AFTER THE WAR Roberto took a job tending the bar at a café in Pamplona. It was not a good job or a very good café, but the owner was wealthy and stupid, and spent large sums of money on wasteful things, including a good salary for Roberto. Roberto would remind himself of that whenever he was miserable, which was often.
It was afternoon on a Thursday, in the time that the shifts of Roberto and the older bartender Agustin overlapped. Roberto had only one customer, a young man like him, who said he was a visitor from Madrid. The customer sat and drummed his fingers nervously on the bar. He had ordered la behotz in a small voice.
“I heard about this in Madrid,” the customer said. “Do many people come in and order this?”
“Yes. Some.” Roberto set a clean glass on the bar top. “Seventy pesetas for la behotz.”
“Seventy, are you serious?”
Well, it is a special experience, you know? A special price for a special experience, and a special... Well, just that. A special price for a special experience.” Roberto uncorked the bottle of patxaran from the high shelf and poured a double measure into the glass. He thought it was a shame to waste the patxaran like this. Then, in a sequence of steps filling him progressively with nausea, he took the key hanging around his neck, unlocked the padlocked steel ice bucket underneath the bar, unwrapped the small plastic bag lying on the ice, and, with a pair of tongs, removed a perfectly preserved human toe. Delicately he deposited the blackened toe, replete with yellowed and manicured nail, into the drink. The customer raised the glass and muttered something to himself in castellano. Wincing, he tipped the patxaran back toward his barely open mouth. It was the middle toe: long and not wide. The toe slid down the glass and stopped against his lips like a dredge, the rest of the red liquid draining past the toe and running into his throat. This is disgusting, Roberto thought. This is really bad.
“I did it!” said the customer when the glass was empty but for the wet toe. “I have done it, it is done.”
“Congratulations,” said Roberto, replacing the toe in its plastic wrapper. “How do you feel?”
“Do you feel different?”
“I think... yes. Yes, I feel different now.”
“I cannot say. Just, something has changed.”
The customer watched Roberto count away his seventy pesetas. “Anything else for you? A beer?”
“No. No, I do not think so. I do not want anything.”
The customer left in what looked to Roberto like a thoughtful haze. Above the door was a bell that rang any time a customer left or entered. After the man who drank la behotz there were no more customers for a long time. Agustin joined Roberto at the bar.
￼“Did you tell him the story?” the older man asked.
“The story of la behotz. Of where the toe came from. To whom the toe belonged.” “No. There is a story?”
“Of course! Did you think that it came from nowhere? You must tell them the story. You would want to know whose toe it was that you were drinking, would you not?” “No. I would not.”
“That toe belonged to an American. A friend of Ernest Hemingway, the American writer. You see? Already this is fascinating.”
“The fact that the toe belonged to a friend of Ernest Hemingway does not make me want to touch the toe with my mouth.”
“Show respect. This toe is going to make you very rich. And you must know the story so you can tell the customers.”
Agustin told Roberto that the American’s name was Charlie Douglas. Charlie Douglas was an American from Chicago who met Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley while visiting Paris. On Hemingway’s invitation, Charlie Douglas travelled with Hemingway to Pamplona in the summer, for San Fermin. This was many years ago, Agustin said, before so many English and Americans came for San Fermin every year. This time Ernest Hemingway came with his wife and Charlie Douglas and their English and American friends. They were all writers, or they did nothing, because they had money. Hemingway then was a writer but he was not famous. Charlie Douglas was a writer but he was not famous either. He had written one book in America. It was a book on a theory of medieval history and Hemingway had read it and thought it was not very good. Charlie Douglas had read Hemingway’s stories and thought they were not very good. Hemingway had brought everyone to Pamplona to show them la corrida. In the heat of the afternoon they would watch the bulls, barely held together by rage and carnal ferocity, be run through with swords and slip down the shaft of the blade into true death. The men sat in the bars and outside the cafés while it was still hot and drank cold beer and glasses of Pernod, an imitation absinthe to which Hemingway had introduced Charlie Douglas. On other days, the men would hike east of Pamplona with wine, cheese and sausage, and sit to fish in the river. On those nights, the men would bring back what they had caught and have a café prepare it for them, and bring them several bottles of red wine. Dinner was at Bar Txoko. The owner’s daughter was a Basque girl who served them the wine. She would flatter Charlie Douglas by winking at him over Hadley’s shoulder. When she walked out from behind the bar Charlie Douglas noticed her legs.
“I like that piece from the bar,” said Charlie Douglas in the country the next day. “What do you think about her?”
“Have a Pernod with me, and we’ll talk about the girl,” said Ernest Hemingway. That night he introduced himself to her and said that he was a writer. “And I’m going to write a novel, I’ve decided. It’ll be about how young men live their lives.”
The Basque girl listened with interest and poured them both cups of wine. “Will you read to me something that you have written?”
Charlie Douglas did not do that but went with her to her room upstairs. All the days and nights were agreeably long and for Charlie Douglas the week in Pamplona had been the only significant one in his life. In Chicago he had a fiancée who he was afraid of and a job at a college that made him sad. When the group’s week in Pamplona was over,
￼Charlie Douglas had a glass of Pernod in his hand and told Hemingway that he would not be going back with them or going back at all.
“You’re a damned fool,” Hemingway said. “Pack your bags and come home with us.”
“Don’t be sore, Hemingway. That’s a rotten thing to say. Anyway, it’s nothing to do with you.”
“You’re a damned fool.”
“I’m telling you, don’t say that.”
“You’re tight, and so you’re being a fool about it. You can’t live here.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
“Damn it, Charlie, if you were straight you’d see it. I know it’s been nice, but you can’t be on vacation all the time, you have to work. You’re a guest. You don’t even speak the language. They don’t want you here, you know. Not even that girl really does.”
“You’re wrong about that.”
“I’m not wrong about anything.”
In the end, Hemingway returned to Paris with his wife and the others. He told
Charlie Douglas that he was likely to come for San Fermin next year, and that Charlie Douglas should better have come to his senses by then. Charlie Douglas raised a glass and closed the door.
The rest of the summer was very good. The days were still hot and Charlie Douglas would walk the countryside and have picnics by the river. Though he did not speak the language he would greet the few Spanish and the Basque that he saw on the roads and they were friendly. At night he would wait for the Basque girl in her father’s bar and read the papers, which he did not understand, and she would serve him food and wine while she worked. He began to drink in the afternoons. The cafés and bars did not have Pernod – Hemingway had brought it to Pamplona in the first place – and so he developed a taste for patxaran, a red Basque liqueur made from sloe berries, and had the taste of aniseed like the Pernod. He had it served with ice that melted quickly in the sun, so he would drink the patxaran quickly while it was still chilled. It was the Basque girl who introduced him to the patxaran. He would sit in the bar and ask her to have a drink with him, and when they were the only ones in the bar, pull her close to kiss her. Of course, the money ran out. He received urgent telegrams from Chicago that he decided not to read. He wrote to Chicago only to ask for the money that he had in the American banks to be wired to him in Pamplona. No money ever came, and Charlie Douglas made debts for himself in every bar and café in Pamplona. He said that he would write another book and then he would be able to pay back double what he owed. But over time the mounting debts became unacceptable and there was no evidence of Charlie Douglas writing anything, and he was thrown out of his villa. He went to Bar Txoko with his bags and waited on a chair for the Basque girl, and got tight in the meantime. She appeared in the evening as usual, and Charlie Douglas put a hand around her arm.
“They’re all vultures in this town. To hell with them. You’re the only one of the lot who’s worth a damn. I don’t love anyone but you. Christ, I loved you that first night at dinner when you winked at me. It’s a lousy thing you did, you know, to wink at a man like that. I’m nothing now. There is no me now. I am you, you are everything. You’re all I’ve got. Come away with me, we’re going to have such a beautiful life.”
￼The Basque girl looked down at him. “Do you know I am not her? I am not that woman who winked at you in the bar. She does not work here anymore. You are thinking of someone else.”
“What – what is your name?”
“I will not tell you that.”
Charlie Douglas removed his hand from her arm and then put it back. “Come away with me.” “No.”
“Come on. I’m telling you to come with me.”
“You should go home. Everyone is bored of you.”
He stood up. “Don’t talk to me like that, alright?”
“Why not? You are a stupid drunk who bullies women. Nothing about you is interesting.”
He let her go again and hoisted his pack over his shoulder. She crossed her arms and waited for him to leave. Charlie Douglas paused in the open doorway and turned back to the girl.
“I am someone,” he said. He stepped back, slipped on the crumbling threshold, and broke his neck on the small steps.
“They buried the American in the graveyard here,” Agustin told Roberto, “but, of course, we have his toe.”
Roberto glanced under the bar at the ice bucket. “And this is the toe of Charlie Douglas?”
“Truly, do you want me to tell that story to all the customers? I still do not want to have that toe near my mouth. I would not delight in that. He was a sad man and I pity him.”
“Of course you should tell the customers. It is a good story, and it has a moral. The moral is that you must realise when the holiday is over, or else you will end up with your toe in a drink. But I do not complain. That is a very profitable drink, and a very valuable toe.”
“And is that story even true? I feel that I have heard parts of it before, in different places.”
“Well, who can say? It is the story I have heard. What does it matter whether it is true or not? It is a good story and it has a good moral. Why not tell it?”
So perhaps that was the real moral, Roberto thought. That the truth matters less than what one believes. And money matters more than either than them. Perhaps money is all that truly matters.
Roberto was still pondering the lesson of Agustin when the bell above the door sounded and interrupted his thoughts. This new customer was a white man, large, with a great white beard. There was aging and scarring plain upon his face and it was quite clear to Roberto – and it seemed clear to Agustin, as well – that this man was Ernest Hemingway. Roberto did not know what to say.
“Hola, señor,” Agustin called out. He carried on in English. “What can I get for you? A beer?”
Ernest Hemingway stopped at the bar. “Si, una cerveza,” he said in a halting American drawl.
Agustin opened a beer for Hemingway and set it down on the bar with a felt pad underneath. Hemingway did not look at it. Agustin waited for the man to break eye contact.
“Is there anything else for you, señor?”
Agustin did not immediately respond and appeared to be unsure what to think.
“Vale,” he acquiesced, at last.
Roberto watched as Agustin went through the ritual of preparing la behotz.
Agustin found the bottle of patxaran, which was not chilled, and poured Hemingway something more than a double measure. Agustin had a key of his own that he took from his pocket. The older man was frowning as he unlocked the padlock on the steel bucket.
“Roberto, where are my tongs?”
“Where did you put the tongs?”
Roberto handed Agustin the tongs from where he had left them.
“You must put them in the correct place,” Agustin admonished him quietly. He unwrapped the plastic and used the tongs to pick up the blackened toe of Charlie Douglas. Without glancing at Hemingway he placed the toe gingerly in the liquid.
“La behotz,” Agustin said, and stepped back from the scene.
Roberto watched closely as Hemingway examined the drink. Roberto looked at the drink too, and noticed for the first time how the toe glided across the surface of the red liqueur like a lily. Hemingway lifted the drink from the bar with his right hand, which was thick and meaty and almost broke the small glass in its grip. For a moment, nothing happened. Then Hemingway took the glass of patxaran with the toe of Charlie Douglas and drank from it. He drank from it quickly, with a great thirst, and this made Roberto wince once more. When Hemingway set the glass back down on the bar, the toe was gone.
“Where's the toe?” asked Agustin, suddenly peeved.
“I swallowed it,” said Ernest Hemingway, and took the beer as a chaser. “You... hijo de puta!” Agustin exploded. “There is – that is our property!”
Hemingway put a hundred pesetas on the bar. He took another drink of the beer and left. The bell above the door rang again.
“Vete a la mierda!” Agustin grabbed the money off the bar. “That is a fortune we lost,” he snapped at Roberto. Agustin said he would bring this matter to the owner of the café at once. Roberto said that the owner was upstairs, but sleeping. Agustin was incredulous but said he would go to wake him up.
“This is not the end of this,” Agustin insisted. Roberto watched the older man run up the stairs in a panic, shouting for the owner. As he did so, Roberto found himself gripped by a kind of serenity, instead, and he thought to himself that in time, there would be new toes, and new stories to tell.