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
 

New Songs for Old Radios

Zoey sniffed, turned a circle, and plopped down in the grass, panting up at me with a look of mild anticipation. I’d stolen her two weeks ago, and had yet to develop any significant guilty qualms about it. I figured owning a dog was mostly a matter of mutual understanding. Besides, Zoey seemed to be enjoying the adventure.

For years, she had wriggled under my fence to munch on the bread crusts I left out for the birds. When I stepped out my door, already packed for the road, and saw her rolling through a dandelion patch, I hesitated for all of half a minute before I scooped her up and deposited her in the passenger seat.

Zoey proved the ideal traveling companion. She slept anywhere, wasn’t picky about what she ate, and she always let me choose the music. Sure, she snored in a wheezy way and her short hair clung to everything in the musky car. She was a hazard at rest stops too, where kids were inclined to point and squeal and come toddling up with strained looking parents in tow, to harass the nice lady and her cute, little doggie. Zoey submitted to these encounters with a look of thinly disguised contempt on her squashed-up pug face.

I didn’t know precisely where we were now. Someplace in Maine. We had left the bright beach towns with their strange mix of quaint and kitsch behind yesterday, and entered what I had begun to think of as Stephen King country. Though it was early summer, the tall pine trees had a lonely, snowbound look under the colorless sky; a there’s-no-one-around-for-miles menace conveyed by the unbroken chorus of birds and bugs. And of course, the burr of a nearby chainsaw added a disturbing overtone.

I was out of gas. I had a vague notion that chainsaws went together with square, red containers of fuel. So, with a huff from Zoey, we started up the hill. The chainsaw got louder, and I hoped it belonged to a friendly recluse, no hapless writers shackled in the back room.

My survival skills were, admittedly, weak. Until recently, I had been a quality control manager for Genesee Brewing Company in Rochester, NY. I endured twenty years of jokes about how much product I got to personally inspect, and stood by a conveyor belt, checking cans for crooked labels and misapplied tops. I had good benefits, plus the job security of a position that couldn’t be efficiently automatized because it required the human eye for imperfection.

When I left, it wasn’t with the fist shake at the future of many of my former colleagues. It was with a need to watch a road unfurling straight to the horizon. An escape from infinity, looping over a conveyor belt with nothing but the occasional streak of condensation.

Trudging uphill, with sticky heat collecting on my neck and cascading to the small of my back, I wished my epiphany had waited for autumn’s cool. Zoey looked perturbed with my lack of foresight, vis-a-viz fuel gauges, her tongue listing from one corner of her upturned mouth.

“Sorry girl,” I said. “But who’d have thought there’d be so much road between places.”

Not me, who’d been born and raised in a city. I’d never been out of New York State before, with its long, well supplied thruway. It hadn’t occurred to me to fill up before the needle started nudging E. A lot of things hadn’t occurred to me, until I was over the state line.

The chainsaw ceased with a final snarl. I saw a mailbox just before the next curve, barely keeping its head above a tangle of tall grass and wispy buttercups. The drive was unpaved and deeply rutted, I considered carrying Zoey the rest of the way. But she soldiered on, and I did prefer to have my hands free in case of surprise chainsaw attack.

A blue shingled cottage waited in a sun deprived clearing at the end of the drive. A long-limbed tree grew between the building and the gravely patch where a mud splattered truck sat. The tree was the apparent chainsaw victim. It sported several fresh, pale wounds. The clean smell of sawdust mixed with something oily that gave me hope for a spare gas supply.

A pair of crows, perched above the shorn branches, made their disapproval of recent home improvements clear. I eyed them for a moment. I’d never liked crows with all their bluster and noise. Zoey yipped in scorn and started up the neat flagstone path.

I knocked twice before the door rocked open. A fit man, sweat dampening the temples of his bristling gray hair, glared at me with deep, blue eyes. Uncanny, familiar eyes.

A face on a faded album cover.

Three milk crates claimed my backseat, full of my father’s vinyl records. On one of those slim packets of cardboard, blue eyes peeked mischievously over the luscious curve of a Gibson Les Paul guitar.

The eyes belonged to Sparks Casady. Guitarist for the legendary band Hot Fish. But that wasn’t right. This man was maybe five years older than me, when Sparks would be in his seventies. And besides Sparks Casady was dead.

There had been a son, though. I remembered then, a stark image of the aging rocker laying a wire rose, woven of guitar strings, on his son’s grave. But that had been a show.

“I… you’re…I’m sorry,” I said. “I ran out of gas. And I don’t have reception…”

A white line ran beneath his ear and down his throat. He was a soldier, injured during the First Gulf War, I couldn’t remember how badly. Just that his father disowned him.

Sparks Casady, who played in protest through Vietnam, declared his eighteen-year-old son dead when he joined the army. Sparks even staged a vigil outside his graduation ceremony from West Point.

I stopped talking, transfixed by the scar razoring over the throat of the singer’s son.

He hadn’t said anything; not even, go away. I wondered if his vocal cords were damaged. But then, I expected him to have one of those tablet things that speak for you. Or a pad and pencil. A flurry of sign language. Something more than silence.

I was about to turn around and try my luck down the road, when he looked at Zoey, trailing drool across his boots, and snorted. A bass note, somewhere between surrender and laughter. He waved us in and went behind an island dividing a cluttered living area from an even more cluttered kitchen. He gave a cereal bowl a dubious look, swiped at it with a dishtowel and filled it from a tap that was only a little quieter than the crows cawing outside. When he plunked it down on the linoleum, Zoey trotted over and slurped away.

The cottage was full of Hot Fish debris. Two guitars and a keyboard leaned on various bits of furniture. Notebooks teetered on a bookcase, like weathered seagulls too exhausted to take flight. A tower of albums loomed beside a turntable with old, burlap covered speakers in scratched wooden frames.

“This is amazing,” I said. “I’m a huge fan. Well, my dad, he just loved your dad. I never knew he lived up here.”

I noticed a picture propped between a cracked drumstick and a capo. Sparks Casady with a little blue-eyed boy on his knee. A young man, the face on those albums that sung me to sleep so many nights, when my father would be down in the kitchen with a few friends, eyes shining and beers raised to the good times. The boy clutched a ukulele in his pudgy hand, trying to strum.

Sparks had a beautiful voice. Smooth and deep, like a piece of glass washed on a beach, worn by the constant rolling of the waves. I wondered if his son’s was just the same. If he wished he’d set his own voice down forever in song.

I waited for him to say something. Ready to be disappointed. Or thrilled. Anything but the silence that seemed as worn into his body, as his feet were into his work boots.

“My dad used to play the Hot Fish debut all the time,” I said. “I think that’s my first memory, actually. Hearing it under my bedroom door at night, pretending to mouth the words even though I couldn’t really make them out, you know?”

I waited to see if he’d finally answer. Rage about his father, or wearily admit the music was better than the man. Or just push us out for being crazy, drooling fans. At that point, I’d have been relieved if he’d pulled out the chainsaw, just to see a reaction from him.

But he only watched Zoey, the staccato lap of her tongue slowing as the bowl emptied and rattled against the floor. So, I turned back to the instruments scattered around the dust. The Les Paul still had a certain gleam about it, as if more music was trapped in there. I wondered if Sparks Casady had felt it up on the stage that night, when Hot Fish made their first album. And if he knew when he captured the pure, clear note of a glass breaking out in the crowd what it would mean.

I loved that moment. So, did my dad. It inspired legions of Fish Heads to throw down their drinks in unison whenever the song was played live. A chorus of shattered glass, raised in tribute to the perfect imperfection of music.

Today that accident would have been excised from the track. Removed as surely as anyone smashing a bottle at a concert would be. But back then, there was nothing to do about it. And Sparks Casady didn’t see any reason to scrap an otherwise solid recording. So, it became part of the song, as much as any chord or lyric.

If I had thought about it for another minute, I wouldn’t have opened the door. But the crows were kicking up a fuss that distracted me. I had just cut back their favorite tree. I was sorry to upset them. They were the least musical birds in the world. And I liked them for it.

On the step, a thin woman, who reminded me of the careless buttercups at the end of the drive, explained she’d run out of gas. I looked behind her for a husband or children with the strained faces of a family vacation off to a rocky start. Every summer, one or two French Canadians on their way down to the seaside got into car trouble along my road. But there was no one else, just a little black dog looking half waddled to death.

For a moment, she thought I was my father. I wasn’t surprised. People used to mistake me for him all the time. They would shout “Hot Fucking Fish” at me when I lived in a bigger city and went out more. I knew I looked a lot like him, even with my hair cut short. But it was like his fans forgot he was dead. Like they forgot he would be older now. Not walking around with the same face he had at fifty. The face I avoided in the mirror.

I let the woman in and gave the dog some water. She called the dog Zoey, absently added her own name was Martie, while she stared at all of Dad’s old junk. Like she’d just walked into a shrine.

I’d tried to clean the cabin out. If I’d bothered with a wi-fi connection, I could’ve sold it all online in an hour. His fans would’ve eaten it up. But there was always something else that needed doing. Like the tree.

So, the guitars and all the rest waited where he left them. And I pretended like I wasn’t weaving my life around them. Careful not to stir the dust. Every now and then, one of them let out a plaintive twinge as it slid further out of tune, like Dad’s ghost plucking the strings.

Martie kept talking, her phone was out of bars and her father had been a big fan. Her voice rambling on, as if she hoped to gain a few more minutes among the rocker’s flotsam by keeping the room buffeted with noise.

The dog flopped down with a sigh. Martie didn’t notice. She took a few steps deeper into Dad’s den. Drawn toward the Les Paul. She didn’t ask. She just picked it up and tuned it with the careful efficiency of a practiced musician. And she played it.

She really played it. Finger-picking, old style blues stuff, rollicking Americana, and of course, she ended with that damn song.

Sometimes, I wondered if Dad wasn’t counting on something like it happening. After all, what else could he expect? Bringing a six-year-old to a live recording session?

I still remembered the dimpled face of the breezy, hippie girl who gave me the cola. I don’t know if she worked there. Maybe she just saw me sitting on my stool, by that minefield of sound equipment, and felt sorry for me. But Mom never let us have sugary drinks, so I got awful jittery. And though that album would be praised for its intimacy, it roared loud enough in my undeveloped ears.

Somehow, Martie twined me into the too familiar melody. If I’d had a beer, I swear, I’d have dropped it. She paused a beat with an eyebrow raised, as if expecting the sainted crash of glass.

“You’re good,” I said.

Which stunned her. My voice was all jagged edges. Rougher than a sandstorm. Having no one to converse with but crows hadn’t helped. I may have looked like my father, but the accident ensured I’d never sound like him again.

His voice was coarse, especially on the heels of the guitar’s thick melody. I thought the two words had worn him out. Or maybe it was the effort of complimenting his father’s music.

Zoey yapped, reminding me we’d come with a purpose.

“Right,” he said. “I can spare some gas. I’ll drive you.”

Zoey led the way to the truck, her tail ticking like a crooked metronome.

“It’s lucky I heard you sawing up that tree,” I said, as the truck bumped down the drive.

“Downhill would’ve been easier going in the heat,” he said.

I bit my lip, rubbing Zoey’s head, until we got to the spot. I was sure it was the spot. I remembered the tangle of rosehips perfectly. But there wasn’t a car in sight.

“It got towed,” he said.

“Oh.”

“You should’ve waited.”

“It seemed so deserted.”

“It’s not. Lots of tourists come down this road.”

“I…”

He sighed. “I’ll take you to town.”

“My dad would’ve loved this,” I laughed. “Me getting a ride from Sparks Casady’s son. He’d have a thousand questions for you.”

He grunted and twisted his hands on the steering wheel.

“So, what are you doing, hiding up here?” I asked.

“I’m not hiding.”

“It’s alright. I’m running away.”

“From what?”

“I stole Zoey,” I gave her a pat and she yapped happy confirmation. “I’m a dog thief.”

He cracked a smile, at least. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not. I’m a criminal.”

“Why?”

“So, I’d be too scared to go back.”

“You just left?” he asked.

I had. I knew, I probably should’ve done something with the house, told some friends, canceled utilities and other responsible things. But I’d been doing those things for so long. Besides, I didn’t have plants in need of watering or a fish to feed, and I couldn’t really ask the neighbors to pick up my mail after stealing their dog.

“I guess I’m not much of a planner,” I said.

“You’d have a full gas tank, if you were.”

I should’ve been proud of myself for getting something like a joke out of him. Instead, I reached for the radio dial, thinking it might be best to have some neutral sound for the rest of the ride.

“It’s broken,” he said.

“What would your father say?” I tried to keep my voice light, but didn’t quite manage it.

The tall pines slipped by, and the road started to level out. A few mailboxes on long arms flickered past, though the houses they belonged to were tucked behind screens of greenery. Zoey’s panting became a mild snoring.

I guess he was still thinking about the song I’d played. And it must have really bothered him, because after a long mile, he actually broke his own silence.

“I dropped that glass, you know,” he said. “Just a clumsy kid and you all act like it means something.”

“It did.”

He didn’t answer. Scattered cottages began appearing with a regularity that suggested approaching civilization.

“What about ‘Prodigal Father’?” I said, as the town solidified around us. “Doesn’t it mean something? People say he wrote that for you.”

“So, I’d forgive him?” he laughed, like the crows in his wounded tree. “He didn’t. He wrote it about music.”

“How do you know?”

“Because there’s always a song waiting. And he never looked back.”

Some sort of festival was going on in town. The kind of thing that popped up all summer in small towns. With a five-horse merry-go-round, a craft sale, and the pervasive smell of kettle corn. Zoey snuffled out the window at a pack of balloons bouncing by. Martie exclaimed over the candy-striped barbershop quartet warbling away in the bandstand.

I was glad she’d given up questions. I’d had enough of Sparks Casady for one day. For a lifetime really. As if I’d ever be so lucky.

The garage was only open because a row of vintage cars had been parked in front of it, their hoods all proudly propped open to reveal gleaming engines. Kids peered at their reflections in the brightly buffed paint. Serious looking men with rags in their back pockets pointed various ingenuities out to each other. There was a wide swath of pavement between Martie’s car and the vintage admirers, as if they were afraid rust was catching.

The garage owner didn’t charge for the tow, but admonished her to pay more attention to the gas tank. She promised she would and asked if she could charge her phone in his office. He agreed when Zoey licked his ankle and started begging. I couldn’t blame him.

I was about to head back. But Martie grabbed my arm and insisted on buying me an ice cream cone for my trouble. A boxy white truck across the street pipped out “Pop Goes the Weasel” in an organ grinder key. We waited behind a clump of kids, who were immediately enamored with the fat pug. A mother in a rumpled tie-dye skirt tilted up her sunglasses and looked at me. I could see she was about to figure out who I reminded her of.

Martie reached the window just in time, and put down a little dish of vanilla. Zoey snuffled it up, coating her wrinkles in sticky drips, until even the adults laughed.

“Does that happen a lot?” Martie asked. Maybe she finally realized my dad’s legend could be an inconvenience.

“I don’t come to town much.”

We circled the festivities. Zoey sniffed at sandals and Martie examined the local seashell art. When the dog started to huff, Martie picked her up and sat on a bench near the tiny carousel with its frail tune. I hovered nearby, feeling absurdly like I should apologize, even though I’d done her the favor.

“That song—” I said.

“That song’s prefect,” she didn’t look up. I had to lean in to hear her. “Something broken made it perfect.”

“It was an accident,” I said.

She pulled on the dog’s ears, blinking hard. I got a bad feeling, thinking about why people our age pulled up their lives and ran off without any plans.

“You’re not…sick, are you?” I asked.

“It’s allergies,” she said, rubbing her eyes.

“What? No. I meant cancer or something.”

“That’s real insensitive, you know.”

“Sorry,” I scuffed a boot in the grass. “So, you’re not?”

“No.”

“That’s good.”

She crossed her arms and tilted her head up at me.

“Not since I was a kid,” she said. And then relenting a little, “What made you ask?”

It took me a moment to regroup. I looked from her to Zoey and back, and I just knew her father had been with her every day she was sick; probably playing her my father’s songs.

“Healthy people don’t steal their neighbor’s dogs,” I said, at last.

“She was practically hitch-hiking,” Martie smiled, put the little dog back on the ground and stood. “And you should know music saved my life. Though you’ll probably say that’s impossible.”

I shrugged. She nodded as if she’d proved her point and started back to the garage.

After a look from Zoey, I followed them. I frowned in her car window at a seat crammed with records and a battered guitar case. Clearly, she thought the only necessity for the road was music.

“Do you have a turntable in the trunk?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s in the case?”

“My dad’s old guitar.”

“Can I see?”

“It’s pretty beat up.”

She actually blushed. But she brought it out, flipped open the brass latches and handed over a cheap, red Fender Stratocaster. Two strings were broken, nothing but sharp curls of wire dangling from the tuning pegs. A functional bass. That suited me. I propped a foot on her bumper, balanced the poor thing on my knee, and picked a few notes.

Despite all the callouses I’d gathered on my hands over the years, the tips of my fingers were soft. The wires bit into them. It would take practice to harden them up again.

“Tell you what. I’ll trade you. My dad’s guitar for yours.”

She hesitated a measure.

To fill it I said, “You’re going the wrong way you know. Should’ve gone west. All the songs are about going west. Or south. You’re almost out of country.”

“There’s Canada.”

I laughed and Zoey barked.

“Do you want the guitar?” I asked.

“My father would never forgive me if I said no.”

“Mine will never forgive me for saying yes.”

She started toward the office to retrieve her phone, but turned.

“I think he will,” she said.

I laid the guitar back in its case and carried it to my truck. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for Martie and her little companion to reappear.

If it were one of my father’s songs, she’d stay just long enough to leave me with a broken heart. Or better yet, we’d find our muses and peel new songs out of those old guitars. Songs about fathers and looking back. Songs with nothing broken and impossible, straight roads.

end

     
  © B. B. Garin, 2019

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