It’s strange how books can line up for you, imposing the order in which you’ll discover them.
I recently finished The Last Ocean: A Journey through Memory and Forgetting, by Nicci Gerrard, which lingered with me for a long time. Gerrard’s book is, as the title suggests, an in-depth exploration of dementia: who it affects—everyone who loves the person suffering from it—but no one more than the person afflicted with it; how it affects them; how it is managed by families and the health care systems that support the sick loved one (or don’t); the suffering that surrounds it; the exhaustion it causes; the daily losses it incurs; the compassion and resentment it evokes…and so much more.
Perhaps it’s Gerrard’s profound book that heightened my sensitivity to human frailty, so that when Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey appeared on a book list online (probably in the New York Times), I jumped at it. Even its solemn cover spoke to me—so different from the expected book covers of the prolific writer’s detective/crime novels (which include the Easy Rollins series, the Leonid McGill series and the Socrates Fortlow series). The cover of my copy of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a very soft beige, on which only words appear in beige-grey, and upon which the title looks to be disappearing, losing pieces of itself like leaves blowing away in the autumn wind. A beautiful design.
Ptolemy Grey is 91 years old, lives in a rough and impoverished district of Los Angeles, in an apartment that has become a hovel. There was a time when the place was decent enough and Ptolemy was happy, with a stable job working in maintenance for the city and a war veteran’s pension, but everything fell apart when his second wife, Sensia, died suddenly—though she was a generation younger than him. It’s the event that seems to have precipitated Ptolemy’s slide into squalor and eventually, dementia.
Losing beautiful—and serially unfaithful—Sensia was the second pivotal event that marked his life. The first was the gruesome death, eighty-five years earlier, of Coy McCann, or Coydog to many, the old man who was Ptolemy’s father—and called him L’il Pea— in every way except through blood, and whose voice is ever-present in Ptolemy’s mind, a guide providing comments, words of wisdom and hard truths.
To what little family remains in his life and in LA, Ptolemy has become a burden. Only Reggie, his kind-hearted great-grandnephew, has been regularly checking in on him and helping him do groceries and his banking. And then Reggie is shot down in the street, for no apparent reason, and has left behind a young wife, Nina, and two small children.
“Reggie was his great-grandnephew, now dead. And Ptolemy was his survivor, like the small sum left over at the end of a division, like the few solitary and dumfounded men who had survived the first wave on D-Day.”
All through these early chapters, Mosley’s writing is masterful, rendering Ptolemy’s struggles to grasp even the most basic facts and timelines, as memories of the past interfere with his ability to inhabit the present. But though he may be dazed, off-balance, and in a constant state of incoherence and terrible vulnerability, Ptolemy is able to recognize love, which is why he remains wary of his niece Hilda (called Niecie by her family) and her son Hilliard (known as Hilly). Ptolemy’s instincts prove right, as Hilly steals from his great-uncle the first chance he gets. It’s also why Ptolemy accepts, with no reservations, the help of 18 year-old Robyn, a young woman living with Niecie and chosen by her to go help the old man.
This marks the beginning of a singular love story. When Robyn visits Ptolemy’s apartment for the first time, announcing that she is there to stay and look after him, she’s shocked by the squalid living conditions of the man who is both her charge and her ward. Ptolemy occupies a single room, having closed off all the others. He lives exclusively in the parlor, and sleeps under a table there. In his bedroom, which Ptolemy has avoided since Sensia’s death, Robyn finds every kind of vermin, including armies of cockroaches and rodents, and black fungus. A fumigator is called in. Robyn scrubs the rest of the flat from floor to ceiling. In a short time, she has fashioned a home from what was no better than a garbage heap.
The unlikely pair get on beautifully and as their bond grows, so does the old man’s desire to make changes in his life.
“He glanced up at the sky, thinking, This is everybody’s ceiling. This blue roof belongs to me as much as anyone else. They were words he’d heard along the way somewhere, he remembered them, and they held him like an anchor, like that young girl, that Robyn, held his hand.”
Soon, Robyn— feisty and protective of Ptolemy—begins calling him Uncle. When a visiting social worker asks: “But why call him “uncle” if he’s just a friend”, an angry Robyn responds: “I call my boyfriend honey, that don’t mean I’ma put him in my tea.”
Concomitant with his deepening love for Robyn and his increasing, though still fleeting moments of mental clarity, is the awakening of Ptolemy’s desire to make life better for the few people in his life who need and deserve some help—and he has the means to do exactly this. As his days run out, he makes a decision that will shorten his fragile life while lifting up this chosen few.
It’s a moving ending to a thoughtful, affecting, masterpiece of a novel.
“ “The great man say that life is pain,” Coydog had said over eight-five years before. “That means if you love life, then you love the hurt come along wit’ it. Now, if that ain’t the blues, then I don’t know what is.” “