The Old Monsters Bar

By Corey Lynn Fayman

t was late on a Wednesday night. That’s why the bar was so empty. It was a crappy little place in a crappy little neighborhood, located on one of those weird Tokyo streets that have no name. An aging, one-armed bartender served low-grade sake and cheap Japanese whisky and topped off your drink with tap water. Paint flaked off the interior walls. You had to go outside if you wanted to take a piss, out the back door, then fifty feet down a foul-smelling alley to a claustrophobic bathroom, all the time checking the shadows for muggers. It was that kind of a place. It was exactly what I needed on this particular night. My teaching hours at the language school had been cut that afternoon, along with half of my salary. My Japanese girlfriend had dumped me the previous weekend. I might have been feeling sorry for myself. Six-cups-of-sake sorry by the time the lizard guy walked in. I wasn’t in the mood for any more Tokyo weirdness.

It was almost closing time, just me and the bartender shooting the breeze. I don’t remember what we were talking about. I had my back to the door when it opened. The bartender’s face turned to stone. I swiveled around on my barstool to see who’d come in, thinking it must be some wannabe-Yakuza putting the squeeze on the guy. It wasn’t a man who walked in, though. It wasn’t a woman. It was six-foot-tall lizard, standing on two legs. He looked like that movie monster, except shorter, much shorter.

I looked back at the bartender, to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. He gave me a low-browed glance, the kind of look that said, “Don’t lose your shit. Don’t be a stupid American. And don’t even think about posting this on Facebook.” I should point out that this bartender had very expressive eyebrows. He could say a lot with them. He was an old guy. He knew all the monsters. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“Nice suit,” I said as the lizard guy walked by, dragging his tail on the floor. He stopped and turned to look at me, then rocked back and forth for a moment, holding his stomach and waving one of his little claw hands, acting like I’d just said the funniest thing ever. Even in my inebriated state, I could tell he was being sarcastic. Before my pickled brain could come up with another smart remark and send it out my big mouth, the bartender cleared his throat. Loudly. I turned and looked back at him. He gave me that heavy-browed look again and spoke to the lizard guy.

“You are early, sensei,” he said, using the Japanese term of respect.

The lizard guy shrugged, then walked to the other end of the bar. He couldn’t get up on the stools, I guess, not with those funny legs, so he just leaned on the bar. The bartender pulled a set of keys out of his apron, squatted down, and unlocked a strongbox hidden in the floor. He withdrew a dark red bottle from the box, grabbed a shot glass from the back counter, walked to the end of the bar, and placed both items in front of the lizard guy, then whispered something to him in Japanese. I couldn’t make out what it was. The lizard guy nodded and poured himself a drink. The bartender walked back to me. He leaned over the counter and stared at me with worn-out eyes the color of gunpowder and smoke. I hadn’t noticed his eyes before under those shaggy brows, but he hadn’t stared at me like this, either.

“I give you one more,” he said. “On house. Then you go.”

“I was here first.”

“He longtime customer. You new.”

“I won’t bother the guy. What was that bottle you gave him, anyway?”

“Special sake. Only for him.”

“You been hiding the good stuff from me?”

“It is too expensive for you.”

“How expensive is it?”

“Only for Japanese. Not for you.”

“I speak Japanese,” I said, and laid a few of my favorite Japanese phrases on him. It didn’t make much of an impression.

“Not for Americans,” he said. “Not good for you.”

“I can handle my liquor.”

“You must leave now.”

“C’mon, let me try the stuff. You said I could have another drink.”

“I give you one drink. Regular sake. Then you go. No more talk. No more questions.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I looked down toward the end of the bar, where the lizard guy was nursing his special bottle. I’d become a bit of a sake aficionado during my two years in the land of the rising sun, but I’d never seen a bottle like this one before. It made me curious. The bartender returned with a shot of the cheap stuff I’d been guzzling.

“What’s it called anyway?” I said. “That stuff he’s drinking?”

The bartender eyed me for a moment.

“Tears of Hiroshima,” he said.

“Whoa,” I said, sounding like some California surf dude, which I’m not. I graduated from Vassar. “That’s one hell of a marketing gimmick.”

“Very old,” he said. “Very few bottles left. Just like him. He is last one.”

“What do you mean?”

“It has been hard for him,” he said. “No movies. No job.”

“Does he always wear that outfit? It’s some kind of cosplay thing, right? Kosupure?

The bartender stared at me for a moment, straining the two bushy caterpillars over his eyes.

“You go now,” he said. “Or I call the satsu. Have you arrested.”

Even I didn’t want to mess with the Tokyo police. They could lock you up for three weeks without even charging you.

“I’m going. I’m going,” I said. I knocked back my sake, climbed off the stool, and headed toward the door.

“You must forget what you have seen here,” the bartender said.

I stopped at the exit and turned back toward the bar. I was all set to show the bartender a fine pair of American fingerbirds when I noticed the lizard guy staring at me. It was a thousand-yard stare that passed right through me, a tangible melancholy I felt in my gut. I dashed across the floor and hoisted myself up on the barstool next to him before the bartender could stop me. I understood now.

“That isn’t a costume, is it?” I said. “You’re the real guy?”

“Get out!” screamed the bartender. He lifted himself over the bar and advanced on me. The lizard guy growled at him. The bartender protested.

“I will lose face,” he said. ”They will close down my bar.”

The lizard guy shook his head and waved the bartender off with one of his little claw arms. The bartender grabbed my elbow, wrenching me sideways.

“He is American,” he said. “I will lose my license.”

A high-pitched screech blasted my left ear and a blue-green flame shot out of the lizard guy’s mouth. It passed in front of my nose and caught the bartender on the side of his face. He screamed as he released my arm and put his hand to the side of his face. A wisp of smoke curled up from his singed hair. The outer part of his right eyebrow was gone. He fell to his knees, flapping his one arm in supplication to the lizard guy.

“You know the rules, sensei,” he said. “They will take away your privileges too.”

The lizard guy grunted and shook his head. The bartender bowed his head to the floor.

“I am your servant,” he said. “I will obey your wishes.”

The lizard guy turned back to his bottle and poured himself another drink. The bartender slunk back behind the bar. For maybe the first time in my life, I was speechless. The lizard guy knocked back his drink. He turned to look at me. I had to say something.

“I’ve seen the guy in the suit, you know, photos from the movie set,” I said. “They even have a video of him now on the Internet. They show a guy getting into the suit. Even when I was a kid, I figured it was a guy in a suit, but…this is crazy. You can’t be real.”

The lizard guy shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the bar. We sat in silence a moment. He wheezed a little, like he had a touch of bronchitis. Shooting those flames out of his mouth had taken a lot out of him. Sitting this close to him, I could see the age spots and discolorations marking his leathery skin.

“I saw all your movies when I was a kid,” I said. “I think you’re much better than those computer-generated things they use now.”

The lizard guy nodded his head. I guess he agreed with me.

“This is so cool,” I said. “I can’t believe I’m talking to you. Why did you stop making movies?”

The lizard guy shrugged. I looked at the bartender, who was chewing his fingernails and watching us nervously from the other end of the bar. I thought about what he’d said.

“What did he mean?” I asked. “About the rules? About taking away your privileges?”

The lizard guy pointed at a clock above the bar. He pointed at me and gave a thumbs-up. He pointed at himself and shook his head. Then he raised a single claw, his index finger I guess. He made little movements with it, moving it from the nine o’clock position to twelve, like the ticking of the second hand on the clock. He pointed at himself and gave a thumbs-up. He pointed at me and shook his head.

“You’re only allowed to be in here after closing time, is that it?” I said. “After regular people like me are gone?”

The lizard guy nodded.

“But why? You’re legendary. People would love to meet you.”

The lizard guy put his claws over his ear holes, then his mouth, then his eyes, doing his impression of the three wise monkeys on the shrine in Nikkō. I thought about the ancient proverb it illustrates, a warning against dwelling on evil thoughts.

“No one’s supposed to see you,” I said. “Is that it?”

He nodded, made a little drawing motion with one claw, as if he were signing something.

“It’s in your contract? Is that what you’re telling me?”

He nodded again and poured himself another drink. I picked up the bottle. It was shaped like a lopsided teardrop. The glass was a dismal red color, murky and dim. Its surface was knobby and rough. I looked for a label. There wasn’t any.

“Tears of Hiroshima, huh?” I said. “What is this stuff?”

The lizard guy didn’t respond. I looked at the bartender. He shook his head.

“You will have many regrets if you drink,” he said. “You will mourn for your life.”

“Hell, I’m doing that already.” I raised the bottle to my mouth, took a drink.

The liquor bloomed on my tongue like an explosion of burning white flowers. As it hit the back of my throat, the taste congealed into ashes and tar. I swallowed. Fetid oil dripped down my esophagus and sloshed into my seawater stomach.

“Exquisite,” I said.

I took another swallow. My chest felt warm. I put the bottle down. A ticklish heat extended through my body, spreading from my sternum out to my shoulder blades. Sparks ran up my spine like a lit fuse and detonated in my cerebrum. I staggered back from the barstool, clutching my head in my hands as my brain exploded.

Scorching flames consumed all my reveries, setting fire to my vanities and conceits. Every failure, every self-centered preoccupation, every awkwardness and mortification I’d ever experienced was exposed by the liquefied heat. Every insult and abuse I’d aimed at family members, lovers, and friends flowed into the center of my brain like burning rivulets of shame. Long-repressed memories melted into a noxious pool of remorse. All the regrets and self-reproaches of my pathetic life surged at once into a great agony of light, and I saw myself for what I truly was—a rude, self-obsessed piece of human garbage, a bully, a fraud. Radioactive flames of guilt consumed my pitiful soul until it was snuffed out like a candle.

I do not know how long I remained insensible, but when I came to, I was still in darkness. I could not see anything. I could not move my body. A voice reached out to me through the impenetrable haze. I knew at once who it was. The monster was speaking to me.

We were children playing in the hills that morning. There was a cave in the hills, a cool place where they stored food and sake. We were exploring the cave when the great death light exploded above the city. In that flash of light, we all became orphans. By the time the rescuers found us, we had become monsters too, the ones you have seen in those movies.

We were kept secret, held in quarantine and hidden from the invaders until after the occupation had ended. Seven years we lived together in the hills outside the city, with no contact from the outside world except for doctors and nurses. Only government officials at the highest levels knew of our existence. They provided us with food and shelter, but we were treated as prisoners. One day two men came to talk to us. One of them was the head of the National Police. The other was the owner of a new movie studio. We weren’t children anymore. They offered us employment and a kind of freedom, but only if we followed their rules.

We accepted their proposal. We went to work for the film studio. Seven days a week, twelve hours a day. National security agents acted as our handlers, pretending they were our dressers and makeup team. We lived in trailers on the back lot. We were allowed to roam the studio grounds at night, when no one was there. As the years passed, and memories of the war faded, we were given more leeway. The government negotiated with establishments like the one you were in tonight, gave them special dispensations to allow us in during approved hours, always late at night. The proprietors were all ex-military, veterans crippled in battle. They were paid well, but they had to sign non-disclosure agreements. Failure to abide by the terms of their agreement would result in closure of their business and their arrest. They would have no recourse, no right to appeal.

“That’s why the bartender was angry with you.”

I should not have acted as I did. I was ungenerous. He has been good to me and my friends.

“They were real too? The pterodactyl and the three-headed dragon? The Silkworm? They were your friends?”

Yes.

“And the flying turtle and giant moth?”

Yes. All except the mechanical monster. The prop department built him. My friends are all gone now. I am the last one to die.

“Are you dead now?”

I am not dead, but I soon will be. It is the way of all things, even monsters.

“What about me? Am I dead?”

I do not think so. I can only speak to the living.

“I can’t see anything.”

The Tears made you blind.

“I can’t move.”

Tell me what happened, after you drank it.

“There was a conflagration inside me. I felt consumed by a great fire of self-condemnation. I fell into a hole of pure darkness. It is lighter now, but I still can’t see anything. It feels like I’m moving.”

That is the ambulance. The bar owner called for one after you collapsed.

“What did he tell them?”

Nothing. He left you outside.

“Where are they taking me?”

To a hospital, I would imagine. They think you are a drunkard.

“What’s the story on that stuff, anyway? The Tears?”

There was no answer.

“What does it do to you?” I asked again, but there was still no answer. I felt the centrifugal force of the ambulance as it took a long, sweeping turn. Flashes of light appeared in my field of vision. I heard an indistinct rumble of sounds. The ambulance came to a stop. The rear door opened and I felt a blast of cold air. Two men pulled me out of the ambulance. I realized I’d been strapped into a gurney. That was why I couldn’t move. A man spoke to me.

“Mr. Johnson, can your hear me?”

I mumbled a reply of confirmation.

“Mr. Johnson, my name is Reginald Saferman. I work at the American Consulate. I am a special assistant to the ambassador. The Japanese government has declared you a health risk. They have revoked your visa. You are being put on a U.S. Navy jet bound for Hickam Field in Hawaii. Once there you will be transferred to another aircraft and flown to San Diego, California, where you will be put into quarantine. Do you understand what I have told you?”

I mumbled again. Saferman took it for my endorsement.

“We will contact your employer and explain your situation to them,” he said. “We will pack up your personal effects and have them sent to you. Is there anyone else I should contact?”

I tried to think of someone who would miss my companionship, but the great fire inside me had revealed the truth. I had seen my authentic self. I had no friends. I was a monster to all who got close to me.

“There is no one,” I said. I could see the shape of the man standing over me. My eyesight had returned.

“Very well,” said Mr. Saferman. “On behalf of the Embassy staff, I am sorry for your illness and wish you a speedy recovery.”

Saferman disappeared. Two soldiers pushed my gurney across the tarmac, up a ramp, and onto the back of the jet. They strapped me in. I heard the door closing, the sound of the turbojets warming up. I closed my eyes tightly, searching for the darkness again.

“Are you there?” I said, without speaking.

Yes. I am here.

“They put me on a jet.”

We must speak quickly, then.

“I’m being deported. They say that I’m sick.”

The Tears have changed you.

“How did they change me?”

I do not know. Each of us is changed in a different way.

“Wait a minute. Are you saying it was the sake that changed you?”

We were not the only things transformed on that day. In the cave. Something happened to the spirits there too. The bottles warped in the heat. The glass turned to frozen blood. The intoxicant inside the bottles never spoiled, not like regular sake. It only grew more complex as each year passed, like fine wine. When I drink The Tears, it brings back images of my youth, of my parents and the time before the war. It brings back memories of my friends, the ones who are gone now. We are human again. We are children. The Tears are all I have left.

The jet engines roared in my ears as we hurtled down the runway and lifted into the air.

“I wasn’t in that cave,” I said. “What did The Tears do to me?”

There was no answer. I knew he was gone. I opened my eyes and saw the metal struts above me, the boxes and cargo around me. I raised my head, straining against the leather straps that held me to the gurney. I came to a stop.

Thick green moss grew on the back of my webbed hands.

 

——————–

Called “A powerful new voice on the crime-fiction scene” by Foreword Reviews, Corey Lynn Fayman has made a career of avoiding the sunlight in his hometown of San Diego, California, where’s he’s done hard time as a musician, songwriter, sound technician, and multimedia designer, though he still refuses to apologize for any of it. His hometown provides the backdrop for much of his writing, including the award-winning novels Border Field Blues and Desert City Diva.


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