We heard the news on the radio. The great Hank Williams, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” Hank Williams, had died in the back seat of his car. New Year’s Day, 1953.
When Hank’s wife, Audrey, walked into the diner where I worked that night, there were snowflakes on her coat. I still remember that, nearly fifty years later: snowflakes on the shoulders of her coat. It seemed like it took a long time for them to melt.
It was my first job, waitressing at the Hospital Lunch. I was sixteen years old but I’d told Mr. Hopkins I was eighteen when I applied for the job. He knew better, but he hired me anyway. I guess he’d heard about my Daddy, how he was laid up with the Black Lung.
The diner wasn’t very big, and I pretty much ran it by myself, taking orders, cooking the food, washing dishes, even mopping up at the end of the day. It’s the kind of thing I’d been doing all my life. I’m the oldest of nine children, so I grew up knowing how to take care of people.
I’d turned the radio on when I came to work that morning. Josiah Tyree, whose family owned the Tyree Funeral Home next door to the diner, walked in before the coffee was finished perking. Josiah lived with his mother, but he liked to come over and have his meals at the diner.
“That Sony Crawford is the best cook in the whole state,” he used to say. Sony, like the company that makes televisions and tape recorders. Daddy wanted a boy and I wasn’t. But he gave me the name he’d picked out anyway, only he misspelled it. So my name is Sony.
I’d fixed Josiah his breakfast and he was drinking a second cup of coffee when the announcer broke in with the news. The famous singer–songwriter had been on his way to Canton, Ohio, to do a show, he said. Somewhere en route Williams had taken ill and been transported to a local hospital.
The announcer promised to bring more details as soon as they became available. Then he started playing Hank Williams’ songs. “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” “Jambalaya.” “Kaw-Liga.” “Cold, Cold Heart.” He played them one after another and we waited, not really believing it could be so, wondering how it could have happened and what our worlds would be like without Hank Williams and his songs.
The details came soon enough. Williams and his driver, a college kid from Auburn University, were comin’ up from Knoxville, Tennessee. Somewhere in Virginia the boy noticed something was wrong. It had gotten awfully quiet in the back seat of the car. When the kid spoke to his passenger, called out to him, there was no answer. He kept driving, hoping Hank was just sleepin’, but he got more and more worried. Finally he pulled into an all-night gas station.
The attendant took one look at the man in the back seat and called the police. They’d carried him to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
The kid, his name was Carr, had pulled into a Pure Oil station owned by Glen Burdette, the radio said. Josiah set down his cup with a thud and looked at me, his eyes wide, his mouth open. The station wasn’t more than a mile away.
“They probably took him up to Charleston,” I said, handing him a napkin so he could sop up the spilled coffee.
He shook his head. “No, Sony, that’s forty miles away.”
“They could have gone over to Beckley.”
Josiah took a cigarette from his pack and lit up. “Maybe, ” he said,
pulling the smoke deep into his lungs. He swiveled on the barstool and leaned back against the counter. “What station you got on there, Sony?”
“Same station I always listen to,” I said. I’d been making an apple pie, and right then I didn’t want to talk to Josiah anymore. I stood behind the counter with the paring knife in my hand, listening to the music, completely forgetting where I was or what I was doing. The biggest star in country music, gone, at the age of twenty-nine. And he’d evidently died somewhere close to where Josiah and I were at that very moment.
I looked out the window toward the hospital, which was across the street from the diner, and I saw a car parked there. Blue ragtop, bigger and fancier than any car this town had ever seen, parked right in front of the building. We don’t get many Fleetwood Cadillacs in Oak Hill. I couldn’t remember ever seeing one before. But there it was, powder blue, lookin’ like it was fresh off the showroom floor, chrome sparkling, white wall tires turned gray from miles on the road.
Oh my God, it can’t be. Not here, not in this little coal-mining town in the mountains of West Virginia. Can’t be Hank Williams, Alabama boy made good, riding the top of the charts with his latest hit, “You Can’t Get out of This World Alive.”
Josiah finished his coffee and left, promising to come back when he found out if it was true, that Hank Williams was lying dead right across the street from where we were.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread from one end of town to the other. Already a crowd was beginning to gather around the car, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.
“The world of folk music has lost one of its greatest performers, its greatest writers,” the disc jockey said, and his voice kind of cracked, and there wasn’t any sound at all for a time, as if the radio had gone dead. Then he went back to playin’ Hank Williams’ songs, and that went on for the rest of the day, with bits of news thrown in, but for us in Oak Hill, news that was already old.
Standing at the window of the diner, looking out at that car, there was something so sad about it. No one should have to die when they’re that young and they’ve got so much living to do and so much pleasure they can give to people who need some happiness in their lives.
That’s an old woman talking, which is what I’ve become. But back then I was just a kid, and I hardly remember what I was thinking, except I didn’t want him to be dead, because the things he said in his songs were the things I was feeling. He was writing about my life and about the lives of practically everyone I knew. All that afternoon I kept wishing Josiah would come back and tell me it wasn’t true.
Someone, maybe it was one of my customers that day, or a few days later, said he had a girl with him in the back of that car. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. They said his pants were down around his ankles, but I never believed that, either. When I saw him, laid out on that slab, he looked like he was ready to pick up his guitar and start singing one of his songs that played on the radio every time you turned it on.
Oak Hill is a small town and it hasn’t changed much over the years. The hospital is still there, the Tyree Funeral Home, and even the diner where I worked. That’s not such an unusual arrangement. People have to eat, even when they’re dealing with tragedy. And I’ve noticed there’s often a funeral home real close to a hospital. Maybe they do it so the bereaved don’t have far to go when they need services beyond what a hospital can give.
It was late afternoon when Josiah finally came back. He wouldn’t tell me anything, just wanted me to come over to his establishment. He was always playing tricks on me, so I figured he had something rigged up to scare me or make me look foolish.
For a time I used to think he was sweet on me, and maybe he was, but when you’re as young as I was back then and the guy is fifteen or twenty years older, it seems like that ought not be. It took me some time to make Josiah understand I’d be his friend and nothing more. We could laugh and cut up and occasionally do a two-step around the floor if there was no one in the diner. But that was all.
I said I was sixteen, but maybe I was only fifteen. I’ve never been completely certain of my age, having been born at home, and my mother not remembering exactly what year it was. When I’d ask her she’d count up from the youngest to try to figure out when I’d been born, but then she’d stumble over the ones who had died, forgetting where they fit in.
After a time Josiah seemed to accept my feelings about him, and then we become good friends. If I went back there to Oak Hill and if he were still alive, which I doubt, he’d remember me and the fun we used to have. He might not recognize me though.
Back then I had long black hair and my teeth were pretty and white. Not like a lot of girls my age who had already begun to lose them, their fathers yanking them out when they complained of a toothache. The one my daddy had pulled didn’t show when I smiled.
The years do change a body, though they haven’t changed the color of my hair. The drug store helps me out there. I’ve always been careful what I ate, so my figure is still pretty much like it was when I was a teenager. I still like to dance.
But there are other changes I can’t do much about. My face is not so pretty anymore. My heart acts up when I climb stairs or work too hard.
So Josiah came back into the diner late that afternoon, toward
evening. The days are short in January, it gets dark early, and I started pouring him a cup of coffee, but he shook his head.
“No, Sony, I don’t want no coffee. Come on over to the parlor. I got something I want you to see.” I didn’t have any customers, so I stuck the “Back in Five Minutes” sign in the window and followed Josiah next door.
There he lay, flat out on that slab. Hank Williams. Singer. Songwriter.
Recording artist. Dressed in a white cowboy suit with fringes on the shoulders and sleeves. I can see him now. Cowboy boots, fancy decorations on the sides. White shirt with a shoestring tie, and a pin near his neck shaped like a horseshoe, holding the two strings together. There were red roses on the front of his jacket. He was a nice-lookin’ man.
He had such pretty hands. Soft-lookin’. I noticed them because of the rings he was wearing: two or three diamond rings. His watch had diamonds all around the face. I’ve never seen anything like it.
He must have been over six feet tall. Skinny.
“Hey, Good Lookin’.” The words just came out. I meant to say them under my breath, but I didn’t, and Josiah heard me. He didn’t answer. Maybe he thought the same thing. Or maybe that was the song playing on the radio over at the diner, and I heard it through the walls, and that’s why I said it. I don’t know. But he was so good-lookin’, and so still. I could have cried, standing there, looking down at him.
Two blocks north of the hospital and the funeral home is the Oak Hill Hotel, but Audrey Williams didn’t stay there. She flew in to Beckley and got a room there and took a cab over to Oak Hill. It was dark when she got to the Tyree Funeral Home.
She walked into the Josiah’s parlor like she owned it. As soon as I caught a glimpse of her I knew who she was. And I melted through a doorway into a back room. I was scared to death she’d see me, ask what I was doing in there lookin’ at her dead husband.
“Where’s his billfold,” I heard her ask. She sounded angry. I imagined Josiah walking toward her, the perfect funeral director, soft-spoken, sad look on his face. I stood there in that back room, trying to stop my heart from thumping out of my chest, looking at a brown manila envelope lying on the table. Was the billfold in there? If she accused Josiah of taking it, maybe I’d just carry the envelope out to the other room and hand it to her. “Personal effects of the deceased,” I could say, as if I was an employee of the Tyree Funeral Home.
The envelope wasn’t sealed, and I could see a crumpled pack of Camels inside and what might have been a gun, but I never knew for sure, and Josiah never mentioned it. I didn’t see a wallet, but it might have been there.
“Those boots,” she said, “do you know how much they cost? Hand-tooled boots like that? And his outfit, those clothes?
“Where’s his damn guitar?” she wanted to know. “Someone already stole his hat out of the car. Did they get his guitar, too? It’s a Martin. D-28. He used it every time he went into the recording studio.”
What got me is she never shed a tear. I stood there leaning against the wall in that room, knowing I had no right to be there, but hearing her voice and knowing I’d never be able to forget the sound of it and the things she said.
If it had been my husband lying there, I would have shed a tear. I would have cried just because he was so all-fired good-lookin’, and now he was gone and he’d never sing again and never write another song.
There she was, all decked out in that fur coat that reached nearly to her ankles. A peroxide blonde, that’s what I’d call her. Didn’t shed a tear. Where’s his damn guitar.
I said I knew right away who she was, but at the same time I was confused. Weren’t they divorced? Hadn’t he married someone else not long ago?
One thing for sure: I had no business being there. Being careful not to make a sound, I slipped out the back door.
The snow had changed to sleet by then, and it was coming down heavy, and it wet my face and hair and clothes. It felt good to be back inside the diner where it was warm and dry and there was music and the smell the coffee and fresh-baked apple pie.
Now that all these years have gone by, I think there are maybe a million reasons why she might not have cried when she saw him. But why did she say that about his guitar? Why did she call it his “damn guitar?” Did the music take him away from her somehow? It’s always bothered me, and I’ve never been able to figure it out.
Audrey Williams came into the diner about twenty minutes later and she had an entourage with her. There were several men, friends or band members or maybe the famous Fred Rose who had signed Hank Williams to his first writing contract. And there was an older woman, I remember. I thought it might have been his mother, but I never knew for sure.
They sat at the round table by the window. Audrey ordered a hamburger and fries and I couldn’t help but notice her rings. (Were they his, I wondered? Had she taken them off his hands?) She shrugged out of her coat and draped it over the back of her chair. Part of it dragged on the floor but she didn’t seem to notice.
One of the men said something about Hank pouring ketchup on everything he ate, and she glared at him until he hid his face behind the menu. So much was going on and I wanted to remember everything. It was hard keeping track of the orders.
I guess you could say I hovered over them, scared there might be a speck of dirt on the silverware, one of the water glasses might be smudged, her burger not cooked to suit her. Or God help me, something in her food that didn’t belong there.
I served the food and then stood behind the counter, polishing things that didn’t need polishing. I noticed the older woman, the one I thought might have been his mother, poured ketchup all over her food, then didn’t eat hardly a bite. Mr. Hopkins would have wanted me to ask if there was something wrong, but that didn’t seem the right thing to do at the time.
When they were finished I went over to the table. Was everything all right, I asked? Were the burgers cooked okay? Would anyone like dessert or coffee? I was hoping they wouldn’t order dessert, because I’d forgotten to add vanilla to the pie before I baked it. That was one of my secret ingredients that kept Josiah saying nice things about my cooking.
Audrey pushed her dish away and pulled her coat up over her shoulders and fluffed that yellow hair out over her collar. She didn’t say anything. Her plate was clean, though, and I took that to mean she had enjoyed my cooking.
When they left, there were five quarters on the table. I thought about saving them, keeping them in a drawer, and I did for a while. But then I got short of money and had to spend them.
The guitar is in a museum in Nashville, I hear. So Audrey got it back. But not the hat. That was gone. If there was a gun, I never heard what happened to it, but it makes me wonder why, on a trip from Knoxville to Canton, in the dead of winter when the roads were icy and everyone loved him, why he needed to carry a gun. The bottle of vodka I can understand. They said there was a bottle in the car.
I guess it was somebody wanting a souvenir who took the hat. I wish it had been me. I wish I’d looked in that brown envelope and taken one cigarette from that pack, so I could have something that he’d touched, and I’d still have it today.