Jacob Ritari

Jacob Ritari was born in Boston in 1987. His first novel, Taroko Gorge, was published in 2010. He studied Buddhism in Taiwan and currently studies Japanese in Yokohama, gradually transforming into a self-hating, Kurtz-esque madman who would give his life for the Emperor.
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Excerpt from “The Libation Bearers”

The bar called The Happy Cock stood four blocks from Kagoshima station. It had been christened by a group of American servicemen who had befriended the owner of a bar called Hana, helping him repair the fire-gutted structure. Not content with this act of charity, they had equipped the bar with an upright piano, a pair of window shutters for a door, and a golden rooster that had once been the finial of a Buddhist pagoda.

During its heyday, those arriving after midnight often had to be turned away at the door. Now the bulk of the eighth battalion had been drawn down, and those few who remained were no longer on active duty. The drinking began well before sundown and on weekdays was done by midnight.

Those who remained for the most part had Japanese wives.

Now at half past seven, the only customers were Zeke Frome, an ex-Marine, and the New Zealander PFC Wadsworth. They sat at a table with a pitcher of rice shochu that they mixed with hot water from a kettle.

In years past, up to four girls had worked the floor; the one who remained had become a bartender, and sat in front of the gleaming bottles applying a file to the nails of her right hand. The piano was manned by a student from the local college with a ponytail and faint goatee. Occasionally, either Frome of Wadsworth would call out for an old jazz standard, and he would play until they lost interest; then he would go back to practicing the Fur Elise.

“What we need in here,” Frome was saying, “is a trumpet.”

“I hear that.”

“We train one of these Japs to play the trumpet, I’d bring in my gitar and we could really get us some music.”

“You learn to play trumpet, Zeke. You’re already musical.”

“You learn trumpet. I outrank your ass.”

“We’ve been over this a million times. It’s not even the same damn army.”

“It is now. It’s the army of Left Behind, and I been here a year longer than you. That means I outrank you.”

Frome was a sturdy black man with gray in his hair. Wadsworth was twenty-two, and having spent most of his adult life in a mixed army, he was used to the company of Americans and had all but lost his accent.

“Ryuji,” Frome called to the pianist, “you knock off that Brahms shit.”

Ryuji imperturbably flipped a page of his sheet music. “Professor says I got to practice.”

“Oh yeah, I forget you gonna be a big shot. Well, don’t forget your pals when you at Carnegie Hall.”

“I won’t. You wanna here something, Colonel?”

Ryuji, who had learned English mainly from listening to soldiers, called all officers Colonel.

“Nah,” said Frome, shutting for a moment his heavy lids. “Keep playin.”

But Ryuji had been thrown off his rhythm; he flipped his music back to the beginning and started playing the Fur Elise from the top.

“But put some feeling in it,” muttered Frome.

The window shutters, meant to resemble the bat-wing doors of a Western saloon, swung open and Lieutenant Barr walked in.

Frome’s face lit up.

“Ji-mmy!” he called. “Jimmy Jim-Jims.”

He raised his tall glass of shochu, splashing a little down his khaki sleeve.

“Look what crawled out of the volcano,” said Wadsworth. “How’s it hanging?”

“Low and a little to the left. How are you fellas, still frozen in time?” Barr walked with a bounce in his step; his face was red. He slapped a hand down on each of the men’s shoulders, grinning down at them. “Ah, that lovely spirit of international friendship and co-operation. A New Yorker, a Kiwi and a buck nigger from Georgia.”

“Aw Jim,” said Frome, “you wanted me to kill you, you could just say so.”

“I know you Zeke. You’re all talk.”

Frome laughed.

“Oh boy,” he said, “I aint seen you since God said let there be light and told you to get out the way. Pull up a chair.”

“But buy your own drink,” added Wadsworth.

“That’s alright, I don’t take unfiltered Jap piss. Kimiko!” he yelled to the bartendress. “Gimme a bottle of good ginjo-shu.”

Without looking at him, and still holding the nail file in one hand, the girl began to search the shelves.

Wadsworth refilled his glass.

“So what’s the occasion?” he said. “Or did the old lady stop putting out?”

“Drop dead twice.”

“What, and look like you?”

“He aint ragging you,” said Frome with a chuckle. “We really did figure you were having too much fun. That Admiral’s lady just looks better every time I see her—not like mine.”

“Yeah, that’s why I keep her up at the house.”

Barr took a package of Lucky Strikes from his breast pocket and offered one to each of his friends with a stagy half-bow.

“Ahh, doh-mo,” said Wadsworth and snickered.

“No,” said Barr with stagy pride, “it’s a celebration. My son came home yesterday. I’d have brought cigars, but I don’t like you enough.”

Frome blinked. “You never told me you had a boy. Lemme guess, you tried to drown him in the river but he done floated back.”

And both he and Wadsworth laughed heartily.

“He’s too big for that,” said Barr.

“Oh.” Frome lowered his voice. “I see.”

The men lit their cigarettes in unison. Barr coughed. Fanning the air in front him, he looked around the dusty room.

“Christ Jesus, but it’s lonesome here. Where is everyone?”

“I shouldn’t even be here,” said Wadsworth. “Zeke, he’s in the doghouse.”

“You shut it.”

Kimiko placed a glass and a bottle of sake, its fancy label embossed with gold, in front of Barr. As she left he caught her wrist.

“Hey stay for a minute, keep us company.”

“Ha, ha. Maybe some other time.”

“She aint gonna fall for that one twice,” muttered Wadsworth, and choked on his shochu. Barr shot him a mock-glare; Kimiko had gone back behind the bar.

Barr poured and drank deeply. He poured smoke through his nostrils.

“Let’s call for some girls,” he said. “I’ll pay for the both of you.”

“I got to be home by ten,” said Wadsworth.

“I should go home too. Now what’s the matter,” said Frome, “you wake up and think you were twenty-five again?”

Barr looked up. A steel ceiling fan hung there immobile.

“I woke up,” he said, “and it was cold.”

Then he became aware of the music, and looked around sharply.

“Hey Ryuji. When you did you turn into a goddamn virtuoso?”

Without stopping Ryuji said: “What you want to hear?”

“Play Nagasaki.”

“Fuck you Colonel,” said Ryuji, “I aint playing that song anymore.”

“Play it or I’ll collar you for sabotage.”

Still playing, Ryuji laughed: “Too bad the commandant shipped out last month, ha, ha, ha!”

“I’ll make a citizen’s arrest.”

“Play Nagasaki,” said Frome, putting a hand on Barr’s shoulder. “Can’t you see how blue this old man is?”

“Okay, I’ll play, but I won’t sing.”

Barr had taken a ten-yen coin out of his pocket. Aiming carefully, he flicked it at Ryuji’s head. It struck the back of the upright piano and bounced onto the floor.

Ryuji spit to one side. “I aint playing you anything now.”

“What! It’s good money.”

“Okay, you come over here, pick it up and give it to me.”

“C’mon, do it,” both Frome and Wadsworth goaded, poking him; and Barr rose with a sigh, crossed the room, bent over deeply to retrieve the coin and held it in both hands as he bowed to Ryuji.

“Moushi wake gozaimasen,” he said.

“Fuck you. That’s worse.”

Barr placed the coin on the raised lid of the piano.

“I hate you so much,” muttered the pianist as he began working out the opening chords of Nagasaki. “I hoped you were dead. I thought I’d never have to play this song again.”

“Don’t you ever got nostalgic, Ryuji? Natsukashii?”

“What the hell for?”

Barr returned to his seat as Ryuji banged out a strong first chord.

“Oh yeah,” he whispered, snapping his fingers. He drank.

“Zeke was saying we oughta get a trumpet in here,” said Wadsworth.

“Let me get this straight. You two won’t even shell out for a couple of girls and you want to get a trumpet?”

“Come on,” said Frome, “you dig them old tunes the most.”

“Why yes,” said Barr, now snapping his fingers in time. “That I do.”

They drank for a moment in silence; Wadsworth lit one of his own cigarettes.

“Hey Jimmy,” he said. “I been wondering. Why you still wear that uniform?”

“I aint retired.”

“You said you were.”

“Old spies don’t retire,” said Barr. Then he added with a grim smile: “They hold their position indefinitely.”

The jitter of Nagasaki was blending unmistakably into the Fur Elise.

Barr pounded his glass on the table.

“Once more with feeling! And sing this time!”

Five years ago, when he had taught the teenaged Ryuji the words to Nagasaki, the boy hadn’t known what they meant.

Ryuji sighed and began to play again. After several measures, as Barr watched him intently, he began deliberately off-key:

“Hot ginger and dynamite, that’s all there is at night…”

Barr pounded the rest of his glass, slid it away and clapped his hands.

“Come on fellas. It’s time for our big musical number.”

Frome snorted. “My hip,” he said.

“What are those pins in it for? On your feet, chop-chop.”

He led the two men, following like tired children—or like humoring parents—into the empty space between the tables. All of them were swaying a little quite apart from the music.

Kimiko had put down the nail file, and watched them with a degree of amusement she could no longer disguise. Barr blew her a kiss.

“My darling,” he said, “mon ami.”

“You a bad man, Jimmy Barr.”

“But I’m your bad man—” He stretched out his arm, taking in Ryuji as well. “All of yours. My I have the honor of this first dance?”

Rolling her eyes ceilingward, Kimiko moved out from behind the bar in time to the piano. Barr took her hand and kissed it.

Frome, good-naturedly, had begun to shake his knees and snap his fingers; and taking his cue from the older man—like a soldier under orders—Wadsworth began a solitary Charleston.

Lieutenant Barr, in a rich baritone, soon took over the singing duties from Ryuji; who was glad to quit them.


Hot ginger and dynamite
That’s all there is at night
Back in Nagasaky where the fellas chew tobaccy
And the women wicky-wacky-woo-oo!

They got a way to entertain
Would hurry a hurricane
Back in Nagasaky where the fellas chew tobaccy
And the women wicky-wacky-woo-oo!

At Fujiyama, you get a mama
Then your troubles increase, boy
In some pagoda, you order soda
Earth shakes, milkshakes, ten cents apiece

They hugee and kissee nice
By jingo boy, it’s worth that price
Back in Nagasaky where the fellas chew tobaccy
And the women wicky-wacky-woo-oo!

Everyone had joined in: Frome in his bass with exaggerated African-American accent, Wadsworth in his raspy alto, Kimiko humming.

Barr dipped the girl low; then passed her to Wadsworth, crossed with one elegant step to the table, picked up his bottle and swilled from it straight.

“Bring us home, Jim-Jim!” called Frome.

“R-R-Roger that, Command One!”

Shuffling back to thread between the others, Barr cupped his hands around his mouth and scatted: “Ba-ba-ba-dee-da-doo, oosa-bah, ah-bee, ah-bah…oh Naggy…oh Sakky…oh Wikky-Wakky-Woo!”

The lights around him seemed to multiply. The words of the song were inseparable from loud voices, cheers, air foggy with smoke. But memories never come singly. As he let his body and voice range free, jerking like a madman—another sip from the bottle—images of times past returned to him indiscriminately. A woman leaning toward him at nightfall. The charred shell of a house. An infected wound full of writhing maggots. A sun-baked tenement house in Brooklyn. A dead man without eyes lying in the surf. Armament stacked up like giant loaves of bread. The beach at sunset. And everything was ugly and everything was beautiful.

Barr’s hip jostled the table. The bottle of ginjo-shu wobbled, and made one slow, stately revolution on its base. Then it toppled over. The tinkling noise drowned out by the piano keys. Frozen in mid-step, he looked down at the colorless liquid seeping across the dark wood of the table. He was powerless to stop it. Within arm’s reach; but to stretch out an arm seemed like a violation of the natural order.

He was witnessing a phenomenon. The stain glistened under dim electric lights in a vital way. It kept spreading and, it seemed, between blinks, covered half the table. No one noticed.

“Oh mama, oh mama (ah-bee-bah-dada-doo)…oh Naggy, oh Sakky, oh Wikky-Wakky-Woo!”

Kimiko laughing and struggling in Wadsworth’s arms.

Barr tipped back his head and let the sake run down his chin.

Wikky-wakky-woo, he’d always wondered what that meant. He had a pretty good idea. But that nonsense, like the nonsense of Japanese culture, seemed to conceal a sinister potential.

Even Ryuji seemed to be enjoying himself.

“One more time!” Barr shouted.

The others stood around him clapping, stamping their feet. He sang.


Hot gristle and human bone
Black earth for a tombstone
Back in Nagasaky where the fellas chew tobaccy
And the women wicky-wacky-woo-oo!

In Hiroshimer
You shoulda seen ‘er
Then your troubles increase, boy
It’s getting hotter
You beg for water
Earth shakes, hell takes, rest-in-peace (N-n-namu Amida)

Poor souls that God forgets
Light another cigarette
Ah-back in Nagasaky where the fellas chew tobaccy
And the women wicky-wacky-woo-oo!

He leaned on the table.

“Oh-oh, that atomic rag…s-s-sizzling. Play it again, Ryuji.”

And he stood with the sweat dripping down his face.

© Jacob Ritari

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