The Hills Still Like White Elephants

The American stepped off the train and into the warm Spanish afternoon sun. One of the Guardia Civilia stood at attention beside the door of the station. The policeman eyed each of the passengers, measuring them for trouble. The American had other business on his mind than any trouble he might make for Franco and his Fascists.

The station looked run down, paint peeling off its walls. Walking into the bar, he ordered Anis del Toro. When it came, he threw back his head and downed the liqueur with one try. The cold, licorice taste went down fast and filled him with a momentary contentment. It was time to get on with what he had come to do, he reminded himself.

Grabbing a taxi nearby, he asked the driver to take him to the inn where he had booked lodging. Once settled in and after a good meal, he walked back to the station, and then on into the arid landscape behind the building.

The afternoon was now evening and shadows were everywhere, then it was night. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and prodded the hills in the distance, hills that did indeed appear to be elephants. It was too late to know if they were white or some other color. He dropped his knapsack and sat down on a large boulder.

The hills drew his eyes toward them. He found himself peering further and further into the past. It had been one long stretch of time, thirty years of it since the girl. It had been thirty years since the girl spent that afternoon with him in the train station. Thirty years since she had said those hills in the distance reminded her of white elephants. Thirty years since he had convinced her to have an abortion and she died of an infection from the abortion, her head on his lap in a compartment on a train to Paris. It had been thirty years of regret. Each day since, he had relived every moment of that afternoon, detail by detail, one moment after another whittling away at any kind of life he had tried to live.

They met in the Prado. She was a nineteen-year-old English student, sketching Velázquez’s painting, “Las Meninas”, and he, a twenty-five-year-old architect from Chicago, come to Spain to study the architecture. The previous six weeks he studied and sketched the Alhambra, the heart and soul of Moorish Spain. On his way back to Paris, he stopped in Madrid for a few days to get to know that part of Spain better.

While strolling through the galleries, he came up behind her, her long black hair falling from her beret to her waist. She was deep in her work with pencil and sketchbook. He sat down on a wooden bench, unable to take his eyes off that girl. Hours must have passed, but they seemed like only minutes. He took out his own sketchbook and drew the lines of her image, though he knew that there was no way he could put what he felt onto paper.

The girl stood up, straightened her skirt, then turned toward the American. Her smile filled an open face.

“You like Velazquez’?” she asked from across the room.

He walked over to her. “I do. Very much.”

Her eyes looked back at the painting. “How can anyone deny that is perfection? Every artist before and since should bow in his presence.”

“Even Rembrandt?”

“Even Rembrandt,” she said.

He suffered a momentary loss for words. Then she put out her hand. “My name is Lina. I come from Bristol.”

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” He had never believed in it until that afternoon.

“Well, yes. And no,” she answered.

He got up his courage and asked, “Would you like to get a drink?”

“I am thirsty. And hungry too.”

“Good,” he said. “I found a place around the corner that serves a good paella.”

For the next six weeks, they began each day and ended each night together. The days she spent in the Prado, sketching the paintings she loved so much, losing herself in the paintings before her.

Some days he wandered the city, taking in the sights and the sounds. Others he strolled through the halls and sketched the contours of the museum. Mostly he sat and watched the girl, never tiring of this girl he had fallen in love with.

Then one night over drinks and cocido madrileño, she said, “I’m pregnant.” They were hesitant words, and they were words that dropped like a bomb into his lap.

He choked down his food, then drank some water.

“I haven’t had my period.” she said nervously, afraid of his next words.

“It’s okay. I love you, and no matter what, we’ll work this thing out.”

Later he suggested an abortion. It came with the moment of doubt that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a father, that doubt he later regretted. But it seemed the only way to get back to the way it had been those first days in Madrid.

Before they left Madrid, they decided to stop at a little town in the Valley of the Ebro. She wanted to see the hills and the dry valley, measure its colors and its light with her eyes. It was summer and she was working on a painting. “It has good light,” she said of the valley.

A friend told him of the fishing there and the catfish and the wild carp. While she was painting, it would give him some time to be alone so that he could figure things out. There was no better way to be alone than going fishing.

On the train to the valley, they did not talk. In the valley, they talked and their talk was filled with dread. Back on the train, they did not talk again. They knew what they had to do. In Barcelona, they found an abortionist.

In the room, not the cleanest of rooms, he almost backed out of what was about to occur. But he didn’t. As she lay helpless on the bed, he held her hand. He poured all the love he could summon into that small hand of hers. After thirty years, he still felt the grip of her strong fingers grasping his hand. He still heard the screams as the abortionist pulled the baby out of her. When it was done, she looked up at him. Her face was radiant, her eyes shining her love on him.

He knew he had made a mistake. He should have insisted that she have the baby. On the train to Paris, her head became hot. She trembled from the chills running through her small body. Then she was dead, her spirit lifted out of that fragile body he loved so much.

He came back to the present and turned his eyes from the hills. He reached into the knapsack he had with him and pulled out a revolver. Sitting on the rock, he thought about what he had to do. It was the only way for him to find any peace. It would be such a relief.

He reached into the knapsack again and pulled out a box of shells. He took out six and popped one into each of the chambers on the cylinder. Then he tested the gun, aiming and firing one shot at the hills. He placed the warm muzzle against his head, then he stuck it into his mouth. Yes, that was the right way to do this. He pulled the hammer back, cocked the gun and waited. What he was waiting for, he was not sure. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, and still he waited.

From the hills in the distance he heard a “Don’t”.

“Why not?” he said to the hills.

“Please don’t, Matthew,” the hills said.

He thought about the words for several minutes, mulling them over in his mind. He pulled the barrel out of his mouth. “I can’t go on like this,” he said to the hills.

“But you have to. You just have to.”

“Oh, my God.” He slid off the rock and onto the dirt. He cried for a good long time. He took the gun once again and pushed the barrel into his mouth, then cocked it.

Another “Please” came from the hills,. Then they went silent.

It was the final plea that did it. He dropped the revolver in the dirt, then dejectedly headed back to the town.

The next afternoon he caught the train to Madrid. From his compartment, he watched the hills like white elephants recede into the distance. It was on to the Prado and “Las Meninas”. After that, he didn’t know. He just didn’t know.

Mrs. Henderson

The Library Director, Mrs. Wheeler, escorted the new acquisition librarian through the large stone building. Stopping at each of his colleague’s desk, she introduced Jason. They were friendly, each in his or her own way. One stood and shook hands. Another gave an enthusiastic hello. Still another shared her appreciation for the new hire. “You’re going to love it here. Our patrons are the most wonderful people. Very supportive.”

Then they moved on, the director pointing out different features of the hundred-year-old building. An arch here, some restoration work here, a special collection in this room. Along the walls were pictures of contributors and former directors of the library as well as paintings by local artists.

The two descended to the basement. After meeting several technical service workers, they came to a small office at the end of a hall. Shelves of books and papers lined the walls. Still more books and papers cluttered the small desk. Mrs. Wheeler led him around to the woman whose head was barely seen above the stacks of clutter. With her gray hair pinned into a bun, she wore a gray dress, not as gray as her hair but still gray.

“This is Mrs. Henderson,” the director said. ” She is our Inter Library Librarian. And she has been with the library the longest.” There was a bit of nervousness in her voice as she introduced the woman.

“Nice to meet you,” Jason said.

The woman continued her work, not acknowledging either the director or the new librarian.

Mrs. Wheeler then led him to his office. The shelves and his desk were empty as if they were waiting for his arrival. She introduced him to Sarah, his assistant, hard at work at her desk working her way through her in-box. She stood and shook Jason’s hand.

Over the next few days, Sarah helped him get situated and familiarized him with the different library processes. He came to appreciate her sunny disposition and the bright colors she wore. It seemed that she must have quite a collection of scarves. She never wore the same one twice. In the break room on the second floor, his colleagues were friendly, treating him like he was one of a large family. Even the director joined them from time to time. But he never saw Mrs. Henderson.

One day, he asked about her. “Nobody seems to know,” Case two tables over said. “She’s a loner. Never socializes. Never talks. Guess she likes her solitude.”

“We drop an ILL request in her inbox,” Margaret, a reference librarian, said. “Several days later it magically appears in our inbox.”

“She does her job. If she wants to be left alone, we leave her alone. But it’s sad to be so isolated. I would think.” Case finished peeling his orange.

“Seems nobody sees her come or go,” Margaret again. “She’s like some phantom who has made her home here.”

One Monday morning, Jason stopped at a florist on his way to work on a hunch. He bought a rose with a vase for it. He came to Mrs. Henderson’s office. It appeared that she wasn’t at her desk, then he saw her behind her desk hard at work. “Good morning, Mrs. Henderson.” He sat the vase and the rose on her desk. “I thought you would like a rose.” The older woman did not acknowledge his presence.

For several months, this became his ritual. On his way to work each morning, buy a flower, greet Mrs. Henderson, remove the previous day’s rose from the vase, put in a new one. Then one Monday she wasn’t at her desk. She wasn’t at her desk Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. At the end of the day Friday, there was a staff meeting.

“Mrs. Henderson is no longer with us,” the director announced. “Last night the police found her dead in her apartment.”

Over the weekend Jason searched for an obituary. It was missing from the local paper. On Monday, every was told that the library would closed the following Saturday. There would be a memorial service at St. Anne’s Catholic Church. Mrs. Henderson’s ashes had already been dispersed according to her wishes. But it was the least the staff could do to honor such a loyal employee.

At the service, many of the long-time staff spoke a few words. Mrs. Henderson had gotten a near impossible book to find. A patron wanted a special edition of another book. The woman had gotten it. Again and again, each of her colleagues spoke well of the mysterious woman. Then the service was over.

In the months after the service, the library hired a new Inter Library Loan librarian. The new woman, a recent Library Science graduate from a local university, was pleasant enough. Extremely efficient, as well. The shelves were cleared and her desk nice and neat. Occasionally Jason would stop by her office to say good morning. But it wasn’t the same as saying good morning to the gray-haired woman. He took to missing Mrs. Henderson. It was like having a piece missing from his life. Things just didn’t feel right. From time to time he thought he had seen Mrs. Henderson out of the corner of his eye as he passed her office. He would look, but she wasn’t there. Only the new woman.

Then one morning, a yellow rose in a vase was on his desk. “Where did this come from?” he asked Sarah.

“I don’t know. It was there when I came in. It’s such a lovely rose, isn’t it?”

Jason smelled the rose, then said, “Yes, it is.”

Sammy

Oh, to be nineteen again and work in the A & P and ring up a queen of a girl in her bathing suit for a can of I-can’t-remember-what and quit my job and leave my co-worker, Stokesie, and the manager of the store, Lengel, behind and walk out into a whole new life. Sometimes you get a chance and you take that one chance and everything changes. It was such a good spring day to be alive and the air was sweeter than any I have breathed before or since. It was a good day to go out and see the world.

The girl and her two friends were gone when I got outside, but that didn’t matter. I was a man now because I had made a man’s decision. I had said goodbye to all the things I hated when I walked out of that store, and there was no going back. I walked over to the blue ’54 Chevy my dad gave me for my eighteenth birthday, got into it, checked my gas gauge and decided I had enough fuel to get me to the beach five miles away and back. I knew I had see that girl again, and there was no better time than then to see her.

I drove to the beach and parked my car, then ambled over to the food stand. “Where does a guy go around here if he needs a job?” I asked the man inside the stand, improvising my way through this part of the day.

“What kind of job you looking for?” he wanted to know.

“Lifeguard,” I said, continuing to make things up. Surprised that things were going in the direction they were going in.

“You a good swimmer?”

“The best.”

“Better’n me?” He pulled off his apron.

I gave him a good up-and-down and decided just maybe. “I didn’t bring a set of trunks.”

He reached down and pulled a pair out from under the counter and threw them at me.

“You can change over yonder.” He pointed toward a men’s room several yards away.

I took the swim trunks and ran to change. Several minutes later I walked back to the stand. I handed him my jeans and shirt and shoes. He put them under the counter. “They’ll be safe here,” he said and locked the stand up.

We raced down to the water and I was first in. The water, cold but not too cold, came up to my waist. I dived in and headed for the platform floating in the ocean. About halfway there, the guy pulled ahead of me. I was a good swimmer but this guy was a fish. He got to the platform and crawled out of the water and stood watching me. Grabbing the edge of the wood, I pulled myself up onto it. I steadied myself. He hauled off and hit me hard with his fist. I hit the water. What the–?

I swam under the wooden floor, came up on the other side, crawled up on the platform and rammed into him. He fell back into the ocean. I watched him go under the water and then his head appeared again and now he was trying to get his breath. I jumped in and grabbed him. He fought me hard, real hard. But soon I had him up on the platform and I was breathing mouth-to-mouth, scared as all get-out. He was not moving. Then water shot out of his mouth.

Slowly he sat up. Then he looked at me with that look that made me think I was lucky knowing him. “You got the job,” he said.

On the beach, the queen waved to me.

Dear Mr. President

Tuesday being Election Day, I thought I’d publish a little American history humor. A letter written to our first President and his response. Enjoy.

Dear President Washington,

You went and did it. You made Tom Jefferson the Secretary of State. Can you believe it? He thinks he’s smarter than everybody else. Reading all them books. Show off. Me, I didn’t get past kindergarten and it ain’t hurt me nary a bit. Next think you know he’ll be wanting everybody to speak French.

You know what the Bible says about Graven Images. What did you do? You went and hired that Alex Hamilton for Treasury. Now we got ten dollar bills with his face on it.

That John Adams for Vice President. Can you believe it? There ain’t a bit of vice in that old coot. He wouldn’t know a party if it up and bit him.

And what’s this about a whiskey tax. I gotta tell you my moonshine tastes fine without no tax tacked on.

Then you allowed those toothpaste ads on the copies you sent out of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I know you have to pay for the guvmint somehow. But those toothpaste ads are just atrocious. “You’ll wonder where the yellow went When you brush your teeth with Termitadent.” Why didn’t somebody tell me them were real termites? You need to get the FDA involved. Tell them my mouth is still so yellow that my neighbors are calling it Ol’ Yeller. And now my teeth are gone.

You know how much it costs to have a set of choppers made out of good solid oak? Well, it’s a lot. Almost as much as my wooden leg.

That’s about it. You were such a great general. Our beloved “Great Stone Face”. At Valley Forge, my buddies and I were recommending you to be the first face they put on Mount Rushmore. Now you went and done all this. I am so disappointed I am thinking about voting for that scoundrel, Aaron Burr, in ’92.

Well, you give Mrs. Washington a big howdy for me. I know you been wanting a kid. Just want you to know there’s this new-fangled technique called in vitro fertilization. Maybe it can help y’all have that little one.

Here’s hoping we’ll be seeing you at the Mount Vernon Fireworks for the Fourth next year. You always do a good do.

Your s truly,
John Q. Public

******
Dear John,

I received your letter. It’s always good to hear from the folks back home.

I heard the news and I just wanted to say how sorry I am that you lost that girl friend of yours. I can’t believe she couldn’t tell you face-to-face. She had to tell you in a letter. And she had to light out with that no-good Daniel Boone. I would send the FBI after them. But the CIA has told me they are now out of United States jurisdiction. They went to some place called Kentucky.

Them were some darn good recommendations you made. I have convinced Tom Jefferson not to read in public. I also am recommending to Congress that no French be spoken in the United States at all, except when that French fella de Tocqueville comes for a little sit-down.

We’ve heard your complaint about Alex’s image on the sawbuck. Secretary Hamilton said that he talked to the Almighty Himself. God told him to put those images on the paper money. You know how it is. There is no arguing with the Almighty. ‘Course I am not much for paper currency. I only take gold for payment in kind.

I do apologize for John Adams’ frown. I’ve tried everything and nothing will turn that frown upside down. Not even a night of sex with Abby. And you know how close he and Abby are? They’re like two peas in a pod.

Now the whiskey tax, we can do something about. We are repealing it. Instead we’re going to institute a gasoline tax. Since automobiles haven’t been invented yet, that tax won’t cost folks an arm and a leg. Oh, sorry about the wooden leg. I told you to get out of the way of that cannon ball at Yorktown. But you just wouldn’t listen.

I agree with you about Termitadent. I tried it myself and lost my wisdom teeth. We are having the FDA look into the matter.

To compensate for the damage, I have asked Congress to pass a G. I. Bill. All veterans of the war with the Redcoats will receive one set of choppers free. You’ll just have to pay the postage. I asked my Postmaster General Ben Franklin to belay the cost. Then he started quoting me from Poor Richard’s Almanak. I just couldn’t shut him up.

I did send your recommendation about Mount Rushmore over to the Interior Department. They told me that Abe Lincoln was going to be first. They are still mad about that cherry tree that used to be on the White House lawn. I keep telling them that I didn’t chop it down. It was Aaron Burr. But no, they won’t believe me. They are still mad about that intern. I can’t tell you how many times I have said that I did not have sex with that woman. Won’t nobody believe me?

Thanks for the recommendation about the in vitro. Martha is looking into it. Unfortunately she does not like needles. I can’t even convince her to get that tattoo of King George 3 off her butt. She doesn’t understand that it was part of the treaty we signed with the Brits in ’83. But I am working on her.

Looking forward to the Big Do come next Fourth. As always, we will have some surprises. And Willie Nelson has finally agreed to come and host the thing.

Always smiling,
George Washington
Father of your Country

For the Birds

 

A couple sits on a balcony overlooking New York City. They are eating their breakfast. A pigeon is on the balcony’s ledge looking at the couple. The couple are looking at the pigeon.

Carla, the bird, says, “Okay, guys. Here’s your agenda for today.”

“Joe, I can’t believe we are taking orders from a bird.”

“Jill, this bird has made me a fortune. Before Carla here, I was bankrupt. Carla comes into my life and within weeks I am rolling in dough.”

“Okay, guys. Here’s the plan.”

“I don’t know, Joe. Seems real stupid to me. Don’t you know your own mind?”

“Of course, I know my own mind.”

“Hey, guys. Listen up.”

“Joe, it don’t seem like you do.”

“Jill, I can make my own decisions. It’s just that Carla does a much better job. She doesn’t let things get in the way.”

“Guys, you want me to leave. I’ll do it, you know.”

“Jill, you got to quit doubting my decisions.”

Carla up and flaps away.

“And my decision is to follow Carla. By the way, have you seen Carla this morning?”