The Bell Ringer Ch. 02byJakeRivers©
Authors note: This is a two-part story! Make sure you read Chapter One first for background and context! There have been three times as many reads for Chapter 2 as Chapter 1.
THE CORRAL THEATER 1949
I woke up the next morning, more sober than for... I couldn't remember. But I felt like hell. My hands were shaking and my head felt funny. Gene came in and opened up and gave me a pint, not the best stuff but better that I usually drank. I had this image of me standing there, ripping off the top and guzzling the bottle down, feeling the hot relief, burning at first, then peace.
Instead I put the bottle in a pocket of the overall's, nodded a thanks to Gene and mumbled something about the clothes. I went outside into a brilliantly sunny day. Cold in the shade, but more than a hint of warmth in the sun. There was not a breath of air.
I'd thought that with the big meal I'd eaten the previous night I wouldn't be hungry. I walked east on Douglas, almost to the Chevy dealer. There was a breakfast place that had simple, but good hearty food. For two bucks from the five that John gave me I had ham and eggs, biscuits and all the coffee I could drink. With a smile the waitress gave me a tall glass of cold milk. She remembered me from before when I was a beat cop and would stop off after the night shift. This was the first time she had seen me clean in a long time.
On the way back uptown I stopped off to talk to Gene for a few minutes. He was cleaning the mirror behind the bar but stopped and grabbed two cups and filled them from the coffee pot always there at the end of the bar.
"Crane, I've got to say, you clean up pretty good! You should get yourself looked at, it's lookin' like the jaundice is getting worse!"
I looked down, and then looked him in the eye. I wanted to really thank him. I started to talk but he beat me to it.
"I might be outta place here and if I am tell me. I can be a blunt old fool. I like you, Crane, always have. I remember what you were like before you went off to the war, and it's sad, the way you are. People talk about war and fighting like it is a manly, gallant thing to do. I don't think that way, never have! War is sometimes necessary; man's gotta take care of his own. But war kills people; it ruins lives.
"I'd like to help you if you'll let me. I know you're still a man. You look like hell but you got some pride left! I felt good leaving you here alone last night. I didn't have to worry none 'bout someone breaking into the bar, like it's been happenin' up on North Broadway. I knew you weren't gonna take no booze I didn't give ya. I trust you man!
"I'd like you to know you can stay here any night. You can have a glass at night and a pint in the morning. I'll give you a couple bucks for breakfast. You can use the shower like you did last night. I like the way you left everything clean! I just ask that you maybe clean up the bar a little, sweep up, things like that. Okay, Crane?"
I couldn't answer, with tears in my eyes I nodded and walked out.
It was a little warmer. I crossed to the train station and sat on a bench in the sun. I was lookin' at myself and it wasn't good. I thought of my kids. With a sad heart I sat there, dozing a little in the sun. Later I looked up at the clock on the tower and saw it was maybe time I could go over to see John at the movie theater. I could sweep the floor or something for him. It sounded good – to do something for someone.
I got to the corner down from the Corral and could see the girl, (Annie was it?), standing there in the sun, ringing her bells. The Saturday shoppers would walk by and for a cheery, "Merry Christmas" would drop a few coins, maybe a folded up bill into the kettle. I walked a little closer as I saw four or five others, three men and two women dressed like she was, in the dark wool uniform.
They started singing and I realized they were going from kettle to kettle, maybe to draw more attention to the kettles or maybe just to sing Christmas carols. They sang several of the old standards and then started in with "Joy to the World." On one of the stanzas, Annie did a solo. The crowd hushed and you could hear her clear contralto voice rising above the traffic on Douglas.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.
Before I hadn't really been listening to the words, but this time they jumped out at me. I don't know, I guess it was Annie doing the singing, or her voice was so pure and clean, but then maybe I needed those words at that time.
As the carolers finished and the crowd cleared, I stood there, watching Annie. She had the uniform on, as I'd said, but the bonnet was off today and the sun made her hair shine, almost a halo sitting on her head. She looked like a porcelain doll, clean-cut features, an aurora of innocence hovering over her.
As I walked over, her face lit up with a huge smile and as she put out her hand and said, "Good afternoon, Crane! You look nice today."
Her hand felt comfortable in mine, soft but capable. Somehow I got the feeling it was a no-nonsense hand, one made for doing, for working and not just an appendage to decorate with paint and jewelry. Managing a small smile I saluted her with my hand and turned towards Corral. Hesitating at first, then giving in to some atavistic need I thrust my hand in my pocket and with a quick movement put the three dollars change from breakfast in the kettle and turned hurriedly back to the theater.
It was about an hour before opening and John hadn't had a chance to sweep up between all the seats. He was glad to have me there to help. I started working, not feeling too good. There was a sharp pain where I knew my liver was. I started sweating and had to sit down for a bit. I got the job finished and went out to get a soda from John. I felt dehydrated and knew I needed some liquid.
I went in and sat, waiting for the people to arrive and the movie to start. I dozed a little and woke up to hear Gene singing to his horse, Champion. I pulled out my pint to have a small nip; to be honest I didn't want it, it was a habit! I felt like crap. I tried a swallow anyway and gagged as I broke into a sweat again. I put the bottle back into my pocket and managed to fall asleep.
I awoke when John turned the lights on; everyone was gone. As I walked up the aisle with him, he turned to me and asked, "You don't look too good, you got a place to sleep tonight?"
I mumbled a faint "Yes" and walked over to Gene's place. There was only one customer and Gene asked if I wanted a shot. I shook my head no and asked if it was okay if I went in and lay down.
On his nod I went into the storeroom and collapsed on the cot. I realized later my body was totally worn out.
It was a strange night. A vision of "little girl in the dirt," came to me, but somehow different. She had a "Mona Lisa" smile on her face. Later the face was Annie's on the emaciated little girl body. By that time I was half delirious.
The next morning, Sunday, the bar didn't open so I took my time shaving and taking a shower. I noticed Gene had left a stack of used clothes on the table in the storeroom. The clean clothes felt good on my body. I felt a little better, but shaky. I made some coffee, and emptied the pot sitting at the bar, a cup at a time, looking into the mirror.
I thought about pouring some of the bourbon into the coffee, but I wasn't sure I could drink it. I wasn't hungry at all. I felt... apathetic. I went back and lay down on the cot. I woke to darkness outside. I felt like there were large rodents inside my body, gnawing away. Even the thought of drinking water made me dizzy. I staggered down the street to the Corral.
I had to stop every few doors. A cold wind had come up and I didn't bring a coat. I felt like my body was shutting down, as if it had independently decided it didn't want to live like this anymore. At that point I wasn't going to argue with it.
I made it down to the Corral again. Leaning against the poster of Gene Autry, trying to catch my breath. I could hear music, horns playing, softly in the distance. Was this it? Was this what it was like to die?
The music came closer; I could now hear singing, a song heard years ago:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
I could see them coming, a band playing music, dressed in the uniforms Annie and Bill had been wearing. There were trombones, trumpets, baritones and a bass drum. I could see Annie in the first row alongside a small dark haired girl, both of them playing alto horns. Behind the band was another group, dressed the same way but without instruments, as they marched past I could hear the singers, continuing:
Gates of hell can never 'gainst that church prevail;
we have Christ's own promise, and that cannot fail.
I started walking on the sidewalk, following their progress. When they got to the corner of Broadway and Douglas, they pulled up in a semicircle facing the Kress Five and Dime, standing in the bus stop. They started playing Christmas carols and a crowd gathered round, watching the free entertainment.
I watched and listened, my body numb by this time, my mind floating free.
A man stepped forward, raising his hand slightly, as if asking for silence. He started talking:
"I was in the war to end all wars. I got caught up in the killing lust and I got angry with God. I swore at him! Forgive me, I cussed him out. How could he do this to us?"
I heard him, almost as a memory. Something tugging at me.
"Friends, I was standing where you are a few years ago. I was angry at the world! My wife had left me and I was angry with her! But that night a man asked me to let go of my anger, to talk with God again. I fell down on my knees that night and I did talk to God."
I felt something break within me, my body, my mind. I leaned forward, pushing through the crowd, and fell to the ground. I rose up to my knees, crying, face awash with tears, calling out to I knew not who, man or God, "Help me! Oh, help me!" and with the world suddenly dark I faded away.
I heard noises, faintly, like I had earplugs on. I opened my eyes, it was dark and I closed them.
Later the bright sunshine on my face woke me up. I could hear clearly. A nurse in uniform put her hand on my forehead and then a thermometer in my mouth. Taking it out a couple of minutes later she smiled and put her hand on my cheek.
A colonel walked in with a uniform on, a doctor from the insignia on his collar. "I'm Colonel Carnes, but I prefer either Doctor, or Phil."
I tried to talk, throat dry, my voice hoarse.
"Here, have some water. You were under sedation."
Drinking some, I tried again. "What happened?"
"Well, Mister Hanson, may I call you Crane?" At my nod he continued. "Well, Crane, your body just quit. You collapsed in front of Kress and the ambulance took you to St. Francis. It was touch and go. It looked like your liver was going to quit; you came close to dying. Your body did start responding and after you stabilized somewhat you were brought over here to the VA Hospital. All they had was your name, but the guy from the Salvation Army thought you were a vet and they checked with us.
"I'll talk to you more later, but we want to keep you here for a few weeks. Your body chemistry is all messed up so I want you in the hospital for at least a week until you gain a little weight. You have lost over thirty pounds from when you were here before.
"Then I want to move you to the physical therapy ward for about a month. I understand you don't have a place to live now and it will give us a chance to help find you something. Also, you don't have to, but we have a group of guys, like you that went through terrible experiences during the war. They meet once a week for lunch and just talk to each other. Their experiences are such that a person that hasn't experienced that can't really understand."
"Okay, can I have visitors?"
"Let's give it another day and I'll see. Are you hungry?"
I had to think about it for a minute, but realized that I was. "Please, I am hungry. Anything is okay."
The doctor laughed, and said, "Well, not anything. Let's start with some Jell-O and maybe some soup a little later. After you eat the Jell-O you need to sleep some more."
Later the nurse brought me some chicken soup. Tasted like anyway, but I didn't want to question these little meaty things floating around – I might find out the answer! It was hot though and made me sleepy again.
It was night, time for more blood tests. The glass of water tasted great.
Sunshine again, a new day. The doctor stopped by to tell me he had okayed visitors. "What about my kids, Doc?"
"I'd rather wait for anything emotional until next week, okay? Later today we need to talk about what happened to you and what's next."
Bill came in, with his uniform on.
"Bill, it's good to see you. I'm not sure whom to thank for what but I'm sure you had a key part in it! Anyway, thanks!"
"That's okay, Crane. God put me in a position to help so I did. You are looking so much better now. I hate to say it, but you look like death warmed over, which is a huge improvement," the Major said with a chuckle. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Yeah, Bill. Several things. I'd like to talk to that guy that was talking when I collapsed. I need to talk to someone who has gone through hell like I have."
"That one is easy. That was Ike Johnson. He got that moniker 'cause his head looks like Eisenhower's does, pretty thin up there! He's a great guy. If he can help in any way, it'll make him happy."
"Okay, Ike it is. Could you get hold of my wife and tell her what's happened? She probably won't want to see me but I need to see the kids. I feel terrible about what I've done to my family. I wrote her address on a piece of paper on the nightstand. I don't know if she has a phone."
"Sure, Crane. The Corps Officer over there is a good friend of mine. We get together for dinner a couple times a year. I'll give him a call and have him stop by and see her."
"I've been meaning to ask, I've seen that term, "Corps" and why do you always wear a uniform, anyway?"
"I'll talk to you more about when you are feeling better but the Salvation Army is basically just a church with a strong service and missionary focus. The organization and the uniform come from the founding of our church. Each separate church is called a Corps, and I'm a Major in our little army," Bill said with a deprecatory laugh. "Was there anything else?"
"Yeah, could you get me some writing materials? I'd like to start writing some of my experiences. Somehow I feel if I can put down what I saw and lived through, my mind might deal with it better. Also I'm really lonely. The Doctor says I can have as many visitors as I want as long as they are not too emotional or stressful for me."
"Sure, Crane, I'll take care of both of those things for you.
Later the nurse came in and said, "Are you accepting lady callers?" with a twinkle in her eyes.
Not knowing whom it might be I just shrugged my shoulders.
A few minutes later Annie came bouncing in, dressed in a long black wool skirt and a white turtleneck sweater with a black beret perched on her head. She was holding a bouquet in her hands; it was made from holly and pinecones arranged around some poinsettias.
She looked like she walked off the pages of a storybook as she asked, "How are you, Crane? You do look better!"
"I guess I'm okay. I feel like I wrestled a bear and lost! You look wonderful; where is your uniform?"
"Oh, I only wear that at church or doing church stuff." With a smile she added, "This will look great in your room, Crane!" as she put the bouquet on the little dresser.
"Annie... Annie, I don't have a room. I sleep wherever I can find a place. Lately I've been sleeping in bars. That's why you saw me at the Corral Theater. The manager is an old friend of mine, I guess the only one I have left, and he lets me sleep there sometimes. Annie – you know I'm a drunk, an alcoholic!"
With eyes tearing, she replied, "Crane! I'm sorry! That wasn't very thoughtful of me. I knew you were having problems. And Bill is your friend! And Crane, I... I can be your friend too!"
Annie stayed for a half hour or so, mostly talking to me, excited at all the things the church was doing to get ready for Christmas in a couple of weeks. She finished with, "... and Bill said he would talk to the Colonel, he's known him for years, and see if you can come to the Christmas dinner!"
She was so keen on it I smiled and said, "I hope I'll be able to make it!"
We said our goodbyes, and being somewhat worn out from her energy level, I slept for several hours.
After I woke the Colonel came back in and asked with a grin, "Crane, are you ready to have our heart to heart doctor-patient talk? And don't forget, my name is Phil!"
I agreed and he helped me plump up the pillows for our talk.
"Okay, bottom line is that you have cirrhosis of the liver. The quickest way to get it is to drink more than twenty-eight units of alcohol a week for an extended period of time. That's like four shots of whiskey a day! I suspect you have been doing significantly more than that, right? By the way, if you have any questions just jump in. I'll go through this with you again in much more detail and with your current status when I release you to therapy next week."
I just nodded, dumbly.
"Okay then. Cirrhosis is a scarring of the liver caused by the breakdown of the liver structure. As I said, it is most commonly the result of an excess of alcohol. You had a bad case of jaundice and your blood was too thin to clot normally. The damage to the liver can't be repaired, but if we treat the symptoms, put you on a high protein diet, and remove the cause, you can lead a fairly normal life. Do you understand what I mean by removing the cause?"
I thought about it for a minute, suddenly scared. "Yeah, Doc. Phil, I mean. It means I gotta stop drinking, right?"
"Let me be really clear about this, Crane, you only have to stop drinking if you want to stay alive!"
"Damn! That's pretty straight, Phil! But I don't know if I can do it?"
"Well, the good thing is you don't have to do it by yourself. We work closely with Alcoholics Anonymous; in fact we have meetings right here at the hospital every day! I would highly recommend you get started with this next week. There are also daily meetings at the Salvation Army Men's Social Service Center. I'll have Bill look into that for you since you will need a place to stay once you leave here."
"I don't know if I can do it, Phil! I'm feeling shaky now!"
"I know, Crane! It will be hell for you for a few weeks. That's part of why I want you to stay here for a month after you leave the hospital part."
It was hell! There was no two ways about it. I sweat, I froze. I hallucinated, I screamed. Each day mostly got better. With sedatives I slept at night, but the doc was weaning me off them. It helped a lot that visitors came by. It was mostly Bill and Annie, sometimes alone, sometimes together.
Bill talked to me about the Social Service center, about how they provided room and board for thirty days or so, and taught a trade. They would take in furniture, whatever and learn to repair it. The one rule was no drugs or alcohol.
One day he said "I've got an idea about a place for you to live and even a job that the Colonel thinks you will be up to. This may not be what you want to do forever but I don't think you want to go back to the police force.
Annie was the reason God invented smiles. The only time ever I saw her without one was when some injustice had taken place. Then she turned into a tiger! She would read to me, tell me stories (some I'm sure she just made up!). She was also the one that brought me in some writing supplies.