Van is seated at his desk at The New Republic. He is busy writing a letter to the person who was his best friend, now dead for two years to the day. He’s just finishing up the last line, folds up the letter, and sticks it in his pocket. He grabs his coat and walks out into the lunch hour sunshine. He takes a cab to127-15 Kew Gardens Road. He asks the cabbie to wait, and walks up the lane and turns to the left. His friend’s granite gravestone is three in. He arrives at the grave, and takes the letter out of his pocket. He places the letter under a bottle of Jack Daniels on top of the marker. He walks back to the cab, and asks the driver to drop him on W. 67th, where he enters the building and his empty apartment. All the furniture is gone, and the sounds of his footsteps resonate on the waxed wood floor. He looks in all the bedrooms, empty and forlorn. He returns back downstairs, and takes another cab back to the office.
Back at the cemetary, a young couple has come to do an etching on one of the gravestones. Don Marquis, a newspaper columnist in the early 20th century, wrote fanciful columns that included the characters Archy and Mehitabel. The couple are big fans of Don’s columns, and are writing a blog about them. The etching will be the centerpiece of the blog’s Home Page.
Don’s grave is two down from the grave on which the stranger put an unopened, fresh bottle of Jack. The couple, more curious than anything, walk over to the gravestone. They pick up the bottle of Jack, not sure if it’s a good idea to pilfer it since that’s technically grave robbing. Besides, who knew what was in it? But then the woman notices the letter that was under the bottle, that has now begun to blow away in the wind. She takes a few steps, and picks up the letter. She looks at her partner with questioning eyes. He nods. Go ahead and look at it. There’s nobody around. The young woman opens the letter and reads it out loud to her partner.
October 20, 2018
It’s been two years since you left us. It seems much longer than that. I miss you, my friend. I miss your wicked humor, your cynical take on life and love, but most of all I miss your caring encouragement. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it hadn’t been for you and your influence.
After you died, I went into a deep depression. I couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat and even thought about ending it all. I told Catherine and Chris that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I needed to know that there was something more to life than going to the office, going home and just existing each day. I told them I needed to go back to being a war correspondent. At first they both laughed, but I told them I was quite serious. Then they both reminded me that I had responsibilities – a wife, children and debts. After that, I stopped talking to them about it.
But I knew I had to do something different. I really knew I was in trouble when I started getting visits again from Kitty Genovese. You remember that piece I wrote about her, the one that kick-started my career. She started coming to me in my dreams at night. She’d remind me that I had a responsibility, first and foremost to myself to be happy and to live a full life. She reminded me that her life was cut short, and I owed it to her to fully live mine. I resisted at first, but the more I thought about what she was saying, the clearer I got that what she was telling me was true. I had to go back to doing what I had to do to feel alive. And I did. I took your advice, and I am doing what I love the most. It costs me a lot of time and trouble, but I’m a much happier man for having done so. I know you’d be proud of me.
If there is a heaven – and Kitty tells me there is – I know you’re there, probably looking for some war zone to go and report from. But always know you were my best friend, and I’ll always remember you. Take care – and enjoy the Jack.
The couple folds up the letter, and tucks it back under the Jack. They go back to Marquis’s grave and start their etching.
Van is back in the action, watching the bullets fly around his head and talking with the soldiers on either side of him, in the corner of the building where they are hiding out from the enemy. The noise of battle is deafening, and the dust limits their view to just a few feet. The soldier to his left signals to the man on his right, pointing to both their left where there’s another wall to use as cover. Both men grab their weapons, and make a dash for it. There’s an explosion, a hail of gunfire, and the two soldiers fall. Blood is pooling underneath both of them. Neither are moving. Van is stuck behind the wall, but he knows he’s not safe there. He looks around, desperately trying to find someplace to hide behind before the next salvo and automatic fire cuts off his escape route. He summons all his courage, and tries to make a run for it. At that moment, he hears the automatic gunfire and sees the enemy gunmen to his right. He’s been shot in the neck, chest and arms. Blood spurts out and covers the ground around him, joining the pools of blood from the two soldiers. He is dead.
Van puts down the game controller, on the coffee table in the living room of their new farmhouse in Vermont. He looks at his oldest child, his 4-year old son Dexter. Van says to the boy, “Well, that didn’t work out too well.” Dexter replies, “Dad, you just aren’t fast enough with the controls! I’ll have to show you again how to do it better so you’ll survive next time. You’re really lame at this, you know.” His father nods, saying “I guess I need all the help I can get, huh?” Van tousles the boy’s hair, and then gives Dexter a serious look. “Listen, are you coming with me this afternoon?” Dexter grimaces, and says “Aw, Dad, those guys kinda give me the creeps. They’re missing arms and legs and sometimes even eyes!” Van responds, “These guys need our love and attention, because that’s how they heal. Besides, this afternoon we’re volunteering with a group that takes these disabled veterans out in the woods in ATVs and jeeps. You should like that!” Dexter mulls that over for a moment. “Do you think I could sit in your lap and maybe drive some?” Van says, “Well, we’ll just have to see if they’ll let us do that. OK? Dexter replies, “Cool. Yep, I’ll go with you. But this time, let’s not tell mom, OK? She’s always afraid one of these guys is gonna have that thing she calls, um, pee cee dee?” Van says, “Dexter, it’s called PTSD, and that stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. And I think we’re safe with these guys. But maybe we should tell mom we’re just going on a hike. Right little man?” Dexter nods vigorously, and says, “Cool.”
As they pack up their backpack for the trip, Van looks at the framed picture of Kitty on the mantle. Her smile is just as sweet as always, Her eyes seem to look into Van’s, judging him harshly for not pursuing the adventurous life he used to think he wanted. He says to the picture “I am living my life to the fullest, helping these guys deal with their demons and get better. So get off my back, huh?”
Van tosses the backpack over his shoulder, and ushers Dexter out the front door. The boy bounds out to the waiting SUV. Van turns, and shouts to Catherine, upstairs with 3 year old Eva and the new baby, Maida Catherine. “Honey, Dex and I are going hiking in the woods. We’ll be back in time for supper.” Catherine shouts back, “OK, sweetie. We’re having pork chops for supper, so don’t be too late.” Van closes the door, and walks to the SUV, to the life he loves, doing what he loves. And he says to himself, “What a wonderful world.”