Dolly Parton, Nashville TN
Grandma bought the tape at an I-40 truck stop on the way to Albuquerque for a horse race. Grandma didn’t like stopping. Didn’t like buying us things at truck stops, not that we dared ask. But I loved truck stops. They were better than any store except maybe a toy store. Truck stops had weird candy and a wall of bumper stickers with hilarious quotes we could never read aloud without getting smacked. Truck stops sold taxidermied snake heads and impossibly soft rabbit feet and, up by the cash register, there was always a wheel of key chains that never had your name, or it wasn’t spelled right, but it was fun to look.
Sometimes Grandma would buy us a coke to share. She didn’t want us over-hydrated or she might have to stop to let us pee. So we got can of coke between the four of us. We didn’t drink water in the eighties unless it came out of a hose. There were more water fountains back then, but none of them worked. We sure as shit didn’t buy water. Which was a shame. Because the one thing Grandma hated more than stopping, was running the air conditioner. Waste of gas. She drove with the windows down. We learned to watch the progress of her cigarettes. The trick was to roll the window up in the back seat before she flicked out the smoldering nub or it’d blow right back into the car. You could catch one in the eye, lose a patch of hair. As such, most of what I remember of road trips like these, is the hot wind whipping my hair into a tangle, the seats scratching and burning my thighs, Grandma hollering “swallow your spit” if one of us complained we were thirsty, and the occasional mad scramble to find the cigarette butt before it burned through the seats. Grandma’s car, probably the only Subaru in Texas back then, smelled like the coffee that stained every surface and the cigarettes that left pock marks in the seats and carpet.
The only way Grandma was stopping the car is if she was out of gas or out of coffee, black coffee, which she drank like breathing, for her asthma. And she’d only stop at Rip Griffin’s truck stops because she’d bought a Rip Griffin’s mug that could be refilled at any Rip Griffin’s truck stop for 10 cents.
Sometimes Grandma listened to NPR, if she could pick up a station. Mostly, she listened to opera. We knew better than to complain. But that road trip was special. That was the road trip Grandma bought us a Dolly Parton tape.
She must’ve been feeling sorry for us because she let us play the tape the rest of the way to Albuquerque and all the way back to Amarillo. She was feeling sorry for us because this was the last road trip and she knew it. So that road trip, she stopped at McDonald’s, and when she stopped at a truck stop, she bought us each a fountain coke, a real coke, and a Dolly Parton tape, because my oldest sister, Valerie said Dolly was her favorite.
When we got back to Amarillo, they were going to split us up. My two older sisters would go live with our dad. My little brother and I would stay with our mom. We didn’t know it yet. We didn’t know this was our last summer. We didn’t know it was the end of our inside jokes and secrets and shared memories and grudges and easy comfort. The end of our safety in our number, our order, our rules. The end of how we saw the world through one another and protected one another from the world. The end of knowing nothing could come between us, or anyone again. The end of us. We didn’t know it would be years before we saw one another again, that the wounds where they severed us would close and we’d grow separately into different people. I think now that Grandma knew.
The night our sisters left, Mom let us sleep in her bed. We fell asleep watching Jaws on the little black and white TV. After that, I cried myself to sleep until Mom told me to stop crying. So I’d fall asleep listening to that Dolly tape. The songs made me think of that trip to Albuquerque where the pool water at the motel turned our hair bright green and and Grandma let my sisters pick the horses to bet on.
One of those last weeks before school started again, Grandma took my brother and me down to Lubbock to visit our cousins. I don’t know what the boys did that week. I know my cousin and I spend the entire week in the living room watching 9 to 5 on VHS. We watched it so many times we could quote the entire movie. And somehow, because I was 7 years old and I missed my big sisters, because Valerie loved Dolly—I became, for lack of a better term, completely fucking obsessed with Dolly. I mean I was like a little gay boy assigned his first diva. I fucking imprinted on that woman.
Eventually, we moved out of Grandma’s house, to Oklahoma, then Dallas, then Japan. I all but forgot about Dolly. I mean I loved her still, but I kept it to myself, and with nothing to feed the obsession, it went dormant.
It would be 5 years before we came back to Grandma’s house. My sisters were with us again, for a time. We were only at Grandma’s a few weeks. But we found the Dolly tape the first night. My sister Valerie made a copy, hiding in the closet with two tape players, yelling at me to shut up out there. She needed the recording. We were moving to Switzerland. I don’t know why she didn’t take the tape itself. But I know she didn’t. Because a few years later, when we moved back to Amarillo, the tape was still there in the closet. My sisters were again… Somewhere else. My obsession with Dolly Parton, woke right up. Every night, I’d listen to the tape. I can still name the order of the songs:
9 to 5
But You Know I Love You
Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You
Me and Little Andy
Here You Come Again
Islands in the Stream
Two Doors Down
It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right
Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
I Will Always Love You
Every one of those songs, somehow, to my mind, was about us, the 4 of us, my sisters and my brother and me, when we were us, before they broke us in half. My Grandma got so fucking tired my playing the tape in her car, she bought me another tape—Eagle When She Flies. Within a week or two of our return, my cousins came up from Amarillo. And my cousin had another movie on tape for us to memorize—Steel Magnolias.
My parents soon banned me from talking about Dolly. It’s weird, honestly. You’re obsessed. It’s not healthy. Like there was anything about my mind that was healthy. My Grandma, on the other hand, fully supported my obsession. She said obsessions are what feed the creative mind. And I liked that she thought I had a creative mind. I told her once it was annoying that people didn’t think Dolly was cool. She said, “Wait awhile. It all comes back around eventually.” Any time she ordered a new batch of tapes from Columbia House, she’d let me add a Dolly tape. And when I asked her if famous people read fan mail, she said, "Why wouldn’t they.” And when I asked her for a stamp and showed her the letter, she didn’t mention I might need to add more to the address than “Dolly Parton, Nashville, Tennessee.” Why would I.
We were home-schooled at the time, my brother and I. Our parents weren’t often home during the day. Which meant there was plenty of time to check the mailbox every hour from 9am until around 1 when the mail usually came. I accidently startled the mailman enough times that he must’ve figured out what I was waiting on, because when it came, he rang the bell. A postcard, from Dolly holy-fucking-shit Parton. She’d written “I will always love you” on the back. And signed her name. Dolly. I made my brother walk to Michael’s with me where I spent my entire life savings, about $5, on a shitty little frame so nothing would damage the postcard, or where she’d signed it.
Later on, my stepdad, dick that he was, would inform me that the writing was just a stamp. But that was later. All I knew at the time was Dolly read my letter and wrote me back. So I did what any rational 15 year old would do. I wrote her again. And again. I had an address now, from the postcard. I kept writing. I told her about my sisters. I told her which songs were my favorites. I told her about my cousin and me watching 9 to 5 until we’d memorized it.
The letters got longer and more personal. I poured out my soul to that woman. At first I talked mostly about my sisters. How I didn’t know when I’d see them again. How when I listened to her songs, I didn’t miss them so much. How Valerie had a boyfriend now. How I used to fight with Anne when we were little but we’d stopped fighting. Then I started talking about me. How I was scared my life was already ruined because I missed so much school. How I didn’t want a boyfriend. How I didn’t have any friends except my cousin who lived in Lubbock. How I thought maybe… I didn’t say it. But I came close. I wasn’t worried she’d read it and reject me. That was the thing about Dolly. She was like Santa Claus, or Jesus, but real. And she didn’t hate me. There was nothing I could say that would make her hate me. You couldn’t say that about Jesus, even if I did believe in him. Dolly loved me for who I was, like my sisters did.
For awhile there, I probably sent her a letter a week. I didn’t want to be annoying. I knew she was busy and couldn’t reply to all of the letters. She must get hundreds. And Grandma didn’t like my stealing all her stamps.
Then the Bodyguard came to the dollar theater in Amarillo.
You might remember the Bodyguard as Whitney Houston’s breakout acting role. You might remember the soundtrack, which was inescapable that year. You might remember Whitney Houston’s cover of I Will Always Love You and how she fucking owned that song.
All I remember about the Bodyguard is they said when someone writes a celebrity too many letters, that person is a stalker. Stalkers get put on a list. And they save the letters, just in case. I sat through the rest of the movie feeling like I might throw up. I didn’t say a word on the way home. Didn’t ask to change the station from whatever my parents were listening to. I couldn’t sleep that night but I didn’t listen to a tape. I tried to tell myself that surely they’d know I wasn’t some scary stalker. I just wanted to be friends with Dolly Parton. I was only a teenager. Surely they’d… No. They wouldn’t see it.
I never wrote her again. I stopped talking about her at all. I stopped buying her tapes and CDs. I decided maybe it didn’t matter if she loved me for who I was. Jesus, Lauren. She doesn’t know who you are. I decided, in some version of a 15 year old telling herself to get her shit together, that I would be normal, a normal person who liked boys and didn’t write letters to some celebrity who didn’t know her name.
For years, and I mean well into my 20s, I was terrified I’d been put on a list, that someone saved those letters. Still, I don’t think Dolly would be mad. There really was nothing I could do to make her hate me.
My Grandma’s long gone. But she was right, Dolly’s cool again. Everyone talks about her. Maybe we were all obsessed. Who knows. I don’t need to talk to her anymore. If I need to talk to my sisters these days, I can call them. Of course, sometimes we talk about Dolly.
Last summer, I showed 9 to 5 to my niece. There’s a risk in showing an 11 year old something you love. They're programed to think your old stuff is the definition of uncool and there is nothing they love more than dragging you for being uncool. But she loved it. We spent a lot of time in the car, driving her to and from friend’s houses. I’d play her stuff I thought she’d like, Florence and the Machine, Stevie Nicks, and sometimes Dolly. Once, just before I left to come back to Texas, my niece asked if we could listen to Dolly on the way home. Somehow, she knew all the words. I told her Dolly was our thing, my sisters and me. She said, “and me.” Maybe that’s the thing about Dolly. She’s our thing.