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Cavedweller: A Novel

Cavedweller: A Novel

by Dorothy Allison


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From the author of the "flawless" (The New York Times Book Review) classic Bastard Out of Carolina comes Cavedweller, once again demonstrating Allison's umatched strengths as a storyteller. Reading "like a thematic sequel" (The New Yorker) to her first novel, Cavedweller tackles questions of forgiveness, mother-daughter bonds, and the strength of the human spirit.

When Delia Byrd packs up her old Datsun and her daughter Cissy and gets on the Santa Monica Freeway heading south and east, she is leaving everything she has known for ten years: the tinsel glitter of the rock 'n' roll world; her dreams of singing and songwriting; and a life lived on credit cards and whiskey with a man who made promises he couldn't keep. Delia Byrd is going back to Cayro, Georgia, to reclaim her life—and the two daughters she left behind...Told in the incantatory voice of one of America's most eloquent storytellers, Cavedweller is a sweeping novel of the human spirit, the lost and hidden recesses of the heart, and the place where violence and redemption intersect.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452279698
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/01/1999
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.97(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dorothy Allison is the acclaimed author of the nationally bestselling novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. The recipient of numerous awards, she lives in Northern California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

Reading Group Guide


The Village Voice has called her "a hell of a writer-tough and loose, clear and compassionate." George Garrett, author and critic who reviewed Bastard Out of Carolina for The New York Times Book Review wanted to "blow a bugle to alert the reading public that a major new talent has arrived." Critics have likened her to William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee, naming her the first writer of her generation to dramatize the lives and language of poor whites in the South. "She has an all-encompassing knowledge of what it's like to be the other, the outsider," says Studs Terkel. Garrett agrees: "It's as if the people in Dorothea Lange photographs, in the work of Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans, were able to speak." But with a dead-center look that says "Don't mess with me, honey. I'm liable to pour gravy on you," Allison defies easy characterization, as one writer for The New York Times put it. And she likes it that way.

Part gospel singer, part country preacher, Allison often jokes that as a girl she wanted to be Janis Joplin. She has a wardrobe full of rhinestone-studded leather jackets and a desk drawer full of family snapshots. She's a mean shot with a rifle, and her language is always dead-on: lush, beautiful, and brutal. "Dorothy sees everything", says Jewelle Gomez, the poet and novelist.

Allison has spent her entire life telling forbidden stories, pulling her best fiction out from the edge of terror and the courage to heal. In Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, a short memoir she published in 1995, Allison writes,

Where I was born Greenville, South Carolinasmelled like nowhere else I've been. Cut wet grass, split green apples, baby shit and beer bottles, cheap makeup and motor oil. Everything was ripe, everything was rotting. Hound dogs butted my calves. People shouted in the distance; crickets boomed in my ears. That country was beautiful, I swear to you, the most beautiful place I've ever been. Beautiful and terrible.

Allison wants the hard and terrible stories, she demands them from herself. And her readers wait for them.

Readers might call Cavedweller the blazing daughter of Bastard Out of Carolina, but even that will not do justice to the mystical story and landscape, the world of family, and the secret-filled South in which Allison has set in her new novel. Allison begins her absorbing saga about Delia Byrd and her three daughters with a simple sentence: "Death changes everything," and by story's end, Allison has uncovered the complicated cycles of sinning and atonement along an enormous expanse of births, deaths, and rebirths alongside husbands, lovers, families, friends. Young, beautiful Delia flees a whisky-soaked, violent man who loves her passionately and beats her within an inch of her life. On a dusty sideroad she meets Randall, a musician on his way to the top, and deserts her two baby daughters in Cayro, Georgia, land of biscuit franchises and backwoods Baptists. Randall and Delia form the band Mud Dog, and together they write music, hit the road, and have a child, Cissy. But even while pasting together a life of soul, drugs, truck stops, vodka shots, and credit card bills in the glitter of Los Angeles, Delia doesn't care about fame or money and cannot live with the fact that she left her two girls behind. When a motorcycle accident kills Randall, Delia quits the bottle and takes Cissy on a midnight drive-through mission back to reclaim her life (and reconnect with her original sin) in Georgia, where folks remember her as "that bitch [who] ran off and left her babies."

Delia fights off the urge to drink as she suffers the scorn of her family and a bitter community who despises her for what she did and who she became. She moves back in with Clint Windsor, her cancer-stricken husband, and offers to care for him on his deathbed if he will allow her to reclaim her two daughters, Amanda, 15, and Dede, 12, from their Bible-thumping grandmother. Evangelical Amanda takes after her grandma Windsor, and pursues the Lord and anti-abortion activism with the manic fervor of a zealot. Wild and slim Dede is every man's dream, redneck or not. Though not into Jesus, she is as passionate as her sister Amanda, and dreams of getting behind the wheel of a big truck and heading down the road, any road, out of Georgia. Finally, there's tough yet vulnerable Cissy, who finds her obsession in the dank sport of caving, where she finds strength to grab her future as she scrapes through the caves of Southern Georgia, through Paula's Lost and Little Mouth. All three girls are something to behold as they grow up into enraged yet empowered women. It is Delia, though, who is the real "cavedweller" a woman whose deep past is gradually mapped and explored, and who is able to remake herself and her family through what she discovers. Led by the example of their determined mother, each daughter opens her heart a little wider to others and finds her own way in the world.



Dorothy Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, to a fourteen-year-old unwed mother. The only father figure she ever knew was a violently abusive man who used her mother's desperate desire for respectability to tie the terrified family to him. Though it was Allison's mother who placed her daughter in these precarious situations by not challenging her husband, Allison credits her as an inspiration. While the Greenville community disdained Allison for being poor and illegitimate, Allison's mother insisted her child was bright. She kept a jar of money she called the college fund, and though she had to empty it on several occasions and Allison's college was paid for by a National Merit Scholarship, just the presence of that jar convinced Allison that she had a right to excel.

The first of her family to graduate high school, Allison went on to get a bachelor's degree from Florida Presbyterian College and a master's from New York's School of Social Research. Allison credits emerging feminism with much of her redemption. Suddenly, getting angry did not make her a misfit, and the movement gave her the strength to reclaim her self from years of put downs and abuse.

When she began her writing career, Allison kept close to the gay and feminist presses, distrusting the establishment and believing that "literature was written by men, judged by men." In 1988 Firebrand Press published Trash, a book of short stories, that started to win Allison notice. This was followed by The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980-1990, which secured Allison's stature as a respected talent within the gay and lesbian community.

When Bastard Out of Carolina was published by Dutton in 1992, Allison achieved mainstream success. Bastard was greeted with rave reviews from the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times Book Review, and nominated for the National Book Award. Allison returned to a small press with Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature, a critically acclaimed collection of essays.

In 1995, she published a short memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, using text and family photographs. In March 1998, Allison's most ambitious work yet was released. Cavedweller is an epic novel that chronicles the trials and victories of four strong women and the opportunities they wrest from the unforgiving terrain of small town Georgia.

In addition to her own books, Allison has contributed to many publications, ranging from The New York Times to Harpers andAllure. Allison lives in Northern California with her partner and their son, and continues to pursue "the thing all writers wantfor the world to break open in response to my story...The same thing I have always wanted."


"Impassioned prose...superbly salty altogether wonderful second novel."
Kirkus Reviews

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Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

This autobiographical novel about a young girl in the rural South facing abuse and betrayal won high critical acclaim and a National Book Award nomination upon its release in 1992. The power of Bastard Out of Carolina is simultaneously narrative, emotional, and political. "The novel is mean," Allison says, "meant to rip off all that facade of imagination and lies we place around sexual violence and children."

The backdrop of this tale is Greenville, South Carolina, and its narrator is "Bone" Boatwright, a twelve year old trying to remember and comprehend the events that led to her being abandoned by her mother. Bone and her sister Reese are surrounded by colorful characters, most of them relations. Her uncles are feared by men and adored by women, while her aunts are long-suffering yet defiant. Her grandmother is a strict matriarch who loves her brood but "always loved her boy children more." While Anney Boatwright and her two girls face many trials Bone's illegitimacy, the death of Reese's fathertheir real trouble starts when Anney marries Glenn Waddell, the black sheep of a prominent family, whose most outstanding characteristics are his uncontrollable temper and oversized hands. Though Daddy Glenn at first offers the girls sugary reassurances, when Anney miscarries his child he turns against them. Instead of lashing out at his wife, Glenn chooses the weakest target, Bone, and tears the family apart by claiming to need Anney's love and care more than her own young daughters do.

Even as Bone suffers immense hardship, she is not alone. Fierce determination and a loving extended family help her through, and though our heartsache to think of what Bone must bear, her perseverance leaves us hope for her future.

Allison says she designed the book so that the reader meets all these people Bone, Anney, and Glenn, the wild uncles and long-suffering aunts and becomes gradually drawn into their world through the character of Bone. "You see what happensDaddy Glen's cruelty, the sexual violence only through the filter of Bone trying to survive. It took me a long time to get it right. About 10 years."

The Showtime movie based on the book, directed by Anjelica Huston and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, was funded by Ted Turner, but he pronounced it too graphic to be shown on his network. In several states, Bastard has been banned from classrooms and school libraries. Most recently, the book was distributed to Maine high-schoolers by private citizens, in protest of the Maine Supreme Court's November 1997 decision that allowed the schools to continue their ban of the book.

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

Allison's short memoir interweaves reminiscences, observations and family snapshots. It starts as an ode to the Gibson family, especially its women Allison's aunts, mother, grandmother, sisters, and cousins who broke down young and aged quickly, but somehow kept going and, refused to run away. Looking back, Allison acknowledges "The women I loved most in the world horrified me. I did not want to grow up to be them."

It is from aunt Dot that the title phrase comes, "Lord, girl, there's only two or three things I know for sure," and Allison uses it to punctuate her stories, to ease us from one bitter or wistful recollection to the next. Her world is never pretty or secure, but she is able to transform it through revelations from herself and other people, some sought and some serendipitous. She examines both the detrimental and redeeming power of storytelling and shows how she managed to wrest her past and her present away from those who had hurt her and from those who refused to acknowledge the truth.

The memoir is also the basis of a short documentary film, Two or Three Things But Nothing for Sure, available through the New York City-based educational distributor Women Make Movies.



What would you define as the starting point of your career as a writer? Was there a certain experience or occurrence that revealed your vocation to you?

As a child I was a talented liar with a gift for telling horrible scary stories to my sisters and cousins but I did not begin to write stories down until adolescence. My first "written" story came about after I fell madly in love with The Fighting Prince of Donegala Disney Movie about an Irish revolutionary in the army of Robert the Bruce. It was a fairly awful movie but I made it into a ninety page play in verse that my mama thought perfectly wonderful. My verse version was fairly awful too, but it started me off writing poems and stories. For me, writing was, and is, sneaky. It teases the truth out of you, and in my poor and violent family the truth was terribly dangerous. For a decade I burned every story and journal entry I wrote, lighting fireplaces with poems and building bonfires with fragments of novels. Only when I discovered the women's movement did I begin to write stories again in earnest, and then only with the help and encouragement of other women. Even then the terrible drive to hide and destroy what I wrote almost overcame me. It was my women friends who stopped me. "You don't have to burn what you write," they told me. "Or, you can burn it later, just don't burn it right now." Their support got me through that first year of not burning my writing, and made possible all that followed. Twenty years later I have a bookshelf fully of journals, cabinets of stories and a series of novels but without that first woman putting her hand on mind and saying wait, stop, you don't have to destroy your own work, I would have nothing but ashes scattered in every city I have ever lived.

Who are your favorite authors and strongest influences? Are they the same?

Flannery O'Connor is one of my all time favorites, and she is a powerful influence. As a Zen Baptist, I can't quite match her Catholic intensity but what she does for the middle-class southerner, I would love to do for the working class. I also adore James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston and the whole critical tradition of southern outlaw writers the queer, disenfranchised and expatriate novelists whose books I read as a girl. These days I make a point of reading and collecting contemporary women and working class novelists writers like Doris Betts, Jane Hamilton, Jim Grimsley, Sapphire, Alan Gurganus, Terry McMillan, Amy Bloom and Jewelle Gomez. Most of all I love poets Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Ai, Adrienne Rich, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, and Thom Gunn. When I go on tour, my greatest difficulty is the pile of small volumes of poetry I acquire at every stop. I keep shipping home boxes of books and dreaming of the day I can sit among the boxes and pour over books I have not yet read.

Did the critical acclaim and media attention that Bastard Out of Carolina received make it more pleasurable or more daunting to write Cavedweller?

I began Cavedweller before I had finished Bastard Out of Carolina which did change my life enough to make things like paying the bills much more easy and getting uninterrupted writing time more problematic. I began with Cissy, a child who hated her mother and felt herself alone in the world and who I knew had two sisters who had every reason to despise her just as she to hate them. I also began with a very powerful image of Cissy's mother, the gifted and drunken Delia singing so powerfully she broke the hearts of all who heard her. I knew Delia was a woman whose sense of guilt was destroying her and who wanted to try one more time for her own redemption. If I had not had such a strong sense of these women, I would have crawled into a cave and never have written another novel.

It's a fortunate thing these people get in my head and start talking so insistently. Otherwise I don't know what I would do. I've got another pair in my back brain now almost drowning out the book I had already started. It will be interesting to see who shouts louder and gets their story told first.

Spanning four generations, Cavedweller is your most expansive work to date. How did the writing process differ?

Cavedweller is a wider, more expansive work written in third person and various voices, much more difficult to work out on the page than the first person, relatively straightforward Bastard Out of Carolina. But Bastard was written in spurts over a decade as I could manage the time to write, and the hardest part of finishing the novel was breaking up the short story form in which it was written to make it a true novel. Cavedweller was never written in short story form it was a large landscape to begin.

Cavedweller was also written in half the time it took to write Bastard in large part because I could do it full time (in between raising a child and traveling too much) rather than fitting it in after working at an exhausting day job. In many ways, Bastardmakes Cavedweller possible both in terms of buying me time to write and in what I was able to do with the women in the book. I learned so much in getting the Boatwrights down on the page, I knew better how to deal with the people of Cayro.

Finally, I have to say that Bastard was also written to a gospel soundtrack while Cavedweller is all rock and roll both in pacing and character. I use music to pin down my characters in my own mind playing the same records over and over as I work on particular characters or sections. By the time I finished Cavedweller, I had played so much of the rock and roll of the seventies, I was starting to write the lyrics and music for Delia's band.

In an interview with San Francisco Focus, you mention an alternate ending to Bastard Out of Carolina in which Bone and her mother unite to kill Daddy Glenn. Though it felt good to write such an ending, you scrapped it because it would have ruined the book. Did you experiment with other, more tragic, endings for Cavedweller?

Lord yes! I tried to kill each of the daughters in Cavedweller death being such a great closing but none of them would die.

Cavedweller takes place in small-town Georgia in the 80s and 90s, while Bastard Out of Carolina is set in the rustic South Carolina of the fifties, yet there seems to be little difference in the quality or pace of living. In the thirty or forty years since your childhood, how, if at all, has the rural South changed?

Completely and not at all. Television and shopping malls and community colleges make a big difference but people are intransigent.

Nolan Reitower stands out as a male who is kind and trustworthy. Was the character of Nolan difficult to create or sustain?

Nolan was a gift and I know half a dozen people who are a match for him, not the least of whom is the father of my son. It's easier to write kind and trustworthy people when you have them in your life.

Caving is a fascinating hobby, and your accounts of both its pleasures and dangers are breathtakingly real. Have you explored caves similar to Paula's Lost?

Twenty years ago when I lived in Tallahassee Florida I went caving in South Georgia with a small group of women just as stubborn and foolish as the women in Cavedweller. It was filthy, terrifying and completely exhilarating. I'd go again any time but my girlfriend won't hear of it.


  • Anney Boatwright loved her daughters, but put her husband first. Delia Byrd fights tenaciously for her girls. What characteristics differentiate Delia from Anney? (Note: This question also relates to Bastard Out of Carolina)
  • Why do Cayro's inhabitants despise Delia? Do they see in her a reflection of loved ones who have abandoned them, or are they jealous of her for doing what they were unable to do, escape a dead-end town and abusive husband?
  • Which of Delia's daughters, if any, is most like her? What traits of hers do they have in common?
  • What kind of illumination does Cissy find in the silence and darkness of the caves?
  • What do Grandaddy Byrd and Grandma Windsor have in common? What are their reasons and methods of separating themselves others, even those they claim to love?
  • What are the parallels between Nadine Reitower's behavior, which changes so radically after her stroke and Amanda's?
  • Analyze the friendship between Rosemary, M.T., and Delia? How does it help each woman?
  • Delia can take a run-down object, be it a woman ravaged by small town life or an old piece of furniture, strip away the ugliness and wear, and bring out the natural beauty. Does she, in fact, remake herself by the end of Cavedweller?
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