I’m not the tell-me-your-troubles kind of bartender. I keep to myself. Stand-offish was how one drunk guy put it once — the bar held him up as he slurred through some sob-story about his wife or girlfriend or money — but I don’t know about all that. I just do my job, act as gatekeeper of the booze. People order, I serve, collect their tips, and we all go back to watching the ballgame on the TV in the corner. When I’m not pouring drinks I lean on the bar, one hand tucked below it, thumbing the scratched end of the bat hooked underneath. Nothing ever happens.
Except for the other night. I broke a guy’s nose. I didn’t mean to exactly, but when you throw a punch, when you square your shoulder and come in swinging, you have to consider a broken nose as a possible result.
George didn’t like that approach to conflict resolution, so he fired me.
“You told me to go over the top, make an impression,” I said. “You said it would keep the peace.”
“I know,” he said. “But last week you flipped a table when that guy threw his cue stick at the wall, and now you’re breaking people’s noses and waving the bat around just because some guys were tossing peanuts at the television.”
“The guy called me an asshole.”
“I don’t care what he said. Fact is, you’re scaring people.”
And that was that. I didn’t argue and he gave me a double-shift for my last day, which was good of him. But when people came in around first pitch for the Braves game, customers ignored me more than usual, looking right through me when they ordered. A lot of those people saw the busted nose a few nights before. They ordered beers, slid a buck my way out of habit, and went back to their tables, their friends, the game.
The most human interaction I got all night happened when one guy came up, ordered a Jack and Coke, and stared me down while I made it. “Five bucks,” I said when I handed it to him.
“Eat shit,” he said.
He sipped his drink and stood there taking me in, and I recognized him — a friend of Broken Nose. This one had been in the middle of it ready to fight, then and now. I loosely gripped the bat under the bar but I didn’t want trouble, so I just said again, “Five bucks,” and looked past him to the TV. The Braves were at home, down a run to the Reds, third inning. The guy downed his drink all at once, slapped a five on the bar and said, “I’ll see you later.”
“Whatever you say,” I said. Back at his table, he nudged Broken Nose and they both looked at me. I kept my eye on the screen.
The two of them kept drinking, someone else from the table ordering for them, but when the game ended and the Braves lost they all left. Whoever bought the drinks threw a couple bucks my way, and that was that. My last shift ended quietly. George came in as I closed up. He wiped down the table tops while I cleaned up the bar, then he signed the slips and tipped me out.
“One beer for old time’s sake?” George said.
“Why not?” I said and he pulled a couple Genuine Drafts from the cooler. The first sip held the kind of cold that spread through your chest.
“Last shift go all right?” George said.
“Sure,” I said. “Nothing to it.”
The TV was still on, the Braves game running on replay.
“I missed this,” George said. “How’d the Bravos do?”
I shook my head. “They lost,” then, out of nowhere, “You know my Dad got drafted by the Braves?”
“No shit?” he said.
“Now,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ve heard that story. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve heard any stories from you.” He was asking to hear, but he didn’t have to. I could already feel it rolling up my throat, ready to tumble out.
“Settle in,” I said. George grabbed another couple beers.
The Braves drafted my dad out of high school as a pitcher, but he decided he’d be the first in his family to go to college. He attended Clemson on a full ride, but that first year he blew his arm out eating up innings in a blow out during Fall League. More than once, I heard about the snap in his elbow on a 2-2 slider. That snap sent him out of college and back to Quincy and his uncle’s carpentry business, which he then took over when his uncle retired to Arizona. He rode the laborer’s life hard for a while, all 12-hour days and 100-proof nights at Jeremiah’s where my mom waited tables, which is how they met. I can see how serving someone enough drinks can fool you into thinking there’s a connection there. I’ve seen it happen.
Some nights Dad’s crew came to the house with him after work, and I’d stay upstairs while they played cards and drank beer and ate spaghetti out of huge pots set in the middle of the table. As I watched them through the banister rails, all the men looked the same. They had the same cracked hands as my father, probably the same stinging smell of cheap bar soap. They all had faces like cinder blocks. They threw cards around the table and told dirty jokes and they did it all with the same squinting look, like they were all staring down the world.
Then, when I was 12, Dad fell through a rotted roof and broke his leg in two places. He couldn’t work, but he did a get a nice settlement — some inspector missed the rot — and sold off the business to one of the senior guys on his crew. That left him time to sit around and yell at Red Sox games and drink beer. Once, when Dennis Lamp gave up a late-inning home run he scooped up a bunch of empties at the foot of his chair and, pinning them to his chest with his forearm, stormed out to the backyard. He yelled Low and Outside and threw a bottle to the bottom corner of the shed door where it shattered. Then Low and Inside and hit the other corner. High and Tight. Climb the Ladder. Waste a Pitch. Hit Your Fucking Spots.
He was never violent to me or Mom; he’d just sit there, idly picking stuffing from the recliner’s arm. Sox games were the only things that set him off but it never got that bad.
Then one afternoon I arrived home later from school and my dad sat slumped on the front steps. Through the window I saw his recliner tipped over on its back. The TV tray was splayed out across the floor. A puddle of soup soaked into the carpet.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked.
“She’s upstairs,” he said. “She’s fine.”
“The Indians stole one today,” he said.
“You can’t do this every time the Sox lose, Dad. It’s not fair to Mom. To me.”
I never said much to my dad, mostly because I felt sorry for him. He loved to work, to build, and he couldn’t. But the sight of him slumped over, picking at the frayed ends of his shoelaces, like it was okay for baseball to unleash all this hurt, made me think he was just being selfish.
He looked at me closely for a second. “Sit down,” he said.
I stood there over him.
“You’re good to look out for your Mom,” he said. “It’s like it isn’t even me when I blow up.”
I sat down. “What happened?”
“You didn’t see?” he said. “Matt Young was pitching.”
I knew where this was going. “How bad did he get shelled?”
“He didn’t for once. Young was dealing. Threw eight no-hit innings. Lofton walked twice, stole his way to third both times, and scored on sac flies. Nagy was keeping the Sox hitters guessing, so it was 2-1 Indians going into the ninth.”
“And?” I said.
“And nothing. Three quick outs. Greenwell nubbed a weak grounder to third to end it. Game over. Young takes the loss and misses the no-hitter.”
“But he didn’t give up a hit,” I said.
“Game was in Cleveland,” he said. “Need to pitch a full nine to get the official no-no. Since the boys didn’t score, Young gets left out in the cold.”
“Tough loss,” I said.
“Can you imagine?” Dad said. “That guy will be lucky to win as many as he loses in his career. This was his moment. That was the best he’ll ever be at what he does, and what does he get? Nothing. No, worse. He gets another loss.” He reached for a beer that wasn’t there, and gently touched the step where he wanted it to be. “We pay for other people’s mistakes. That’s the long and short of it.”
Maybe it was sitting with him on those steps, how he looked as alone as I’d ever seen someone, but I found myself saying out loud, “I’m thinking of going out for the school team.”
He looked at me. “You? Really?”
“You didn’t seem to like Little League much,” he said. “And you weren’t great.”
“Someone around here could help with that.”
“I don’t think it’s in me, Joey,” he said. He stood up to go inside.
“You’re just feeling sorry for yourself,” I said.
He turned quick like he’d snap again, but he took a breath. “You don’t know a thing about it. But if you want to get cut from the team and feel a slice of disappointment, be my guest.” He went inside and closed the door behind him. So much for baseball, I thought.
But then the next morning he was sitting at the foot of my bed when I woke up.
“Get your ass home quick from school,” he said, tossing one of his old gloves onto the bed. “How long until tryouts?”
“Three weeks,” I said.
“Then we’ve got to haul ass,” he said. “Back here by three.”
Training started that afternoon. We went to the park down the street and played long toss for forty minutes to warm up. I thought Dad might have to short hop me a few times, but he hit me hard on the fly every time. He stopped here and there to show me something: how to point my glove at my target, how to crow-hop, how to shorten my catch and release. I was a second basemen in Little League, but that first day Dad pulled out his Fungo bat and sent me to the outfield.
“I play infield,” I said.
“You’ve got an okay arm,” he said. “You’re an outfielder for sure. Those long legs will track down anything. We’ve just got to work on your range.”
He sent me to center and hit a series of balls to the left and right of me, in front of me and over my head. Not once did the ball come straight to me. We practiced until I lost a ball in the darkening sky and it almost took my face off.
“That’s good for today,” he said. He didn’t say much in the way of praise or criticism on the way home, except to say, “Where’d you learn to put your glove up to block the sun? That’s smart thinking.” It was a little thing, but there was a hope in his voice I hadn’t heard since the accident.
We kept up fly balls, and after a couple days we started in on soft toss against the cage. Dad pointed out the hump in my swing and put my back foot at an angle to anchor me. Suddenly, the bat set more comfortably in my hands. I lined each ball into the same spot in the backstop. He’d say inside or outside and throw it there and I would pull the ball or push it to the opposite field depending.
When we weren’t at the field, Dad had me drinking a quart of buttermilk a day. I’d choke the stuff down, cheating out on a few sips when I could. I squeezed tennis balls in my hands three hundred times each every day. For meals, I was on double helpings of everything. He brought me some yard sale dumbbells and showed me some exercises to strengthen my rotator cuff.
“I thought only pros get cuff injuries,” I said.
“Pros that don’t do this,” he said.
Dad’s whole demeanor changed. He wasn’t brooding in front of the games anymore. He sat on the couch with my mother. They held hands, laughed, talked like people who were happy to be together. I’d sit in the ratty recliner while Dad pointed out Paul Molitor’s sweet swing or how Ellis Burks should have taken that curve to right field and how the reliever hung his breaking ball and if anyone ever leaves a ball that high on me, I best slam it into the gap or quit the game forever. All in all, it was like before he hurt his leg.
With tryouts a week away, we started batting practice. At first, Dad threw me nothing but change-ups. On each one I was sure I had it lined up, I’d swing out of my shoes, and the ball would dip right under my bat. He didn’t say a word and just let me go on swinging and cursing at myself. After about fifteen pitches he finally stopped.
“What did we learn?” he said.
“Not to go up against a former draft pick and his change-up.”
“How hard you swing isn’t worth a damn, that’s the lesson. Swing hard in the same spot all you want, but that pitcher will just throw to other spots and get you out.”
“So what do I do?” I asked.
“Adjust. Hell, I told you those were change-ups and you swing like they were fastballs right down the pike. A change-up is off-speed. You wait, drop your shoulder, and drive that shit into right field.”
He went back to the mound and grabbed a beer from the six-pack he had set on the ground. We did thirty or so more change-ups. I started to get the hang of it. First, I dribbled a couple down the first base line, but soon enough I was ripping liners into the right-center gap.
Then Dad threw a fastball inside that about took my chin off. I fell into the dirt.
“What the hell?” I said, getting up and brushing myself off.
“You were too close to the plate,” he said. “Did you think I was just going to give you the outside corner?”
I stood back in the box and waited, white-knuckling the bat. He reared back and came with another fastball and I swung as hard as I could. I missed. Dad shook his head. His next pitch caught me in the meat of the calf. The pain throbbed down to the bone.
“Jesus Christ, Dad.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to swing so hard?” he said. “You got to listen.” He took a big gulp of beer and threw the half-drunk can on the ground.
“And what if I don’t?” I said.
“Don’t listen, I don’t give a shit,” he said. “Just don’t come crying when you get cut.” He picked up his beer and headed to the outfield and towards home. It took me a few minutes to apologize and get him back, but when we finally walked back to the infield he pulled one of the beers off his six pack.
“You’re too jittery up there, all amped up to crush something,” he said. “Drink that down fast.”
“Mom’ll kill me,” I said. “She’ll kill you too.”
“Your mom doesn’t have to know,” he said. It was the first time I could remember me and Dad sharing something like a secret. I downed the beer quick as I could, coughing some on the suds. We hit for another hour then called it quits. Over the next couple days I got better. I could locate the pitch out of Dad’s hand, drop my shoulder if it was a breaking ball, keep my head steady, hit the ball where it needed to go, choke down one or two beers a day.
The last day of training we just played long toss. Dad said I knew all I needed. I was ready. On the way home from the field, we passed a house being built with a sign in front that said Tomlin Builders.
“There was a time that would say Davidson Builders.”
“You get more time to relax,” I said.
He didn’t say anything, just kept looking at the house.
“You ever think of coaching?”
He didn’t hear me. “I bet I could find a hundred things wrong with that structure,” he said. “Why I ever left the business to a dope like Toms, I’ll never know.”
We walked in silence the rest of the way home.
Tryouts were a blur. It all felt natural. The lightness of the ball after I caught a fly, transferred to my throwing hand, hit the cut-off man shoulder high. Coach’s pitches came at me in slow motion, like they were just working their way towards the bat’s barrel to get lined into the gaps. After three days of drills, I went to the locker room to see the team roster posted on the door and there was my name in the middle of the list. Greg Sweeney, one of the captains on the team, found me at lunch and invited me to a party at his house.
“Don’t look so surprised,” he said. “You’re on the team, time to act like it.”
I told Dad the good news when I got home and he gave me a 12-pack to take to the party. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he said.
At Greg’s house, the team just goofed around and drank beer in his finished basement. We played cards, shot some pool, half-watched some pre-season pro ball on the TV.
After a while, Greg called everyone together. “Time for The Line,” he said. “Rookies move to that end of the room.”
Me and three other guys walked down there while Greg explained The Line. The rest of the team lined up two by two, facing each other. When they said go we had to each run through the line while they got their shots in, punching and pushing for all they were worth.
The first three all went through, all grimacing and smiling with pain afterwards. Todd Guild got knocked to the ground and they piled on him, hitting him harder. Chuckie Snowdale got his lip split by a punch aimed too high. Everything went black when I ran through. It was like I was in some cave, away from everything. I felt the spike of pain from a shot to the ribs, the dull ache of a punch to the back, a dead-arm shot to the shoulder.
When I got through, Greg and the rest clapped and slapped us on the back. “You’re all officially ball players,” he said.
As everyone went back to beers, pool, television, Greg called me over.
“You all right Davidson?”
‘Yeah,” I said. “Why?”
He pointed over my shoulder to Taylor Bell, who sat holding his cheek. You could tell his face would swell. “You’re the only one that hit back,” Greg said. “And you’re face, man.”
“What about it?”
“It’s all twisted up,” he said. “Even now. You look pissed off.”
It wasn’t until he said it that felt the heat swelling behind my eyes.
“I’m good,” I told him. I took a breath. “I’m okay.”
“Good,” he said, but then he pointed to my chest. “Bring that fire to the games.”
At home in bed that night, I ran my hand across my ribs, pushing on forming bruises, wincing at the pain but smiling too.
I couldn’t believe how quickly I felt like part of the team. They had an understanding. They had inside jokes. They carried themselves with the ease of people who spent a lot of time together. I was part of that now. The beer took on a similar feel for me. The flavor didn’t seem harsh with every sip now. My body was starting to recognize it and respond with warm greeting.
But now I didn’t have time to play catch with Dad. I got home at supper time, beat to hell from practice, and after I ate it was upstairs to get homework done. For the first week, Dad would ask about practice, what drills we did, how the Coach handled everyone, how I was adjusting to the outfield. But soon he got quiet, just working his way through two or three beers each meal.
“Where you going?” he’d say if I went out.
“Down to Greg’s.”
“Well, if you’d rather mess around with your friends than fix your weak swing, be my guest.”
I felt that heat in my face again, and I saw it in his as he stared me down, but I just unclenched my hands and left.
When the first game of the season came, Dad seemed to forget all that tension.
“It’s nice to finally see you in a good mood,” Mom said to him at breakfast.
“It’s Joey’s big day,” he said. “You ready?”
“What kind of competitive spirit is that?” he said.
“I’m ready,” I said. “Just nervous.” The truth was the team got together the night before and tied a big one on. But I got my breakfast down, Mom and Dad wished me luck, and I went to school. The other guys seemed fine — except Snowdale, whose face was half-green until lunch — and by the end of first period my hangover was gone too.
Mom and Dad walked up to the field during warm ups. Mom’s eyes met mine and she smiled. Next to her, Dad stopped, got into a hitting position and pointed to his front shoulder. He mouthed the words drop it.
I had never seen them at any sort of distance, and it was the first time they ever made sense. I had wondered why mom put up with him after the accident, but now there was something in their walk, in the way she hooked her arm in his. When they sat, she reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out some mints, set one on her tongue and offered the pack to him. It was all so worn-in, so simple. That, I guessed, was how it got to be with people in love: comfortable, familiar. Maybe that was enough.
Coach had me starting in left field. I got to run out there when they announced starting line-ups. I never really loosened up training with Dad, since I was worried the whole time I’d mess up. But now, standing alone in left field, my limbs felt light, my body ready. I had no one to think about but myself, and I felt damn good.
The first couple innings went by quietly. Nothing came my way in the field, a couple of slap hits for each side, and that was it. My first time up, I bounced a curve to second. I saw it coming, dropped my shoulder and waited for that ball to spin and fall away, but just grounded it to the infielder, not weakly but not solid either. As I jogged back to the dugout, I saw Dad nod to me, like I’d handled the pitch okay.
The other team scored first when the lead-off hitter drew a walk in the fourth and the guy behind him doubled into right-center, knocking the run in. Our pitcher retired the rest of the side in order. I led off the next inning.
The first ball came inside, and I thought of the welt still fading on my calf from Dad’s pitch and I thought If that’s how you want it and I swung so hard on the next three pitches that the dirt slipped under my heels. Each time I pictured the ball rocketing back up the box, right into the pitcher’s chest. Dad was right there leaning on the fence when I got back to the dugout.
“What was that?” he said.
“The guy brushed me back,” I said.
“So what.” He pushed the side of my face. “Was that a brush back?” My face went hot. He’d never put a hand on me before and no one around me reacted — maybe they didn’t see — so I wondered for a second if it had really happened.
He did it again, softly. “Answer me,” he said. It flashed in my mind: me hitting him, watching him tumble over.
I shook my head, too mad to speak.
“Don’t make me think I wasted my time,” he said, and walked away. If there was beer on his breath, I didn’t smell it.
I felt the anger swelling in me as I sat in the dugout, but on the outside I must have looked like the rest of the team, frustrated by the game. No one could do anything against that pitcher. He went eight strong and got me again on a pop-out to the first basemen. I swung out of my shoes on every pitch. Each time, Dad groaned louder. From left field, I saw Mom sitting slump-shouldered but still clapping. Dad shook her hand off his shoulder when she tried to calm him down. He was telling at the whole team now. We were lazy. No good. An insult to baseball.
In the ninth, Guild pinch hit for the third basemen and squeaked a single to right. The guy after him tried to bunt and popped out. Then Snowdale flew out to center. It was all up to me. I couldn’t help but look at the stands on my way to the plate. Everyone was on their feet. Mom pressed her hands to her mouth. Dad crossed his arms. His eyes said something. That I couldn’t do it.
I stood in the box and thought of him falling through that ceiling, of the broken bone in his leg, about how the muscle would never be as strong as it was. Weak, I thought, he was weak.
I twisted the bat tight in my hands. The pitcher, one out away from a shut out, threw his first pitch. It was coming straight at me and my knees buckled. I hit the deck as the ball smacked into the mitt. It was a curve, a good one, and a strike. I looked at Dad and he shook his head, pointing to his left shoulder. I hated him for being right, hated my mother for standing next to him, for being smart enough to know how shitty it could all be but not smart enough to find a way out. I got back in the box and stared down the pitcher. On the opponents’ bleachers, I heard his parents cheer him on. One more out, honey and Come on, Brad, no batter, no batter! I stepped into the batter’s box. I don’t know if I said it out loud or just thought it, but the words were “Throw that shit again, Brad, I dare you.”
“So what happened?’ George said. I’d been talking long enough for him to go through a few MGDs.
“He came inside again,” I said. “So I leaned in. Caught it on my side.”
George looked confused.
“I didn’t yell or scream,” I said. “I rushed the mound, took the pitcher down, and then it was all arms and dust and grunting. I bit him on the shoulder. He punched me on my back, my arms, my head. I couldn’t feel any of it. I didn’t hear the yelling, or feel people fighting around me, trying to pull me off of him. I bit him again on the leg. I kicked and flailed. Who knows how long it all went on.
“They kicked me off the team,” I said. “I never played again.”
“Sounds like a story you’ve been holding onto,” George said.
“What happened with your dad?” he asked.
“Mom threw him out soon after all of that,” I said. “He lived in Florida for a long while.”
“He died last week,” I said. “No, I didn’t go to the funeral. Neither did Mom. For all I know, he died alone.”
“Last week,” George said. “Like just before you broke that guy’s nose.”
“Like my dad said, we pay for other people’s mistakes.”
“How so?” George said.
“Look,” I said. “I finished high school and moved to Atlanta for college, and I drank and got in fights and none of them were any different than that first one. The only thing I know how to do is tend bar. This is who I am, made in his image.”
“So if Dad had treated you different, I might not have fired you?” he said.
“A lot of things might not have happened,” I said.
“And how’s Mom?”
“She moved on a long time ago. In no hurry for another husband. She’s on her own and happy about it, I think.”
“See,” he said.
“She isn’t paying for anyone’s mistakes,” he said. “Look, Joe, you got fired because of what you did. You make the calls, and you suffer or survive them.”
“You think it’s that easy?” I said.
“Easy has nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”
I downed the dregs of my beer and thought that one over. I ran through the things I learned from Dad: baseball, drinking, anger. I wondered if he still felt pain in his leg, if it radiated through his body, before the heart attack took him.
“You know,” I said. “I didn’t really care about failing at college. I don’t think it was for me.”
“One less albatross,” George said. “You’re going to be fine.”
“Does that mean I can have my job back?” I said.
“What it means,” he said, “is that you don’t have to tell that story again.”
He shook my hand, told me I’d land on my feet, and I headed for the back door. Maybe I’d just drive a while, feel the night air, listen to the replay of the game on the radio. It felt like a moment where it’d be good to keep moving and, somewhere on the road, I could say goodbye to my dad and all that came with him.
The three guys stood waiting in the parking lot, between me and my truck. The one who told me to eat shit, his buddy who sat at the table eyeing me all night and, of course, Broken nose. The bruises around his eyes still darkened his face, the tape across the bridge of his nose bright in the glow of the street lights. They all held baseball bats.
“So this is my punishment,” I said.
“You didn’t think we’d let that slide,” the first guy said.
“People rarely do,” I said.
“Time to pay,” Broken nose said.
The guy in the middle said, “Let him get the bat behind the bar if he wants.”
“Yeah,” the first guy said. “Let’s give him a sporting chance.”
“Makes no difference to me,” Broken nose said. “Your call.”
The door behind me was still open. George was just inside. I could go in and get him, maybe call the cops. But I knew I wouldn’t. Instead I thought of the feel of that bat in my hand, the brittle woodgrain of it. I would take my punishment, or go down swinging.
“What’s it gonna be?” Broken nose said.
I wondered which option Dad would choose. Then I picked the other one.
Matthew Fiander‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review, Zone 3, South Dakota Review, Yalobusha Review, TIMBER, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Barren Magazine, Exposition Review, Fiction Southeast, Waccamaw Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. He currently teaches at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.