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Marathon Under a Charcoal Sky

by Carmen Ruggero

Part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue.

The view from his office window is distorted by the rain’s sheathing action against the glass. Boston is usually a colorful masterpiece in the fall, but the season’s brilliance is now smeared by the ominous presence of charcoal. A lonely red leaf plastered by the wind and rain against a tree trunk reminds William of another fall season many years ago.

He hadn’t stolen that coin, he'd found it on the floor, down by the church pew where he sat next to Diane. A nice shiny nickel and he put it in his little pocket. He kept touching it from time to time with his fingertips, making sure it was still there. Not a word was said about it, he was sure it was his secret.

They arrived home from Church and dashed into the house to avoid the falling rain. Diane began lunch while Harold fixed himself a whiskey, then two, not much dialogue between them, ever.

When they gathered around the dinner table, Harold blessed the food, then asked Diane to read from the Bible a passage he had earmarked.

Diane read:

If a man shall steal an ox, or sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.

“Amen.” Harold concluded the reading. He brought a bite of food to his mouth. Diane didn’t say a word.

“What you got in your pocket, son?” Harold asked, still chewing on his food.

“Nothing sir,” William looked at his mother who pointed her gaze elsewhere.

“I’m giving you another chance to come clean, the choice is yours.”

“It’s a leaf, I found it on our way to church, it’s pretty, please don’t take it away.”

“A liar, as well as a thief. Try the other pocket, boy.”

“I have a nickel, sir,” William whispered. “I found it.”


“In Church, by the pew.”

“You need to give it back to the Church, only you’ll have to pay double the amount. You heard the scripture.”

“It’s mine! I found it. I didn’t take it from nobody!”

“Anybody.” Diane corrected him.

“Stay out of it Diane,” Harold growled an order.

“I just thought...”

“You were not asked to think,” he gagged her words, then directed his dialogue back to William.

“If you found it in Church, it belongs to the Church. Consequently, you took it from somebody.”

“It was on the floor, I found it!"

“Looks to me like you need a lesson in honesty, son.”

“Mammy?” William looked at Diane. Her eyes downcast, she held silent.

“To the basement, son. Right now.”

William hesitated. “No,” he cried. “Mom...”

“Come on!” Harold gave him a push.

Down in the basement, the ambiance stained by a single yellow light hanging from the beam, Harold picked up the paddle and told William to strip down. William’s hands shook as he stripped down to his underwear.

“Take off your shorts.” Harold ordered, paddle in hand.

“No!” William cried.

“Off with your shorts!” He backhands William on the side of his head.

William took off his shorts, ever so slowly. His heart was pounding. He couldn’t breathe.

“Now bend over the chair.”

Silent tears streamed down William’s face anticipating his punishment.

“I’m following the Lord's commandment, son, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ You’ll get three whacks for stealing, three for lying, and three for refusing to do the right thing.”

“Nooo! Please Dad, I’ll make it right, pleaseee....”

“Honesty, above all son, is a trademark of greatness,” said Harold in between whacks.

“I hate you!” William whispered through clenched teeth.

“Someday you’ll thank me for it.”

That wasn’t the first time, and surely not the last. Harold returned to the table where Diane waited in silence, leaving William in the basement.

“Pour me a whiskey, will you? Then let’s catch an afternoon movie,” he ordered.

It was raining hard outside. William gathered his clothes, and pressed them against his naked body. Huddled in a dark corner he could hear the water gushing from the drainpipe.

“I’m sorry, God, please don’t let me drown.”

This afternoon, in direct opposition to Harold’s instructions, William decides to go to the hospital and pay a visit to Diane Pinkerton. Harold just wants him to dig up some dirt. He does not want William to see her.

“Never look a victim in the eye or you’ll loose your objectivity for the defense,” were his instructions.

William arrives at the hospital, looks up the orthopedic surgery ward, and takes what seems to be and endless elevator ride up to the 10th floor.

“Are you related?” the nurse at the front desk asks him.

“No,” William hesitates telling her who he really is.

“Sorry, sir, only blood relatives are allowed.”

“I’m...” he clears his throat. “I’m with the law firm representing her husband, I need to see her.”

“Sorry,” she says, dryly. “You can’t go in.”

“I can bring in a court order,” he tells her, his attorney mentality coming to the rescue. “You’d only be delaying my visit a few hours and putting me through great deal of inconvenience.”

“That’s all right, we don’t mind putting you through a great deal of inconvenience. Go get your court order.”

William starts to leave, when a voice coming from behind a pile of hospital records stops him.

“Excuse me,” says the voice, “I’m Dr Hoffman. I’ve been caring for Mrs Pinkerton. Not much longer, though. She’ll be taken away soon. Why don’t I escort you to her room?”

William wonders about Dr Hoffman’s secret agenda, but he wants to see Diane, and follows him just the same. The two men walk the antiseptic hallways in silence, and then Dr Hoffman opens the door to Diane’s room.

“Don’t worry about waking her up,” he explains. “She’s been heavily sedated.”

William’s color drains from his face. Reality seems watered down, through the pragmatic wording on a witness statement. He isn’t ready for this.

“She has suffered multiple bone fractures throughout her body,” Dr Hoffman states, with the same calm objectivity he would use when conducting a tour of medical students. “Her legs, her pelvis, and her arms,” he points to each part of her body, “were broken in several places, and as you can see, her face is disfigured beyond recognition. But the tragic blow is the one that crushed her skull. She’ll be useless for the rest of her life.”

William feels acid heat coming up his esophagus. He wants to vomit. He keeps his gaze low to the floor — doesn’t want to see, or hear any more — he is covered in perspiration.

“I think I need to go now,” he says to the doctor. “I’ve seen enough.”

“No,” says Dr Hoffman. “I don’t think you have. There’s more you should know. It might help redefine your line of defense. I’ve been her family’s physician since she was a little one. I have pictures of her at home. An absolutely gorgeous woman; do you by chance remember Dorothy Lamour? Maybe not,” he smiles. “You look too young to remember her. Well, Dorothy worked in all those road movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Someday you should rent one of those — any way, Diane looked like her.”

William loosens his tie — he is gasping for air.

“I’m sorry the room feels a little hot,” says Dr Hoffman, “but I fear it’s about to get hotter, Mr Bradford. Diane had a Ph.D. in literature. She has authored many wonderful books — I’ve read them all. She’ll never read or write another word again. All we can hope for at this point is that she does not regain even partial memory, because I can assure you that will be her hell on earth.”

William is suffocating. “What did he hit her with?” his voice is so breathy, it is hardly audible.

“A crowbar.”

Still in the hospital parking lot, William sits inside his car, his head tilted back against the headrest. The rain pounds on the roof of the car. Thunder resonates throughout, and scattered lightning briefly lights up the charcoal sky. William fights for breath. He begins to sob.

“A charcoal sky day, no school today...” and he remembers. That twinge of pain he’s had all day. He suddenly remembers he had missed his run because it rained, and returned home.

His parent’s bedroom door was open. They were arguing. He heard his mother crying, and went in.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“What are you doing in my bedroom, boy?” Harold asked him. His face was red, and damp with perspiration.

“I heard Mom crying. What’s going on?”

“None of your business, now leave!”

“No. Why is Mom crying?”

“I said it’s none of your business, boy!” Harold charged toward William, and with a tight grip on his arm, dragged him downstairs. They skipped steps and William fell down. Harold picked him up by the collar, pushing him toward the basement.

“No!!!” William yelled.

“You stay there till... hell, rot in there for all I care!”

He was a child, wanting to defend himself, wanting to punch his father out. But he was a child. “Honor thy father,” The Book said, a thought so well implanted in his mind, and on a split second of submissive hesitation, William rolled downstairs to the basement floor, and the door slammed shut.

“Mom! get out Moooom!!”

He couldn’t find the light switch. In total darkness, he frantically tried to find a way out, but there wasn’t one. He heard his mother’s cry for help, and couldn’t go to her. All he could do was listen to his father’s pounding fury, and the slashing rain.

Hours later, his mother rescued him from the basement. She opened the door slowly. Her face was badly bruised, her lips swollen.

They stared at each other.

“He had stopped for a long time,” she said, in a thread of a voice, “because you were in the house a lot, but you started running. First in the morning, then again in the evening, you were gone a lot — he started again.”

William, unable to speak his anger and confusion, brushed past his mother, stepped out into the rain, and began his marathon for survival under the charcoal sky.

“Stop,” he whispers, then screams: “STOOOOP!!!”

He can’t take the enclosure any more, steps out the car, and into the rain; he decides to walk home. He needs to talk to his wife, and now he knows what he needs to say.

This morning’s twinge flared up like an open soar. He'd woken up to the sound of rain on the rooftop, a charcoal sky day, no school today... and he couldn’t run — had to come home. He'd sat on that porch for a long time because he was afraid to go in. The face he'd seen in the mirror that morning, was a frightened face from the past staring at him.

He finds Beth in her in her studio, and stands by the doorway a while, then knocks lightly to avoid startling her.

He smiles when she turns around. “I love you,” he whispers to her, tears running down his face.

“I love you too,” she tells him. “What’s happened to you?”

“I walked — left the car at the hospital.”

“What hospital? What’s going on?”

“I went to see somebody. We need to talk, Beth.”

“I know.”

“It’s about us, but nothing to do with you.”

“Then what?”

He thinks for a moment. He’s so glad to see her face.

“Talk to me, William.”

He struggles. “I have to go.”

“Go where?” her eyes well with tears.

“I don’t know. I need to figure out just who the hell I am. I need to do it alone.” He gazes at her. She’s crying; he wants to hold her, but won’t. “Beth, I’m getting to be more and more like my father,” he slams his hand on the door frame: “I’m still trying to win ribbons for him, damn it! I realized today, part of me is still a child fighting his way out of that basement. And I wonder: When the door finally opens at the top of the stairs, will it be your face I’ll find mangled by my fury?”

The downpour continues. He walks back to his car. For the first time since that one exhilarating race, body and mind begin to merge.

Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero

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All royalties from sales of Kaleidoscope are being donated to The Myasthenia Gravis Association, thanks to the generosity of the contributing authors.

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