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

The Last Ballad of Saddler Vance

There never was any deal with the devil. No crossroad's magic. No cat's guts or silver coins. No dapper man in a seersucker suit with a neat goatee and a faint cologne of brimstone. There was only me and Saddler Vance at the end of a rotting pier with the salt marsh sunset and my daddy's old service pistol. That's where I killed him. Killed him for a song.

If Saddler had been born on another side of the tracks, he probably would've been called a prodigy and gotten special classes in old brick schools, wearing a neat blue blazer with a fancy patch on the pocket.

But Saddler wasn't, so he got called things that weren't real nice. He got hit and kicked and once he got chased up a tree by a one-eared dog while all us kids laughed. It's funny, I feel more ashamed of that, now, than I do about the bullet I put in his head.

I didn’t hate him. Well, I was a touch jealous when we were kids, and he'd coax all the sweetest sounds out from under the scratched-up skin of the school's cheap piano. But we got older and I hardened my fingers on guitar strings, while the music drained out of Saddler in twitches and split lips. And if my fist was on the wrong end of a few of those bruises, it was no more than other boys did.

Saddler was quiet. Which made it easy. He was all muted chords and grace notes, hiding out in the little room with the piano and the art supplies during lunch and after school. He hardly said a word, no matter how many times we caught him in the halls.

By the time we got to high school, even his fingers had gone silent. If I missed the sound curling under the music room door, I didn’t know it.

It started as a lot of nights started then, with me drooping on my bar stool like a sunflower in the late October sun. My eyes were black, my hair was yellow and my insides were wilted. Across the room, Saddler Vance sat before the player piano, hands moving but never touching the mechanically dipping keys. His fingers chased the music up and down the instrument like a child playing hide and seek.

That piano ate at my nerves from the moment Arlene bought it. She said it gave the place a touch of curiosity. Better than a jukebox she said, anyone could dreg up a jukebox, but that piano gave the place atmosphere.

It reminded me of the westerns my daddy watched late at night to drown out the loneliness. The sound of the crank whirring round made me cringe, my fingers curling with every borrowed tune they’d repeated by rote over the years. But Arlene wouldn’t hear a word against it. She thought it sounded wistful.

Arlene already had two kids and a wrist that hung at a crooked angle from an ex-husband’s twisting, when we got fixed up. We’d been going out for nearly a year by then, I thought with the understanding that eventually we wouldn’t. Now, I think she was shopping for white picket fences from our first kiss.

All she ever wanted from life was a man who treated her right. Why she thought that man was me, I’ll never know. I think the only decent thing I’ve ever done is to let her keep believing I wrote “Midnight Forever” about her.

She was there when Saddler Vance started singing, though she never seemed to remember. Perhaps, she was too busy with tap handles and whiskey bottles, with high-pitched women and fat boned men to hear what was drifting up from that corner.

I wish I knew what slithered loose in Saddler that night. He’d sat on that bench a hundred times before and never made a sound. I don’t know how anyone could’ve kept a thing like that inside them, but he did.

Perhaps, he sang it every night in his dreams. Perhaps, he'd fallen asleep sitting there with the hypnotic rippling of the keys playing on his eyes. Then he opened his mouth and silk poured out over that hiccupping cowboy tune.

I listened with my jaw hanging open, as if I could drink that song, let it filter my blood, and maybe even prop my soul back together.

It caught me right in the guts, where I didn’t think anything could stick anymore. Melody like the breeze on a summer night. Lyrics dripping in his honey gold voice. It wasn’t a song about anything new. That didn’t matter.

It was a song to stop your heart.

I left town after high school, and clean forgot about Saddler Vance. Me and my guitar slunk through half a dozen bands. Covers. Old rock. New South. Honky-tonk and blue bluegrass. Low songs from the low country.

Other people's songs. Always. Other people’s stories.

I was a session man in Nashville for a spell between gigs, picked up work as a roadie when nothing else came along. At thirty, I busted up my left hand throwing a bad hook. I lost the fight and I couldn’t form a proper chord for three months.

So, I idled down the Carolinas till I got back home. I sat on my daddy’s porch, watching the squirrels chitter and scratching at a notebook, pretending to write songs for the band I didn’t have in the works. But I’d forgotten how gritty the tree pollen was in spring and how distracting the birds were when they got to gossiping.

“How’s it going, son?” my daddy would ask, rocking back in the other chair.

“Just fine,” I would lie.

“That’s good.”

The steam from his coffee cup would brush his cheeks for a while and when it faded, he’d take a sip and go on. “If you want, I could have a word with Mr. Greeves. See if his boy’s looking for an extra hand, now his old man’s finally taking it easy.”

“I’ll be alright, soon as this hand’s fixed up.”

“Well, I suppose I’ll be heading down to the beach.”

I’d nod and frown at the empty page. He’d give the quiet another beat, then shuffle up, his joints creaking like unoiled hinges. I’d pile up a few loose words, cross them out, chew my lip and turn over the beat-up page when he came home, maybe with a fish to clean, maybe with some barbeque in plastic containers.

“Good day, son?”

“Yes, sir. Practically, write themselves.”

When my hand healed up, I took off with a spot in a backing band and an empty notebook. I’m lazy, I suppose. In a place where the atmosphere is literally dripping off the trees, I couldn’t be bothered to reach out and catch it.

The next time I came home, it was to bury my old man. I hadn’t seen him in three years and it broke me up worse than I thought it would. I ought to have put that in a song. It might not have sounded so cliché in a song. I started to one gray afternoon, but I wound up wandering down the beach, kicking sand at the hungry ocean.

It was the beach my daddy used to fish on. He’d taken me along, once. Even at eight years old I thought fishing was an excuse for drinking, so it came as a blurry-eyed surprise to be bundled into the pick-up at six a.m. on a school morning and driven to the ocean.

It was just me and him. I knew with a child’s instinct not to ask about my mother. He wore the scars of that lost battle clear from his scuffed boots to his graying temples. And I suppose he did right by me, watched me fumble through algebra and first dates with slim advice and little reproach. I graduated high school, which was more than he did.

That morning, he let me try his coffee, black and boiling; it made my tongue sizzle and my eyes cross.

“You’ll like it one day, son,” he said, and swiped the back of my head.

The tide was out, rolling through the fog in lazy lumps that came to slow nothings on the hard-beaten sand. My daddy anchored two rods like flagpoles and commenced a long lecture on the merits of beach fishing, sandbars, currents, lines, lures, bait. I’d never heard the man talk for such a solid hunk of time before or since. I wish I could remember a word of it.

It didn’t seem to matter then. I was small. I was bored. I was thinking about what I might’ve swapped Cal Greeves for at lunch and hoping there was more in the plastic Kroger bag, flapping like a wounded seagull by the tacklebox, than my daddy’s thermos of paint stripping coffee and a crumbled banana muffin.

We waded into the bitter surf, cast our lines, drew them taunt, and replanted our poles. And we waited. It might’ve been a calm day, but the ocean’s never quiet. The waves grumbled and the birds shrieked back. My daddy watched it with contentment in his gray eyes. Something that sunk through the fidgeting, sand caked morning and stayed.

I don’t remember what we caught. Maybe we didn’t catch anything at all. But as the fog burnt away and the water crept toward our poles, I began to hear what I think my daddy saw; a salt-scrubbed, endless harmony that haunted me no matter how far from the ocean I ran.

Maybe that’s what I heard in Saddler’s song. Maybe that’s why I wanted it so bad. A part of me had been trying to write that song my whole life, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have my daddy’s steady hand or Saddler’s heart.

“What’s the matter with you?” Arlene asked, when Saddler stopped singing that night.

I shook myself, smiled at the stray hairs clinging around her cheeks.

“Nothing, but this here empty glass,” I said.

She huffed and went off to take her time with filling it. Saddler was already gone. The mechanical sigh of the piano crank winding down chased his song out the door. It’s slippery like that, even now, laid down in hard wax. The notes fade before the needle drifts to the next track.

I saw Saddler a dozen times that month, bagging my groceries; hunched on that piano stool, content again with his pantomime playing. And I forgot, if you can believe that. Till I crossed paths with him in the dirt parking lot of Arlene’s bar.

It was coming on twilight, the days stretching their arms toward summer. Saddler sat on one of the logs that marked off the spaces, digging stones out of the ground with a stick, half humming, half mumbling to himself. The sound mixed with the heat in the air, his voice like a fat camellia blossom dropping its petals, soft and sad.

“Saddler?” I said. “Saddler? Where’d you hear that song?”


“It ain’t bad.”

“Suppose not.”

If I’d never asked, maybe I could’ve kept on pretending he heard it on the radio, one of those hazy stations that pop up when you’re on a long stretch between places, playing real sepia colored stuff, like you’ve driven back a few decades.

If that song had belonged to someone else, I wouldn’t have taken it.

I never bought a newspaper until the morning after I killed Saddler Vance. My breath wobbled in my chest as I shook it open, but the front page was devoted to a house fire and the antics of a town councilman.

I don’t think anyone was ever more suspicious of me than the kid who worked mornings at the gas station. The way I’d clatter out quarters and avoid the headlines until I got out in the thick morning air. Then I’d spread it on the hood of my car and read, rubbing sweat and ink off my palms after every page. I even read the obituaries, though I didn’t see how Saddler could have made it there without visiting the crime beat first.

That kid watched me with fiery pimples and a sleepy sneer, like he knew I was guilty. Maybe he thought I was having an affair, that I needed the petrol stained air to soak into my shirt, to convince my wife I’d been working a night shift.

I stopped reading the paper after recording “Midnight Forever,” but I thought about that kid for a long while after. Wondered if he ever told anyone about my morning ritual. If he said I was odd or had a certain look in my eye. If he became a fan and fed the rumors around.

Those rumors started when we went down to Louisiana. “Midnight Forever” had gotten enough attention for me to scrape up some bandmates and the label sent us on a regional tour. We needed something to sell at the concerts, so we decided to record live one night.

We stopped by an old graveyard to get shots for the album cover. Vague voodoo tones. Spanish moss on our guitars. Oak limbs reaching for the drummer. Tilting, age streaked stones for an audience.

You might think it all hit a little close to home for me. But I never thought of Saddler. I thought about the cheap stone I’d gotten for my daddy. How quick the writing on it would fade. If I’d ever be able to buy a better one, maybe cast our name in bronze.

People use a lot of fancy words to talk about the show we played that night. Critics say things like our sound finally coalesced. They agree that’s the point from which we really took off. That without that live album we’d never have made it, even if the only original song on it was “Midnight Forever.” The rest were the same covers I’d been playing for years.

Fans like to make a lot of the morning’s cemetery visit. Never mind it was broad daylight with two dozen witnesses. That’s not a good story. So, they say we went at midnight. Say a make-up girl noticed cloven marks in the dirt. That one stone looked recently disturbed. That roadies remember a stranger in a dark suit who seemed to vanish in the moonlight.

And they say we sounded like a different band that night. Maybe we did. But like I said before, there never was any deal with the devil. That’d have been too easy. Too clean.

I used to love driving through the night, how the headlights cut their own horizon that I could never quite catch. Light chasing dark, till dawn came and turned it all to gray.

Those were calm nights. Not like now, with the stillness, the nearness of the bedroom walls. Arlene’s breathing a rhythm I barely hear after all these years. I find myself downstairs by three, looking for those old westerns my daddy used to watch, but I never find them. Just life-changing blenders at bargain prices and the occasional preacher offering to save my soul.

It worries Arlene, though you’d think she’d be used to waking up without me, after all my years on the road. She never says anything, but I see the way she presses her lips together in the morning. We haven’t fought in years. Maybe we don’t have the energy anymore. Maybe we know everything’s getting as fragile as our bones.

I asked her once if she knew what happened to Saddler Vance.


“You know. He used to come around and hang over that player piano.”

“Oh, yeah. Saddler. I never saw him after that summer.”

“What summer?’

“When you wrote ‘Midnight’.”

That’s as close as I ever got to telling her.

I did tell my drummer once, when we were coming to the end of that first tour and no one had called my bluff. We were the only ones left awake on the bus as it rolled through the early morning to some mid-western town.

“It’s not mine. I heard it one night in a bar and then I killed the man who sang it.”

He looked at me, eyes sluggish over the blunt neck of a bottle.

“That’s not bad,” he chuckled. “Spin it out, we’ll have a real Robert Johnson number.”

He thought I was telling a story. Working it into a song. He was already adding to it.

“A bullet for a song,” he muttered. “No…a bullet singing in the night.”

We spent the rest of the ride smoothing out the chorus.

I ought to have written a song about that; the moment the truth became a lie.

Some music magazine sent an up-and-coming singer out here the other week. A young thing with spiked hair and a ring through her lip, to interview me for a twenty-year retrospective on “Midnight Forever.”

Arlene, forever the bartender, filled tall glasses with sweet tea, and I got us settled in the hard-backed rockers on the porch. I watched a long-billed bird swooping off toward the marsh, while the girl wriggled, the chair forcing her shoulders straight.

She asked about the devil, of course. But in a bored voice, like it wasn’t her own question. I chuckled, sipped my tea, gave the sort of slow southern pause that would’ve gotten me called charming twenty years ago. She was probably just wondering if I’d gone senile.

She asked the usual things about my inspiration and my process, clicking it all into her phone with shoeshined nails. I wondered if Saddler would’ve been asked the same questions two decades later. If he would’ve kept pouring out hits once someone got him in a booth with a real piano under his hands. Or did he only ever have the one song singing in him?

“I’m not a fan, you know,” she said.

“I figured.”

“You’re so not relevant.”

“I suppose not.”

“You don’t say much for a rock star.”

“They never called me a rock star,” I laughed. “They never quite knew what to call me.”

“Cause you were so old.”

“Too old from the day I was born, my daddy used to say. But then, he was too young. Too young for war. Too young for a wife. Too young to be on his own with a kid.”

“Is that from one of your songs?”


“Is it true your drummer wrote them all?”

“He’s got co-writing credits on all our albums.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Who writes your songs?”

She glared with her midnight painted eyes.

“What motivated you?” she asked, back to her scripted questions.

“The first night I heard a crowd chorusing back at me, I knew that was it.” I paused, really tried to remember. “Feeling that alive. Feeling all those souls caught up with me.”

“Are you planning anything new?”

“No,” I said, my lip curling just a touch. “I’ve been told, I’m not very relevant anymore.”

I’ll admit, that word stuck in my teeth like a piece of gristle. All I’d have to do to change it was lean in, prop my elbows on my knees and worry my hands. Not meet her eyes and say real low, I’d tell her something I never told no one before.

I could see her shaking her head. Thinking I’m some has-been spinning out the stories that followed me to stardom. But I’d go on. I’d describe Saddler’s voice, how it leaked like oil and spread under your skin. She’d start to believe me. She’d have to. Who would lie about a thing like that?

They’d dredge that marsh at long last, and they’d find what was left of him. Maybe not much; the ragged soles of his boots and a crescent moon jawbone.

Then, they’d come for me. And I’d have my face all over those papers I used to read.

I almost told her. I turned the sweating glass through my calloused fingers, rolled the words around my mouth. The callouses stopped me. I didn’t steal them from Saddler. I layered up my skin till it was too thick to feel a damn thing all on my own.

Sometimes, I wonder about those people in the bar the night Saddler started singing. Twenty people heard that song and not a one of them remembers. Or they’ve fogged it up, put me on that piano stool with a cracked-up heart and an amber gleam in my eye. I can’t quite blame them, though. Sometimes even I get mixed up. I’ve told the same story so many times, and some of it’s true, after all.

I never thought it’d go so far. That song was something special, but music had just about burned me up. I didn’t want that song for a demo, or a single, or a hit. I didn’t want it to make my name, or fill my bank account. Though I took those things when they came.

I wanted it…for its beauty maybe, there never was a woman looked as good to me as that song did. Not even my darling Arlene.

She was the first one to hear it, that part’s true. How she heard me singing it into my coffee cup one morning with a splash of cream and a long pour of sugar for percussion. And she knew right then I’d written something that’d change our lives. That I’d finally let loose the music she always knew I had in me.

The part about her renting me a studio hour is true, too. So’s the engineer who doubled as my session drummer whose cousin happened to be an up and coming A&R man.

But I suppose, I should tell you how the rest of it went down. That’s the part I thought I’d be telling long before now. I didn’t plan it. Not really. But I had the gun, tucked under my shirt the way I’d seen in the movies. I’d had it there for a while. I liked the uneasy weight of it. I’d taken it out one day wondering how my daddy felt carrying it through the jungle and somehow I never did lock it back in its box.

Arlene’s girls had come over for something or other. A birthday, maybe, that ended with all their mascara running and dinner never being served. I’d ducked out and the best thing I can say for myself is that I hadn’t gone drinking. I’m glad I was sober. If I wasn’t, I would have always wondered if one less whiskey tonic could’ve saved Saddler Vance.

What made me start down that old pier, I don’t quite know. Maybe I was chasing the sunset. Maybe I glimpsed a crane making delicate strides on its comical legs. The tide was out, mud sucked at the soft pilings and long swaths of marsh grass hissed with the salt breeze and summer bugs.

The question that ought to have haunted me was what brought Saddler whistling down those sun-bleached boards. He was no more inclined to fishing than I was. If I had religion, maybe I’d say he was my test. One I failed. Which would make this my overdue confession.

But I’m not asking for redemption, and like I said to start, there never was any devil. Just Saddler, wandering up to my shoulder with that song on his lips.

He looked at me sideways and I swear he knew. For just a moment, he knew what I meant to do. And he never raised a finger. He never broke the song.

Everyone agrees, nothing I’ve done since “Midnight Forever” is near as good. But that’s alright. The fans come for that song, Saddler’s song, so they can say they heard it live when my voice was still true and it cut their hearts wide open.

It let me buy Arlene her white picket fence, which makes her happy. She deserves it, lord knows. We could’ve gone to a city or another coast. But she said, she’d miss the ocean, miss the low land and the dripping trees. She said, my music made sense here.

There’s a live oak in the backyard. The realtor claimed it was over a hundred years old. It might’ve been a trick to up the price, but the limbs are thick and heavy, filtering most of the view from the porch. They’re getting real low too, the gardener can’t get the mower under some of them and the grass is starting to lick at the bark. Soon it’ll wither in those spots from the constant shade, and then if I live long enough, I might see a branch sink back into the dirt.

An angel oak, they call it. A strange thing to call a tree that’s twice rooted to the solid earth. But I won’t argue. For all I know, the thing’s older than heaven. And wouldn’t that be something, a proper ending, me in a creaking rocking chair, my fingers as crooked and swollen as the angel in my backyard.

I can almost see myself there as the sun goes down, alone except for Saddler’s last words on my lips,

“We’ll ride that winding lane
Beneath the bearded trees and the steel moonlight
You and me and midnight forever.”


  © B. B. Garin, 2019

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