The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose. The signs hanging on the busy walls (those filled with animal heads, kitsch, and signatures in black marker) described how the Red Dog bar in Juneau had been built in 1912, to entertain the gold rushers here. I pictured the classic Wild West setup, with girls named Kitty in scandalous clothing, men in hats playing loud poker at the tables, and swinging saloon doors. They’d done a beautiful job making this space feel just like that. Crowded walls, greasy food, cheap beer, and a man who looked like an old-timey prospector playing the guitar on the small stage up front.
He sang a melancholy Johnny Cash song while I ordered a rum and Coke, casually observing the other patrons. The employees were dressed in period costumes. I pictured them here every day, making drinks, fries, and oyster shots for the thousands of cruise passengers who docked in the city in for mere hours. The tourists hit this gem of a town like a plague of locusts, buzzing in and out, consuming everything, until they flew back to their buffets, drinks, and pools aboard the ship. Two or three ships every day, clogging the streets, then leaving the place quiet in the evenings, for just the locals and the more long-term tourists, the ones more like me.
Four white couples sat all around me, and at least three of them were shit-faced drunk. At 8 pm on a Sunday night. The other couple, they never looked up from their phones, so I couldn’t tell, but I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but instead focused on the singer. His leathered skin, his twisting white mustache, the oak barrel country twang in his voice, it was all just delicious. I sipped my drink.
“This next song is a favorite of mine,” the singer announced. “It’s by my old friend, Kenny Rogers. He told me about this woman, the one named Lucille, personally. He wrote a song about her! Sing along with the chorus if you know it.”
And in his beautiful register, he began “Lucille.” This song automatically conjured up a bitter and happy nostalgia within me. How many times had I heard this classic country song in my teenage years, when my stepfather was in one of his good news, filling the house with joy, love, and consistency. But those periods always followed an incident of extreme violence. Someone struck with an open hand, or grounded for weeks for with no cause, or called names until they cried, and then on came the happy music. In the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since?
He sang, using Rogers’ words, of the bar in Toledo where a lonely and overwhelmed Lucille walked in and sat on a nearby stool, pounding back a few drinks. You don’t learn until later in the song that Lucille is trapped in a bad marriage with four hungry children and an overworked farmer for a husband. But in the second line of the song, you learn how she takes off her wedding ring, and she shortly announces that she’s looking for a good time.
But the singer changed things, trying to get a laugh. He sang, “On a barstool, she took off her clothes.” He stopped playing, then said, “Oh, did I say clothes? I of course I meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, but immediately seeing the woman’s husband enter, a mountain of a man with calloused hands. The first chorus echoed that man’s words to his wife, and I sang along loudly.
“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times, but this time the hurt’s for real. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.'”
After the chorus, the singer stopped, explaining that that wasn’t the way it really happened. In the real story, as Rogers had told him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.
“Just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what the man called her. ‘You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Those are the actual words used in the real story! See, just try it with me. ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Hey, you did great! Doesn’t that feel good! Let’s try the chorus all together now! ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut! ‘With four hungry children, and a crop in the field!'”
I was astounded. The audience all around me screamed the words out enthusiastically, eager to slut-shame Lucille as much as possible, or perhaps just thrilled to get to shout those words in public. The girl in front of me, the whitest white girl of all, shouted the words extra loud and with enthusiasm, her middle fingers raised up for effect. “You bitch! You whore! You slut!” she repeated, before taking a swig of her beer, drunk laughing, then leaning to her husband, whispering a secret. “That’s hilarious, that slut!”
The song went on, into the third voice. The singer ordered whiskey and took Lucille back to his hotel room, but was unable to go through with it, because he couldn’t stop thinking about what the husband said. Cue the second chorus, and the audience happily called Lucille a whore and a bitch one more time.
The singer stopped his song again, and he soberly told the crowd how Kenny Rogers hadn’t been able to publish the third verse of the song, but he had it here, only he knew it, and he was going to sing it for all of us now, he said. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.
He sang about how Lucille had left, so the singer had returned to the bar, where he had met two sisters. He took both sisters back to his hotel room, took of their clothes, and was about to fool around with both of them, when Lucille came back to him, having changed her mind, apparently. And to get her to go away, the singer had repeated the husband’s words in a third chorus.
“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!'”
I walked out of Red Dog, my mind spinning with the whole experience. I felt disgusted. I felt strangely protective of Lucille, though she was fictional. I didn’t like how the crowd had slut-shamed her, blaming her for seeking an escape from her tortured marriage. I didn’t like the man in the song and how he’d shamed Lucille while trying to sleep with two sisters. I knew it was all supposed to be a joke, that people there had been laughing, but I kept hearing the crowd chanting bitch, slut, and whore, and I kept seeing that woman with her raised middle fingers. They shamed Lucille for sexualized behavior while screaming with enthusiasm for Kenny Rogers and his supposed debauchery. It was gross. Lucille didn’t deserve that, I decided. And then I remembered the venue, the atmosphere of the people there.
The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose.