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.

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Blood Atonement

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At age 24, as a junior in college in a Social Work Policy class, I was instructed to work on a team with five women on writing a 20 page opinion paper on the Death Penalty. We studied for weeks, required to review cases in Idaho and on national statistics, to read scholarly reviews on opinions both for and against it, and to conduct a few interviews. After dozens of hours writing and perfecting the paper, we reached a consensus that the death penalty was unjust. We learned a few basic facts: it is cheaper to keep someone in prison for life than it is to kill them (seriously, look it up); that each life has value, even when that life is spent behind bars; and that the justice system can be insanely corrupt, convoluted, and inconsistest.

An example of the last: Joe Hill was executed by firing squad after he was convicted on circumstantial evidence for shooting a man in a grocery store; it is widely believed he is innocent. Meanwhile, the Green River serial killer, who brutally murdered nearly 100 victims, was given life in prison; Charles Manson was not only not given a death sentence, he was up for parole a few times.

I’m currently working on an intensive research project that intersects the complicated history of murders, trials, and death penalty convictions in Utah. Many of my thoughts on these matters will be saved for now as I continue my research, but I want to share a few here. Over and over in these trials, the concept of Blood Atonement comes up, mentioned thousands of times in the courts. I’m not exaggerating, thousands upon thousands.

It’s a relatively complicated doctrine that boils down to some relatively simple premises. 1. Brigham Young, who settled the Mormons in Utah and acted both as their prophet and governor, is revered by Mormons. They believe his words to be the commands of God directly.

2. Brigham Young taught about Blood Atonement, basically certain sins committed by believing Mormons can only be forgiven when the sinner has his blood shed in recompense. In other words, if you commit a certain sin, it is God’s command that you be killed. Sins listed by Brigham Young in association with Blood Atonement include: MISCEGENATION (a white person sleeping with a person of another race and having children), APOSTASY (rebelling against the church), THEFT, MURDER, FORNICATION (having sex outside of wedlock), and ADULTERY (having sex with someone besides your spouse). When you combine all of this with POLYGAMY (Brigham Young himself had over 50 wives), RACISM (teachings by Young that show people who are non-white are cursed, evil, and degenerate), and MISOGYNY (a system that often treated women as property and taught their station was as wives and mothers), Utah in the 1800s  becomes a VERY complicated place). Young taught that ideally sinners would take their own lives, and that in the case of executions, they should be done with love and kindness.

3. The Church no longer teaches Blood Atonement. And, honestly, many of its members have no idea what it is. But when you are calling upon Mormons to serve as jurors in Death Penalty cases, you have to ask them about it. Because it was taught by Brigham Young, so it must be of God. And it is ingrained in the cultural history of Utah.

4. There are many examples in Utah’s history where believing Mormons took the doctrine of Blood Atonement in their own hands and saw members of the church murdered for sinning (the most famous examples are related to the Danites). In addition, many murders have been committed by people affiliated with Mormonism where they use Blood Atonement in their own defense, i.e. “I killed that woman because she was sinning, and I’m innocent because it is part of my religious beliefs.”

5. In the early days of the Church, the Mormon endowment ritual contained a graphic covenant in which members vowed to have their throats slit, their tongues cut out, and their chests ripped open if they ever divulged the sacred endowments to Gentiles, or those not of the faith. This covenant existed in some form until just a few decades ago, when it was changed.

For those who are shocked by this doctrine and think I’m overplaying my words here, I invite you to consider one of the most beloved Mormon stories from the Book of Mormon. Nephi is sent by God into the city to obtain the scriptural record. Laban refuses to give them up. God commands Nephi to murder Laban by beheading him in order to get the scriptures. The premise: it is better for this man, a sinner, to die so that you can have your beliefs. And if God commands it, it is okay. This idea is ingrained into every Mormon story, that beliefs trump government, that beliefs are more important than human life.

For my Mormon friends, imagine the prophet standing up and saying that any sinners should be murdered, decapitated, their throats cut and their bodies tossed in the river (all based on quotes by Young). Imagine the moral conflict that would cause. In 1858, when Alfred Cumming took over as Utah’s second governor (a change which had to take place after President James Buchanon sent out an army to force the Mormons to comply with federal edict), talk of Blood Atonement quieted at the governmental level, but every murder trial in Utah since then has had to reference this doctrine in some form ever since.