Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
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 34: On the Conning Tower
Three days passed like a spring rain, a kind of squall that refreshed the air, pushed the winter blues aside, and then was over all too soon. Stella finally finished reading Miracle of the Bells, which by the end had her both smiling and crying.
The story line was about Catholics. Stella wasn’t one, but it didn’t matter, because what little faith she had left her feeling a lack. It was a great book for someone who had fallen off the path and no longer believed that good still exists. It gave her a lot to think about.
When she left Brooks to make his own way at Adam’s Place, she deliberately left all the questions on her front porch to be scooped up with the morning paper, when she got around to it. She had not left her apartment for three days, nor had she thought about the questions she had put off, until now, when they were knocking demandingly at her door.
There were hard questions with no easy solutions. Had she done the right thing bringing Brooks to the tavern? Could Brooks pull himself together? How was Elroy’s death going to complicate things? The money — oh Lord, the money — how much was really there? Should she return it? If so, to whom?
All the whats and ifs began to nag and make her restless. Then there was Earl, sweet Earl. Here she allowed a little more access: there was something warm and comfortable in that, but she still tried to wrap herself in a protective blanket.
Earl was a complicated man and, blind or not, he always seemed to find a soft spot in her defenses and show up with a smile as sweet as a Sunday picnic and a fresh berry pie. Sweet? He also was beginning to arouse her as no man had ever done before. Damn you, Earl Crier.
* * *
It was starting out to be a perfect warm sunny day, so common in stories and so rare in the real world. Stella started the day with coffee and pastry at a little bistro on Union Street. After that, she went shopping, first at a specialty shop, where the choices were bewildering. Finally she found what she wanted at a secondhand store.
It only took about an hour at her sewing machine to fashion the silk she had purchased into a special gift for Brooks. It was the least she could do after what he had done for her. She held up her creations, smiled, packed them into a paper bag and set off for Adam’s Place.
The door to Adam’s Place was open: fresh air in and stale tobacco smoke out. Although a smoker herself, she appreciated the fresh air. Old bars smelled like old men who could no longer take care of themselves, and she appreciated that Gibby made the effort.
She entered with a jaunty, convivial step and a smile, which quickly turned into a silhouette of a frown. The air, just inside, tasted heavy of worry. “Oh Brooks, what have you done?” She whispered aloud as if that might appease her anxiety.
Gibby looked up from a table where he was counting receipts. She found his etched frown unnerving. He gave a sigh that hung somewhere between annoyance, frustration, and anger. In three days he seemed to have aged, changed from a pudgy curmudgeon with a twinkle in his eyes and a winning smile to a pale, worn-out old man whose beefy jowls pulled his mouth down into a melancholy frown.
He slowly plucked his spectacles from the tip of his nose and set them on the table. He rubbed his bloodshot eyes, then tapped his pencil repeatedly as he stared back at her.
Earl stood behind the bar practicing his pours. If nothing else, he was tenacious. She had to stifle a laugh because he now wore a yellow rain slicker, proof that he wasn’t exactly mastering the craft.
“OK, guys,” she asked, “what gives?” Earl did not respond to her voice, and she found that disquieting. While away, she had missed his deep seductive tone, her male siren beckoning to her with Stella by Starlight. His silence weighed on her as she slowly took in the room.
Brooks was sitting at the piano, plucking randomly at the keys, deep in his dark thoughts. She wondered which of his imaginary pals were sitting around the piano: Self-Pity, no doubt.
Henry, who was sweeping under a table at the rear of the bar, looked up and smiled halfheartedly. At least he smiled.
Gibby’s expression had not changed. She had gotten him into this and it pained her to see him so unhappy. The silence was emphatic as he sat there staring at her.
Stella chose the lesser of evils and sauntered over to Henry. “Someone die?”
Henry gave her an inscrutable smile. “Your good intentions.”
“Ohhh?” She sat down at a table, rested her chin in one hand. “Tell me all. I’m a big girl.”
“After you left, Earl stayed up, played and sang, as if he would never be able to again. He was loud, brilliant, off the wall, and a sleepless night for the rest of us. The next morning I found Brooks crocked with an open bottle of bourbon half-empty, not half-full. When I asked what was going on, he clicked his fingers and told me to piss off.
“Earl was behind the bar practicing his new trade. I watched him pour six shots in a row without spilling a drop, but when he knew that he was being watched, he over-poured the rest. If you ask me, Brooks is developing a little paranoia about playing whenever Earl is around, which, as you know, is most of the time. If Brooks were to find that rare moment where he might be able to play, Earl would hear and be on him like a hungry hawk.
“Once Brooks knew I was going to stick around, he tried to play. He tried. The alcohol didn’t help, but at least he tried. Earl struck hard and fast, driving up the tempo. I’ve never heard him sing better.
“In no time at all Brooks’ playing began to sound like a bad rendition of chopsticks compared to Earl’s raw talent.” He looked over at the piano where Brooks sat, a pathetic Humpty-Dumpty, waiting to fall.
“We are talking about grown men here, aren’t we?” Stella shrugged. “Maybe we should take away their allowance.” She couldn’t repress a slight smirk.
Henry smiled. “Gibby cut them both off. No booze. Earl doesn’t seem to care. Brooks is as miserable as he looks.”
“I see,” Stella said as she tapped her nails against the table. “And the raincoat?”
“He’s got only one set of clothes. I brought out the raincoat. Look, Earl had good intentions, but giving up his spot at the piano was never really in the cards. The man sweats music. Music is as much a sense to him now as hearing and touch.
“When he thought that he could at least take a step back from center stage, he set out to prove himself by becoming a blind bartender. You have to admit it would bring in the curious. Now he’s convinced himself he can’t do both, and he’s rapidly becoming the clumsiest blind bartender he can. Which reminds me, have you done anything about extra clothes for both Brooks and Earl?”
“I’ve got a secondhand tux out in the car. I’ve got something for Earl, but it needs some alterations.”
Henry glanced at the clock. “It’s been a good two and a half hours, and no one has said a word. Brooks just sits there and hits random keys, while Gibby fumes. And Earl is behaving like an eight-year old splashing in a rain puddle.” Henry studied Stella’s eyes, which had not grown dark with the news but flickered as a thousand thoughts dashed around her mind.
“I see,” she said thoughtfully to Henry. “Brooks lost more than his sight when the Nazi rocket blew the hell out of that London pub. He lost his face. I did not mean that as a pun. That once-handsome man hides behind his horrid bandages, afraid that someone might discover what a pathetic, ugly monster he has become. He has little dignity, no self-respect, and little hope.
“For a moment I thought we might have stumbled on an answer; at least temporarily. I hope you’re game, because I’m going to need your help. If we don’t find some answers soon, Gibby will kick the two of them out, and I wouldn’t blame him.
“Earl and Brooks may not like each other, but events beyond their control may have made them inseparable. Earl is defending his first love by trying to drive Brooks away. Every time he takes a jab at Brooks, he takes a chip out of what’s left of Brooks’ dignity. It won’t be long until there is nothing left to chip away at. Earl will have his piano back, but Brooks?
“I can’t see Earl singing ‘Pencils for sale’ at the corner of Powell and Market. I can see Brooks stepping in front of a moving bus. Looking at him now, that thought may be crossing his mind. We have to discover some workable options soon, or all we’ll have accomplished with our good intentions is to throw them both into quicksand neither can climb out of.”
Henry gave a grim, frustrated chuckle. “So now we are the blind leading the blind. Great. Any ideas?”
“As long as Earl is throwing a little water at the fire, let’s see if we can warm up Brooks.” She leaned forward and pushed towards Henry a small bag she had been carrying. “I’ve been working on an idea, and now is about as good a time as any to try it out.
“Henry, will you please get the tux out of the car, and then take Brooks into the back and get him dressed. Take off those awful bandages he’s wearing and dress him in one of these. I’ll take care of Mr. Crier.”
Henry opened the bag and found three silk masks; white, light brown, and black. They were soft to the touch and could easily be slipped over Brooks’ head. The open end would slip down to his shoulders.
The white and brown masks each had a black stripe sewed across at eye level. The black mask had a white stripe. There was a hole for the mouth and a pull string near the shoulders to help keep the mask in place.
The cloth was light and cool, allowing for easy breathing. In comparison to the stiff bandages that Brooks now wore, the masks were good-looking. They added a dash of mystery where pity had once ruled.
“Oh Stella,” Henry said as he held up the black mask, “if only Brooks could see this.”
“He’ll feel it,” Stella said, “and that’s something. Now we’ve got Earl. Sweet Earl. If he has one constant, it’s his ability to resist change. That’s not quite true is it? Somewhere down deep he wanted to help Brooks, but not at the expense of surrendering his music. They just can’t work together.”
Henry took Stella’s car keys and left to get the tux.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith