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 18: Oh, How He Sang
Later the next day. Earl sat silent and listened to the rhythmic tick of the wall clock and the radio’s endless chatter. Ferris “Burrhead” Fein, with the San Francisco Seals, slammed one out of the park with two men on base. Earl smiled faintly. He crunched a peanut shell between his fingers and popped the nut into his mouth. He remembered a game with the Kansas City Blues back in 1938. That was the glory year, when the Blues won the Little World Series.
Ahhh, those were the days. The sky never bluer, the ladies radiant and young. The beer never tasted any better, the peanuts straight out of the roaster. I’ll never see a day like that again. His smile faded.
A key rattled in the lock to the front door. “Sam, we’ve got company,” he said.
“I got it,” Sam cautioned. “Unless you gave the perps keys to the front door, that should be your two pals back from the hospital.” He unsnapped his sidearm just in case, stood, and stepped back into a shadow.
Officer Sam Newman had been assigned to keep an eye on Earl while Henry and Gibby were in the hospital. Sam had been one of the first cops on the scene, arriving in time to hear the two point-blank shots that had killed Louis Stark, a known and violent criminal. He had been the thug with the bat.
Earl had killed both of his assailants — the other, a John Doe — in self-defense, which was no small undertaking. The other two thugs had fled the scene. While not known to be armed, both had extensive records, including assault and battery. The press had made quite a hero out of Earl Crier, and the Chief of Police wouldn’t take it too kindly if anything happened to him.
Gibby pushed open the door. “Damnations, it’s hard to get good help these days,” he growled as he took in the room. “Earl, I thought you would have the place cleaned up by now.”
“The cops wouldn’t let me touch a thing.” Earl shrugged without turning towards the sound of Gibby’s voice. “While you two have been shmoozing with the nurses, I’ve had my hands full with all the friggin’ reporters,” he added glibly.
Sam relaxed and stepped out into the light.
“You expecting more trouble?” Gibby asked.
Sam was about Gibby’s height and build and close to retirement. Take him out of uniform and he might pass for Gibby’s twin brother. “Just playing it smart. It wouldn’t look too good if something happened to Earl here.”
Gibby shook his head as he eyed the crime scene with its chalk markings around two large red stains that marred the floor. Furniture that had been overturned remained exactly as it had been when he and Henry and been taken to the hospital. He righted a table and a couple of chairs and swore as he calculated the damage to the bar.
It had taken two shots for Earl to down the last assailant but not before the bat had sailed just over his head into a shelf of liquor bottles, which had crashed down onto a second line of bottles shattering most. “Keerist! This is gonna cost a fortune.”
“I’ve got thirty bucks you can have, if it will help,” Earl said.
Gibby, stopped, looked at Earl, then muttered under his breath, “What are you, some kind of gunslinging saint?”
“You might be right,” Henry said as he limped through the door. “Ouch, they did a number on the place didn’t they?” His arm in a sling, Henry tried to right a table with his left hand. “I guess things could have been worse.”
Gibby looked behind the bar at the lake of booze and shattered glass. “That’s a waste of fine liquor and a hell of a lot of dough,” he said as he tried to add up the cost. “The mirror has a crack, otherwise it’s whole.”
At least that’s something, Gibby thought. I can’t raise the prices. If I can’t find a way to bring in new customers, I might just have to close the place down. He righted a chair, then sat down, feeling a little lightheaded. His right arm seemed a little numb, but he put that off to the beating he had taken the day before.
“Henry,” Earl sounded off, “by God, it’s good to see you back.” He raised a hand, questioning his own words. “Well, you know what I mean. Are you all right, nothing busted?”
“Earl, would it have been too much to ask, ‘Gibby, are you all right, anything busted?’ Jesus, Paul, and Mary, that’s the thanks I get,” Gibby fumed.
“Sorry,” Earl said, “didn’t mean no offense. Gibby, are you—”
“Don’t ask,” grumbled Gibby. “Don’t ask.” He wiped his brow. The numbness in his arm still hadn’t gone away.
Henry got Sam to help him move a couple of tables from the right side of the bar, then stepped to the door, and waved with his good hand. “In here, guys.” A moment later, two workmen carefully jostled a Steinway Parlor Grand Piano through the door and rolled it over to the spot Henry had picked out.
Gibby felt pressure in his chest as he watched the piano being wheeled in. Jesus Christ, how much is that thing going to cost me? He started to speak but couldn’t quite catch his breath.
Earl turned in his seat, puzzled at the sounds.
“Gibby,” Henry said, “I know what you’re thinking. The piano is not going to cost you a dime. While in the hospital I had a visit from an old friend, Professor Munemori. Before the war he taught at the Nisei school in the Kinmon Gekuen building on Clay Street. Since 1942 the building has been used as the Booker T. Washington Community Center. Now it’s a men’s hostel for Nisei who’ve been left homeless by their internment.” The sadness and anger were both detectable in Henry’s voice. “They were going to sell it. I got a good deal.”
Henry looked long and hard at the old man whose pallor was beginning to give him some concern. “I know we haven’t talked about this. You’re the boss, but hear me out. I told you I made a good deal. The piano is on loan for as long as we need it. The price? Nothing. In exchange you open the bar one night a month exclusively for Nisei customers, no discount, no credit, they’ll pay cash. My Japanese-American brothers are fond of jazz and, man oh man, once they hear Earl play, they will fill the place up.”
Close the place up for a night to entertain a bunch of Japs. Gibby thought about what some of his regular customers would say and shook his head. There ain’t no way. Then he thought about his son, studied Henry, who had become like a son to him, sighed without knowing it, and rose to his feet. As far as he was concerned, Jap money was as good as the next guy’s.
Henry guided Earl to the piano where he adjusted the stool, felt the keys, got a measure of the ivories, then began to play “In A Sentimental Mood.” The piano needed tuning; nevertheless it sounded sweet.
After righting a table, a few chairs, and wiping them down, Gibby sat down again and listened to Earl play. He was everything Henry had said he was and then some. “Earl,” he finally said, breaking his pondering silence, “you’ve got yourself a job.” His old-man scowl shifted to a grin as he looked Henry straight in the eye. “And you can thank your Nisei pal here. I’m only going to say this once, ’cause if I have to think about it, I’m apt to change my mind. I want you to move in. If you say no, you’re a fool, and I don’t take you for a fool.
“There’s some space back behind the storage room that I used as an office. It ain’t much, but it will hold a bed and a small wardrobe. You won’t have to mess with the stairs that way. The bath is upstairs, and there is a can down here, so you’ll make out just fine.”
“I can’t pay much,” Earl said, his pride caught in his throat. Shut up, fool, he thought. You got any other offers? “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t want to be a burden, nor do I want charity.”
“Charity? You’ll earn your keep same as Henry here. Henry, help Earl over here, and we’ll seal the deal with a bottle of champagne.”
“Now wait a moment,” Earl protested. “Nobody has agreed to anything, at least not yet.” He started to rise.
“Sit,” Henry ordered as he rapped his knuckles on the piano bench and pushed him back onto it.
“Earl,” Gibby said matter-of-factly, “I’m going to charge you the same rent I charge Henry, and you can start earning your keep right now. Henry says you’re a genius on the piano. So, Saint Crier, why don’t you make like an angel and turn this musty old place into a little bit of Heaven with the type of music that will fill the place with paying customers.” He glanced at Henry through smudged spectacles that rode haphazardly on his nose. “And that includes an all-Nisei night.”
The words caught in Earl’s throat struggled for air. His head swam as he counted the money he did not have and the options that did not exist. After what seemed an unbearable pause, he found the word he was looking for and blurted it out. “Deal!” He turned on the bench and felt for the keyboard, tested the keys, caressed the mahogany and ran his fingers across the word embossed just above the middle. “Steinway?” Ignoring his tears he began to play.
Blow Gabriel, blow!
I’ve been a sinner, I’ve been a scamp,
But now I’m willin’ to trim my lamp,
So blow, Gabriel blow!
The champagne cork popped. Gibby poured beer for the workmen and Officer Sam Newman.
And now I’m all ready to fly,
Yes, to fly higher and higher!
’Cause I’ve gone through brimstone...
Gibby was mesmerized by Earl’s dexterity and speed on the keyboard. He didn’t miss a note. Gibby had heard on the radio a blind man playing the piano once, but seeing was believing. All he could say was, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
And I’ve been through the fire,
And I purged my soul
And my heart too,
So climb up the mountain top,
And start to blow, Gabriel, blow.
“Come on and blow, Gabriel, blow, blow!” The men sang and raised their glasses as they watched him work his magic, as his fingers danced as one with the ivory keys.
As Earl finished, Henry brought out his clarinet from behind the bar and began to play “Let the Angels Sing.”
Earl’s fingers danced and he sang. Oh, how he sang.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith