The Gospel According to Hank [essay] by Robert Loftin

August, 1985

Young County, Texas

A pickup towing an empty cattle trailer rattles off the paved road and onto a dirt track. The low sun fills the windshield and empty feed sacks bounce and skitter around in the truck bed.

A Hank Williams song is playing on the tape deck and I sing along: good bye joe/me gotta go. Finally finished with today’s feeding, driving now to an adjacent pasture to check on a missing heifer. She’s been gone for over a week and I expect to find her carcass pulled apart and scattered by the coyotes and buzzards.

I fell in love with Hank Williams when I was reading the bible. I was shut up in my bedroom on a Sunday night studying Ecclesiastics. The radio was on and the hillbilly hour on KROO out of Breckenridge started off with a Hank song. I closed the bible and turned up the volume on the radio: I’m gonna find me a river/One that’s cold as ice.

When I was baptized I was surprised at the fishing waders the preacher had on. I wore a white cotton robe. We were hip deep in the the blue water of the baptismal pool which was behind the choir loft and usually hidden behind tall panels carved with intertwined grape vines but opened whenever a baptism was performed so the congregation could watch from the pews. He gripped the back of my neck hard, pinched my nose closed, and lowered me into the water.

I kept my eyes open watching his watery face. I wanted my eyes especially washed of sin. I could see his jaw moving and dark hollows under his chin. Then he was pulling me up and out with water streaming into my ears as he turned to face me and offer his words of advice.

I couldn’t hear a thing.

 

The low sun casts shadows across my arm. My sixteen-year-old body is spread eagle on the muddy floor of a stock pond that has been drying out all summer. I’ve stripped to my underwear and am now fully covered in slick grey clay. I reach out and grip the quaking mud and pull myself closer to the foundered heifer who is still alive but probably not for much longer.

I have a 50-foot iron chain tied to my ankle that chews out a channel in the soft mud behind me as I slide on my belly like a snake towards her.

No rain for six months. She must have been more desperate than stupid but there she is—belly deep in mud with her head resting in the cattails. She’s at least five feet from the scummy edge of the puddle she was after. Flies land on my back biting through the film of drying mud.

I breath in wet earth, rotted catfish, evaporation. I sing low so she can hear me approach. As I slide closer she lifts her head, hears the clanking chain, hears singing No matter how I struggle and strive/I’ll never get out of this world alive.

 

The summer I was sixteen I listen to as much Hank Williams’s music as I could find. He recorded several gospel albums as well as the honkey-tonk hits that made him famous. He also performed concerts as an alter-ego. Luke the Drifter was his wandering christian cowboy philosopher. I loved the country and western songs even though I went to a church three times a week where dancing was forbidden.

The gospel recordings were not my favorite. I wanted the whiskey in the jar, dance all night, and fall in love beneath the moon songs. I was sixteen and striving for righteousness, trying to keep my mind sanctified but exploding into full blown puberty, outgrowing my childish contours, filling out into a different me.

Some nights I couldn’t take laying awake in bed and snuck out of the house. I rode my bike to M’s dark house and circled around her block for hours in the middle of the night. Flashing through amber pools of sodium streetlight, leaning into the curves and pedaling fast because I knew she was asleep and didn’t know what else to do except push my bike through the soft summer darkness until my thighs burned and my flaming lungs could not possibly take in another breath.

I’m lying across the heifer’s back and the heat radiating from her is intense. She doesn’t move very much which is a bad sign. Too weak to struggle she is just waiting for what ever happens next. I wrap the chain around her neck making sure the knot is at the base of her skull.

Her spine is mostly straight. If this goes well her vertebrae will telescope some but it’s the only choice I have. If I pull from any other point bones will snap and organs rupture. I leave muddy handprints across her broad head and when I slide away she turns to watch. I feel her hot breath on my the soles of my feet.

Standing on the bank I break off stems of brittle broom weed and scour the heavy mud off my legs. I pull the chain up the bank to my truck and draw it tight around the hitch. The heifer starts bellowing when she feels the links constrict around her neck.

I put the truck in low gear and ease forward slowly. The chain bobs off the ground and her bawling changes timber, ratchets up into terrorized and is suddenly cut off as the chain closes her windpipe.

I have to go slow, let the steady pull of the truck ease her out, the engine whines against the strain. I look over my shoulder and see the chain running taunt down to the back of her head buried in the mud and suddenly realize that she is probably already dead.

 

Hank Williams died during a snow storm at night lying down on the backseat of his cadillac. Bourbon and pills, leather seats, and enough leg room for someone as lanky and long as he was to stretch out and take a nap. He was being driven to a nearby town by a young man named Mr. Carr.

Hank had spina bifida occulta. A genetic miscoding that produced a cleavage in what normally would be a whole spinal column. He was probably in constant grinding pain. The alcohol and pills would have provided temporary relief from the continuous ache of his mismatched vertebrae.

He was tall and thin. All bone and spine with long fingers and a nasal whine. He was thirteen when he was discovered, twenty eight at the height of his fame, and dead a year later. His death was officially due to severe heart attack and hemorrhage. His twenty nine year old heart ruptured and bled out and I imagine the steady wash and thump in his chest slowing and fading into stillness as snowflakes swirl across the caddy’s windshield.

 

The truck tires are spinning and smoking and I’m crying and whispering oh fuck oh jesus come on! come on! Her neck is distended and twisted at an impossible angle with the chain sunk into her flesh. Then she is free of the mud and the truck leaps forward smashing into a mesquite where it stalls and suddenly everything becomes quiet.

I walk down the bank to her body laying in the mud. Grasshoppers buzz and twirl away from my thighs pushing through the grass. Her tongue is out and there is blood around her eyes. I can’t stop trembling and feel the breeze against the hair on my neck. When I touch the chain she moves. She windmills her legs and heaves over and stands with her head pulled down by the chain.

I step to her and run my hands down her back and loosen the knot. She shakes her head, shits on my feet, and moves up the bank away from the dried-out pond.

I watch her go then look down at my feet and finally notice how unclean I have become.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of “A Way with Cows” by Duff Brenna.]

Image by andymuir

Robert Loftin received his MA from WWU and lives in Bellingham, Washington. This is his first published essay.