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Two Blind Men and a Fool

by Sherman Smith

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Chapter 31: A Special Courage

part 1 of 2

Stella felt her anger rise close to her breaking point. Gibby had turned her down, and Henry had supported it. She yanked open the car door and threw herself into the driver’s seat, fumbled in her purse for the car keys, which weren’t there. Unable to find them, she pounded her fist onto the steering wheel, causing the horn to blare. “Dammit!”

She dreaded going back into the bar in search of her keys. The soft rustle of Brooks’ head bandage as he turned his head towards her brought her rage to a sudden embarrassed stop.

“I concur,” said Brooks, sounding like he meant it.

“Oh, shut up,” Stella responded. She meant it. She gave him the Don’t you say another word look as only a woman can do. It was wasted effort.

“Yips, don’t nip at my hemorrhoids, woman, it makes me grumpy.”

Stella spat out a laugh, then dropped her eyes, feeling properly chastened. After a moment she looked at Brooks and realized that her look meant nothing to this fragile man who sat across from her. His mask could never deliver a human expression. The eyes just inside the slits that she had cut to allow for air could not see her. No judgment made.

For a moment she felt small and self-centered. I couldn’t do it, she thought, then finished the thought aloud: “I couldn’t do it, Brooks, because it’s not up to me.”

“I don’t understand. What isn’t up to you?” he responded, confused.

“There’s no going back, only forward. And the only one who can take you there is you, Brooks. You showed a whole lot of courage back at the hospital. You may have saved my life, and that is something I will never forget. Whether you like it or not, you are going to need to find that strength one more time.” She looked at Brooks and wondered if he could do what she was asking.

“Courage? Me? That’s where you’ve got it wrong, sister, I’m the cowardly lion and the scarecrow all wrapped up in one confused mess. If you try to tell someone different, I’ll laugh in your face,” Brooks said with a wry tone.

Stella got out of the car, went around to the other door, opened it, and took his hand. “Out,” she said as she gave him a directive tug.

He groaned as he struggled out of the car. He was bruised, stiff, and not exactly glad to be alive. If I had ten cents worth of courage, he thought, I’d have taken myself out a long time ago.

A cool breeze felt good as it brushed against the eye holes in his bandage. He hated the damn thing, it was hot and uncomfortable. Then again, he would be mortified to be seen without it. “Where are we?” he asked, shifting his head from side to side as he tried to catch the breeze again.

“We’re just outside Adam’s Place.”

He cocked his head thoughtfully. “Is that the place Henry’s at?”

“Yes,” Stella answered. “Earl, too.”

“Earl, I’ll be damned, I thought I was done with that obnoxious warbler. Say, isn’t Adam’s Place some kind of bar?” He gave a short barking laugh. “Lead on woman. You’ve just made my day.”

He forgot all about the courage business and whatever point Stella was trying to make, as he heard the alcohol calling. Come on Tedium, Mr. Dark, it’s been one hell of a day. Drinks are on me... Hell, the drinks are on Earl.

“Hold on Brooks, you need to know something. I’ve asked them to take you in. And you are about to give them every reason not to.”

Brooks gave an incredulous laugh. God, he hated it when a woman was right; they never let you forget it. “You’ve asked them to take me in, as what? A circus freak?” He paused as if he were considering his next words carefully. “I’m sorry, Stella, you didn’t deserve that.” He let out a breath emotionally and self-consciously. “I don’t deserve your heart.”

He wanted to say more, couldn’t, and let his words fall silent. Shut up, Desperation, I’ll let you know when you’re needed. OK, come to think of it, now is a good time.

“What are you afraid of?” she asked softly.

“Afraid?” He tried to brush the word aside, but couldn’t. “Sure, every waking moment. Only priests and fools are fearless, and I’ve never been on the best terms with God. If there is a God, he’s a mean bastard with a wicked sense of humor.” He half-expected a lecture, but got none.

She listened in all the right ways. “Dammit, you’re right, Stella. I was about to go in there and make a pompous ass out of myself. That’s one thing I’m good at. Right now I’m a homeless, angry, pompous fool. I need a place to be — and a bar — what better place for me? And I’m about to blow it.”

He straightened his shoulders and held his head high as if his Humpty Dumpty mask could disappear and he could become that handsome man on the celluloid screen one more time. He found the door. Stella tried to help.

“No,” he said, “this is between me and them.” Anxiety and Despair crowded him. Back off, you assholes, I’m perfectly capable of screwing this up all by myself. Brooks felt the rough, weather-worn wood of the door. Beyond it, he could hear a piano and Earl singing.

* * *

That’s Stella by Starlight and not a dream,
My heart and I agree...

“Shut up, Earl,” Gibby groused.

She’s everything to me...

“It would take some doing,” Earl said and continued to play. “I mean...”

Gibby studied the peanut shells on the floor with tired hound dog eyes as he argued aloud with himself. “Stella put up a good argument. But not good enough. She lost. We can’t, and that is all there is to it. There is no way — nohow.” He looked at Earl for support, but didn’t get any. The front door slowly opened and, at his first sight of Brooks, he let out a long agitated sigh.

“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind,” Henry started to say. “What if...” Then he stopped short as Brooks slowly made his way into the room. Stella followed behind at a respectful distance.

“God help me.” I should be saying God help him, Gibby thought. He had never set eyes on Brooks before, and was taken aback by the startling tragedy of the man. He could almost feel the scars and pain hidden just beneath the harsh white cloth that wrapped his entire head. His clothes, an old wrinkled tux, dirty, and possibly bloodstained didn’t help with his image.

“I can’t,” Gibby moaned. He leaned his face onto his arms on the counter, not wanting to hear or see what was about to happen. The pressure built in his chest, the tingling numbness in his hand again, only this time a little farther up the arm. “No,” he cried to himself, “I just can’t.”

Earl played the first few notes of Oh, Look At Me Now, a tune he had recently heard Frank Sinatra sing on the radio.

Brooks stopped, cocked his head towards the sound of the piano, then looked down with unseeing eyes to the floor, where he kicked around a few of the nutshells he had heard crunch beneath his feet. Better shells than peanut butter.

He was uncomfortable as hell, his throat dry, palms clammy, the sweat on his brow beginning to soak through the mask, his stomach churned. Despair teased him with the thought of a double shot of bourbon. He blew out a long low whistle, the drink his motivation. “Earl, you’re tone-deaf, and the piano is out of tune.” Not a great start.

Earl stopped playing and for a moment the only sound was the soft crunch of peanut shells as Brooks slowly maneuvered around tables and chairs towards where he had last heard Earl play. The aroma of burley tobacco that hung in the air reminded Brooks of the pub in England. His sense of smell hadn’t been much use since the bomb took his face, but there it was, the delightful aroma of tobacco. Has the beating I got from Elroy somehow triggered this? Even through his bandage the aroma seemed intoxicating. This renewed sense stirred his courage.

Stella stayed back by the door, her fingers crossed, breath held.

Earl touched a key or two as he listened for the crunch of peanut shells. He flexed his fingers, then swept into a song so gently everyone was listening before they knew it had begun. “Lady and gentlemen,” he said, his words close to the melody, “we have a poet in the house — Brooks Weingarden, the Third. God, isn’t one enough?”

He briefly played a curious melody before continuing. “A poet, you see, is a musician who can’t sing. Words have to find a man’s mind before they can touch his heart, and some men’s minds are woefully small targets. It’s been said that music touches their hearts directly, no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens. Sadly enough, Brooks rarely listens, and the words he chooses are usually wrong. If only he would let his fingers do all of his talking, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, he isn’t much better on the piano.”

“Ouch,” Henry said aloud.

Gibby sighed as he cautiously raised his eyes as would a child playing hide-and-seek.

Brooks edged towards the bar where he had heard Henry. “Henry, pour me a double anything, something that will go well with the crow I’m about to eat. Stella?” He called out softly. No ears showed through his whole head wrap as he listened for her response. “You still here?”

“Yes,” she said as she stepped forward just enough to crunch a peanut shell or two.

“Good.” He found the bar, then the bar stool, but didn’t sit. “I’d best stand for this one. Thanks for the words, Earl,” he said with a slight catch to his voice, “I heard them. Bastard.” He laughed quietly to himself. His pals, Desperation, Despair. Self-Pity, and Mr. Dark, stood right by his side. He nodded, acknowledging his bond with them. Tedium stood to the side, feeling somewhat out of place, but Brooks knew that he would belly up to the bar in his own good time.

Henry tapped the bar with the bottom of a whiskey glass then slid it into Brooks’ hand.

“Bourbon,” Brooks said as he took a long drink. “Only, next time I order a double I don’t mean half water.” He took another drink, then pressed ahead with the dogged persistence of the wishfully inebriated. “I’m a self-centered prick. You all know it. Now that I’ve said it, we can all agree on something. For too long I’ve been stewing in my own self-pity... It’s time to let some pity out of the pot; so here goes. I’m a self-centered bastard, who hasn’t cared a lick about anyone but myself for as long as I can remember. There was a day when I thought I had it all. Whatever I had I threw away long before a buzz bomb in London blew away my face and any dreams I might have had. If I could see myself in a mirror, I’d put a gun to my head and pull the trigger.”

He let out a short bitter laugh and shook his head in exasperation. Desperation gave him a pat on the back, while Self-pity beamed with a self-centered grin.

Earl played ‘Blues In The Night’, soft and mellow.

“I’ll never look in that mirror, and if I could I wouldn’t have the courage to even pick up the damned gun.” He held up his glass and listened to the ice crackle. “This here is my bullet.” He opened and closed his mouth a few times, at a loss of words.

“The worst has happened,” he continued, his voice a river of emotion, choked back by the same stubborn streak that held back his old pal Denial, “and it’s been a lot harder than I ever dreamed. I’ve become a mean and nasty drunk, comfortable only with my own company, and I can’t stand the insufferable son-of-a-bitch any more than Earl. Hah!

“Stella, you’re one tough broad and an angel. You peeled me from my nightmares and freed me from that cesspool they call a veterans’ hospital, and brought me here. Why? I don’t know. But since it’s a bar,” he raised his glass in salute, “I’m grateful. She’s told me she’s asked you to take me in. Hah! That would be a damn foolish thing to do, now wouldn’t it. That’s a statement of fact, not a question.

“Mister Gibby, I don’t take you for a fool. No, sir. But” — he paused, giving anyone an opportunity to contradict him — “I’m asking.” He took another drink, his pride hurting like an impacted tooth. “There is one thing worse than the dark pit I’ve been dwelling in, and that would be living alone with my disagreeable self until I die. I... I can’t do that... Earl... Henry... I need your help.” His voice broke, no longer able to hold back the desperate sob that had been building within him. “I’m asking.” Desperation couldn’t have been prouder. Brooks silently told him to go to hell.

I’m sunk, Gibby thought as he let out a dramatic sigh.

Stella quietly stepped behind Brooks and gave his shoulders a gentle hug. “You did good,” she whispered. “You did good.”

Henry poured Brooks another shot. No water.

Earl took a deep breath. He did not like it one bit, no, sir, not one bit, but he knew that there were times when you just did the right thing, like it or not. He threw his head back, and music began to pour out into the quiet. His fingers danced, intimate and quick. The music moved like a spider’s web stirred by a sudden breeze, and changed like a leaf twisting as it falls to the ground.

His hands moved until he couldn’t handle the strain. Finally, they slipped, and the music fell to pieces like a dream on waking. He rose, pushed back the piano bench, and felt his way to the back storage room he called home. After he made sure that the door was securely closed, he sat on the edge of his cot, put his head in his hands, and wept.

It was the first time he had let his emotions overflow since he had been scared to death on a sinking ship. Since he had lost his sight, he had held it together like a rock. Now that rock was riddled with cracks and beginning to crumble. He wept because he did not want to do what he was about to do.

Humbled and chastened, Brooks stood alone, as Mr. Despair whistled sour notes in his ear. Brooks tried not to listen. But he did, and each note seemed to suck a little of his life away. His knees quivered beneath his own weight as he waited for the verdict.

He knew that many things in life were not fair, that justice was blind. At least there was irony in that. Deep down he did not expect any reprieve. Despite Stella’s heart, he had made one too many deals with the devil, and his chips were about to be called in. He listened to the sounds coming from behind a closed door and understood that his judge was trapped in the same darkness, that the one to decide his fate would be Earl.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith

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