Miss W loved compliance and I loved to comply. She taught me spelling, grammar, how to diagram sentences.
Timeliness, structure, order.
My blond-haired feyness a perfect complement to her brawny thickness. She was an unmarried woman over thirty, which did not go unnoticed in a Christian school environment. Women like Miss W were received there in much the same way a man like Paul Lynde was by the rest of the country. The average person hadn’t cracked the code. Not yet. Not quite a live and let live thing – maybe more of a don’t-look-too-close-and-don’t-ask situation. In my youth, I got the same treatment and it served us both, I suppose. Had there been any sign she had (or wanted) a girlfriend, she’d have been sent packing.
In the early eighties, Miss W would have been thirty-three, thirty-five at most. She seemed sixty.
A short, stout woman with shoulder-length wiry red and grey hair, ratted up and out with some Aqua Net knockoff. She had a WC Fields nose and a face with the texture of the moon. She smelled of powder and rosehip, Kmart autumn scent. She wasn’t pretty, but I loved looking at her. Dark gingham dresses and plastic bead necklaces with uneven seams. Her voice was husky, granular, shout-shredded, and dragged through whiskey. Like if Ozzy Osbourne were a lady. Years later, I would come across a line in a Chekhov play that brought her back to me. He introduced Marfa the Cook: a “red-faced woman whose figure was like a barrel with a belt around it”.
The first day of first grade, I dressed in my favorite clip-on tie (my preferred costume my first five years of school), clinging to the new faux-leather briefcase Mom had bought me – a baby Alex P. Keaton with a little extra around the middle. Miss W explained the rules, the expectations, what mattered – right out the gate. Everyone knew what to do and when to do it. This. All of this. Yes. Put. Me. To. Work.
And then she introduced Oscar.
Oscar, she explained, was her helper when things “went wrong”.
What Oscar was was a twelve-inch ruler with metal siding running up one side. Little cherubs who got on God’s wrong side got up close and personal with Oscar real quick. Five, ten, fifteen whacks of a ruler on an open six year old palm.
In first grade, I never had to worry about Oscar. That came later.
Fast forward to the summer of ’81. The summer after first grade. I’m in the back of my father’s work van, writing Miss W a letter as we head for Tennessee. I should be over the moon – we’re headed to Dolly Parton’s homeland. Pilgrimage level stuff. But, me, I’m moping, in mourning. I’ve just lost the greatest teacher in the world. Even Dolly ain’t salve.
We end up at Opryland USA, a theme park built around the Grand Ole Opry. There isn’t much to it, that park. At least not that I remember. I didn’t know what tacky was, I just knew that I liked it.
There’s a sound booth and for ten bucks you can record a song. Full studio. Low light, producer guy on the other side of the glass. The whole deal. Me, just on the edge of self-consciousness, just beginning to notice the reactions of others, not yet picking up on the cues to change, amend, alter myself. It would take another year to be nudged into the someone I became.
I have a major decision to make here. What song will I record? There are two major contenders.
The first: Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” . The song had been number one on the country charts all summer. But another option is Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again”, by all accounts a much better song. I prefer Dolly to Barbara – who doesn’t? – but Barbara’s song is so very *now*.
Mom votes Dolly.
My sister votes Barbara.
My dad thinks it’s all much too queer and he heads for a walk through the park to smoke as many Marlboros as he can until the whole thing ends.
I have 60 seconds. I hate pressure. Barbara wins.
I don’t know if it’s because of the song’s currency or because of my sister’s vote. Or maybe – maybe – it’s because I happen to know Miss W is a Barbara fan (“You can do better than that Dolly business,” she once told me.) If I go Barbara, I can send Miss W a copy of the recording. And if I send her a copy, then she’ll have to write me back. And if she writes me back, we stay connected. And if we stay connected, we might just stay friends forever. The decision is suddenly easy.
I walk assuredly toward the studio door.
I open it.
I take a deep breath and then this happens: