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 mode of Mort Sahl or George Carlin. The man was a dead-on mimic but lacked edge, and had failed at that too.
When Marder told him he needed a friend to look after his loft for an indefinite period, the phone line hissed silence for nearly thirty seconds, then another undesired gush, to which Marder replied, “No, don’t thank me, you’ll be doing me a favor. I’ll drop the keys and paperwork in the mail today. Can you move in Friday? Great.”
* * *
Now Marder’s finger brought up the contact list on his cell phone but hesitated above the next necessary number. Time for some procrastination. He went to the closet in the loft’s bedroom and pulled out a battered leather gladstone bag of Mexican manufacture. He had not used it in some time, for now he traveled with a black nylon roll-aboard like the rest of humanity, but he thought that this one was the right container for his truncated new life. Into it went lightweight shirts and trousers, the usual underwear and toilet articles, a linen jacket and a leather one, leather sandals, several softly worn bandannas, a real Panama straw hat, the kind you could roll up. He hung his best suit in a garment bag, providing for any formal event or to be buried in. He placed the packed bag at the foot of his bed and then opened a tall, narrow steel safe.
Marder was not exactly a gun nut. He disliked the policies of the National Rifle Association and thought the general availability of powerful semiautomatic weapons in his nation was insane, but, despite that, he liked guns. He admired their malign beauty as he admired tigers and cobras, and he was a wonderfully proficient shot. From his gun safe he brought out a rifle and two pistols, together with all the boxes of ammunition he had on hand. It was irrational, he knew, but he did not want his survivors to have to dispose of them. Besides, it was always convenient to be armed on road voyages through the regions of Mexico where he intended to travel. He asked himself why he cared, since the thing in his head was more or less in charge of his life. Mr. Thing, as he now decided to call it, had its own agenda. Mr. Thing could discharge him from his life without notice, but in the meantime he would remain Marder, although a Marder who would not be an occasion of pain to the people he cared about.
In furtherance of this goal, he now placed himself at his computer and shopped for a truck, for he did not want to fly commercial, which could be traced. It took him only half an hour to arrange for the purchase of a Ford F-250 fitted with a seven-foot hardwall Northstar camper, model name “Freedom,” which Marder thought pretty amusing under the circumstances. The seller was in Long Island City, and Marder made an appointment to pick it up late that day. Another call to Bernie: courier a check over to the dealership. This time Bernie did not ask questions.
* * *
Marder spun on his chair and looked around the office, reflecting that he’d spent an extraordinary amount of time within these walls. Two of them, the ones in view of his desk, were painted eggshell. Set into one of these was the big industrial-scale window looking out on Worth Street. Behind him, the rear wall of the room and the remaining sidewall were painted bloodred. That had been Chole’s section of the home office. He had his elegant steel-and-rosewood desk, his back-saving leather chair, infinitely adjustable with little wheels and levers. Her desk was the antique rolltop with pigeonholes he’d bought her for their fifth (or wooden) anniversary. She had used a wooden office chair she’d brought in from the sidewalk in the days of their poverty, its cushion upholstered in bright serape cloth. Above her desk, a broad section of the wall was covered in thick cork panels, on which she’d stuck family photos, posters, found objects, cartoons, newspaper and magazine clippings from the Mexican press. The report of the murder of her father and mother, for example. A photograph of Esteban de Haro d’Ariés, that father, when young and smiling and holding his daughter, aged four, for example.
She’d been doing this for a long while, and the corkboard had become a palimpsest of her life in exile, untouched in the three years since her death. Marder had long since stopped looking at it closely but had a good look at it now. On one side of the cork hung a torero’s shining cape and on the other an enormous crucifix, its corpus gray-skinned, bloody, twisted, agonized, nailed to the rough wood of the cross with real iron nails. It looked as if it had been sculpted from life, and considering that it had come from Michoacán, it might have been. A lot of strange things happened down there, where she was from.
He removed the newspaper clipping about the murders. It had been torn roughly out of the pages of Panorama del Puerto, the newspaper in Lázaro Cárdenas; on it his wife had written lines from a poem by Octavio Paz on the occasion of the famous massacre of students in 1968. He translated it silently:
Guilt is anger
turned against itself:
if an entire nation is ashamed
it is a lion poised
Maddened by grief—an antique concept perhaps, but Marder had seen it played out in this very dwelling, this room. No one had been punished for the murders, just another pair out of the forty thousand or so that the narcoviolencia had claimed. Everyone knew who had done it, and by all reports he was still enjoying his life, buoyed by an ocean of dollars and his apparent impunity. Marder carefully folded the clipping and placed it in a slot of his wallet, as if it were a set of a directions for the operations of a complex mechanism. A trap of some kind—no, an ambush: a lion poised to leap.
Marder had no corkboard. Instead, he had a whiteboard, inscribed in dry marker. It listed book schedules, chapter outlines, things to do. He took a rag and wiped it clean; so much for his life. A transient weakness passed through his body, and he had to sit in his chair for a moment and catch his breath. Then he turned to the file cabinets. His and hers: twin four-drawer wooden models. Hers was empty—the kids had cleared it out after she died. The upper three drawers of his contained his professional life: editorial notes, contracts, and so on, most of them from years ago, before the world turned digital. A good proportion of the paperwork was in Spanish because, for the last ten years or so, Marder’s fluency in the language had led him into the business of arranging Spanish translations of works in English. For many big Latin American media firms, Marder was one of the go-to people in New York. No more, obviously.
He got a black forty-gallon trash bag from the kitchen and opened the top drawer. Out went the impedimenta of former labors, plus the financial stuff, old tax returns, business letters from before email arrived—rustling and thumping into the bag. The bottom drawer held more-personal papers. Here was an old-fashioned red cardboard file marked RICHARD on the index tab in his mother’s parochial school cursive.
He flipped it open. It contained his birth and baptismal certificates, report cards, school awards, a collection of handmade Mother’s Day and birthday cards of increasing competence, right up through his elementary school years, until he had money enough to buy from Hallmark. Then there were the letters he’d sent from his time in the military, scrawled in ballpoint on cheap PX stationery, several smeared with the red soil of Vietnam. He recalled the ones she’d sent him in return, one every few days: quotidian cheerfulness, a recounting of prayers she’d sent up from St. Jerome’s for his safety, and, unconventionally, a series of commentaries about the Catholic antiwar movement, of which Katherine Devlin Marder had been an ornament. He didn’t know where those letters were and felt a pang of regret.
A thin file was marked DAD in Marder’s own neat capitals. This contained a sheaf of papers from Augie Marder’s own military service in the Good War. Here was the honorable discharge in a tattered, yellowing envelope printed with the army seal. He’d been with the Sixth Army under MacArthur, in New Guinea and the Philippines, that grim, inglorious campaign of which no movie with major stars had yet been made, of which his father had hardly ever spoken. He’d been leg infantry all the war long, discharged as a corporal with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. That had been one of the only two pieces of advice he’d offered when his son had gone off to the Less Good War: stay out of the goddamn infantry. Marder had followed it, had entered the air force to beat the draft, but, ignoring the other piece of advice (never, never volunteer!), had ended up in an outfit compared to which the leg infantry in New Guinea was a day at the beach.
There were also pension papers, union papers, canceled savings passbooks, a couple of yellowing photos with deckle edges: a stringy young man, bare-chested, smiling by a howitzer, jungle in the background; the same man, now unsmiling, with two others of the same age, in their liberty duds, on some dusty street, three of the legion of teenagers who had destroyed the empire of Japan. And an insurance policy, the word PAID punched through it in tiny holes.
His father had been no fool. He’d known what happened to men who spent their whole working lives punching out hot type, sitting next to pots of molten, fuming lead. All linotypers died nuts, he used to say; he even joked about it, until it stopped being funny, until the rages and paranoia ate up the decent workingman he’d been and he’d died at sixty, raving, in a state hospital. But he’d taken advantage of the insurance program run by his union and never missed a payment, and after his death came the astonishing letter and the check for $550,000, of which a hundred fifty grand was Marder’s. The rest went to his mother, and it turned out to be just enough to pay for the best possible care during the following year, the final year of her life.
Another, much fatter file, marked APPLE STUFF on a machine-made label. It contained decades of broker’s statements. They wanted to send them over the computer now, but Marder liked the paper in his hands. He looked at the latest one: the balance was a colossal, an unbelievable sum, forty times more than his father had earned in a lifetime of noisy, filthy, deadly toil. And all Marder had done to earn it was to walk into a Merrill Lynch office one day on his lunch hour, knowing nothing about stocks but having seen the famous 1984 commercial during a drunken Super Bowl party, and use his insurance money to buy thirty-five thousand shares of Apple, Inc., at $3.22 per share. And he’d held on to it, feeling stupid for decades as the stock stayed flat, dipped, rose, dipped again, but clinging to his faith, until the technology had blossomed in recent years, sending the stock into financial heaven and making him a multimillionaire. Dumb luck, yes, but Marder also thought of it as the Linotyper’s Revenge.
The Apple file went into the trash, but he returned RICHARD and DAD to the drawer, for the kids to find. He thought of these as a part of their family history, no longer his to destroy. There were files marked with the children’s names too, Carmel and Peter, although the Peter one was empty. His son had taken all his stuff out of the loft after his mother died, the circumstances of Chole’s death having estranged father and son, and Marder no longer had any hope that they’d ever connect again. For a moment he thought of calling his son and, presuming Peter would even take the call, telling him about the medical thing and … and what? I’m dying; you have to forgive me for what happened with your mother? No. He’d screwed up and he’d have to take the fall. Carmel was a different story. He could call her. Not to tell her the truth, of course.
Before he could chicken out again, he grasped his cell phone and touched her name. A couple of shaky rings sounded, and when the call went to voice mail he felt a shameful relief. He knew she’d call back as soon as she was free of whatever consuming thing she was into at the moment. She was like her mother in that regard. Peter however, was like Marder—cool, cerebral, a harborer of grudges. While he waited for her callback, he turned to his computer and went to a website for a firm called Su Hacienda. It was a property agency that sold villas and estates to wealthy Americans who wanted to vacation or retire in Mexico and bask in the sunshine and the plenitude of cheap servants. There were a number of such agencies, but for Marder’s purpose only one would do. He took the phone number from the website and dialed a number he hadn’t called in three years.
He felt sweat flow in his armpits, on his forehead, while he listened to the ring.
“Hello, Su Hacienda, Nina speaking.” A wonderful throaty voice, slightly accented; this had been the first attraction.
“Nina, this is Rick.”
A pause on the line, a crackling etheric hiss in his ear. He could imagine the small solo office with the framed pictures of properties, and he could imagine her, although he didn’t want to, for she was the one pathetic infidelity of his long married life, an affair of six weeks.
During the last of which his wife had mixed up an unusually powerful version of her usual cocktail of prescription drugs and tequila, after which it had seemed good to her to climb to the roof of this very loft building, remove her clothes, and go dancing alone on the parapet, in a driving snowstorm. She’d landed in the air shaft and been covered by the drifts, had lain there for the better part of a week, a period during which he was with Nina Ibanez, in one of her properties south of Acapulco, screwing his brains out.
Amazement in her voice. “Rick Marder?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
A chuckle. “Well. Someone I never thought I’d hear from again. It’s been years.”
“Yes. Look, Nina, I want to buy a property.”
Another pause. “Ah, Rick … if you want to see me, you don’t have to buy a property. A drink will do.”
“No, it’s not about that, us. I really want to buy a property, a house, a nice one, isolated, on the coast. You know, as a getaway.”
“You’re not thinking of that house, are you? Because it’s been sold, and it’s not on the market as far as I know.”
“No, I don’t want it in the Acapulco area. I want to buy a house with a good chunk of property in Playa Diamante.”
“Playa…? You mean Playa Diamante in Michoacán?”
“Yeah. Do you have anything? I need it sort of now.”
Dead air on the line, for so long that Marder thought the system had dropped the call.
When she spoke, her voice was chillier, more businesslike and precise.
“Sorry … It’s just hearing your voice after all this time. I’m a little rattled. Getting dumped with the three-line email was a little harsh.”
“Nina, maybe this was a mistake. Should I call someone else?”
“Oh, not at all. Frankly, I could use the commission. Second homes in Mexico—you know, a slightly shrunken market since the crash. And the violence. Not to mention the mortgage situation—”
“I don’t need a mortgage. I’ll pay cash.”
“Oh, in that case, I tell you what—let me do some research, we’ll have a drink somewhere, and I’m sure I’ll have something nice for you to look at.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Nina.”
Another, shorter pause. “Well—all business, then. As a matter of fact, something just came to mind. Are you near a computer?”
“Yes, I’m in my office.”
“Then I’m going to let you look at the Guzmán property. Did you know Manny Guzmán at all?”
“The name’s sort of familiar but I can’t quite place it. Who is he?”
“Was. He came up here from Michoacán in the eighties, made a fortune as a lawyer and property developer. He went back home a few years ago and built a big house on the coast in Playa Diamante. He had plans to build a resort, poured some concrete for rental units, but … he sort of disappeared. The house has been vacant since, but apparently it’s been maintained. I’m sending the photos and specs now.”
Marder waited in front of his computer, while Nina chattered on, trying and failing to generate a conversation. Marder liked Nina Ibanez well enough, a charming and sexy woman, but he never wanted to see her again. Images rose unbidden, her face and body, yes, but it hadn’t been just about sex. It was the lack of all the tangles, the relief from what his life with Chole had become since some men had snatched his father-in-law from his car and chopped him into pieces and left them in a pile on the side of a road in Playa Diamante. And, being careful about witnesses, they’d shot her mother too.
Which was Marder’s fault, ultimately, he having removed Chole from Mexico all those years ago. Marder had not been prepared for that, for his wife going crazy, and he’d cracked a little himself, the fling with Nina Ibanez being one result.
A shudder ran through him thinking of it, and then the email tone pinged. Marder opened the attachment and studied the set of pictures. One was an aerial view of what appeared to be a small island connected to the mainland by a short causeway; the property was listed as 112 hectares—277 acres. The other photographs were exterior and interior shots of what the accompanying copy described as a two-story six-bedroom concrete-block stucco house with a separate unit for the servants, a four-car garage, and a swimming pool. Some hundred yards distant from the house, built on a curve facing the sea and a broad shining beach, were what looked like bungalows in various stages of construction and behind these an excavation for another, much larger swimming pool. The listing claimed the house had seven bathrooms, a modern kitchen, air-conditioning throughout, a desalinization and sewage treatment facility in operating order, and a diesel generator in its own little building. The house was square, with a flat roof and a squat tower at each corner. It looked like a Spanish colonial fortress, which suited Marder very well. The asking price was a reasonable $1.2 million.
“This is available immediately?” he asked.
“They’ll kiss your hands. The family, I mean. They’ve been paying maintenance through the nose ever since Manny disappeared. They’re terrified it’ll be looted and stripped. There are some people living in the servants’ wing, watching the place, but you don’t need to feel responsible for them. The taxes are practically nothing. If you let me talk to them, I’m sure they’ll come down a little.”
“No, I’ll take it,” said Marder. “I’ll have my accountant send you a check for the asking price.”
He heard a sigh over the line. “It must be nice to have money,” said Nina Ibanez.
After that they discussed the details of the sale in a businesslike way and then Marder’s phone buzzed with an incoming call. He said a quick goodbye and pressed the call-accept button.
“Hello, babe,” he said to his daughter. “I’m not interrupting anything important, I hope.”
“No, I was just in the fabrication lab, running some trials. Is anything wrong?”
She always asked that when he called, and he wondered why. Perhaps he should have called her more often. He knew other parents had more contact with their kids, but he’d always felt that after they were grown, excessive contact was an intrusion. Or maybe it was because his own father, in his madness, had called Marder oppressively often, full of paranoid complaint and mad schemes to reform the world. Chole had always been the caller, the main contact with the children.
And even though something was wrong now, and even though he’d always tried not to lie to his kids, he replied in a cheerful tone, “Not at all. I just called to find out how you were doing and to tell you that I’ll be traveling for a while.”
They’d had enough misery dealing with their mother’s sickness and death, and he told himself he was actually doing them a favor.
“Where are you going?”
“Not determined yet. I thought I’d buy an open ticket and take some time off. There’s a lot of the world I haven’t seen, and I’m not getting any younger.”
“But you hate to travel. You’re always bitching about airports and the food.”
“I changed my mind. Anyway, I’ll be leaving in a day or so and I didn’t want you to worry.”
“You’ll keep in touch, though, right?”
“I always do. How’s work?”
“We’re having tempering problems. Three-D printing in metal’s easy if you’re only doing art stuff or prototypes, but if you’re trying to manufacture actual machine parts, it’s a different story.”
“I’m sure you’ll solve the problem, dear,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll be in at the end of mass production as we know it,” and she laughed. Marder was constantly amazed at how both of his children, the spawn of two literary types, had become engineers, and brilliant ones by all accounts. Carmel was in grad school at MIT; Peter taught at Caltech, as far as possible from New York and his father.
“Still keeping up with the swimming?” he asked.
“Every day. Still with the shooting?”
“Every week. How are your times?”
“Static. I’m devoted but not that devoted. Don’t expect me at the Olympics. I hope that doesn’t break your heart.”
“As long as it doesn’t break yours. Meanwhile—anything new on the social front?”
“The usual. Don’t rent a hall.”
“So you’re saying no grandchildren anytime soon.”
“When they have cloning maybe. I’d kind of like an instant ten-year-old with freckles and a gap-tooth grin.”
He couldn’t think of any response, couldn’t think of any final paternal words of love or advice. “Well, I’ll let you go now. You’ll let Peter know, yes?”
“You could call him yourself,” she said.
“I could. But if he doesn’t take my call…”
He heard her sigh. “Okay. Have a great trip and keep in touch.”
He said he would, said he’d loved her, said goodbye, pushed the button to end the call. For an instant he felt he’d switched himself off, as if he’d already died. Not staying in touch was the whole point.
* * *
As he often did when he was annoyed with himself and the world, Marder decided to go shooting. He packed his two pistols and their magazines and ammunition into their customized aluminum case and took a cab to the Westside Shooting Range on 20th Street. On the ride, he thought of a way to save himself a trip, so he called his accountant and told him to have the money he’d asked for ready at his office in an hour. The accountant asked him if he seriously intended to carry a hundred fifty thousand dollars in cash through the streets of Manhattan. Marder told him not to worry about it.
Marder had been coming to Westside for years and paid in advance by the month so he was always assured a lane. The firing line was crowded with nervously chattering newbies taking a firearms class, and he was glad he was wearing ear protectors.
He clipped a small paste-on circle target to the line and sent it a-flapping to the seven-yard marker, then loaded the first of the two pistols he was going to fire. This was a .45-caliber Kimber 1911, a high-tech, super-accurate version of the sidearm that American soldiers had carried throughout most of the twentieth century. He loaded it, took a stance, and fired a shot. A hole appeared in the center of the bull’s-eye, rimmed by the fluorescent-yellow paint built into the target’s paper. He fired again. No change was apparent, and he fired five more times, then placed the pistol on the little shelf and drew the target back. On examination, the hole had become slightly larger than the original puncture, which meant he had shot six bullets through the hole made by his first one. It was a feat he’d accomplished often. He loaded another magazine and shot at ten yards and again at twenty, each time blowing the center out of the target.
He now took from his case the elder brother of the Kimber, an actual military .45 his dad had brought back from the Pacific. It was still formally the property of the United States Army, but he thought they probably weren’t looking for it too hard. He shot three magazines with this, not as accurately as before but still well enough: at seven yards, all the holes touched.
Marder then did something he hadn’t done before. He slipped a fresh magazine into the old .45 and he stuck the pistol into his waistband, where it hung heavily, concealed by the raincoat he wore. Feeling a little foolish at this precaution, and in violation of the laws of New York, he cased the other pistol and left the range, for the last time, he supposed. He walked to Sixth Avenue, and in one of those miscellaneous-goods stores he purchased an aluminum suitcase and then took a cab to his accountant’s office uptown. He gave the driver a fifty and told him to keep the meter going, then went in and and collected his cash. Packed in his new suitcase, it felt heavier than he’d expected.
From the cab he called the last person he needed to contact before leaving. Patrick Francis Skelly was not at home. An old-style answering machine picked up, and Skelly’s voice said, “Skelly isn’t here, obviously. Leave a message.” Marder called back several times on the ride downtown but reached only the machine. From home he called several more times, then gave up for the moment. He hadn’t eaten all day, had fasted before the doctor’s visit and found that, though dying in a way, he still liked eating. He liked cooking too. He grilled a steak and made a Caesar salad with a soft-boiled egg and lots of anchovies and ate it while watching the news, rather enjoying the idea that he no longer had to pretend interest in what was going on in the world.
He tried Skelly a few more times, then called the car dealer and learned that the check had arrived and that he could pick the vehicle up anytime. He spread an old towel across the kitchen table and cleaned his pistols, an activity that always calmed him, although not tonight. Perhaps it was the money. He placed the cash in his gun safe, double-locked his door, left the loft, and hailed a cab.
The driver was not enthusiastic about going to Long Island City, but Marder waved some large bills and off they went. At a small lot on a dull commercial boulevard, he bought his camper and truck. Marder had never actually been in a truck camper before and was favorably impressed when he stepped inside. To the right as he entered was a clever shower–toilet combination and to the left a large wardrobe. Along one side were arranged a three-burner propane stove and a sink, with a refrigerator below. On the other side was a padded bench with a dining table that swiveled out of the way so that someone could sleep on the bench. There seemed to be plenty of storage in the overhead cabinets. Up a stepladder, extending out over the truck’s cab, was a sleeping loft equipped with a full-sized bed. The thing was full of light and smelled faintly of plastics.
Marder had spent nearly all his life in the city and so was not much of a driver, and the bulk of his new vehicle was a little daunting. But after a bit of awkwardness and overcautious driving, he got used to the smooth power of the V-8 and the inability to see what was directly behind him. By the time he drove onto the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, he had started to enjoy himself.
He soon became confident enough in his driving to use his cell phone but achieved the same irritating result. Skelly was the only adult of his acquaintance who refused to own a cell phone, and so it was always a pain in the ass getting in touch with him. Marder left the expressway at Brooklyn Heights and drove slowly through the prim green-shaded streets. He parked illegally in front of a modest brownstone, got out, and pushed the bell button next to a slot with no name in it. The door issued no welcoming buzz. He looked up at the top floor, where Skelly lived. It was dusk now, but no lights shone there.
When he returned to the truck, he realized he had forgotten that the previous day was September 19, and so of course Skelly would not be at home. He would be on his annual commemorative journey to oblivion on the anniversary of Moon River. Marder always forgot; Skelly always remembered.
Oblivion was in any case a regularly scheduled stop for Skelly. It was something they occasionally did together, but this anniversary trip was one that Skelly did alone. Skelly was Marder’s longest-surviving continuous relationship. Forty years now they’d known each other, but they were not what most observers would have called best friends. Skelly spent a lot of time out of town. He called himself a security consultant but was closemouthed about what he actually did, and Marder had learned not to inquire. Skelly must have made decent money at it, for Brooklyn Heights apartments were not cheap, and he always paid for more than his share of drinks and meals and tickets. Skelly did not like going to movies and sporting events alone, and Marder was happy to accept his invitations. Marder did not have many friends in his profession, and these few were not the sort to go to hockey games at the Garden and then tour the saloons, usually ending the evening in some bucket of blood in Greenpoint or Red Hook, at which Skelly often got into fights. Young men or bigger men would take him on and find themselves pounded into the ground. Marder often had to pull Skelly off a surprised and bloody opponent and scatter cash around to assuage complaints.
Now Marder drove south on Fourth Avenue, then cut over to Second, passing under the Gowanus Expressway. At a stretch of waste ground near the rail yards, he spotted a group of homeless men standing around a fire barrel. Dressed in the usual thick layers of clothing, red-eyed, their faces demonic in the lights of the low flames, they were passing around a bottle, laughing and joking. The fights and assaults had not yet started. Skelly always brought good times to these gatherings, and Marder thought it was fortunate that the evening was young and the crack pipes were not in evidence as far as he could observe. Skelly on crack was not amusing.
He approached the group, waved a greeting, and sidled next to one of them, a small but powerfully built man with a shaved head partly covered by a filthy Red Sox baseball hat.
“Hello, Skelly,” Marder said. “Are we having fun yet?”
Skelly looked at him with a belligerent stare; his eyes were unfocused and he stank of peach schnapps. “Marder. If you’re here to join the party, have a drink. If not, fuck off!”
“Let’s take a little walk, Skelly. I want to show you my new camper truck.”
With the exaggerated diction of the very drunk, Skelly said, “Fuck you, Marder, and fuck the camper truck you rode in on. I’m having a little drink with some old army buddies. These are my good buddies here. Hinton, say hello to Marder. Marder isn’t an old army buddy. Marder was in the air force. He was rear-area motherfucker.”
The men laughed at this, Skelly loudest of all. If this anniversary celebration went the way of all the others, Marder would receive a call from a pay phone at three A.M. a couple of nights from now and he would call a hire car and drive to where Skelly would be waiting at some all-night place, sans wallet, cowboy boots, watch, coat, and other items, plus any number of bruises and abrasions. Once or twice he’d been standing there in his T-shirt and shorts. Marder no longer had time for that.
He tugged at Skelly’s coat. “Come on, man. I need to talk to you.”
Skelly pulled away so hard he staggered. “I’m busy,” he said. “Get the fuck away from me!”
The other men were observing this with interest. Marder started to feel crowded. Hinton, the buddy, a large person with a wild Afro escaping from his knitted hat, and eyes like spoiled eggs, growled, “Yeah, leave him alone. Skelly’s our friend. We having a good time here and we don’t need no rear-area motherfuckers, you know?”
This remark was funny too. Marder addressed the big guy. “Yeah, I get that. Look, I need to talk to my friend here, and I’ll give you each fifty bucks to help me get him over to that camper there. What do you say?”
Money changed hands. The men, ignoring Skelly’s protests, picked him up and stuffed him in the passenger seat of the Ford.
“Nice camper,” said Skelly. “Now can I go?”
“In a second. The thing is, I’m leaving, and I know you’d’ve had to call me later and I wouldn’t be here. I wanted to let you know.”
“So? I could’ve called somebody else. I mean, fuck it, Marder, you’re not my mom.”
“Somebody else? Like who? You mean I have a backup? I wish to Christ I would’ve known it sometime during the last—what is it?—forty years you’ve been pulling this shit. I would’ve told you, ‘Get fucked, Skelly. It’s three in the morning, call number two on the list.’”
Skelly was silent for a moment, and then asked, “So what’s with the camper? You becoming a Good Sam?” In a familiar way, he seemed to have dumped his drunk by an act of will.
“Yes. It’s always been my dream to tour America’s national parks and meet wonderful people along the way.”
“That’s good, Marder, I like how you’re easing into being an old fart. You need to get you some of those pants with no belt and wear more bright colors. And a plastic hat. Of course, it shouldn’t be much of a change—you were sort of an old fart when you were young.”
“I’m glad you approve. Should I drive you home or drop you off at the nearest saloon?”
“A saloon, thank you. If you cut right up there on Forty-Fourth Street, there’s Mahoney’s on Ninth Avenue.”
Marder drove as directed. After a while, Skelly asked, “So how long do you figure this trip is going to take?”
“I don’t know,” said Marder. “It’ll be a while. Ours is a big country.”
He pulled the truck to the curb across from the dimly lit little tavern. He held out his hand and Skelly took it.
Skelly gave him an odd look, a smile edged onto his mouth. “Yeah, well, I’ll see you when I see you. Have a safe trip, and I know you’ll obey all the relevant traffic laws.”
Skelly left the truck and crossed the avenue. More than anything else, more than giving up his profession and his home, more than bidding his child farewell, this parting told Marder that the life he’d known was truly over. Or not. It would depend on Skelly.
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Gruber
Excerpted from The Return by Michael Gruber
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.