Marathon Under a Charcoal Sky
by Carmen Ruggero
part 1 of 3
It’s raining cats and dogs and threatens to continue for some time. But William woke up early this morning, looked outside his bedroom window and predicted it wouldn’t go past a sprinkle.
He doesn’t run just for sport. The activity is a sanctuary of sorts. It helps him sort things out.
He’s been running no more than five minutes when his early prediction backfires. The sprinkle turns into a downpour and he is forced to give it up. Grumbling through the side of his mouth, he shelters himself on his front porch, wipes his face with the edge of his soggy sweatshirt and flops on the porch swing, then fixes a penetrating gaze through the fluid curtain before him as if he could command it to stop.
His love of running began in fifth grade. As a child, William was a loner. Running was the first extracurricular activity to ever draw his interest. Coach Wilson noticed he had good speed and thought incorporating him in a group activity would be a good idea. He suggested that William go to tryouts and gave him a blank permission form to take home for his parents to sign. And though track is a group-oriented activity, training is a lonely effort. Maybe that was the attraction for William.
He stood before his father that night right after dinner, holding on to that permission slip so tightly he left his hand’s sweaty imprint on it.
“I’m sorry I wrinkled it, sir. I was holding it a long time.”
“You want to run?” Harold asked him. His mouth tilted sideways, laughing inwardly, like it was a private joke.
“Yes, sir.” William brought his little fingers to his mouth, shyly looked at his mother out of the corner of his eyes, then gave a little shrug.
“He wants to run,” Harold said to Diane, no longer able to keep from laughing aloud. Diane looked at William, and following Harold’s lead covered her grin with a napkin. William gazed at his father, and then his mother, then joined in with a giggle, pretending to understand.
“Have you taken a good look at yourself lately, son?” Harold asked him in a cruel and condescending tone.
“No sir, I haven’t.”
“Well, you are rather squalid, son. A weakling is what you are. But I tell you what: I’ll sign this permission slip. No sense in telling you what you need to find out for yourself.”
He signed the form, handed it back to William without as much as looking at him; at the same time he handed Diane his empty glass. “Pour me another whiskey, will you?”
“Thank you, sir. Mr Wilson said I’m very good.” William gave his father a proud smile.
“You can go to your room now,” his father dismissed him.
William was thin but not weak. His inherent strength was not readily apparent because of his small frame, but he could most certainly run. He needed training, lost a few races at first, and had to listen to a little sarcastic humor at home; but he learned to ignore it. He became very single-minded about it. He really wanted to run.
It was back then, during training, that William first heard that little voice inside his head; it seemed to tell him what to do, and the voice told him to keep running.
Coach Wilson’s encouragement reinforced what that inner voice was telling him. Wilson taught him the importance of preparation. Sitting on the grassy mall after practice, conversation between them became a daily event. And William listened.
“Being fast and strong isn’t enough,” his coach said. “You also need to learn to focus. When body and mind work together, you have a winning combination. I want you to run one mile every day before you come to school. Now go change before you miss your bus.” Wilson watched William dash back to the school building.
“Great kid,” he said to himself.
William took his advice. He began running every morning. He woke up ahead of everyone else, dressed himself quietly, then tiptoed from his room; it was his silent welcome to the new day. Stretching one leg and then the other, warming up his muscles, waking up his body, and he was ready to go. Later he began running after school, as well, and put in long, hard hours preparing to meet his goal.
It would take some time and a little growing up before he could define that goal. At that moment, it meant making his father proud.
It surprised many, but St. Charles Parochial School qualified to compete at the state finals for the first time in years. A very important event for both the school and William, whose secret dream was to bring home the winning cup, and every day he pushed himself a little harder.
That day came upon him quicker than he thought possible. It was his first time riding the school bus beyond Boston, and what a blast it was. Laughing, singing jingles, joking with his friends, he didn’t have to worry about laughing out of turn, cracking a silly joke, or feeling stupid. For the first time in his short little life, he experienced being a child.
The bus arrived at the track meet bright and early that morning. That enjoyable ride served as an energy-charging agent. The bus stopped, every one of those children dashed out like bats out of hell, and quickly spread all over the place.
First thing William did after stepping down from the bus, was to look for his parents on the bleachers.
Maybe they’re still looking for a good spot, he thought.
Coach Wilson observed him; by then he knew that William’s parents were absent from every race, and decided it was time for a pep talk.
“Okay guys,” he said, rounding them up with a clap of hands, “you’ve all trained very hard; you know what to do. All you need to concentrate on right now is doing what you have prepared for, and nothing else. Keep your eyes on the finish line and go for it. Now go warm up, then take a walk around the track.”
He threw an arm on William’s shoulder, and took him aside.
“Listen buddy,” he said, “on the one, and two hundred-meter races, stay alert. Those are short, and go very quickly. I want you to sprint when the gun goes off, and go for broke. I trust you, buddy.”
St Charles was on the swing. William was always the last to go on the relays, because he could sprint to the finish. The school took the eight-hundred and four-hundred meter relays. In the individual races, William placed second in the eight hundred meters, then again on the four hundred, but took the two-hundred meters by a leg and three pounds of sweat. Their team was ahead; that’s what counted.
Being part of a team, being taken into his coach’s confidence, hearing words like ‘buddy’ and ‘trust’ began to strengthen William’s self-confidence.
Runners were being called for the hundred meter dash. Coach Wilson placed his hands on William’s neck,and massaged his tight muscles. “Relax, buddy, and remember what I said: Sprint!”
William was on the inside lane. Knees bent, knuckles to the ground, his eyes on the finish line. Coach Wilson walked across the grassy mall to wait for him there. “Go William, go.” he murmured as he walked backwards, sucking air through his teeth.
William took in a breath, let it out slowly through his mouth, and then took in a big breath. Coach Wilson’s words became a distant echo. All he could see was the finish line.
One hundred meters — piece of cake.
Coach Wilson crossed his fingers.
The gun went off.
And so did the little voice inside William’s head. He sprinted all the way to the finish line — non-stop. Second on the inside lane for the first fifty meters, William stepped out into the inner lane. He passed the two runners ahead of him, then smoothly stepped back in to the inside lane, and gave it his all. He broke through the ribbon with his arms stretched out, mouth wide open, tears running down his cheeks — had no idea he had won. It took him a few seconds to come to his senses.
Coach Wilson rushed to him, and wrestled him down to the ground. The official scores came in, and everyone went crazy. He hadn’t just won that race, but had broken his own record finishing in less than thirteen seconds.
His coach still had him in his arms. “You can run, kid, you sure can.”
“I had a feeling about it,” a big smile of satisfaction lit up William’s face.
“You listen to those feelings, buddy.” Coach Wilson smiled, rubbing his hand on William’s head.
His team followed, huddling over him yelling and screaming. What a moment it was. William turned his head to the bleachers reveling in his accomplishment.
His parents weren’t in the spectators' stand.
He took home the school cup, which he was allowed to keep for a year, then passed on to the other runners who placed first, before it went back to the school where it would be proudly displayed for all to see. It was never discussed at home.
At age thirty-three, he keeps it up. When 4:30 a.m. comes around, summer, winter, it makes no difference. During the winter months, when snowdrifts build up, he walks — sometimes four or five miles, always challenging his endurance.
William has sat on that swing long enough. Staring into the rain is obviously not going to make it stop. He brushes off the discomfort he feels, and decides it is time to go inside the house.
He walks around to the back door, takes off his soggy shoes, and enters through the kitchen. The house is dark at that hour; it couldn’t be much past 5:30 a.m., and today it is even darker because of the storm. William stands at the doorway, gazing at the ominous charcoal sky, still trying to fight that ill-defined ache.
The house is very quiet. He starts to make a pot of coffee. He stops, then continues, and then stops again. That silence gets to him. Lightning bounces off the walls, then it all darkens again. He fiddles with things: places a cup on the table, puts it back in the cabinet, head downcast, he moves aimlessly about the kitchen like a lion in captivity.
He used to feel privileged to be kissed by the new day while everyone else slept. It pleased him to know the only footsteps in the house were his. He would return from running, empowered by the peace and silence in his mind, and open to whatever life had to offer. Body and mind working together. He had learned that from Coach Wilson.
But his need for running has changed. Now he needs to close his mind to the world around him. That’s what the morning run does for him these days. No idle thoughts can enter his mind that the pain on his side doesn’t kill, but the elements have turned against him today; he couldn’t run, and that nagging discomfort follows him into the house.
He makes his way to the bathroom and turns on his radio at low volume, figuring he’ll listen while shaving. It will help him ignore the only sound resonating through the house; that of falling rain on the rooftop.
From the bathroom, he can hear Beth rustle in her sleep and quickly turns off the radio to avoid waking her up.
He looks in the mirror as he wipes his face clean and the image looking back at him is not a familiar one. It’s the same face he shaved yesterday and the day before, but there is something different about it, like a question mark between his brows. That nagging ache hits him again, and his breathing becomes shallow.
He pauses to think. Thinks about things that might be disturbing him, things he may have ignored. There’s been a growing distance between him and Beth. He loves her so much, but he has let it slide, and maybe the ache he feels this morning is that little voice in his head, the one he has not listened to for a while, and the voice is telling him he can’t put things off any longer.
“Grab the bull by the horns, boy.” William can hear his father’s voice. “Wrestle the beast to the ground, cut yourself a rib, and chase it with a Jack Daniels.”
“You always had all the answers, didn’t you dad?” he whispers.
He walks back into the bedroom and glances at the red numbers on the digital clock.
“Even the clocks are mute,” he mumbles.
It’s 6:00 a.m. The rain on the rooftop, the silence in the house, that darkness, and he suddenly wants to wake up Beth. He can’t stand to be alone. His difficulty in breathing has increased, and shiny beads of perspiration now cover his face. The walls seem to be closing in on him, and then he changes his mind. He doesn’t want Beth to wake up. He wants to go back out and continue his run despite the rain.
He stops. Stripped to the waist, towel around his neck, he sits on a chair across from the bed and watches Beth as she sleeps. Her chest moves to the quiet rhythm of her breath. Her silky gown has wrapped itself around her body, clinging to her, caressing her skin. He wants to touch her.
She’s so beautiful...
He pines for her affection as he gazes at her from across the room, and thinks about making love. It’s been a long time.
Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero