A Million Ways to Lose a Toe
Ryan W. Bradley

Huston asked for a sugar cube. The bartender was stacking clean glasses, and dug under the bar, bringing up a small pink and white box that he set on the bar. Huston lifted the lid and took out a sugar cube. He put it in his mouth and sucked on it.

"Trying not to smoke," he said.

"I've got to close," the bartender said.

Huston looked at the clock above the bar.

"I'm waiting for someone."

The bartender walked around the side of the bar and started putting chairs up on the tables.

"I've got to close either way."

"One more?"

The bartender nodded. Huston waved him off and reached over the bar for the bottle of whiskey. He poured himself a generous glass, then popped another sugar cube in his mouth.

"Who are you waiting on at this hour?" the bartender asked.

Huston reached into his coat pocket. He pulled out a small pickle jar and set it on the bar.

"There are a lot of ways to lose a toe," he said.

The bartender stopped, put down the chair he was holding, and walked over to the bar. He looked at Huston then picked up the jar. The pickle water was still in there, putrid green brine. On the bottom was a gray toe. The skin was wrinkled, the nail yellow and jagged. The severed edge was dark and encrusted.

"Christ," the bartender said and put the jar back down.

"I'm waiting on the man who did that," Huston said.


The bartender held his hand in front of his mouth as if he might puke.

"I owe him, don't I?"


Huston sat in the shanty he'd found unlocked. There was a kerosene lamp, which he used to light a cigarette, a small camping stove, and a tin coffee pot. A couple of nudie magazines were stacked in the corner. If it weren't so fucking cold he could have hid out here for days. As it was he wouldn't last long without getting hypothermia or freezing to death.

A rusted auger sat in the corner next to a fishing pole and a tackle box. He hadn't planned to fish, but Huston put down the lamp and picked up the ancient tool and examined it. He held his cigarette tight between his lips and ran his thumb over the points. They didn't even pierce the skin when he pressed increasingly hard. He planted the auger into the ice and began cranking it. It didn't take long before he began to sweat. He was getting soft. He took off his coat and continued working at the ice until he broke through.

Huston tossed his cigarette stub on the ice and crushed it with his foot. He sat on the wooden bench along the wall and lit another. He inhaled deeply and felt the cold air sear his lungs like shards of ice. He baited a hook and dropped the line into the water. He held the pole between his knees and pulled the top magazine from the stack and leafed through it. His fingers ached and his eyelids grew increasingly heavy.

The door to the shack swung open and hit Huston's knee. His head jerked up. The magazine dropped to the ice and the fishing pole slipped between his legs and sunk into the hole.

Huston opened his eyes and tried to focus. The door slammed shut. The waft of air hit Huston's face before the fist did. A tooth rattled out of his jaw and choked down his throat. Blood filled his mouth and spewed out when he was hit again. He opened his eyes again, wincing in anticipation. The man was a bear, almost as tall as the shanty and thick as a tree trunk. A dark beard covered any facial expressions.

"You fucked the wrong guy's wife," the man said.

Huston spat a glob of blood on the ice.

"I didn't know," he said.

The man swung again and another tooth rattled loose in Huston's head. Huston kicked toward the man's crotch, but the man was too quick and caught Huston's foot. He tore off the boot and the sock came with it. He gave Huston's leg a yank and pulled him from the bench. He gripped tighter and kneeled down.

Huston twisted and thrashed, but the man's grip was too tight. He thrust Huston's leg into the hole in the ice and held it in the water. The cold shot like a volt of electricity up Huston's body and then his foot went numb. The man pulled it out again and set Huston's bare foot on the ice, the skin fusing to it instantly.

"Maybe a reminder would help you not repeat your mistakes," the man said.

"I won't," Huston said, repeating it like the whisper of a breeze.

The man grabbed a rusted hatchet from under the bench and raised it in the air, then brought it down. For a brief moment Huston felt nothing then his foot was on fire and the blaze rushed through his veins.


"Whose wife did you fuck?"

Huston shrugged.

"I aim to find out," he said.

The bartender switched off the lights over the bar. The front door creaked open, echoing lightly in the empty room. The figure took up the whole doorway. The bartender edged toward the shadows at the end of the bar as Huston stood.

Ryan W. Bradley's new novel, WINTERSWIM, comes out at the end of the year.

Read more of his work in the archive.

Detail of illustration on main page courtesy of Patrick Hoesley.

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