© copyright 2012 by Sara Jacobelli
“So I dealt with it.” Earl drained his Heineken, looked at me. We were sitting at Johnny White’s on St. Peter.
“What are you talking about?”
He had a solemn look on his face, Earl who was usually so funny and so full of mischief. Earl the French Quarter Bartender who patiently listened to every drunk’s endless tales of triumphs and woe. Once described in a Gambit bar review of the Bastille as “your host, the devilishly attractive Earl.” Now he had a story to tell.
“Listen. I need you to listen to this.”
I no longer heard the jukebox, or any of the people talking in the bar. My eyes focused on Earl’s eyes. Sometimes you do have to shut up and listen.
“I went to this therapist; she helped me deal with it. This middle-aged black lady, she was incredible. She got it all out of me. Why I have these nightmares, what I’m so angry about, why I would get so fucked up, why I’m so crazy and irresponsible and go through life making a joke of everything.”
I looked at Earl again. I always loved looking at him and picking out what was Irish and what was Cherokee. His features, definitely Irish, but there was a smooth brownness to his skin that the pale sun-starved Irish could never achieve. The getting-crazy-when- you’re-drunk part, both Irish AND Cherokee, no doubt. Still, it was hard to imagine regular guy Earl seeing a counselor, a therapist. That sounded so California New Age. I resisted the urge to tease him. He looked so serious.
“This is the story.” He took a deep breath. “Four of us, we grew up together, in Peoria, Illinois. Played hooky, scavenged for glass bottles to cash in for change, shoplifted, got into too many fights, drank too much, ran away from home, stole clothes off clotheslines. We all ran around together in high school, like a pack of wild dogs. Then we dropped out. We all joined the military. We all got married when we got out, had a bunch of kids. Our wives were friends, our kids played together. Four best friends, like brothers, really.”
“Then one night, we were out, drinking, partying, just being crazy, you know. At this point we were probably 27-28 years old. A semi truck slams into us, dead on. I remember it, the instant it happened. “
Earl had tears in his eyes. He touched my arm. “I have to tell you this. This is really important.”
He leaned closer to me. “They all three died. Instantly. I was the only survivor. I lost my three best friends in the whole world that night. And I’ve always felt guilty about surviving. Why me?”
There were no words to say. None.
“Not long after that, I left my family and came to New Orleans, ended up bartending. Been here ever since. But I’ve dealt with it. That therapist helped me. I’m OK now. I’m alright.”
As far as I know, Earl never spoke of the tragedy again. He died a couple of years after this conversation. As much as I like to talk, I’m glad that I stopped talking and listened. I’ve thought about that night at Johnny White’s often, when Earl decided to confide in me, and of the secret pain he held inside. Most people have scars you cannot see. Everyone has a story.
Note: I hope to include some photos of Earl. If you have any, please let me know.