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Marathon Under a Charcoal Sky

by Carmen Ruggero

Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Part 2 of 3

William thought he had the tiger by the tail; he was earmarked for success.

For a time, his dream was to become a professional athlete, and later coach other athletes. He thought he had finally defined his goal. But he gave in to family pressure instead, and followed his father’s footsteps into the legal profession. He walked into built-in success. Quicker than most, he made partner in the firm. He and Beth never had to want for anything.

As time goes by though, he begins to mirror Harold, and as much as he despises who his father is, he slowly feels himself becoming him, and his past begins to cast its shadows on his present. It slowly closes in like a deadly serpent. Unheard, unseen, unperceived, and is coming in for the kill.

He gets up from the chair, meanders around the room — just wasting time. Slowly picks out the clothes he’ll wear today. Out of habit, he meticulously hangs his shirt on the back of the chair, lays his underwear and socks on the quilted sit, and places his shoes on the floor next to the chair.

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” His mother’s favorite words seem embedded in his mind forever. Not a thing out of place, ever, in that house. Just like no one lived there.

Maybe no one ever did. Impulsively, he tilts the chair, knocking his clothes down on the floor.

His life has unpredictably spun around. The straight road he traveled has made a sharp turn into strange territory. William has always lived according to plans and can’t handle ambiguous changes. Today he meanders in the dark, assembling his wardrobe, longing for the love he knows he’s losing and doing nothing about it, aching with confusion like a child on the first day of school.

I’ll take the day off from work. He has no court schedules to keep today. They’ll have that talk they should have had months ago.

“I can’t take this,” he whispers. He gasps for breath as he listens to the slashing rain, hypnotized by its cruel monotony.

He was a little one, about five or six years old. It was a day much like today, with the same charcoal sky, he remembers. It had been raining for days with no relief in sight.

William had been sent to the basement where he would spend the afternoon, for spilling his milk on the table and not apologizing — insisting it was an accident.

“When’s the rain gonna stop, mammy?”

“Raindrops are tears from Heaven,” Diane explained. “God cries when we displease him and sends us rain for punishment. We must have been awfully bad,” she said, pointing a finger to his nose, “to deserve all this rain.”

Her words were honed by a pervasive sense of godly justice. He remembered clear as day the coldness in her eyes as she watched his little face pucker up when she read to him from the Holy Book:

For yet seven day, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. Genesis 7: 4

“Are we gonna drown, mammy?”

“God created us in His image, darling, He wants us to be perfect!” she yelled. “And we are not perfect when we spill our milk on the table and refuse to apologize.”

“How long am I gonna stay here?”

“Till I call you out.”

“How long, mammy?” The sharp urgency in his voice cut through the silence in the room like a steel blade. He watched Diane go up the stairs and disappear into the house.

“Mammy, how long?” he screamed.

“Till I call you out.”

Diane closed the basement door. William could hear her footsteps vanish in the distance. He was left alone in the dark, with only the sound of rain for company. He struggled to breathe.

Beth was a drastic departure from anyone he had ever known. The day he met her, he was late arriving to the legal ethics lecture. The auditorium was full and he couldn’t find a seat anywhere. He was still walking up and down the aisle, frustration written all over his face, when out of the blue, a hand with a silver ring on each finger grabbed him by the arm.

“Hi,” said the voice behind the arm. “The girl next to me is leaving in a while and you can have her seat.” The silver jeweled hand belonged to a lovely young woman with a big smile, and three crooked teeth.

“Excuse my manners,” she said, brushing a curly strand of hair from her eyes. “My name is Beth.”

“Glad to meet you Beth, but for now, her seat is taken.”

“That’s all right, you can have mine and I’ll sit on your lap till she leaves,” she whispered.

William was amused by her assertiveness, and he accepted the awkward invitation. It was the best thing to have happened to him in months.

“Are you okay, back there?” she asked.

“I can’t see the podium very well,” he answered, thoroughly enjoying the inconvenience.

Her black, long curly hair brushed against his face. It smelled good, and he suppressed an urge to stroke it.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I take good notes. However, notes plus seat equals lunch.”

He smiled.

Beth was bright, witty, and striking, more so than beautiful — full of life. Her slightly crooked teeth made her smile look fresh and unpretentious.

His mother’s practiced poise came to mind at that moment, and he enjoyed the refreshing difference.

“I’m carrying a heavy load this semester,” she told him in between bites of her burger. Art history, Masters of the Twentieth Century, Art literature, crap like that — a lot of reading.”

“How do you have time for art classes with all the legal requisites we need to meet?” A spontaneous smile lit up William’s face; he was mesmerized by the fact that she had said all that and never missed a bite of her food.

“I’m an art major, silly,” she said. “Oh, the lecture; I was taking notes for a friend.”

He sensed his heart was toying with his brain. “Who’s the friend?”

“Now you’re prying,” she smiled.

He paused for a moment. “Would you ever take notes for me?”

“It’ll cost you dinner.”

That was perhaps the best year of his life. One day he proposed, and she accepted. Everything was working out perfectly. She was perfect, he felt perfect.

Perfection, being relevant to individual expectations, Beth didn’t quite make the grade at home.

“Bad enough she’s not a Catholic,” his father objected, “a Baptist at least; hell, any thing’s better than being a damned atheist!”

“Sanctimonious bastard,” William mumbled.

Harold Bradford III, attorney at law, made his success as a criminal defense attorney. A long string of happy criminals owed their freedom to his uncanny talent to manipulate the law. No guilt, no reservations whatsoever — whatever it took.

“The bigger the crime, the longer the trial will go. It couldn’t hurt your pocket, son.”

That was Harold’s dictum.

From religion, to their choice of profession going back to his great-grandfather, everything in the Bradford family followed the Bradford code of ethics. If only a façade, the look of perfection and social acceptance was of utmost importance. Looks and church attendance were a must.

Beth, a professed atheist, with her silver rings, wild curly hair, and acrylic paint under her fingernails, did not fit the bill.

“You better think about it son,” Diane spouted her venom. “We’ve raised you with good Christian values; do you want your children to be raised as little heathens?”

To William’s disappointment, it rained on the day of their wedding. He almost postponed it.

“I don’t want to get married on a charcoal sky day,” he said to Beth. “It’s like a bad omen.”

Beth, just being herself, thought it was fun running to the courthouse under umbrellas, dodging mud holes, and wiping little beads of moisture from their faces.

“Don’t be silly,” she told him. “There’s no such thing as a bad omen. We love each other and nothing can spoil that. I like rainy days.”

After the wedding, she didn’t notice the coolness in Diane’s obligatory embrace.

“Rain is a blast, isn’t it?” Beth asked her, flashing her crooked teeth smile.

“They’re tears from heaven, darling,” was Diane’s acrimonious response.

The meaning of her words eluded Beth, but not William, who stared into his mother’s practiced smile, and forced a grin.

In an action thoroughly intrinsic to him, and as if obeying secret orders, William slowly picks up the underwear he just finished spreading throughout the room, and carefully places it back on the chair.

When he steps out of the shower, he finds Beth sitting on the edge of the bed. Her small frame seems to emerge from the darkness behind her. He looks surprised, as if he hadn’t expected her presence.

“Good morning,” she greets him. “Are you all right?

“Yes, why?

“You have a strange look on your face. Didn’t you run today?”

“I started to, but it was raining too hard.”

William turns his back to her, and starts to get dressed. He runs his fingers through his wet hair — stunned by confusion.

One more day, That talk will keep one more day.

“Remember our wedding day,” Beth gazes at his naked body. “Remember us making love while the rain beat down on the rooftop?”

He smiles briefly, then dismisses the thought and proceeds to get dressed.

“Would you like some breakfast?” she asks from across the room.

“I’ll get something on the way to work. Heavy day in court today, love,” he lies.

They gaze at each other, just the bed between them, but they are miles apart.

Harold Bradford arrives at work earlier than usual. His visits to the office are infrequent nowadays; he’s near retirement and his clients will soon be William’s sole responsibility. But they have an important case ready to go to trial and Harold wants to keep close tabs.

William is catching up with some reading, partially hidden behind the stack of files on his desk. The thick carpeting muffles his father’s footsteps, and his sudden presence startles William.

“Don’t you believe in announcing yourself?”

“Good morning William, charming as usual. Have you scheduled a deposition date for Brown vs Griffith yet?”

“Friday morning.” William dismisses him. He is not in the mood for idle conversation or lectures from his father this morning.

Harold stands by the door tossing thoughts in his mind. William tries to ignore him, but can almost hear the words taking full form and coming out of his father’s mouth before they’re even spoken. Harold starts to go, then walks right back in and sits across the desk from William. That habit of his annoys William no end. He has never been able to figure out when his father is through with something.

Arms crossed over his chest, Harold bounces his index finger on his lower lip. A habit he picked up from too many courtroom deliberations.

William lifts a barren gaze toward him. “Anything else in your mind?”

“I’ve noticed you look a little on the down side lately. Your concentration is lacking and I will need it one hundred percent for the upcoming trial. If you can’t give it, you let me know right now. Anything you need to talk about, I wonder?”

For an instant, William thought his father gave a damn.

“All’s fine Dad.” His off the cuff answer, a well-learned Bradford mannerism.

“What’s-her-face, does she take care of you?”

William’s face ripples in anger. “Beth, Dad, her name is Beth. Five years we’ve been married. Her name is Beth! And my private life is none of your damned business!”

Harold stretches a complacent smile. He starts to leave the room but his thoughts quickly pivot to another subject, and he turns to face William again.

“I want you to dig all the dirt you can find on Diane Pinkerton. I don’t care what it is. If she stole a nickel from the church collection box when she was five years old — I want to know about it. That man doesn’t serve a day in prison if I can help it.”

Harold closes the door on his way out. No one needs ask him to, just an old habit to leave his son behind closed doors. William stands up and in one clean sweep knocks every file off his desk.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero

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