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  |  |  Winter 2019 Fiction Issue

Ashes Hit the Floor

2020 Pushcart Nominee


Once a month, Red sobered up for a weekend and tore through her house disposing of empty bottles, pretzel bags, and peanut butter jars. She scrubbed the stains in the carpets and scoured the sinks. She cut herself picking up shards of things she didn’t remember breaking. When she finished, her hair stuck to the back of her neck, clinging with the smell of lemons and vinegar. Then she quietly fell asleep with a deep ache in her muscles.

She didn’t dream on those nights. But the next night she would, and after that she would be back at Pauline Sutton’s bar trying to shuffle her mind into order the only way she knew how. Pauline would have to drive her home. There were no taxis in their small town, and it was that or sleeping it off in a slippery vinyl booth.

The girls behind the bar with their bright lips and glossy nails, knew better than to try their chattering charm on Red. And the old boys, who drank with nearly as much dedication as she, never turned their heads. But sometimes a less regular customer missed the hint and slid down the bar offering to buy her a drink.

Red wasn’t a bad-looking woman. She never bothered to cut her hair, but she did bother to dye it an eye-smarting scarlet, so it hung between her narrow shoulders like an open wound. Her face was neat and didn’t have any of the lines it probably should. Her lipstick always matched her hair, and her green eyes blazed even when heavy with drink. She was careful with her clothes when she went to Sutton’s, knowing Pauline expected certain standards to be kept, nothing too short or too low. And Red’s clothes had a way of clinging in the right places, hiding her fragile ribs and stringy thighs.

She wasn’t thirty, and youth was getting scarce in town. So, men would try, and sometimes she wouldn’t snarl them away, but drink their proposed drink and with as few words as possible take them home. She didn’t dream on those nights either.

A stranger leaned next to her and didn’t offer any usual lines. A new drink appeared in front of her without a word. His shoulders were huge, Red bet he could pick her up with one arm. It wasn’t a bad thought. She’d seen him throwing darts earlier, steady hands. Up close she could see a hundred tiny scars latticed them, like flecks of white paint not quite washed away. He had a long jaw; she expected it to be dusted with stubble but it was smoothly shaved. Red reached without asking and turned his hand over, curious to see if the scars continued on his palm.

“Are you going to tell my fortune?” he asked.

Red shook her head and let him go.

He smelled like sawdust and worn, oiled suede. A scent she wanted to swallow. She took a drink of gin instead, relying on the clear, cool burn to set her straight.

He turned his hand back over, flexed his fingers.

“Too bad,” he said. “I’d have liked to know.”

Red laughed, a choked sound she wasn’t used to making.

The man sipped his beer, didn’t look at her. Still and quiet; she liked that.

“I think you already know it,” she said.

Red expected him to leave before sun-up. They always did. But dawn wriggled between the blinds and she cracked her eyelids to find him slouched against the headboard, sparking a cigarette.

“Take that outside,” she snapped.

He raised an eyebrow but rolled out of bed and dragged on his jeans.

“I wouldn’t have thought you cared,” he said, stepping over a heap of unwashed clothes.

Red turned over and groaned. He had a point, but he also hadn’t left. She scrambled around on the floor, found a shirt to pull on, dragged her heavy hair up off her neck and padded softly out to the back porch.

He sat on the steps, leaning on one elbow, the other resting on his knee, the smoldering cigarette dangling between loose fingers. A gray hulk of a dog lay panting across his bare feet.

Red had found the beast whining around her door the first November she was on her own, when snow was beginning to come down thick and fast. At first, she thought he was a starved wolf and threw steak knives at him to make him run off. He shied away but didn’t leave. When Red realized she was looking at a young husky, she let him in.

She kicked him out after the storm. She wasn’t fit for company. But the dog kept nosing around, the click of his nails on the kitchen floor chasing back the silence. Now Red kept a full plate of kibble down, and the back door unlatched, so he could paw his way in and out as he pleased. He disappeared into the woods for days sometimes, but he always wandered back, muddy and sated. When Red brought strangers home he bristled and growled. Except today.

“Useless,” Red said, prodding the dog with her toe. “You’re supposed to guard the place.”

Hunter chuckled. He’d told her his name last night in his truck, while she toyed with his ear and directed him to her house on the outskirts of town.

The dog turned his head, rolled one clear blue eye to look at her before settling firmly against Hunter, tongue lolling contentedly from his mouth.

“What’s his name?” Hunter asked.

He shifted the cigarette to his lips so he could scratch the dog’s ears.

“Wolf,” Red said, dropping onto the worn porch boards. She drew her legs up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them and rested her chin on her bare knees.

“Of course,” Hunter said, giving the dog’s head a rough rub.

Red picked up his hand, looking at the scars again in the light of day.

“I was a meat cutter for a while,” he said.

“And now?”

He almost shrugged but used the motion to push off his elbow and flick away his cigarette before swinging Red into his lap. His tongue was gritty with tobacco and she smelled last night’s alcohol stale on her own skin. She kissed him anyway. His hands wrapped around her waist, shifting her away so he could work his lips down to her collarbone.

“Let’s go back to bed,” Red murmured.

Hunter pulled them both to their feet. Wolf thumped down the steps with a yap.

“I have to go. Let me have my shirt back,” he said, tugging at the hem where it brushed her thigh.

She glared at him, which only made a wide grin crawl across his face.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“This place is a wreck,” he said, glancing up at the creaking roof. “You ought to move. Start fresh.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

He lost his easy look, turned his hand over for the shirt. “Give it up now.”

She almost kept arguing. She could feel the words fresh and hot in her mouth, then she remembered she wanted him to leave. So, Red pulled the thin fabric over her head, balled it up, shoved it against his bare chest and stomped back into the house.

Her car was still at Sutton’s. It would take more time to retrieve it than to just walk to her grandmother’s house, so that was what Red did. She found clothes that were both hers and clean, scrubbed her teeth with a naked toothbrush, no paste in sight. She stumbled over Hunter’s boots twice, one in the kitchen, one in the hall.

A shortcut took Red through the woods behind her house to the edge of the cornfield that ran up to her grandmother’s place. Red and her brother had spent endless hours wandering off that path as children, building forts and hunting for dinosaur bones.

Now only Wolf accompanied her, drifting like a ghost out of the trees, sending squirrels hustling on their way. The cornstalks on the edge of her grandmother’s property waved above Red’s head. Wolf took the path around the field. Red pushed her way straight through. She liked the resistance, the rasp of the thick green leaves against her skin. It was still summer, but the cornfield always smelled like a crisp fall promise.

Red’s grandmother made a thin living leasing out the few acres, and on a brood of three dozen chickens she let range about her yard. Red heard them before she saw them. Shrill clucking beasts, fat and self-satisfied. Twice a week, Red collected their eggs and sold them at a farmer’s market in the next town. For this duty, her grandmother allowed Red to live in the little house on the other side of the wood. Her grandmother wrote her checks at Christmas and her birthday. Red got by and thought she was doing quite well for someone who never finished high school.

The chickens rolled their beady eyes at Red and squawked their disapproval with ungodly volume for such small lungs. Red spotted Wolf lurking near the edge of the yard. He wouldn’t come closer. He’d been pecked too many times.

Her grandmother lived in a narrow, two-story farmhouse, stark white and peak roofed. The screen door screeched no matter how much WD-40 Red applied. But the old woman wouldn’t let her replace something that did its job perfectly well.

The house suffocated Red. One of her earliest memories was standing in the front hall, gripping her brother’s hand, gasping to breathe the tobacco stained air. Their parents left them with their grandmother for a week every summer. They made half-hearted explorations of the attic and poked through the roots of an old oak stump.

Red told her brother that their father used to climb the tree to sing outside their mother’s bedroom window. That their grandmother had chopped it down in her rage after their father stole their mother’s heart with his songs, and their mother swung down those big, solid branches to run away through the woods with him. Their grandmother never forgave their father or the tree. But she could only cut one of them out of her life.

It was her brother’s favorite story. She whispered it to him, cradled by the gnarled tree bones while the sun freckled their faces, and their grandmother lurked in the kitchen, a cigarette between her sour lips.

The tobacco lingered in her grandmother’s hall, aged like the dust eating into the curtains, only half drowned by sharp new antiseptic, though the old woman hadn’t lit a single cigarette since the day she’d been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Red had expected a fight. But her grandmother had dug the pack out of her purse, tossed it in the trash by the hospital entrance and never said another word about it.

“You’re late,” her grandmother muttered at her.

“Were you going somewhere?”

The old woman glared. She resembled one of her birds; sharp nose, small eyes, and bald head, though hers was laced with delicate blue veins, the one tracing her temple pulsing with particular vehemence.

The old woman insisted she would die in her own home, as her mother had done, and her father before that. She said it like it would be a disgrace to die anywhere else. So, Red had learned to take care of her without really understanding what she was doing.

A brisk nurse had explained, giving Red some diagrams with words she could barely sound out. Red copied what she was shown. Drain this bit of tubing, inject that here. She memorized the color and shape of each pill and how many to dole out to the little boxes marked with the days of the week, three sets: morning, noon, and night.

She knew enough to check her grandmother’s eyes and nail beds for jaundice, her back for bedsores, and to pry into the state of her bowels. Her grandmother submitted to it all with sullen docility. She saved her strength, and her spite, for the weekly trips to chemo. Then she nagged at Red about everything—the hideous color of her hair, her sass, her joblessness—followed by the silent hour home, the old woman pretending her jaw wasn’t furiously clamped shut to keep her stomach from heaving out her mouth.

“Have you been smoking, girl?”

“No,” Red said, flipping through the cupboards, making a shopping list in her head. It wasn’t a long list.

“Have you eaten anything?” Red asked.

“Of course.”


The old woman folded her arms across her withering chest and jutted out her jaw. Beneath her hollow cheeks and naked dome, it looked unnaturally large and strong.

“Never mind,” Red said.

Red stripped her grandmother’s sheets, replaced them and the bed pad, cleaned the bathroom and laid out a fresh nightgown. Her grandmother scratched impassively at a crossword puzzle in the kitchen the whole time.

“Don’t look so sullen, girl,” she said, when Red was leaving. “You best take care of it. It’ll all be yours when I’m dead.”

Red stared. She’d never thought about it, never asked if the old woman needed to see a lawyer. Even wasted to the bone, her grandmother had such an iron will, Red couldn’t imagine it being snuffed by cancer. Or anything else.

“Close that jaw. You look like you’re drowning.”

Red clamped her teeth together. She suddenly saw herself weathered into the old woman at the table without even a granddaughter to sharpen her tongue on.

“Take your pills,” Red said.

The old woman huffed, her eyes glimmering. Red’s only goodbye was the screen door’s indignant shriek.

Red fed the chickens on her way. They fluttered and clucked at the grain raining down on their heads, startled as always by the regular occurrence. Wolf watched, sunk low on his belly, until Red whistled and he dashed off around the cornfield. She followed him this time. It was quicker not to fight the stalks. She wanted a swallow of clean gin to burn out the chicken smell and Lysol sting.

She was half a bottle down when he knocked. He’d come back in her car. She didn’t remember giving him the keys, maybe Pauline had taken them. She wondered where his truck was.

“I left my boots,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

She glanced down at the black dress shoes poking out beneath the frayed hem of his jeans. Mud clung to them.

“Thanks for the car,” she said, reaching for his hand and the dangling keys.

He pulled back. “You’re not going to drive anywhere tonight?”

Red shook her head, but it made her dizzy, so she stopped. Hunter dropped the keys onto a cluttered side table, eased the nearly empty glass of gin and tonic out of her hand. Red rolled up on her toes and kissed him.

Coming back from her grandmother’s house, she’d half hoped to find Hunter where she’d left him, tossing lazy sticks that Wolf would not stoop to fetching. For once, she wasn’t as afraid of her dreams as the empty nights they came in.

She steadied herself against his chest, kissed him harder. Hunter hesitated a moment. But it didn’t last.

Red woke up confused. She could taste the scream on her lips. But Hunter slept soundly beside her, one arm crocked beneath his head, the other draped across her stomach. She eased out from under him, found her pants and his shirt on the floor, and made it to the kitchen without knocking into any walls.

Wolf snored under the table. He raised his head warily as she clattered some ice into a cup and doused it with gin. Red sat on the floor. All the chairs wobbled, and she already felt off balance. Wolf padded over and nosed her shoulder. She slung an arm around his neck, running her fingers through his thick fur.

“I know boy,” she said. “Rough night.”

“For you or for him?”

Hunter leaned in the doorway, arms folded over his bare chest, wearing only jeans and half a smile.

“You were screaming before,” he said.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

He shrugged. “Most people wake themselves up.”

Red bit her lip. She’d never had the dream when she was with someone before. But she’d never repeated a fling, either.

“I don’t sleep much,” she said.

He grinned hungrily.

“I noticed.”

“Go back to bed,” she said.

He sat cross-legged in front of her, knees brushing hers.

“Coming with me?”

Red looked down at Wolf and shook her head. Hunter tugged gently on one of the husky’s pointed ears. Red watched the scars ripple as the muscles flexed beneath his skin. They sat like that for a long time. Red didn’t know how long. She’d knocked the kitchen clock off the wall last month when the ticking got too loud.

“What did you dream about?” Hunter asked.

“A wolf,” Red said.

Hunter laughed. “Not this old boy.”

Wolf looked up innocently from under his hand.

“No,” she said. “It was a coyote, really.”

She’d been in the hospital for two weeks, every night dreaming of a wolf towering up, all shadow and fang, before someone told her it had been a coyote.

“That’s not so scary,” Hunter said. “Coyotes are cowards.”

“They’re dangerous.”

“Make a lot of noise and they run away.”

She shook her head, hair falling in her face, curtaining the world in red.

“They’re lonely,” Hunter said. “They don’t have packs.”

She took another drink. The ice in her cup had melted. The gin tasted thin and spent.

The next morning, she found Hunter on the porch, cigarette in one hand, carton of orange juice in the other. It startled her how familiar it seemed. She tossed his shirt over his bare shoulder and finished buttoning up one of her own.

“Come on,” she said, grabbing the orange juice and swallowing a small handful of aspirin. “Where can I drop you?”

“I can walk if you’re in a hurry,” he said, dragging on the cigarette.

Red pulled her lower lip through her teeth. It was Saturday, a market day, and she was already late. But she didn’t like the idea of leaving him smoking there on her porch. Her head swam with the unfinished nightmare and whatever she had wanted from him yesterday was lost in the morning glare.

He squinted up at her indecision.

“I won’t burn the joint down. Promise.”

“Fine,” Red said and left.

When she came back, he really was gone. No boots to trip over, the empty orange juice carton abandoned on the table, and not even a trace of tobacco in the air. She sank onto the kitchen floor, leaning back against the cool oven door. The market had been heavy with heat, waves of it shimmering up from the asphalt. She grabbed a dish rag to wipe her face and neck beneath the weight of her hair. Her lips tasted salty, but she didn’t make a drink to wash it away just yet. She waited for a knock on the door.

Eventually, the quiet gnawed into her. She found the gin and the couch and drank straight on till Sunday. In the afternoon, sunlight slanting golden through the blinds, Hunter shook her awake.

“What?” she growled, not at all surprised to find him frowning down at her, rocking her bare feet back and forth.

“Wake up,” he said.

She threw a shoe at him, which he caught one handed.

“What’d you forget?” Red sat up, dragging her fingers through her tangled hair.

“I bought orange juice. And peanut butter,” he said, bouncing the shoe in his hand. “I finished yours.”

“You could’ve bought real food,” Red said.

“I wasn’t sure you ate any.” He watched her stand unsteadily. “You shouldn’t drink so much.”

He turned and headed for the back door before she could snap a reply at him.

Red sighed and followed him out to the porch. Hunter leaned against a post, ankles crossed, tapping a packet of cigarettes against his palm.

“Where’s Wolf,” he asked, not looking over his shoulder at her.

“I don’t know. He goes where he wants.”

She leaned against the opposite post and glanced at him sideways. He smiled.

She swallowed hard and looked away, to the break in the underbrush that was the start of the shortcut to her grandmother’s house, half expecting to see Wolf sitting there, panting patiently.

Hunter peeled a long paint chip off the rail at his elbow.

“You fix this place up, it’d be nice,” he said, flicking it away and lighting up.

Neglect had not been kind to her parents’ house. Red hadn’t meant to come back, ever. But the air at her grandmother’s had stuck in her throat, congealing day by day until she couldn’t breathe it any longer. At nineteen, she stuffed a backpack full of clothes and ran away through the woods, risking a house choked with memories rather than spend another minute drowning in tobacco and compressed spite.

“I’m not very handy,” she said.

“I can see,” he said. “The bartender told me to stay away from you, you know.”

“Most guys don’t need to be told,” Red said. “Did she tell you why?”


“You didn’t listen.”

“No,” he said in a mask of smoke. “It’s not your house, is it?”

“It was my parents.”

“You grew up here?” Hunter glanced back at the screen door half off its hinges, propped open with a brick so Wolf could come and go.

“It wasn’t such a wreck then,” Red said.

“What happened?”

“They died.”

He nodded, smoked his cigarette, and didn’t ask anything more.

Red had been driving. Her parents had drunk too much at the Fourth of July barbeque and they thought the responsible thing to do was let her drive them all home with her two-week-old license. They never imagined her wild swerve when the headlights caught on the coyote in the road. The car rolled into the tree line, killing both of them and her brother, a year too young to be behind the wheel himself. She could still remember the sickly smell of sap from the broken branches mingling with the copper taste of blood in her mouth.

“Are you staying in town?”

Red realized the question had been trapped in her throat for three days.

He dropped the last glowing bit of the filter and ground it under his heel. A final trickle of smoke curled from his nose.

“No,” Hunter said. “I’m leaving in the morning.”

Red had known it all along. He was only blowing by.

“Where to?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I’ll send you a postcard.”

“No, you won’t,” Red laughed.

He would forget her by the next town. And she would drink away his name, and his face, along with the firecracker taste of him.

“I might,” he said.

“You won’t. It’s alright.”

She suddenly remembered her father’s favorite song had been about a man on the road, gone before his ashes hit the floor. She’d forgotten that song, how her father’s rough baritone savored the last bitter notes. How her mother laughed like a wild tambourine and said their road only went a half mile through the woods.

Red wondered how Hunter’s voice would sound singing that song.

She felt him watching her. Felt him wanting to light another cigarette. To settle down on the porch and wait for the dog to come home.

She felt the moment pass. The music scattered like dandelion seeds.

“I’ll go,” he said.

She caught his scarred hand.

“Go in the morning.”

The ashy smell and the dry summer grass that Red had never mown, reminded her of long-lost bonfires. And for the first time in years, she noticed how the rough wood prickled her bare feet.


  © B. B. Garin, 2019

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