Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
|Table of Contents|
Earl Crier wakes screaming from nightmares in which his ship sinks in the Arctic in World War II. He has survived but is now blind. He takes refuge in music and in the kindness of Stella. Meanwhile, other veterans return, and their most serious wounds are not always visible.
Chapter 8: On The Same Night Train“You’re looking chipper,” Stella said to Henry. They were taking a break in the hallway near an open window. Their patients were sleeping quietly in the ward just beyond the double doors. She smoked. He didn’t. No nightmares yet, but they would come. If there was one thing you could count on it was that the dark memories of war always surfaced.
“I got a good night’s sleep.” Henry’s sigh implied the recollection of a golden moment. “I haven’t slept that well since I had a week’s R&R in Italy. The food and wine were fantastic. The women were not interested in us Nisei, and I slept like a baby for a week.”
“You found a room?” Stella asked.
“Walking distance from here,” he answered. “Adam’s Place, a little bar around the corner from the trolly stop. I got an upstairs room with a private bath. On a sunny day, if I leaned out the window I might almost see the ocean. Gibby, the guy who owns the place, thinks I might have patched up his son Adam back in France.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t have known Adam from a thousand other guys I worked on. Who knows? I got the room for a song.”
After a moment of silence Henry added: “Adam didn’t make it. According to his pop. The poor guy bought it two days before the Germans surrendered. A Jeep accident. What a lousy time to have your number come up.”
Stella blew out a blueish tobacco cloud. “I know the place. Gibby is the salt of the earth. How did you manage to connect with him?”
“That’s a long story, I don’t think you want to hear it.”
“You might be surprised.” Stella continued, “How Gibby managed to keep the place open during the war years I don’t know. The heart went out of him when he got the letter about Adam. Fran, his wife, died two weeks from the day they received notice of Adam’s death. Sadly, there were more than a few casualties during the war that were not on the battlefield.” She glanced thoughtfully back towards the ward. Tell me about it...
The first notes of “Rose Marie” echoed through the empty hallway. A rich whistle, almost tone perfect. “Brooks?” she asked.
“It isn’t Fred Astaire,” Henry laughed. “Brooks and Earl are two of the most unlikely roommates that ever existed. They’re like school kid rivals negotiating for turf. They’ve got two things in common: their music, and the fact that they are two blind men who can’t stand the sight of each other.
‘Earl has been driving Brooks nuts with his night-time serenades. He wakes Brooks up four or five times a night. You know Earl: when the man has to sing, he sings. Brooks huffs and puffs and blows up like a holier-than-thou peacock which only exasperates the situation. As soon as Earl nods off Brooks whistles. I figure they’ll eventually wear themselves down to a truce.”
“Perhaps a duet.” Stella smiled, the way a woman with a good heart and a little understanding can.
“The man certainly can whistle.” Henry said. “Earl is right. Brooks can sing — off key — and he can play the piano, but Earl can play circles around him with one hand tied behind his back.”
“And childish tempers.” Stella tapped out her cigarette, looked at her watch, then lit another. “Neither of them should be here,” she said as if she was the sole holder of a vast secret. ‘Technically Earl doesn’t qualify for veteran’s benefits. He was a ship’s cook in the merchant marine. For some reason the Navy has given him a free pass. His file is sealed, classified ‘Confidential’. He hasn’t served one day in the Navy. I asked him.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Medically there is nothing wrong with him. Being blind does not give you a long-term pass for a room and three square meals here. The doctors don’t even have him on their rounds.
“Brooks,” she continued, “does not have to be here either. I’ve done a little asking around. Brooks can afford a lot better care then he can ever get here. He comes from a well-heeled family in Connecticut. Old money. He didn’t want to follow Dad into the family law firm so he dropped out of Yale Law School and hit the road with a string of second-rate bands.
“A couple of years before the war he fell head over heels with a Hollywood platinum blonde. She helped him get into the movies. He got a few walk-on parts but never a speaking role. Hard to tell now, there was a time when he was a real Hollywood swell, a handsome man with a classy celluloid smile. He almost made it.”
“What happened? The war? Henry asked.
“Gin and tonic,” she answered ruefully. “Gin has made more than one prince a pauper. Brooks liked women, cheap sex, booze, being the center of attention, and throwing money around. One thing Brooks knew how to do was throw a party. Lots of people, plenty of booze, and you would have thought he’d be Hollywood’s next heart-throb. Unfortunately, Brooks became yesterday’s has-been before he had a chance to show any real talent he might have had.”
“Sounds to me like the guy has some dough, and plenty of connections. What the hell is he doing here?” Henry asked “This place is for lost causes.”
“His file is rather interesting. After Pearl Harbor most of his pals signed up with the Army Air Corps. Pilot wings were quite the ticket; since the Navy had been sunk at Pearl Harbor, the air boys and submariners were our last defense.
“After throwing a few farewell parties, he didn’t want to look the coward, so he went down to the recruiting office with a poster girl on each arm. He wanted to be a pilot, but he wasn’t officer material. His pride wouldn’t allow him to be an enlisted man so he joined the Army Air Special Services. He faked his resume, including graduation from Yale, graduating sixth in his class. Try two semesters.
“The two-bit bands he played with suddenly became the Red Nickels Band, Bob Crosby, Red Norvo and a host of others. Brooks got his commission and the rest is history. He’ll tell you how he worked with all the greats at USO shows all across Europe. All lies. Brooks was responsible for their luggage. He was nothing more than a glorified bell hop with officer’s bars.
“He kept buying the drinks, blew what money he had, burning friends and bridges along the way.” Stella took another drag on her cigarette. “When the V-2 rocket blew away his pretty-boy looks, he climbed into a bottle and would have drunk himself to any early grave if we’d allowed him to. He’s not here because of his injuries, there’s nothing more that can be done. He’s tagged as a suicide waiting to happen. Brooks doesn’t want help or hope, just the next drink.”
“Elroy’s new best friend.” Henry opened the window wider to air out the smoke. “Brooks is not exactly an ideal roommate for Earl, on the other hand if Earl keeps pushing Brook’s buttons, who knows?”
“How are you and Ivory Burch getting along?” She chain-lit a cigarette, then tapped the butt out in an ashtray.
Henry took note that Stella only smoked half a cigarette at a time; unfiltered. “Ivory is a piece of work. Hate pours from the guy like sweat on a Louisiana day. I think it’s his anger that keeps him alive. He’s got enough medical issues to kill off half of the other guys in the ward. I have to keep looking over my shoulder to make sure a knife isn’t coming my way. Any chance you could transfer him to another ward?”
Earl shuffled by in his blue hospital nightgown. She and Henry stifled their laughter as they watched Earl pass, his backside mostly bare. “Evening, Earl. You couldn’t sleep?” Stella asked.
“Sleep,” Earl answered, “personally I think it’s a waste of time.” He miscounted his steps to the day room. He took two steps backwards, turned to his right, and tapped with his cane until he found the doorway. “I never cared much for meadow larks. Damn things never shut up. If the damned window would open, I’d open it and let Brooks fly away home.” He found the piano, the piano stool, sat, touched the piano keys lightly, still too drowsy to pick a tune.
“Henry,” Stella said, “Ivory Burch is on the wait-and-see list. The doctors are waiting to see if he’s got enough fight left in him to want to go on living. His immune system is shot to hell. His spirit is on the edge of a bottomless pit. He’s lost a leg and the infection is spreading into his hip. If he doesn’t snap out of it soon, he will die.
“Smart money says that he won’t make it more than a couple of weeks. The long shot is that your presence will help bring on enough anger and hatred to energize his spirit with the will to live, even if that energy is focused on nothing more than rage and revenge.”
“That’s all I need. Why don’t they just paint a bulls-eye on my back and give the guy a bow and arrow,” Henry said, feeling much the sacrificial lamb.
“Move him in with us,” Earl said, overhearing their conversation.
“What?” Stella exclaimed. Not sure they heard correctly, she and Henry moved towards the day room door.
“I’m serious.” Earl played an intense boogie-woogie, lost the keys, then slowed to a breezy jazz number. “It just might be the ticket.” His fingers hovered above the keys in still motion.
“The bastard you appointed as my chief executioner and roommate is doing his best to make my every waking moment hell. Bastard! And that is the nicest thing I can say about him.” His expression showed true annoyance. “The way I see it, Brooks and me have one thing in common: the dark.”
He gave a short bitter laugh, shaking his head in exasperation. “I know I’ve seen my last sunrise or sunset. It ain’t easy. I’m trying to learn how to live with that.” His fingers hit four keys he hadn’t intended, then hovered in stillness again. “Look at me. I’m trapped in my own worst nightmare. It’s not exactly rosy being a blind man who is scared to death of the dark. Why do you think I sing all night? I’ve been scared of the goddamned dark since I was a kid.”
Earl’s fingers hit the keys with a flourish of anger mixed with some profound blues that he played for half a minute before his hands stilled again. “Brooks and I are on the same night train, only I want to learn how to drive the damn thing. Brooks would prefer to lie down on the tracks. If there is a God, which I sincerely doubt, and he’s the conductor, than this is a train wreck waiting to happen. Am I right, or am I wrong?”
Neither Stella nor Henry answered.
“That’s what I thought.” He turned his face close to where he thought they might be. “From what Brooks has told me, I’m pretty goddamned certain that he would not like what he would see if he could see himself in a mirror. The guy was a rich Hollywood Dapper Dan with limited talent and an unrelenting thirst for booze. Which reminds me, is there any way you can put Elroy on a short leash? The rotgut he’s selling Brooks will kill him.”
Earl played the first verse of “Send in the Clowns.” “Brooks lives behind a mask of lies so thick that he doesn’t know what the truth is anymore. He is not in there whistling like a goddamned meadow lark because I sing, that’s horsecrap. He’s whistling because he’s scared to go on living. If someone doesn’t give him something to hang on to soon, the guy will find a way to jump off a cliff.
“The way I see it, Brooks and I need a lifeline. It sounds like this fellow Ivory what’s-his-name has more problems than both of us together. Maybe by giving the guy a hand we can drag our pitiful asses out of this black lagoon we’re mired in.”
Stella looked at Henry. “It just might work.”
“I’ve seen crazier things,” Henry answered. “What about the doctors? Think they’ll go for it?”
“I’ll make the transfer first thing in the morning before rounds. The Doctor will be too busy to argue the point after the fact,” Stella said, her smile as broad as the possibilities.
Damn, what have I gone and done now? Earl thought as he brushed the keys and sang:
Call me irresponsible, call me unreliable,
Throw in undependable too....
“Earl, When we move Ivory in, you and Brooks are going to have to can the night music,” he heard Stella say.
“On the contrary. If anything, we’ll need to ratchet it up a notch. I’ve got a feeling Ivory can make his own night noises.” Earl changed tunes and began to play the same tune as Brooks was whistling down the hall.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith