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 29: Simply What Feels Right
Stella hadn’t told Brooks where she was taking him. He was still pretty rocky after the beatings and the abuse he had suffered. She had been lucky to get him cleaned up and out of the hospital before the police started asking all the wrong questions.
Once outside, Brooks rallied. Stella drove straight to Adam’s Place and parked not far from the front door. She let the engine run and sat holding the steering wheel for a moment, asking herself why she had brought him here. Truth of the matter was — and she knew it — there just wasn’t any room at the inn. Earl was a handful enough for Gibby.
Still, what choice did she have? Dr. Garrity was right, if Brooks were left to flounder alone in another veterans’ hospital, his life expectancy would be slim to none. He was suicidal and needed close supervision or he would find a way to jump off the proverbial cliff.
The San Francisco Veterans’ Hospital would most likely be shut down until a full investigation could be completed and the hospital restaffed. The patients would be shipped off to wherever there was room, and that would be the end of Brooks Weingarten, III.
She turned off the engine, then touched Brooks gently on his forearm. “Brooks, you stay right here. I won’t be long.”
“Where would I go?” he mumbled. He gave a short, bitter laugh and shook his head in exasperation. He hadn’t said anything about his last adventure; she didn’t need to know. Without Stella, his lifeline was a fast-burning fuse, and burning from both ends.
Stella thought about bringing him with her; she was afraid to leave him alone. At the door, she paused and listened to the warm bustling sounds of the tavern, the low murmur of conversation punctuated with laughter, and the bright clink of bottle glass. The smell of rank tobacco and stale beer threaded through the soft sound of a piano being played by Earl in the background. The door was open: inside she could see Gibby, and she felt bad for what she was about to do to his day.
“Stella?” Gibby looked surprised to see her. She hoped she didn’t look as tattered and battered as she felt.
Earl played the first few notes of Stella by Starlight when he heard her name.
“Stella, are you all right?” Gibby asked.
“Couldn’t be better,” she said, as she faked an exhausted smile. Couldn’t be better for a girl who has just been through her own personal Pearl Harbor. Her career as a nurse was over. Not that she couldn’t get another job. She didn’t want to; enough was enough. She was burned out, bone-tired from being a nurse. It was time to move on.
Elroy’s ill-gotten cash would give her that chance. She needed the help, as did Earl. Part of the money was his, and now Brooks’ as well. She didn’t know what she was going to do. With all the troops returning home, jobs were not plentiful; especially for women. She would have to worry about that later. First she had a blind man with one foot in the grave to take care off.
Henry stepped out of the small kitchen.
She gave Gibby a big, appreciative hug and whispered, “We’ve got to talk.” She held the embrace for a moment, looked him in the eye with the look that only a woman can give a man that says, Here’s fair warning sweetheart: trouble is coming. “First I need a drink. Henry. Gin and tonic. Double.”
“Stella?” Henry and Gibby chorused in unison.
Earl stopped playing.
None of them knew Stella to be a heavy drinker.
“OK, gentlemen, gather round,” she said as Henry poured her a gin and tonic — a single. “I’ll tell you the whole story.” She glanced apprehensively at the customers seated here and there around the room. None took any notice of her. Nevertheless, she lowered her voice to slightly louder than a whisper. “I’ve got Brooks out in the car.” She spoke too softly.
“I said I’ve got Brooks out in the car.” This time they heard her, as did several of the patrons.
“The man finally grew some balls,” Earl applauded. “Nice of him to drop by to say good-bye. OK, you all know that I’ve never liked the guy. He’s a pompous ass. The man comes with a pedigree, and blind or not, he thinks he’s better than the next guy. He’s got a cushy place waiting for him back home. It’s about time he got the goddamned courage to move on, pardon my French. Brooks checked himself into the place, and setting your anchor down in that poor excuse for a veterans’ hospital is a joke.”
He had to think about that for a moment. He chuckled at himself. Yeah, and I was almost a fool’s fool. I thought I had it easy: three squares and a regular routine. When you’re just beginning to figure out what it’s like to live blind; that’s not half bad. “So now he’s come to his senses and is going home. Good for him.”
“Balls! Trust me, Earl,” said Stella, “you don’t know the half of it. Down deep, Brooks has that special type of courage that can keep a man from drowning in hopelessness and melancholy. You found some of it in Ivory Burch.”
I wonder what happened to the kid, Earl thought.
“Brooks is just now finding his own.” This could take some time, Stella thought. Time I don’t have. “It’s complicated.” She let out a dramatic sigh as she searched for the right words.
She looked thoughtful for a moment, then spoke softly as if thinking aloud. “Gibby, I know your heart: you won’t turn this man away. It’s not just a roof, a bed, a meal that he needs; it’s a place where he can reclaim his dignity. He needs you, all of you, if he’s going to survive. He’s like a plant: in the wrong soil he’ll wilt and fade away in a slow and lonely death.” She took a long draw on her gin and tonic then slid it over to Henry for a refill.
“Earl, he’s not going home,” Stella continued. “The only thing he will find there is rejection and ridicule,” Her voice was a portrait of her soul. “Burrell Smith is dead,” she blurted out. There was no other way to say it; it hurt too much. “Perhaps others, I don’t know.”
She held her glass out impatiently. “Henry, I said a double.” She took a deep breath. “Elroy poisoned the whole ward with bad moonshine. I tried to stop him. Brooks saved my life.”
“What the hell are you talking about?!” Gibby exclaimed.
“Brooks?” Henry asked incredulously. A thought flashed across his mind. “Elroy?”
“Elroy is dead,” she answered with an odd catch on her voice. “How, that isn’t important. What is important is that Brooks is waiting out there.” She pointed towards the door. “The hospital will be closed, at least for the time being. He has nowhere else to go.”
Gibby rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as he sorted through her story. “No.” It was less a word and more a long sigh. He leaned on the edge of the bar for support, then dropped heavily onto a stool. A bottle spilled. He started to say something, then rubbed his face with his hands. When he took his hands away, his face was tired and ashen. He gave a bitter sigh that seemed to leave him deflated.
Tat... tat-tat... tat.... Liquor from the spilled bottle began to patter an irregular rhythm onto the floor.
For a long moment only the tapping of drops against the floor kept the silence at bay. Earl’s fingers hovered motionlessly above the keyboard. All eyes on Stella. All except for Gibby, who seemed to stare down at his folded hands.
When he finally pulled his eyes up, he tugged at his lip, then, frowned. “No way. Stella.” Gibby’s voice was sympathetic but firm, with a touch of desperation buried beneath. “I know you’ve got a heart of gold, but this just isn’t going to happen.”
Gibby’s face took on an unusual beet red color. He raised both hands defensively. “No!” He could feel his heart pounding as he tried to fight the inevitable off. His expression grew anxious. “I’ve not got the money, nor the patience. Stella, I’m begging you, don’t do this to me.” He suddenly felt slightly nauseous and dizzy.
The next silence was longer.
Henry finally interrupted the silence. “Gibby’s right. We can’t take Brooks in, for the very reason you want him here. We can’t. He’s an emotional loose cannon and an alcoholic. Everything about it speaks of disaster. I...”
He focused his full attention on the old man. “Gibby, I hadn’t planned to say anything yet, but... I guess this is what you might call a game-changer. Stella, dammit, you’re forcing my hand. I’ve applied to Stanford Medical School under the G.I. Bill. If and when I’m accepted, I’ll be moving to Palo Alto. I doubt that Gibby can handle Earl’s needs. He sure as hell can’t take care of Brooks.” Henry could see that Gibby’s blood pressure was off the charts.
“I can take care of myself,” Earl said defensively. Game-changer? He admitted to himself, Damn if that ain’t the truth. It’s beginning to sound as if there is a mighty clock ticking. When it reaches the end of the twenty-third hour, this sweet little dream I’ve got could turn right around and bite me. With Henry gone, I’ll just be in the way.
Stella reached into her coat pocket and retrieved a wad of bills and slammed it angrily on the counter.
“Stella... I can’t.” Gibby pleaded.
“How much?” she demanded. “How much do you want?”
“For what?” Gibby asked. His heart was thundering through the ringing in his ears, and his chest was tight and uncomfortable.
“For the bar. I’ll buy it,” Stella said, as her eyes began to flood with tears. What am I doing? she screamed at herself.
Earl stiffened. This whole thing was going nowhere he liked. Dammit, Brooks, why did you have to come out of your alcoholic stupor and screw everything up?
“You’ll do no such thing,” said Gibby. “You don’t know the first...”
Silence again filled the room as everyone struggled to find what to do or say next. The sound of the drip stilled. Stella downed her gin and tonic, turned and left the bar. No one said a word as the door slowly closed behind her.
“Stella, God, I’m sorry,” Gibby apologized. “If I thought there was a chance, I’d at least think about it.” His words went unheard.
“You can’t, and that’s the end of it,” Henry counseled. He poured Gibby a brandy, then counted the money Stella had left on the counter. He looked up with surprise, counted the money a second time. “There’s over four hundred dollars here.”
“Where did she get that kind of dough?” Gibby pondered, as his blood pressure began to fall with the brandy’s heat.
Earl touched the piano keys lightly. The notes haunting. Stella by Starlight. “To do what feels right or nothing at all?” he said. “A troublesome question.” He didn’t realize he was speaking aloud. “One bitch of a question, but it’s the only kind that’s worthwhile.”
“You say something, Earl?” Gibby asked.
“Nothing important,” Earl replied quietly. “I tend to think too much.” Or not often enough. Either way, my best decisions come when I stop thinking and simply do what feels right. The question was beginning to nag at him.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith