A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

sawdust

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, and I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but I tuned them out and 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 as he sang.

“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.” He clearly didn’t actually know Kenny Rogers, but it somehow added to the authenticity of the experience.

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 moods, 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. Into the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since my stepfather had been gone? It felt strange to hear it now.

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 meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd just talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, seeing an opportunity with a willing woman, but immediately the singer saw 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 hurtin’ won’t heal. 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 it to him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He’d walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.

“The real chorus goes like this. It’s almost the same, but just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what her husband called her in that bar. ‘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 over to her husband and 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 took his hand off the guitar and leaned into the microphone. “Now, on the radio, that was the end of the song. Kenny Rogers couldn’t get away with publishing the fourth verse, the censors wouldn’t allow it. But he told it to me. Ladies and gentlemen, right here, in the Red Dog, you can hear the real ending of the classic song, Lucille, are you ready?” The crowd cheered. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.

In the secret fourth verse, he sang about how Lucille had left the hotel room, and 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 into the hotel room, still wanting to be with him, apparently. And to get her to go away, now that he had better prospects, 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. She had once represented happy times in my home. 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 he himself was 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.

Totem

Whale

My brain has gone quiet lately. I haven’t written in weeks. Usually, my head is a landscape of questing, goal-setting, gratitude, frustrations, and rushing thoughts. I divide my time between clients, kids, boyfriend, friends, and self. But lately, it’s all been quieter. I’m just living for moments instead of all the rest.

Today, I stood on the top of a boat and watched the circle of life. I saw northern humpback whales spout water out of their blowholes, the water turning into a little geyser stream of vapor due to the speed of the rushing water. Displaying their humps and then their tails, the whales took great gulps of air as they deep-dived beneath the surface, giving off little echoing sounds that stunned the fish around them. As those fish bobbed to the surface, soaring gulls rushed down to grab them. The whales would disappear for five to ten minutes before coming up for another blow, another gulp, another flip of the tail, and down they went again.

The tour guide explained that the sun and glacier water at this time of year enrich the populations of phytoplankton, then plankton in the water, creating breeding grounds for several species of fish. Enormous schools of salmon, trout, and others return to Alaska to feed in the cold waters, leading the whales to return to feed on them. These particular whales spend a lot of their time in Hawaii, to bear their young. The males race, frolic, wrestle, and sing to get the attention of the females, who carry their calves for a year before giving birth to an infant that weighs a ton.

We saw the brown heads of sea lions poking their heads out of the water, fighting for a place on a small buoy in the distance, hoping to get warm. The males in this species can reach a ton, she says. I hear one of them growl. I check my phone and discover a group of sea lions is called a raft, a group of seals is called a harem. Whales are in pods, crows in murders, ravens in unkindnesses, porcupines in prickles, weasels in confusions, swallows in flights, and eagles in convocations. These seemingly random, sometimes bizarrely clever, names for the groupings of animals swim around my mind, fighting for attention, bringing a half smile to my lips.

As she spoke, I could see sloping mountains, the blue edges of Mendenhall Glacier, skimming Surf Scooters and soaring Bald and Golden Eagles and obnoxious Crows and impatient Sea Gulls all watching for the fish. She described how one island, 1600 square miles, had a vast population of bears on it, nearly one per square mile, while the other across the bay had no bears, because the salmon streams were only close to one, thus humans lived on the other. Helicopters and seaplanes soared overhead, and on the distant highway cars buzzed by, while thousands disembarked from their cruise ships to explore the isolated city.

I’ve only been in Juneau a little over a day, and I’m already realizing how this city is always here, going on with these throngs of people and animals. It’s only different now because I’m in it, here to feel the air and hear the sounds. The sun rose at 4 this morning, and it didn’t set until 11 pm the night before, and the lesser amount of light is messing with my head. I feel ethereal, and I think of how impossible it would feel to be here in the winter, when the light lasted mere hours while the darkness stretched on endlessly. Would I only want to sleep too much, as now I wanted to be awake too much?

I pull my scarf from my bag and wrap it around my neck, then wrap my arms around myself. The ocean air blows against me, around me, as the boat lurches up and down on the wake of other boats. “It’s an Alaskan roller coaster!” our guide shouts, and I laugh, wondering again if she is a lesbian. If she is, I’m somehow more fond of her, and I realize that fact is strange. She seems to love her job, and I realize how rare that is.

The boat is called the Awesome Orca, and on the wall is a long row of certifications and safety protocols. One for safety trainings, life jackets, rafts, signal flares, and fire extinguishers, another for the proper protocol in approaching humpack whales in the wild. This is her job, I realize, looking for whales every day. And it is someone else’s job to make sure she does it right. I ask a question, and she says she can recognize some of the whales by the patterns on their tails, and that astounds me almost more than anything else. She has names for them, she says.

We see six separate whale tails in a row, the entire pod presenting for us as they throw themselves down for more food, yet the thought in my head is “Chad, why haven’t you been writing lately?” My brain is tired, I think. I need sleep. I recount recent domestic distresses at home, how my kids were with me for two weeks straight, the crises I’m managing for my clients consistently, and my failure to meet my nutrition goals and how I keep making excuses. I think of the things that bother me, that stay on my mind week after week, and I wonder how to sort them out again. I wonder about writing, and where this is all leading. I wonder about better ways to be successful. I think of the totem poles looming over my bed in the room I’m staying in, and how I could only see the edge of a glacier that extends for hundreds of miles, and how the entire world used to be covered in ice. I think of how Alaska is bigger than California, Texas, and Montana combined, but they make it look so much smaller on the map. I think of how the ocean, despite its vastness, smells like gasoline from all of the boats and flying crafts.

And I think of how I’m standing here, and how no one else is sure I’m here at all.