How to Take a Hit | DJ Shoemaker
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
The blast furnace roar of the crowd quiets to a simmer, and the pain slowly sets in as Dom’s offensive linemen carry him to the bench on their shoulders, his foot dangling by ligaments like fallen power lines. His father descends from the bleachers.
“Put him down,” Senior says, and the linemen drop Dom on the bench.
Dom begins to take off his cleat but his dad stops him.
“You do that and your ankle will inflate more than the ball,” Senior says, his oversized hand on Dom’s shoulder. “Can you put any weight on it?”
“No,” Dom says.
“I didn’t see you try.”
Dom puts pressure on his foot, biting down hard on his mouth guard. Hot spit fills his mouth, reminding him of the first day of pee wee football when his father removed the mouth guard from a pot of boiling water with tongs and told him to bite down. The plastic formed to the shape of his teeth, and he held back tears as burning water trickled down his throat. Back then, he stifled the pain behind tightly clenched lips, averting Senior’s eyes by watching the percolating water on the stove. Tonight, he screams and spits the mouth guard at his father's feet.
The flashing red and white ambulance lights illuminate the scoreboard as paramedics strap Dom into the gurney. Teammates line up like they’re at a funeral viewing to pat him on the shoulder and offer condolences and encouragement.
At the hospital, Senior uses the bedside phone to call a friend from the mill and ask who won the game. Dom tries not to look at his leg hanging from straps above the bed or the metal pins going in one side and out the other.
“Guess they didn’t need you,” Senior says, laying the receiver down. He sits by the window, looking at the neighborhood rooftops and absentmindedly pulling on his bottom lip.
Nurses come in every two hours to check Dom’s vitals. Senior asks questions they can’t answer. Each nurse says the doctor will be in soon, but he never shows up. Dom doesn’t have to ask what his dad is thinking. The papers Senior received from the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill are still crumpled up in the living room corner by the TV where he tossed them. The scholarship offers Dom received from three Division I schools will likely meet the same fate depending on what news the doctor delivers.
The paramedics removed his shoulder pads when they cut off his uniform. Lying in bed in nothing but a gown open at the back, he feels the phantom weight of the pads like a bruise under the surface of his skin.
Senior hears the TV on the other side of Dom's bedroom door. He mutes the pre-game in the living room and listens to the muffled G.I. Joe theme song. Stretching his legs on the coffee table, he counts down the minutes to noon and taps his big toe against Dom’s bottle of painkillers. He un-mutes the TV as the Pitt marching band exits the field.
Senior goes to his bedroom closet to put on his Pitt jersey. It’s generic, no name on the back and a number one on the front, back, and sleeves, but it’s colored the same blue and gold he hopes to see Dom playing in next season.
He stands in front of Dom’s bedroom door and watches the opening kickoff on the living room TV. Pitt receives and carries the return to the thirty-three-yard line. From inside Dom’s room, the G.I. Joe narrator says something about freedom to a chorus of machinegun fire. Someone yells “Cobra!” The show goes to a break, and Senior waits for the duration of two commercials before knocking on the door.
“Come in,” Dom says.
The room is lit by the TV and dusty bars of sunlight through the blinds. Dom lies in bed with his leg propped on a stack of pillows and an open book sprawled across his chest.
“Oh, you’re reading?” Senior asks.
“No,” Dom says, changing the channel to the game. “Only during commercials.”
Senior recognizes the cover. Dom read that book a couple years ago. Senior can’t remember the last time he read a book, or if he ever read one twice.
“Why don’t you watch the game with me in the living room?”
“I can’t move too well.”
“I’ll help you,” Senior says.
“It’s hard for me to get comfortable on the couch.”
“Then lay down. Take the whole thing. I got my own chair.”
“I’d rather just stay in bed,” Dom says.
“You know I don’t like watching football alone.”
“Just let me rest, Dad.”
“Son,” Senior begins, his voice raising inside and looking for an escape. He grabs his left hand and feels the ring finger stub twitching in his palm. The digit has been missing for years, but he sometimes feels the ghost of it looking for something to grab or strike. “You’ve been in this room for a week. If I gave you a bucket to shit in, you’d never leave.”
“Where am I supposed to go?” Dom asks.
“To the kitchen for some food, maybe,” Senior says. “You got crutches. Take a walk down the block. Hang out with your friends. Go be part of the world.” Senior holds up his hand, wiggling the finger stub in Dom’s face. “You think I don’t understand what you’re going through? Shit happens. When my finger got crushed, they took me to the hospital and I went back to work the next day. You know what people called me?”
He watches the game on Dom’s TV and waits for him to respond. Pitt punts the ball away, and the referee blows the whistle as the kick sails out of bounds.
“Lucky,” Senior says. “I once saw a man jump over a railing straight into a ladle of molten iron. Didn’t scream or anything. Just dropped down like he was parachuting out of a plane and disappeared. It was spooky.”
Dom doesn’t respond, keeping his eyes on the TV as the game breaks for commercials.
“You know what it is to take a hit. I’ve seen it every time you’re out on that field. But life hits you hard enough to knock you out sometimes,” Senior says. “You break bones, lose money, lose your job, and there’s nothing you can do but move on. It’s something you need to understand, because life doesn’t get any easier after that leg heals.”
“I know, Dad,” Dom says, crushing the pages of his book in his tightly squeezed hands.
The game returns from commercial break, and in the silence between them, Senior hears helmets cracking like bones.
“Okay,” Senior says. He steps into the hallway, his hand lingering on the knob before closing the door. The players line up for another snap. The running back takes the ball and disappears into an avalanche of bodies. As the players get up to reform the lines, one Pitt player stays down on the field longer than the others, gripping his knee and pounding on the turf. Senior feels his stomach drop, seeing the image of Dom’s stitched and metal-pinned leg in his mind.
His hand is still on the doorknob. He wants to go back in, say something else to Dom so they won’t have another unfinished conversation hanging over their heads like old mill smoke, the pollution of it lingering.
Instead, he walks back to his bedroom closet and pushes through boxes on the top shelf. Toward the back, he feels a stack of loose papers sticking out of a lidless box. He pulls it out and drops it on the bed. Inside is a collection of school papers, all with the name Dominic Sayers. Some are yellow and brittle with age. Senior moves these aside and digs for the whiter, crisper papers at the bottom. The stack is a flipbook of “A’s” and “B’s.” He chuckles as he pulls out a drawing on grey construction paper, holding it by the corners like an ancient scroll that could disintegrate in his hands.
The turkey is drawn in the way all kids are taught to make them when Thanksgiving approaches. A traced outline of Dom’s child-sized hand is filled with brown crayon and a red thumb for the head. A black dot for an eye sits above a flapping red gobbler. The finger feathers are brown with black stripes, but only three of the four feathers are accounted for. In place of the ring finger is a stub half the length of the other digits. He places his own hand over the turkey illustration, his stub looking like a full finger compared to the one Dom recreated.
Senior takes the picture to the kitchen and sticks it on the freezer with a magnet. G.I. Joe issues commands in Dom’s room. Pitt regained possession while he was gone, the score still tied at zero. He picks up a crumpled wad of paper from the floor and unravels it as he sits back down. Tracing the J&L letterhead with his fingers, he closes his eyes and releases a heavy sigh like he’s trying to blow out a candle.
Dom struggles to his feet when he hears the voice on the answering machine. A beep signals the end of the message when he reaches the phone in the kitchen. He stares at the blinking red light, swaying on his crutches and struggling to keep balance.
He grabs a Coke from the fridge and drinks while watching the light flash. The phone rings again, and he lets it ring until the machine comes on. This time there's no message. He presses play and keeps drinking.
“Where are you?” Andre asks. “The game starts in an hour. If you're not here in ten minutes, we're leaving without you. We want you on that bench, man.”
Dom presses delete.
He thinks about a summer day eight years earlier and a neighborhood football game. Segments of memory come into focus: Dom catching Andre’s kickoff in his end zone on Scott Street, running along parked cars toward the other end zone at Davis Street. Parents watched from their porches, taking stock of future talent and the next generation lifting the previous one’s dreams on their shoulders.
A hole opened on the sideline for Dom to make a clear run. Leaving behind the safety of his blockers, he sailed past parked cars, catching flashes of his reflection in their windows. Cheers rang out from the porches, from his teammates down the street. He came close enough to read the Davis Street sign, and as he read it, he didn’t see Andre closing the angle on him. He still didn’t see him when his speeding body smashed him into the side of a car.
Dom rose slowly, taking stock of his pain. The skin of his arm was peppered with gravel, his elbows torn and bloody, but he still felt the ball in his hands. Ringing in his ears gave way to laughter. Boys laid on the street, holding their stomachs and pointing. He ran his fingers down the ball but recoiled when a jagged edge sliced them open. Dom held the car’s side-view mirror, his shattered reflection staring back in what pieces remained. The skin on his fingers, scalloped like ball laces, bled on the glass. At the end of the block, Andre spiked the ball for a touchdown.
Later that night, Senior answered a knock at the door and was greeted by Mr. Patterson and a handful of broken mirror. Dom swung at the punching bag downstairs with his bandaged hand and tried to listen to the conversation. He heard scattered words through the creak of chains swinging from the ceiling beam, and then the door slammed shut.
“Junior,” his dad yelled from the living room.
Dom held the punching bag steady and waited. His dad yelled again.
Broken shards of mirror lay scattered across the coffee table, his dad standing over them with his arms folded. A few of the shards were stained with Dom’s blood.
“What’d you do with the rest of the mirror?” he asked.
Dom rubbed his arms, feeling the craters in his skin where the gravel had dug in.
“Threw it in some bushes,” Dom said.
“I was mad.”
“Because you got hit? Better get used to it.”
Dom folded his arms and winced at the burning in his raw elbows and stinging cuts on his hand. They were separated by the coffee table, too far apart for his dad to reach, but he closed his eyes anyway, anticipating the strike of a hand across his face. Nothing came. When he opened his eyes, his dad was holding one of the bloody shards up to the light like a diamond.
“He got you hard, huh?” Senior asked. “You’re going to find that mirror tomorrow and bring it back to Mr. Patterson.”
“I don’t remember where I threw it,” Dom said.
“Then you’ll be looking for a while. Ask Andre to help. This is his fault, too.”
“I don’t want to talk to him. I’ll look for it myself.”
“However you want to do it,” his dad said, putting the mirror shard down with the others. “That kid’s an asshole, ain’t he?”
Dom looked his father in the eye and saw a smirk on his face. Senior grabbed his hand, peeled back the bandages Dom had messily applied, and gently prodded the cuts on his fingers. The incomplete hand was more active than the other. This may have been an unconscious movement, his dad overcompensating for the severed digit. Dom swallowed a sharp hiss, holding back tears.
Senior’s usual barber is off, and he gets a former steel man named Henry. He does a decent job but cuts the neckline too high. Senior gives him a good tip anyway.
The sky is overcast above the slumbering mill. He breathes in air heavy with incoming rain as he walks to the corner store for a can of pop, two cigars, two lottery tickets, and a bag of barbecue chips. The store’s gone on reduced hours after being held up three times. Metal bars are bolted over the windows. Senior sits on a bench with a cigar in his mouth. He cracks open the pop and pulls off the tab, using it to scrape the lottery tickets. On the first one, he needs to match three shamrocks to win $10,000. He gets two. From the second, he wins a free ticket. He tears both in half and throws them away.
Thanksgiving has come and gone in the month and a half since Dom broke his leg. Since he always used to work the holiday, he had nothing prepared for dinner, so he bought two takeout turkey dinners from Eat’n Park.
Senior has nowhere to be until the game tonight. The team is still winning without Dom, but not as convincingly. Scores have been closer, the offense taking longer to find their rhythm. The crowd still screams and cheers around him, but he can’t summon an ounce of interest in the games. University scouts make their rounds. Senior recognizes ones he talked to the year before.
At last week’s game, he almost approached the scout from Pitt to tell him what the doctor said, that his son’s season was finished. The scout paced the sidelines writing notes in a pad. As Senior descended the bleachers, he felt the déjà vu of weeks earlier, of watching the boys carrying his son to the bench. He remembered the way his foot swung like the limp head of a dead turkey. That night as Senior descended the bleachers, he felt phantom digit pain in his stub for the first time in years since his accident.
There was one part of his story that he didn’t tell Dom. He didn’t have to go back to work the day after crushing his finger. Even his manager told him to stay home and recover. The next day, he strolled into the mill with bloody bandages and something to prove. What that was, he wasn’t sure. Something larger than himself that he didn’t understand demanded he go back and endure.
Senior drives through the tunnel under Route 51 that used to take him in and out of the mill grounds. On the other side, an older man in a dirty jumpsuit and frayed boots sits on a bench, his arm draped over a tin lunchbox. Half of an ID badge is pinned to the breast of his jumpsuit. Senior’s badge met the same end, sliced with precision by a manager who’d done it enough times to become ruthlessly efficient. Nearby, a statue of Jesus holds his porcelain hands outward as if asking for spare change. Senior stops his truck and rolls down the window.
“You’re not getting your job back,” he says to the man, who says nothing in response. “The mill’s dead. This town is dead. There’s nothing for us on the other side of that tunnel, you hear me?”
The man drinks bottled water out of his lunchbox and lights a cigarette. Senior wants to get out and punch him. His boxing years are long behind him, but he still has a hook or two left. He tried to teach Dom the fundamentals, but Dom preferred staying in his room with his books.
“You’re a damn fool,” Senior says, rolling the window back up and turning onto 51. He drives down the highway toward the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, pulling onto the shoulder and hitting the hazards. The truck rocks in the waves of passing cars. He pushes the lighter knob, rolls down the window, lights the second cigar, and smokes until it’s the size of the nub that was once a full finger.
Senior walks across the intersection onto the bridge. Strong winds blow through the steel beams, nudging him sideways, and he steadies himself against the handrail until making it to the center of the river. A barge laden with a turtle shell of coal swims underneath. He waits for it to pass and leans against the railing, lifting himself off his feet and tilting forward like a gymnast beginning a bar routine. He remembers the man he saw decades earlier who dropped into a ladle of molten iron. The man performed a similar gesture before his jump, leaning over the catwalk railing with frightening intent. In the years since, Senior never considered the circumstances that drove the man to do such a thing. Instead, he wondered what it would feel like to plummet through the air until his entire existence dissolved into nothing.
Dom finishes his Coke and grabs another before preparing a plate of leftover Eat’n Park turkey, cold with just a little salt added. With the first bite, he realizes he hasn’t eaten all day, and the turkey awakens a primal hunger. He scans the fridge for more food. Between bites of turkey, he eats two cheese sticks, an apple, four slices of bread and butter, half a bag of sliced pepperoni, and a few oversized spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream. Moving on to the pantry, he finishes a sleeve of crackers, a can of sliced peaches, and two packs of Twinkies. When he’s done, he washes everything down with the second Coke, downing it in one go.
Gasping for air as if he’d just completed suicide runs at practice, Dom takes in the carnage he’s left behind: dirty plates stacked in the sink, crushed cans scattered like shell casings, plastic wrappers on the floor. Some Coke spilled in a puddle on the counter. He has time to clean it up. His dad won’t be home until after the game.
Dom burps and rubs his stomach. It’s been just over a month without football and he’s already feeling the loss of muscle mass. Before his injury, he was eating 4,500 calories a day. His dad took him to the Chinese buffet once a week, and between a football player and a steelworker, the meal became a contest of whose stack of plates could grow the highest, who could elicit more looks of horror from the wait staff. Standing in the buffet line, piling towers of ribs and chicken and noodles on their plates, enduring the football life almost seemed worth it.
A beam of headlights shines through the window, and outside, Dom sees the silhouette of a truck. The clock reads 7:55. His dad should be at the game right now. In his head, he hears whistles, the shout of the quarterback, and the adrenaline of the mad scramble for the ball. The stress is something he never got used to. Every snap was a minor panic attack. Part of him wishes he would’ve been injured sooner, before the unfortunate revelation that he was good.
Dom races to collect the crushed cans and discarded wrappers. He tosses them in the trash and recycling and puts the ice cream back in the freezer. The freezer door slams shut, knocking off a magnet. A piece of paper falls in the spilled puddle of pop on the counter.
A familiar image on the paper stops him. Leaning on his crutch, he picks up the paper and holds his hand up to the drawing. The traced turkey on the page is a third the size of his own. He tries to remember how long it’s been on the fridge, or if he knew it was there in the first place.
There’s a knock on the door. The headlights still glow bright outside like stage lights waiting for him to come out for his scene. His dad has keys, so he shouldn’t be knocking. Maybe he’s keeping the truck running so it stays warm, and this is his last effort to get Dom to go to the game. Or maybe it’s not his dad at all. Whoever it is, Dom isn’t ready to open the door. Not yet. Even the simplest movement still feels like a struggle.
Dom traces the turkey’s feathers with his finger until he gets to the stub. He made it that way on purpose to cheer his dad up. His father was an angry man, or at least it seemed that way. In the moment he showed the picture to his dad, Dom feared he’d made a mistake, that maybe his dad would think he was being mocked. They were in the basement. His dad was shirtless and sweaty, the punching bag rocking on its chain from the rafter as he took off his boxing gloves. He looked at the picture under the dim hanging lightbulb, and in the light, Dom saw years of scars that had accumulated on his dad’s body. Cuts and burns graffitied his muscles, telling his story.
Coke smears the finger outlines into shapes that almost resemble real feathers. They blend and blur into one another, and if he hadn’t drawn it himself, he wouldn’t know one of them was only a stub.
DJ Shoemaker earned his BFA in Creative Writing from Penn State Behrend. His work has previously appeared in Permafrost and Hot Metal Bridge. His photography has also appeared in Quiet Storm Literary Magazine. When DJ is not writing or publishing, he moonlights as a television captioner. DJ currently lives on the outskirts of Pittsburgh with his wife and beagle named Nina.