by Sherman Smith
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“Excuse me, sir?”
Brooks stopped dead in his tracks. It was a woman’s voice; a nosy one at that.
“You shouldn’t be here. If you are checking out...” She looked at a clip board then back at the blind man who had suddenly appeared before her. “If you were being released I would have been notified right here.” She tapped the clipboard purposely to show him where his name should have been written. Her authoritarian bag of hot air suddenly deflated when she remembered that he couldn’t see. “Oh... I’m... I didn’t mean...”
“Oh that’s all right, Miss, I was just visiting a friend I hadn’t seen for some time.” Desperate times call for prime grade bullshit, he thought as he tried to put on his best smile, which of course she couldn’t see beneath his Humpty Dumpty mask. “Would you mind calling me a cab?”
She peered over the top of her glasses. The man was dressed in civilian clothes. A tuxedo. No patient here would dress like that. A blind man couldn’t find his way around this place without help. Well, he certainly did. Hmmm, a most unusual man. “Why certainly. Let me help you find a seat and I’ll call one for you.”
“Much obliged,” Brooks responded, “I’ll just wait outside. I’m partial to the sea air.” Brooks tried to appear self-confident as he used his cane and followed the sound of the woman as she scurried to open the front door for him.
The cabby had gotten a call to pick up a handicapped ride at the veteran’s hospital. The hospital parking lot was not well lit, neither was the entryway. There in the pale yellow light near the hospital door stood an apparition dressed to the nines in black; only he had no face.
“You gotta be kidding me.” The cabby swore, and the chewed butt of an unlit cigar clinched between his teeth remained motionless as the rest of his face skewed. “What’s this, a mummy going to the opera? Somebody must be making one of those horror films with what’s his face... Karloff.”
The tall, coal-black praying mantis character gave him the creeps and he thought about driving on. There had not been that many fares so far and if he didn’t come up with enough dough for the rent his old lady would be busting his chops. He leaned over and rolled down the passenger side window. “Hey buddy, you call for a cab?”
A white cane came out of nowhere and wavered in his direction. “You got it, Mac.”
The cabby got out and escorted him not too gently to the cab. “Say, wait a minute. You got any dough?” The cabby demanded as he gave the blind freak’s elbow a slightly painful twist.
“How far will this get me?” Brooks held out two bills. The cabby counted two fives. “You’ve got two bucks, which will get you to a couple of swell joints I know.”
“Name them?” Brooks asked.
Caught off guard, the cabby responded: “I’d recommend either the Stardust Lounge or Roland’s.”
“Stardust,” Brooks answered as if he knew the place. “Take the shortcut, you know the one I mean, and you can keep the difference as a tip.”
“You got it, Mac.” Five minutes later the cab pulled up in front of a seedy neighborhood bar. The cabby helped his fare to the front door and took the two crumpled bills from the blind man’s hands. He could see the beginning of what might be a grin through the mouth hole in the tightly wrapped bandaged head and it gave him the willies. “Need any help from here?” His voice tone implied a less than genuine offer.
The cabby hoped into his car, slammed the door, inserted the key, and looked at his loot. Ten bucks easy money. “What’s this? Well, don’t that beat all.” The dough the blind man had given him was two one dollar bills. He hee-hawed at the jackass he was.
Brooks stood for a moment outside the door collecting himself. He could only guess at how he would be received. Self-Pity was throwing a party inside in his honor and he shouldn’t keep them waiting so he sucked in a deep breath, squared his shoulders, then felt for and opened the door. Come on, Self-Pity, you’ve got a few pals in there, call in a few favors. How about giving me a break?
The bar smelled and sounded just like the type of place where he could drink until he was seduced by the Siren Oblivion. He stood inside the bar and waited. If people were going to gawk at him they can get it over with now. He intended to stand there until hell froze over before he would give them the satisfaction.
Oh please help the poor defenseless freak, he thought. No, damn it, I demand the same courtesy as the next guy. They can see — that I cannot see. I will not flounder around like a fish out of water looking for a seat. It took only half a minute before Desperation tapped on his shoulder. Come on, pal, the hell with your pride, I’m thirsty.
The bartender, a short muscular man with a marine buzz cut, glanced up from his whispered conversation with one of his regular customers. “The circus must be in town. Nate, get an eyeball on this.”
Nate had been telling the bartender about a hot bimbo he had picked up in Reno. He stopped in mid-sentence and turned on the barstool as he followed the bartender’s gaze. He blew out a long low whistle as he set sight on an unusually tall man in a black tux. His entire head was wrapped in gauze. He had no face. The din of drunken laughter lowered to a murmur as all eyes settled on the freak.
Brooks reined in his rage as he checked with Self-Pity and Despair to see if either had found a table.
Nate took in the room and spoke to the bartender without taking his eyes of the floor show. “Claude, why don’t you give the guy a break?”
“What?” It was less a question than an expression of ignorance.
“Claude, a hundred bucks to your one the guy is a veteran.”
Claude shrugged his shoulders. “So? A lot of guys came back from the war with a few parts missing and their asses dragging. Does that make me their keeper? No, I don’t think so. OK, the guy got a lousy deal, but that don’t make it right for him to come in here and give my customers the creeps. Folks want to forget about the war and get on with life. You think they can do that with this freak coming in here dressed like a Christmas package. I’ll be home for Christmas...” He sang the beginning of the song poorly. “They should have given the poor bastard a ribbon.”
They mostly likely did, Nate thought as he caught a glimpse of the tattoo on Claude’s bicep. “You’re all heart, Marine, a real peach of a guy.” He turned his back to the faceless man and stared into a flyspecked smoky bar mirror where he could not take his eyes off the tall dark stranger who could not return his gaze. His head slowly nodded as he watched the reflection of a courageous man who somehow managed to retain some dignity when he was surrounded by jerks like Claude. He pushed his empty glass forward and threw a buck on the counter. “One more, a fresh glass, and watch the head.”
Claude poured a draft beer and swept the foam from the top of the mug with a knife then slid it across the counter. “So what happened between you and the hot number you was telling me about?”
“Use your imagination,” Nate groused as he got up, pulled a straw from a box at the end of the counter, and left the bartender to finish the story with the imagination he lacked.
“Take no mind of these bums,” Nate said as he reached the tall faceless man, “they’re just jealous of that swell tux you’re wearing. There is an empty table three steps straight on the clock and one to the left. Watch out for the extra chair.” It didn’t take imagination to see the beginnings of a horribly scarred face hidden beneath the layers of cloth that covered the stranger’s head.
“Thank you,” Brooks said. “You are most kind. How many seats are there? There will be three other gentlemen joining me.” He found a chair and sat.
Nate set the beer down and slowly edged it into the faceless man’s hands. He stripped the straw from its paper wrapper and plucked it into the beer. “I thought this might help. The bartender’s name is Claude. He’s a real dirt-ball. If he gives you any trouble just tell him that old Nate will be back to settle accounts later.” He pulled two more chairs up to the table and turned to leave but not before giving Claude a hard look and a silent warning.
“Thank you,” the faceless man said as he tried to follow the voice. Citizen Nate had already departed.
The cold sweat on the beer mug felt good in Brook’s hand. He felt for and found the straw and took a long slow sip. It wasn’t bourbon, but it sure took the dry ache from his throat. He let out a grim chuckle. “Mr. Black, the first round is on you.” His head turned towards the empty chairs one by one. “Gentlemen, shall we play a few hands? Five-card stud, nothing wild. I’m feeling lucky.”
Copyright © 2012 by Sherman Smith