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Clad in faded gym shorts, a sweat-stained T-shirt and a pink New York Yankees cap, Dexter emerges from his Whidbey guesthouse. Squinting in the bright, crayon-blue September sunshine, a smile lights his face as he greets Walter and Henry, his beloved Labrador retrievers.
Henry, more rambunctious, earns the most affection. “I talk a lot to him, and he listens. I think he understands,” Dexter muses. “I read to him.”
The guesthouse is where Dexter writes, seven days a week, always in the dead of night—midnight to 5 a.m. Then he’ll sleep, usually until 2 p.m. The routine is seldom broken, just like his mornings pounding the bag at Rosati’s.
“I like the quiet,” he volunteers. “Last night, I had a good night.”
“What do you consider a good night?” he’s asked.
“Four pages,” he replies. “When there’s something good and really fresh on each page, that’s a good night. I know when I’m being stale, repeating myself, pulling the same trick.”
Dexter and Mrs. Dexter, as he always referred to her in his columns, moved 18 years ago to Clinton, a windswept village (population: 928) scattered across a bluff on the south end of 35-mile-long Whidbey Island, which he discovered during a book tour in Seattle in the early ’90s. One day, he rented a car and went wandering and was struck by the island’s beauty and solitude.
The Dexters live in a large bungalow that sits atop 10 thickly wooded acres. A winding, tree-lined gravel road leads to the home. The place is bright and airy, featuring a knotty pine-paneled living room, a stone-encased fireplace, built-in bookcases, high ceilings and breathtaking vistas of the Cascade Range.
The Dexters’ life is largely reclusive. There are dinners in nearby Langley, a quaint bed-and-breakfast hamlet, and the occasional foray to San Diego to visit Casey, a former film assistant in LA who recently gave birth to her first child and made Dexter a grandpa. There are also trips down the hill to Bailey’s Corner Store to fetch a New York Times; and, as serious Yankee fans (especially Dian), they subscribe to a cable network that airs all 162 games.
“I’ve tried to keep a low profile here. I just wanted to get out of California, out of the big city, with all the crime and traffic. There was nothing right with that place,” Dexter volunteers, referring to Sacramento, where he spent his final years in the news business as a columnist for The Sacramento Bee in the late 1980s. He says the Bee felt like working at an insurance company—at least compared to the madcap atmosphere he and fellow misfits enjoyed at the Daily News.
Accustomed to the adrenalin-drenched grind of daily journalism, the early days on Whidbey were an adjustment. Initially, he found himself “full of juice and no place to shoot it,” as he playfully laments in the introduction he wrote for Paper Trails, a compilation of 82 columns mostly from his days at the Daily Newsand the Bee.
“What does one do, for instance, with the story of Lucky Al, as he was known during his short stay here on the island?” Dexter continues, by way of explaining the frustration of no longer having a permanent newspaper slot in which to spin his yarns. Al, Dexter learned, was a 54-year-old bachelor who’d come to Whidbey after getting a seven-figure settlement from a drug company. The guy buys a new car and a set of Callaway golf clubs, smokes $50 cigars, joins the local council for the arts, and rescues a dog from the pound. Yes, Lucky Al has the world by the tail.
Then, just a few months into his new life, Lucky Al dies in his bathtub, and—making it a columnist’s dream—is subsequently eaten by his dog.
As he writes in the intro to Paper Trails, with an uncanny blend of tragedy and gallows humor, a Dexter trademark, “In the dog’s defense, she’d only been with him a month, and it’s easy to criticize from the sidelines when you’re not hungry yourself.”
Dexter no longer misses the news business, however. “Papers, they all look alike now. It’s sort of like Hollywood. If something works, everyone copies it,” he complains. “I couldn’t work at the Philadelphia Daily News now. There’s no one anymore who’s going to turn you loose to go after a story the way it used to be.”
After Dian shoos Henry and Walter outside, Dexter ambles toward the bedroom to change. “As long as I got company, I guess I’ll put on a pair of pants,” he cracks. He offers his guest a beer, though he won’t drink one himself, fetching instead another Diet Coke.
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