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Two Blind Men and a Fool

by Sherman Smith

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Chapter 7: An Air Of Pomposity

Henry heard someone run fingers across the keyboard of the piano in the day room. It was Earl and his voice was one of the few beautiful sounds in an ugly place. Perhaps it was time to meet the man.

Hummingbird, mockingbird, listen to me.
I got no nest, I got no tree...

He was drawn towards the voice like a moth to a flame.

Oh, but I’m happy as heaven is wide;
I’ve got a song bubbling inside...

Inside the day room he found a blind man who played the piano better than anyone he had ever heard. He was no Sinatra, his voice was too deep, but the man could sing, no doubt about it. A regular pied piper. He stopped at the door and listened.

Can’t help crowing.
Folks don’t like it,
I know, but I’m glowing.

Earl cocked his head and continued to play. Interrupting the lyrics, he spoke. “If you are one of the walking wounded, come on in. I don’t own the place. Just passing through, same as you.” He listened to the footsteps. He could usually tell when it was one of the patients; they had their own sound and smell. These steps were too steady for a patient. Not a nurse; their shoes had hard rubber heels.

I can’t help what they say;
Spring affects me this way,
And I gotta keep singing this way.

“One more time... Ahhh, you must be the new orderly. I didn’t catch your name. Earl Crier is mine.”

“Henry.” He held out his hand. “Henry Akita.”

Earl continued to play. Henry brought his hand slowly back. “Man, I could listen to you all day and all night. Where did a white man like you get that much soul? I thought Bing Crosby had a lock on it.”

Earl beamed at the compliment and it instantly sounded in his playing. “I’ve always sung, played the piano a bit, everything seemed to come together after I lost my sight. Something about heightening of the senses.”

My heart is sad and lonely.
For you I sigh, for you, dear, only
Why haven’t you seen it?
I’m all for you, body and soul

Earl stepped up the tempo, adding a little spontaneous interpretation. Henry could see that he was pure music from the way he held his head, the flex of his shoulders, the way his fingers danced across the ivories.

I spend my days in longin’
And wond’ring why it’s me you’re wrongin’.
I tell you, I mean it.
I’m all for you, body and soul

“Your vision, is it a total loss?” Henry asked.

Earl nodded.

“How did it happen, may I ask?”

“Damn!” Earl swore after hitting a clinker. “That happens when I don’t pay attention. It’s kind of like walking and chewing gum at the same time. ” He didn’t hit many but when he did he always felt a little embarrassed.

He ran his fingers across the length of the keyboard until he found the key that betrayed him, then replayed the same notes two and three times over until he had it right.

“No problem. A fellow gets asked a heap of questions in a place like this; mostly by the doctors — same questions, same answers. The sight I have left is in my dreams. Beyond that all I can give you is my name, rank and serial number. Earl Crier, Merchant Marine, Ship’s Cook, no serial number, just my date of birth, if you have a need to know.”

He leaned forward and put a finger to his lips. “The rest is classified.” He was in a good mood, not often that he had someone new to show off to. “Hurrah!” He sat back, stretched his fingers, and began to play. “Here’s a little number I learned while waylaid in Iceland.”

I gave her a ring.
Oh, she gave me the finger.
I gave her my word.
She gave me the bird...

Henry laughed. Music! He had almost forgotten how much he had missed it. He watched Earl’s fingers as they danced across the keys, a taste of cool water in a drought-stricken land. He had heard from Stella that Earl pounded the ivories most nights and wondered if he might bring in his clarinet. He hadn’t played in a month of Sundays, and knew instinctively that he would never be able to keep up with the one and only Earl Crier.

He already had a sense of the man’s genius. Before the war, he had played with a small bebop band made up of Nisei farm boys like himself. It had strictly been a kitchen band — he simmered pleasantly in the memory of that and baseball. Ahhh, to be young again. He thought for a moment about the years between, the dark memories, friends lost, and five years weighed back on him.

“Well, time to make the rounds,” Henry said, already looking forward to the next time he could catch Earl at play.

Earl played until his fingers grew tired and stiff. Enough for now, he thought as he rubbed and stretched his fingers. He suspected that the frigid temperatures in the Murmansk Sea were the cause of the arthritis that was just beginning to slow him down.

He massaged his fingers as he counted the steps back to his room. For the last few weeks it had been his private suite. Stella had moved him there because of his singing at all hours of the night. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t tell the difference between night and day. The singing was something he had to do. When he had been a boy he had fallen into an abandoned well and has been scared stiff of the dark every since. He had sung in that hole to keep from screaming. He sang now for the same reason.

The room had four beds and a private privy; officer’s quarters. Seventy-six steps, give a step or two, from the piano to his room. He reached for the door handle. It was open. If it was housekeeping, there would be a cart out front. Theft was common. “Blind man coming in,” he said. “I’ve only got these here cheap dark glasses if you’re intent on stealing something of value?”

“Oh, there you are Earl,” Stella said, the smile evident in her voice. Earl’s voice always brought a slight flush to her cheeks.

“Stella by starlight, tell me you’re not a dream?” Earl sang. “If I have but one regret it is that I cannot see the woman behind that voice. I’m told beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in which case step over here where I can hold you close.” He sensed that someone else was in the room. “A little late for rounds?”

“I should have gotten off duty forty minutes ago,” she said. “Oak Knoll shipped in six new patients for extended care. Meet your new roommate, Captain Brooks Weingarden.”

“Roommate? The hell you say. I’m doing just fine without having to worry about tripping over someone else’s dirty laundry. Find him a room elsewhere.” Earl swiped his cane across the surface of his bed to make sure no one was on it.

Stella hadn’t expected his sudden flash of anger.

“Brooks, what kind of cock-eyed name is that?”

“Captain Brooks Breedloff Weingarden, the Third.” His new room-mate said with an air of pomposity. “And unless you are of senior or of higher rank, you had better put a ‘sir’ on that.”

“Jesus, just what I need: an officer with a holier-than-thou attitude with a stick up his ass. I’ve got news for you, pal. Here, I outrank you. I’m a civilian. Get him the hell out of here Stella.”

“The Captain stays.” She used an indulgent tone that mothers use on children and bartenders on drunks.

“The hell you say,” Earl grumbled. He didn’t like her tone. It was the first time she had spoken to him that way. That he was now in the doghouse with Stella was another reason to dislike the frigging officer that had just been forced upon him.

Stella left, her last words grating on him. He stood with his back towards where the Captain’s voice come from. Both men remained silent for a long moment. Earl passed wind, the cabbage soup he had for dinner, true to course, then stepped forward just enough to avoid the unpleasantry. He smiled as he released one last parting message.

“You are one big pain in the ass, and don’t mince words about it, do you?” Brooks said. “That makes two of us. It’s a shame the nurse had to leave.” Brooks said reluctantly. “We must be quite a sight. Two blind men in a stare-down.”

Earl turned towards the sound of the Captain’s voice. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

“The nurse told me. She said we have two things in common, being blind, and music. It sounds to me that there are three — the third being the nurse. She sounds like quite a dish. Stella?”

“Why you son-of-a-bitch,” Earl flared as he raised his cane, turned, and brought it down on the nearest target; his water glass. “If I ever... “

“Cool it, Mac, I can assure you, the dame won’t give me anything more than a nurse’s professional attention,” Captain Brooks Weingarten said. He touched the bandages that wrapped his entire head. The only openings were for his nostrils and mouth. “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall... I’m told I’m lucky to be alive. I’ve got a different opinion. I was hoisting a few pints in an RAF pub in London when a Nazi V-2 rocket took out half the block and most of my face.”

“Ouch,” Earl said. He almost felt sorry for the guy. Almost.

“You’re not just whistling Dixie.” The Captain felt his way across the room. When he found Earl he tapped his cane twice and held out his hand. “The name is Brooks. Here’s my hand. If you ever call me ‘sir’ or ‘captain’ I’ll take your cane and shove it where you don’t want it to be.

“You think you’re a pain in the ass, hah: you haven’t seen anything. For the moment, we’re stuck with each other. I don’t like you and you don’t like me. Now that we understand each other, shut the hell up, and leave me alone.”

“Glad to oblige. Brooks?”

“I’ve changed my mind. That’s ‘captain’ to you.”

“Not a chance,” Earl said with a grim chuckle. “If it will help, I could just lick your boots and call you your majesty.”

“Let me think on that,” Brooks said.

There has to be a little give and take here, thought Earl. I ain’t leaving and he’s staying, or so Stella says. “Earl. If I don’t answer to that, call me a foul-mouthed old fool. I’ll know who you are talking about. You were a flyboy?” Earl asked, extending a wilted olive branch.

“Hummph.” Brooks reacted to the change in tone. I’ll be damned, the dumb bastard gave that round to me. And he didn’t have to — at least not yet. “No,” he answered. “USO. I was a song and dance man, played a little piano.”

Earl perked up. “You still play?”

“A few tunes I used to be able to play with my eyes shut. Anything else and my fingers trip over themselves.” Brooks fumbled in his pocket. “Here, have a pull. It’s not the best hootch around but it will do.”

“Where did you get that?” Earl asked.

“An orderly who suggested that I could get anything I want for a price.”

“His name wouldn’t be Elroy by any chance?”

“One, and the same.” Brooks said as he took more than a sip, then held it out for Earl tapping his thumbnail on the bottle.

“There are lots of ways to die in this place and that’s one of them. Want some advice? Hell, I’ll give it to you anyway, free of charge. Watch out for Elroy. He’s a viper with a dangerous bite.”

Brooks took another swig and then raised the bottle. “Elroy. My man... HOORAH!”

Proceed to Chapter 8...


Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith

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