Hammer Toes

Photo by Joel Dinda

The old black Honda with the rusted hood rolled into the parking lot just before I did. I saw Johnny get out, and he was staring across the street as I walked up to greet him.

“That’s a Cane Corso,” he said, pointing to a large black dog a woman with a stroller was walking.

“A what?”

“Cane Corso. A loyal dog and a protector. You don’t see many of them around, but you don’t want to tangle with that dog. They can fight.”

“Looks like a Mastiff to me. Now, how the hell do you know that’s a Cane whatever?”

“Ma’am, what kinda dog is that?” I yelled across the street. She took a look over at us and without breaking stride yelled back “Cane Corso.”

Johnny smiled. He was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and work boots, and he had light gray eyes that got your attention. The woman had moved on, but Johnny took one look back at them, turned around to me, and said the baby in the stroller was going to be well protected.

We walked from the parking lot into the restaurant/bar, a place I’d been frequenting lately. It was a nondescript joint, but the food was good and it was only a few miles from where Johnny’d been working at a construction site.

Some regulars were animated at the bar. Johnny grabbed a corner table for us. The bartender was a musician in his late 50s who had a Rod Stewart hairdo, except not as plush. He’d size you up, and if he thought you were ripe for the picking, he’d engage you as if you were a part of his clique. “We don’t do masks in here, man,” he’d say. “Fuck that. This is Florida, right? We can do whatever the hell we want here, man.”

He’d missed the strike zone with me. Maybe the long hair and the Harley parked out front had thrown him off. I didn’t really make an issue of things. I was cordial, I nodded and all that but I think he knew I wasn’t on his team after a few exchanges. Yet he came around. I’d let him know I was vaccinated somewhere in the conversation, and he’d confessed, despite the bravado, that he was, too. “And boosted, bro.”

I went back to the table to join Johnny and the bartender followed behind with two cans of a local beer with chilled glasses that I’d asked for; he chatted with me and Johnny for a few, recommended the fish and chips, and went back to yuck it up with the guys at the bar.

Johnny was from Brooklyn, much younger than me, and I get a charge being around him. We’d met a few years back at the Pirates complex in Bradenton. I’d come to see a pre-season game and he’d caught my eye at shortstop. He’d noticed my bike in the parking lot afterwards and we’d got to talking, clicking right away.

He has a do-or-die style of play that I respect. He has outrageous range and goes for any ball he thinks he had a chance at, and he doesn’t care if he’s going be charged with an error if he misses it. Too many young guys I scout today play ball like corporate suits, too worried about failure and stats to be bold decision makers. I couldn’t help smiling when I watched Johnny play.

“How’s the construction gig?” I asked. He said he was busting ass trying to bank as much as he could this off season, and he said he wasn’t sure he’d get re-signed.

“Man, if they don’t bring you back, I’m pissed.”

He nodded thanks as he took a swig from the can, leaving the glass alone.

It’d been a tough year for him last season. He’d had a baby with a longtime girlfriend, but that wasn’t going well at all.

Really, no one’s fault, but he was trying to make a career of it playing ball in backwater towns, and she was going through a hard time as a first-time mom living alone, with post-partum depression. She was calling and complaining through the season and telling him she’s not getting any emotional support from him.

I knew it’d affected his play. Early on, before the baby arrived, he was on fire, really showing up those high-dollar draft babies, and he looked like he was going to get moved up quick. Then, just like that, things went south. He finished the year at .200. He never once said anything about it to me, no excuses, that’s the type of guy he is, but in the back of my mind I wondered whether he’d held some of it against her. I would have.

They’d had a go of it after the season, but it didn’t work out. She’s with her mom and sister up north now. He’s missing that baby, though. The kid’s named after his dead brother.

“Looks a lot like him,” he said. “He’s crawling all over the place, too.”

We’d done a lot of talking about the grief he carries with him every day. He’s frustrated with his family situation and disappointed with the way the season went down. I’d warned him to be careful of interactions with people in his frame of mind. You’re just looking for a reason to go off on someone, I’d told him.

“How’d you know that was a Cane Corso,” I asked.

“That was our favorite dog when we were kids. Everyone had a Pit Bull in our ‘hood, but we liked the Cane Corsos. We knew all the breeds – we had books – and the Cane Corso always reminded us of us.”

He said that with a laugh.

“I can see that,” I said, and I was serious. “It puts that bar fight in perspective.”

He’d been in one of those Irish Boston neighborhoods with a few Dominicans after a teammate’s wedding at the end of the season. After a while the guys had dribbled out and Johnny’d found himself alone. He’d finished his drink and was walking out when a townie bumped him. Ok, no problem, he’d thought, after a quick look back, and he started walking again when another local shouldered him, the first guy’s buddy. The two had turned around and were staring at Johnny, who had a few words with them. “Slow your roll, bro,” the bigger of the two had said, taking a step forward. Johnny’d crouched into a boxer pose, and before you knew it he’d swung and decked the guy. The guy’s pal made a faint move toward him but stopped short after seeing his pal’s red split lip. Out of the blue, in the chaos of it all, a bouncer appeared, grabbed the guy on the ground and dragged him out. “I saw what happened, man,” he’d said to Johnny.

Johnny’d drained his can and he motioned to the bartender for another. “Funny you should bring that up,” he says, “because I had an incident today.”

I guess my brows raised, because Johnny motioned for me to calm down with his hands.

“You’re my friend,” he said, “so just listen, and hear me out.” I took a sip from the chilled glass I’d poured my can into, nodded, and sat back, giving him the stage, happy enough that he was confiding in me.

It’d happened at work. The shift was ending, and the guy he was working with was in the truck, backing up slowly in an alley to a dumpster to unload a few things with Johnny directing him from outside in the back. Suddenly a car appears, and the driver starts honking the horn, over and over. Johnny puts up a hand and the just-give-us-a-second, lady, look, and he keeps directing his guy.

Johnny’s man reverses the truck back enough for her to swing around the front, which she does, honking all the while with a rubber neck. She drives up to a house a few yards down – her house, they figured – and parks and opens the trunk. Oh shit, the other guy thinks, she’s getting a gun. Turns out no, but Johnny tells the dude to be cool, that he’ll handle it, because the lady is now walking up to them. And she’s a classic bottle-blonde Florida Karen, Johnny says, berating them every step of the way up, until she’s now in front of them, yelling at them as if she’s speaking in tongues. Johnny feels a spit spray hit his lips.

Johnny puts a hand up and tells her they can have a conversation but to be polite about it and to stand back, ma’am. Oh boy, that turns her up another notch, and now she’s piercing him with her eyes, even closer to his face, and as she yells at him, both arms are waving like balloons in the wind. He’s getting more spray, too.

“She’d zeroed in on the ‘Latino,’” he says.

He tells me then that he broke her soul. Those were his exact words.

He told her to shut the fuck up and to get her nasty bunioned hammerhead toes back up to her house.

That came from outer space and made us laugh for a minute.

Anyway, apparently she goes silent after he said that, looks at him for a second, and then turns around with not a word and marches back home. They hear the front door to a house shut in the distance.

Bro, you’re the one who told me to be cool, his guy says, unable to fully process what had gone down. I know, Johnny says, and they get back to work, unloading the truck in silence.

I’m staring at Johnny and he’s staring back at me, and I tell him, as all of this sinks in, that you did break her soul. In that short span, you’d noticed her ugly feet, and when you threw that at her, she couldn’t comprehend how you’d hit the one most self-conscious thing about her in the blink of an eye.

“I told you, man,” Johnny said, his face grimacing.

“She’ll never be the same again,” I said.

Johnny, deep down I’m sure, was a bit bothered by what he’d done, but I was still thinking about how he’d come up with that line, how he’d observed her hammer toes during a verbal assault, and how he’d spat it out seamlessly to nail her between the eyes like nothing else could have. It was like watching a smooth, no-help double play.

We just sat there for a minute, drinking in silence, and that’s all I could think about in wonderment.

Sid Fernando

Sid Fernando is a well-known horse racing columnist. He recently moved from Brooklyn to Tampa, where he lives with his wife and cats. He has recently started writing fiction and his first piece was published in The RavensPerch in March.

Sid Fernando is a well-known horse racing columnist. He recently moved from Brooklyn to Tampa, where he lives with his wife and cats. He has recently started writing fiction and his first piece was published in The RavensPerch in March.

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