
my seventieth birthday, I would be that much closer to death. By then, infirmities and frailties would have definitely set in.
My heart might be failing; perhaps I would have been diagnosed with prostate cancer or a stroke would be imminent. Yes,
things could be so much worse. I carried this thought with me over the weeks that followed and found it to be like a tonic, a
balm for my troubled soul. I had those ten years to live over — not the ten years that had passed but the ten years to
come. You're sixty again, you lucky man. You've got your wish. Now enjoy this time that has been given you.
It's all in your mind, I told myself. Another soothing cliché, but this one seemed to be working. It really was all in my mind,
the whole heart-wrenching business of getting old. The face that I saw in the mirror every morning didn't look so bad, even
with the sagging jaw line and the puffiness under the eyes, when I considered what another ten years would do to it. My
body felt lighter, athletic, energized; my pace on the treadmill at the gym quickened as I imagined the slow, deliberate
plodding of a man of seventy. My senses seemed heightened, more acute. How sharp will your vision be, how sensitive your
hearing, ten years from now, I wondered.
Everything I did, during every hour of the day, was framed by this single question: How would you feel if you were about to
turn seventy years old? And the answer was simple. A hell of a lot worse than I feel right now.
"You're taking this better than I thought you would," Claire said to me as we finally celebrated what had been, until recently,
my most dreaded birthday over dinner at our favorite restaurant in Chelsea. "You seemed to be in a funk there for a while."
"I got over it," I said. "It's just a number. Sixty. A big number, yeah, but still just a number. There's nothing I can do about
it, so why lose sleep over it?"
"That's a very grown-up attitude." Claire raised her glass of chardonnay. "Let's drink to that. I only hope I can be as mature
about turning fifty."
"You will. And if you have trouble with that, I'll help you."
"Thanks. I have a feeling I'm going to need some help."
I made no mention of my newfound perspective on the aging process. I was convinced that to tell anyone, even the person
I was closest to in this world, about the time-warped prism through which I was now viewing my life would only rob it of its
power. It had to remain something preserved deep inside me, my secret.
Sustaining the curious vantage point of a seventy-year-old man proved surprisingly easy. I welcomed the mind game, the
cerebral calisthenics involved in this exercise. Eventually it induced in me the exhilarating feeling that I truly had gone back in
time. I began to see things as if I were peering through the long end of a telescope. The most quotidian details took on an
unexpected poignancy when observed from the distant future. Walking into the supermarket near work where I would go at
lunchtime to pick up a salad, I would say to myself, "Remember this old Stop & Shop? This salad bar?" I was amazed at how
something so prosaic and familiar could suddenly seem so new, even precious. What natural high was I on here? On my way
back to the office one day I saw two of our salesmen out on their daily constitutional — they had recently taken to walking
briskly for thirty minutes or so during their lunch hour — and I was charmed by the sight of them. There was Blake, tall and
ramrod-straight, with his wavy graying hair and moustache, and roundbacked Peter, his arms swinging well out from his
sides as he hustled to keep up with his companion. And I thought, "Remember Blake and Peter?" They were no longer co-
workers I ran into every day in the hallway or at the coffee station, but visions from out of my past, long since gone from
There was nothing that couldn't be treasured, no matter how painful the memory, in this nearly hallucinogenic state of
mind. Driving back to the city at night, I would nudge myself on the shoulder, as it were, and say, "Look! Remember the
skyline at sunset, so unremarkable now, so infuriating, without the World Trade Center towers?" Or, returning to the
everyday, "Remember the Holland Tunnel?" The signs that said "Keep in Lane." This frenetic drive up Sixth Avenue,
jockeying for position in a river of taxi cabs on your way to the garage.
It was only a matter of time before I took this giddy thought process to its logical conclusion. Why stop at seventy, I asked
myself late one night, alone again in the chair across from the fireplace, another Irish whiskey in hand. Or eighty? Or even
ninety? Why not imagine this — you're dead? It's a hundred years from now. Two hundred. You've passed on — and so
has everyone you ever knew. Maybe you don't believe in an afterlife but imagine for just a moment that you were given a
reprieve from all the nothingness, the black void, that longest of sleeps. An angel awakens you and grants you one last look
back. And there would be your life again, from childhood on, set vividly in a cosmic frame. Look at it all now. You want some
perspective, try this on for size. Remember turning the key in the door of your apartment in New York? Remember Claire
and Raffles? The woman who saved you from a life of despondency after the divorce; the lovable little animal, your first pet.
There she is, with the wagging nub of a tail, so happy to see you. And there she is, in this same chair in the living room,
with her glass of wine, awaiting your arrival.
What do you think of it all now? Is this finally enough to make you appreciate it, to understand what you had, what it meant
to be alive? At any age.
Could it be that I was over-thinking all this? That I was just a bit obsessed with getting old. Possible. I know I was tired,
with all these wheels spinning, and that I had to move from the chair to the couch for the night. Claire would find me in the
morning (it was the weekend, so what did it matter?) with a blanket over me and perhaps the trace of a smile on my face.
That night I had the strangest dream. I was driving to work squinting into the harshest sun glare I had ever encountered.
For some reason flipping the visor down and putting my sunglasses on didn't seem to help. The light flooded into the car
from all angles, not just through the windshield but through the side and rear windows too and the sunroof overhead.
Finally I turned the corner onto the road the office was on and the light faded abruptly, leaving a negative, purplish image of
my surroundings pulsing on my retinas. Unable to see clearly, I pulled over at the curb and put my hazard lights on, though
there was not another car in sight. As my eyes adjusted to the more natural light, I saw that the woods around me were
alive with deer bounding through the trees with wonderfully fluid, graceful strides. And somehow I knew that these were the
same deer I had been seeing every morning lying dead by the side of the road, that somehow they had made it through to
the other side, to wherever deer go after they have been killed trying to cross a highway in the middle of the night.
Again the angel asks, "Remember turning the key in your apartment door?" And there is Raffles, lying in front of the
fireplace, her freckled muzzle flattened on the marbled hearth, pointed toward the door, waiting for you to come home from
work. But this time there is no reaction. She doesn't move when I come in.
And there is Claire, slumped in the living room chair, holding a tissue to her eyes. Why is she crying? Her brother Dan is
with her, sitting on the ottoman in front of the chair, his hand on her knee. Dan lives in Connecticut. What is he doing here?
"Do they know how it happened?" he asks her.
Claire looks at the couch. "The doctors said it must have been a blood clot. To the brain or the heart."
"How old was Michael?"
"He just turned sixty. Last week."
"Sixty," Dan said. "What a shame. He was still a young man."