Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Pocketful of Pennies


George Jones died this week.  I got really, stupidly, tearfully emotional, just like I did when Tammy Wynette died 15 years earlier (April 6, 1998 to be exact).  Both George and Tammy seem to occupy space in my head that is sacred.  They are long lost relatives, ghosts from a Tennessee picnic I went to when I was a kid and I saw them laughing and eating and then singing in the middle of a campground, all glittery and rhinestoned and perfect, right next to a campfire and a swing set, belting out "Golden Ring."  They were figures from hillbilly poems I've always wanted to write, bigger than life, and yet completely accessible, and the stories about them -- the apotheosis being the one where Tammy locked George's car-keys up because he was so ripped she was afraid he would get into a wreck on his way to the liquor-store, but George being the genius he was got the keys to the riding lawnmower and tried to drive that thing there only to get picked up by the cops -- were legendary but also kind of like stories you hear about neighbors or family friends. 

I met George once.  No shit.  At the Bonanza Steakhouse in Elizabethon, Tennessee, back in 1985.  I think it was summer, and his tour bus pulled into the sidelot, and all of us inside got totally excited as soon as we saw him.  He was in Bermuda shorts and sandals and a short sleeved shirt and sunglasses.  Some of his band members came in to the restaurant with him.  I was the dishwasher that afternoon, and I had just got the dishroom cleaned up after the lunch rush, and it was only me, the manager, and the cashier there.  Not another soul in the place.  George came through the line and ordered a T-bone, and went out into the dining room after paying.  He was a true gentleman especially to the cashier, an older lady whose husband had just passed away and whose son had Down syndrome.  She always wore a lot of make-up and had her hair done weekly so it was always perfectly shaped and colored.  She had a great sense of humor about her, and she was kind of loud without being abrasive.  She went out, I remember, and sat a table down from George and his bandmates and she just had the best time.  So did he.  She was flirty by nature, and George was too.  I didn't have the nerve to go up to him like that cashier did.  Hell I forget her name!  I was 20 years old.  I'd just quit art school up in Indiana the summer before, moved down here with my mom and sister so my mom could be near her mom and sister after she found out my dad was having an affair.  I felt obligated to both of them.  Anyway, I knew who George was, but wasn't a big fan back then.  But I did get up the nerve to get his autograph before he left.  He had the smoothest and shiniest hair, shellacked and country-western perfect even with his leisurely riding-on-the-tour-bus clothes.  And he laughed while he signed, I remember.  He said something like, "I don't know what you're going to do with this, but here." 

I lost the autograph somewhere along the way.  But I remember the cashier kissed him on the cheek and he laughed harder.  Then he and his entourage left.  The cashier and I bussed their table, and then I went back and washed George Jones' plates and silverware.

I think that week I went to K-mart and bought his greatest hits album, and on it was a song called "Treasure of Love," which is probably one of the greatest country songs I've ever heard.  It's humble and sort of epic in the way it treats all the bad shit that happens to you and still maintains some room for confidence and optimism.  I've listened to that song over and over this weekend.  The words just go right through me and I follow them to a place where there's a sort of sadness merged with relief, a gratitude for just being able to love somebody and to sing about it without a lot of fuss. 

Here's the lyrics George wrote and then sang, the words I haven't been to escape since I first heard almost 30 years ago now:

I've got a pocket full of pennies
But a heart full of gold
Though my troubles are many
I have treasures untold

And the shack that I live in
Is a palace to me
For the treasure of love, the treasure of love
You gave to me

In this world there are riches
That money can't buy
Like the treasure of true love
A love that won't die

So why should I worry
What tomorrow will bring
For the treasure of love, the treasure of love
Makes me a king

Though my clothes are all tattered
And I've seen better days
Know it really don't matter
For I'm rich another way

Yes, my pockets are empty
But still wealthy I'll be
With the treasure of love, the treasure of love
You gave to me
(Damn right George.)