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Home: The Toast

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl, who was also an American, so they were both Americans, with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid, as was its custom.

“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.

“It’s pretty hot,” the man said. “Let’s drink beer.”

“Dos cervezas,” the man said into the curtain.

“Big ones?” a woman asked from the doorway.

“Yes. Two big ones.”

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

“They look like white elephants,” she said. This was because they were white elephants, but she did not know that yet. The white elephants held themselves very still.

“Don’t move,” one of the white elephants said out of the corner of its mouth. “Be very quiet.”

Shh,” said another.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“I might have,” the man said. ‘just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said.” What does it say?”

“Anis del Toro. It’s a drink.”

“Could we try it?”

The man called “Listen” through the curtain. The woman came out from the bar.

“Four reales.”

“We want two Anis del Toro.”

“With water? ”

“Do you want it with water?”

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “Is it good with water?”

“It’s all right.”

“You want them with water?” asked the woman.

“Yes, with water.”

“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.

“That’s the way with everything.”

“Not particularly,” the girl said. “Lots of things don’t taste like licorice. Flank steak, for example. And mangos. Papayas. Papayas don’t taste good, but they don’t taste like licorice.”

“Oh, cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”

“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?” This was because they were white elephants.

“That was bright.”

“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it–look at things and try new drinks?”

“I guess so.”

The girl looked across at the hills, which weren’t hills at all, remember, but a herd of elephants keeping perfectly still. Waiting.

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. (They weren’t really hills.) “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.” But they were white elephants.

“Should we have another drink?”

“All right.”

The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.

“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.

“It’s lovely,” the girl said.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. Her name wasn’t Jig, but she’d never had the heart to correct him. Who on earth is named Jig.

“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”

The girl did not say anything.

“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”

The man at the table next to them leaned over. The man wore a broad white hat. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I couldn’t help overhearing you. I’m a doctor, and that’s not how abortions work at all.”

“I’m sorry?” the man said.

“We don’t just “let the air in.” That’s a ridiculous characterization of what we do. We dilate the cervix, start a course of antibiotics, insert a speculum — if it’s far enough along we inject a drug directly into the abdomen to stop the fetal heartbeat prior to D&C, which is a far fucking cry, my friend, from “letting some air in,” like her uterus is a dusty parlor that just needs a good airing out for an afternoon before a tea party — commence suction, which is often followed up by scraping out any remaining tissue with a curette and requires a steady hand and a good eye, so I’ll fucking thank you not to tell prospective patients that we just pull the drapes back on their vaginas, bung some atmosphere in, and wait for the fetus to disappear, thank you very fucking much.”

“I –” the man began.

“And fucking of course Anis del Toro tastes like licorice, because it is made from anisette, which is in the goddamn name, it’s right there, Anis del Toro, which is practically the exact same fucking flavor.”

There was silence. The man turned back to his drink.

“Then what will we do afterward?” the girl asked.

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

“Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t care about me.”

“Well, I care about you.”

“Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.”

“I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”

The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains that were secretly elephants. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

“And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

“What did you say?”

“I said we could have everything.”

“We can have everything.”

“No, we can’t.”

“We can have the whole world.”

“No, we can’t.”

“We can go everywhere.”

“No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.”

“It’s ours.”

“No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.”

“But they haven’t taken it away.”

“We’ll wait and see.”

“Come on back in the shade,” he said. “You mustn’t feel that way.”

“I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I just know things.”

“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do ”

“Nor that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have another beer?”

“All right. But you’ve got to realize ”

“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

“Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.”

“Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want any one else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.”

“It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.”

“Would you do something for me now?’

“I’d do anything for you.’

“Would you please please please please please please please Stop talking.”

He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.

“But I don’t want you to,” he said, “I don’t care anything about it.”

“I’ll scream,” the girl said.

The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads.

“The train comes in five minutes,” she said.

“What did she say?” asked the girl.

“That the train is coming in five minutes.”

The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.

“Not that it’s any of my business,” the woman said, “but you have only been here for thirty-five minutes and this is your third beer.”

“Plus there was that Anis del Toro,” the doctor from the next table added.

“Plus there was that Anis del Toro,” the woman said. “So it seems to me that at least some part of you feels pretty ambiguous about this pregnancy. Not that you have to listen to me, of course.”

“Right,” the doctor said. “It’s your choice.”

“I mean, I know it’s the 1930s or whatever, so drinking while pregnant isn’t that big of a thing yet,” the woman said.

“If indeed it ever will be,” the doctor said. “Obviously, we have no way of knowing that, because we are in the 1930s, or whenever exactly this story was written.”

“The general time period notwithstanding,” the woman continued. “I just think you should consider the fact that you had four drinks in a row in about thirty minutes while you’ve been having this conversation. Sounds like maybe there’s a part of you that doesn’t feel ready to see a pregnancy through. It’s just something to consider. But like I said, it’s not really my business.”

“Thank you for the beer,” the girl said, because she didn’t understand Spanish, which is of course the language the woman had been speaking in, as a Spaniard.

“I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station,” the man said. She smiled at him.

“All right. Then come back and we’ll finish the beer.”

“I mean, regardless of whether or not she continues with the pregnancy, they both really need to reconsider their drinking habits. Right? I’m not crazy, right?” the woman asked.

“No, absolutely. I’ve been here the same length of time as them and I’m barely on my second drink,” the doctor said.

“I mean, I’m a bartender. I understand what it’s like to enjoy some afternoon drinking. But this is like they’re in a race to see who can exhaust their liver the fastest.”

The man picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

“Do you feel better?” he asked.

“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”

But remember those hills from the beginning of the story, and also the middle of it? The hills weren’t like white elephants at all. They WERE elephants. They stampeded the bar. Everyone died.

“Now I’ll never get that abortion,” the girl said, and then she died too, from being stampeded.

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