My name is Evie Duncan and I hang out with dead rock stars, and occasionally a dead movie star or two might suddenly waltz across the living room. I know, weird, huh? Trust me. I think so too. One night I actually watched Fred Astaire lift Ginger Rogers off her feet right in the middle of the kitchen, and I went to grab my coffee cup, because I was sure Ginger was going to knock it off the center aisle. Ah but as luck would have it, her pretty little shoe went right through the cup. I’ve discovered that ghosts can walk right through you or any object for that matter—just like in the movies. That part is true from what we all “think” we know about ghosts, but I’ve learned quite a bit more about them over the past few months.
I know it sounds completely insane. Right? Like commit me insane. But honestly, I am not crazy. Okay, maybe a little bit, and believe me, the first time I saw Bob Marley in my place (technically not my place, not even close to being my place, but I’ll get to that) in Hollywood Hills getting high and singing “Buffalo Soldier,” I thought I was either dreaming, hallucinating off bad food from Denny’s, or—yes, that I’d gone completely mad. None of that was the case. Bob was and is a very real dead guy who likes to hang in my place, along with a handful of other deceased famous rockers, as well as some who never quite hit the charts. It is one of those guys who almost made it to the top but didn’t that I happen to have—sort of—fallen for. So, not only do I hang out with dead rock stars, but I also think that I am in love with one of them or at least I have a severe case of lust, which makes me totally screwed up. But I still stand by the fact that I am not crazy.
Before I go any farther with how this me being able to see the famous deceased phenomenon started, I need to go back a few months to the day after my twenty-eighth birthday. Raised in Brady, Texas: population about 8,000 people. The signs were everywhere. Signs that is—to get the hell out of dodge.
I was at Mrs. Betty LaRue’s quaint craftsman, which smelled of fresh laundry, home cooking and mothballs. She was comforting me over the dismal turnout of the Mary Kay presentation that she’d hosted for me—my latest attempt at becoming an entrepreneur.
We were drinking apple cranberry tea, her lhasa apso Princess curled in a ball under her chair and my dog (of indeterminable breed. Am thinking she is part coyote, part lab, possibly some border collie in there) Mama Cass lay over my feet. I loved that Betty always let me bring Mama Cass in the house. Cass went everywhere with me, but not everyone happens to be as gracious as Betty.
“I really thought this would go so much better,” I said, bringing the warm brew to my lips.
Betty smiled, the fine lines in her eighty-something-year-old face creasing deeper into her skin, “Oh honey, I don’t know what happened to my girls today. I am so sorry. I thought there’d be at least ten of us. They all love my snickerdoodle cookies. I don’t understand. But you know how some of us old gals get; we forget things.” She twirled a wisp of curliqued hair on the side of her face around her finger. The rest of her hair was pulled up into a yellowish white bun (or chignon as Mama calls it) on top of her head. She’d obviously been in to see my mother that morning for her weekly hair appointment.
I nodded. “It’s okay, Betty. Thanks for hosting it anyway, and the cookies were delicious. Three isn’t such a bad turnout.” Thing was, only Betty bought anything, and her friends Margaret and Hazel only came for the cookies. “And I made about ten dollars, so that will at least buy me a couple of meals. You’ll love that anti-wrinkle cream.”
Betty ran a hand over her face and laughed in her sweet, southern, gentile manner—something I had failed to learn, as my father always reminded me. “Child, there is nothing gonna work on this here face. I’m proud of them. I earned these lines.”
I laughed back. “So you only bought the cream from me because you felt sorry for me?” Mama Cass’s ears perked up and she lifted her head, which I bent over and scratched.
Betty sighed. “Evie Duncan, I have known you since you started kicking up a fuss in your mama’s belly, and I have watched you try so hard to be exactly what your mama and daddy wanted you to be, especially after all that bad business.” She nodded and brought her tea cup to her lips, her hand shaking ever so slightly. I sighed, knowing exactly what bad business she was referring to, but both of us didn’t want to expand on it. Betty waved her free hand carelessly in the air as if to brush any painful thoughts away. “But a good southern girl who would marry a good southern boy and have babies and run a family like your folks did is what I know you wanted to be for them. However, dear girl, then you got real lucky now, didn’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You got a God-given talent.” She tried to set the tea cup down on the side table. I reached over and took it from her, setting it down for her. “Thank you, honey.”
I looked down at my dog, now licking my toes that stuck out of the one pair of high-heeled sandals I’d had for the past five years. “No I don’t, Betty. I know I’m good, but there’re a lot of good musicians out there. Great musicians.” Now I was twirling the ends of my hair, but there was no way my mama or even myself would ever put it up into a chignon. My hair was stick straight, long—past my shoulders, dark brown and thinner than I would have liked it to be, but a silky thin, which was good, I suppose, the silky part anyway. The closest anyone would ever get to pinning my hair up would be a ponytail.
Betty waved a hand. “Nonsense.” Placing her hands on the sides of the chair, she pushed herself up and ambled over to the white-bricked mantle, took an envelope off of it, brought it back and handed it to me.
“Your birthday was yesterday, wasn’t it?”
She frowned. “I may be old but I don’t forget my favorite people’s birthdays.”
“I’m one of your favorite people?” I mused.
“Honey, you know you are. You got spunk. Had it since you came out ass backward, showing the world what you thought of it,” she said, referring to the fact I’d been born breech.
“Thank you. I think.” I couldn’t help smiling. Betty was the only one I knew who spoke the truth without holding back. She didn’t tip toe around a thing. Very different from my family. Tip toeing was what we did best.
“Open it. I don’t have all day. It’s about time for my nap.”
I tore open the envelope and in it was a check for five thousand dollars made out to me. I gasped. “Betty! What…” Mama Cass jumped up, her huge ears pricked forward, tail wagging and watching me like a hawk. “It’s okay, girl.” She lay back down.
“I was twenty-eight once too, you know, and I had dreams, big dreams.” Her blue eyes glazed over for a moment. “I wanted to be a movie star, and I could have too. I was damn good, like you are at what you do. But then my folks, like yours, had other ideas for my life and I decided to play by their rules. Now I don’t regret it . . . maybe I do a little, but I’ve had a good life. Thing is, Evie, you can sing like a nightingale and you can play the guitar like nobody’s business. And you need to get the hell out of this podunk town before you wind up like every other girl here—knocked up, changing dirty nappies and cleaning up after everyone else every day for the rest of your life.”
I frowned. I’d already seen almost every girl from my high school graduating class living out the life Betty had just described to a tee already. The lucky ones had skipped town and gone on to college. I hadn’t been quite that lucky for a variety of reasons. I could have. I had the grades and the desire, but life had other ideas… On the positive side though, which is where I liked to go to (also for a variety for reasons) I at least had not had the misfortune to be married to some guy who didn’t appreciate me, expected his dinner on the table when he got home from his shift at the local textile factory, and wanted his wife and children to obey, just because he said so.
“It’s amazing it hasn’t happened to you already,” she continued. “My guess is you were either smart enough to use birth control, smart enough to not date one of the goof-offs in this town, or scared to death by your daddy’s hell, brimstone and fire sermons.”
“Pretty much all of the above, but still, what is this for? I can’t accept this.” I waved the check in the air.
“Yes you can, and you will. You gotta go live your life, Evie Duncan. Pack up that van of yours, your guitar, and Mama Cass and head west. You sing your heart out in every bar, every café, every church—I don’t care where you go and sing your heart out at, but go and sing. I know one thing: you have what it takes to be a star. Forget all about that Avon you’re trying to pawn…”
“Mary Kay,” I interrupted.
She frowned and waved a hand at me. “Just forget it no matter what, because you and I both know that won’t get you nowhere. That kind of thing is for people like Shirley Swan up the road trying to make an extra buck to take care of those for rotten kids of hers. Not for you. Take the money, cut your losses and run. Go live your dream, child. You gotta stop living for your mama and daddy. You didn’t cause what happened and you can’t ever change it. You didn’t cause it. Now you’re parents, they have to at some point get on with their lives, honey, and if they don’t, I hate to see you waste yours. So go on and live life. Do it for me. Go live my dream. Humor an old woman. Please?” Her blue eyes watered and the creases around them crinkled up as she choked back emotion and waved her hand at Evie again. “You go do this for Betty La Rue.” Betty now shook a bent finger at her.
How could I refuse after a plea like that? “But my daddy—?”
Betty dabbed at her eyes with a kerchief. “He’ll get over it. And your mama is gonna secretly be cheering you on. It’ll be hard on them, but this’ll be the best thing for all of you.” She sighed heavily. “Especially you, Evie. Especially you. Trust me. ”
So I did. I trusted Betty LaRue.
The next day I did exactly what she’d insisted upon. I packed up my 1974 VW van, a suitcase of clothes, my Rosewood Gibson acoustic guitar and Mama Cass. I pulled out of my parents’ driveway with Daddy’s arms waving wildly in the air and him yelling, “You’re gonna ruin your life out there. Los Angeles ain’t the city of angels. It’s a city of heathens and devils!”
I knew he was just scared. My leaving was breaking his heart. I’m pretty sure if I looked closer that I’d be able to see the tears in his eyes and then my heart would break, too. God, I felt so heartless, so cruel, but…I knew that Betty was right. This was something that had to be done.
I could see the tears for sure in my mother’s big hazel eyes, the same color as my own, as she mouthed, “I love you.”
I rolled down the window, choking back my own sobs. “I love you, too. I’ll call. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I really will. I do love you.”
With that, tears blurring my vision, Mama Cass’s head in my lap, a Patsy Cline cassette in the tape deck, I headed west to the City of Angels. And although the tears kept coming, streaming down my face as the highway spread out in front and now behind me, for the first time in sixteen years I felt like I could finally breathe again.