Poets Can’t Sing
by Sherman Smith
Stella was a petite bottle-blonde, deliciously curvy, with a haughty, sultry, heart-shaped face, who looked far younger than her thirty-seven years.
In her rose-colored evening dress, she was a knock-out. She sat in the empty bar with her chin nested in her hands and stared at the piano. It wasn’t a Steinway, far from it. It was a broken-down old clunker which she had paid six bucks for at an estate sale. With three keys missing on the piano, the estate agent should have paid her for taking it off their hands. Now she hoped that it would be the best six bucks she had ever spent.
In a moment of profound feminine insight, or stupidity, she had foolishly bought a shuttered night club out in the fog-smothered avenues of San Francisco as a gift for Earl and Brooks, her fellas.
The club — like the piano — was overdue for life support and could aptly be named The Dearly Departed. Foolish? Yes, and then some. For the time being it would remain nameless.
She was a nurse. What business did she have owning a bar? Buying the bar had been a last desperate bid to keep Earl and Brooks together, which is not easy when you have two blind men who can’t stand the sight of each other. She loved these two cantankerous men, and it tore at her heart when they argued like two schoolboys caught in a testosterone haze.
She lifted her chin and crossed her fingers. “Please, not for me, but for them,” she begged all the gods and lucky charms that could be called upon. Tonight she would need more than luck. She needed some good old-fashioned magic. New Year’s Eve, 1947, was coming at her like a runaway locomotive on greased tracks.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Time ran too fast.
* * *
New Year’s Eve and the wall clock said that she had fifty-eight minutes until the doors were to be opened. No, make that fifty-seven minutes. She had called in all her IOU’s and made a few herself. Now there was nothing to do but wait. Gibby and Henry, her waiters, busied themselves stocking the bar as she sat at the piano, tapped a key or two, and sang low and soft to herself a tune of Trixie Smith and Sydney Bechet:
I’ve got the freight train blues, but I’m too darn mean to cry
I’ve got the freight train blues, too darn mean to cry
I’m gonna love that man till the day he die’
There’s three trains ready but none ain’t goin’ my way.
Fifty-four minutes and the train was rumbling.
The doors opened. Show time.
She and Earl sat near the piano. She smiled at Earl as she slipped her hand from his. She nervously lit another cigarette, inhaled, then blew out a blue smoke ring. The place was busting at the seams, tables full, with customers waiting at the door. The air was already thick with pungent tobacco smoke. Noisy. She could barely hear herself think. Earl found and patted her hand.
The train was running fast and she had this nagging feeling that there was a sharp curve just ahead.
Henry slopped drinks from behind the bar while Gibby frantically worked the floor, seating guests and serving the drinks. She wanted to jump into the fray and lend a hand but she couldn’t leave Earl.
A taxi would deliver Brooks at eight, which was in little less than an hour. The worst thing she could imagine was Brooks walking in the door right now. This was Earl’s moment, and she knew he wasn’t about to share it, especially with Brooks. She looked at the clock and made a mental note to throw the damn thing out later.
Earl was blind. He sat beside her, nursing a Manhattan, running the music through his head, as he waited for his moment. He was of medium build, average height, with salt and pepper hair, more salt than pepper. He was considered by many of her female competitors to be a handsome man.
Tonight Earl was wearing the white tux and top hat she had given him. The red and purple spider web scars that crept out from behind his dark glasses added character. At thirty-six he had the beginnings of a drinker’s double chin. His dark blue bow tie was askew. She had given up trying to keep it straight. He was a piece of work, complex and as difficult as the day is long. She wouldn’t have him any other way.
Earl listened to the murmur of conversations, laughter, an occasional cough, the clink and clack of bottle glass. “Stella,” he asked, “the piano, it has been fixed? It has all its keys? It’s tuned?”
“You ask me again and I’ll scream,” she answered. He had been questioning ad nauseam.
Earl nodded, then finished his drink. When he first got out of the Veteran’s Hospital he had played for tips and chump change at a small piano bar. The owner had insisted that he only play mellow night music. He had protested that it was a goddamned piano bar. Nobody wants to sing along with ‘Sleepy Time Down South.”
That got him nowhere. He ramped it up. They came to a mutual agreement, and he was given his walking papers. Tonight was his night, and he was going to play and sing the blues as only a blind white man can who happens to be terrified of the dark. He stood and held his arm out for guidance. “I’m ready.”
Stella escorted him to the piano. She made sure the piano bench was positioned right where he needed it before he sat down. She started to reach for his tie to straighten it, but opted not to. Table candles reflected in his dark glasses as she whispered in his ear. “This is your moment in the sun, love.” She kissed him warmly on the cheek. “Would you please share just a little of it when Brooks gets here? For me.”
He leaned into her kiss, making no promises in return. He sat motionless as Stella introduced him. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, friends, for coming tonight to this... this place without a name.” Her laugh sounded nervous and put-on. “I’m looking for the right inspiration. Ideas, anyone?” The laughter returned was genuine. “Please welcome my inspiration, Mister Earl Crier.”
Earl flexed his fingers then struck a few experimental notes. He swept into a tune so gently the audience listened before they knew that it had even begun. His voice had a deep rich bluesy roadhouse quality etched with a touch of irony. He sang straight down the middle of the note, and understood the emotions in a way that made you feel as if he was letting you in on a story he had just made up.
Stella stepped back to the bar and took a gin and tonic from Henry. Her eyes searched the crowd as she tracked the facial expressions around the room. Earl was in top form, his music as lovely as a warm wind in the shade. The crowd quieted as they, too, fell in love with her guy. She tapped out her cigarette then raised her glass towards the audience, then clicked a finger nail several times on the glass as she turned towards Earl.
Earl heard the click and the crackle of ice in Stella’s glass; a crystal chime. “Here’s to our Stella by Starlight,” he spoke into the microphone. His voice a portrait of his soul, as his fingers danced across the keyboard, and he began to sing.
The front door opened, followed by a disquieting murmur from the crowd. Stella turned. There in the doorway stood Brooks. Her moment in the starlight blew away like an old playbill on a cold winter’s night. He had arrived early, and if anything he knew how to make an entrance.
Oh Brooks, not now, she thought. All eyes were riveted on him. He was reedy thin, and Abraham-Lincoln tall. He was dressed in a black tux, white bow tie, and a black top hat. The murmur of surprise that rippled across the room was drawn by Brook’s most remarkable feature, a white silk cloth that had been made into mask that slipped over his head, the open end just touching his shoulders, with a hole for his mouth and a sewn-on black sash that marked where his eyes should have been.
Stella had made it replace the hideous bandage that covered the face he had lost when a Nazi V-2 Rocket had made a direct hit on his favorite pub in London. The room grew still in a mixture of curiosity, and anticipation. She noticed the tremor in her hand as she lit another cigarette and glanced nervously at Earl.
Earl could taste the change in weather but couldn’t quite determine the storm’s direction. His voice softened, his fingers lighter on the keys, as he continued to sing:
That’s Stella by starlight,
And not a dream,
My heart and I agree,
She’s everything on this earth to me.
After a moment he stopped singing. As the storm blew close he continued to play bits and pieces at random. The music moved like a spiderweb stirred by a sudden breeze, it changed like a leaf twisting as it fell to the ground. And fell silent.
Brooks held his hand out with cab fare for the cabby who took a dollar ten, hesitated, then took a quarter more. He stood silent as he too tried to sense the weather. And his timing. His snow-bright cane came down with a thunderclap on the wooden floor. KNOCK! KNOCK!
A dark cloud crossed Earl’s mind, and he remained silent, with a scowl he could not hide.
“And you, Stella, mean everything to me,” Brooks said with a poet’s voice as he raised his cane high, a romantic figure behind a mysterious mask. “Where are you my dear?”
Stella stepped forward and stopped when there was a straight path between the tables for him to follow her voice. “Right here,” she said as she let out a dramatic sigh.
Brooks, using his cane, stepped forward. “Say again, please.” He followed her voice, his slow, deliberate steps seductive and hypnotic. He held his head high with surprising self-confidence.
A woman seated at the nearest table to his left took in a short breath as he drew near. He paused, turned and bowed. The woman could just make out a thin smile beneath the solitary hole in his mask. The silk edges fluttered lightly with his words. “I can assure you, madam, that the mystery of what beauty lies beneath your intoxicating perfume is as curious to me as what lies behind this mask to you.” He tapped his cane twice lightly.
“I’m over here,” he heard Stella say as he turned back towards her. There was a half-breath of silence around the room followed by a torrent of applause, pounding rain beating down. driving the stifling heat of the day away.
Earl played the first stanza of ‘Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread.’
Stella cast a punishing evil eye, she only wished he could see.
Earl leaned into the mike. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a poet in the house. Brooks Weingarden, the third. A poet, you see, is a musician who cannot sing. Brooks has a slightly reckless alto voice which always wanders off looking for notes in all the wrong places. How can you sing if you can’t remember the words? Words need to find a man’s heart and some men’s minds are hopelessly small targets. The Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz needed a brain and the Tin Man, a heart. Brooks here, would be grateful for either. Poets? Hah!” As easy as flipping a coin Earl changed his tone and sang to Stella with intoxicating charm.
Wise men say
Only fools rush in
But I can’t help
Falling in love with you...
Brooks held onto Stella’s arm as they wordlessly approached the piano. A hush fell across the room so profound that even Earl fell silent as some of his self-importance leaked out. Brooks let Stella’s arm slip away as his whole body drew up into a tight knot of anger. He shook with it as he drew back his arm, fist clinched, wanting to strike out.
Stella stepped back, unable to find any words to ease his anger. A single cough broke the quiet.
Earl’s right hand, as still as a willow’s branch on a windless day, jumped, then dropped, striking a solitary key. The F-sharp, a lightning bolt that took the breath from the room.
“Brooks...” Stella whispered. “Please. Don’t.”
Brooks shrugged, bringing his shoulder almost to his ears and back down. His silken mask fluttered as it settled back into place.
Earl slowly pulled his hands away from the keyboard and let them drop into his lap. “Stella...” he said in a weak attempt to regain control of the moment.
“And you, sir,” Brooks said as if addressing a student who had just been caught cheating on an exam, “are a clown in a frowning world.”
Stella squeezed Brook’s shoulder. “Enough, please.” She stepped behind Earl and put a hand on each of his shoulders giving a light massage as she whispered in his ear. “This is my place sweetheart, and like it or not I’ve got the final word on who stays and who plays.”
Earl opened and closed his mouth a few times, at a loss for words. He made a conciliatory gesture with one hand and smiled a tight smile. “That’s better. You are going to have to share the piano with Brooks. You are going to have to share the stage. I love you both, but in different ways. Brooks will never share my bed. So move over, lover and share what you can.”
Earl shared the piano stool with Brooks in an uneasy truce. “How are you at ‘Chopsticks’?” Earl asked, pandering to the audience.
“Careful,” Stella whispered from behind them with an indulgent tone that mothers use on children and bartenders use on drunks.
“Lousy,” responded Brooks. “When was the last time you saw a blind man eat Chinese?” There was a half-breath of silence followed by an explosion of laughter.
The storm clouds passed, to Stella’s relief. She stepped back to retrieve her drink.
Earl knew that he could outplay and sing circles around Brooks. He also knew that he would not sing down to Brook’s level. He was too good for that. Since losing his sight music had become his life. Now he was caught between a rock and a hard place.
He ran his options through his mind. Stella has given me a short list: Either find a way to work with Brooks, treat him as your equal, or ship out. It’ll be a cold day in hell when that no-talent, egotistical bum is my equal. Why I’d rather... lose Stella? No...
He flexed and toughed his fingers together, then played a few mystical notes on his chin. Give up music. Neither is an option. Wait a minute, there is something that Brooks can do better than anyone I’ve ever heard. How far can he take it? What the hell, let’s find out.
“Brooks, back at the Veterans’ Hospital I heard you whistling something in the shower.” He began to play Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’. “You want to whistle us up a tune?” His fingers dusted magic on the keys. “I’ll just tag along.”
Brooks began to play, his long sensuous fingers gliding across the key board. He wasn’t as good as Earl, and he felt the pressure of trying to keep up. “There, I think you’ve got it,” he said as he gave Earl the piano, rose, and fumbled for the mike.
He stood, dark, mysterious, and elegant. The music within him, blowing out of his white silk mask, topped with his black top hat, was deep and wide as a clear glacier-fed stream. Earl played alongside. Neither performing down to the other. Their music sounding like the best of old friends.
After ‘Indigo’ they moved into ‘Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy’ to wake the place up. This time Earl had trouble keeping up with Brook’s whistling genius. Brooks brought the crowd to a standing ovation with Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt’ theme. That one was solo. Earl didn’t do classical. Brooks did.
Henry came out from behind the bar with his clarinet and joined them in ‘Willow Weep for Me’. Earl sang. Henry soon put the clarinet down. He was out-whistled.
Earl leaned in towards the mike Brooks held. “Stella, this is for you.” Henry played a long haunting note as the trio played to their lady: ‘Stella By Starlight’. The last stanza Brooks whistled solo.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Brooks Weingarden, our resident poet,” Earl said. “Poets can’t sing, but man oh man he sure can whistle.”
Stella cried happy tears and her laughter was the best music of the evening.
Copyright © 2012 by Sherman Smith