"IF THERE IS ANY JUSTICE IN THIS WORLD SOME DAY HIS STOMACH WILL BE MOUNTED OVER THE DOORWAY OF THE GREATEST TAPROOM IN THE COUNTRY."
For some obscure reason, the oldest of Dexter's columns are memorialized in the Philadelphia Daily News computer archives in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS and NO COMMAS, and maybe that's a little bit how he's remembered, too. It turns out to not be a bad way to read them - kind of the way he made his way through Philly.
Less obscurely, many of those columns, written in the 1970s and '80s, are collected in a new book, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage.
The book includes notable Dexter topics, such as the famously small-breasted Mrs. Dexter; his dog McGuire; drunken Northeast kids; the Mummers; and Red Peak, 64, a man who sees a cabdriver get shot and "finds that he can't sit in front of his home on Toronto Street until the blood has been washed away," so gets himself a bucket and mop. It makes only passing reference to the night that cemented the Dexter myth in Philly, when he got beaten within an inch of his life in a bar by the brother of a dead man he'd written about.
It is this book that has Dexter, 63, driving cross-country in a four-door pickup that he is convinced is only a second from calamity and has a mind of its own. He's driving from his home on Whidbey Island, a ferry ride from Seattle, making his way to Philadelphia for an appearance at the library tonight.
The notion of a reporter catching a one-way ride to Milledgeville with a woman named Iris to hitch a ride with him strikes him as nicely absurd, with the requisite amount of lurking danger. "When I heard Iris, I didn't think you were going to make it," he says. "It sounds like it's up to me to get you in some kind of trouble." The last time we crossed paths, on Mole Street 20 years ago, he asked the time and had a drink spilled on him instead, which is what happens when you check your watch while holding your beer.
But last week, in truth, it was a more distant past that had Dexter's attention, as he rode around the small Georgia college town - where he moved at the age of 4, after his father died and his mom remarried a physics professor named Thurlow Tollefson - a town notable for its reform school and its insane asylum, and where, at 10, he went to a parade and heard shots fired that killed two lawyers, an incident that inspired his novel Paris Trout, winner of the National Book Award.
In true Dexter fashion, when he arrived in Milledgeville, it took him four hours to find the house he lived in as a boy. Eventually, he went to his grade school and traced the path he took cutting through neighbors' yards. He knocked, but an elderly woman refused to let him in. "She said I don't see the point, and shut the door," he said. He let it go. The home at 781 Matheson St. is a modest boxy place at the spot where the gravel road curves and heads downhill. Pretty much the end of town.
He is 600 pages into a novel about himself and his stepdad. "It's about debt," he says. "What you owe and what you can't pay back." As is his way, he's dealing with memories both ridiculous - the awful things he did to his neighbor Martha Rae - and complicated.
"It's all still so fresh. I look at all this, how hard he tried," Dexter says. "He was trying to make everybody happy. It breaks my heart. It's almost like I'm finding my dad again."
And so he's here checking things out for the novel, absorbing the town where he stole eggs from a neighbor to pelt at houses, tortured various girls around town, and first encountered writer Flannery O'Connor - who spent the last 13 years of her life, from 1951 to 1964, in this same town. As it happens - and Dexter only found this out recently - O'Connor wrote a story based on the same 1954 shooting that inspired Paris Trout, a story she called "The Partridge Festival."
His time in town seems evenly spent between stumbling upon complicated memories from his childhood and trying to figure out again and again, each time as if it's a surprise, how to keep his shorts from sliding down over his narrow hips.
He speaks softly, his face still carrying a boyish impishness, his eyes brimming at the slightest turn back in time. He is visibly moved by a visit to the dairy farm where O'Connor lived and wrote the kind of matchless prose he grew to revere. He did not stick a girl's head into a cow collar like the last time.
The other night, on Hancock Street, Dexter walked out of a pool hall, disappointing in that it sold no hard liquor, but notable for a fine old wooden sign requesting "no profanity" and chairs that looked vaguely like electric chairs minus the cables. Again, he found himself back in 1953, during a celebration of Milledgeville's 150th birthday. "I was right there, heard the shots," he says. "The storm was coming in over town."
It was then perhaps - as the ordinary erupted into violence, the placid broke into confusion, and the surface of things pulled way back - that Dexter the screwball kid tapped into something deeper and saw that these things parading past him were worth collecting and figuring out and putting into stories.
Not that he ever really stopped being the screwball. Upon moving into an apartment at Eighth and Pine - he soon escaped to Jersey and his wife, Dian - Dexter called 911 to discuss the relative merits of shooting out your chandelier versus stabbing your refrigerator. "I was a little bit out of control in those days," he says.
But while he's not above sticking his head out the window of his truck and shouting, "Where can I find a bar?" and noting that the asylum has the same address as the Daily News, and talking about when his dog ate out the seat of his pants ("Mrs. Dexter fell in love all over again"), the troublemaker in Dexter is a bit in remission. He even dilutes his screwdrivers.
Driving by a church, he recalls the day when the pastor promised to pay a dime to anyone who could recite a verse from the Bible. One kid got up and did a 10-minute recitation and got his dime. Then Dexter raised his hand.
"Jesus wept," he said. Even as a boy, it seems, Dexter had a knack for cutting through things to get to the heart. And for paying the price. The pastor refused the dime. "After that," he says, "it all went downhill."
Milledgeville, like Philadelphia, is not a town that gets used up quickly. "You could write a column in Milledgeville," Dexter says, which was not true about Sacramento, the town he left Philly for in 1986, which left him cold. "I'm sure Philly's the best place in the world to write a column," he says. "Stuff was going on there. And whatever it is, they're not letting go of it."
After a time spent riding with Dexter, you realize he has a way of taking off in his truck without quite knowing where he's going and for jumping out of the truck while it's still in drive, leaving it lurching up the street without him.
Which is kind of like what happened when he left Philly. People are still riled up about things he did back then, particularly about when he went to the bar that night in 1981, not once but twice to confront the brother upset with this column, the second time getting set upon by 30 men waiting for him. In Grays Ferry, they are still debating whether it was pool cues or baseball bats that were used.
But Dexter says the fight does not loom that large for him. It left him with some physical problems, but so did football and boxing. It took away his taste for drinking for a while. He still walks with a limp and deals with some debilitating pain, usually in the middle of the night. "The profound thing that came out of it was not the evening itself but what happened a few days later in the hospital," which he won't talk about because it's in the new novel.
"It was just a stupid thing I did and should never have done. There's a limit to how much I hold myself accountable for. That was a bad night, but I've had more unpleasant ones where people liked me less."
What does irk him still is the similarity between HBO's series Deadwood and his identically named 1986 novel about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok in South Dakota. Series creator David Milch denies any connection.
As he heads out of Milledgeville, headed to Philly by way of Myrtle Beach, he's still got some harsh words for some of the people he knew in Philadelphia. "Of all the people, he turned out to be a [obscenity] fraud," he says of one guy he knew at the Daily News. But others he remains devoted to, like his friend Mickey Rosati, who owns the gym where Dexter took refuge and boxed, and his newspaper pal Dan Geringer.
And he'll go looking, again, for his old friend Randall "Tex" Cobb, the heavyweight boxer who accompanied him to the bar that night and probably saved his life. Last time he was in town, he tried to find Cobb but could not. Dexter does not know where he is, but he'll keep looking. As befits a man who can play a few rounds of pool on a street where echoes of evil still hover, who can look at a $3 tab and leave $40, a man still grappling with what he owes people in his life, Dexter's not one to leave a debt unpaid. Because he knows there are some you just can't pay.
Contact Inquirer staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Go along for the ride with Pete Dexter. http://go.philly.com/dexter
The Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., 7 tonight. Free. Information: 215-567-4341.