This was Marder’s first thought when the doctor explained what the shadow on the screen meant, what the tests implied. Mexico meant unfinished business, put off for years, nearly forgotten, until this unexpected deadline: now or never. That was the decent part; the cowardly part was the terror of explanation, of seeing the faces of his friends and family wear that look, the one that said, You’re dying and I’m not and as much as I care for you I can’t treat you like a real person anymore. He could see this very look in the doctor’s face now, presaging all the others to come. Gergen was a good guy, a fine GP; Marder had been seeing him for years, the annual checkup. Something of a joke this, for Marder was hale as a bear, arteries like the bore of a Mossberg 12-gauge, all the numbers in the right zones, remarkable for a man in his fifties. They had a good relationship; if not quite pals, they’d always joked through the exams, the same jokes. Marder always said, “Tell me you love me first,” as the doctor slipped the greased, rubbered finger up toward the perfectly normal prostate.
And other humorous repartee before and during: current events, sports, but mainly books. Marder was a book editor of some reputation—he’d been editor in chief of a major house before turning freelance some years back. Gergen fancied himself a literary fellow, and Marder usually remembered to bring along the latest thing he’d worked on, a history, a biography; today it had been one explaining the origins of the financial crisis. That was his editorial specialty, doorstops dense as nougat that explained our terrifying new world.
Gergen was explaining Marder’s own new world now. The thing was deep in the brain, immune from surgical intervention, immune even from the clever methods by which a tube could be passed up the arterial pathways to fix the deadly little bubble. When Gergen finished, Marder asked the usual question and got the usual answer: impossible to tell. It could stop growing, which occasionally happened, for reasons unknown; the most likely scenario was leakage, stroking out, the hideous decline, stretched out over months or years; or it could just pop, in which case, curtains, and the next world. Marder had believed in the next world all his life, more or less, and did not entirely dread the journey, but lingering—in paralysis, helplessness, idiocy—filled him with horror.
They shook hands solemnly when Marder was dressed and ready to leave. Gergen said he was sorry, and Marder could tell he meant it but also that he was glad to see him go. Doctors are irritated by those beyond help; Marder knew the feeling—he’d worked with any number of authors who couldn’t write and wouldn’t learn. Irritating: death, like lack of talent, an embarrassment to be avoided.
* * *
Marder left the doctor’s office and walked toward Union Square, through the thronged streets, weaving in the practiced New Yorker’s way through all the people who were going to outlive him, who would be in their lives after he was not. He found that this knowledge did not depress him. His step was light; he cast his eye almost benevolently at the passing faces, so many of them bearing the grim mask of the New Yorker, guarded, intent on the next deal or destination. The world seemed sharper than it had when he entered the office just a few hours ago, as if someone had wiped clean his smudged glasses. He had almost reached the park when it struck him that the last time he had felt this preternatural clarity was years ago, when he was a soldier in Vietnam, in the night forests along the Laotian border. This, too, was strange: Marder almost never recollected that war.
Ordinarily he would have taken the subway home, but now he walked. The day was fair, sunny, cool, a nice September afternoon in the city; nature did not mourn for him, no pathetic fallacy on offer for Marder. As he walked, his mind bubbled with plans; it was free with the liberty of the void. This is the first day of the rest of your life, as the happiness advice books always said, but since there was also a chance that it was the last day, the silly phrase took on a more interesting, more cosmic overtone, what the sages meant about living in the Now.
Marder was a deliberate man, a careful thinker, a detail guy, but now his mind seemed to be running with unusual speed, concentrated with the prospect of dying, at some date to be determined. So bemused, he nearly stepped into the path of a cab at Houston Street. Yes, that would solve it: the black bubble of suicide floated across his mind, quickly punctured. Quite aside from the religious objections, Marder knew he couldn’t do that to his children, not two parents checking out that way, but now came the thought that placing himself in a situation where he was likely to be killed was not at all the same thing, especially if by so doing he could accomplish his purpose down in Mexico. His mind steadied, plans started to jell. He didn’t know if he could do it, but it seemed right to die trying.
* * *
At Prince Street he passed a group of street musicians, South American Indians by the look of them, in woven ponchos and felt hats—a pair of flutes, a drummer, a woman with a rattling gourd who sang in a high and nasal voice. Marder spoke fluent, almost accentless Mexican Spanish, but her lyric was difficult to follow, something about a dove, something about the ruin of love. When the song ended, he dropped a twenty in her hat among the singles and coins, was rewarded by a brilliant flash of white teeth, in the shining obsidian eyes a look of amazed gratitude. She blessed him in the name of God, in Spanish; he returned the blessing in the same language and walked on.
Marder’s generosity here was not connected to his recent news; he often gave ridiculous sums away, although always privately. Proust, he’d heard once, habitually tipped 100 percent, and Marder occasionally did the same. Although born into modest circumstances, Marder was rich, secretly rich, through a stroke of luck so absurd that Marder had never accepted it as his due, making him different from nearly every other rich person of his acquaintance: wealth without feelings of entitlement was something of a rarity, in his experience. That he still worked at all, and in a profession not noted for excess remuneration, was a bit of uncharacteristic deviousness, a cover story. Only his lawyer and his accountant knew how much he was worth. His children and a number of other beneficiaries would be extremely surprised at probate.
Continuing south on Broadway, he passed a massive industrial building with an ornate cast-iron front. The ground floor of this structure boasted a strip of elegant eateries and boutiques; the rest of it contained luxury condos. During his boyhood, however, it had been a printing plant, where his father had worked for thirty years as a Linotype operator. It always gave Marder a tiny pang when he happened to pass by. Maybe it was mere nostalgia, but he thought there was something wrong about a city that had become largely a dwelling of the very rich and the people who serviced their needs. He missed the city of his boyhood, then the greatest port, the largest manufacturing entrepôt on earth. He recalled it as exciting and comprehensible in a way that the current city was not—a place that now shipped only digits, that made nothing but money. He thought he wouldn’t miss this aspect of the city in the time he had left.
The Tribeca loft he lived in was currently worth a bit over a million, but this was easily explained: he’d bought it back in the early eighties with an insurance payoff from his father’s death. “Lucky stiff!” was the usual comment. Real estate bonanzas were hardly unusual in the city, and no one thought it remarkable. It was even true, but not nearly as remarkable as the larger story.
Having reached this loft, Marder went to the area he used as his office, sat at his desk, and began to disassemble his life. He had a book in process, and this he passed off on a subcontract basis to another freelancer he knew, who had a pregnant wife and a pair of school-aged kids. Marder stifled the man’s effusions of gratitude; that was the easy part. Then he called the author and broke his heart, pleading unspecified health issues as an excuse, assuring him that the work would be competently done and that, to make up for dropping the project, he would reduce the contracted completion payment. He would have to make up this fee to the substitute editor (a wonderful man, several books on the List, you’ll love him, and so forth), but that would not be a problem.
Third call: Bernie Nathan, the accountant, who asked, when he heard what Marder wanted, whether he was in some kind of trouble. No, he was not, and could Bernie have the cash on hand this afternoon? Fourth call: Hal Danielson, the lawyer. A few little changes to the will. A similar question, similarly answered: no, not in trouble at all.
Fifth call: H. G. Ornstein answered on the first ring. Ornstein’s business, which was running a tiny left-wing journal, was clearly not pressing. After the pleasantries and the usual damning of the condition into which our once-great nation had fallen, Marder asked, “So, Ornstein, you still living with your mother?”
Yes, and it was driving him crazy; wonderful woman, but not so wonderful living in the same house. Ornstein’s wife had, after many years of noble poverty, despaired of the inevitable victory of the people and filed for divorce. Ornstein, a decent man, had done the decent thing and moved out. Marder did not believe in the ultimate victory of the people either, but he admired grit and selflessness. He’d known the man since college, when Ornstein had also tried his hand at stand-up comedy in the angry lefty...