THEY HAD a contest here last week in the

Press of Atlantic City

that asked readers to answer the question, in 25 words or less,

"Where do you want to spend the last years of your life?"

The winner was Nandini Taneja of Mays Landing:

"Alone in a rented oceanfront apartment, praying daily for the years I lived, choices I made, people I hurt, hearts I broke."

That's a bit morose, but the editors liked it because its "vision of responsibility and atonement was especially moving."

From Ventnor, Tom Krick was the most negative and succinct about the location of his end days: "Anywhere but New Jersey (and that includes hell)."

More political, David Smith in Absecon was looking for an escape route from America's swing to collectivism: "Sadly, because this government is slowly turning this great country into the SSA, the 'Socialist States of America,' I am looking into moving to Australia."

Tom Murphy in Atlantic City seemed less unhappy with socialism: "In my subsidized high-rise in Atlantic City. Looks like, though, it may be in a doorway in Atlantic City if Social Security isn't fixed."

My favorite was an upbeat answer from Elizabeth Thomas of Egg Harbor Township: "On the road again like Willie Nelson or Dierks Bentley, free and easy down the road I go."

An even more upbeat way to go out on the road is Bruce Springsteen's. I always thought his singing sounded like just hollering, but, while on the way to his recent concert in Pittsburgh, my wife told me he's a poet, so for the first time, I listened to the lyrics.

His wild romantic dreams of glory intact, Bruce sang "Born to Run," just as he has at every concert since the '70s: "I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss." How sick!

I don't think much about the sunset years. Too often, they become the grim and fearful world that John Updike, who died in January, described through his characters in his final volume of stories - a time of standing unsteadily on the brink of old age, increasingly separated from old friends and associates, depleted by bad health, preoccupied with the approaching void, the final step where "death is real, and dark, and huge." Yikes!

Similarly, Philip Roth in his latest novel, "Exit Ghost," has his longtime alter-ego, a now-decrepit Nathan Zuckerman, isolated in a rustic New England retreat, incontinent and impotent due to his treatment for prostate cancer.

Zuckerman had moved away from New York "to be rid of the lingering consequences of life's mistakes," to write and be alone. His potency gone, Zuckerman's desires remain unbroken:

"And so I set out to minimize the loss by struggling to pretend that desire had naturally abated, until I came in contact for barely an hour with a beautiful, privileged, intelligent, self-possessed, languid-looking 30-year-old made enticingly vulnerable by her fears and I experienced the bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again."

'THE NINTH and, apparently, final Zuckerman novel is a blisteringly bad-tempered indictment of modern America filled with the usual gripes of Roth," wrote Alfred Hickling in a review in London's Guardian.

"But one also senses that Roth has chosen to write the eulogy for his generation. In a supremely poignant scene, Norman Mailer gets up to speak at George Plimpton's memorial service, saddened to acknowledge that Plimpton's demise 'was neither humorous nor unusual. He died not in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium but in pajamas in his sleep. He died as we all do: as a rank amateur.' " *

Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.