Sour Toe

by Justin Herrmann Read author interview June 19, 2017

Four days alone on the road, steady diet of pretzels and Canada Dry, I bring Wayne his part of the settlement. He got the Escape and the antique sword. I got the kids and all new kinds of depressions.

I pull up to the hotel, turn off the engine.  We talked about driving the Alaska-Canada Highway long before the first kid, and stopped long before the last. I check in and head to the spacious hotel bar. There’s no music, only vulgar laughter from young Americans drinking pitchers of beer.

I sit at a table for two in the middle where Wayne can’t miss me. I order chardonnay, and for Wayne the Sour Toe, the drink this place is famous for, whiskey garnished with an amputated, frost-bitten toe. This toe was a draw for Wayne years back when he first suggested driving to Alaska.

The white-bearded bartender brings a tray of brown shots to the other Americans. They clink glasses, toast to adventures ahead.

The drinks arrive. From one angle, the shriveled, black toe looks like a charred end of a hotdog. The other side has an intact toenail. A sign behind the bar reads: TWENTY-FIVE-HUNDRED-DOLLAR FINE IF YOU SWALLOW THE TOE.  I grip the thin stem of my glass. My veins look big and green through the waxy skin on my hands. Long ago I had nails. I used to get manicures.

I’m three glasses in when Wayne arrives. I’ve never seen him with a beard. I’m surprised how gray it is.  He looks surprised to see the toe in the glass. “Boy,” he says and makes a face that adds a couple chins. “I’ll get started with something less organic.” He orders a beer. There’s some small talk, a lot of silence. Everything important was said some time ago.

Two beers in he starts rubbing my arm, rubbing my knee. I haven’t been with a man since Wayne left. Even so, I haven’t drunk enough for anything about him to seem appealing. I grip his wrist and remove his hand from my body.

He orders mediocre champagne, a bottle, two glasses. The toe in the shot glass on our table has become an appropriate bouquet for the occasion.

The champagne arrives. His hand goes under the table to my skirt, then to my bare knee. “I know I’ve said things about your legs before. Unkind things,” he says. “The truth is I’ve been thinking about this stubble. I dream about it.”

I’ve done my part. Delivered what Wayne asked. No less, certainly no more. I take my card from my purse. He makes a dismissive motion with his hand. “Please, I’ll cover everything tonight,” he says. Tomorrow he’s supposed to drive me to White Horse where I have reservations to fly south to my mother’s for the kids.

The other Americans, sufficiently drunk, grow impatient waiting for a turn with the toe. After all, it’s why people come here. One says, “If we wait much longer, the fat lady might lose a few toes to diabetes. There’ll be enough toes for all.” The others roar with laughter. As I’m the only woman in the bar, Wayne pretends he doesn’t hear.  He lowers his head, studies the profanities carved into the table.

I pick up the glass containing the toe and whiskey. Wayne’s fingers trace the carvings. I clear my throat to get his attention. I clear my throat again and get everyone’s attention.

Bar rules say the toe only needs to touch your lips, but I take the whole wretched thing in my mouth. I swallow the whiskey first, then taste the salt the toe is preserved in. Saliva fills my mouth. My tongue works the toe towards the back of my mouth. I make a gak-gak-gak sound as the toenail scrapes my esophagus. Wayne removes his hand from my leg. Probably believing this was an accident on my part, he reaches with one arm and unheroically pats my shoulder, knocking over the bottle of champagne. Cool liquid fizzes in my lap. I pick up the bottle and drink from it. I feel it, something once human, making its way down, as Wayne dabs at my crotch with cocktail napkins.

About the Author:

Justin Herrmann is the author of the short fiction collection Highway One, Antarctica (MadHat Press 2014). He is a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage's MFA program. Most recently his stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, Blue Earth Review, and River Styx.

About the Artist:

Clem Onojeghuo's work can be found at Unsplash.