Whatever Happened To A.J. Lord?

Helloooo, folks. This is Jerry B. Jones, your down-home DJ at WBBZ, the number one country-western station in eastern Pennsylvania. My guest tonight is Paul Murphy, editor of Country Music Magazine, and we got a special two-hour show for you called “Where Are They Now?” Birdy McCoy, Rex Dupre, the Misty Valley Girls—would-be stars and promising careers that somehow fell by the way. We’re gonna play their music while Paul fills us in on their true-life stories. We might even solve the biggest mystery of all: Whatever happened to A.J. Lord? So stay tuned, folks. We’ll be back right after the local news and farm report…

I pull up to the truck stop restaurant and switch off the radio, the first drops of rain falling in the dusk. Farther along the row of cars a yellow flash catches my eye. A woman, a fat woman, has just stepped out of a station wagon and is wiggling on a rain slicker over her blue T-shirt. The T-shirt bulges like the rolls on the Michelin man on a highway billboard, and her hair, short with bangs, is about the plainest, most unfeminine style you can get. Her face wears that dumb cow expression a female acquires when she knows the best is long past. Christ, they oughta just shoot women like that, put them out of their misery. The women I sleep with these days may have faded stretch marks and smell of cheap perfume, but at least they’ve got a waist and know enough to use makeup.

I head to the bathroom for a piss, then walk around to ease my legs. The lights inside the restaurant glare, and a young couple passes a squalling baby from shoulder to shoulder, exchanging helpless looks. Kid keeps hollerin’. Coffee smells good, but I don’t buy any. Get some gas, get back on the road, then I’ll take another swig from my flask.

I ease the Dodge up to the self-service pump and get out. A short ways ahead, a yellow blob shines through the rainy dark. It’s the fat woman, standing by the exit ramp, and by the set of her shoulders she’s preparing to hitchhike. Now why the hell would she do that when she just left a perfectly good station wagon in the parking lot? I take my time filling the tank, then I walk around the car, pretending to inspect the rust and puzzling over the fat broad. Truth is, I’m curious, something I haven’t felt in a long while. She’s barely got her thumb out when I coast up beside her and swing open the passenger door, and she shies back.

“C’mon, you want a ride?”

“Uh, yeah, thanks.” Nervously, she gets in and shuts the door, drops of rain beaded on the yellow slicker. She fumbles for her seat belt.

“Ain’t got any.”

“Huh?”

“No seat belts. I ripped ‘em out.”

“Oh.”

I take in the rest of her outfit: blue jeans and a brown purse the size of a saddlebag. Age maybe forty-eight, forty-nine. She watches me with worried eyes. “You aren’t going to rape me, are you?”

“You? Get serious.”

She bites her lip and turns away. Now why’d I do that? Why do I always want to hurt women, even poor old fat ones that got nothin’ going for them? I try to make it up.

“Listen, where you headed? Where you want to go?”

“Anywhere. Out West, I think. Maybe California or New Mexico. I’m going to be a New Age person.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, it’s…” She pauses, at a loss. “It’s someone who cares about the earth and about people as individuals. Someone who’s honest and wouldn’t hurt anyone. I saw on TV there are places out West where you can feel the energy coming out of the desert, and somehow that makes you feel peaceful and in tune with the universe…” Her voice trails. “Anywhere, just take me away.”

“You got it. What’s your name?”

“It’s D’oro. D, apostrophe, o, r, o.”

“D’oro? What kind of name is that?”

“It’s my New Age name. It’s from my real name, Dorothy, but I found out ‘oro’ means ‘gold’ in Spanish so I put in the apostrophe to make it stand out.”

“You better be careful people don’t think it’s dodo.”

She looks hurt again, and I lose interest. Who cares if some middle-aged fat chick wants to hitchhike out West and get reborn in the desert? I switch on the radio.

Folks, we’re back with my special guest Paul Murphy, editor of Country Music Magazine. Now, Paul, you’re still a young ‘un by my reckoning, so you must have been just a kid when some of these bygone performers were making their name.

That’s right, Jerry. And as your listeners can probably tell by my accent, I’m not a country boy by birth. I was born and raised in Massachusetts and got my journalism degree from Boston University. But I’ve always loved country music, and when I joined Country Music Magazine, I started the “Where Are They Now?” column to pay tribute to some of these forgotten entertainers.

Why don’t you tell us first about Wesley James?

Sure. Unfortunately, you could sum up Wesley’s story in a single word: alcohol…

Wesley James, that pisshead. We used to drink moonshine together when we were thirteen. I listen to the story: Wes in and out of treatment centers, drunk and disorderly arrests, some fine songs during his dry spells but so erratic no record company would touch him, died on a park bench in 1979 with three dollars in his pocket. So that’s how the bastard ended. Not much of a surprise. Hell, any woman in the bar could drink him under the table. Jerry B. puts on one of Wes’s songs, “Going Down Hard,” and D’oro sighs into the passing dark.

“This used to be my favorite radio station when I was in high school. My friends and I listened to it every afternoon.”

“So you’re from around here.” My curiosity revives a little. I still haven’t figured out why old D’oro is hittin’ the road. I lift my flask from between the front seats and offer it to her, thinking it might loosen her tongue.

She sniffs at the bottle. “What is it?”

“Kentucky whiskey. Go on, take a slug.”

“I don’t think I should.”

“Go on. If you’re gonna travel the road you gotta learn to live dangerously.”

“Well…” She unscrews the cap and takes a sip. “Thank you.”

“Whaddaya mean, ‘thank you’? Go on, girl, drink up.”

I motion, and she gulps a small mouthful and chokes it down. She starts to replace the cap.

“Whoa, don’t put it away.” I beckon. “My turn.”

“But you’re driving.”

“So what?” I grab the flask in annoyance. If she’s gonna preach at me I’ll dump her here and now. But D’oro just bites her lip again, as if by accepting the lift she’s got no right to complain, which she hasn’t. “Look, you got nothin’ to worry about. I know just how much to drink, see?” I take my hands off the wheel and hold them straight out, steady as a bird dog pointing at a sitting duck. Hell, I could walk a straight line with half a bottle in me and no one the wiser. “Anyway, you were saying you like country music?”

“My favorite was A.J. Lord.”

I hit the brake, and she jerks forward with a cry, palms slammed against the dashboard to stop the impact. “What happened?” she gasps.

I let the car resume its roll, my heart settling back into my chest. “Thought I saw a deer about to leap onto the road.”

“Oh, where?” She scans anxiously as the highway slips past. “I guess we missed it.”

“Yeah.” Now would be the time to change the subject, but it’s funny how, soon as the wound is open, there’s that devil on my shoulder nagging me to pour in the salt. “So you’re an A.J. Lord fan. I heard of him once or twice. What’s the A.J. stand for?”

“Andrew Jackson. I used to have a poster of him on my bedroom wall. He was wearing a green shirt with pearl studs and a black jacket and real tight blue jeans. And a big white cowboy hat.” Her voice grows dreamy, and my stomach curls at the thought of this fat teenager mooning over my poster in some frilly pink room.

“Yeah, well he’s probably some busted-up old has-been now,” I say, not knowing who I want to hurt more, her or myself. “So where’s he got to these days?”

“Jail.” She turns up the radio. “Listen, maybe they’ll say something about him.”

Now to my mind, Paul, two of the sweetest voices I ever heard belonged to the Misty Valley Girls. Were you able to track them down?

Yes, I was. As your audience may know, Jerry, the Misty Valley Girls were identical twins Sherree and Brandee Bodine. They were very talented young ladies, hard working, from a devout Christian family. They scored their first hit in 1974 with “Child I Never Had,” and their debut album made a big impact on the charts. Six months later, on a rainy night, they were on their way to perform at a county fair when their car skidded into a ravine. Brandee was killed instantly, and Sherree, who was driving, suffered irreversible brain damage. I visited her this spring in North Carolina where she lives with her parents. She’s in her forties now, but she’s hardly aged since that night. I tried to talk with her, but she just stared past me. Her mother told me she spends her days in a rocking chair by her window, listening to the one album she and her sister made….

Too bad about those girls, though I never knew them—after my time. I stopped listening to music, any music, when they locked me up. But I did know some pretty girl singers, and they were always purrin’ and clawin’ and singin’ how men done them wrong. Sounded to me like they wanted it. Leastways, they always came back, bruised and weepy, beggin’ for more. They probably got six kids now and that washed-out look like an old housedress. But the smart ones knew better. They just sang as if they understood suffering, lying through their teeth about imaginary heartaches, then stepping off stage to discuss the fine print with their lawyers and business managers. They’re the ones who ended up with gold records and private estates.

D’oro sits quiet beside me, listening to a song by the Misty Valley Girls. I hand back the flask, and she hoists it to her lips.

“So this A.J. Lord went to prison,” I say. “He still there?”

“I don’t know.” She frowns and perks up a little. “I remember it was 1968, I was a senior in high school, and they sentenced him for killing another man in a fight. I cried all night. I just knew he did it to protect the woman he loved, the one he wrote the song for, Dolly Rose.”

I nearly hit the brake again. Dolly Rose—she has to have six kids now, faded stretch marks, swollen knuckles. She has to.

“But I can’t remember how long they sentenced him for,” D’oro continues. “Fifteen years? Twenty?”

“Twenty-five.”

The bitterness in my voice makes her gape. “Twenty-five? How do you know?”

“It’s what you got for murder in those days. Trust me.”

“Oh my god, you’re an escaped prisoner!”

“I didn’t get my face rearranged like this in a church choir.”

I leer toward her, daring her to identify me, but she’s too terrified, cheeks quivering, hands clutching her huge purse against her breasts. All she remembers is a lean young stud in tight jeans and shiny cowboy boots, and here’s some scar-faced bastard with thin gray hair and a drinker’s gut.

“Aw, relax,” I say. “You’re safe. I did my time. Look, what you got in that stupid bag anyway?” I jab at it, trying to put her at ease. “I’ve always wondered what a woman could carry in a purse that big. Why don’t you dump it out and show me?”

“Sure, sure. Whatever you say.” Hurriedly, she opens the latch and pulls out tissue, keys, wallet, babbling to explain each item. I lose interest and listen to the radio.

But not all our stories tonight are sad ones, are they, Paul?

No, they’re not, Jerry. Birdy McCoy and Rex Dupre are both cases in point. Birdy started out with two number-one hits in a row, but as a little girl she’d always dreamed of becoming a doctor. When her hit records gave her the income to go to medical school, that’s exactly what she did. Today she heads a pediatric research unit that’s doing tremendous work on childhood cancers. I interviewed her last year, and she told me she’s never for a moment regretted leaving her musical career.

And Rex Dupre?

One of the biggest real estate developers in Georgia. He serves on half a dozen civic boards.

Let’s hear some of their music…

Success stories, huh? I’ll tell you what success is. It’s struttin’ onto the stage with the whole world watching, bright lights on every side, the crowd going wild. It’s a guitar wailing and songs you wrote ripping out your throat rich and raw. It’s fancy cars and money to toss to your friends and the heat risin’ in a woman’s cheeks when you slide a grin her way. And it’s thinking how of all those people down there in the audience, all those fans screaming for more, not one could step into your custom-made snakeskin boots—

“…and this is my oldest daughter, Rhonda, with her three children, then my son Frankie Jr., and my next son Lawrence, and my youngest, Jane.”

D’oro flips through the packet of photos, her lap piled with garbage from her purse, and I switch on the overhead light to see what’s up. Coupons, sunglasses, nail file, calendar, hand lotion, store receipts, knitting needles, cellophane-wrapped peanuts—she looks like a fat field mouse at home in its nest. The images in the photos begin to register…Jeez, this woman is a grandmother! I point to the only picture that deserves a second look.

“Who’s that?”

“Jane, my youngest. She graduated from college last month. She got a job in New York, and she’s going to be a real executive.”

Her lip trembles with motherly pride, and why not? Pretty girl, dark hair, brown eyes. But it’s something else that makes the kid stand out, a face that says, I’m not going to sit home and wait for my life to happen; I’m going out and grab it! Maybe she doesn’t know all the tricks yet, but she’s one of the smart ones, oh yeah.

“I’m going to miss her,” D’oro sniffles. “She’s at home packing right now. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.”

“Listen, D’oro.” I turn off the light, then wait while she pulls out a tissue and blows her nose. “You got four nice kids, a home somewhere nearby. What are you running away from?”

“My husband. He’s left me for another woman.”

“Ahh.” I settle back in my seat, into the comfortable rhythm of darkness, road and rain. So that’s it. Same old story: got married straight out of high school, had a bunch of kids, let herself go. Who knows how long her husband was cheating on her before she found out?

“And I know what you’re thinking.” She turns on me, jabbing an angry finger. “You think it’s because I got fat and sloppy and watched soap operas all day—well, that’s not true! The woman he left me for weighs twenty pounds more than me, and the worst part is, she was my best friend.”

She starts to cry, and I drive, the rain falling steady around the car. I used to like the sound of women crying—seemed like the best thing a woman could do, weep for all the world’s misery and pain, all the broken dreams that never came true.  Just like old D’oro, a fat teenager sobbing in her room over A.J. Lord going to jail. God knows a man can’t cry for himself.

“Okay, D’oro,” I say. “You’re doing this all wrong. If he cheated on you, get a divorce. You own a home?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your husband’s name? What’s he do?”

“Frank Polebin. He’s a tractor dealer.”

“Business good?”

“Yes.”

“Then get yourself a lawyer. Charge old Frank with adultery, mental cruelty—the shyster’ll know what to do. Take the house, alimony, his business too if you can get it. Then go live with your daughter, Jane, start a new life in New York. Or at least if you want to travel the road, you’ll have money in your pocket.”  I gesture to her wallet. “You got any in there now?”

“Thirty dollars.”

“Christ, how far did you think you’d get on that?”

“I didn’t care! I wanted to live by my wits! I wanted to be free!”

“Free? How were you gonna eat? Hustle pool? Knit for a living? Live off the fat of the land?” She bursts out crying again, and I throw up my hands. “Okay, okay, it was a bad joke. I’m sorry.”

She bawls a minute, then finds another tissue and wipes her eyes. “Well, you don’t seem to have a job. How do you live?”

“Stolen credit cards and bad checks.”

“Maybe I could learn to do that.”

“Not if you’re going to be a New Age person. They’re all honest and wouldn’t hurt anyone, remember?”

Her shoulders slump, and in the silence the radio plays a song by Birdy McCoy. A sign for another rest stop shows through the rain.

“Listen, I gotta stop here a minute. Why don’t you wait in the car? Have yourself some more to drink.”

I pull into the parking lot and offer her the flask, and she snatches it from me, as if it’s somehow all my fault. She curls up in the corner and begins nursing the booze, and I head in to find a phone. When I get back, the radio is blaring.

Now, folks, we promised you a mystery and here it comes: Whatever happened to A.J. Lord? Paul, give us the lowdown—

No! I dive into the car and switch it off, but D’oro starts up at my reappearance and turns it back on. “I want to hear!” she demands, bleary faced, and I have to grind my fist into my palm to keep from smashing her. I grit my teeth, get into my seat, and slam the door. All right, let’s hear it. Let’s hear how the great A.J. Lord tumbled from on high. I start the engine and turn the Dodge toward the highway.

Well, Jerry, it was in 1968 that A.J. Lord was sent to prison for the first-degree murder of his one-time friend and fellow performer Clint Stanton. During the early years of Lord’s career it seemed he had everything it takes to reach the top…

I listen in mounting fury as the editor recalls my rise from two-bit bars and music halls to the glory of Nashville. Yeah, he’s got all the facts. Same old story: country boy makes good. But it was different, different because it happened to me, because it was my life and my voice and my songs that had the audience shouting for more. And I did make it to the top. I was right up there with the best of them.

I couldn’t believe it when they said the charge was murder, first degree. Stanton was six-two and could deck a man with his bare fists. All I had to do was claim self-defense. But they said I went looking for him, that it was no accident we got into that fight. Even after the verdict, I never thought I’d go to jail. I was A.J. Lord, country music star. The public wouldn’t stand for me being locked away. So I didn’t waste any time being a good boy in prison. I let my fists do the talkin’, knowing I’d soon be free.

“They forgot him,” says D’oro, slumped in the corner, voice slurred. The rolls of T-shirt show between the open flaps of her yellow slicker. She nods. “He got put away and didn’t make any more records and pretty soon people forgot. Even me. I got married, and I forgot him. Now I’m going away, and my family’s going to forget me.”

She goes silent, and the rain falls. I remember how quiet it was in solitary when I finally realized I wasn’t A.J. Lord any more. No more cowboy hat and pearl studs. No more throbbing guitar. Just prison blues and a busted windpipe from my latest fight. I threw back my head and roared to break that silence, but nobody cared and nobody heard. A new song starts on the radio. No! Not that one, no! But D’oro reaches for the knob quicker than me and turns up the sound.

“That’s it! My favorite song, ‘Dolly Rose.’ I used to pretend he wrote it just for me!”

“For you?” I stare at her. Dolly Rose was beautiful. She had hair of gold, and full, sweet lips, and a warmth that felt like I was melting into a pool of honey.

“Yes, me, because that’s my real name, Dorothy Rose, and when I first heard that song in high school I got everybody to call me Dolly. And they did, and it made me feel beautiful.”

The record plays, Dolly Rose stole my heart/Dolly Rose stole my mind…

She has to have six kids now, a loser husband, fat hips, a broken dishwasher. Damn it, she’s probably a gray-haired grandmother, peering through bifocals. Or is she living somewhere rich and beautiful and private? Did she turn out to be one of the smart ones? God knows she had brains enough to walk away from me.

The song ends, and D’oro sighs and takes another slurp from the flask. Her eyes blink a few times, then her head nods against the window.

So, Paul, if A.J. Lord got a twenty-five-year sentence starting in 1968, he oughta been let out some years ago.

That’s right, Jerry. He was. But there the trail ends. I’ve put out calls, chased down every lead I could find—no luck. Maybe he died homeless and unknown or maybe he’s taken on a new identity somewhere.

And if you could find him? Think he’d have a shot at reviving his career?

No. In fact, even if he hadn’t murdered Clint Stanton, I don’t think he had the makings of a true star. Lord wrote some good songs, and by all accounts he was dynamite on stage, but he was arrogant. He never appreciated the fans, and it doesn’t take an audience long to sense that…

I snap off the radio. Don’t give me that crap about the fans. What the hell does some smart-ass college boy know? I would have stayed on top forever except for Dolly Rose. I loved her and I know she loved me. But she testified against me, said I’d threatened her and Stanton, too, when she left me for him. I didn’t even mean to kill him, just to hurt him real bad. But he hit his head against the bar: same old story.

D’oro snores in the corner. Stupid, fat broad; she doesn’t have a clue. I hate her and all women, the dumb and the smart, and I drive another twenty minutes, cursing, then I take the exit ramp. At the change in speed, she comes awake, groggy and rubbing her eyes.

“Where are we? Why are you slowing down? Are we at another rest stop?”

I nod toward the lighted restaurant. “Look familiar?”

“Nooo.” She gazes and blinks.

I turn into a parking space, cut the engine, and point to a figure standing in the rain. “There.”

Her mouth drops. “It’s Jane. But—”

Two rows over, a young woman shelters beneath an umbrella beside a station wagon. She glances anxiously toward the Dodge, but when no one gets out, her gaze swings back to the entrance ramp and another car.

“How did we get here?” D’oro cries. “What have you done?”

“I called your daughter from the last stop and turned around and brought you home.”

“But I don’t want to go home! I want to leave my whole life behind and disappear!”

“Listen, Dodo.” I grab her T-shirt and yank her face to face. “You think you’re going to go out West and live off your wits and free love? Do you know how close you came tonight to getting yourself killed?”

She gasps, and I grip tighter. “You wouldn’t last ten minutes on your own. You got so drunk on a few measly swallows, you didn’t even know which direction we were going. I could have robbed you, raped you—don’t think it couldn’t happen. I’m a convicted murderer—I killed a man, for Christ’s sake—and there’s more like me out there, just waiting for an easy mark like you.”

I reach past her, thrust open the passenger door, and shove her out of the car. It feels good to see her hit the pavement and hear her cry in the dark. She scrambles away through the puddles, fat butt in the air. As I back the car into reverse, she lurches to her feet and the young woman turns and runs toward her with outstretched arms.

Well, that’s our show for tonight, folks. I want to pay special thanks to my guest Paul Murphy, editor of Country Music Magazine. This is your down-home DJ, Jerry B. Jones, signing off for WBBZ. And say, if any of you fans know the whereabouts of A.J. Lord, give us a call. Let’s close our show with one more rendition of “Dolly Rose.”

I steer the car onto the highway and unscrew the cap of my flask, but this time the whiskey is no match for the pain. It sears through me, burning out every last trace of who I used to be. Maybe I oughta call old Jerry B. Jones and give him the shock of his life. But then I’d have to tell him the truth: It wasn’t only Clint Stanton I murdered that night. No good blamin’ a woman. No use blamin’ anyone but myself. A.J. Lord is dead, and I killed him, and Dolly Rose is a song, fading into the night.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1990)

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