Everything is dark.
The man shuffles down the bar’s entryway corridor with a hand against the wall. At the end of the corridor there is an open room submerged in a deep scarlet glow. He can make out tables arranged around a large and indiscernible ebony centerpiece, and on each table is a single burning candle. In the darkness the flames appear to be floating in the air like the aftermath of a séance or black magic ritual. There are many voices and the sound of music being played, all muffled and warped as if the man has stepped out of Paris and immediately into the sightless void of the ocean floor. Pockets of ruby glitter near the twirling flames, bobbing in time with the music and voices, and they urge the man forward like distant lights on an airport runway.
His hand slips off the wall and he stumbles forward. A sudden hush settles over the room and a spotlight erupts from the ceiling, bathing him in blinding white light. He holds an arm over his face, squinting, standing, dumbstruck.
A wave of applause. Cheering. Then—silence.
The spotlight shuts off, and the music and conversations return. The scarlet ambience bleeds out across the floors and walls and ceiling, coaxing the man’s vision slowly back into focus, and Le Ménestrel Perdu reveals itself.
There are dozens of them sitting at their tables, each wearing outfits suited for a gala, and upon their faces are brilliant red masquerade masks. Inlaid gemstones sparkle against the flickering candlelight, obscuring the faces underneath in shadow. They pay no attention to the man. That moment has passed.
The tables are arranged along the perimeter of the oval room, leaving a wide berth for the centerpiece: a black grand piano, unoccupied. As the people talk they glance at the piano, wistful or in reverence, and look away again, but always their masked eyes return to the instrument, lingering there, the words leaking out the side of their mouths, the responses unheard. Directly across from the man, beyond the untouched center threshold stands the bartender and his aisles of liquor. Under the pervading red light the bottles don’t appear to hold liquid at all, but the swirling essence of contained fire, luminous and angry and begging to be released.
The man crosses the threshold, sliding his fingers along the piano’s body, and turns up his palm to see a thick coating of dust. He approaches the bar and sits down.
The bartender stares.
“Okay. Whiskey neat.”
The bartender at last pulls his eyes away and reaches for the nearest bottle behind him. Up close, the man can see that each bottle is the exact same. They are unlabeled and all contain the same shimmering red liquid. It isn’t a trick of the light but a tangible similarity. The bartender places a glass above the well and pours, maintaining a cold gaze upon the man. He keeps pouring until the liquid touches the lip and begins to pool onto the counter.
“Okay, man. That’s good. When.”
The bartender stops pouring and sets the bottle down in front of the man beside the spilling drink.
“No, just the drink. The drink is fine.”
“Drink it,” he finally responds. “When you want more, have that.”
The man swivels around, gauging the room. “What is it?”
“No it’s not.”
He stares into the swirling liquid in the bottle, and down at the overflowing glass. It smells like liquor. It looks poisonous. Liquor is poison. But this swirling potion looks like something secreted from a tropical frog. Something brewed in a cauldron, not distilled. Eye of newt, children’s fingernails.
“Free,” says the bartender. “First time’s free.”
The two men stare at each other in silence for a very long time.
“You drink some,” says the man. He pushes the glass forward, tapping on the table.
Without hesitation the bartender tips back the drink and swallows it. His gulps are loud and desperate and violent and assertive. He gasps, belches, and pours more from the bottle until the glass is again overflowing.
The bartender reaches below the counter, fiddles with something, and the music explodes to an overwhelming volume. Wagner. He begins to dance, twirling to the melancholic symphony. The violins reach a crescendo and his movements become exaggerated and swan-like. His arms stretch and bend and his chest heaves and his legs bob like he’s half submerged in water. It’s a performance only for the man.
“We will never die. Never, ever, ever. Never. Say it.”
“If we continue to dream we will never wake up. Waking to life is opening the door to death. You never have to wake up. Make pretend.” The bartender forgoes the glass and drinks again directly from the bottle. “We are special people. God’s little tiny miracles. Shiny grains of sand that stick out in the dull and gray desert. People want to collect us like trophies. We are for the mantles atop roaring fireplaces, on display for guests to fawn over and compliment. Our destiny is not theirs—cooked alive in an indistinguishable sea beneath the dying sun. The light shines up to us. We look down on it and laugh. You and I.”
His eyes are wide and so very awake, and they pierce the man like radiation. It hurts to be near him. The man picks up the glass, hesitates. But the bartender stares with an intensity that defies outside options. A part of him also has to know. There are terrible things inside this liquid and it excites him. There were only ever two ways this trip would end.
The man drinks. It burns going down his throat like acid poured into an open wound. The bitterness lingers on his tongue and seeps into the roots of his teeth. He feels it ravaging the inside of his body, puncturing holes in organs and forming ulcers, and anger and resentment spills like internal bleeding, and he is warm, so warm. It doesn’t matter. Nothing does.
He looks up, and the glass is empty, the bottle nearly so, and the bartender is gone. A scarlet masquerade mask sits on the counter. The man takes the bottle and the mask, and stumbles towards the nearest table.
Two men and a woman sit facing each other with an open seat available. The man collapses upon it and sets down his acquired items. Anticipating an awkward moment the man goes to introduce himself, but the woman erupts with a bright smile that appears luminescent under the bar’s ominous red ambience.
“Ah! Un ami artiste! Merveilleux! Beau! Bonjour!”
Her blonde hair streams over the sides of her mask like trickling rivulets.
The man grins and waves. “Hi. English, sorry. Hello. Bonjour.”
The man beside her reaches a small and delicate hand across the table. “An American? Well, I’ll be damned! Where you from? Lemme guess… Cleveland? No—Sacramento?”
The third stranger takes his glass, strangling it by the base, and drinks deep. The other two notice this and immediately grab their drinks and tilt their heads back. The woman’s drink is empty and still she tries to swallow the last drops clinging to the bottom, lapping her tongue like a bear rummaging inside an active beehive. She sets the glass down and stares, and her smile disappears. She points to the man’s bottle. “Um. Puis-je? S’il te plait?”
The American translates: “She wants some.” Any previous tone of familiarity and kinship leaves his voice. “It’s your first time here so you should share.” He is a scrawny person, limp and shrunken, but his sudden change alarms the man.
“Yeah,” he answers, then pivots to the French woman. “Oui… Oui. Yes, of course. Please.”
Her smile returns and she pours from the bottle until the poison threatens to spill over the sides of her martini glass. “Merci! Tu es un home bon! Merci.” She drinks and coughs as if the liquid went down her windpipe, and her smile stays, plastered across her face like a permanent decorative piece.
The American now speaks. His eyes are dark brown like smoldering embers behind the fiery red mask. “So, what’re you working on?”
“What do you mean?”
He laughs. “You’re an artist. What do you do?”
The man stares at the bottle and at his empty glass. He can still feel the liquor warming his insides but it burns, scalds his throat and stomach. It’s as if he’s been woken up mid-surgery as a gash is being cauterized. “I don’t do anything,” he says. “Excuse me, I don’t feel well.”
Before he can stand, the American grabs him by the arm and pulls him back into the chair. “No you don’t. You’ll be fine. Have some more—it’ll pass.”
The French woman swallows the rest of her drink and stares at the bottle until pouring more without speaking.
“I’m a musician,” says the American. “Multi-instrumentalist. Producer. Singer. Songwriter. I write all my own songs. Not like those fucking hacks in the industry—all showmanship and no talent.” He guzzles down more red liquor and takes the bottle, refilling his glass. “Wouldn’t know real talent if it hit them in the face. We’re not like that, not us. Not you.” He leans in close to the man and whispers: “These two, they think they’re so fucking great. They think they’re geniuses. That they have a real chance. We know better than that, though. Right? Just humor them.”
The American leans back and grins at the table before adhering the glass to his lips until the liquid disappears. “Claire is a singer. A fine singer. Contemporary jazz numbers.”
Claire speaks, her mascara running underneath the mask, her lipstick smudged, abandoned to the glass rim as a cherry-red imprint.
“Imagine if Edith Piaf and Amy Winehouse had a baby,” the American interprets. He snorts and speaks directly into the man’s ear. His breath is rancid with poor hygiene and the stench of stale blood and vomit. “She fucking wishes. Don’t listen to her. The only thing she has in common with them is a pill and alcohol addiction.”
“Hey, John.” The third man across the table finally talks. He takes the bottle, harboring just enough to fill his glass to the top. “Why don’t you show us what you’ve been working on? I heard it’s a fucking masterpiece. From you. Every single night.”
John glares at the last remaining stranger, then straightens out and fixes the fake grin back onto his face. “I don’t perform for free, Claudius. Any artist worth their weight knows that.”
“Oh, go on. Show this new lad what you can do.” Claudius points to the piano in the center of the bar, and speaks in a vague English accent: “Show him what we’ve all been desperately missing out on. Maybe he’ll go home to Sacramento and tell all his industry buddies that he found the next fucking Paul McCartney.”
John’s grin stretches across his face as if it’s been stapled to his ears. “I would love to do that. But the acoustics—”
“Ah, the acoustics! Of course, I’d nearly forgotten.” Claudius stretches across the table, knocking the empty bottle onto the floor, and slaps the man on the arm. “The acoustics in here—just terrible. We wouldn’t want that, would we? No, no, no. Can’t let a single blemish ruin the maestro’s perfect performance.”
“Well, the floor is all yours! Just how you like. Please. I’m begging you. Read one of your poems for the table. Yeah, just stand on that chair and regale us with your words. OH CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN. We’ll listen, won’t we? People still care about poetry, Claudius. Just look at Rupi Kaur. She’s selling out—what? Concert halls? Stadiums? How’s it going for you?”
“Fuck you, John.”
“What’s wrong? I just asked a question. A simple fucking question. Okay, here’s an easier one: How’re your sales? Hm? Oh. That’s right. You haven’t been published. Not in the New Yorker. Not in the Paris Review. Not… anywhere.”
Even behind the masks, both men’s faces are twisted into disgusting hybrids of rage and violent glares, jagged grins. Meanwhile, Claire has lost all interest in the conversation and gazes down at the empty bottle like an inebriated mother in shock after dropping her child. “Il n’y a plus rien. Tous partis. Tous partis…”
Immediately the two squabbling artists tear away from each other to confirm that the bottle is in fact empty, and a tangible new mood fills the air. Whatever was previously spoken no longer matters.
“Who’s going to do it?” says John.
Claire’s face is gaunt and shadowed by terror. “Je n’ai toujours pas guéri.”
All three look at each other across the table. Then slowly, each head turns to the man.
Claudius cuts the tension: “No. No. Not him. He hasn’t even put on the mask.”
Rage erupts from John’s mouth: “Oh, what? You think he’ll be any different? Give him two days. Two fucking days… and he’ll be right here with us. Let him learn who he is. Throw him into the fire now. It’ll save him the slow realization.”
“Let’s ask him at least. See for ourselves. Then we’ll decide.”
John and Claudius both stare into the man’s eyes like fallen angels of judgment. The music that floats throughout the background undulates and warbles, its volume erratically bouncing between silence and earsplitting cacophony. He can no longer make out what’s even being played. The corrosive poison within his system rises to his brainstem and screams inside his head for company, for more, for more, for more. Now—or may death befall you. It bubbles up like heated mercury, back into his chest like a hot iron has been rammed into his beating heart. He needs to escape before it peels the flesh from his body.
John disregards the obvious pain the man is in and grabs him by the shirt collar. “Look at me. What do you want? What do you want from it all? Fame? Riches? You wanna fuck women? Like Claire—you wanna fuck her? Are you scared of being forgotten? Are you terrified of death? Is this your way to conquer mortality? What is it? Tell me.”
Claudius throws up his arms but quickly covers his mouth with one hand, and begins chewing on his long, unkempt nails. “He’s gonna be sick. His body is rejecting it. Let him be. Forget it, I’ll do it.”
“No,” says John, unrelenting, refusing to let go. “I wanna know who he thinks he is. He’s not rejecting it. He’s here, isn’t he?” John pulls the man closer, nearly yanking him across the table. “You think you’re a fucking genius? You’re no better than us. You’ll drown too.”
“Put on the fucking mask and tell me where you want it.” John reaches into his tuxedo jacket and pulls out a knife coated with dried and congealed blood. “You’ll get used to it. This feeling. It only hurts for a while. Then you give up. And none of it ever hurts again.”
The man gets up and stumbles towards the center of the room. The liquid boils inside him like a gestating parasite, desperate to escape.
John follows with the knife in hand. “Just hold still.”
The others at their tables turn to watch. They remain silent, their eyes hidden by darkness and the masks. They hold their glasses and drink and stare, and the music explodes. A woman sings in a foreign language, operatic and lilted above an eighty-piece symphony. The man recognizes the music. It’s hundreds of years old. The woman who sings it is now dead and still the blood in his veins trembles at her words. She is trapped in this room. This is the final resting place of genius. A caged ghost forced to perform forever. Over and over and over. It is the insanity achieved beyond death.
Claire falls to the floor and cradles the empty bottle, the rouge and lipstick spread across her tear-stung face like a leaking wound. She mumbles in French, rocking back and forth, catatonic.
Claudius stands, takes off his jacket and begins unbuttoning his shirt. “For God’s sake, you’re wasting time. He’s a fucking tourist.”
John pivots and his head swivels between Claudius and the man, bloodlust and jealousy inheriting what remains of his fading soul. He points the knife towards the man like an accusatory finger. “You have to make sacrifices, you understand?”
“John!” Claudius tears off his shirt. “Do you want it or not?”
The man falls against the piano and a horrible discordant sound echoes from its neglected body. A wave of gasps follows. He looks up and sees Claudius’s bare torso backlit by the blood-red glow like a demonic marble sculpture. His arms are spread wide in acceptance. His stomach and chest are riddled with oozing, sutured pockets where flesh once existed. He is a walking, breathing, decomposing corpse.
John glares at the man as he crumples onto the floor, slamming against the piano bench, and howls FUCK before turning away and advancing upon the willing martyr. He presses Claudius against the wall with a hand squeezing his throat, and without another word between the two artists, finds an untouched area of flesh and plunges the knife beneath skin. Blood pours from the blade, glinting and black and thick, and John digs deeper, jabbing the knife in and out like a butcher. Claudius remains silent, the masquerade mask concealing any anguish, and he stands penitent as John carves out a circle from above the left hipbone. He drops the blade on the floor with a clang in rhythm with Wagner’s crashing percussion section, and with both hands reaches inside the slit. Blood streams down his trousers, invisible until dripping and pooling across the floor at his feet. John grunts and tugs, and the fat and muscle tissue squelches until it relents, and he stands back, holding a chunk of Claudius’s body in his small, delicate hands. He breathes heavily, squinting away the fluids that have sprayed across his face, and hurls the flesh lump onto the table.
John exhales and straightens out his jacket, slicks back his sweat-drenched hair and places a bloodstained hand gingerly on Claudius’s cheek. “There,” he says. “All done. I’ll take care of the rest. You did good.”
Claudius’s entire body convulses and he slumps onto his knees, and takes his dress shirt and begins stuffing it like gauze into the gaping hole. He picks up his jacket, slides it back on, and sits down in his chair.
The man struggles onto his hands and knees and begins dry heaving. John walks past him, not saying a word but staring at the dusty, out of tune piano, and peels away as he reaches the bar and slams his fist over and over on the counter. The bartender reappears as if stepping out of a neighboring dimension, and John points to the flesh on the table. The bartender doesn’t react, but reaches behind and picks up another bottle of the red liquid. He hands it to John, and the artist opens it and drinks before returning to the table, stepping over the man like trash on the street. John fills three of the four glasses, and hands one to Claudius. He too now drinks. The flesh remains sitting atop the table, bleeding across its flat, black surface as the candle’s flame dances to Tristan und Isolde. Berlin Philharmonic. 1995. The music is now perfect and clear and even, and all those in attendance listen in reverence, watching the empty piano, only looking away to drink from their overfilling poison.
John gets down on one knee with the second glass in hand, and holds it close to Claire’s face until her eyes become unglazed, and she sits upright and holds the glass with both hands like a precious artifact and drinks and drinks until it’s empty once more. Claire returns to her feet and sits down in her chair, and the three artists continue to talk about their masterpieces that the world doesn’t deserve, smiling and laughing and smiling, their masks glittering ruby red in the darkness of Le Ménestrel Perdu. Beside the empty fourth glass sits the unworn mask, no more important than anything else.
The man coughs up what appears to be a glob of blood and phlegm, and he heaves and gasps, and then it comes. In great waves the boiling, swirling red liquor ejects from his stomach, and it pools across the floor beneath the piano, and it is corrosive and acidic and fiery hot in his throat, and the man spits and spits again, and the man breathes deeply, and he can taste the stench of decay on the tip of his tongue, and he stands. The man walks away, through the black corridor, and back out the doorway, unseen, unforgotten.
— Jack Moody is the author of the novel Crooked Smile, the short story collection Dancing to Broken Records, and the novella The Monotony of Everlasting. His newest books, the short story collection The Absence of Death and the novella Miracle Boy, are both slated for a 2024 release. He is a contributor to the literary newspaper The Bel Esprit Project. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter: @jack_is_moody