Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
Chapter 51: A Foolish Heart
Everything should have been perfect.
It was New Year’s Eve, 1947. The Crown Room at the Hotel del Coronado was as beautiful as Stella had imagined. They had just ordered escargot, a hearts of palm salad, followed by lobster thermidor, when Marcus spoke. Somehow she knew what he was about to say, and her only thought was Oh, please don’t... No... don’t.
“Stella, you are about to dine with General Marcus Drake.” He gave her an affectionate wink and waved a hand towards a waiter. “I’ve been jumped two paygrades as the new Commanding Officer of the new School for Army Medicine at Fort Sam Houston. I’m to report in three weeks.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box and opened it slowly. The waiter appeared with an ice bucket and an expensive bottle of champagne. With a Cheshire Cat grin he stood motionless as Marcus popped the question.
All eyes were on Stella in silent expectation. Oh no, please don’t. I can’t, she thought as her eyes glistened as bright as the diamond ring. “Will you, Stella Tate, do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
The champagne cork popped and overflowed as Stella stared at the ring. Somehow she had known that tonight would be the night. She had thought about it, thought that she would say yes. What girl wouldn’t? Marcus was the catch of a lifetime. In her wildest dreams she had never thought that she would be the wife of a man like Marcus. And now he was going to be a general.
“Well...?” A well-heeled silver-haired man in his seventies teased from the next table. His wife shushed him as everyone waited for her to answer.
Slowly Stella’s eyes lifted from the ring he now held out for her to take. She looked at his eyes and knew she was about to do a very foolish thing. There was a prolonged silence as the word yes tried to rise to her lips.
She closed her eyes and saw instead the face of a man who would never see hers: Earl, the man she truly loved. She doubted she would ever see him again. The ‘yes’ died there. “I... Marcus, I’m sorry...” Tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she opened them. Her gaze was not on him but on the window and the lights of Point Loma in the distance. “I can’t.”
General Marcus Jennings Drake sat speechless as Stella rose, and whispered, “I’m sorry.” She turned and walked away. A low murmur rumbled across the room as Marcus stopped himself from running after her. He was a general after all, and was not about to beg.
Knowing that he was now the center of attention, his eyes cold ice, he casually tossed the ring in the bread basket. “I’ll be dining out on the deck,” Marcus said. He tossed his napkin over the bread basket, rose, took the champagne bottle in his other hand and walked, his posture military perfect, in the opposite direction, away from Stella.
* * *
Stella did not know what to do. She was running out of ideas, excuses, regrets, and heart. She had bought a one-way train ticket to San Francisco the morning after Marcus had proposed. She had not even called work. If she was going to burn bridges why not burn all of them? Her apartment in San Diego was prepaid for a month. Whether or not she would return, she didn’t know.
That was the problem, she just didn’t know. She had been wrong to move to San Diego in the first place. She did not want to stay in nursing; that was Mistake Number Two.
She should not have gotten involved with Marcus. Egotistical doctors usually turn out to be... egotistical doctors. That was Mistake Number Three.
Mistake Number Four was turning him down. Or was that a mistake at all? What she did understand was that she had been wrong in running away from what her heart had told her to do: to take Earl in her arms and hold him tight, to never let him go. That was Mistake Number One.
If she stayed in San Francisco she would always be looking over her shoulder, running into her past, wondering, hoping that Earl...
She lay awake at night, wondering, cursing her mistakes. During the day she searched every bar, every nook and cranny where there might be a piano. She hadn’t quite run out of places to look, but she had just about run out of hope.
She couldn’t return to San Diego. The only thing there was a little more sunshine; she would always be looking back towards the fog-shrouded hills of the Golden Gate, listening for Earl to whisper Stella By Starlight. And so she searched, not knowing what else to do.
Stella checked out the St. Francis Hotel, three other grand hotels, and five lesser-known bars off Union Square. Her heart had skipped a beat when she found the one where Earl had worked just after Gibby had died.
Earl had pissed the owner off, and the man could not have given a rat’s ass where the blind fool had gone. Earl’s trail dried to dust at the bar’s front door. There were rumors that a blind pianist was working at one of the swanky hotels in town. She was learning that rumors didn’t count for much.
Tired, she sighed as she stopped in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins. She didn’t bother to take the elevator up to the top of the Mark. A playbill posted near the elevator pronounced that the legendary Cab Calloway and Orchestra was performing for the next week and that someone by the name of Oscar Katz took top billing in the lobby piano lounge. She didn’t bother to ask any further, any place that could headline Cab Calloway was too highbrow to ever hire the likes of Earl or Brooks.
* * *
She had just about had it for the day. It was Chinese New Year, Year of the Fire Dog. The celebration would begin in a couple of hours and wind its way through the crowded streets of old Chinatown.
Her tummy grumbled, a hot bowl of won ton soup sounded good. A gin and tonic sounded better. For a dime she caught the Powell Mason Street cable car. She could have walked the three blocks to Chinatown, but the street was too steep for her high heels.
Stupid. She had only brought one pair of shoes and reminded herself every day to buy more sensible ones. She wanted to throw the shoes into the nearest trash can and go barefoot, but she couldn’t.
She took one shoe off and leaned down to rub her foot, paying no attention as another cable car rumbled by, the passengers almost close enough to shake hands. She suddenly jolted upright, searching the passing car frantically. “Earl!” she said aloud, as if he could hear her and call back. Had she seen him?
“Excuse me?” the woman seated next to her asked, surprised at her outburst.
Two sailors suddenly jumped between the two moving cable cars, clinging to handholds on the outside of the car. Stella pulled back, caught her breath, as it appeared that one of them was about to flatten her.
“Sorry, Miss, just having a little fun.” The coachman pushed his way towards them with an angry scowl. As soon the passing car cleared, the sailors dropped from the car yelling back catcalls to the furious coachman who marked their antics with loud rapid clanging of the cable car bells.
“Well, I never,” gasped the woman next to her.
“You can say that again, sister,” Stella said trying to cover a laugh with the palm of her hand. She glanced at the passing cable car as it rattled up the hill.
Earl? Why had she thought he’d be there? Not the most logical place to find a long-lost blind lover man. She shook her head. That was when she noticed that the shoe she had taken off was nowhere to be seen “Dammit.” Now this would cost her a good pair of nylons too.
The woman gave her a disapproving look.
Stella took off the other shoe and tossed it halfheartedly after the retreating sailors.
* * *
Chinatown was crowded, the streets dirty, damp, cluttered with cigarette butts, bits and pieces of firecrackers. Shredded red paper wrapping and black powder residue stuck to her nylons. She spied some oriental slippers in a store front window. She noticed the tiny feet of one of the Chinese women inside the shop and shrugged her shoulders. Her nylons were a lost cause; she just needed to be careful not to step on anything sharp.
BLAM! Pop! Pop! POP! Pop! POP!
A string of firecrackers exploded too near her feet for comfort. When her left heel landed on a hot spark, she jumped and decided then and there it was time to get off the street.
She was on Grant Street where there were no shortage of restaurants and gaudy nightclubs and bars. Shanghai Low, a famous tourist trap with a decent menu, stood closest. The restaurant was huge, its entrance jammed with people wanting a table to see the famous costumed dragon featured in the parade. They could catch the glamorous Forbidden City Revue on the second floor — if they could get a table.
“Ouch,” she squawked as someone stepped on her toes. No one paid any attention to her distress; the patrons were all demanding to be served first. She looked up and down the street where firecrackers continued to crackle and pop.
Most of the restaurants and bars were similarly packed. “Ouch.” That was the second time her foot had been stepped on, and that was one too many. “Excuse me,” she shouted as she tapped three different men on the shoulder, “Is that wallet on the ground yours?”
The men turned, searching the ground as they patted down their pockets. The crowd shifted as everyone searched for the wallet, giving her just enough room to squeeze through to the front of the line.
The headwaiter, holding a waiting list, frowned and shook his head. “You, we no serve, you cheat.”
She started to argue.
A pleasant man with a large cigar stepped forward and took the list from the waiter. He checked it once, eyeing the tables nearby, made a mark, and returned the list to the disapproving waiter.
“Please come this way,” the man said as he bit down on the cigar, picked up a menu, and guided her towards a table. “I am Mr. Low. Please consider yourself my guest this evening. Anyone so clever deserves special treatment.”
He eyed her feet. “Not a good evening to be barefoot.” He sat her at a table and handed her the menu. “For you I recommend our Sun Dried Duck. To start, I think the lovely lady would enjoy our Fruit WonTon with Pickle Sauce. It is most unusual and delicious.” With that he turned his attention back to the crowded doorway.
* * *
“You like?” Mr. Low asked as she finished her meal.
The Fruit WonTon had surprised her. It was surprisingly good. The duck she hadn’t especially cared for, but since it was on the house she was not about to complain. “Everything was wonderful, but a bit much for a girl to eat by herself.” She nodded, indicating the leftover duck.
On the wall behind Mr. Low was a framed picture of him greeting the movie stars Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. There were more pictures throughout the restaurant of Mr. Low with various celebrities.
Mr. Low stood with his hands behind his back and asked her about the loss of her shoes.
She told him about the sailors on the cable car and her search for Earl.
“He was here only last week.” Low answered excitedly. He brought his hands out from behind his back, set a pair of oriental slippers on the table, and gestured. “Blind man, about this tall? Very funny man. He ate a large order of Happy Noodles with shrimp.”
Low laughed with a broad smile. “He insisted on using chopsticks. What a mess. I told him the next time he comes, he must have a raincoat.”
“The next time?” Stella’s heart thumped Stella By Starlight at the mere thought that he was close.
“Yes, he said that he will be back. He plays a piano somewhere nearby.”
“Do you know where?”
“He told me, but I don’t remember.” Low looked sad and apologetic, then quizzical.
* * *
Stella searched every bar, nightclub and restaurant in Little Italy, Chinatown, and the old Barbary Coast off Broadway. No one had seen Earl. All she knew was that Mr. Low had said that Earl would be back. She visited the restaurant every day. No Earl. The night she had lost her shoes, she had thought that maybe, just maybe, her search was over.
One day, while searching the bars in the Marina District, she found a cozy neighborhood tavern for sale. How foolish can a girl get? She giggled to herself.
Nevertheless, she bought it for Earl, as if by doing that he would sense it and find her. For weeks a lone sign hung in the window: BLIND BARTENDER WANTED. A handbill saying the same she passed out to every bar and restaurant in the city where Earl might apply for a job if he needed one. Then she busied herself fixing up the place. A “Closed” sign hung in another window and would remain there until Earl came home.
A liquor salesman was the first to give her any renewed hope. A pianist playing at the Mark Hopkins was blind, she was told. She had to laugh because that was one of the few places she had not looked. Not true; she had gone there but had turned around in the lobby, her feet tired after a long day.
When she got to the Mark Hopkins, she saw the same poster promoting a Mr. Oscar Katz as the pianist. There was nothing about his being blind. Well, here goes, she thought, heart in hand, as she took the elevator to the Top of the Mark.
It was 5:15, and the poster said that he played nightly starting at 4:30. It was his night off, but she went up anyway. Her heart skipped a beat when the bartender said that Oscar Katz was indeed blind.
Stella returned two nights later. It was 7:00, and the place was a little more crowded. She ordered a drink and sat at a small table and watched him play.
In her anticipation of finding Earl, she felt guilty because she had almost forgotten about Brooks. And it was Brooks, silk mask and all. She watched him silently as he played and whistled a lovely ballad. He seemed happy, more relaxed than she had ever seen him before. He was in his element and had found a place where he could live with a little respect.
She said nothing. She reached into her purse and pulled out her present, something she had kept in her purse in case she ever found him again, asked a waitress to deliver it to Mr. Katz.
She left without saying hello.
Brooks held up one of the two new silk masks Stella had made for him. He stood, asking where the woman was that had brought them. The waitress guided him to the table where Stella had sat. The table was empty.
Stella could hear Brooks whistle as she rang for the elevator. She smiled. It was her song.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith