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.

Trump Towers

Trump.jpg

“Well, there it is,” the older woman said in her thick European accent. “Trump Tower.”

“Well, it’s more like a hotel. Do you think it will be used for hosting foreign dignitaries?” The younger woman looked sad as she said it, snapping a shot of the building on her phone. “I didn’t realize how close it was to the White House.”

“I’m sure many diplomats will try to stay there to impress the president. But maybe he will let them stay there for free.”

Both women stood thoughtfully silent for a moment before I chimed in. I had been standing nearby, on a long walk through the streets of Washington D.C. I had taken my own photos of the Trump hotel as they had been talking.

“I don’t think he will be letting anyone stay for free,” I scoffed.

The older woman laughed. “We can pretend. I’m trying to comfort my daughter. She is college-aged and living here in America currently.”

The daughter continued staring at the building. “I just can’t believe it is happening. I keep looking at all of the states, even here in the District of Columbia, and I see how the majority supports Hillary Clinton. How could this man have won?”

“Well, speaking for a lot of Americans, we can’t believe it either.”

I introduced myself to the two women, Annaliese, attending college locally, who was showing her mother Linda around the city. Both women were from Armenia. I explained that I was a tourist to the city also. There was heaviness in the air as we became basically acquainted. They asked what I had been doing in the city, and I told them about my adventures.

“And then yesterday, I went to the Holocaust Museum. Have you been?” I asked.

Linda looked down, a sadness heavy on her face for a moment. “I have no need to go there. My mother’s generation was that of the first genocide, the Armenian genocide.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and there was a pregnant silence for  a moment. Then Annaliese asked me what I thought of the museum. I looked back over at the Trump hotel, and sighed.

“The first part of museum was dedicated to the political circumstances at the time. It told of Germany, struggling with political sanctions after World War I, and how the economy was slow to rebuild and the people were dissatisfied. Despite all of that, Germany had a lot of cultural things happening. It was becoming a safer place politically for homosexuals and for women, for Jews and other religious groups. It seemed to be changing, slowly, for the better. And then Hitler happened.” Both women looked at me and seemed to want me to continue. “Watching those exhibits, I saw how Hitler surrounded himself with people who admired and emulated him, and how he used the plights of the average German to propel himself into power. He used propaganda and political loopholes within the German system to seize larger and larger pieces of political influence. He exploited crises to gain sympathy and seemed to operate on a message of ‘Make Germany Great Again’, and then he took over and appointed others just like him into positions of power. And then the world watched what happened next.”

Annaliese looked at the hotel and then at me. “That sounds painfully familiar.”

I nodded twice. “Yeah, the museum was extremely uncomfortable for me. I must have had 75 moments of ‘oh my god, that sounds like America right now’. Political campaigns built on propaganda that exploit the disenfranchised. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women. Fear-mongering and gas-lighting.”

Linda stuffed her hands in her pockets, avoiding the cold wind. “And the rest of the museum?”

“Well, the rest of the museum was all that happened next. I cried lots of times reading about the people killed, and how they were killed, the people experimented upon, the ones who barely escaped with their lives. It was horrible. The museum was so beautifully built, and we must remember what happened, but it was horrible. I’m sure it was similar to the stories your mother told you of the Armenian genocide.”

We stayed silent for a moment again, and I felt the need to clarify. “Look, I don’t think we are headed for genocide in America. I don’t think that would happen again. But I do worry about what comes next for us. It’s a heavy time here after things have been going so well.”

The conversation lightened up for a few minutes and we talked instead of food and music and entertainment, of aspirations and climate and family. And then the women headed along their way, after having me take a photo of them in front of the Trump hotel.

I continued my walk then, past incredible buildings full of history. I saw names emblazoned in plaques and pavement: J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass. The sheer history of these streets. The sheer weight of the footfalls of the men and women here who have influenced a world’s destiny and changed billions of lives for better or worse, from right here on these streets.

I came around the bend and saw a few handsome Secret Service agents screening the credentials of four men and women dressed like Christmas carolers, admitting them to the White House grounds for some sort of event. I looked at a construction crew building a stage for the upcoming Inauguration of a new President. I watched a crowd of Americans gathered at the perimeter staring at the White House in all its grandeur, realizing, as I was, that it is just a building like any building, and a small building at that. A Muslim family stood arm in arm, the women with their heads wrapped, the men with heavy beards. A black mother held the hands of her three daughters, all in pink snow hats. A lesbian couple hugged each other tightly. An elderly father pushed a stroller while his daughter carried the child inside. We watched, all of us, the silent grounds around us, wondering in unison what the future holds.