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 11: One Bourbon, One Scotch
Ivory muttered bitter expletives, plotting murder with the ghost of Sergeant Ware, fueling his rage. When he saw Stella talking with Henry in the hallway he threw the towel back towards his door and rolled on by. He didn’t want a shower, bathing took too much effort. If he smelled a little ripe that was OK, he didn’t want to get close to people anyway.
Instead he rolled his way to the day room, which normally was off-limits until after supper. For the moment all he wanted was to be as far away from King Earl The Bastard and Brooks the Pompous Ass as possible.
Stella saw him, smiled, otherwise ignored him. It was her meddling that had put him in the room with the two warbling troubadours and he didn’t need one more meddling nose in his business, especially a female.
He slammed the door to the day room open and rolled himself to the back of the room, opened the bottle and took a long pull of the whiskey. His empty stomach growled as he tried to put aside everything King Earl had laid on him. He was beginning to eel a little light-headed, but he continued to sip on the whiskey. It was the first booze he had tasted since being captured by the Japanese. He sat alone with his back to the door and sipped on the whiskey, fighting off the images he knew would come.
The stark black and institutional gray furniture blurred as he saw, smelled, and tasted the jungle, and in a moment he was back there. Just outside the camp, the dead Jap soldier who had come so close to killing him lay crumpled on the trail, his skull split open like an overripe melon where Sarge had taken him out with a rock.
The sarge lay nearby, just as dead, his cold dead eyes staring at him accusingly. “Sarge, here, I brought you something to ease the pain.” He held out the bottle with a trembling hand. “You should have let me go and saved your own miserable hide, Sarge... I...” He words fell silent as his ghost refused to answer.
* * *
Stella knocked on the door. “Earl... Brooks, are you gentlemen ready?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She had seen it all before. Earl was mostly dressed. Brooks needed help. She took the bottle from him.
“Hey, I’m not done with that,” he groused as he reached blindly for the bottle.
“You can have that back after you’re dressed and on stage.”
“On stage,” Earl enthused with a broad smile. “Now you’re cooking.”
“I wasn’t sure until this moment, but you gentlemen are about to become the best medicine there is around this place. Ivory,” she said as she began to dress Brooks, “is teetering on the edge of a cliff, and all the words in the world aren’t going to help him if he wants to jump.
“Earl,” she said, her voice warm as a new summer’s day, “in the short time you’ve been here you’ve taught me that music can reach a person’s heart before they have a chance to think about it. If that’s true, then we have a chance to find Ivory’s soul, to touch his heart, to laugh or cry, to feel some emotion. He’s drowning in guilt because he came back alive when others didn’t. He needs to cry a tear from passion instead of pain. Do you think you can help me help him do that?”
Earl blew out a long drawn-out whistle as he thought about it, then tipped an imaginary hat. “At your service, doll.” He lowered his voice to a friendly whisper, knowing that Brooks could hear everything he said. “Say, what about Brooks? When he sings, grown men cry from the pain.”
“I heard that.” Brooks complained as Stella fitted his bow-tie.
“I guess he can tag along.” It was hard for Earl to say no to anything Stella asked. “Brooks, you’re OK on the piano. Just OK. But you’ve got a mean whistle. So pucker up whatever you have left behind that mask of yours and lets see if we can make Stella’s day.”
As they left the room Earl put his hand out for Stella. She took it. He gave it an affectionate squeeze. “On the other hand, let’s make it Ivory’s day.”
Henry met Stella as she helped guide Earl and Brooks towards the day room. He kept the blind troubadours quiet while Stella, on cat paws, entered and placed a Gibson guitar she had hidden earlier quietly in the chair behind where Ivory sat.
The disturbance had been just enough to get Ivory to stop staring into Sarge’s dead eyes. He took a sip of liquor, but otherwise gave no indication of recognition, when it sounded as if someone had sat in the chair behind him. He eyed the radio on a nearby table and inwardly shuttered at the thought that someone might turn it on. If some asshole wants to listen to a goddamned baseball game, he’s got another think coming.
He hated baseball. The Japs had an obsession with the game and had forced the prisoners to play against them. He remembered barely being able to hold up the bat, striking out earned one a beating, and hitting a home run often proved to be fatal.
Stella motioned for Henry to help Earl and Brooks to the piano. She sucked in her breath trying not to laugh as they entered. Earl wore a skewed dark blue beret, heavy-rimmed dark glasses, an Irish wool sweater with rainbow suspenders that brought out the gold in his smile.
Brooks, his entire head freshly wrapped in white gauze, except for the openings for his nose and mouth, wore a white tux, a clip on bow tie worn at a curious angle, white button-down spats, with a frayed white top hat, the pawn shop’s price tag still pinned to the brim. She should have taken it off, but what the hell: Brooks can’t see it, and it’s good for a laugh. He really needs to lighten up.
Henry waited a moment to make sure the guys were ready, then stepped back from to the piano, bringing his clarinet up. Time to wake the place up. “One... two... and...” he counted off, his first note clear, rich and haunting.
Ivory sat up and turned as Stella started to sing:
Darn that dream I dream each night
You say you love me and hold me tight.
But when I’m awake you’re out of sight.
Oh, darn that dream.
Henry’s clarinet, Stella’s voice, and Earl’s piano echoed through the mostly empty room. Earl held his head up high, slightly cocked to the right side, for better hearing. Brooks stood motionless, listening, tapping the rhythm with his left foot, wanting to be part, not sure when. Henry’s eyes were closed as he faded out with one long sensuous note. Stella sang to the man, the one who she really needed to reach.
“Ivory, damn your dream, come to me...”
The sarge’s eyes showed a little light, his face still a mask of death. “OK, Sarge, if I answer the lady. You and me... We...” It was the first time he had heard the sergeant’s voice since the day back at the camp when the sarge’s last words were cut off as his body was ripped apart with bullets. It almost seemed as if he could hear the sarge urge him on. “Move it, kid.”
The music emptied the wards as the patients jammed the doorway. Those who were ambulatory aided those who were not. This was the first sweet sound of live music most of them had heard in a long time.
“Where the hell do you think you are going?” Elroy spat the words into a patient’s ears as he forcefully spun him around. “Get the hell back in bed before I break your scraggy neck.”
The frightened man pointed towards the sound of the music, then pushed away. Elroy tried to stop another, but the music was more powerful than his threat. “Damn it, everyone back to the dorms. If the doctors had wanted you to have music they would have written a prescription.” No one listened. “Don’t blame me if you all lose privileges. Damn fools!”
Waves of music filled the hallway and there was nothing Elroy could do about it. His face beet-red, he turned angrily and stormed towards the elevator, toppling a man on crutches in the process. “The hospital administrator will put a stop to this crap.” He pounded the elevator button.
The crack of Ivory’s whiskey bottle went unheard as he let it slip from his hand. The pungent odor rose around him as he turned to face the music. This sure ain’t no baseball game, he thought as he turned.
Stella sang straight from her heart as she motioned, palm up towards the guitar, while her lips read, “Join me.” A simple phone call to his doctor at Oak Knoll had told her that before the war Ivory played the guitar. She had hoped that here she might be able to touch his heart. Ivory didn’t move, so she went to him, picked up that beautiful wooden instrument and held it out. “Ivory, this is for you. Will you play something for me? Please.”
With tears in his eyes he slowly reached out as Stella sang, accompanied this time by Brooks’ rich whistle.
Darn that one-track mind of mine I can’t understand that you don’t care Just to change the mood I’m in I’d welcome a nice old nightmare...
Ivory’s hands shook as he slowly reached out for the guitar. Tears flowed freely as his finger touched, then pulled back, fearing that it might be as fragile as a glass blown quail’s egg.
Stella pushed it forward an inch until it touched his quivering fingers. “Please.”
He took it, cradled it in his arms, then lovingly turned it until he could touch the strings.
Brooks continued to whistle as every eye in the room turned towards Ivory.
Henry held his clarinet up waiting...
King Earl the Bastard turned the ivories into magic.
The sweet shrill of Henry’s clarinet touched a part of Ivory’s soul he thought long dead. He softly plucked the first notes, his vision blurred, his eyes stinging with salty tears, as he looked at Henry’s hated Asiatic face. How could he hate someone who made such beautiful music? Hate was something the war had given him, hard-earned and bittersweet.
He gave Henry a long, measured look and found himself unable to trade his hate for compassion. The ghost of Sergeant Ware now stood amongst the crowd, a reminder of the barbarity, the putrid hell he had somehow survived. “You got one job, Marine, to hate and to go on hating Japs until there are no more of the parasites left to kill.” Foul ooze dripped from the specter as it leered at him in final warning. “You got that, Marine?”
Right now, he could taste the man’s music and hate with bitter rage where it came from. Nothing personal pal. You were born Japanese on American soil, and I have taken a solemn oath to despise the color of your skin, your very existence.
The last note spun from Henry’s clarinet as Stella encouraged him to play. Ivory plucked a few strings, as dozens of slippered feet filled the room. “Earl... Brooks, hit it, boys.” There was applause and laughter as Earl sang, allowing Brooks to back him on the keyboard.
One bourbon, one scotch, and one beer.
One bourbon, one scotch, one beer.
Hey, mister bartender come here,
I want another drink and I want it now.
Ivory struggled to find the right chords, finding himself unable to either sing or play as the dark clouds of long-buried emotions finally peeled away. For the first time he openly wept as the faces of the dead, brothers at arms, faces that screamed in his nightmares began to let him go.
The sarge held on, loyal and true.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith