Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
Chapter 34: On the Conning Tower
Earl poured water into a shot glass until it overflowed, then began to fill a second, only more slowly; he was trying to determine who had entered his space. The sound and smell was that of a stranger, but this person had ventured behind the bar, which meant he had Gibby’s permission. Not knowing who it was put Earl on edge.
This time he stopped as the water neared the top of the glass. Perfect. He was looking for acknowledgment, a voice or clue. Whoever it was remained silent. “I’ve heard your sound and smelled your presence before, and you are not a woman; so that narrows the field.”
The bar was his safe haven. He knew most of the regular customers by voice, smell, or the way they walked. None were allowed behind the bar. The fact that someone had crossed that line prickled the hair on the back of his neck. “Stella?”
“Henry?” The silence was alarming. “Gibby?” He set the glass down and reached for a bottle, his grip firm on its neck. “I don’t know who you are, friend, but I suggest you back away before you regret it. Now.” His voice lacked the authority he tried to muster.
“Earl, we’ve met.” The Commander edged slowly closer to Earl. He could see that Earl was agitated by his presence.
“Commander Houck, United States Navy Submarine Service.” His tone of voice changed. “The last time we met, you made a point that I can’t sing; point taken. You, on the other hand, can give that bastard Sinatra a run for his money.”
“I wish I had his money.” Earl relaxed his defensive grip on the bottle, though something still told him that everything wasn’t quite right. “What can I do for you, Commander?”
“For me, nothing.” He saw the spritzer hose and settled on the lesson plan. “I do have one question. What’s with the rain slicker?”
Earl patted the slicker with both hands. “Oh, this little thing? Why, it’s the latest rage in uniforms for blind bartenders. Do you like it?”
Earl’s smugness forced the Commander’s hand. “One of a kind, just like you. Do you know the words to Here’s That Rainy Day?” The Commander slowly lifted the spritzer nozzle and aimed it.
“Sure, that’s an easy one.”
“Sorry, Earl, but I’m about to rain on your parade.”
Earl heard a slight hiss. “What the hell?” He sputtered as a stream of spritzer hit him straight in the glasses. He was cornered, floundering like a fish out of water, shot glasses flying off the counter, and the Commander gave him a thorough soaking.
Earl spat out wretched, oil-tainted sea water, and another frigid wave slammed down on him. The star-studded night sky turned upside down. He was pulled under then twisted about, saved only by the buoyancy of his life jacket. His ankle was broken. He screamed. It felt as if the sea would tear his foot off. He felt himself being pulled under as his cargo ship sank into the dark depths of the Murmansk Sea.
The cold felt like a thousand needles. He screamed, retched, and gagged on another mouth full of oil-fouled water. A patch of oil was burning on the surface close by; the heat was no comfort, and the smoke obscured his possible rescue.
Another wave turned him head over heels in the dark, deadly ocean. There was a rescue ship nearby but he never felt more scared, alone, or close to death.
His head surfaced and he raised a hand as another mountainous wave bore down on him. “Here... Over here... help.”
The Commander changed positions, continuing the soaking. Earl sputtered as a stream of seltzer caught him open-mouthed. He fell to the floor, his scared sightless eyes wide with panic. “Here... Over here... Help!”
“Enough!” Gibby barked. “What kind of man are you, can’t you see he’s had enough?” Before Gibby could say another word, Stella was on her feet, running to Earl.
The Commander did not have to be told twice. He shut the spritzer hose off and threw it back towards its cradle. He had gone too far and triggered a traumatic memory. Having survived two boats sunk during the war, he did not have to guess what was going on in Earl’s tortured mind. He grasped Earl’s hand reassuringly and pulled him to his feet. “Easy there, you’re on dry land, easy.”
In the dark, as the serpent nudged him, testing for his soul, Earl felt a human hand pull him free just as another wave crashed about him. He remembered being pulled out of the frigid water into the sanctuary of the rescue boat.
He caught his busted foot on the side, but the onset of hypothermia numbed most of the pain. He heard the words: “Easy, we’ve got you... easy.”
He was soaked through, and they wrapped him in dry blankets. “Can’t do much until we get you aboard ship. Wrap your hands around this.” The coffee cup was scalding hot, his hands shook so much that he spilled most of it.
“There’s more where that came from, but give yourself a moment: that coffee is hot enough to crack nearly frozen teeth.” A towering wave nearly capsized the rescue boat as they turned back towards their mother ship.
The raging sea disappeared as the dragon reeled. He was wet, chilled but not cold.
“I’m sorry... I’m so sorry, Earl.” Nothing ever sounded as sweet as Stella’s voice as he found himself cradled in her arms, his head nestled against her breasts where he felt and heard her heart. “Are you all right?”
The panic and anger drifted away with it, the dragon, its power spent. It was then that he knew that he needed this woman, that he loved her, and that as long as she was by his side he would fear that dragon no more. He began to sing sweet and low. “Oh, my Stella by Starlight, where have you been all my life...”
The Commander found Earl’s glasses and gave them to Stella. His hands, held open, said the same as his eyes: I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have gone there.
Stella couldn’t blame him; she too had been complicit.
* * *
Brooks held the silk mask in his hands, squeezing it lightly. He touched the rough bandage that enveloped his head and began to unwind it. His head free, the air cool on his ruined face, the scar tissue hurting just a little. He held the silk to what remained of his nose and inhaled.
Henry had described the colors to him. He whistled to himself Stella by Starlight as he slowly slipped the black and white-striped mask over his head until the silk drifted softly down to his shoulders.
He continued to whistle as he rose and stood in front of an imaginary mirror, positioning the comforting silk just so. He felt for and found the slip-on bow tie Henry had put on him, straightened it, then found the drawstring and ever so slowly drew it closed, allowing for his new silken image to settle in place.
His shoulders seemed to square as he stood tall. He had not felt this good since the last time he had felt the gentle caress of a good woman. He sighed with pleasure and mouthed the words Thank you, Stella as he felt his way towards the door.
“What was that all about?” Earl asked as he slipped his dark glasses back into place.
“Believe it or not,” Stella said. “something about learning to work, live, and survive together.” She looked at Gibby, then at Henry, who was standing with his clarinet at the ready. Brooks felt his way out of the back room wrapped in a new cloak of dignity. “I guess that means all of us,” she said.
Henry raised his clarinet and began to play: Let the Angels Sing. The high notes were clear, crisp and above Earl’s range.
Gibby shook his head at the mess, then poured a beer on the house for the Commander.
Brooks sat at the piano and played, matching Henry note for note, with his amazing ability to put his lips together and whistle. Beneath that mask, it was a wonder that he could whistle at all, but he could, and the silk mask fluttered as he did.
Earl smiled as he felt the dragon drift farther away. He knew what they were doing and why. Never again will I be that childish, he thought as he felt the music and his woman. He tried to ignore Brooks, but he had to admit the man could whistle.
“Come on, handsome,” Stella said. “Let’s go find you some dry clothes.”
“This is what I’ve got, sweetheart, unless you’ve got something in the car.”
“My place,” she said as she led him away. Stella had bought Earl a white tux when she bought Brooks his.
* * *
After a bubble bath, where more than the bath water was shared, they dressed.
“Where’s the mirror?” He found her face and gently moved his hands, his fingers taking everything into measure. It was the first time he had done so. She kissed his fingers as they caressed her lips. “There’s my mirror, and I can tell exactly how good I look by the smile on your face.”
“That’s some smile you’ve got, handsome.” How fast he bounced back, the drenching the Commander had given him all but forgotten.
“That’s because now I know how beautiful you are.”
“All dressed up and no place to go,” she said as she adjusted his hat. “When was the last time you went out on the town? I’m buying.”
Earl came up a little short on words. The last time he had been “out on the town” was in Italy, the night the lights went out for good. “I... I’m a little short on cash...”
Stella sensed his embarrassment. “It’s all right, I picked the Commander’s pocket. The least he can do is buy us dinner. The Cliff House has a great steak.” She took him by the arm.
“Is that the place overlooking the ocean? If so, I think I’d prefer to skip it. I’ve had enough salt water for a lifetime.”
“Mayes’ Oyster House is good. Have you ever had abolone?”
“Can’t say that I have. How about Chinese? I hear San Francisco has a great China Town.” He reached up and tapped the rim of his dark glasses. “Every since I’ve gotten these, I’ve been wanting to try my luck with chop sticks.”
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith