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.

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Holding Vigil

The word Vigil is defined as “a period of keeping awake… to keep watch or pray.”

Monday morning, I rolled over at 5 am and picked up my phone to check the time. A small box on my phone lit up with a news story about a mass shooting in Las Vegas the night before, and I instantly became aware. This wasn’t a shooting in some far away place that I’d never been, this was Las Vegas, a place that had once been afar away home for me.

After my parent’s divorce, my dad had moved to Vegas, and I had a sister who still lived there now with her children. I’d spent many summers there as a teenager, seeing shows on the strip and swimming in pools. As an adult, I’ve visited Vegas dozens of times. My first relationship with a man had been long distance with a guy in Vegas. I could easily picture the crowded casinos, filled with exhausted tourists from every corner of the country all there to celebrate some birthday or new job or anniversary, all hoping for debauchery through alcohol, gambling, shows, food, and sex, all escaping life and hoping to leave it all behind when they left.

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” the slogan says.

And not, a mass shooting, something no one could ever escape from again. This wasn’t something that could be left there.

As I scanned through the details of the story, I began seeing social media posts about this being the “worst mass shooting in modern American history” and numbers were beginning to show that dozens were killed and hundreds injured. And then the opinions started showing up on Facebook and Twitter.

“If they had been keeping the Sabbath Day holy, those people wouldn’t have died.”

“This is what happens when we elect a misogynistic bigot like Trump and expect him to lead us!”

“Another left-wing conspiracy, another fake shooting, more Fake News for people to use in their agendas, just like Sandy Hook!”

“I blame Hillary Clinton for this! If she hadn’t divided this country like she did, things like this wouldn’t happen!”

“I can’t wait for the news to start blaming gun control laws and racism for this. Political correctness is what is wrong with our country!”

It took me a few hours to give voice to my feelings. As I went about my day, news stories kept flashing on my phone, nearly all of them about the killer. Who he was, where he came from, what was known about him, how many guns he had, what his relationships were like, who his father was, what his motives were, what his habits were. One article talked about his love of country music and gambling. And I knew the public was just eating it up, feeling titillated by the details of the life of this man who had just become one of the greatest mass murderers in American history.

But my mind went to the reality of the event itself. I’ve been to Mandalay Bay for shows and to the Aquarium, and I’ve walked the area outside of it. A bright flashy country music festival, in its third day of production. A large stage and a crowd of thirty thousand fans, all there to celebrate life and escape. They were drinking and dancing, sleeping, texting, taking photos and posting them on line, sending texts to their loved ones. And then, suddenly, gunfire. At first everyone held still and the music continued, people thinking it was electric sounds or perhaps fireworks. But as hundreds of rounds of ammunition rained down on the crowd, bullets hit targets. They flew through cowboy hats and lodged in heads and necks and chests and arms and backs and legs. And then the screaming and the running started.

For (approximately) 15 minutes, the gunfire continued. Loved ones made critical decisions to leave wounded spouses and friends behind, they scrambled to call for help and to search for missing loved ones, they launched themselves over barriers and fences to safety, they lay on the ground trying not to attract notice. They screamed, their adrenaline surged, and they texted frantic messages to people back home, not knowing if they would live or die.

As a therapist who does crisis work, I pictured talking to any one of these thousands of people later on. They would share their confusion, locked in time with the sights and sounds and images of what they witnessed, in shock and unable to get it out of their brains. Those images will stay with them for the rest of their lives, altering them forever. Tens of thousands of people, who will never again escape the feeling of what it is like to sit there helplessly as those around them are being slaughtered, a sensation generally on military veterans learn to live with.

And many were altered even more. Husbands lost wives. Wives lost husbands. A man shielded his wife from gunfire and she held his hand as she died. A cop protected someone else and yelled at his wife to run to safety, only to later learn she’d been killed. Back home, parents and kids and siblings, neighbors and co-workers and friends, began getting the news that someone they loved, who they had just seen, had been violently murdered, and for all of them, they would never be the same.

These victims, the ones who were wounded and the ones who were killed, they are real people. Teachers, veterans, police officers, students, hairdressers. They have loves and lives, homes, jobs, hopes and dreams. And in a blast of gunfire and blood, they were taken.

And somehow, unless you knew one of the victims directly, the public only wanted to know about the assassin, and to rage about their politics, and that part, that made me hurt and angry beyond belief.

So I decided to hold vigil. Instead of turning off the news because it was too painful, instead of getting lost in the psychology of a madman and mass murderer, instead of ranting about the poor morals of elected officials, instead of expressing outrage over what some celebrity did or didn’t say, I chose to remember the victims.

For two full days, I searched for names and identities. I found photos and locations. I began posting photos with brief descriptions of each person who was killed. These are the ones who deserve to be remembered, just like the victims from the Pulse shooting and from Sandy Hook and Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine. These are the lives that must remembered.

And once I set aside my outrage and replaced it with grieving, once I addressed my pain and fear and gave it voice, I realized I could start to heal, and I could start to decide what to do with this.

In today’s news cycles, we are assaulted with a barrage of things to be afraid of and outraged over, and even the biggest stories tend to cycle through every couple of days. We are no longer talking about the hurricane in Puerto Rico, yet the people there are still struggling to recovery. And by tomorrow, we will no longer be talking about Vegas, instead just shrugging it off as another shooting in a country that can’t seem to stop having mass shootings. And then we will be caught up in our outrage over the next story.

And while we constantly move forward to the next news story, there are events from the past that we still can’t escape from. This country hasn’t healed from the assassinations of JFK, or Martin Luther King, or Harvey Milk, or Abraham Lincoln. We haven’t moved past 9/11, or Watergate, or McCarthyism, or Wounded Knee, or Pearl Harbor, or slavery. Will this be remembered as a time of change, or another forgotten news story?

Because for these families and victims, who will never recover, this isn’t something that can be forgotten. And what happens next time when it is my family, or yours, who is impacted?

How do we take these lessons, and how do we make change?

Those are questions that I need to answer for myself tomorrow. But today, today I grieve.

Vegas

 

 

 

 

Dolly

“Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”

dolly_parton-album_cover

I find this to be one of the most inspirational quotes I have ever heard, and it comes from the inestimable Dolly Parton, who did exactly that.

A lot surprised me as I read about Dolly. I have always admired her without ever knowing much about her. I didn’t own any of her albums, and I had probably only seen a few clips of her in movies. I knew some of her most famous songs, like Jolene and I Will Always Love You.

I was baffled by her carefully constructed image. A woman who painted her face, wore thick wigs, and made herself known for her enormous breasts, which she definitely accentuated in her dress, a woman who compared herself to drag queens in style… yet somehow she cultivated a family friendly, down-home, comfortable around the kids personality. She embraced both gays and Christians, men and women, families of all kinds.

Dolly took her talents as a storyteller and a songwriter, her incredible and unique country voice, her savvy business sense, and her talent at drawing people into her as an icon, and she slowly and carefully built an empire up around herself. CDs, radio hits, albums, sheet music, concert tours, television appearances, movie deals, book deals, her own television show, and her own theme park. Dolly managed to make everyone who watched her feel as if they knew her, feel safe with her, while keeping her private life and politics and beliefs incredibly private at the same time.

As a kid, Dolly learned she liked being the center of attention. With nearly a dozen brothers and sisters running around in a rural Tennessee house, and between her dad’s affairs and her mom’s strict rules, she discovered she loved make-up and she loved boys and she loved people looking at her and she loved to sing. In the 1960s, when she went to the big city for the first time to find her fame, Dolly met Carl Dean when he noticed her exposed midriff at a laundromat and flirted with him. They married, and they have stayed married for decades, striking a seemingly perfect balance of having separate lives and careers, a lot of time for each other, and a whole lot of respect for each other. Carl stays out of photographs and interviews, and Dolly respects his privacy.

Dolly never had children. She made a career for herself working endless hours on tours, after years of concerts and radio performances. I watched some of her television interviews over the years and saw the grace at which she handled inappropriateness and invasiveness. When David Letterman said he’d give a year’s salary to see her naked breasts, she laughed it off, and she did the same when he said she was a pretty thing and that he’d like to see her all sweaty. She carefully balanced the ability to be objectified by men and seen as a sex symbol, yet stand for fidelity and morals at the same time.

Dolly cultivated this in her movies as well. In her two most famous films, she combined sexiness with feminism, career aspirations with family values. In 9 to 5, she played the sexy secretary who wore tight clothes and big hair to work, who stayed faithful to her husband, resisted the advances of her boss, and longed for the camaraderie of her female coworkers, hurt when she realized there were rumors about her. And in the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she played the owner and operator of a whorehouse, a smart and savvy businesswoman who donated to local charities and stayed faithful and local to her boyfriend, the local sheriff.

One paragraph in the book highlighted how Dolly had the ability to be on a car in the middle of a crowded parade in Dollywood. She would wave and smile, wave and smile, wave and smile, and every once in a while she would choose a stranger in the crowd and get a bright smile on her face as she eagerly waved, as if she had seen a long-lost friend. This wave endeared everyone watching to her, making them feel safe with her, like she was their personal acquaintance. This, combined with her down-home country tales and her high-pitched laugh and her grace, has made her an incredible empress of her own little empire.

Perhaps the single fact that endears Dolly to me more than any other has been her ability to succeed in a man’s world with the odds stacked against her, on her own terms. When she “fails”, she learns her lesson and stands back up to fight. She has been unflinching as she has dedicated herself to the hard work it takes to build a name, slowly and carefully over years, and then to keep that name alive for decades. She is a household name, an unforgettable presence.

Dolly tells a story of once entering a “Dolly Parton lookalike contest” among drag queens who dressed as her. She dressed as a caricature of herself, and lost the contest. She tells this story with great delight. When asked about being a ‘gay icon’, she smiles and says she loves all people, and she speaks about everyone should be just who they are and never let anyone stop them.

Sound advice from a woman who has done just that.