Death changes everything.
It was a little after dawn on the twenty-first of March 1981 when Randall Pritchard torqued his Triumph Bonneville off the 101 interchange southeast of Silverlake. The seventeen-year-old girl behind him gave a terrified howl as she flew off the back of the motorcycle, cartwheeled twice, and slammed facedown on the pavement, breaking both wrists and four front teeth and going mercifully unconscious. Randall never made a sound. He simply followed the bike's trajectory, over the railing toward the sunrise, his long hair shining in the pink-gold glow and his arms outstretched to meet the rusty spokes of the construction barrier at the base of the concrete pilings. A skinny, pockmarked teenager from Inglewood was crouched nearby, rummaging through a stolen backpack. He saw Randall hit the barrier, the dust and rock that rose in a cloud, the blood that soaked Randall's blue cotton shirt.
"`Delia,'" the boy told reporters later. "The man just whispered `Delia' and died."
Delia Byrd had been up for an hour, walking back and forth in the tiny garden behind the house in Venice Beach, thinking about the local convenience store, where the liquor was overpriced but accessible twenty-four hours a day. Eyes on the sunrise, fists curled up to her midriff, she was singing to herself, stringing one lyric to another, pulling choruses from songs she had not sung onstage in five years and segueing into garbled versions of rock and roll and folk. She told her friend Rosemary that there was real magic in some of those old melodies, especially the lesser successes of groups like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio. Rosemary laughed at the notion of a mantra in the mundane, but Delia found that after a few dozen repetitions of "The MTA" she could unfocus her eyes and laugh at the desire to drink.
"Oh, he never returned," Delia was singing softly as Randall's head dropped forward and the dark blood gushed one last time. She stopped then. Something may have passed her in the cool morning air, but Delia did not feel it. Focused on the muscles in her neck and upper back, the ones that ached all the time, she wrapped her arms around herself, gripped her shoulders so tightly she started to shake with the effort, and then let go abruptly. The release was luxurious and welcome. A little of the weight lifted, the weight of more than two solid years of trying not to do what she still wanted desperately to do, to sip whiskey until the world turned golden and quiet and safe, until Dede and Amanda Louise, the daughters she had left behind, ceased whispering and whimpering from behind her left ear. She hadn't had a drink since November, and the strain showed.
I'm tired, Delia thought the moment Randall died. A garbage truck rumbled up the narrow alley behind the cottage. A shabby gray cat jumped the fence with a yowl. Delia's neck pulled tight again as a shaft of sunlight cut through the tattered palm fronds by the fence. "I want to go home," she said out loud, and the two girls in her memory lifted their shadowy heads and turned hot eyes in her direction.
Behind Delia, in the little house, ten-year-old Cissy stirred in her sleep and burrowed deeper into the sheets. Her daddy was riding his motorcycle into a red-gold circle of flame. He was laughing and extending his arms high into the bright burning light. He looked so happy that Cissy almost woke up. He hadn't looked happy in so long a time. "Daddy," Cissy whispered, then slipped sideways into a dream of the ocean, the water sweet as the rum and Coke Delia let her sip when she was too drunk to say no.
* * *
Rosemary called at nine with the news, but Delia had already heard on the little radio she kept set low in the kitchen that opened onto the garden. Within minutes of the report, she had pulled down all the shades and barricaded the front door with a mound of dead plants and old newspapers, hoping the mess would make the house look empty.
When Cissy got up, Delia gave her daughter a bowl of strawberries and a toasted muffin, watched her eat, and then sat down to tell her girl that Randall was dead.
Cissy laid down her spoon and looked at Delia. "I don't believe you," she said. "You're lying. You'd say anything to keep my daddy away from me."
"Oh, baby, you know that's not true," Delia said.
"No!" Cissy threw off Delia's arm and pushed her away. "It's your fault!" she screamed. "It's your fault! He should have been with us. I hate you!"
Delia said nothing. She had lost count of how many times Cissy had said those words in the last two years, ever since Delia had moved them out of Randall's house. Keeping still and letting Cissy shout had become second nature to her.
Cissy pushed herself back from the table. "You killed him," she said. "You killed my daddy."
"Cissy, please," Delia said. "We're going to need each other now." Delia was still struggling for control. She crossed her arms over her breasts. "And that's no way to talk to me," she told Cissy.
"How am I supposed to talk?" Cissy's tone was sharp and wheedling. "Please, Mama, don't fall down drunk on the floor. Please, Mama, don't pass out at the breakfast table. Or please, Mama, don't forget what day it is and send me to school when nobody's there."
Delia flinched as though she had been struck.
Cissy glared at Delia's pink face. "I hate you," she said. "I hate you more than Satan and all the devils." She turned away to hide the tears she couldn't keep back any longer.
Delia forced herself to look at her daughter. The shape of Cissy's profile seemed to alter as she watched. "You don't even believe in the devil," she said softly.
"Oh yes I do," Cissy sobbed. "I believe in the devil. He's the one made you."
Delia felt the bones in her neck turning to concrete. She wanted to weep at what she saw, the child's face lengthening and closing against her. The left eyelid drooped a little as it had since the accident, but Cissy's eyes were Amanda Louise's eyes, her mouth the exact shape of lost baby Dede's.
Slowly Cissy, the daughter Delia had always sworn was pure Randall and none of her, had grown more and more like the babies Delia had left behind. With every day Delia was sober, Cissy became more pale and cold, more angry and hurt. In Delia's dreams her girls became one creature, one keening source of anguish, one child monster damning her name.
"I hate you," Cissy said, and it was as if Delia's three girls spoke in one voice. "I hate you" became the chorus that slowed Delia's pulse until she felt as if she were swimming a mud ride, the thick scum of her guilt clogging the chambers of her heart. For two solid years, Delia had scoured her own insides trying not to be what she knew she was--hated and deserving hatred in full measure. She had abandoned her babies and spent most of a decade drunk on her butt. Even the daughter she had tried to protect despised her.
Every time she went back to the bottle, Delia sang the same song. She called it the hatred song, the I-deserve-to-die song. It had no words but Cissy's curse, no melody but Delia's own pulse. Sunrise-sunset-goddamn-me-to-hell song. Delia sang it the way she had sung for Mud Dog, with her whole soul and every ounce of her blood. People said that hearing Delia Byrd sing in concert was like hearing heartbreak in a whole new key. Her voice could make you sweat, make you move, make you want to lift your hands and pull justice out of the air. But the song Delia sang inside herself was meaner than anything anyone ever heard onstage. It was almost meaner than she could stand.
* * *
When Rosemary came over that afternoon, Delia was sitting on the hassock near the big leather couch, turning over the same six photographs and humming "Puff the Magic Dragon." Three of the pictures were in color. One showed Delia leaning back against a lazy-eyed Randall, the infant Cissy cradled in her arms. Another showed Cissy at five, riding Randall's neck with a big smile and bigger eyes. The third, dated two years later, captured them in the same pose, but Randall was noticeably thinner, his face gray and lined, and Cissy wore an awkward bandage over her left eye.
The other three photographs were black-and-white snapshots with cracked edges. Delia fingered them tenderly. In the top one she was holding a baby exactly as she held Cissy in the color photo. A solemn-faced toddler was beside her, and leaning in over her shoulder was a man with washed-out features and stunned, angry eyes. Delia put her thumb over his face and stopped singing. "Damn you," she said, and looked up to find Rosemary watching her.
Without a word Rosemary picked up the two remaining photos. That man--Clint Windsor--lifting the toddler, Amanda, in front of a small frame house with a bare dirt yard and a porch half shaded by an awkwardly hung madras bedspread; and then baby Amanda, with her wispy blond hair pulled staight up into a knot at the top of her head, and baby Dede, hair just as blond and fine barely visible in the faded photograph, the two bracketing a dark-haired older woman whose hands were linked into a clumsy praying fist. The woman's eyes were on her hands, but the girls were looking straight out at the camera, eyes enormous and fixed.
"What are you going to do now, honey?" Rosemary asked, handing Delia the photos.
"Go home," Delia told her. "I'm going home to get my babies." From the back of the house came the sound of Cissy's heartbroken weeping.
"Oh, Delia." Rosemary shook her head. "Lord, girl, you do not want to do that. Those children are half grown now. They an't seen you in more than ten years. Nobody there is going to welcome you, honey."
"You don't know that. I got people there. I got friends." Delia rose suddenly, nearly overturning the hassock. "And they're my girls. I'm their mother. That don't go away. They'll be mad at me, yeah. But I can handle that. I been handling it here."
"But you got Cissy to think about, Delia." Rosemary looked toward the back of the house. "Listen to her. She's just lost her daddy, and you know how she is about Randall. Child thinks everything that happened is her fault, that he never done nothing wrong in his life. Take some time, Delia. Take some time and let yourself think about what you're going to do."
"I am thinking about Cissy. I'm thinking about all my girls." Delia's shoulders were shaking. The pictures in her hand crumpled as she tugged her elbows in tight to her abdomen.
"Rosemary, this is what I'm meant to do," Delia said. "It's what I should have done years ago. I don't belong here. I never have. Whatever I loved in the music an't got nothing to do with living here. I hate Los Angeles. It's the outer goddamn circle of hell."
Rosemary bit her lip. Delia's face was red and sweaty, but she did not smell of drink. She smelled of fever and grief and salty outrage.
"Honey," Rosemary said, and put her hand on Delia's wire-taut shoulder. "All I'm saying is you don't have to rush things. Just give Cissy a chance to absorb what's happened." But Delia was not listening. She's going to leave, Rosemary thought. She's going to go back to Cayro and fight those crazy people for her daughters. Her hand on Delia's shoulder reluctantly stroked and soothed. She looked down at the creased pictures in Delia's hand, the two girls' faces as bleak as her friend's.
"Oh, Delia," Rosemary said one more time. "Please, just take a little while to think."
The funeral made all the papers. All and all, it was a decorous affair. The Columbia Records executive who called about sending a car for Delia was astonished when she told him she was not going. "I'm not about to let you see me crying," she said. "Let them take pictures of that girl Randall nearly killed, get a shot of her without her teeth." But in the end, though she told Rosemary she would rather have chewed dirt than put on that black dress and drive over to the church in Glendale, Delia could not refuse the grieving Cissy. A plot at Forest Lawn had been donated, but no one could swear that Randall would wind up there. Booger, solidly sober and twice the size he was when he had been with the band, drove down from Oregon to handle the arrangements for the burial and he was stubbornly closemouthed about what exactly would happen to Randall's body. "Leave that to me," he said. "Just leave it to me."
"Bet he's going to haul Randall's corpse out to the Mojave Desert and cremate him over brittlebush and dried yucca," Rosemary told Delia.
"That'd be about right," Delia said, but kept her voice low so Cissy wouldn't hear.
Cissy cried all through Booger's mumbled eulogy and the unfamiliar service. Delia sat dry-eyed and silent. Some of the band members stood up to speak, but they kept it brief. Delia kept expecting someone to say what they were all thinking--that Randall's death was as close to suicide as made no difference, that half of them had not spoken to him in the last year and the other half only when they needed money, but all the speakers looked over at Randall's sobbing child and visibly rethought their remarks. There was more "God bless" than "goddamn," and people joined in on the gospel songs with real emotion. It was as close to a Pentecostal service as could be managed in an L.A. Episcopal church.
"Wasn't too bad," Delia told Booger on the steps after, and he nodded in agreement. They both knew Rosemary and a few of the band members from the early days had chosen the music, mostly blues, and the flowers--great stands of gladiolas and ridiculously cheerful giant sunflowers imported from Brazil. "One last thing we can charge to the record company," Rosemary said with a big grin. They had also managed to block the sermon the minister was determined to deliver.
"Randall weren't exactly religious," one of the brass players told the minister, prompting boisterous laughter from the other band members.
Standing on the steps, everyone said the same thing. "Wasn't too bad."
"Not at all."
The wake was something else again. Rosemary described it to Delia contemptuously as a goddamned carnival. "Rock and roll is dead" was the refrain, and the catering was done by a discount liquor mart. Most of those who came were already drunk or stoned when they arrived, their faces slack and eyes sheathed protectively in black shades. It was a mistake, one of the Columbia guys said, holding the event at Randall's place. Rosemary agreed. All of the old band members left in the first few hours. The open house drew the new crowd, the roadies and session players, the dealers and users who had been Randall's constant companions, and all those women who had trooped in and out of the house since Delia moved out.
"Rock and Roll is DEAD!" the crowd shouted repeatedly all evening. The drunks got angrier by the hour. People wandered through the house, picking up mementos and just as often setting them down. Around midnight someone dropped the crystal guitar Randall had been given after Mud Dog passed the half-million mark with Diamonds and Dust. The accident sparked a general melee, people smashing things just for the satisfaction of watching glass fly.
"Where's Delia?" one of the drunks demanded.
"Oh, she's pretty broke up," he was told.
"Well, goddamn it, so am I!"
Ignoring the weeping girls and cursing men, Rosemary went upstairs to look through Randall's closets. The seventeen-year-old who had been on the back of the bike swore at her awkwardly with her broken mouth but could do nothing with her pitiful hands encased in casts. Rosemary went about collecting what she had come for: all the pictures of Delia and Cissy, and a few pieces of jewelry from the big teak box on the burl table where Randall had always thrown his things.
Downstairs, a late-news repeat of a Reagan speech came on the television after the videotape of the funeral coverage clicked off. Those thin lips moved soundlessly while the roadies roared obscenities and poured beer into the back of the big-screen television set. When it finally blew up, everyone laughed helplessly as sparks sprayed the rug. Rosemary skirted the smoldering carpet as she left. The fire that flared up just before dawn probably started in that rug, abetted by the thirty or forty candles set up all over the living room with its gossamer curtains. The revelers swore the fire was Randall's creation, the flames trailing behind the ghost they saw walking the rooms in that dawn hour.
"He took his house," a roadie told the reporter from Rolling Stone. "He took it right down to hell."
Already Randall was becoming a legend, magnified Into what he had never been, the Doomed Prince of Rock and Roll. Snakeskin boots and suede jacket, dark glasses and flashing teeth--the ghost of Randall Pritchard took the house down, his last act leading that crippled girl onto the lawn before he sparked out in the smoke and stink of the morning. The record company knew what it had. They quickly issued a memorial edition of Diamonds and Dust that sold far more than the first printing. The new cover was all Randall, snakeskin and teeth and night. Delia and the band were cropped and gone.
"Randall would have loved it," Delia said when Rosemary finished her account of the wake. She was sorting Cissy's clothes and drinking black coffee, her face puffy from tears and pale from lack of sleep. Since Randall's death, her talisman songs had sunk to wordless hums and whispers, snatches of folk and Laura Nyro and Spanish lullabies Randall had taught her when Cissy was born. She still hadn't had a drink, but there was no sense of accomplishment in the act. It felt to Delia that if she did not get on the road, the beast would reclaim her and she would go down to the beach with a bottle. Going home was the answer. Making amends, getting her girls, that was the answer. It was all she could think about, all she would let herself think about.
"Cayro," she told Rosemary. "When I get to Cayro, I'll be all right."
Rosemary nodded, knowing better than to argue with a desperate woman. Somewhere in Delia, grief was waiting, and when it hit, she would wilt like all those flowers in the heat of the church. Then she would need someone to prop her up, and who was there in Cayro to take that on? Rosemary shuddered. No, not even for Delia would she move to Georgia. Whatever was going to happen would just have to happen.
"Hell, girl," Rosemary drawled in a deliberately exaggerated Valley accent, "you and I both know Randall would have preferred that all of Venice Beach go up." She gestured at the Times, where a news photo showed the blackened frame of Randall's house. "Man always did have a taste for that scorched-earth scenario. If the Columbia building burned down, he'd probably come back to piss on the pyre."
Delia laughed, then shot a guilty look at Cissy, who was sitting on the couch in a daze, sucking on a strand of her dirty red hair and hugging a silver-framed photo of her daddy that Rosemary had brought her. She had sworn she would not cry anymore, though that was all she wanted to do. She had also decided to ignore Delia, but that was proving harder still. Her mother had been packing like a madwoman, stripping the books off the shelves and the prints off the wall, giving everything that would not fit in the car to Rosemary. She talked continually about going home, as if Cissy was supposed to be happy at the idea. Now she came over to the couch and began her litany again.
"Don't worry, baby. It will all be different in Cayro," Delia said. "It an't like here. People are different there. They care about each other, take time to talk to each other. They don't lie or cheat or mess with each other all the time. They're not scared, not having to be so careful all the time. They know who they are, what is important. And you'll be with your sisters. You won't be alone, honey. Not being alone in the world, that's something you've never had. That's something I can give you."
"I won't go," Cissy said, the same futile words she had hurled at Delia when they moved to Venice Beach.
"You'll be happier there." Delia's eyes glittered like the rocks near the ocean. "It will be like I always wanted it to be. You and me, Amanda and Dede, all of us together. Your only living kin in the world are in Cayro, yours and mine, your sisters, your granddaddy."
Cissy hugged Randall's photograph tighter and looked at Rosemary like a cornered animal.
"Your sisters," Delia said fiercely. "Your sisters are going to be amazed how much you look like them. You won't believe it yourself." A tear glistened at the edge of her left eye, hovered briefly, and slipped down her cheek.
Cissy kept her focus on that wet streak. Her sisters. Amanda and Dede. Dede and Amanda. There had never been a time when Cissy did not know their names, how terribly Delia grieved for them. The lost girls, the precious ones. Delia was always saying that Cissy's hazel eyes were the mirror of Amanda's, her red-blond hair the exact shade of Dede's when she was an infant. Birthday presents, Christmas presents, Easter baskets, back-to-school packages, all testified to the same legend: "From your sisters." "From Amanda." "From Dede." "Until we see you." "See you soon."
What was Cissy to believe? That the sisters she had never met of her, wrapped those presents, and signed those cards? No. The same packages and tokens were sent in her name, and Cissy knew how little she cared. She signed at Delia's direction, printing out the message Delia dictated in careful block letters, impersonal and precise. The tears, the passion were all Delia's. She never seemed to notice how Cissy turned her face away at the mention of Amanda and Dede.
"Oh, Cissy." Delia's voice was thick and husky. "It is going to be so good to get home. You'll see. You'll see."
Cissy put her lips to the metal edge of the picture frame, tasting the sweet alloy with the tip of her tongue. She had loved to climb up Randall's back and press her face into his neck. Her daddy had always tasted smoky and sweet, like no one else in the world. When Delia had hugged her tight at the funeral, her neck tasted like flat beer. She could stay sober forever and it wouldn't matter. Bitter and mean, that was how Delia tasted. Cissy looked over at her mother and sucked harder at the metal against her tongue.
"When we get to Cayro, I'll call you from Granddaddy Byrd's," Delia was saying to Rosemary, who was looking at Cissy's blank face, as empty as the wall behind her.
Cissy knew about Cayro. Cayro was where her crazy mother was born, the back end of the earth. Cayro was the last place Randall Pritchard's daughter ever wanted to be.
"I won't go," Cissy murmured again.
Delia put her arms around Rosemary's neck. "Oh God," she said. "This time I'm going to make it right."
Rock and roll, in Delia's opinion, might as well have died back in 1976, when Mud Dog stopped touring. That was the year Randall trashed his agent's office and spent a couple of weeks drying out at a sanitarium in Palm Springs. By 1978, the year the Rolling Stones cut a disco track, Randall had gone off whiskey and settled into what he called his Keith Richards solution, boosting his heroin with just enough speed to keep himself mobile and charming. Columbia was coaxed into putting Delia back on contract and financing another studio rental, but that spring Randall flipped the T-bird in Topanga Canyon, nearly blinded Cissy, and broke the last of Delia's love for him.
When she decided to leave Randall, Delia told him to his face. She thought of writing him a letter, but what she wanted to say would sound absurd on a page. Dear Randall, you almost killed us. Dear Randall, you're on your own. Dear Randall, you've broken my heart. Instead she tracked him down at the studio annex, where he had one of his girls with him, a child not even twenty and stoned out of her mind.
"You got a name?" Delia said when she came to the door.
The girl just blinked.
"Go get Randall," Delia told her.
A few minutes later Randall came out, his pupils huge and glassy. He stood in the sunlight and gave her that grin of his.
"What's up, sweet thing?"
"I'm moving out."
"We can't live with you no more."
"Damn, Delia." He squirmed inside his loose denim jacket. "Don't I take care of you? Don't I treat you and Cissy right?"
Delia looked at him until he blushed, but his smile never faded.
"There's that house in Venice Beach," he said finally. "That one Booger and me bought. It's pretty messy, but it's empty. Booger didn't like the neighborhood. We could clean it up. You could go there."
Delia hesitated and looked away. The girl was watching them from the annex. "All right," Delia said, "all right."
"Do you need anything?" Randall asked, one hand pulling money out of a pocket.
She shook her head.
"Ah, Delia." Her name was thick in his mouth. "Honey," he said, slurring even that.
For a moment Delia hated him. She wasn't just another girl he'd picked up on the street. She was the mother of his child, the woman who had thrown everything away for him. He had no right speaking her name with that sleepy smile. She stood there and let him see the contempt on her face.
Randall held out the bills. Delia slapped him hard, then bent forward to kiss his cheek. The smell of his skin startled her.
"I'm sorry," he said.
The whole time she was packing, Cissy sobbing in her bedroom, Delia kept wiping her face and remembering how Randall smelled that day, the tang of him. What surprised her was how little pain his death caused her. He had been dead to her so long that it was hard to mourn all over again, hard to keep in mind that all the time when they had so rarely seen him he had been going on with his dying. Somehow, in the middle of everyone else's living, Randall had given up on his own life and started dying. That he had nearly taken Delia and Cissy with him was what stayed with Delia, the memory of shattered glass burning her skin, and the smell of the man she loved turning bitter. He had never expected her to get sober or leave him. He had never expected anything to change.
Delia taped a box shut and kicked it hard. She had loved Randall from the first time she saw that angel smile bright under the spotlights. It had seemed a miracle when he pulled her up into his tour bus, the blood from her abraded palms black on his cream shirt.
"Girl," he had said. "Lord, darling, look at you."
Delia's memories of that moment were as golden and smoky as two inches of whiskey in a thick tumbler. Jim Beam in a bar glass, a mound of crushed ice in a hand towel, the pervasive aroma of marijuana and patchouli oil. From the instant Randall helped her into the bus, Delia felt numbed and fragile. The whiskey he gave her warmed her belly, while the icy glass soothed her bruised temple. But it was Randall's soft embrace that made the difference, the open, easy way he wrapped her around. She shouldn't have trusted him, shouldn't have been willing to let him touch her with the mark of Clint's rage darkening steadily along the line of her face and neck. Maybe it was the whiskey. Maybe it was the bus wheels spinning clean and sure, taking her away from the nightmare behind her. Maybe it was that she had been wanting to run away for so long. But maybe it was just Randall and the way he had about him.
Delia wanted to scream at the figure in her memory, at Randall's body so long gone, so much of him wasted even when he was alive. He had been so beautiful when he took her in his arms, so strong and tender when she was so hurt. He had felt like the one man on earth she could hang on to and be safe with. How could she not have loved him? She loved him more than her life.
After the accident in Topanga Canyon, trying repeatedly to get sober, Delia stopped going over to Randall's place at all. Even when she slipped back into drinking, she wouldn't let herself be cajoled into climbing into one of the limos sent around by record companies hoping to sign her to sing on her own. She didn't like the parties anymore, and she'd never enjoyed talking business. Drunk or sober, Delia lived in the small town in her heart, ignoring the world in which all her love had turned to grief.
Once they moved to Venice Beach, Delia tried to behave as if it were just another small town too, a place like Cayro. It did not matter that behind her house loomed thousands of others, postage-stamp boxes layered across Los Angeles County up from Santa Monica or south to Long Beach and all the little suburbs that trailed down to San Diego. Delia rarely went outside her neighborhood, and as long as she stayed off the highways, she could pretend they were cut off from the world. When she took Cissy over to Randall's place in West Hollywood or went to the studio annex in Santa Monica, the sight of greater Los Angeles stunned her. The glass structures along Wilshire, the grotesque mansions in Beverly Hills, the interlaced freeways that Randall prowled, none of that was Delia's world. Her world was the cottage and its tiny garden, the convenience store a few blocks west, and Cissy's school two blocks past that, with the occasional trip down to Rosemary's in Marina Del Rey.
"It's strange. Every time I take a drink, I go back in time," Delia told Rosemary not long after she left Randall. "I imagine I am back on the bus, going nowhere in particular, just cruising with the band."
"Uh-huh." Rosemary blew smoke out her nose. "Cruising back to the toilet to puke your guts out and curse Randall with every heave of your stomach? I remember you pregnant and sick as a dog. I remember those bus trips."
Delia pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and shrugged. "In my imagination," she said, "it's always 1971 and we are all young and happy. It's like a dream, a good dream."
Rosemary shook her head. "Nothing like the dream life, huh?"
Delia was the only member of Mud Dog who had loved the road. While everyone else grew pale and exhausted, she blossomed, catching naps during the day and sleeping easily backstage. She drank a lot but ate little, mostly fruit and rice, and avoided the pills and powders that kept half the band wired and sleepless and sick as dogs. In the midst of the tour chaos, Delia was serene. She would drift up the middle of the overloaded bus with a smile and a bottle in her hand, trailing her long fingers over the greasy Formica storage cabinets as if they were flowers and sweet-smelling vines. Sometimes she just stood there, steadying herself with one hand, eyes almost closed. To her it seemed like dancing, balancing there while the bus swayed and rolled along. She would laugh at the thought of herself almost motionless yet hurtling forward.
What Delia did not love were the motels and the parties, the obsequious roadies dealing drugs behind the luggage vans, the hysterical fans who pounced on her before she could get away. There were always people coming up on her from behind, wanting to talk or to touch her, following her every move so closely she would start to shy away even from Randall or Rosemary or Booger, or Little Jimmy the drummer with his shy nudge. Her skin seemed to wear thin, to the point where she hesitated sometimes before following the band out onstage. After a while the road wore you down until you lost the satisfaction of the music everyone came to hear, and Delia knew that the only thing she loved without reservation was the music in her head. The road itself, the two-lane blacktop and the six-lane freeways, the truck stops where the only things you could be sure of were the eggs and the bottled beer, that was not something you loved. The road was something that took you over unawares--the unexpected poetry of road signs and the reassuring glint of reflective markers counting off miles, the backbeat of the wheels whooshing along the asphalt and the song it awakened in the back of Delia's head. She got drunk on the road the same way she did on whiskey, a gentle drunk, an easy binge, smiling and loose and careless as death on two legs.
Delia dreamed on the bus like nowhere else, humming with the wheels, drifting, her eyelids open just enough to catch the shine of the road lights. In that condition, neither asleep nor awake, Delia dreamed of home, of Cayro and Amanda and Dede. Sometimes she dreamed of them in their bodies, the babies growing into girls while she watched and cared for them. When she dreamed that dream, she would weep with relief as everything that had happened after Dede's birth erased itself. In that dream there was no band, no house in Venice Beach, no Cissy, no third girl child with Randall's lazy mouth and her own dark red hair. In that dream Delia was the good mother kneeling on the clay path near her old house in Cayro, her fingers cupping Dede's baby face and her tears burning her own cheeks.
Sometimes the dream would play out the years differently, Delia sweeping in like an angel the week after she climbed into Randall's bus and ran away. In that dream she snatched up her babies, pulling them to her throat as their arms reached to embrace her, her shoulders sprouting wings that carried them all high and far, like the Santa Ana winds over Southern California.
"Mama," the dream girls would say in one voice, "Mama," and Delia's heart would lurch in her breast. The dream children cried her name and held on to her: "Mama. We knew you would come." Their cheeks were hot and flushed, their hair smelling earthy and sweet, the way Delia's palms smelled when she worked in the garden. She breathed them in and felt her insides tremble as the scent filled her. But the arms that reached out to Delia were phantom arms. The dream daughters were ghost girls, imaginary creatures. The road that went everywhere never went to Cayro. As the scent faded, Delia would jerk awake, her face streaked with tears and her muscles straining to hold what was not there.
Sober and fully conscious, Delia knew these dreams for what they were, a comforting lie. If her daughters dreamed of her, they would not be loving dreams. Raging, angry nightmares, that's what her girls would dream of Delia. But in the weeks after Randall's death, she dreamed again her road dreams, Dede and Amanda Louise dreams, Mama dreams, guilt and hope dreams.
Emptying the closets of the little cottage, Delia picked at the raw sore of her conscience. It had been ten years. Dede and Amanda were not babies. They were eleven and thirteen, nearly grown, but what if they didn't hate her? What if her girls hoped for her as much as she hoped for them? From "what if" she fell to maybe, then to might be, could be, oh God! surely so. It was the way Delia thought when she was drinking, as detached from the real as anything could be. It was the voice in the back brain, the voice that swore one drink would not kill her and another was all right too. The devil or desperation, that voice whispered steadily and drew her on. Delia swore she would never drink again, but her girls were not liquor. Her girls were real. Cayro was real. Cayro was home. Maybe no one could earn forgiveness, but listening to that whisper, Delia Byrd packed everything she owned and decided to try.