Post Road Magazine #27

Donna and the Country Queens

Abigail Carl-Klassen

Her name was Donna like in the Richie Valens song but her heroes were the glamorous country queens who didn't take any shit from anybody—Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline. My grandmother worked as an office girl down at the railroad back then, a classic 1960s blonde out of a bottle, except more beautiful. Her red acrylic nails clacking at the typewriter and rotary phone while she went about her various mundane tasks: calculating payroll, keeping logs, verifying inventory, and snubbing flirtatious lineman. She paused only to smoke Virginia Slims (she was pleased give up Camels, my great-grandfather's brand, for a more feminine cigarette once it was invented in the late sixties) and drink the RC Cola that she brought for lunch—the diet that helped keep her figure. The radio blasted in the nearly empty office over the constant whistle of the Burlington Northern—always WXXQ—country hits and legends. When she was at home, which wasn't often, since a single mom in the sixties always needed either another job or another man, she tried to win the radio contest. She could do a lot with $1,000. She waited by the phone to answer, "WXXQ—is going to make me rich!"

On the weekends she worked as a runway model in Rockford. Some people said that she looked like Twiggy but she still didn't have enough money for her own car. So she rode seventy miles each way with the Hell's Angels that she knew from the bar; unshaven battle worn Vietnam vets who still had their muscles and their drug connections from their tours of duty were much more exhilarating anyway. Weekends called for platform heels, fishnets, and the shortest miniskirt Illinois law would allow. Her psychedelic tube tops peeked from under her flapping leather jacket. She wore her boyfriend's helmet so that her hair, platinum bleach blonde but not fried, would stay perfect while she clung to him, whoever he was at the time, as he accelerated into the curves on the rural Illinois roads through Sterling. Nelson. Dixon. Byron. Oregon. All stops on the Burlington Northern. In the late sixties and early seventies her boyfriends usually had a Harley Davidson, a Hog, because she always liked the loudest and the baddest of them all.

The man on the Hog was never my grandfather, her second husband, who was removed from the police force after he shot my grandmother and another man through the sliding glass window of their house. The bullet only grazed her arm but they still got divorced. He said that she was having an affair but my grandmother said the man just took her home from a Christmas party because my grandfather was drunk. My mother says that both of those stories probably contain some truth.

My grandparents were married to other people when they began their relationship. Donna had only graduated from high school the year before and worked as a clerk in a feed store. My grandfather had just gotten out of the army and had come back to town with his first wife. And apparently, he spent too much time in the feed store. Adultery is a dirty word, but I wouldn't exist without it. When I asked my mom how many times my grandma had been married, she shrugged and said, "I lost count and sometimes I didn't even know who she was married to and who was just living with us."

Even when she wasn't modeling she piled her hair high into a bee-hive like the country royalty that she always wanted to be. She styled my mother's hair in the same way—but with more Aqua Net because it had to stay perfect even in the second grade. In the mornings before she dropped the kids off at school—when she had a car, a car that belonged to one of her husbands—she had to put on her face. Baby pink lipstick and powder blue eye shadow and fake eyelashes that most days no one would see. Sometimes she wore diva sunglasses at work. She had a pair in every color to hide the marks that each boyfriend and husband left after he locked her in the basement, threw her down the stairs, put a hole in the wall with her face. Marks that all her makeup couldn't cover and sunglasses couldn't hide. The mask that no matter how hard she worked to paint on still wasn't enough to make her a country queen.

She took the shit. She didn't have a choice. In the seventies, a single mom always needed another job or another man and she already had too many jobs. She switched to the night shift at the railroad so she could make extra money caring for an old woman during the day, but the old woman died and her boss cut her hours at Burlington Northern. She got too old for Rockford. Her platform heels were broken and her roots showed. Roll-your-own cigarettes were cheaper than Virginia Slims. There were no more Hogs. The economy and the rust belt strikes always put her most recent husband in a bad mood.

Damn Japanese steel.

I always imagined her, after fights, crawling on the kitchen floor picking up broken glass and singing the ballads of pissed off independent women until he told her to turn the goddam radio off. And to shut the fuck up. There was nothing that men like him hated more than hearing those stuck up country bitches.

Patsy, who was a dark-haired country girl just like her and who told Loretta Lynn's husband that she would beat the shit out of him if he ever hit Loretta again, was always her favorite. Patsy was the ghost who spoke to her from the radio long before she began to hear the voices that marked her schizophrenia diagnosis in the early eighties when all the men had gone and her children were all grown up. When she was alone for the first time in her life.

Maybe all those years she listened to Patsy, waiting by the phone for the $1,000 that was always someone else's without anyone to rescue her from the beatings, she was more like Tammy Wynette standing by her man. Until he left and she had to find another before the electricity got turned off again.

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