“Peggy. This is Carl Baxter. Please call me at…” It was that call one expects will come in the middle of the night. But I received the message on a Sunday afternoon in late October, as the sun was just beginning to drain from the sky.
The moment I heard Carl’s name I knew that Dale was dead. I hadn’t spoken to Carl, Dale’s younger brother, in over 30 years. At first I thought the message was from Dale. Their voices had the same cadence and their calls began with the same idiosyncratic greeting: no “Hello,” but my name delivered in two staccato beats. I had been hearing those staccato beats for most of my life.
I began dating Dale the week after I graduated from high school. It was 1968, and while I was still wearing Ladybug shirtwaist dresses and Capezio flats, Dale, a year older, was a long-haired, pot-smoking hippie. He was everything a high school boyfriend should be—tall, rangy, with wavy brown hair, a Mustang convertible, and a swimming pool in his backyard. He was as beautiful as Jesus, or at least the pictures of Jesus I knew from my Episcopal childhood. But what really drew me to him were his shirts.
He wore Indian-print tunics, limp from washing and patterned with muted paisleys in red, greens, and blues. Their softness reminded me of my grandfather. He always seemed to be wearing a flannel shirt, fragrant with an intoxicating mix of pipe tobacco and aftershave. When I was five, Grampy would bring me envelopes stuffed with shiny pennies—a hundred of them!
At the end of a date, Dale and I would hug for hours at my front door. I can recall the whisper of his beard on my cheek, but I don’t remember what we talked about or if we talked much at all. We were lost in love, sex, and the drugs of the time: LSD, mescaline, hashish, and opium. For Dale, the drugs exerted a pull that never let go.
He had a troubled life. When Dale was ten, an older brother died of cancer. Their mother used her anger and grief to punish Dale and Carl. Or perhaps she couldn’t bear the risk of loving, and losing, them, too. “Why couldn’t it have been you who died?” she would say to Dale whenever he disappointed her, which was often.
At sixteen, Dale took an overdose of pills and was hospitalized at the gloomy hospital hidden behind a sweep of trees in our suburban town. For us sheltered and privileged teenagers, his act was more romantic than alarming. But Dale was dropping out.
He traveled through India and lived in Haight-Ashbury, following the drugs. Then in my junior year at college, he came to live with me. By then my mother was dead, my father soon to die, and I was yearning for both a semblance of home and the softness of his shirt.
We spent the next eight years together until his problems with drugs and, increasingly, alcohol were more than I could bear. Even in his twenties, his body was so permeated with gin that its oily smell seemed to exude from every pore.
I had no patience or sympathy for his addiction. He had become my father. At the age of eight, I had sat in my father’s lap, hypnotized by his deep, rich voice as he read me The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Ten years later, he was passed out every evening on the living room sofa. I would be wakened in the dead of night by the thud of his glass falling to the floor as he stumbled awake, the voice I loved now a slurred mutter as he worked his way up the stairs to bed.
I would not wait again. I left Dale. I still remember the surge of freedom as I put my key into the lock of my new house the first day we were apart. He would not be there.
I was, it turned out, abysmal at letting go. Even after I had moved to another state, we kept in telephone contact. He was in and out of rehab, worked for years as a carpenter, got married, and bought a house. But always, inexorably, he slid back into the numbing lull of alcohol. His wife left him. He lost the house. With his body cracked and crooked from many years of outdoor labor, he could no longer find work.
He craved the reassurance that someone was glad he had not killed himself yet. For years I was the good mother. I found a way to listen and make suggestions, and then get off the phone. Proud of my ability to set limits, I thought I had discovered the perfect distance between absence and presence.
This past August, Dale became terrified by changes in his body. He had searing pain in his side and had been diagnosed with cirrhosis. He stopped drinking. He told me that he had been drinking a fifth of vodka every morning just to keep his hands from shaking.
For the first time in years, his thinking and speech were clear. We talked about music, old friends, our memories of each other’s parents. “Remember the time we … ” was the way most of our sentences began. The last time he called, I was on my way to the opera. “Call me again,” I said. “I want to talk to you.” But the next call was from Carl.
The coroner said that Dale died of a heart attack. His body was not discovered for three days, until neighbors noticed newspapers piled by his door and called the police.
I thought I had perfected the art of distance. I am stunned by how I have been flooded by his presence. He was just one year older than me. He was one of the few people still in my life who had known my parents. He had been doing better.
For several weeks after my beloved grandmother died, I left her bedroom just as it was on the last night she spent in her apartment. I wanted some essence of her to stay—an indentation in the black leather recliner where she sat, the scent of Cashmere Bouquet powder on her pillowcase. A close friend cautioned, “You can’t make her room a shrine.” But I am a builder of shrines—to the coppery smell of new pennies, the soothing power of a well-worn shirt, or poetry read in a sonorous bass voice.
And so I have not deleted Carl’s message from my answering machine. Each time I retrieve my messages, I first hear that facsimile of Dale’s voice. I do not know when I will press the button and lose the chance to hear, once more, those two staccato beats.