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Two Blind Men and a Fool

by Sherman Smith

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Chapter 53: A Blind Man and a Clown

Stella had wanted to call the bar Earl’s Place. Earl argued that it made the place sound like a cheap gin joint. They settled on Stella’s, By Starlight. With Earl’s crooning and magic on the keyboard, Stella’s soon became a popular night spot. Their location in the Marina was a natural.

Three months passed, with eleven bartenders come and gone; they were happy, but overworked. They only needed two good employees, and that was the problem: they couldn’t pay enough to keep quality help, and without quality help they couldn’t grow enough to be able to afford paying them. The problem in finding good help nagged at them on a daily basis.

Earl muttered to himself as he washed glasses in a sudsy sink. He hated the dish detail. His left little pinky stung from a small cut when he had broken a glass. He kept his hands near the surface knowing that there was broken glass beneath that he could not see. Being a blind bartender had its challenges; washing the glasses he preferred to leave to the sighted.

The last bartender had lasted about as long as his predecessor, and he had lasted less than a week. It was Friday afternoon, only a few hours away from their busiest night of the week, and the Help Wanted sign still hung in the window. Stella had gone to the store for last-minute shopping. The bar needed stocking, tables cleaned, floor swept — a game Earl reluctantly called blind man’s bluff. “Nuts,” he swore aloud, “nuts, nuts, and more frigging nuts.”

* * *

Tired, short, pudgy, and mostly bald, Stub Wilcox, was frustrated, hungry, and depressed, having lost three jobs in a week due to no fault of his own. He could not help being the way he was. His curse had come to him when he had been an early teen.

For years he had lived with his mom and pop in a small apartment above the bar his dad owned. He had managed his condition, had hid it the best he could, until his pop had grown too old to run the bar. Stub had tried, but the stress had been too much, in time he had lost the bar. The hurt in his pop’s eyes he would never forget. Mom had just rocked sad-eyed as she watched their life’s work slip away.

Now he struggled to just find good honest work. The Army wouldn’t take him, even in the desperate years, and now the veterans had first shot at most of the jobs.

The afternoon was succumbing to the early shadows of evening, and Stub did not have dime one to his name. A day’s work with a few tips might get him a room for the night, a half a loaf of white bread with some Spam.

He sucked in his pride along with his gut, pasted on a good bartender’s smile, waited for his tic to pass six times, then pushed open the door as he took the sign out of the window. “It says here that you are in need of a good bartender,” he announced with determination. He tossed his head suddenly to the side twice before regaining control of his seizure. “You can stop looking, I’m your mah... man.”

“Who says?” a man asked from behind the bar.

Stub noted that the man had not turned in his direction, hadn’t seen his tic. Yet. Grateful for an unprejudiced introduction, he answered. “My name is Stub, Stub Wilcox, and a better man for the job you will never meet.” His right arm rose high above his head, his fingers mimicking a bird as he lied, “I just got in town from Chicago, couldn’t stand the winters. The Windy City’s loss is your gain. Is the boss in?” His arm dropped down with a resounding slap to his thigh.

Earl turned at the unusual sound. “At the moment you are looking at him.” Without thinking Earl’s hand slipped too deep in the water. He barely felt the cut as his hand slid across broken glass.

“Wilcox? I knew a Harry Wilcox from Chicago back when I was in the merchant marine. Any relation? No, I suppose not. How long have you been bartending?” The guy has a good voice, Earl thought, friendly, good-natured, someone you can share your thoughts with. That there is the makings for a good bartender. What the hell, I’ll give the guy a shot. Stella will be happy as a lark we’ve got someone for tonight.” He heard peanut shells crunch as the man stepped forward.

“I started in my pop’s bar back in 1919, poured more than my share, even during Prohibition, not that I would admit to nothin’ in front of a flatfoot.” He noted the dark glasses. “Say, wait one moment. Well, I’ll be darned... you are...”

“Blind,” Earl finished. “And you are hired. My name is Earl.” He held out his hand, a little bright red blood dripped noticeably from his cut.

“That must hurt.”

“What, being blind?” Earl absently scratched his cheek leaving a livid red stain.

“No, your finger, you’ve got a nasty cut. “Stub threw his neck back as far as he could to the left, then slapped his face as he bit down on each repeated word. “Cah... cut... cah-utt... utt... cut.”

Earl missed the relevance of the Stub’s repetition as he tasted his injured finger, then pulled it sharply back as his tongue pierced the wound. “Damn, now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve sliced the tip of my finger off. Damn that hurts.” He shook his finger in pain, marking glasses and a few nearby bottles with speckles of red.

Stub stepped quickly forward, crunching peanut shells with each step. “Hold... stah... still and let me take a look at that.” He grabbed a bar rag as he held Earl’s finger up for inspection. “That, pal, is going to take more than a bandage.” He wrapped the cloth around the finger and pressed down. “Got a First Aid kit?”

Earl shook his head. Stub found a strong rubber band, took off the towel, and slipped it over the bloody finger, rolled it tight enough to cut off the flow of blood, then secured it with a toothpick. “Hold this tah... tight while I see how bah... bad it is.”

Without much concern for pain, he washed his new boss’s finger under cold water and held it up for inspection.

“Sonofabitch, that hurts,” Earl grimaced as he let the pressure slip from the rubber band.

“I said, hold that tigh... tight.” Stub opened a few drawers, found a rubber glove, cut off the first two knuckles worth of a rubber finger and slipped it firmly over Earl’s throbbing digit, the pressure of the rubber bringing the raw edges of the wound together. A second rubber band tightened it down to stop most of the bleeding. The rubber band was loosened, the toothpick slipping silently to the floor, as Earl felt the makeshift bandage.

“Hold that in an ice buh... bucket for about ten minutes,” Stub said, “and you should be-be-be fine. I’d leave that on until morning just to be-be safe.” He filled a bucket with ice and water, put Earl’s hand in it, grabbed an apron, and started to clean up Earl’s mess.

The finger throbbed, but the ice helped with that. “You’re not bad in a pinch,” Earl said, grateful for the help. “Were you a medic in the service?”

Stub left the question unanswered.

Earl sat and listened to Stub go about his work. The new man worked fast and efficiently, asked few questions as he explored the setup behind the bar. Yes, sir, Earl thought, Stella will be pleased. His smile slowly disappeared as he thought about the evening. Friday night was the busiest night of the week, and he was going to have to play second fiddle. A one-handed bartender was about as good as a Kentucky mule in a brewery. He pulled his hand from the ice bucket testing his finger. Ouch! Playing the piano is going to be a little more than a challenge. Damn fool, Earl, why can’t you be more careful?

Most of the bars that Stubs had worked at had a stocking and supply system that was everywhere much the same: booze that moved was usually placed front row, easy to reach, with extra bottles behind. The more expensive, exotic liquors were well-lit on a high shelf to tempt those with thicker wallets. Not here. The gins and the bourbons were not together. It was almost as if the bottles were arranged by height or shape.

“U... U... Eureka,” he thought aloud, “this here bar is set up for a blind man.” He turned and looked for a moment at Earl with admiration. He had never heard of a blind bartender. A blind bartender, now that took some doing. And then it came to him: if there was ever a watering hole where he could hang his hat, it just might be here.

U... U... Eureka. Earl had heard that before: the stutter. He thought it strange that he hadn’t caught it earlier. He held his finger up as if he could see it. He had been distracted, but perhaps the time was good to explore this a little more. “Do you prefer to go by Stub or by another name?” he asked.

Stub spoke before Earl could finish. “I prefer to go by Stub... prefer to go by Stub... prefer... go by Stub ... prefer to go by Stub... another name... nah... prefer nah... name.”

“What the hell?”

“I’m sa... sorry.” Stub implored, as his head arched back, his hands hitting the beer tap multiple times splashing the area with suds. “I’ve got a handi... cah... handicap that is hard to con... con... trol. I’m worse with str... streh... stress.” He looked long and hard at his new boss, thinking all the while that he was about to be canned. “Once given a chah - chance, I’m still the bah... bah... best bartender you’ll ever hire.” His voice quieted as he struggled for a little dignity. “Second to you, that is. I’ve got to admire whah... what you have accomplished.”

The short silence that followed was as thick as molasses. Earl laughed with a deep guffaw as he remembered someone with a similar condition back at the veterans’ hospital. For the next few minutes their brays mimicked each other until they almost collapsed in hysteria.

Stella heard them from the street. Her eyes went wide with surprise as she entered to find Earl practically rolling on the floor, his hand shielded in part of a rubber glove held high, matched only by a stranger who seemed to mimic Earl’s every move. Her eyes wild with curiosity. “A blind man and a clown,” she said with a haughty air. “Earl has got that covered on two accounts. And who the hell are you?” she laughed.

* * *

A week passed, and Stub still held the job. It didn’t take long for him to endear himself to the regulars. Whenever Earl played Stella By Starlight, which he opened with every night, the notes would trigger Stub’s tic, his arm would fly up and whatever drink he was tending would rain down.

Stella bought him a yellow rain slicker, and an opening act with a few friendly ribs back and forth between Stub and Earl was launched. Stub managed to do the work of two bartenders even on the busiest of nights. He didn’t care about the pay; he had finally found a home and a family.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith

Proceed to Challenge 572...

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