the museum of americana

a literary review

The Last Ballad of Loretta Lynn – Fiction by Sean Conaway

Loretta Lynn’s up in the cloud, bursts of light travelling wires, zeroes and ones beamed down from satellites.  She’s a voice spitting in headphones, rattling tin can laptop speakers.

Loretta’s hauling hand trucks down Wal-Mart aisles, restocking shelves, stopping to listen as the fans crank up in the warehouse ceiling. Her lips move, her head nods. She’s waiting in the parking lot at 5 AM for mama to pick her up, take her to the bus stop. Her mama holds down three jobs, and Loretta’s makes four. They still ain’t making rent. They’re too tired to talk, cain’t eat. Semis roar up and down 81, tugging her head back and forth.

Six songs uploaded already, two on deck. 5,000 Twitter followers, more coming, all of them asking for the next cut, talking ‘bout mixtapes, an EP. SoundCloud files are getting ripped and thrown up on YouTube, her widgets are multiplying. Blogged and reblogged.

Loretta Lynn’s a signal beamed. Standing outside Planned Parenthood, she wants to grip her stomach but won’t. She’s walking away.

Altered Zones, Consequence of Sound, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Stereogum. Loretta’s across the nation, overseas. Loretta’s never left Virginia. Her mama said they visited the ocean once, but Loretta cain’t remember. Folks are typing about her in foreign languages. She hooked them with their ears, but their eyes are open, searching. Loretta feels them crawling over her skin. There’s an electric current wherever she goes, searchlights flashing. The cloud follows her. It’s asking, Who’s the New Loretta Lynn?

Talking ‘bout her flow, the ways she speaks, her drawl. Loretta’s voice is deep and slow, it tugs, a voice confiding, laying things bare. They call her honest. Raw. Shit is raw. Then she’ll start spitting, getting angry, indignant, confused. They like that too. They’re talking about Dougie’s beats, the loops he creates out of handclaps and motor engines, dentist drills and pneumatic seats. Crickets chirping, semis backing up.

Loretta’s waiting alone for the bus in the dark. Loretta’s in Riner VA, RT 8, up the hill from the chicken houses, she’s swamped with the low pulsing roar of their ventilator fans and stink of chicken shit it pumps out. Power cables stretch between tar-stained and splintered poles against dark blue sky. Loretta’s grounded. Her hair’s lifting off her scalp, reaching for the transistor to her right. It crackles, spits, claws up her spine, harsh noise softened by the rhythm of the waking crickets. The sun’s not up over the mountains, but it’s close, it’s snuffing out the stars.

One blinking orange light passes overhead, a satellite broadcasting signals. Loretta’s up there too. She wears the hood of her sweatshirt pulled tight over her eyes.

~

She writes: air crackles like Wal-Mart hum echoes through wires earwormdrum. She erases: MIA in Riner VA, bites her lip and scribbles it back in.

~

Her English teacher, Mr. Ward, has taken an interest. He leafs through her pages, frowning, but he frowns when he’s interested, not when he’s mad. Loretta has him almost figured out, isn’t afraid of him.

—Your voice is distinct, Loretta.  Confident. You seem to get lost in your language at points, perhaps… She nods. If she nods, Mr. Ward keeps talking. If he keeps talking, he’ll give back the notebook and she can go. If he’s quiet, he’s waiting for her to talk. Loretta ain’t got shit to say.

—Like this, he says, and points.  —Ear worm drum? You’re exploring anonymity, facelessness, but just as you’re nearing your conclusion, you pull back. You play with words and miss the payoff.

—I’m calling for the drum break.

He cocks his head, stares hard at her, and she feels herself shrinking. This is how she’s looked at: Hard.  —Drum break?

—This ain’t poetry, Mr. Ward. It’s lyrics.

He’s still cocking his head, but his eyes aren’t hard. His ears are back.

—It goes to music.

Mr. Ward grunts, flips through the pages.  —Drum break…  —So there’s another verse? he finally asks.

—Yessir.

—Okay.  I’d certainly like to see the rest, Loretta. He’s handing back her notebook.  —This could be your ticket to college, you know.  This could get you out of here.

Loretta walks down the hall to the bathroom. Loretta ain’t going nowhere. She’s 17, poor and white. Country. Probably pregnant. Hates her yellow teeth. They all want a face, but not her face.  Cain’t nobody just listen for long. They don’t know what they want. They want more. She writes: ya’ll cain’t see me when I’m throwing up screens my head’s in the cloud only your ears can touch me.

~

Dougie’s room: Loretta’s on the bed, sucking on the string ends of her sweatshirt hood. She says —You think you could record the Wal-Mart fans at night, when it ain’t crowded?

Dougie’s hunched over his computer screen, his hat pulled down low. He’s trying to hide his black eye. Dougie’s small, got a high-pitched voice, get’s called a fag at school. A purple birthmark reaches from his neck nearly up to his ear. He can’t use the restrooms at school, he’ll get beat up. Sometimes a teacher gives him the key for the faculty toilet, but not often. No one likes weakness.

He looks up from the screen, touches his bruised eye.  —I don’t see why not.

—DJ Dougie can do anything.

—Just Dougie.

He doesn’t use discs, says he’s not a DJ. Dougie makes beats on keyboards and computers, filters everything through wires and pedals, twists them into loops, lays track over track, fills up every lonely space he ever lost himself in. He’s learning the guitar. His daddy’s a dentist, he’s got money.  —I’m a producer, he says. The only time he shows any pride.

—Alright then, Just Dougie. J-Dougie.

—Coming from Miss Loretta Lynn, Honkey Tonk girl herself.

—Aw, go on. I cain’t help if she got my name first. Honkey’s right, anyway.

Dougie grins.  —Ol’ Riner’s Daughter.

—Chicken Piss City. We’ll put parentheses around Chicken.

—You’re Looking at Country…naw, shoot, that’s her’s.

—Don’t want them looking no how. Don’t Come Home A-Crankin’?

—New River Valley PTA.

Loretta laughs.  —I want t’tell ya’ll a story ‘bout NRV’s bastard chi-ld!

Loretta’s got a nice voice, but won’t sing. Spitting makes more sense.

—Why do you want Wal-Mart’s hum?

—There’s a beat in there, keeps coming up to higher pitch then shutting off. Big ol’ ugly clank.  When I’m stocking shelves I can hear my verses overtop, but I’m ain’t sure what I’m saying yet.

—The hum’s the beat?

—It builds up to a roar.

~

For every ear that loves her there’s one that’s hating too. Thinks it ain’t for real. They ask: Is this a joke? Calling her trash. Trailer trash. White trash. Ignorant redneck. Hillbilly. Cracker. She’s all that, she’s more, says so herself through the microphone. But her lyrics are real, real as she can make them. Dougie says it don’t matter what they’re saying, long as they’re talking ‘bout her.

There’s folks out there wanting to talk. Agents, promoters. Reporters. Promising money. That they’ll make her famous. They cain’t find her. Who is the New Loretta Lynn? —They ain’t got nothing for me, she tells Dougie.  —I got everything I need. Dougie cain’t hear the joke, the venom underneath. It’s chewing away at her insides. Soon it’ll be all that’s left.

~

Waiting for the bus: Nothing but hills, grazing land for cattle, and the wind whistles past cold and dark. She don’t like being in the open anymore, can feel the air crackle with their want, the need for more, for her to slip. She’s hunched over her stomach.

Trolling down the road are headlights, running lights, a chugging engine: Coleson’s truck. Loretta thinks about jumping into the ditch, hiding, but he’s already pulling over, rolling down his window.

—Get on in, ‘Retta. I’ll drive you in. Coleson’s been out of the army a year now, the girls at school talk about him. He’s 23, but that don’t stop none of them.

—Bus’s almost here, Coleson. Alone with the microphone Loretta can snarl, spit venom. With Coleson she sounds small, weak. Like Dougie. —You might as well get on home.

—Hell, girl, it’s freezing out. Get in the damn truck.

So, in Coleson’s truck: Metal’s blaring from his speakers, heat from the dashboard. Beer cans rattle ‘round back. This is how it happened before, ‘cept it was warmer. They rode with the windows down, he took her to the river.

—You never did call me, Loretta.

—Phone’s disconnected.

Coleson’s been up all night, Loretta can tell by his eyes. He’s breathing heavy and rubbing his jaw. High on crank. Never should of got in the truck. Stupid. Loretta’s a fool.

—We can spend more time together, Loretta. You ain’t like them other girls.

—What other girls?

—Girls ‘round here. You’re special. Coleson don’t remember that he said the same thing before. Beer, some weed, and she took it because his eyes were soft. He nodded like he was listening. Stupid. He weren’t listening. Then the crank. —Just try it, once ain’t gonna kill you. Stupid: pants around her ankles, eyes rolling up into her throbbing skull, her ears hearing nothing but a roar. She never said no, didn’t know how. Not ‘til she’s lying in the dirt with blood between her legs. Loretta Lynn you’re a goddamn fool.

—I’m pregnant.

—The hell you say. Coleson’s quiet for a mile or so. —Cain’t be mine.

—Ain’t no one else’s.

—Aw hell, Loretta. You sure?

No. Loretta ain’t sure. She’s still getting her period, sort of. Sometimes. Anyway, she’s bleeding. Her stomach’s different, though, a knot of something hard’s in there, getting bigger, pushing on her bladder. It’s the venom, it’s a baby. Loretta’s mama had her when she was fifteen, said it was the worst thing that could of happened. Shitty thing to hear your own mama say, but Loretta knows she didn’t mean it like that. Not entirely.

—I’m sure.

Coleson cusses, punches the steering wheel, roots around his pockets and pulls out a pipe, crystal. —Hold the wheel. His voice is rough.

—You can smoke that shit after you drop me off.

—Fuck you, Loretta. This is your fault.

—Please, Coleson. I don’t want to be around that stuff.

Coleson swerves onto the soft shoulder, the back end of the truck flapping.  He brakes hard and Loretta’s head hits the window. —Get out of the truck.

—Coleson, I cain’t—

—Out of the goddamn truck, he’s yelling, reaching over her to open the door and shove her out.  Loretta Lynn’s in a ditch and he’s driving off. This is your fault.

~

She writes: knocked up in a ditch I’m the ditch a dumb country bitch rotten crank smoke chain smoke brain’s choked too broke to be dead yellow-toothed head take me on the dirt why bother with a bed.  Loretta scratches it out, but it don’t matter. She knows what it says.

~

Dougie’s room: wires run in tangles from the keyboard through pedals to the computer. His guitar leans against the bed, and Loretta plucks the strings while pumping a wah-wah with her foot. She’s trying to drown out the static fuzz seeping out of all the electronics packed in the room. They’ve blown fuses before, and his daddy threatens to make Dougie get a job to pay for the electricity they’re soaking up.

The shades are drawn, the only light comes from the computer monitor. Dougie’s birthmark looks awful, diseased in the harsh whiteness, his eyes crazed. He’s been up all night laying the track, chugging Dr. Pepper. Dougie drinks nothing but Dr. Pepper, but his teeth ain’t yellow. They’re bright white. They glow.

—Alright, check this out. I wired the microphone through this chorus peddle and recorded five minutes up in the rafters of the gym, then looped and layered them so they built up over one another. I got that screech you were talking about. You’re right, there’s a beat, but it’s slow. Like something big stomping towards you.  Thump, bump, thump.

—Well play it, then, J-Dougie, Loretta says and puts aside the guitar. Dougie’ll talk about it all day if she lets him. She holds the headphones tight to her ears, closes her eyes. Turns up the volume: waves of static roll over each other, their edges jangling. Infinite layers of crackle run above a deep rhythmic breathing that every few seconds puffs out a higher-pitched gasp.

Loretta’s at the bus stop with satellites and crickets, she’s pushing handcarts with squeaky wheels. She’s sitting by the river, in a ditch, blind on chemicals, static, she’s eating dinner alone in her mama’s empty trailer. She’s a swarm of light blazing down wires, a transponder hissing, an earwormdrum burrowing down deep, oozing venom.

When she opens her eyes, Dougie’s grinning at her. —It’s perfect. This is the beat.

This is her last song. Loretta ain’t giving ‘em no face. Dougie won’t understand, he’ll hate her. The wires, satellites, ventilator fans, she’s the battery ‘bout to burn out. This is the last flicker before the plug’s pulled.

Loretta’s alone. She cain’t rap with anyone around. Dougie stands just outside, his ear against the door, but that’s alright. Loretta cain’t see him, cain’t see no one. She’s got her hood over her eyes, the microphone against her lips, and she’s out there.

~ ~ ~

Sean Conaway lives in Southwest Virginia with his wife, two daughters, and a smelly dog. He’s currently pushing his first novel on anyone foolhardy enough to read it. “The first one’s free,” he tells them.