A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

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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.

Slut-shaming in the 1770s

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The air in my lungs felt like fresh cold water after hours of thirst. The sky was a powerful blue over the painful white of the ski hills, the sun reflecting off it strongly enough to make my eyes hurt. Tall evergreens cascaded haphazardly over the hills as the tiny skiers sent tufts of powder among them on their descents down the hills.

The sun was surprisingly warm in the Alta area east of Salt Lake City. I had driven here this morning with a purpose, needing to clear my head from the inversion in the valley, an atmospheric condition that hits Utah in the lowest and highest temperatures, pollution and smog gathering in the valley, trapped there as if there was a lid over the whole of it. The smog had been growing worse by the day as I eagerly awaited a pressure system to come in and wipe the valley clean again, fresh winds and moisture the exact remedy required.

I had awakened this morning, my head clogged with invisible cotton, my throat constricted, my lungs aching. I always forget how sensitive I am to the inversion here on the bad air days. Where some others seem to not be at all impacted, my system reacts violently and makes me feel part sinus-infection and part allergy-attack.

But now, amid the blue and white, between the hot sun and the cold snow, my thoughts cleared and my brain came alive again, and so I sat to write.

My brain turned immediately to Georgianna Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. A remarkable woman, a revolutionary if there ever was one. I had picked her book up off the library shelf at random. The book showed Keira Knightley the actress dressed in an ornate gown, her hair piled upon her head, surrounded by royalty, advertising the movie the Duchess, which had been based on this biography. I waited to see the film until after I finished the book. I watched it with a few friends, and throughout the movie, I pushed pause, providing commentary on the parts of Georgianna’s life the movie didn’t capture well, I was that annoying nerd with the running fact checks. But overall, the movie had done a good job. Georgianna was, after all, an intensely complex woman.

Georgianna’s biographer must have spent countless hours looking through ancient correspondence, newspaper articles, and journals, all hundreds of years old. Born in 1757, Georgianna was married on her 17th birthday to the 25 year old Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who had strong connections to British Royalty and the Whig Party. The Duke was a philanderer, a man with exacting expectations and often very little patience. Georgianna was anything but a typical woman. She involved herself in the affairs of others regularly, arranging marriages and hosting political rallies and fundraisers for preferred Whig candidates.

As the United States of America won its freedom overseas, Georgianna set the trends of fashion in the United Kingdom with elaborate dresses, many she designed herself, and ever more garish hairstyles, some so high she had to sit on the floor of the carriage to fit inside it for transportation. He hair would be wound tightly, with horse hair and feathers intertwined to give it more height, and every woman in the region sought to emulate her as the newspapers reported on her fashion choices with pride.

Georgianna was berated by her husband for being politically involved, and the men she helped promote in politics were publicly ridiculed for treating a woman as an equal. The papers ran political cartoons, rather racy for the time they were in, showing Georgianna lifting her skirts and luring common men, like butchers, in for a kiss, making them promise to vote for her candidate. Rumors abounded of affairs and the public whispered and titered behind her back, even when some of the affairs (purportedly with both men and women) were true.

Georgianna raised her husband’s illegitimate child as her own and gave birth to two daughters as her husband kept pressuring her for a son, blaming her for the birth of the girls as if it had been a choice, while William continued having his own affairs, something that was apparently very common so long as it was never discussed. She finally had a son, giving William an heir, also named William, though that heir went deaf at a young age and never married, reportedly gay.

Georgianna reportedly only fell in love once, to Charles Grey (later the Prime Minister of England), and when she became pregnant with her last child by Grey, the Duke sent her into exile, shaming her for her affair, despite his own, and he required her to give the daughter, Eliza, up for adoption.

Georgianna was courageous, but she was far from perfect, spending a lifetime racking up tremendous gambling debts and lying to her husband about them, leaving many debts behind after she died tragically before hitting fifty. She was an extraordinary woman and mother, with a large ego and a hunger to be in the center of the action. She set trends in feminism that would take many women another century and a half to realize. Georgianna was strong, stubborn, unflinching, and often uncompromising, and she left behind one powerful legacy.

And perhaps most relevant to the readers in today’s generation, she was an ancestor of Princess Diana.

With thoughts on human existence in my head, I drove out of the deep blue skies and through the blinding snow, back toward the valley and smog. All of the individual pains and heartbreaks, joys and triumphs of one woman in one family in one place, each moment lived by her, now hundreds of years past, stories only preserved in the printed word, and most of her life forgotten, only to be pieced together by the the printed words and stories that remain from her time. Her life and the lives of her children and theirs and theirs, all of them past now.

And as I drove back down into the swiftly thickening fog, I realized this was one more moment of mine, soon to be past to the next.