POETS CAN’T SING
Stella was a petite bottle-blonde, deliciously curvy, with a haughty, sultry, heart - shaped face, who looked far younger than her thirty-seven years. In her rose-colored evening dress, she was a knock-out. She sat in the empty bar with her chin nested in her hands and stared at the piano. It wasn’t a Steinway, far from it. It was a broken-down old clunker which she had paid six bucks for at an estate sale. With three keys missing on the piano, the estate agent should have paid her for taking it off their hands. Now she hoped that it would be the best six bucks she had ever spent.
In a moment of profound feminine insight, or stupidity, she had foolishly bought a shuttered night club out in the fog- smothered avenues of San Francisco as a gift for Earl and Brooks, her fellas. The club — like the piano — was overdue for life support and could aptly be named The Dearly Departed. Foolish? Yes, and then some. For the time being it would remain nameless. She was a nurse. What business did she have owning a bar? Buying the bar had been a last desperate bid to keep Earl and Brooks together, which is not easy when you have two blind men who can’t stand the sight of each other. She loved these two cantankerous men, and it tore at her heart when they argued like two schoolboys caught in a testosterone haze.
She lifted her chin and crossed her fingers. “Please, not for me, but for them,” she begged all the gods and lucky charms that could be called upon. Tonight she would need more than luck. She needed some good old-fashioned magic. New Year’s Eve, 1947, was coming at her like a runaway locomotive on greased tracks.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Time ran too fast.
New Year’s Eve and the wall clock said that she had fifty- eight minutes until the doors were to be opened. No, make that fifty-seven minutes. She had called in all her IOUs and made a few herself. Now there was nothing to do but wait. Gibby and Henry, her waiters, busied themselves stocking the bar as she sat at the piano, tapped a key or two, and sang low and soft to herself.
The doors opened. Show time.
She and Earl sat near the piano. She smiled at Earl as she slipped her hand from his. She nervously lit another cigarette, inhaled, then blew out a blue smoke ring. The place was busting at the seams, tables full, with customers waiting at the door. The air was already thick with pungent tobacco smoke. Noisy. She could barely hear herself think. Earl found and patted her hand.
The train was running fast and she had this nagging feeling that there was a sharp curve just ahead.
Stub slopped drinks from behind the bar while Ivory frantically worked the floor, seating guests and serving the drinks. She wanted to jump into the fray and lend a hand but she couldn’t leave Earl. Henry had stepped out and would deliver Brooks at eight which was in little less than an hour. If it hadn’t been for Henry none of this would have happened.
The worst thing she could imagine was Brooks walking in the door right now. This was Earl’s moment, and she knew he wasn’t about to share it, especially with Brooks. She looked at the clock and made a mental note to throw the damn thing out later.
Earl was blind. He sat beside her, nursing a Manhattan, running the music through his head, as he waited for his moment. He was of medium build and average height, with salt and pepper hair, more salt than pepper. He was considered by many of her female competitors to be a handsome man.
Tonight Earl was wearing the white tux and top hat she had given him. The red and purple spider web scars that crept out from behind his dark glasses added character. At thirty-six he had the beginnings of a drinker’s double chin. His dark blue bow tie was askew. She had given up trying to keep it straight. He was a piece of work, complex and as difficult as the day is long. She wouldn’t have him any other way.
Earl listened to the murmur of conversations, laughter, an occasional cough, the clink and clack of bottle glass. “Stella,” he asked, “the piano, it has been fixed? It has all its keys? It’s tuned?”
“You ask me again and I’ll scream,” she answered. He had been questioning ad nauseum.
Earl nodded, then finished his drink. When he first got out of the Veteran’s Hospital he had played for tips and chump change at a small piano bar. The owner had insisted that he only play mellow night music. He had protested that it was a goddamned piano bar. Nobody wants to sing along with ‘Sleepy Time Down South.”
That got him nowhere. He ramped it up. They came to a mutual agreement, and he was given his walking papers. Tonight was his night, and he was going to play and sing the blues as only a blind white man can who happens to be terrified of the dark. He stood and held his arm out for guidance. “I’m ready.”
Stella escorted him to the piano. She made sure the piano bench was positioned right where he needed it before he sat down. She started to reach for his tie to straighten it, but opted not to. Table candles reflected in his dark glasses as she whispered in his ear. “This is your moment in the sun, love.” She kissed him warmly on the cheek. “Would you please share just a little of it when Brooks gets here? For me.”
He leaned into her kiss, making no promises in return. He sat motionless as Stella introduced him. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen and friends, for coming tonight to this... this place without a name.” Her laugh sounded nervous and put-on. “I’m looking for the right inspiration. Ideas, anyone?” The laughter returned was genuine. “Please welcome my inspiration, Mister Earl Crier.”
Earl flexed his fingers then struck a few experimental notes. He swept into a tune so gently the audience listened before they knew that it had even begun. His voice had a deep rich bluesy roadhouse quality etched with a touch of irony. He sang straight down the middle of the note, and understood the emotions in a way that made you feel as if he was letting you in on a story he had just made up.
Stella stepped back to the bar and took a gin and tonic from Henry. Her eyes searched the crowd as she tracked the facial expressions around the room. Earl was in top form, his music as lovely as a warm wind in the shade. The crowd quieted as they, too, fell in love with her guy. She tapped out her cigarette then raised her glass towards the audience, then clicked a finger nail several times on the glass as she turned towards Earl.
Earl heard the click and the crackle of ice in Stella’s glass; a crystal chime. “Here’s to our Stella by Starlight,” he spoke into the microphone. His voice a portrait of his soul, as his fingers danced across the keyboard, and he began to sing.
The front door opened, followed by a disquieting murmur from the crowd. Stella turned. There in the doorway stood Brooks. Her moment in the starlight blew away like an old playbill on a cold winter’s night. He had arrived early, and if anything he knew how to make an entrance. Oh Brooks, not now, she thought. All eyes were riveted on him. He was reedy thin, and Abraham-Lincoln tall. He was dressed in a black tux, white bow tie, and a black top hat. The murmur of surprise that rippled across the room was drawn by Brook’s most remarkable feature, a white silk cloth that had been made into a mask that slipped over his head, the open end just touching his shoulders, with a hole for his mouth and a sewn-on black sash that marked where his eyes should have been.
Stella had made it replace the hideous bandage that covered the face he had lost when a Nazi V-2 Rocket had made a direct hit on his favorite pub in London. The room grew still in a mixture of curiosity, and anticipation. She noticed the tremor in her hand as she lit another cigarette and glanced nervously at Earl.
Earl could taste the change in weather but couldn’t quite determine the storm’s direction. His voice softened, his fingers lighter on the keys, as he continued to sing:
That’s Stella by starlight,
And not a dream . . .