Clay Matthews

Elegy with a Road Running Through

In the back seat of a Cadillac, some­where between Knoxville, TN and Oak Hill, WV, some­time between the late hours of New Year’s Eve, 1952, and first hours of 1953, Hank Williams died of heart fail­ure at the age of 29.

It begins the morn­ing after a night
of cards and whiskey and pump­kin spice,
the woman and the dog and me head­ed
to Bristol, TN, for a stop at the auto parts store
and a hot break­fast. Just off State St., The Burger Bar
is open, a lit­tle cor­ner din­er with two booths
and one long bar, a grid­dle with a damn good sto­ry.
And as I sit down and order, cof­fee and eggs,
two sides of bacon, it begins again with news­pa­per
clip­pings and album cov­ers on the walls,
the win­dows, it begins again in 1952
on New Year’s Eve, a Cadillac con­vert­ible parked
out­side hold­ing Hank Williams warm like a baby,
he’s got a bad back, he’s got a song in his head,
he’s got a dri­ver gone inside for a sand­wich.
The sto­ry gets fuzzy around here—if Hank
got out or not, or just sat in the car,
if he was already dead or just tired, laid out
in the back seat star­ing at the famous Bristol lights
on Piedmont Ave. divid­ing two states.
On one side of the road, Virginia. On the oth­er,
Tennessee. In between, every­thing that exists
inside the bor­ders of things, every­thing
unknown and mag­i­cal and dark
as the wet asphalt. The evening for him, the morn­ing
for me, and I’m drowsy and a lit­tle hun­gover
and am talk­ing to Jan about our future:
talk of a move, hope for a good job,
kids, a place to stick around in for a while.
We like it in Bristol. The lights echo down the road
of the down-town. It’s the birth­place of coun­try music.
In short, every­thing about the place twangs.
Our food comes, and I look up from my plate
and read anoth­er arti­cle, anoth­er attempt to solve
the mys­tery of Hank’s last hours. By most accounts,
this was the last place he stopped. Perhaps the last words
he ever spoke were just out­side the small front door,
on the side­walk, under the moon­light and in a space
between states, between time, between years.
It all kind of hurts me in a strange way. What was it
he said, or saw here. I put my ear to the formi­ca
and try to lis­ten. Moment lead­ing to moment,
things get done. Answers remain unan­swered.
We fin­ish, pay, and head out­side.
I climb into the truck and turn the radio
to a good coun­try sta­tion they have here
that plays the clas­sics, half expect­ing the world
to line-up, to hear his voice. But it’s not him.
He’s gone. I lis­ten any­way, silent,
as anoth­er day opens up and runs.

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