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 38: Last Call
Stella sat at the kitchen table and stared at the pen that lay on the piece of stationary in front of her. Her tea grew cold as she sat and stared at the pen as if it might jump up and bite her.
When she had gotten a call and a job offer at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, she had taken it, wasting no time in catching the next train out of town. She thought she was done with nursing. She had enough money to retire. She was in her early forties, too young to retire and too old to start a family.
And she had been single for so long that she really did not want a man in her life. That was until she started to fall in love with Earl. She had gotten too close, too fast, that was why she had run away. Loving one man would be difficult for her; a blind man was something else altogether. So, here she sat, alone and unhappy in San Diego.
That was why she stared at the pen and paper, because she couldn’t just run away. She needed somehow to say goodbye. “Dammit, you’re blind. It’s so complicated.” She had put the miles between them, but her heart was with him, and he wouldn’t let her go. Tears ran down her cheek as she picked up the pen and began to write.
I writing to you because I know that you will understand and not make a girl feel worse than she already does.
This letter is actually for Earl...
* * *
The evening started out good, quickly shifting to bad. Earl’s ill-gotten fame as a blind bartender had attracted the attention of MovieTone News, which showed up ready and eager to film with no prior request or invitation. The MovieTone van parked out front drew immediate attention throughout the neighborhood, which packed the place with the curious.
Brooks played. Earl poured as best he could while chatting it up with his fans. Gibby took orders, served, cleared tables, and tried to seat more people than the place could handle.
The drinks fell behind when Earl started singing, which meant that he was not paying attention to his barkeeping. This mess soon added to the frivolity of the evening. All of which was captured for movie audiences far and wide.
The bar was noisy, crowded, cigarette smoke thick enough to cut with a knife. To add to the confusion, Brooks was trying to sing above the clamor. Gibby needed to be in four places at the same time. There was a line at the door, and he couldn’t get there to move it along. Half the crowd hadn’t given their drink orders, and he hadn’t delivered most to those who had.
Earl was spilling much of what he poured. And a woman with a perpetual frown whined that either the toilet had overflowed or someone had peed all over the floor. His first thought was, Brooks again. Only Brooks hadn’t left the piano since Earl had started playing to the cameras. The bar only had one public bathroom so he couldn’t let it go. “Goddamned inconsiderate S.O.B.s,” he muttered to himself as he tried to push himself through the crowd.
“Hey, waiter, where are our beers?”
“Coming right up,” Gibby answered, suddenly feeling a little nauseous. He set a tray of drinks down on the wrong table, the weight suddenly too great for his hand. The numbness he had begun to feel a few weeks back had never gone away; tonight it was almost debilitating.
“I demand...” the woman with the frown screamed into his face.
“Hold your water, lady. I’m gettenaire.” Gibby did not notice that his speech had become slurred as the room seemed to swim around him.
“Order up!” Earl cried out. “Six to go.” He slid six beers cross the counter, the last knocking the first to the floor. “Oops, make that five.” The phone rang. Earl answered, leaving the beer tap running free.
“Hey, Gibby, looks like Earl needs some help,” someone called.
Gibby leaned in, with a long reach, between two customers at the bar to shut the beer tap off. He couldn’t quite reach it, but neither could he close his right hand, if he did reach it.
Earl hung up the phone.
“Eur, for Chrissake, remem shuh off the eer tap.”
“Mister, the restroom please. I’ve been waiting for—”
“Lady, will you shuh da el.” Where’s the mop? he thought as the pain grew in his chest. The room swam as he staggered through a rear door, not remembering where he was going, or why. Once inside he leaned against the wall, brought his left hand to his chest, and a pained “Ahhhh... no” became his last breath as he slid to the floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Earl Crier,” Brooks crowed as he yielded the piano to Earl.
Earl splashed his way out from behind the bar. He was tired of mixing, pouring and spilling. He was ready to fawn to the cameras with his music. With that thought in mind, he paid little heed to Gibby’s absence. “A fellow by the name of Como recently released this little number. It’s currently number one on the hit parade. Here is how it ought to be done.”
Alone from night to night you’ll find me
Too weak to break the chains that bind me.
I need no shackles to remind me
I’m just a prisoner of love.
The crowd made its own noise. The camera crew was packing up to go. They had come to shoot a blind bartender, not a crooner. Everyone wanted service that wasn’t to be had. Earl could feel that he had not captured the audience, the noise and vocalizations told him that folks were not happy. “Okay? That one did not rock your boat. That’s okay. Let’s put a little life in the party.” Earl ran his hand along the keyboard, and partially stood, as he floated a little more energy into the room.
I’m gonna give you the wheel; I’m gonna let you drive
But you gotta make me; shoofly pie
You gotta make me shoofly pie
Don’t forget the sweet molasses;
I won’t leave a crumb.
He failed to engage the audience again. He could smell trouble, but could not figure out why. NUTS! Gibby is going to skin me alive for this one, but what the hell, the night is not one to be forgotten. “Okay, folks, in honor of the MovieTone people and my sudden fame, the next round of drinks are on the house.”
The place erupted with a cheer.
What was lacking was Gibby.
Beneath his silk mask Brooks held a rare smile. The place was jumping, alive, and he for once was beginning to like himself. Of course, Mr. Dark was always with him, but Desperation and some of the other unsavory characters were off irritating someone else. He listened to Earl crank up the volume and thought, Go ahead, Earl, there is nothing you can do to ruin my evening.
He smiled to himself as he sought his hidden bottle of rye he had stashed in the back room. His throat was parched, his whistle dry, his addiction in need of a fix. Gibby cut him off when he was at the piano. If he had a drink, he was offstage for the rest of the evening. Some nights that was okay by him, but not tonight. Tonight he needed to loosen up, because tonight he was going to go back to that damned piano and whistle up something for Earl to chew on.
So, Gibby be damned, I’ll have a drink when and where I want one. He felt his way, touching familiar things, knowing exactly where he was going, the bottle of rye he hidden behind an old bag of flour. No one baked, so God only knew how old the flour might be, which made it about as safe a place to hide a bottle in a bar as there might be.
He counted the steps. At fourteen, he found something unexpected. He leaned down and felt what was blocking his way. It was warm. It was a human body. Brooks found a shoulder and shook it. “Hey, buddy you can’t sleep it off here. Say, wait one moment? Oh my God...” That was when he found the eyes, and nose. The eyes were open, there was no breath. That was when he knew it was Gibby and that Gibby was dead.
You know how bad; I need some of that Shoofly pie - shoofly pie - shoofly pie.
All right, Earl thought, I have them now. It’s a tough audience, but damn, when you hook them, they usually ride the wild train right to the station. “Okay, folks, here’s one I think you will really like.” His fingers hit the first three notes...
“Earl, it’s Brooks.” Brooks whispered loudly in his ear. Earl felt Brook’s hand fumble to find his shoulder, his grip unusually tight with nervous tension. “We’ve got a sonofabitch of a problem. It’s Gibby. He’s... he’s... ”
Earl’s fingers froze a fraction of an inch off the ivory keys. “What?” Earl demanded in an impatient low whisper. Brooks is a guy who can blow a hangnail into life-threatening surgery. But something in his voice told Earl that yes, indeed, there was a sonofabitch of a problem. “Take a breath, old buddy, and tell me in a word what’s going on. I’m losing the audience here.”
“I was in the back room, working my way to my stash. You know. That was when I almost tripped over him.”
The noise in the bar was wrong. The voices, loud, people were not happy. Through the cigarette smoke Earl smelled trouble. He was losing the audience again. He blocked out Brooks briefly as he listened to the room:
“Come on, Herbert, we’re leaving.”
“Mildred, we just got here. We’ve got drinks on the way.”
“Good luck, pal. I ordered mine ten minutes ago.”
“The bathroom is filthy. I’ve got to go.”
“Shut up, lady. Gibby’s working on it.”
“Well, I never... “
“You got that one right ...”
“Anthony, are you going to let this hooligan insult...”
It was the same across the room. Earl blew out a long breath. Frustration drew him to speak a little too loud as he focused once again on Brooks. “Gibby, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Gibby,” Brooks answered, “he’s dead.” His breath whined like an ill-gotten wind as he spoke.
Earl fell silent. His hands dropped down to the keys with a resounding off-key clink. After a moment he gave a great sigh that seemed to leave him deflated. He started to say something but couldn’t find the words.
“Hey, asshole, shut up.” Someone swore from across the room at a rowdy drunk.
A woman stood up nearby. “Hush, everyone,” she demanded with genuine concern.
“Earl, what’s going on?” The audience grew quiet.
Earl started to say something, but couldn’t quite find the words.
Brooks stood silently behind him, looking every ounce the beaten man.
Earl’s finger slowly started to play the first notes of Sentimental Journey.
“I can’t see who is here, so would anyone who has known Gibby for a long time, please come forward? Lloyd? Jake? Paul? Please?” The soft strains of Sentimental Journey held everyone in silence as Earl waited. “Someone please,” Earl asked again as the melody continued to waft across the room.
Jake McClintic, a friend of Gibby since before the war, rose and made his way to the piano. He looked around the room, saw faces he knew, many more that he didn’t. The one face he could not find was Gibby’s. “Earl, Jake McClintic here. What’s the problem?”
Earl motioned with his hand for him to come closer.
“Would you mind following Brooks into the back room? It sounds like something has happened to Gibby.” Earl touched a key, its one single note caught within the sudden silence of the moment.
“What is the problem Earl?”
“Jake, just do me a favor, and follow Brooks. I don’t want... Please just go.” Earl’s voice trailed off with emotion as tears began to slowly edge their way from behind his dark glasses.
Jake followed Brooks.
Earl started to play Tangerine but couldn’t find the notes. Serenade in Blue came next, mixed with the missing notes from Tangerine. Energy and passion from deep within his soul poured through his fingertips as he played and waited for Jake to return. His voice was rich, if not mesmerizing.
Couple of jiggers of moonlight and add a star,
Pour in the blue of a June night and one guitar,
Mix in a couple of dreamers and there you are:
Lovers hail the Moonlight Cocktail.
Now add a couple of flowers, a drop of dew,
Stir for a couple of hours till dreams come true.
Add to the number of kisses, it’s up to you.
Moonlight Cocktail... need a few.
Earl shifted uncomfortably on the piano bench as he heard the door to the back room open and close. Jake’s hand on his shoulder confirmed what he already knew in his heart had happened. “I’m sorry,” Jake whispered, “Gibby is gone.”
“Is there a doctor in the house?” Earl asked the room.
Earl turned towards Jake’s hand. “Would you mind making the call?”
“Thanks,” Earl said as he tried to hold himself together. “Brooks, do us both a favor. Pour me a double of what you’re having, pal. Keep yours a single. We’ve got enough problems without you getting pie-eyed, okay?” Earl’s hand ran all the keys in a loud roll. He then bit back his tears and sang.
Land of soap and water,
Hitler’s having a bath.
Churchill’s looking through the keyhole,
Having a jolly good laugh
“Last call, ladies and gentlemen. Last call,” Earl called out abruptly. “Last call.”
Hitler only had one left ball,
Himmler had two but they were small,
Goring lost his in the beer hall,
And poor old Goebbels never had balls at all.
The crowd roared with laughter. A few roared with anger, “Last call?”
Earl stopped singing and played one lonely note slowly over and over again as he spoke. “Ladies and gentlemen, I said last call. If you have a drink, please raise it high; if you don’t, I’m sorry, this bar is now closed. Its last drink is poured and raised now in memory of Edward Gibson, Gibby to his friends, who a few moments ago passed on.”
The cacophony of voices dropped like a rock into a pool of silence. The silence following was long and deep until it was broken by a single voice.
The single note Earl played echoed throughout the room.
“Please, finish your drink if you have one; it’s on the house. And quietly, with respect, please leave. Adam’s Place is now closed.” With that Earl played Moon Glow which he knew to have been one of Gibby’s favorites.
It must have been moonglow, way up in the blue
It must have been moonglow that led me straight to you
I still hear you sayin’, “Dear one, hold me fast.”
And I keep on prayin’, “Oh Lord, please let this last.”
The bar quietly emptied with many a sad eye cast back.
We seemed to float right through the air
Heavenly songs seemed to come from everywhere...
Earl played until the bar emptied. He played until the police arrived.
He played as the scream of an ambulance shattered the night.
He played as Gibby’s body was taken from his home of thirty-plus years. He played until only he and Brooks were left alone, the tick of the clock the only sound left at Adam’s Place. They had lost a good friend, and they had lost a good home they would now be forced to leave. But to where?
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith