I first met Dale in 1980. He was the goofy cashier in Cumberland Farms and I was the eleven-year-old kid who bought candy from him three times a week after school. He was cute, but sloppy. Wild black hair, pretty blue eyes. He kind of looked like John Travolta in his Vinnie Barbarino days; if John Travolta would have not showered, brushed his teeth or hair on a daily basis and smoked so much pot he was never not high. He was good for a laugh. He always said something funny when I came in, and when the register would pop open at the end of the transaction, he would jump back and yell “Ow!” like the drawer had smashed his crotch. Although I liked Dale and thought he was funny, I knew he belonged at Cumberland Farms. So imagine my horror when I came home from school one day and found him sitting on my living room couch.
“Hey, I know you,” he said. I smiled, then went to find my sister.
“What is that Cumberland Farms loser doing on our couch?” I asked her.
What was he doing, indeed. Apparently setting a trend that no one could have seen at that time, but this is my story with Dale. So I will stick to how he affected me, some times I spent with him, and the legacy he left behind, one of the greatest gifts of my life, my niece Jessica.
These are the pre-Jessica years, the times spent with him and Lani in their first apartment. I was there at least one weekend a month and it was kinda fun (except for the times he would come home from work and they would stick their faces in bongs and smoke hash from under drinking glasses). Lani and I would watch movies (whoa! They had HBO!). We’d ride bikes, play cards, cook together. Dale liked to color (yes, I know how this sounds) and he bought this big poster that we all colored together with markers. For my birthday that year (’82), they bought me my own. I was thrilled. I only colored not even a fourth of that busy old thing. I may still have it. Dale and Lani each colored one section. They let my best friend at the time come and sleep there too sometimes and when Rick Springfield played at Great Adventure, it was Lani and Dale who took us to see him. There was a pool in their apartment complex, and the three of us went midnight swimming, Dale lifting me and Lani over the fence. It was the first time I skinny dipped. I felt like such a rebel. And yes, when I got out of the pool to put my clothes back on, Dale turned away.
Once Jessica was born Lani and Dale couldn’t get rid of me. They lived with my dad for a while, then moved into a house. I was over there constantly, playing with my niece, my real life baby doll. I walked her everywhere, I held her, I fed her, I changed her, I would carry her around the house, I never wanted to put her down. Lani got a job around where Dale’s parents lived, so while she worked, Dale, Jessica and I would hang around his folks’, me swimming with Jess in their pool. One of Jess’ favorite stories is of how I sat her on the deck and swam away from her and she fell face first into the water. She came up blinking and didn’t start crying until I asked her with panicked face and voice, “Omigod, Jess, are you all right?”
Dale was changing around this time, becoming grumpy and putting Lani down. He was laid off from his job and being mean to Jess sometimes, yelling at her a lot. I think he was starting to realize the inevitable, the thing that most adults know that nineteen-year-old and twenty-three-year-old newlyweds don’t: playing house is fun. Bills and compromise and daily routine is not. The house he was living in was bought by my father for the express purpose of keeping a roof over Jessica and Lani’s heads when the marriage went kaput. It was just a matter of time. And by the summer of 1985, the relationship had run its course. It was too late for Dale to save it, and my heart bled for him the day Lani told him it was over and he left the house for the last time. Don’t get me wrong, there are two sides. I was sixteen and wanted Lani to leave Dale. He wasn’t good for her and there was a new guy who wanted her. She was becoming my buddy, someone who could go out with me more if there was no husband in the picture. But I actually tried to convince Lani to give him another chance that day. She told me something else I knew was true: that I had felt sorry for Jimmy (the boyfriend she left for Dale) the day she told him it was over, too. People get sad, they make promises, but it’s no reason to not move on, to not do what you know is best.
I’m not sure how many more times I saw Dale after that day. He came around sporadically, eventually moved to Florida. But the last day I remember seeing him was sometime in the 90’s. I forget where it was, but he came up to visit Jess. I remember he looked good. Fit and healthy. He was wearing some new teeth. He was tanned. I thought maybe he had changed a little. Maybe he had taken his life and turned it into something good. Now that I know how this story ends, I can only hope that he found some happiness and peace in the decisions he made along the way, the life he chose to lead at the expense of his daughter.
The last time I saw Dale was the fall of 2011. I was newly relocated to Tampa and Jess was visiting him further north. She wanted to know if we could meet for dinner; Dale would drive halfway. So we met at an Olive Garden in Orlando. Dale looked the same, a little grayer, a little more chunky, no teeth. But still upbeat (and high), and a mirror image of Jess. They have the same face, same mannerisms, same sense of humor. He gave me a new off-color expression, so thank you, Dale. He treated to the meal, we took pictures outside and went our separate ways. I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d ever see him. I didn’t think about it at all. He wasn’t the healthiest person around, but less than two years from his deathbed? Nah. Didn’t know that.
Dale passed away today shortly after six in the morning. I am driving up to Palm Coast tomorrow to support my niece. As for her relationship with her father; that is hers. In some ways I can relate. When my father died I had the sense that his new wife and her family and others had the attitude that I probably wasn’t grieving all that much. That my mom left my dad when I was three and as a result I spent the least amount of time with him. But we all know quantity does not equal quality. The time my dad took me school uniform shopping and drove me and my friend Claudia to Dancin’ On Air and waited hours in the parking lot for me is a cherished day. Our many dinners together, just the two of us, and weekend trips down the shore when I was a teen. My early memories of my hip dad with his girlfriends, me sitting on their laps and receiving gifts and feeling like daddy’s little princess. My relationship with him is my own, as is Jess’ with Dale, as is mine with Dale.
He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t always do the right thing. In fact, he seemed to always have a knack for doing the wrong thing. And I have been mad at him many times, called him an asshole behind his back–and in front of his face. But he did something very important, something that changed my life forever, brought me much joy in the form of someone who knows me so well sometimes it’s scary. He gave me Jess. So I thank him, and can be grateful that my sister walked into Cumberland Farms one day and saw something in the loser cashier that was pre-ordained to remain hidden from everyone else.