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 22: Lights’ Last Gleaming
The night air felt good. The foghorns seemed to bid Stella a personal greeting. She walked out the door with no decision as to where she might go. At the intersection she needed to make a decision: to go straight ahead, down the hill and around the park, then home; or turn left, walk two blocks to Shapiro’s, a rowdy Union hangout. She could go to the right three and a half a blocks to Adam’s Place. Hello, Henry, you want to kick a girl when she’s down? Here’s your chance. She knew what she needed to do.
The soft notes of a sonata softened the harsher night sounds of the city as she rounded the corner. She smiled; at least someone was sitting at home, warm and wrapped with pleasant thoughts and soft sounds. She looked up to see whose window might be open. The one she found was tuned to a Seals baseball game. No piano.
The sonata faded, replaced by a cheerful Duke Ellington number, played on the piano. She stopped and listened. The music came from across the street where a warm yellow light bid welcome as she approached the door to Adam’s Place.
“What on earth?” she gasped in surprise. The bar was alive, and Gibby was floating between tables, serving drinks and chatting it up with the customers. Henry looked up with a smile; he was filling orders from behind a crowded bar.
“Earl? How...?” Her breath caught in disbelief. She saw Earl sitting at a piano, smiling broadly, his fingers caressing the keys. He moved from the Ellington number to White Cliffs of Dover. He was wearing the same Irish wool sweater and rainbow suspenders he had been given at the hospital. She giggled at his dark blue beret, which he had put on backwards at a rakish angle.
Gibby came over with a tray of dirty glasses in hand. “Stella, don’t stand there with your mouth open. Come on in.” He looked around the room. “I don’t have a table open, but I can make room for one more at the piano. Henry,” he called out, “make room for one more there by Earl.” He nodded curtly at a table where a customer looked impatient. “Yeah, yeah, don’t bust your britches. I’ll be there soon as I can.”
“It’s a long story, sweetheart,” Gibby said. “You go grab your seat before someone else does. All I can tell you is that when they fired Henry, they kicked Earl out with nowhere to go, nor barely a dime in his pocket. Some jackass at the hospital ripped him off. Can you believe that? Anyway, he found his way here, and Heaven help me, I’ve adopted a blind man. I couldn’t get rid of him if I wanted to. Look at this place.”
“I am,” she said as she unwound her scarf. “I am.” She had known Gibby since before the war, and if there was ever a bartender with a good heart, a willing ear, and sage advice, it was him.
Earl cocked his head as he heard a chair pull up by the piano. He sniffed, smiled, and finished the tune. He reached for his glass, bourbon and water, then placed it back exactly where he had found it. “Mac,” he said to the man seated on the second stool on his left, “do us all a favor and don’t sing along on this one. I can’t see, and you can’t sing, and since I’ll never see again, why don’t you match me and never sing again.”
Five pairs of hands applauded to the man’s chagrin. “I’ll have you know that at the Officer’s Club at Pearl, I was known—”
“Ah, an officer and a gentleman. Navy?” Earl interrupted.
“Submarines.” The man answered proudly.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Earl said.
“Tom. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Buck, and this pretty flower on my right is Terri Lynn.”
“Hi, Earl,” she said with a soft, breathy voice.
“Well, Lieutenant Commander,” Earl said as he gently massaged the piano keys, “we could not have won the war without the subs. Say, isn’t submarine duty known as the silent service?”
Terri Lynn, a platinum blond with voluptuous breasts, elbowed the Lieutenant Commander in the ribs as a hint to shut up.
Earl turned towards the recently filled seat nearest to him. “This one is for you, sweetheart.”
The song a robin sings,
Through years of endless springs,
The murmur of a brook at evening tides.
That ripples through a nook where two lovers hide.
That great symphonic theme,
That’s Stella by starlight,
And not a dream
“Ouch, those last few notes were played by a blind man with a tin ear,” Earl said. “Lieutenant Commander, jump in here, I think I’ve found a spot for you.”
“Hi, Earl,” Stella said as she lit a cigarette. “That was great.”
He replayed a few bars, finding his errors. “It sure beats playing in the day room. It was a swell crowd, the tips were lousy, but the acoustics will always have a special place in my heart. It sounded something like the inside of a submarine.” He leaned back on his stool and called out, “Henry, bring the Lieutenant Commander here a drink on me. Stella?”
“How about a Tom Collins,” Stella answered.
Henry, an amateur bartender at best, hadn’t a clue how to make a Tom Collins. He looked at the long list of drinks waiting to be poured, or mixed, saw three more he didn’t know, and tried not to look as out of control as he actually felt.
Gibby should have been the one behind the bar, but he had insisted on working the floor. The bar hadn’t had a crowd like this since before the war. No, not even then, that and there were still quite a few customers who didn’t take kindly to Japs, even if they were Japanese Americans. Henry’s eyes rested briefly on Stella. He wanted to apologize, it was his doing that had gotten her suspended.
Gibby saw the line-up of drink orders, stepped behind the bar, poured two beers and handed them to Henry. “Take these over to the bald guy and the floozy in the corner.” He slipped a bar rag into Henry’s apron pocket. “The tables over there” — he pointed at two tables recently cleared — “need wiping down. I’ll work the bar.”
He looked at the order forms and went to work. “Jesus, the help you get these days” he muttered loudly as he reached for a bottle. He missed the bottle, knocking it to the floor. “Damn, that’s good money down the drain.” He hadn’t been able to quite grasp the bottle, his hand not quite registering what the brain was trying to tell it to do.
He knelt down to retrieve the bottle, watched it drain. He massaged his hands trying to push the numbness in his right hand away. Christ almighty, what is happening to me? He left the bottle where it was, saw his face in the mirror as he rose. God, you are getting old, he thought as he wiped the sweat from his brow on his shirt sleeve. He poured a beer, which was out of the line of order, but the easiest task.
He worked the order list down, working it at Henry’s pace, dropping two glasses, which broke, but managed to finish the evening without any more casualties. God, he was tired. His hand seemed a little better, but he still couldn’t get the fingers to close all the way without some effort.
Stella stayed close to Earl until closing time.
Gibby came out of the kitchen with half a pastrami sandwich in hand and a dab of mustard on the edge of his lip. “Last call. If you can’t drink it quick, don’t bother.” He stopped in mid-bluster, wiped his mouth, thought about picking up a couple of empty glasses, but decided to leave well enough alone. “Thanks, folks. Earl will be here for a while. Come back and enjoy some of his piano magic tomorrow night.” He looked back as Henry escorted Earl back to the kitchen.
Earl put up his usual fuss, not wanting to be led but not familiar enough with the territory to negotiate it by himself. There was no way they were going to be able to close as long as Earl played, and as Gibby and Henry had learned, Earl would play into the wee hours of the morning if they let him.
“Earl never sleeps,” Henry had told him. “He only naps, never seems to tire.” Gibby did sleep, and tonight he was bone-tired. It was taking some patience to get used to the radio blaring downstairs while Earl learned new tunes and catnapped himself away from his dark dragon, but it was worth it. Henry was right, Earl was a gold mine.
Stella teased a sliver of ice in her glass as she remained seated at the piano. She hadn’t felt this good in a long time. She had so many questions. It was late, and tomorrow she would confront Mann, which would most likely get her fired. The longer she avoided going home, the further tomorrow seemed away.
Henry returned with Earl, who carried a plate of sandwiches as proudly as if he had made them himself.
“Here, Earl, let me take those,” offered Stella as he found the piano bench with his knees. He sat. “Henry, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have...” She said as Henry took a seat across from her. Gibby joined them, snatching a sandwich, before seating himself.
“Sorry for what?” Henry brushed her off, then continued before she could answer. “That hospital is a disgrace to medicine, one giant death ward killing the spirits of men who might otherwise survive. I really don’t want time served there on my résumé. Fortunately, I got canned during the probationary period, so my dismissal can be considered no-fault. We didn’t see eye to eye on a few things.”
Earl listened and tinkered with a few piano keys as he downed half a sandwich with his other hand.
Enough said on that, at least for now, Stella thought, and she changed the subject. “How on earth did Earl get here?” She turned, reached out and touched Earl on the wrist affectionately.
“His majesty, the mighty Herbert Mann,” Henry answered, “laid part of the blame for the party on Earl, and since Earl was Merchant Marine and for whatever stupid reason doesn’t qualify for veteran’s benefits, was force-marched to a cab and sent on his way. But not before someone ripped him off most of his back pay.”
“Elroy,” she fumed.
“Your guess is as good as mine, and in this case I think I’ll side with a woman’s intuition.”
Gibby gave her a knowing eye, although he had never met Elroy.
She tightened her grasp on Earl’s arm. “Are you all right, sweetheart? You’re not thinking about going back there are you?”
“Only if you give me a gun to finish some unfinished business,” Earl said wryly.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith