New Songs for Old Radios
  Stories by B. B. Garin
  1  Ashes Hit the Floor
2  The Last Ballad of Saddler Vance
3  The Fix
4  The Brothers Cooly
5  New Songs for Old Radios
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  Winter 2019 Fiction Issue
 

The Brothers Cooly

Cal dropped the bottle between his dangling feet, felt his heart beat once before the satisfying clatter of shattered glass hit his ears.

“Everyone forgets about this place,” he said.

“It’s in the middle of the goddamn town,” his brother said, passing him another beer.

“Not this piece of shit,” Cal waved at the rust freckled water tower on whose rail they perched. “That.”

Rick looked out at the town’s sparse lights; some warmly glowing houses, the neon speckles from the VFW and the gas station, scattered streetlights flickering like dying fireflies. He shrugged. It was just like everywhere else across the breadth of the state. It didn’t bother him. He didn’t think much about it.

“I guess I’ll miss it,” Rick said to appease his brother.

Cal ran a hand through the dark hair he hadn’t cut since dropping out of high school a month shy of graduation. That was two years ago, and now the ends brushed his shoulders, as ragged as his knuckles.

“What’ll you do now Mick’s closing the garage?” Rick asked.

“Join up with you,” Cal smirked.

Rick smirked back. Cal was a brawler. He was fierce in a boxing ring. But he was no soldier.

The night was cool and dewy. The water tower stood over the old cider mill and the air still held the flavor of long-gone apples. The boys had dodged away from a party being held in Rick’s honor. Neither much wanted to go back to it. Rick because he did not like parties. Cal because he did not like people.

Cal whistled something low and honky-tonk. The summer had been hot and heavy like that song. There’d been too much rain, not enough sun, and the corn had been poor, weevils devouring it on the stalk.

Rick wondered if the tune was something Cal made up or from the radio. Rick didn’t have much ear for music. But Cal spent a lot of time in the barn, plucking at their father’s old guitar. The strings were ancient, couldn’t hold a tune, but Cal didn’t bother with new ones. It was a wonder the instrument wasn’t half rot like everything in the fields.

“Promise you won’t come back, kid.”

“Cal,” Rick said into the thick, dark night.

“Forget it,” Cal muttered. He dropped another bottle. Waited for the shatter. Then he laughed, long and sharp.

Rick came back four years later. By then Cal was gone. No one knew where. Some folks said they’d heard he’d robbed a bank, others that he’d joined the army. Someone swore their cousin had seen him working on a farm upstate.

Sherri said she’d gotten a card from him postmarked India.

Mary-El rolled her eyes. “It said Indiana.”

“It did not.”

And they argued back and forth. The envelope in question had been lost, but the card was tacked up behind the bar amid a confetti of photos. A red and green Christmas tree with a starry night background. Inside, beneath the generic holiday greeting, a familiar scrawled signature and nothing else.

“They don’t have Christmas in India,” Rick said, handing it back.

“Then what do they have?” Sherri asked, fists balling into her hips.

Rick silently conceded. If she wanted to think of Cal wrapped in incense halfway around the world, let her. Let him be a mystery. Let her think he would come back before she gathered too many wrinkles and smoker’s gravel in her throat.

That night, Rick found himself squinting up at the old water tower. Looking for the swing of a work boot in the rusty shadows. Listening for the sound of shattered glass.

Rick meant to go to the agro-college. That was why he joined up, for the veteran scholarships. But little Beth had just started her second semester on a full ride studying bio-engineering. Fey was getting set to marry and move fifty miles down the road to an apple farm. Their mother wasn’t taking daughterly abandonment well, so Rick agreed to put off enrollment.

“It won’t be forever,” Fey promised. “But you know she ain’t been the same since Cal left.”

“You and Dan aren’t so far,” Rick said.

“Far enough,” his sister said and smiled to herself. Like Cal, she took after their father; tall, dark eyed, with a razor smile. But Rick thought she looked older now, already showing some of their mother’s lines in her face, and a tendency to worry her new diamond ring.  Of course, their mother hadn’t been much older than Fey when her husband’s heart stopped, leaving her widowed with four young children.

“I’m not Cal,” Rick grumbled.

“She misses her boys,” Fey said.

“She misses her boy,” Rick said.

But he did as his sister asked.

Cal had swept around the house self-assured and quiet, like a rangy animal on guard. Rick clomped through it, as though the two-story farmhouse with its high windows, deep cellar and five acres of weed choked pasture were too small for him. He couldn’t cook. He clattered pans off the counter and spilled salt. His mother attacked the housework like an invading army. And the place was in remarkably good repair. Cal’s past patches and coats of paint still holding strong.

Rick tried talking to his mother about Cal, what he’d said before he’d left, if she knew where he might’ve gone. But her lips just folded up. She looked at Rick across her coffee cup, almost idle, daring him to mention the stack of letters he had sent while away. Or the silence Cal echoed home.

The one time she mentioned Cal unprompted was while fixing Fey’s wedding invitation to the fridge with a cow shaped magnet.

“It was Cal who introduced them, you know,” she said, and left Rick standing there with the spitting coffee pot.

Cal had been on the move for a few years when he passed the pawn shop. He pulled over and sat with the engine still stuttering in the bare, baking parking lot. Heat shimmied up from the asphalt and caught raw and stinging in his nose. “White Hat Trading Post” it was called, with a peeling vinyl decal on the window of a cowboy on a bucking horse.

Cal didn’t believe in heroes. He didn’t believe in gunslingers with black hats and bad intentions, either. He believed in long roads and songs with swampy bass guitars. He believed everything on the radio was fake. Plastic sounds, relentlessly tuned. The voices, the music, even the brimstone call of the preachers, all of it had lost every trace of a human pulse.

So, it was just as well the radio in the old pick-up was busted. But he missed his father’s guitar. And one of the many clouds floating around the cowboy’s head proclaimed, “We buy/sell vintage instruments!”

Cal was surprised to find a young man behind the cloudy glass counter, leaning on both elbows, eyes nearly as glazed as the case with its sad clutter of watches and rings. The boy’s face barely flickered when the mechanical bell tolled over the door, but his set jaw and close-cropped hair reminded Cal of Rick.

Cal wondered if his little brother had gone back home. He wanted to believe Rick was elsewhere, anywhere, with a different sky over his head. But Cal knew deep in the guilty pit of his stomach, Rick would be minding the same house in which they were born, and which had seemed to shrink with every inch the Cooly children grew.

Cal ran a hand through his rough hair, and pointed at the guitar hanging like a polished moon behind the head of the young man.

“Been here awhile.” The high, clipped voice was nothing like Rick’s.

“That so?”

“Yup.”

“It needs new strings,” Cal said, his fingers stiffly shaping themselves into chords.

The boy shrugged and named a price.

Cal named another, and they eventually came to one in the middle. Cal left with the instrument. The young man settled back into position, leaning on the case as if Cal had never stirred him.

Cal sat in his truck and tuned the guitar as best he could. His father’s guitar had been all wood and light-bodied, yet it felt like a shield when Cal cradled it against his chest and dragged slow songs from its belly. This instrument felt like a sword, sharp and slim, weighted by a steel face and angry at its neglect.

But Cal coaxed something from it. Notes that weren’t quite true; that lingered in the air like the rusty smell of apples on an autumn night.

Rick took the afternoon shift at Pauline Sutton’s bar when he first got back and was still there when a third autumn rolled in. It was the only place in town to drink besides the VFW. A low-ceilinged, brick building that belonged to the local police until the four-man force was absorbed into the highway patrol near the interstate. Mary-El and Sherri brought a forceful cheer to the place in the evenings. They kept Christmas lights strung up all year and wore jangling jewelry.

Even Pauline, with her under-bite and hooked nose, kept her nails manicured and her mascara thick. She expected the same for her place, the floor swept, the bar clean, and the pool cues replaced when splintered. Most of these tasks fell to Rick on his quiet afternoons, when only a few stalwarts clung about the place like shadows. After his shift, Rick would stay, nurse one long slow beer and listen to the girls tease him.

“He’s doing his best Cal Cooly impression tonight,” Sherri would say.

“Moody and mysterious,” Mary-El pretended to swoon.

“Shame he’s too short,” Sherri sighed.

Sometimes, Rick scowled and they kept at him. Sometimes, he rolled his eyes and they moved on to other customers. They asked the young ones if their mamas knew they were out. They tugged the old ones on the ear and asked if their wives had shouted them deaf in that one yet. They argued with each other over everything from high school football to shoes to the new farm subsidies, flitting around the narrow strip of taps and glasses without ever once colliding.

Rick wondered what it would be like to watch these girls age into the bar the way Pauline had done. Hands sanded to a hard finish from years of carrying kegs and washing glasses. Or would they save up and go to school? Marry a man and move away? Then Pauline would find two new girls in short skirts and hoop earrings to banter around her bar and give the impression that no one was getting any older.

Rick’s birthdays came and went. Cal’s followed, three days later. As children they’d been the Cooly boys, a single entity up to no good. But it chaffed them, they pulled away only to be snapped back unexpectedly, like a sprung trap.

On a cool autumn morning, that was Cal’s thirtieth birthday, Rick thought about chasing after his brother, like he had as a child until cramps pricked his side and his lungs burned up. But he could never catch Cal, whose legs were always longer.

Rick went for a ride instead, breathing the first crisp promise of ripe apples and turning leaves. Remembering his brother’s wild laughter tearing into the night and rattling off the rails of the old water tower.

That Sunday, their sisters looked for Cal at the funeral. They expected him to be drawn instinctually to his brother’s death, as if he would’ve felt Rick’s life go out, spinning loose from the very motorcycle Cal had taught him to ride.

“He must know,” Beth said, rearranging her neatly pleated skirt. She had a smart, new city job but was still so soft spoken Fey had to drape an arm around her thin shoulders and lean close to hear.

“How would he know?” Fey said.

They were sitting on their mother’s back steps, plastic cups half filled with whisky in their hands, pinching heels lost in the dirt. The murmur of mourners gradually finding solace in alcohol filtered through the screen door. Their mother did not seem to need minding. She’d born up admirably. Still, Fey’s husband was on alert in case some clumsy uncle, drunk on liquor or grief, should forget himself and mention Cal.

The sisters had come out here where it was safe, so they could speak of him as they could not yet speak of Rick.

“He’ll show up later,” Beth said. “After everyone’s gone.”

Fey didn’t answer.

“It’d be nice to see him,” Beth continued. “Last time I saw him he was leaving me at school freshman year. He was gone when I came back at Christmas.”

Fey sighed, twisting her wedding ring round with stiff fingers. “I can’t remember the last time I saw him. He was always around. Then he just wasn’t.”

Beth dragged a bare toe along the worn gray wood.

“They’re good brothers,” she said.

“They were,” Fey said, gently.

When Cal found himself on the familiar highway, he told himself he wouldn’t stop. But the exit sign loomed up and pulled him aside. For a few miles, he thought of his mother’s surprise, happiness spreading through the fine lines her face must have gathered since he left. He let himself pretend he could give her that, and not have to answer his sisters’ questions, or his brother’s silent stare.

He passed the cemetery first, a patch of dry grass nearly lost between the giant, swaying cornfields. And he thought if he stopped and paid his respects to the old man, he wouldn’t feel the need to go further. The road was impatient at his back and the afternoon running down.

It was a cluttered place, like the pawn shop he had visited years ago. Full of faded, forgotten things, and the occasional cutting brightness of plastic flowers. The lonely whirl of a pinwheel, nearly drowned by the ocean of hissing cornstalks.

Cal’s shoulders hunched and he twisted his heels in the dust as he tried to remember where the stone was.

He found more than his father’s grave.

Cal did the math numbly. He scrambled after scattered facts. Three years ago, now. Twenty-eight years old. His brother’s name in square, solid letters.

Rick Cooly.

It made Cal smile, just a touch, that they’d buried him as Rick, not Richard. It was what Cal would’ve insisted on had he known. Had he been there.

He’d kicked Rick in the stomach once when they were small, squabbling over something. Cal was wearing costume cowboy boots and the rubber heel made a solid connection with his brother’s soft diaphragm. Cal remembered how Rick froze, his mouth hanging open, eyes round, soundless, as if he couldn’t gather the strength to cry with the force necessary to do justice to his hurt.

Cal didn’t remember sitting down, his knuckles scrapping the stone. He wished he had something to leave, a lucky coin or a pocket knife, a pair of dog tags. Something for his sisters to find, so they would know he knew and was sorry.

He took a guitar pick from his pocket. A cheap piece of black plastic. It was so light in his hand, Cal guessed it would blow away. And if it didn’t, would any of them even remember him out in the barn, plucking at tired strings?

Rick would. Cal laid it down, whistling a low, honky-tonk tune.

A good son would go to town, find his family and listen to the story of his brother’s death. But Cal didn’t. He waited until sunset. Then he climbed the water tower, rust flaking off on his palms. He drank beer, watched the town’s anemic lights, and dropped each bottle into the sea of shattered glass below.

end

     
  © B. B. Garin, 2019

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