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SHADES OF DARKNESS by George E. Brummell
Excerpt from Chapter 21

Shades of Darkness Cover

 

shades

Fred arrived five hours late, and landed like a mortar round. Johnson's older brother, like many sighted people when encountering the blind, felt the need to speak to Johnson and me in a loud voice. He yanked my arm as he pumped my hand. Was he a country boy too, accustomed to pumping water?


I tried to retreat, but Fred's big palm was glued to mine. He released it, only to grab it again. Then I felt him press both sides of his rough face against the back of my hand. Next he grabbed my head in both of his hands, like a melon. He jerked my head down and pressed his broad forehead against mine. His mouth was damn near touching my nose, like he was speaking into a microphone.


It was about as bizarre as being propositioned in the bus station men’s room, and equally disorienting. I no longer could read people by their expressions, only their voices and actions. And this guy was acting mighty weird. My mother had tried to run me down and then threatened to shoot me, a stranger tried to seduce me at a urinal, and now this guy was acting like a child with a rag doll. Was there something about being blind that made me a target for crazy people?


I kept expecting Johnson to pipe up and rescue me, but not a peep out of him. Fred laughed and told me repeatedly how glad he was to meet me.


The smell of garlic, wine, fish, and cigar smoke repelled me backward, but my new friend doggedly followed. I tried to wag my head loose from his grip, but his large hands held firm. Finally he let go, then hugged me with one arm, pulling my small frame close. I was a bug to his flypaper.

"Meet my friend, John," Fred said expansively, his thick arm beneath mine, shoving me forward. He turned me loose again, but only for a second. He grabbed my right hand and placed it in John's smooth palm. I was learning that handshakes were an important way to take the measure of some of the people I met—a firm handshake suggested a strong personality. John’s hand was moist, slim, with long fingers. His grip was limp but he pumped my arm fast. For a second he covered my hand with his as if saying everything is alright my friend.


"He-e-ey." John said, slow and smooth. His metal heel plates clinked and scraped on the linoleum. I could smell his leather jacket, and hear it crumple as his arm returned to his side. He was chewing Juicy Fruit gum, rather vigorously for how slow he talked. The two smells fought with each—the cloying sweetness of the gum and the dark, earthiness of the leather. I wondered if he was standing there looking stunned and embarrassed by Fred’s loony antics. But he sounded like he hadn’t even noticed.

"My ma-a-an! What's happenin’?" he said.

“Great meeting you Fred.”

“Come on man, let’s get this show on the road, cut the bull shit,” Johnson said impatiently.

I guessed that both of these guys were soused, but the prospect of excitement was a powerful lure. It might be my only chance to sample Chicago. I might be blind and beat up, but I was still an otherwise healthy, spirited 22-year-old. So I rolled the dice and signed on for the adventure. We piled into Fred’s long Buick, and he played the jocular bus driver, laughing loudly and continuously, talking fast, infusing the car with cheap cigar smoke as the car slipped and slid down the snowy highway into downtown Chicago. Happily, I got to sit in the back with the leather jacket, out of Fred’s sticky reach.

Fred complained about the slow moving traffic, while I told his friends how I had been injured. Johnson interrupted to tell stories of old Chicago, Prohibition, and working in the slaughgterhouses.
I felt the car slowing and descending a ramp as Fred projected his voice right, toward the passenger’s seat, where Johnson sat.

"Where you goin’, Bro?"

"I thought we'd stay by your place." I didn’t like the sound of that. Johnson had made it seem like we were all set up with a place to sleep.

"Oh no, Bro!” Fred chuckled. “No way! You ‘member what happened last time. ‘Sides, I ain't got room. I'll take you down to Bruno's Place. You can figure it out from there."

"Damn, Fred! I got my man with me, can't you see? You can let us stay one night, can't you?"

"Hell no! I tol’ you the deal! Bruno's!" John piped up from my left, talking to the back of Fred’s head.

"Come on, man. He’s your brother, and it’s only one night."

"You ain't got nothin’ to say about it,” Fred snapped. “This is family business. What you don’t know is that the last time Bill was at my house he got all liquored up. He knows he's ain’t supposed to, what with his diabetes and all. But he does it anyway. And what happens? He sets my son's bed on fire! Almost killed us all. Goddamned mess."

"Okay, okay,” John said. “Forget about it. We're almost to Bruno's.”
The car jolted over several railroad crossings—I could hear train whistles in the distance—slowed, crunched to stop, and Fred killed the engine. "Here we are!"

Before I could locate the handle for the door, Fred had sprinted around and opened it for me. I unfolded my cane and stood by the car. Little needles of cold prickled my face and hands—snow. It was snowing hard, but after the fog of cigar smoke, the fresh, crisp air energized me. I took a deep breath. I remembered from my blind training to make sure I had a clue where I was, just in case.

"Johnson, what street is this?” I had told the folks at Hines I was visiting Johnson and given them his brother’s address and phone number. I had enough money to call Hines or to pay for a ticket on the train.

"Cottage Grove,” he answered. “Damn it’s cold! You've probably heard of it, George. It’s the same street Lou Rawls mentions in that song, what the hell was it? Used to be a lot of jazz and blues happening around here, but lately it’s died down some."

Fred was stuck to me again, this time guiding me to the bar. Johnson knew the area so well that he took off independently. "You'll be alright, George,” Fred said. “My brother knows everybody here. Watch it. There's a big mound of snow here we gotta climb over.”

At the top of the mound, fighting for my footing, a sudden gust of Lake Michigan wind came whipping around a corner and nearly slammed me to the ground. I recovered and tottered like an old man across the ice to the door. A cloud of warm, fetid air enveloped me as we crossed the threshold. I instantly recognized it as a dump. The stench was overwhelming—sour, stale, brown. Angry male voices at different ends of the room were exchanging insults. Even the women were swearing.

We paused near the sound of glasses clinking and kerplunking into water. Fred pulled out a bar stool for me. It wobbled so you could hardly sit on it, and the stuffing had erupted where the vinyl seat was ripped. Palm down, I swept my hand lightly across the bar top—dusting, I call it. I encountered a puddle—beer by the smell—a full ashtray, and a toppled beer can.

"Well, Brother George!” Fred shouted, smacking me on the back. “I gotta be goin’. Gotta pay off my winners. I write numbers, you know." I didn’t, but I wasn’t surprised.

As soon as Fred left, Johnson yelled, “Bruno! Bruno! I know you're there ‘cause I can hear you!" He pounded the bar. "Whaddaya want, Bill?" Bruno finally answered. I felt a tap on the shoulder. Bruno said, "Could you move your arm, son? Gotta clean up this mess.”

The rag hit the bar with a slap and the can landed somewhere with a clatter. "Okay. That’s better. Now, Bill? Usual?"

"Yeah. Double scotch with milk." "And for you, sir?" "Make mine a single whiskey sour."

A hand came to rest on the back of my right shoulder and an unfamiliar male voice appeared at my left ear. "Hey, man, can you tell me which way to State Street?" He draped his right arm across my back. I got that queasy Fred feeling.

"Sorry. I'm not from around here." The bartender clunked my drink down in front of me. I reached into my front pocket and pulled out a bill I had carefully folded so I’d know it was a twenty. I had a fiver stuffed in my left front. I had been taught not to carry any bills over a twenty and had a billfold with three sections—one for fives, one for tens, and one for twenties. Singles I carried in my pocket. At Hines they had also taught me about folding bills to tell them apart—twenties in half and tens in quarters.

The bartender moved off without taking the twenty, but suddenly it was plucked out of my hand just as the stranger behind me dropped his arm and his footsteps shuffled toward the door. Damn!

"Hey! Call the cops! Some guy just ran off with my twenty! Jesus Christ! Are you all blind or something?" I was so pissed off, the unintended joke didn’t hit me for a few beats. I shook my head with weary recognition.

“Oh George man, I’m sorry I should have warned you.,” Johnson said.

“You can’t take out big bills down here. I thought you knew that!”
The bartender returned. "Hey, brother. I’m really sorry about that. Goddamned punks, takin’ advantage like that.”

“Well, call the cops, man! I was robbed! In plain sight!”

“Look, buddy, forget about the cops.” He leaned toward me, lowered his voice. “Too much trouble. You know what I mean? In a place like this? Look, drinks are on the house, all right?" He gave my shoulder a squeeze. "This shit happens all the time, even to people who are just drunk. Ya gotta be careful, ‘specially you."

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