By Liam Kruger
You are in the city, and you are surprised to find yourself alone in a bar that might once have been popular. It feels like midday, and the bar is almost empty. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, they take in the animated movement of two young men drinking at a booth, the two bartenders’ lugubrious nods, and the staggered sweep of the ceiling-fan’s shadow across the floor. There is very little else that holds your attention; you are in a wood-panelled dive.
You take a seat next to the row of dusty beer taps. You don’t feel like drinking, but you worry that your sobriety might offend someone, possibly yourself. Neither of the bartenders have moved towards you, and the two young drinkers have not noticed you, so engaged are they in taking turns to smile and nod at one another. One, pale-skinned, thin and red-haired, is busy miming something that could be sexual, culinary or martial; his brown, barrel-chested companion is convulsing with silent laughter, dreadlocks shaking, teeth flashing behind a thick-curled beard.
You eye them for a second or two in the mirrored liquor shelf before shifting your gaze to the nearest bartender, who walks over to where you sit. He is young, pale and watery-eyed, sporting an optimistic growth of beard. You offer a smile that goes unnoticed; he has moved to get your glass before you are finished ordering something cheap. His colleague, older, bald, with a complexion like varnished wood, watches him critically.
Your drink arrives, which you sip at tentatively. It could be worse. The two young men roar with laughter over something, and you recognize delight. It saddens you a little not to be part of it. The skinny youth and his burly friend seem to be having a better time than you can remember having had in weeks.
You lose yourself for a while, then. You listen to over-loud music from a decade ago, and sip at your lukewarm drink. You run your hand vaguely over the wooden curve of the bar; while the pine is solid, and the varnish relatively fresh, there are faint indentations dotted across the bar’s surface. You begin to filter out the noise of the two revellers behind you, only distantly conscious of laughter, of glasses being clinked and emptied. When you find that your drink has vanished, you order another of the same, and tip your watery-eyed bartender generously. He smiles wonderingly when you do so. You glance past him at the fading portraits of white men in waistcoats who had once owned this place, and lose interest in them almost immediately. That’s what they’re there for. You return your gaze to the figure looking at you in the bar side mirror.
Some time later, your attention is snagged by a sudden stillness in the room. Not quite stopping yourself in time, you look over to the two young men, both of whom have stood up, and are walking stiffly to the bar.
The brown-skinned drinker sets two empty glasses on the bar top, and gestures to the older bartender, who is leaning against a keg, grinning. The redhead speaks up:
“I’d like to buy a last drink for my friend here, please.” You are surprised at how deep and quiet his voice is; you would not have associated it with the laughter you had heard earlier.
“I want to do the same,” says his companion. He has an accent, but you can’t place it.
“What drink?” says the bartender, his eyes on the ceiling fan, his tongue held between his teeth. The redhead offers something between a cough and a laugh, and leans hard against the bar. “It doesn’t really matter. Something to forget.” His companion grimaces behind his beard, and looks away, his gaze running across yours without stopping. You are staring.
“You boys aren’t planning on starting any trouble, I hope,” says the bartender, who has made no move towards the drinks or the empty glasses.
A long, quiet moment stretches on between the two men, snapped back by the abrupt slamming of the bigger man’s fist on the bar. He strikes it only once. His voice is strained by an obscure irony when he says, “No. We don’t want to start any trouble.” He lifts his hand off of the bar to tuck a stray lock behind his ears. You note that there is a faint indentation in the wood where he struck it. The bartender does not seem to react.
The slight man shrugs, and says, “There isn’t much choice in the matter. Now, those drinks, please.” His face is beginning to show either irritation or puzzlement; neither he nor you are quite sure which.
“The drinks to forget, you mean,” says the bartender, rocking on the balls of his feet, still smiling.
The white man’s hand is fidgeting on the bar top, but his voice remains level when he says “Yes, I mean the drinks to for – oh.” He stops, and looks down at the bar’s surface. He runs his hand over two or three of the indentations that run the length of the bar, and glances at his companion before returning his gaze to the bartender. “I see,” he says. “Very neat. We’ll have the usual, I think.”
The old bartender’s smile widens, until it looks like a half-moon might erupt out of his skull.
“You boys got there early today.” He laughs, and retreats into a back room you had not noticed earlier. There are one or two wooden barrels visible where the sunlight gets past the doorway, but beyond them is only darkness, which quickly swallows the older bartender. He must know his way since you don’t see any lights come on.
“I don’t understand,” says the bearded one.
“We’ve been here before,” says his red-headed companion, scowling at the space the space that bartender had occupied. “We’d just forgotten about it.”
“What?” the bearded man says, slipping – perhaps without noticing – into the voice he’d spoken in earlier, when he’d been drinking at the table. He looks around the room, taking in the filth, the stink of smoke, faintly ridiculous Victorian portraiture. “I think I’d remember having been in a place like this.”
“You think you’d have remembered my real name sooner, too.”
The man stiffens, and presses his bulk more firmly against the bar. “Oh.”
“Just so,” says his companion, head propped up on his elbows. The two men are silent, and to avoid looking at one another or themselves in the mirror, all three of you look at the younger bartender cleaning pint glasses at the far side of the bar.
At some length, the bartender returns, clutching a long-necked, round-bottomed clay bottle in two hands. He is still making a considerable effort to grin at the unspeaking men, but his mouth is twisted into a grimace; the bottle is not especially large, but its weight appears to tax him. When he emerges from the dark corridor, the younger bartender sets down the glass he has been wiping needlessly, and moves over to help lift the thing onto the bar’s surface.
Elbows still propped up on the bar the red-haired man tilts his head to one side. “Where did you get that?”
Out of breath, the older bartender hits his colleague on the shoulder. The younger man looks confused for a second, and then blurts out, “Oh! Sorry. If he told you, then he’d have to–“
“Fine, fine,” says the redhead, turning away from the bar and surveying the room, unseeing. The younger bartender brings out two shot glasses, and places one on either side of the bottle. “You’ll need to spit into the bottle, sir. Sirs.”
“What?” says the bearded man. Wilting slightly under his dark stare, the young bartender attempts to shrug. “I’m sorry, I’m new here – but it doesn’t work otherwise.”
You watch out of the corner of your eye and the mirror behind the brandy bottle as the bearded man snorts and begins to move away, his pallid companion turning to follow suit.
Wheezing, the older bartender speaks up: “You’ve got to spit your names out.” He coughs, dislodging something in the back of his throat. “The stuff in the bottle clears out all the minor memories, but it can’t drown out your names – and if you both still have those…”
The two men glance at one another briefly.
“You have to put your names somewhere safe,” the bartender finishes.
The big man regards the bottle, and the two bartenders behind it, critically. He scratches his beard, and shakes his head slowly. “No… that won’t work. Where would be safe from us?” He looks at his companion. “We’re wasting time. We should go and get this over with.”
“Wait!” says the redhead, a little too loudly. He whistles between his teeth for a moment, and drums his fingers on the bar, staring at some distant point outside of the room; he glances at you, and stops drumming briefly, but resumes almost immediately. “We’ve been here before,” he says.
“What of it?” says his companion, half-turned towards the door. Your drink has been refilled without your noticing it.
“We’ve been here before, which means we’ve done this before, and successfully.” He turns quickly to look at the bartenders. “What did we do last time? Where did we put them last time?”
“Clearly whatever we did last time didn’t work – or else we wouldn’t be back here,” says the larger man. Late afternoon light creeps into the room as he opens the swinging door.
“It worked for a while!” snaps the red-haired man. “It worked for a while, and that’s something.” His companion says nothing, and with the daylight behind him his face is shadow. The redhead speaks again. “Please. You don’t want to do this now. You don’t want to do this at all.” Still, the brown-skinned man says nothing.
He begins to turn away, and you feel your stomach clench for no reason you can understand.
“I’ll buy this round!” the redhead calls out. He leans forward, trying to make out his companion in the evening haze. You can hear sirens outside.
A snort, and then the man lets the door swing shut behind him, returning the room to a comfortable gloom. He raps his knuckles on the doorframe, and nods, walking back to the bar. “Fine, then. Remind me to get the next one,” he says. You watch the redhead man and the younger bartender relax visibly.
The two men take turns tilting the long neck of the bottle towards them and hawking up some quantity of phlegm into it, neither with apparent distaste. You observe that neither the large, bearded man nor his scrawny companion have much trouble moving the bottle. The bartenders work in tandem to pour the bottle’s contents into the two shot-glasses, the younger aiming the flute of the bottle while his colleague levers the bowl upwards with as much care as he can manage. The fluid that pours out of it is clear and syrupy, and gives off a faint vapour. The redhead pulls a large note from his breast pocket, which the older bartender accepts with a nod. The two men pick up the glasses dubiously. They are silent; you shift in your seat and try not to be heard.
Finally, the bearded man shakes his head and raises his drink. “Skaal,” he says, clinking his glass to his companion’s. Smiling faintly, the other says, “Kara o le.” They knock back the clear liquid with a shudder, and set the glasses down on the bar. They regard one another, and the black man burps; the redhead takes an uncertain step backwards, in your direction. “Catch him!” hisses the younger bartender from behind you; he has rounded the bar and is rushing to grab the larger man, who is stumbling to his left. You jump to your feet, which are less sturdy than you had realized, but you manage to stop the suddenly unconscious redhead from falling over completely, and you manoeuvre him towards the chair you were sitting in. He is surprisingly light. The bartender, on the other hand, has only barely kept his burden from cracking his head on the side of a table; after a few more moments of struggle he shakes his head, and lowers the big man to the floor.
He stands up, panting, and nods at you. “Thanks.” He looks over to his colleague and stretches out his hand. The older bartender stares at it. “What?”
“Give me the money he gave you.”
“The money he paid you for the stuff. You said we don’t charge for that.”
The older bartender mutters, but slaps the banknote on the bar counter, before picking up the two empty shot glasses and bunging them in the sink. The younger bartender steps awkwardly over the supine bearded man’s body, and tucks the money into the redhead’s front pocket.
The older bartender circles to the front of the bar, and heads for the door.
“Where are you going?” asks the younger.
“I’m on break,” he answers, cigarette in mouth. “Mind the cash box.” He wrenches the door open, letting the beginnings of a sunset into the room and making you squint.
“Wait, do you want me to take the memory stuff out back?”
The man at the door pauses, and seems to regard the two unmoving figures.
“Leave it.” The doors swing shut, and the bar seems colder suddenly. The remaining bartender sighs, and moves back to his station to start cleaning up.
You reach over the redhead for your drink, and find a new seat.
“So, um, hey.” You say as you clear your throat. The barman stops and turns from the basin to look at you. “What was all of this about?”
“Oh! Hey, sorry.” He switches off the taps, and walks over to you. “I figured you knew.”
“Not really, no. Sorry.”
“Right! Well, this,” he raps a knuckle against the long clay bottle, “is water from the land of the dead. I’m not sure who our supplier is, but we use it for people who seriously need to forget something.”
You blink, and sip your drink, which has gone tepid. “Okay.”
“Okay, and those,” he points at the man on the floor and his friend propped up against a chair, “are gods. They’re called….ah.” He snaps his fingers. “Sorry, I knew who they were like five minutes ago. This happens whenever they come and get their names erased like that – I remember who they are right until they take a drink, then it goes.” He shakes his head, smiling faintly. “Anyway, so these two are sworn to kill each other.”
“Really?” You frown. “They were sort of hitting it off when I came in.”
“Well yeah, exactly – that’s the thing. A couple of years ago they realized that they had a lot in common – come from the same country, speak the same language, and they don’t really want to kill each other. Also I think if they kill each other the world’s supposed to end.”
You purse your lips, and regard the unconscious figures. “So why don’t they just not kill each other?”
The barman slaps the bar, warming to his subject. “Exactly what I want to know. Exactly. But apparently gods just don’t work that way, so instead they get their memories wiped every now and again, so they forget about one another and don’t have to kill each other.” He grabs a glass and holds it to the light, almost entirely for effect. “Except, since they’re gods, they can’t wipe away their names – not completely. They have to hide them away somewhere, like in a duck or an egg or something.”
He shrugs. “This is just what my boss tells me, alright? Anyway, the universe seems to want gods to know who they are, so the duck/egg/whatever thing usually doesn’t last too long. They find the egg with their name in it on their sandwich in two or three days, or… I don’t know, the duck breaks into their house. And then they know who they are again, and what they have to do. Which, apparently, is fight, die, and end the world. After a while my boss figured the best solution was to make them hide their names inside each other – this way they’ll wander the city for a couple of weeks, at least, before they find each other.”
“What happens when they find each other? This?” you gesture towards the two gods. The redhead is beginning to stir.
“Pretty much. I mean it’s not exactly the same every time, but they meet up, hit it off, come here and start telling each other stories, and jokes, and whatever. Eventually they run out of things to say, so god number one says the last thing he has left, which is the other guy’s name, god number two says the last thing he has left, which is the first guy’s name, and then they have to go through this whole spiel again.”
The pale, thin god chooses this moment to wake up, with something of a start; he has drool on his face. He looks from you to the bartender, and back. “Oh my god,” he says. “I’m sorry, but,” he belches, “where am I?”
“Downtown,” says the bartender. “You can get a cab from about two blocks over.”
“Great, great,” says the god. “Thanks.”
“You need a cup of coffee before you go?”
“Jesus,” says the god, standing up retching slightly. “No. Thank you.” He nods at the bartender, and at you, before turning to the door. You nod back. The god pauses, frowning, at the sight of the bearded man splayed out on the floor. “Is he with me?” he asks.
“No, he’s just some drunk,” says the bartender.
“I know the feeling,” says the god, and walks a little unsteadily out of the door.
The bartender waits a couple of seconds for the door to stop swinging before resuming his unnecessary glass-polishing. He shakes his head. “It’s weird – I don’t understand why the little guy always comes around first.”
You don’t have anything to say to that, so you pour the dregs of your drink into your mouth, which you regret. Once you succeed in swallowing the taste of it out of your mouth, you say, “So, that’s what you do? You keep gods doped up so they don’t kill themselves?”
“Well, I mean. Not just gods. I’ve only been here a year or so, but we get a couple of boudain once every now and then, and the guy who runs the kebab place next door is a djinn.”
“A djinn. It’s how you’re supposed to say genie.”
“Oh.” You look down into your glass. “Alright. How’s the pay?”
“We do pretty okay.”
“I mean – is everybody who comes here secretly somebody else?”
“Not everybody,” says a voice behind you. You turn around; you did not hear the older barman come back in. “A lot of you, though.”
“So who am I?” you ask, only half-joking. “What do I forget?”
The barman looks at you carefully, then over at his colleague. “Go check the stall in the men’s bathroom,” he says. The younger barman nods and ducks out of the room without a word. The older barman moves behind the bar counter, and places a leathery hand on the neck of the clay bottle. He looks at you with something like sympathy, but it’s getting dark and they haven’t turned on the lights yet, so you’re not sure. He whispers your name into your ear.
You look at him, and he doesn’t meet your eyes. You both agree that to be what you are is a terrible thing; he passes the large stone bottle to you, and takes your name away again, safe from you for a time. He hides the knowledge in an obscure writer’s story that, you will tell yourself, is not about you.