By Rich Elliott
Around the pond where the willows nodded, then across the prairie to the trail running up the hill, the steep incline with its sweet resistance, then the carefree descent. From there he skirted the organized playfields and jogged through the tall grass to the river, which moved brown and languid now in late June, in sync with his cadence, the tap, tap, tap of his flats. Like this for another twenty minutes, gliding into the forest, the best part, the soft surface and pine scent, the trees rushing by, the green beauty a little heartbreaking. Now the path bending, lifting, then dropping along the train tracks, under the old trestle smelling of creosote, and finally out to the ridge bordering the tract housing, the crunch of his flats on the gravel, a straight shot now, through welcoming clover, then pavement, then home.
There. Another completed run. Good pace. Felt fine. Seven miles logged into the journal. Number 5,901. That is, 16 years and 61 days of running without missing a single day.
The Streak, Casey’s beloved Streak, was intact for another day. And it worked its magic on him, calmed him. He could use a little Runner’s High right now, for tomorrow was his wedding day.
Friends of Tim Casey and Candice Clarke were surprised the two ever got together. They seemed so unalike. Candice—everyone called her Candy—was bubbly, outgoing, impulsive, emotional, a true social animal.
Her boyfriend Casey—everyone called him by his last name—was cerebral, controlled, introverted, naturally ascetic, and suspicious of all social gatherings.
When Candy was a sophomore at State U and Casey a senior, the two fell in love inside the Hinshaw Library among the shelves encompassing the 614s. Candy appeared at the Reference Desk, looking flushed and impatient, and she found Casey on duty. He emerged warily from his shell, then warmed to the appealing brunette with her research paper on the Bubonic Plague. The senior was so earnest and so skilled at finding primary sources that the two lingered for hours back in the stacks in the low light and the fog of musty pages during which time Candy began to take an interest in the Black Death and her helper with the wire rim glasses.
Soon the two were inseparable, and their friends said, “I guess opposites attract.” Casey waited patiently while Candy finished college, and Candy waited patiently while Casey finished grad school, then they were patient with each other as they started their careers, Casey, a high school librarian and Candy, an event planner.
Candy loved her fiancé’s ironclad steadiness. Casey loved his fiancé’s spontaneity. But what he loved the most was her acceptance of the Streak.
“You go run, Honey,” she said sweetly. “I know you need it.”
Casey’s Streak had defeated past girlfriends. The girls grew outraged when he put them second place. They believed he had a mania. They complained when his mandatory run postponed a dinner engagement or ruled out a Saturday football game at the stadium. They questioned his priorities when he missed a voice recital or drinks with friends. They questioned his sanity when he went to extremes: the 20-below run when he feared his appendage was frostbit; or the time he dragged his flu-ridden body out for ten miles, puking all the way.
These girlfriends decided Casey would not change for them, not ever, which of course is the death knell for relationships.
Candy was not like them. She indulged Casey his “crazy.” She found it endearing. Casey could not believe his good luck in finding such a girl.
Now the day had finally arrived when they would take the plunge, become husband and wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse.
The only subject about which they ever disagreed was the social aspect. Casey hated large groups of people.
“Why can’t we just elope?” Casey asked in the months before the wedding. “Why do we have to, like, have people there?”
“Oh, Honey.” The adorable Candy leaned close, blinked her eyes at him. “What fun would that be? Besides, I want to declare my love for you before all the world.”
There was never really any contesting the size of the wedding, for the girl’s demanding parents were paying for everything, and they had certain expectations. Candy’s mother and father came from big, really big, Irish Catholic families. So there was no avoiding a monstrosity.
The initial tabulation of the guest list came in at fifteen family and friends for Casey’s side—and 305 for Candy’s. The couple studied the list. Casey fretfully stretched out his hamstrings. “Are you sure we can’t just elope?” he asked again.
An axiom in the sport of running: The later in the day you put off your run, the less likely you will do it.
Thus Casey had a best-laid plan for his wedding-day run. At 9 am sharp, wearing his new running flats and his favorite “Go Pre” T-shirt, he was bounding out the door of his apartment. But he heard his cell phone. He almost ignored it, then he thought, What if.
It was his bride.
“Oh, Casey.” The voice was distressed. “I need your help. Something happened.”
“But I’m on my way out for my run.”
“It’s my brothers. They’re in jail.”
“Oh, God,” Candy sighed miserably. “Drunk and disorderly.”
Candy had two younger, twin brothers who were determined misfits. They were especially psyched for the wedding, anticipating a long weekend of free booze and pretty women. Casey immediately knew he’d made a mistake the night before at the bar where the bridal party met after the rehearsal. He’d left the boys unattended.
“We’re staying for one more coldie, mate!” The boys recently had returned from an ill-advised month of carousing in Australia, and now they were pretending to speak Aussie. “No worries, mate,” they told Casey.
“Shouldn’t your dad deal with them?” Casey asked his bride.
“Oh, God, no! We can’t let Daddy know. Bill and Bart are in enough trouble already.”
“I’m on my way,” grumbled Casey.
The groom trooped to the local police station to extricate his soon-to-be brothers-in-law.
“G’day, mate!” The still-drunk twins called out to their savior after their release. They slapped Casey on the back.
Casey waved them into the back seat of his car. The boys launched into a confusing story about the third bar, or was it the fourth, and the two beautiful “sheilas” who came to their table, and the ordering of bottles of champagne, and the great time, and later the astounding, unpayable bill, and the disappearance of the two beauties and the appearance of a really big man, and then the pushing and shoving and the knocking over of the table.
“Are you guys OK?” asked Casey.
“Never better, mate,” said Bill.
“Stoked,” said Bart. “Say, can you stop at that shop?”
“You know, the penguin shop.”
“The tuxedo shop,” Bill clarified.
“You never got your tuxes.” Casey shook his head and looked at his watch.
“Well, not yet,” said Bart.
The tuxedo shop took longer than expected. The boys, in their inebriated state, had trouble putting on the pants.
“Sorry,” Casey told the manager.
Later he dropped the boys at their parents’ house. “Go in the back door, go right upstairs, and get some sleep. Please.”
The boys staggered to the house. “You’re a good bloke,” Bart told Casey.
“Bloody awesome,” said Bill. The twins burst into laughter.
By now it was noon. At four the bus was collecting the bridal party for photos around town. Casey took a breath. Still time for a run. Don’t sweat it.
The mantras of his old high school coach came back to him.
“You can always make time for a run.”
“90% of success is showing up.”
In high school, as Casey stood shivering in the cold air of his first, early-morning cross country practice, the words of the fierce young coach struck a chord deep inside.
The impressionable boy had never heard such fiery declarations.
“Consistency! Perseverance!” spake the coach.
“Days off are for losers.”
“Greatness is in you already. Like the giant oak inside the acorn.”
Coach’s words clenched the boy’s heart. Casey became a mainstay of Coach’s state champ teams. Though never talented enough to be a star, the boy developed into an unbreakable cog. His improvement wasn’t flashy, but it was inexorable, and it eventually earned him a small scholarship to a D-2 college. Coach’s mantras were proven true.
The great manifestation and test of Casey’s dedication was his Streak. The rule of a running streak is simple: Anytime before midnight of each day, you get out for at least one mile of running. This sounds easy, but every day a hundred things can knock you off your routine. For sixteen years Casey had vanquished them all.
Once more Casey donned his running gear. This time he made it down the front steps before his ringing cell phone again stopped him.
It was Wade. Best man, best friend, college teammate, companion of a thousand runs, the ying to his yang, the erratic foil to Casey’s cool. Why the hell was he calling?
“Ready for the big day? You can still back out.” Wisecracking Wade.
“Yes. And no, I don’t want to back out. I want to get my run in.” Casey was suddenly suspicious. “What’s up?”
“You got the ring, right?” the best man asked.
“Very funny. I entrusted the ring to you, remember? For safe keeping.”
“Yeah. You’re right.” Long pause. “Well, I can’t seem to locate it. Currently.”
“Jesus, Wade.” Casey had a fleeting thought that he might laugh about this in the distant future. “Have you retraced your steps?”
“I’m trying to.”
Casey winced. “Shit, man, you’re killing me. I’ll be right over.” Casey threw on his sweats and drove to his friend’s place.
“It was a cheap ring anyway, right?” Wade, as always, turning all into a joke.
“Let’s go over yesterday, shall we?”
“You gave me the ring on the way to the tux place,” remembered Wade.
“And you checked your clothes and the tux?”
Casey called the tux shop and put the phone on speaker. “You didn’t find a ring or any forgotten piece of clothing at your store yesterday?”
“Well, we found a windbreaker.”
Wade leaped to his feet. “Shit, my windbreaker!”
But the examination of the windbreaker turned up nothing.
“OK, later we were at the bar,” said Casey. “With the bridal party. You got shit-faced.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Wade concentrated. “Irma! I showed the ring to Irma!”
An immediate call to Irma Ramirez, a bridesmaid.
“Do I have the ring?” Irma laughed for quite a while. “Oh, you guys are in deep shit.”
“Don’t say anything to Candy. Please?”
Doggedly, Casey kept at his friend. “You came home from the bar. You still had the ring in your pocket. Probably. You took off your clothes, you went to bed. Next morning, ring is gone. Did I miss any steps?”
Wade scratched his head. “I went to the bathroom.”
The two men looked in the toilet. Casey emitted a groan of desperation. “We’re taking this toilet apart. Get your tools.”
They struggled with the toilet. One bolt was stripped. Finally, with a violent push, they tore the bowl from the tile. They tipped it over and shook. The trap coughed and spit out a dark clump. Dull gold shone from its center. Casey and his best man leaned against the bathroom wall and fist bumped.
The bus was coming in thirty minutes. Casey scrambled to shower and dress. He combed his hair just so. He nervously rocked on his toes to stretch his Achilles.
He grabbed the marriage certificate. Check. He wrote the payment for the priest. Check.
His daily run? Not checked. For now. But he’d find a way. He wore his running clothes under his tux.
The church was glorious. The dusk light filtered through the stained glass casting the altar in sepia. “Canon in D” drifted over the congregation, shyly at first and then lush with gorgeous strings. She appeared in white satin and lace, looking impossibly beautiful, and everything sort of hit him, his throat caught, and he thought, Keep it together, and then she took her place at his side and held his hand and he felt safe and fine.
Casey presented such a cool demeanor to the world that few suspected his inner turmoil. Growing up, he rarely felt safe and fine. Armchair psychologists might point to his overbearing father and over-medicated mother, but who knows, really, where people get their insecurities?
One thing seemed certain: As soon as he’d become a runner, he found some solid ground. Then the Streak helped him shape an image, and it gave him a tiny bit of fame.
“Did you know he never misses a day of running?” his classmates whispered. “Not in four years!”
“I saw him running at midnight,” said the sorority girls at the university. “I wish I had his drive.”
Indeed, Casey developed a frightful passion. He studied while jogging by listening to audio books. He wrote term papers while sprinting on the treadmill. He planned his days with military precision. There was that time, during a long day of cross-Atlantic travel, he did his workout in the airport terminal, jigging through the crowds.
Once, an emergency appendectomy nearly defeated him. As the clock approached midnight, he freed himself from the annoying tubes, slid past the nurses’ station, and stumbled five morphine-hazed laps around the hospital campus before security stopped him.
This year Casey had broken into the top 50 on the USA Active Running Streak list. That was special. The Streak had transcended the notion of sport. It had become a philosophy of life.
Surely there will come a chance at the reception for me to slip away. Maybe fifteen minutes. That’s all I’ll need. I’ll excuse myself to go to the bathroom. That was the groom’s thinking, and it was not unreasonable.
But the many duties of the groom hamstrung him for much of the evening. Casey and his bride performed the grand entrance, the toasts, the floating from table to table giving guests their due, the watching of the slideshow, the posing for pictures, the cutting of the cake, the first dance.
Casey had not anticipated so many obligations. Nor could he have imagined so many strangers pressing on him.
He offloaded his tux jacket. His white shirt clung to him. His face ached from smiling, like its muscles might go into spasm.
“Poor dear! You’re sweating so!” His bride took his handkerchief and dabbed his forehead. “Are you OK?”
At last, miraculously, his duties seemed to be exhausted.
“Whew!” Candy exhaled. “Let’s sit for awhile.”
Now, thought Casey, this is my chance.
He excused himself to go to the bathroom. Halfway there he began to levitate.
“Hey, you cobber!” Bart and Bill hoisted him.
“Think you can avoid us? Come have a drink!”
Shots were poured. Then some more.
“Have you done your walkabout?”
“My what?” asked Casey.
“You know. Your run!”
“Well.” Casey tried to control his rising antipathy toward the twins.
“Oh, you’re fucked, aren’t you?”
“Have another shot. You’ll feel better.”
Later, in the bathroom, Casey ditched his dress shoes. His best man handed him his running flats.
“You’re welcome,” said Wade. “Want me to run with you?”
“No. The less attention, the better.”
Casey had his shirt partially unbuttoned when a boy raced into the bathroom and cried, “Found him!”
The boy, one of Candy’s many cousins, stood blinking, trying to remember his message. “They need you! To throw the, the, the thing.”
Yet another performance was required—the tossing of the bouquet and the garter.
The unmarried women gathered in front of Candy. There was an unseemly amount of elbowing and positioning. Casey’s sister Karen stood placidly at the back of the group. Onlookers pulled out their cell phone cameras to record the moment.
Candy gripped her flowers, turned her back to the group, and tossed her bouquet into the air. The bouquet arced high over the frantic hands of the women. As if predestined, it sailed above Karen’s head, who as a former college centerfielder, deftly backpedaled, leaped, and made the catch.
The crowd cheered, the guests clicked their cell phones, Karen held up the bouquet, and because she had backed into a candelabra, her hair burst into flames.
A gasp went up from the crowd, followed by screams. Karen for a moment did not understand the cause of the commotion. Her brother shoved aside frozen bridesmaids and rushed to his sister’s aid, slapping her hair to put out the flames. Someone else raced over to pour a pitcher of water over her head.
Now poor trembling Karen wore this horrified look, like that of Stephen King’s bespattered Carrie. Casey attempted to console his sister. They quickly decided, because her hair smelled something awful, she must go back to the hotel, and he arranged a car.
Then he spent several depressing minutes talking down his mother, who was mortified, and his father, who somehow blamed his son for the fiasco.
In the chaos, the throwing of the garter was totally forgotten, which may or may not have been bad luck.
Casey stared at his watch. With great resolve, he strode again to the men’s room.
In front of the door he was tackled by the great aunts. Candy’s mother had two aunts who’d flown in from Dublin. They were sometimes referred to as the Weird Sisters. There was an unspoken rule that Beryl and Brigid Yeats be invited to every family event.
The sisters clutched the groom and pirated him back to their table. “Oh, you dear lad,” they chirped.
The sisters were smoking, and they offered Casey a Don Corleone, which he declined. Anxiously, he shook out his legs, one leg at a time.
Beryl observed his running shoes. “Poor boy, your feet must be knackered by now.”
Brigid, who was hard of hearing, thought her sister had asked if Casey shot skeet. This launched a remembrance. Apparently, Brigid, many years ago, had been a marksman of great repute at her local club.
Her sister noted with pride that Brigid nearly made the Irish Olympic team in the biathlon. “Had it not been for the blackguard Conor Doyle!”
“Well, I shot him through the leg, didn’t I?” Brigid said remorsefully. “So what’s done is done.”
To change the subject, Casey asked about their surname Yeats.
“Are you a fan of the great bard?” Beryl asked.
Ordinarily this would have piqued the young man’s literary interests had he not been consumed by thoughts of an exit plan.
“Surely you know the poem ‘Running to Paradise?’” Brigid asked.
The sisters broke into singsong:
“For I am running to Paradise;
Yet never have I lit on a friend
To take my fancy like the wind”
The sisters were debating the poet’s obsession with gyres and the supernatural when Candy finally rescued her husband.
It was 11:30. The reception hall was booked to midnight, so the call went out for the last dance. A circle of family and friends formed while the young couple held each other and slow-danced in the middle of the floor.
The bride easily sensed her husband’s anguish. She noted the “Go Pre” showing through his damp shirt.
“Oh, Honey. Your Streak. I’m so sorry.”
Her lover’s tortured eyes scanned the exits.
“Here’s what I’ll do.” The man’s face shone with desperate hope, searching for a stay of execution. “I’ll run back to our hotel. It’s only a mile. You go back on the shuttle with the others.”
She leaned back and stared at him. “Oh. Well.”
“With the traffic, I’ll probably beat you to the hotel.”
The music continued, but they had stopped dancing. They studied each other closely for signs. The crowd looked on.
“Of course, Love. Do that,” spoke the girl tenderly. “I know how much it means.”
Yet with this sublime offering came the faintest shadow across her face, the slightest tremble of her lips.
And Casey knew he would forfeit.
He was surprised how serenely this came to him.
Yes, they were opposites. But they were alike in one key respect: Neither could bear hurting the other. Indeed it was this magic that would sustain them in the years ahead.
Casey slipped quietly through the door and into the darkened room. He opened the curtain a crack, letting in a faint dawn. He kicked off his running shoes and threw his T-shirt in the corner. He made some coffee. Then he came and sat on the edge of the bed.
He touched his bride’s lovely face. Candy opened her eyes and looked across the pillow.
“Day one?” she asked dreamily.
Rich Elliot’s published work has mostly been in the field of sports nonfiction. He’s the author of The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running and the anthology Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running. Elliot also writes short fiction, having stories published in several literary magazines, including Confrontation, Quail Bell, Soft Cartel, and Aethlon. His first collection of fiction, Duck and Cover: Eleven Short Stories, came out last year. He is a resident of Valparaiso.