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Strong Suit

by Sherman Smith

part 1 of 2

Brooks sat alone in his hospital room waiting for his poker pals to show up. Playing five-card stud with Self-Pity and Desperation is not for the faint of heart. The last time he had played and called their bluff, he had drawn two deuces and lived to tell about it. Perhaps today he would have better luck.

He shook his head in bemusement as he spoke aloud, needing to hear the sound of his own voice. “I’m not nuts, at least not yet. Yes...” The word was long and drawn out. “I talk to myself and from time to time I even answer. Sometimes my mouth just starts talking and it takes my mind a while to catch up. A little talk never hurt anyone and it’s a hell of a lot better than raging at Mr. Dark. I do try to carry on the other end of the conversation; no sense being rude.

“Now if I were to start singing in three-part harmony, that would be a whole different kettle of fish. You see, I’ve got this permanent reservation at the No See Motel and from time to time I’d like to get a fix on whether I’m awake or only dreaming. It’s not easy, and that is the damned truth. But at least for the moment I’m keeping my head above water.”

He ran his hand over his cheek, then up to his forehead, the coarse bandage never ending. He gave a short bitter laugh and shook his head in exasperation. He then shifted his weight as he let out a sudden bark: “Earl, you pompous bastard, where in this big black universe did you get off to?”

He let out a dramatic sigh. “You were always trying to do me one better. You dreamt in all the colors of the rainbow — or was that another crock? Me, I was never a big dreamer, at least not since I was a kid. I always dreamt in black and white. Now I don’t get the white.” He sat silent for a moment in the deep velvet of night with neither the stars nor the moon for company.

Brooks had begun talking to himself shortly after being left alone in his small, foreboding hospital room. He never thought that he would miss Earl. They hadn’t liked each other from the first moment Stella had made them roomies. Now they shared uncommon bonds: the black that was all-consuming, music, and their loathing for each other’s company.

“Earl,” he continued to speak aloud, “one thing I do know is that you are not out there selling pencils on some damned street corner. No, sir, you’re playing the piano right as rain. What galls me is that you’re out there singing up a storm and I’m stuck here in this pit. God bless you anyway,” he said with an odd catch to his voice, “you annoying egotistical prick.”

The grumble in Brook’s belly interrupted his thought. He was having a hard time adjusting to the tedium. Somehow “Tedium” fell short of any relevancy once he had lost his sight.

“I know Tedium, he’s a fair-weather pal of mine. Hah! You’ve got to watch out for the guy. He’s a crooked son-of-a-bitch who will turn on you soon as you’re not looking. He’s a chameleon. One moment you think you’ve got the doldrums, or you’re caught in a ho-hum moment. You’re bored and can’t quite stifle a yawn, and then to your chagrin you find out that it’s just good old Tedium paying his respects.

“You just never know when or where the bastard will show up. I’ve known him to lurk in the bottom of a cold cup of coffee or come wrapped in a pack of Camel cigarettes. Hell” — Brooks gave an incredulous laugh — “you meet up with Tedium often enough you learn that he’s not the enemy. He’s a pal. Old Tedium is one hell of a drinking buddy.”

Brooks had been lucky. He and Tedium had met mostly on safe ground. Brooks had not spent long weeks at sea sweating in the stinking hulls of ships, playing cards, and telling lies about the girls back home, while waiting for orders to storm a worthless beach in sheer terror.

It’s a sad commentary, he remembered saying to Tedium, when a human being prays for instant obliteration versus the agony of lying on the sandy beach with a limb blown off or your guts ripped out as you scream for a mother who carried her own pain when she brought you into the world.

Brooks never had to look out from behind a thin plexiglas windshield at forty-five hundred feet as thousands of rounds of ack-ack exploded around you as the bombardier dropped a payload of fire bombs on Dresden turning the civilian population into crispy critters. Many a soldier knew Tedium, and they knew that as soon as the shooting started Tedium would abandon ship to wait for his pals at the nearest pub back in merry old England.

“Yes, sir, old Tedium is a real squared-away guy.” Brook’s sigh was antagonistic. “Like I said, Old Tedium is a fair-weather... fraud.” He paused giving himself an opportunity to contradict himself as he reflected on where he had spent most of his war.

He had been a Special Services Officer shepherding Hollywood’s elite to entertain the troops in the rest and recover staging areas, to relieve them of Tedium’s odd sense of humor before sending them back to the thrill of war. The truth was that Brooks hadn’t really been needed. He had been nothing more than a glorified bellhop with officer bars.

Hello and welcome to London, Mr. Hope. I’ll see that your luggage catches up with you. General Ulysses Fatass would like you to join him for drinks at five. He had never had enough rank or pull to be able to socialize with the high and mighty, and boy did that burn him. Most of the war he and his pal Tedium were regular fixtures at the ‘Crooked Billet’, a pub off Southborough Lane in Brambly, where Brooks played a little piano, while Tedium lifted one more pint for those about to go out and do great deeds and die trying.

He had been the life of the party until 9:15 Sunday evening, November 19th, 1944, when the bar took a direct hit from a Nazi V-2 rocket, which blew away his face, his sight, and his future. After that it hadn’t taken long for Brooks to take a personal dislike for his old pal Tedium. Tedium moved in like an unwanted in-law who yammered at him, saying nothing, just yammering on and on. “What could you possibly offer me that is worth the price of remembering? Get the hell out of here, ya good for nothing bum,” Brooks swore as Tedium offered him a cigarette, which Books couldn’t smoke with his face blown away.

Slowly Brooks began to develop new friends and listen to the wise council of Mr. Dark, Self-Pity, and Desperation. If you played your cards right, and ignored their slight of hand, you just might buy that losing hand. “Say goodnight, Gracie. Goodbye, Tedium. I won’t say it’s been nice knowing you.”

Brooks sat alone, his sole companion Mr. Dark. He wet his lips as the craving for a strong drink answered the growl in his stomach. “We have a visitor,” he said with a dry chuckle. “Our old pal Tedium has come to pay his respects. We were just talking about you. Let’s have a drink for old times’ sakes. Damn it,” he swore as his belly growled in agreement. “I want a Tennessee bourbon, make it a double.”

There was a slight hiss as he pushed his breath through his teeth and the hole in his mask. “Ssssss... NOW!” He slammed his fist down on his knee. Where the hell are we going to find one? he thought in frustration as he brought his hand up to the woefully small mouth hole in his bandaged head. How can I drink without looking like a pitiful fool? This thought was followed by a dry chuckle. “Without ruining my mascara,” he laughed aloud.

His old pal Self-Pity came in with a freshly shuffled deck and whispered sweet nothings in his ear.

Since Earl had been kicked out, and Arlie had disappeared, and Henry and Stella had been fired, his narrow world had spiraled into a dark bleakness that was beginning to suggest that there was nothing left worth living for. “I will not go quietly into the night,” he exclaimed with a poorly put-on British accent. “If I have but one life to give then I choose to drown in a vat of bourbon. Tedium, old pal, Self-Pity, Mr. Black, you guys game? Say, where’s Desperation? Never mind, he’ll show up in his own good time.

“Where the hell are my clothes?” Stella had bought him a tux. It wasn’t hung up where he could find it because there was no one to do it for him. Instead he had to search in the dark for his pants, shoes, a shirt with too many buttons, and figure out how they all came together. Desperation chided him but he didn’t rage. There was no one to hear him except for his three drinking buddies and they had all heard it before. He could not cry for he had no tear ducts. “Tedium, I’ll bet you a dime to your doughnut that Self-Pity can drink you under the table any day of the week.”

He found his tux and after exasperated fumbling and cursed mutterings he had most of the buttons buttoned; though not all where they should be. At least his pants were right side out, or so he thought. Whatever he looked like it was better than the hospital gown with the drafty rear-room view he was forced to wear. He had a stash of dollar bills in a sock which he shoved into his coat pocket. He stood up, gripped his cane, and wondered if he had the guts to do this. “Hell, I’m already talking to myself. If I stay here much longer I will go nuts.”

He stood tall and tossed his bandage-wrapped head back the best he could and proclaimed: “Come on boys, the fleet’s in.” At the door he went ‘drop a pin’ silent as he slowly pulled it open and listened within the dark to the hospital sounds one last time. He knew where the elevator was by sound but he hadn’t a clue as to which floor he was on, how many floors there were, or where he needed to go. As the elevator door closed he punched all the buttons. The motion told him that he was going down. That was good.

He self-consciously checked the buttons on his pants as he felt the need to take a pee coming on. Jesus, why didn’t I think of that before I got the damn buttons done?

The elevator door opened to a damp musty smelling place that gave him the willies. After an eternal twenty minutes of wrong turns into pitch-black dead-end places he lost any sense of direction or hope for recovery and stood with his back to the door inside a locked storage closet and called out with what little dignity he could muster. “Help someone. I’m a poor blind sheep who’s lost his way... And Jesus, I need to pee. Help? Anyone?”

He knew that he was in some sort of small room. Tedium and Self-Pity were hogging the space. “Get out of here, you bums. You’re beginning to stink up the place. What’s that? Mr. Black. No. No need to apologize. Believe me, I wish you could leave. If I could grab you by the throat and squeeze the life out of you I would without a moment’s hesitation. But I can’t. You, pal, are my doppelganger, my faithful second self, and we’re stuck together until death renders us apart. Hmmm, now there is something to ponder.”

A janitor found him and got him to a bathroom in time. If he could cry he would have because he needed the janitor’s urgent help with the buttons before he might pee all over himself. That done, the guy escorted Brooks back to his room. Brooks had wanted to find his way back on his own, but his protests fell on empty ears while his drinking pals laughed at his expense.

Again the bourbon beckoned and Brooks found himself alone with Mr. Black, while Self-Pity copped an attitude. Tedium had gone ahead to reserve a table. It didn’t take long for Tenacity, who had invited himself to the party, to give Brooks a sharp kick in the ass and off they were again. Brooks was half way to the elevator when a nurse found him and kindly helped him back to his room, back into his hospital gown and into his bed. She had heard about his misadventure in the basement and gave him a pill to help him sleep, and to keep him from wandering off again.

Self-Pity had gone on to join Tedium while Desperation shuffled the cards and dealt the first hand. Brooks pushed the cards away. As soon as the nurse left he counted to twenty then spit the pill out, which was not easy through the damned mouth hole.

The nurse, bless her heartless soul, at least had hung up his clothes, which had to count for something. He dressed and this time he only buttoned every other button on his fly. No sense taking chances. Back on the elevator he found the second button from the bottom, pushed it, and held his breath.

The door opened to the first floor where he felt a slight breeze that carried with it the salty taste and smell of ocean air. Forty-two steps straight forward and the street sounds told him that the front door was just ahead. He felt the tempo of his heart increase with the excitement.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Sherman Smith

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