Van waited until the next day to call Dexter. When he did, Dexter seemed to have just been awakened when he called – at 11:30 in the morning. Dexter asked him twice who he was, he responded the second time with his name and the fact that David Remnick had suggested he contact him about being a war correspondent. Dexter said, “Hmmph,” coughed a few times and then said, “Ok – so what do you want from me?” Van replied that he’d like to come and talk with him, if that was possible. Dexter said, “OK, sure, um..how about tomorrow at 2 .. no, tomorrow at 4. I should be OK by then.” Van quickly thanked him and hung up the phone.
The next day at 4, he was at Dexter’s apartment in Manhattan. He went to the 7th floor, found 713, and rang the bell. There was no response, and moments later, Van knocked on the door. Just at that moment, a man poked his head through a crack in the door. The man said, “You the guy Remnass sent?” Van, a bit confused by the reference, nonetheless nodded. The man opened the door just wide enough for Van to enter. The man shut the door, and ushered Van into an apartment that had to be seen to believe. The building was fairly new, quite nice on the outside with a marble lobby and a doorman. On the landing outside the apartment there were fresh flowers on a small, cherry table below a gilt mirror. But the inside of the apartment looked … well, “it looked like a war zone,” Van thought. “Man, this is worse than my apartment was at its absolute worst. Wow.”
Dexter removed what appeared to be about a month’s worth of newspapers and magazines from a loveseat at right angles to a couch where it appeared the occupant slept. There were a series of dips in the couch that matched the outline of a fairly heavy man. Dexter threw himself down on the couch, and picked up a pillow and embraced it. “So, tell me again who you are?”
Van repeated exactly what Remnick had told him after he’d offered the position of war correspondent to him. It appeared that, at last, Dexter grasped what he was telling him. Softly, Dexter said, “That son of a bitch. That son of a bitch. That God-damned son of a bitch!” Van waited to find out who the SOB was that Dexter was referring to. Finally, after a long pause, Dexter gave an ironic laugh. “So, Remnass has found somebody to replace me. Woulda been nice if he’d told me first.”
Van gleaned the awful truth – that he’d been sent on a fool’s errand to inform this journalist that he’d been replaced – by himself. “Gee, sorry man, I didn’t know,” was the only lame thing Van could think to say. “But trust me, I have no desire to go anywhere that even vaguely looks like a war zone. But I told David I’d come and talk with you, so here I am.” Van again felt awkward as Dexter just sat, hugged the pillow and glared at him.
Finally, Dexter rose from the couch to go into a kitchen that – based on a view from the doorway – appeared to be a bigger wreck than the living room. “Want a beer…what’d you say your name was?” Van replied, “It’s Van – Van Collins. And yes, I’ll take a brew.” That feeling of awkwardness just wouldn’t go away. Van thought the less he said, the better until he figured out how Dexter was going to react to the news of his being replaced. Dexter returned with two bottles of Corona. “Sorry… fresh outa limes.” Van replied, “No problem,” and took a swig of the beer. It was barely above lukewarm.
Dexter flounced back onto the sofa. “So have you done any war zone work before?” Van took another sip of the warm beer, and said, “No, not really. I work for The New Republic, and just won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting with my piece called, Who Killed Kitty Genovese. Maybe you read it?” Dexter just shook his head no, rather vaguely. Again there was a long pause. Dexter said, “So what’s the deal with us having this conversation? Remnass just send you to do his dirty work?” Van replied, somewhat hautily, “If you mean David Remnick, yes, he sent me, as I mentioned twice – here and on the phone.” Van felt like a complete asshole now with that last statement. But Dexter didn’t even seem to notice. “Yeah, whatever,” was all he said.
There was another, long pause. Finally, Dexter looked up at Van and sat his bottle of beer down. “War reporting is the best and the worst of anything you’ll ever experience. Man, the stories I could tell you. But I already told everybody my stories in my book. The book bought this place,” as Dexter waved his arms around at his surroundings, “But that was about all I got out of it. Iraq…Falluja…Kabul…the Kush…” Dexter’s voice trailed off. “I lost my wife over it. She was a good woman. I cheated on her over there. I’m sure you read about it…it was all over the ‘net.”
Van said, “Well, I’m sorry about that…no, I didn’t know anything about that. I have to admit that I haven’t really followed much of the news about any of those wars. I’m …” Dexter looked at Van as though he were an alien from another planet. “What the fuck, man? Are you one of those 98% of the population that lets those kids do your dirty work and just says, ‘thank you for your service’ and gets choked up at Budweiser ads?” Van thought for a moment, and then replied, “Yes, I guess I am.” Dexter snorted, and picked up the beer again. He drained it in four swallows.
“Want another one?” Van said, “No thanks .. I’m good.” Dexter retreated into the kitchen again and Van could hear the sound of the refrigerator opening. “Fuck,” Apparently Dexter’s supply of Corona had run out. Van heard Dexter rummaging in the cabinet, and then he returned to the living room with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Dexter picked up the bottle, nodded at Van, and then took three long pulls from the neck. He sat the bottle down on the coffee table. “Now where was I? Oh, yeah, delivering up to you what Remnass wants you to hear. OK. Man, it’s great – it’s the ultimate adrenaline rush. You know every moment is a life and death game of can I get the story and still make it back to the bar before 10. The pressure you put on yourself to get the story while you watch your back and your photographer’s back is…life altering.” Dexter picked up the bottle and drank several ounces again from the bottle. “Is that what you expected me to say, man?” Van wasn’t sure how to respond. But then a bit of inspiration hit him. “Dexter, I don’t know what Remnick had in mind. He seems to think I’m cut out to do what you did. But I’m not. And I never will be. I think you were incredibly brave to do the kind of reporting you did. But I gotta say man, you appear to be paying the price for it now. With all due respect.”
Dexter gave him a surprised look. “What are you saying, man? I’m a wreck? You bet your ass I am. I can’t stand living here. But I can’t go back, because Remnass won’t print what I write any more. The war is a joke. All those boys killed..and frankly, I was directly responsible for one of them getting killed, just so I could get a God damned picture of dead insurgents for the weekend edition of the Times. How’d you like to be that kid’s mother and get that letter? ‘Dear Mom, your son died for the weekend edition of an elite New York newspaper that doesn’t give a crap about you or him or anything other than selling ads and making money.’ Nice, huh?” Dexter drank half of what was left in the bottle of Jack.
There was another long silence. Finally, Van said, “Listen, man, I’m sorry I bothered you. I can see you’re upset about this, but as I said, I have no intention of taking the assignment. So maybe if you…um..pull yourself together and go talk to Rem..nick, you can get your job back.” Dexter looked at Van, and seemed to shudder – either at the idea of talking to David or the idea of going back to the war zone. “Nope. I’ll keep writing the bullshit I write for him. It keeps me in Corona and Jack. I’ll keep going on Charlie Rose and pretending I know what the fuck I’m talkin’ about, ’cause once every couple weeks it forces me to take a shower. But when I go back..” Dexter paused, and then looked hard at Van and pointed the whiskey bottle at him for emphasis. “When I go back it’ll be on my own terms and for my own reasons. Not to please some asshole editor that doesn’t know his bung hole from a hole in the ground.” That last phrase sent Dexter into a fit of laugher, which culminated in a coughing spasm. “Hey, man, you ought to get that cough taken care of. You don’t sound too good.” Dexter scoffed, shaking his head. “Thanks for the good advice.”
Van rose to leave, but just then Dexter said, “Hey man, let’s go have some dinner. I’ll clean up and we’ll go eat someplace. Whadda ya say?” Van thought for a moment, and realized no food had been added to his pantry since that night Catherine dropped off those two bags. “Sure man – no problem.” Let’s do it.” Van waited in the living room for Dexter to take a shower and change his clothes. The man emerged twenty minutes later looking like a new person. They went to the elevator, and walked out of the building into the early evening. The weather was cool and clear. Dexter led him down the street to a small cafe, Nick & Toni’s on West 67th. Van ordered the tilefish, and Dexter had the rib eye steak. Their conversation at first was strained, but then Dexter asked him about the article that had won him the Pulitzer. Van spent the next twenty five minutes talking animatedly about the people involved that he’d interviewed, about Jack Peters being a wreck, but in particular about Michael, Sophia’s adopted grandson, and how agonized he still was over Kitty’s death. When he’d finished, he realized that Dexter was staring at him with tears streaming down his cheeks. Dexter wiped them away. “Sorry, man…happens to me all the time. Guess that’s one byproduct of war reporting. Your emotions are right up there on the surface. But thanks for sharing all that with me. I’ll make a point to read the piece.”
Van walked Dexter back to his apartment, and then took a cab home. Before he left him at the door, Dexter turned to him. “You know, this is the first time I’ve had dinner out with somebody else in months. I enjoyed it. Thanks, man. Take care of yourself.” And with that, Dexter gave him a hug and then walked into the building. Van thought to himself that this was the strangest encounter he’d had – likely ever – with a guy. “So that’s what happens to you when you become a war journalist. I think I’ll pass.”