A Game Toe Remember

A Game Toe Remember

It required a lot of baths which, as a water sign, came naturally to me. I had been watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That’s when I saw him. Alan Nash. He wore a blank tank top that read in bold white letters, “Nasty the Dominator.” He talked about his latest wrestling win and I thought wow, you can do that? I had arm wrestled before. It was common in the fifth grade, after lunch. I could beat all the other girls and most of the boys except for Steven Chad, a boy with two names. I never thought I’d live it down, that loss. No one could compete with those sausages on his hands. But that was just a game of physical strength. Toe wrestling, though, that was mental.

I mentioned it to my friend, Cindy. She resisted at first, saying things like, I don’t want Peter’s feet touching mine. To be fair, Peter was known for chewing on his fingers, so who’s to say he didn’t chew his toes up? But I convinced her that there was no way she could go against him, though I couldn’t actually be sure of that. And I gave her one of my mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. So we told our classmates that arm wrestling was getting old—what about feet—that was the real test! Time was of the essence as it was our last week before summer break.

I passed around a sign-up sheet I had torn from my composition notebook in math class: NAME, SHOE SIZE. That was all we needed to know. We played it like an NCAA tournament—smallest size feet against largest size feet. There were 18 of us in our core group which meant 9 versus 9. Winners would make it to the second round. Before playing, though, we had to confirm everyone’s foot size so no one could rig the competition. We let Sam, a fourth grader, do the dirty work. She picked up everyone’s shoes and verified sizes. Peter tried to size up and Cindy tried to size down, but because their fibs didn’t affect how they were matched up, Sam didn’t out them.

We met on the basketball courts after school. The rules were simple. We played with both feet—left against left, right against right. Whoever could force their opponent’s foot to the ground was the winner. If one beat left and the other beat right, the tie-breaker was with an arm wrestle.

We sat with our butts on the ground, arms behind us on the gravel, right on the blacktop where we usually shot hoops. Luckily my feet were slightly bigger than the average girl’s, so I was ranked in the middle up against an opponent, Marty, whose foot was the same size as mine. I’d always had good feet dexterity. I could climb up in between any doorway (though my hands did some of the work) and grab items with my toes. They were stubby and looked like they had been cut at the knuckle, but powerful.

Marty’s toes were wet. He had been known to have sweaty hands, but I wasn’t prepared for wet feet. Per the rules we had established, I had to pull his shoes and socks off and he mine. We wanted to lead our toe competition with good sportsmanship. When I first tried to link toes with Marty, my toes slipped out of his. I was getting psyched out until I reminded myself that during baths, I could grab a bar of soap with my feet and rub it over parts of my body. If I could hold onto a slimy piece of soap, I could link toes with Marty. I held on tight. As he was gaining on me, I gripped harder. I closed my eyes and forced his foot down. While I leapt up in victory, Marty yelled. His second toe had cracked to the left. It dislocated.

Sam took her job seriously. Not only did she check everyone’s shoe sizes, she also dubbed herself the official referee. Sam ran over to Marty and slapped her left hand over his mouth.

“Do you want to ruin this for the rest of us?” she warned. Sam knew, same as the rest of us, that this was going to be tradition passed down for years to come. There was a closeness between us we couldn’t get from just arm wrestling. The feeling of interlocking toes—it was something Sam wouldn’t know until she became a fifth grader, but it was clear that she wanted to. With her right hand, she snapped Marty’s dislocated toe back in place.

“You’re gonna tell your momma you hurt your foot playing kickball. Ice it. You’ll be fine.” Sam was an odd girl.

Marty put his shoes back on and limped home. He didn’t even see the others toe wrestle. He could have learned a thing or two if he had.

Sam whistled. First round was over. She named the winners, giving me the title, “Toe Crusher Tammy.”

“Same time, same courts tomorrow,” she said.

Both of the twins—Carl and Carla—made it to the next round alongside me. It was hard to differentiate between the two because they each had the same haircut.

One of them asked, “How are we matching up Round 2?”

“Big foot against little foot doesn’t seem fair for the next round,” someone in the crowd yelled.

“What if the fourth graders decided?” someone else asked. And it was decided. It might even prepare them for when they became fifth-grade toe wrestlers.

There were nine of us moving into the next round, but luckily, one of the winners, Mary Ellen, had a sister who heard from others in school that she made it to the next round and the sister told their parents. Her mother told her that she couldn’t play anymore foot games. She had a ballet recital coming up and couldn’t afford any broken toes. I didn’t tell my folks and, being an only child, no one could rat me out. I decided to take a different approach to prepare the next round—I borrowed my mother’s pumice stone. There was some of her dead skin on the stone which made it hard for me to really get the scratchy parts of my big toes, but it offered my feet the rest and relaxation they were aching for.

The crowds got larger this time. Third, fourth, and fifth graders sat in the grass while those of us who were still in the competition sat on the gravel. It was 4 on 4 and I was paired against Eric. His toes were clean—not too dry, not too moist. But his feet were double the size of mine which made him a challenge. He smiled as we engaged in foot play. It threw me off. I lost on the right foot. On the left I got my head in the game, closed my eyes and forced him down. To settle the tie, we had to arm wrestle. Everyone moved to the picnic tables. Eric had noodles for arms so I knew I could beat him. Our fingers locked and on three I forced his arm down, triggering his funny bone.

We had to wrap it all up with a double-header the following day—the last day of elementary school. The twins had made it to the penultimate round and so had Stephen Chad and me. At first I was going to be matched up with Carla, but she said she wanted a chance to cream her brother. That was fine with me. I wanted a chance to beat Stephen Chad. Like the other times, I treated my feet well. I even clipped and filed my toenails, then painted them red—feet to remember.

That day is a blur, though. I pulled off Stephen Chad’s socks and almost got knocked out by the stench. Clever tactic. My feet were too soft, toes too puffy in the day’s heat. All I  remember is Sam slapping the blacktop, getting bits of gravel stuck in her hand, declaring Stephen Chad the winner. I thought I had failed the girls in my class but Carla beat Carl. All I could do was root for her victory over Stephen Chad. I had wanted it to be me so badly. If I were Nasty Nash, I would have kept trying, but I wasn’t him, I realized, and I don’t think I even really wanted to be him. I wasn’t sure why I even wanted to beat Stephen Chad. He shook my hand after his win, shook Carla’s hand after his loss to her.

Toe wrestling wasn’t just a sport. It was more like crossing a threshold, because when we got into middle school, we were all different somehow. Still, when we saw each other in the hallways, we all knew whose toes had touched.


About the Author

Kennedy Coyne is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Virginia Tech. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, HAD, Moot Point, Michigan Quarterly Review Online and elsewhere.


Photo by Alicia Christin Gerald on Unsplash