Featured Story • October 2016
John Wagner’s Last Blues
I met John Wagner on I-40 coming out of Nashville. He’d been dead five years to the day.
I knew who he was. Hell, I even knew he was supposed to be dead. For years, stories had circulated about a guy who looked an awful lot like Wagner lugging a guitar case along the dusty highways of the South. An alt-country band called Hell’s Half Acre even remembered a dead ringer for Wagner opening for them one night in Arkansas, but they figured it for a tribute act gone overboard when he never broke character, not even backstage. Over time, the stories started to agree that, against all good common sense, it really was him.
Granted, all of this crazy talk was confined to a fairly small group of fans. Wagner was revered as a songwriter’s songwriter, which generally means he recorded amazing records that no one bought. He was lucky enough, though, to have his songs covered by several of Nashville’s mega-selling superstars.
A couple of times, after a few beers, I’d even gone out looking for him myself. I never found anything, of course. Well, except for this time, when he was the last thing I was looking for.
I was an hour or so out of Nashville, leaving town for good, when I saw Wagner on the city-bound side of the interstate. He sat by the side of the road, a hard-shell guitar case propped up on the guardrail beside him. There was no mistaking him, even at 70 miles per hour. I hauled ass to the next exit and did a 180 back towards Nashville, hoping I’d get to him before someone else picked him up.
He was still there when I came around, so I pulled over and rolled to a stop a little bit past him, watching him through my rearview mirror. He eased himself up, but not before sipping from a bottle of wine he’d been holding. As he tilted the bottle back, his shoulder-length hair fell back and I could see his young face beneath the road dirt. I was stunned. This wasn’t the wasted shadow of a man from Wagner’s final days. It was the lean young buck who had first rolled into Nashville, his head full of masterpieces.
He threw the bottle into the bushes, dusted himself off, and started walking towards the car. He was dressed in cowboy boots and jeans, with a giant belt buckle decorating his waist. The untucked tails of a button-up flannel shirt, its sleeves rolled up to his elbows, flapped in the breeze. He opened the passenger-side door, worked his guitar and knapsack into the backseat, and finally folded himself into the car.
He gave me a quick smile as he took off his hat. “Many thanks. Been sitting out there a while now.”
I smiled back. “No problem. You could have brought the wine in with you. It’s getting dark, so the cops wouldn’t be able to see it.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Probably for the best. Wine’s no good for me, anyway.”
I nodded. “My mom used to say that wine was the only thing she knew of that was equal parts Heaven and Hell.”
“I like that. Although a man’s got a fair share of both in him anyway. The name’s John. John Wagner.”
“Alan Richards,” I replied. “And I have to admit that I knew who you were when I stopped. Where you heading?”
“A bar on the outskirts of town. Got a show to play.”
There it was, the infamous show. Amongst the stories of Wagner playing dive bars and flirting with diner waitresses, some claimed they’d actually given him a ride. If their stories were true, he’d been very open about his identity but offered no clear answers when they asked about his death. He always said he was due to play a show in Nashville, although he stayed vague on when and where. A few of his rides later said that they’d had no intention of dropping Wagner off. It wasn’t like they planned to kidnap him, but maybe take the long way until they got a few answers, or at least found some hole in this guy’s story that would prove he wasn’t Wagner. But those holes never materialized, and these highway Samaritans always ended up taking Wagner wherever he wanted to go, and then felt compelled to be on their way.
Now here he was, the closest to Nashville that anyone had seen him, and in my car. Maybe it was finally time.
I tried to play it cool. “I was leaving town before I turned around to pick you up, but I’d be happy to take you in. It’s not like I have anywhere I need to be.”
“Thanks very much,” he said. “I’d be grateful for that.” He glanced at the backseat, where my own guitar case lay beside his gear. “So you play?”
I shrugged. “I gave Nashville my best shot, but it’s time to pack it in.”
Wagner gave a knowing smile and confessed that he wished he hadn’t come to Nashville to record his own material. By the time the label-appointed producers had given his songs a countrypolitan sheen, he barely even recognized them.
I liked Wagner’s acoustic stuff better myself, and told him so, but added, “Even on those slick records, the songs still come through.”
He asked me if I’d ever recorded anything of my own. I told him I had the usual shoebox full of demo tapes, but nothing I planned to ever bother anyone with again. I didn’t go into all of the gory details about how I’d ridden into Nashville planning to sell my songs on Music Row, or how every publishing company in town had rejected me. They’d all said the same thing: my songs were clever, and I could turn a phrase, but there was no emotion or heartbreak underneath. I lasted four years, banging my head against auditions and open-mic nights, before deciding I’d had enough. With nothing left to pawn that would equal another month’s rent, I’d shoved what little bit I had left into my car and started the drive of shame back to North Carolina.
Forgetting my desire not to spook him, I gushed about his songs and how they’d gotten me to start writing. Nothing he hadn’t heard a thousand times—before or after his death—but he took it in polite stride. I lamented how I’d lost touch with whatever embers his words had flared up within me, how I’d found myself writing songs to make a buck, not to exorcise demons or to clear my head.
“I certainly never tapped into anything great like you did,” I said.
John’s face darkened a bit. “Well, I’ll tell you. That sort of thing doesn’t come without a price.” He didn’t say any more than that.
I drove on, leaving him to his silence as I thought about his legacy. It wasn’t like Elvis was wandering the blue highways of the South, but Wagner was arguably the best songwriter of the last thirty years, and that’s taking into account Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, or anyone else you care to name.
Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask about his supposed death. “So what’s the story? Did you fake it?” But even as I said it, I knew he hadn’t faked his death. He was, after all, sitting here much younger than he’d been when he died. He also exhibited none of the waste or shakes or hesitation of his last days.
He smiled sheepishly. “No, I died the right way. Best I can figure, anyhow.”
“This is going to sound stupid, but you being back has people saying some pretty wild things, like you sold your soul or something.”
Wagner shook his head. “Nah, the Devil’s just a poor boy down on his luck like the rest of us. He don’t have anything to give.”
I felt stupid for asking it. As talented as he was, Wagner never seemed like some Robert Johnson kind of character. His guitar playing wasn’t so otherworldly that it made you believe in crossroads deals. It was his lyrics that got you, with the way they struck at the beautiful and sad essence of living. If the Devil exists and offers talents for trade, I don’t believe that he’d offer anything as beneficial as the comfort that we drew from Wagner’s songs. I can still remember the first time I heard him; it was like someone had ripped my heart open and healed it at the same time.
“So coming back young,” I said. “Was that by your own choice?”
John shook his head. “No. I guess I was just granted a kindness. Good thing, too. Who’d want to come back as a burned-out old man?”
“So what’s it all about?” I asked. “What’s with the wandering and the hitchhiking?”
“I’ve just got some unfinished stuff to do…”
My face must have shown my confusion.
“OK, well, I died. But then I was brought back. I have to play a show near here.”
“How does John Wagner play a show? How’s a dead man stand in front of a bunch of people who know his songs and get away with it?
“Ain’t that kind of show.”
“Well, what kind of show is it?
“I can’t rightly say. I just have to play it.”
* * *
It didn’t take long to get to where we were going, which surprised me, since all of John’s directions consisted of loosey-goosey instructions like “I think it’s this way” or “Feels like a right turn is the way to go.”
Eventually, highway gave way to back road, which turned into a long dirt driveway that ended in the gravel parking lot of an old roadhouse. It didn’t look like much. Plywood walls, battered old door, tin roof. Surrounded by woods on all sides, it looked like a militia hideout.
The parking lot was empty, but the lights were on inside. John grabbed his case and headed for the entrance.
Inside, the place was lit by the rosy glow of bar signs and some stage lights pointed at a small stage in the back. A bartender and two waitresses stood at the bar, doing prep for the coming night.
“Evening,” John said as he approached them. “I’m here to play tonight.”
The bartender looked up from the limes he was cutting. “Indeed you are, John Wagner. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this.”
I thought the way he said it sounded pretty ominous, but John seemed to pay it no mind. “Any chance the kitchen’s open? My friend and I have been on the road all day and some solid food on our stomachs would do us a world of good.”
The bartender nodded towards one of the waitresses. “Shelley here can find you a table and get you all set up.”
Before long, John was digging into a big plate of steak and eggs while I went to town on a giant cheeseburger. Maybe it was the hunger, but it was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. My beer was going down pretty well, too.
John’s seemed to be going down even more smoothly, the way he was outpacing me. It wasn’t really a surprise. Wagner was well known for his appetites and addictions. He made a lot of money in Nashville, but he also pissed most of it away. At one point, he was even homeless, moving from friend to friend, sleeping on couches until his hosts’ patience gave out. After a while, he cleaned himself up to fly a little bit straighter, but there were always stories of people finding him passed out drunk, his hands still on his guitar. Eventually, his body gave out on him. Videos of his final performances aren’t for the faint of heart. His voice, cracking and faint, eventually left him completely. His arthritic fingers fared no better.
“I know this isn’t my place,” I said. “But are you going to be able to play with that many beers in you?”
John took a sip and looked at me a little dangerously, as if he didn’t appreciate the question. “Nah, I’ll be fine. Alcohol doesn’t have the effect on me that it used to. Really doesn’t have any effect at all since I came back. Guess the comfort’s still there, though.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s this ‘coming back’ stuff all about?”
“Hell, I’m not always clear on that myself,” John said. “Only thing I’m sure of is that, right after I was dead and buried, I woke up aboveground, sitting with my back against my own tombstone, my guitar case on the grass beside me.”
“Not really. Just this sense on the inside, like a clock ticking, like a compass spinning in my brain, that I was supposed to wind up here in a year’s time.”
“Wait, a year to get here? You died five years ago.”
“Well, I might have dragged my feet a little.”
“You’ve had five years to think about it, then. No theories?”
John chewed on his steak for a moment. “Well, I didn’t say that. Do enough travelling, talk to enough people, you’ll pick up a few pieces.”
I waited, sensing he was thinking about how he wanted to put this.
“Best I can figure, I’m getting a second chance after the way my life turned out. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about me.”
“Probably all true, by the way. I was given a gift, and I don’t care what anyone tells you, that always comes with some kind of price.”
“The drugs?” I asked.
John shook his head. “No, I chose those hoping they’d make me oblivious to the real price.” He gave a small laugh. “Granted, it wasn’t the best solution, seeing as how it made me useless, put me in an early grave and all. But it was something, and about all I had.”
“So what was this ‘real price?’”
John lightly tapped his fork on his food, looking at me. “I’m not sure you’d believe me.”
I laughed. “No offense, but I’m eating supper with a dead man who’s been in my car for most of the night. I’d say my threshold for belief is off the charts right now.”
“Fair enough,” he nodded. “OK, well, the long and short of it is that once they got wind of how I could write songs, the dead started to chase me.”
OK, he had me. My face must have registered my confusion because he cocked an eyebrow at me. “Did I hit your threshold?”
“No, I’m just not sure what you mean.”
“You seem to know a good bit about me. You know that I ran off to the deep woods early on, lived in an old cabin?”
“Yeah, some great songs came out of there.”
“Well, the thing about it is that a lot of those songs came from the dead. They’d been hounding me for years, and I went out there hoping I could get away from them. It was a stupid idea.”
“I’d be out there on the front porch at night, sippin’ whiskey, strumming my guitar, and then I’d see them—like hazy floating lights—coming out of the trees.”
“Like ghosts or spirits?”
“Yeah. They’d crowd around me and one by one, whisper their stories in my ear, and I’d turn each one into a song. Some nights I’d try to drink myself senseless, but it didn’t matter. I’d wake up the next morning with a hangover and a head full of songs.”
I counted in my head. Wagner had been in that cabin for about two years. “That would be, from the sound of it, thousands of songs.”
He nodded. “I didn’t record them all. Some were just too horrible, the tales they told. Some I recorded, just to get them out of my head, and set the tapes on fire.”
Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of all of this. On the one hand, I’d been with John—a young one at that—most of the day. But it seemed a bit more of a leap to believe that most of Wagner’s output had acted as some kind of Victrola for the dead. Part of me just wanted to put this whole thing back in the box and close the lid, deciding it was all a scam and going my merry way.
It was then that the bartender came up to the table with a serious look on his face.
“Name’s Nathan Ellis. I own this place,” he said. “I’m thinking you remember me, or at least my wife.”
John nodded. “I do. Linda. I remember her, and you.”
Nathan turned to me. “John here came through town a decade or so back and stole my wife.”
I looked at John and he shrugged at me in the affirmative.
“She travelled with John for a few weeks,” Nathan continued. “Meanwhile I sat at home cleaning my shotgun, hoping John’d be fool enough to come back through.”
“I’m sorry for that,” John said. “If it counts for anything.”
Nathan shrugged. “Linda came back after a while and we patched things up as best we could, but it was never the same. Eventually she left again for good, by herself, and it wasn’t long before I used that shotgun to put myself in the ground.”
“You’re dead, too?” I said.
“Yeah,” Nathan said. “When I heard you were coming back here, I felt the anger flare up a little bit again but it passed. Funny thing about death, it makes you see things with a little more consideration.”
“That it does,” John said.
“Have you seen Linda since you came back?”
John nodded. “I have. She’s never forgiven herself for you shooting yourself. She spoke well of you.”
“There’s that, at least,” Nathan said with a tired smile. He looked around with a wistful look in his eyes, taking in the bar. “You should probably get set up. Doors open soon.”
* * *
When Nathan started letting folks in, the place filled up quickly. Before long, men and women jostled each other, but it didn’t have a regular bar’s meat-market atmosphere. No one was checking each other out. All about, people interrupted conversations and excitedly hugged each other in recognition. No one ordered a beer without getting a few more to spread through whatever group they turned around to find themselves in. It felt like a family reunion minus the casseroles and family elders clucking their tongues at the young. This was a party.
I made my way to the lip of the stage. John had finished his soundcheck earlier and was checking some last things on the stage. “These people all seem to know each other. Are they dead, too?”
John looked out at the crowd and it was hard to read his expression. “Most. Though there’s some that are a little more than that, and some that are a little less.”
I had no idea what he meant and didn’t get a chance to ask. He took a big swig of his beer, grabbed his guitar, and stood at the microphone.
* * *
John started playing. At first you couldn’t hear the first hesitant strums of his guitar. But with each note, more of the crowd turned towards him.
Since that night, I’ve listened to every recording of John Wagner I could find, right down to shitty-sounding bootlegs, and I’ve never heard the songs John played that night. He sang of earthly things like the promise on a lover’s lips as she invites you in to betray you. He sang of things that no living man could know, of the bittersweet sensation of saying a peaceful final goodbye to all the women in your life, of leaving every heart with a smile.
He sang of awful things. He sang of hearing stories seep from every grave as he walked by the cemetery, and of realizing that even in death, the same demons could haunt you and hold sway.
His voice ranged from a whisper to a loud, deranged moan. He wrestled lullabies from his guitar and then snapped lyrics out like the crack of a whip.
He sang songs of celebration. He sang low, lonesome songs of torment and loss.
This had been the life of John Wagner: haunted by the restless dead, by spirits who felt compelled to tell their stories to a man who could make them heard.
John sang to a house that never uttered a word, to a crowd that often stood too stunned to even applaud between songs. He sang about life, and about missing life, and about not being sure if you really wanted to know what the silence after your death rattle held.
I was captivated like everyone else, but I started to realize that a change was occurring in the crowd. It seemed to be thinning out, although I couldn’t remember anyone leaving. Even between myself and the stage, there were more gaps in the crowd, and I knew no one had shouldered past me on their way to the back of the room.
I started watching the crowd, and after a few songs I finally saw it. As soon as John finished a song about a mother burying three sons killed in a war, I saw a woman in the crowd fade out of existence with a sad smile on her face.
It happened over and over: people disappeared with looks of joy or sadness or remembered anger on their faces when John finished what, if John’s story had been true, must have been their songs.
For several hours, this went on until it was just me, John, and Nathan in the bar. John sang Nathan’s song, tracking the trajectory of the bartender’s loss and incomplete recovery. Then Nathan, with a slight nod of his head to John, faded out with the song’s final chord.
John let out a small exhale, and then started packing up. Unlike the story he’d told me about being in thrall to spirits, he’d been here the entire time. As he went through the routine of sorting through his guitar case, he tried to appear as if the night’s show hadn’t had any effect on him, but I think his shoulders looked lighter. As he walked up to me, he flashed a grin that was a lot freer than some of the pained smiles I’d seen in my car.
“One final ride?” he asked.
I cocked my head at him. “How exactly do you mean that?”
He laughed. “Not like that, I promise. I know a gal about an hour south of here. Haven’t been by yet, and I’d sure love to see her.”
On our way out of town, we decided to take one final tour. We walked through the old downtown and admired the Nudie suits in the back of Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop. We slipped into a few bars on Lower Broad where fresh-faced hopefuls played free shows for barflies and tourists in hope of catching a label’s ear. We drove out past the billboard that always touts the week’s hot young prospect, complete with its own low-watt radio station so you can hear the song they’re pushing as you drive by. I can’t speak for John, but I felt better about the old town than I had in a long time, although I still knew I was done calling it home.
We didn’t talk much on the road. I know it seems like a missed opportunity, but the show had actually been a bit much to process in such a short time, and I didn’t want to badger John about it in case he felt the same way.
I did ask him at one point if he wasn’t supposed to move on to his own reward now that he’d played his show. He just laughed and said, “If they want me that bad, they can come and get me. I still have a lot of goodbyes to say.”
The last I saw of John Wagner was when I dropped him off at his destination. An old farmhouse sat a little bit off the road, the porch light on as if whoever was inside was expecting company. He shook my hand, grabbed his guitar case, and walked toward the house. An old dog loped up to him, its tail wagging in recognition, and John kneeled down to give it a good hug and ear-scratching.
I drove off, not waiting to see who opened the door. For all I’d seen, for all the secrets I’d heard, John deserved the dignity of letting his own story play out in peace.
Andrew Gilstrap is a South Carolina-based writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Lakeside Circus, Mythic Delirium, Star*Line, and Apex. “John Wagner’s Last Blues” marks his first fiction sale.
He tells us that “‘John Wagner’s Last Blues’ was born on Southern interstates years ago as I drove to visit my sister in Nashville. Those seven hours in the car, listening to my home-made mixes, gave me plenty of time to reflect on favorite artists who seem to have an almost supernatural ability to get their message across and who too often also seem to possess a self-destructive streak. This began to intersect with the part of me that wishes the world grew and tucked away mysteries, rather than debunking, demystifying, and killing what few mysteries it has left. Wagner, unfortunately for him, found himself at that crossroads.”
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