On Greyhound and Gas Cans
by Sam Wilkinson
A friend of mine has suddenly learned about the downside of love. I’m bad about knowing what to say in these situations, something that shouldn’t be true of two people who have been friends for twenty years. I offered to write mean things on her Facebook wall or burn down her house, but he declined both offers.
I suppose everybody goes through the catastrophic collapse of a relationship. I suppose many people go through more than one. I find the entire thought of enduring such pain for a second time in my life almost too much to consider. I try saying these things to him in a comforting, attaboy sort of way, but it mostly comes out as grunts and stammering and the whole conversation goes nowhere. I am a bad friend in this regard.
One thing I remember from my own experience with these sorts of things is how music can be…well, not so much a salve as an escape. The pain still hurts of course, but it is awfully nice hearing another person belt out something that just sounds right.
I grew up in West Virginia. There’s country music everywhere here. One of that industry’s staple songs is the longing lament for just gone love. If you listen to modern country music, you’ve probably heard such songs; Taylor Swift has made a career of them. But modern country is so carefully crafted and so carefully tuned that whatever soul might have existed within them has been extracted and abandoned. In a moment of existential, emotional angst, I am not sure what good comes from music written by committees, performed by third parties, and test-marketed long before being actually marketed.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t break-up gems floating around out there. My favorite is a brief oddity, a bait-and-switch song called “Thank God and Greyhound,” written and performed by Roy Clark. The song gets performed in two parts.
In the first, Clark plays the sap, heartbroken and bankrupt, unjustly treated by the woman he loved:
I’ve made a small fortune and you squandered it all/ You shamed me till I feel about one inch tall/ But I thought I loved you and I hoped you would change/ So I gritted my teeth and didn’t com-plain/ Now you come to me; with a simple good-bye/ You tell me you’re leavin’ but you don’t tell me why/ Now we’re here at the station and you’re getting on/ And all I can think of … is …
Up until this point, everything about the song screams standard country grief: the disrespect, the lost money, the stalwart and unrewarded stance, the abandonment. It isn’t hard to imagine that the song is going to go from one crestfallen location to another for two more minutes, until there’s nothing left to do but cry. Except that’s not what we end up doing. Where we assume we are going we never get to, because Clark’s switch kicks in.
In the song’s second part, we go from calamity to celebration. Clark reveals that this apparent loss of love isn’t so much a man’s entry into heartbreak as his escape from it:
Thank God and Greyhound, you’re gone/ That load on my mind got lighter when you got on/ That shiny old bus is a beautiful sight/ With the black smoke a-rollin’ up around the tail light/ It may sound kinda cruel but I’ve been silent too long/ Thank God and Greyhound, you’re gone.
I do not know how realistic it is to a dance a jig when being freed from a romantic partner. I do not know how realistic it is to celebrate a slow disappearance into the distance. I do know that the whole experience would be a hell of a lot easier to endure if we were all capable of such things, if we were capable of realizing like Roy Clark did that the absence is relief, not burden. I suppose though that such things are merely wishful thinking, a lesson that can only be learned by experience and not from song. Still, if the song serves no other purpose (and it certainly does, because it is a hell of a listen), planting that seed might be good enough.
I cannot say to my friend that he’s better off in his current condition, especially when everything inside him is screaming otherwise. So instead, I grunt. And I keep the gascan handy in case he changes his mind.