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 joke this, for Marder was hale as a bear, arteries like the bore of a Mossberg twelve-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 towards 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 free-lance 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 had 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.
From The Return by Michael Gruber. Copyright 2013 by Michael Gruber. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co.