• February 28, 2024

The Impossible Dream – A Funny Short Story by Murray Burns

The Impossible Dream

“I don’t know, Herb, that might be a little too ambitious.”

“Aim high, dream big, go for broke, all-in, win or go home, let it all hang out, reach for the stars, shoot the moon…”

“Okay, okay, I got it. But a marathon? Herb, you’re not a runner.”

“You kidding me, Sally? I ran cross country in high school.”

“That was 35 years ago. And it was just your freshman year and you only ran in that one meet. Remember how they had to organize a search party with flashlights to come find you after the race was over?”

“The course wasn’t clearly marked, Sally.”

“Oh, my God. And you’re just too old. You could die trying to do something like that.”

“I’m not going to die from it. And you know me, Sally. I’ve always been a risk taker.”

“Right, for you a risk is trying a burger with a pickle on it.”

“It’s like the guy who climbed the mountain because it was there. It’s my challenge, Sally, my destiny. I’m doing it. And the entry fee is only a hundred dollars.”

“One hundred dollars! You can just run around the neighborhood for free.”

“No challenge in that.”

“And what do you get for your hundred dollars?”

“I don’t think I’ll win, so I guess I just get a finishing medal.”

“Oh my, God. And just when did you decide to run a marathon?”

“I was in Fred’s Barbershop and picked up a copy of Runners’ World Magazine. There was a big article about marathons, and I thought it looked pretty cool.”

“That was your inspiration?”

“Yep…well, and my doctor said he never saw a man my age in such terrible condition.”

“That’s why you shouldn’t do it. It will be too dangerous.”

“To march into hell for a heavenly cause, Sally, or should I say, Ye of little Faith? I can do it, Sally, I’m gonna’ do it.”

Impossible Dream or Futile Fantasy, Herb was on a mission.

———-

Dr. Martin’s appraisal of Herb’s condition was not an exaggeration. Herb smoked a pack a day, regularly drank to excess, and his idea of a balanced diet was rotating his lunchtime meals and late evening snacks among his favorite dining establishments- McDonald’s, Burger King, Sonic, Domino’s pizza, Cathy’s Cupcakes, and Carl’s Custard, home of the “Mile High Sundae”. Running a marathon would be a daunting task.

Herb understood the importance of being properly equipped on his journey. Faced with a confounding array of running shoes at Dick’s Sporting Goods, he sought the advice of the minimum-wage stockboy who had just been assigned to “Shoes” the day before.

“Excuse me, young man, could you help me here?”

“Sure, why not?”

“I’m looking for a pair of shoes.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got lots of them.”

“I see that. I just don’t know which kind to get.”

“What do you want them for?”

“Running.”

“Ah, running. May I suggest a running shoe, sir?”

“Thanks. I kind of know that, but you have so many running shoes. Do you have any advice on which one to get?”

The young man studied the paunchy physique before him.

“Uh… just what kind of running will you be doing?”

“I’m doing a marathon.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not kidding.”

“I don’t know, Sir. Did you know the guy who invented the marathon, some guy named Pheidippides, died after running the first one? It’s in all the history books.”

“Pheidipp-a-who?”

“Pheidippides. You’d think they would have stopped doin’ it after the 1st guy to try it bit the big one.”

“They do them all the time. I’ll be fine. So, I need something durable but with a little speed in them for my kick at the end.”

“Of course, Let’s see. How about these Navy blue bad boys with the red Nike swoosh?”

“Are they durable?”

“Yes.”

“Fast?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll take them. And I know it’s not your department, but since you’ve been so helpful with the shoes, maybe you could help me pick out some nice running clothes?”

“Of course, we have some very snazzy jogging suits.”

“Perhaps something that will compliment my new running shoes.”

“Of course.”

———-

“Jesus Christ, Herb. You look like a mannequin at Penney’s. They could have used that outfit in the new Ken and Barbie movie.”

“Very funny, Sally.”

“And how’s your big conditioning program going? I still see you lying around the house most of the time.”

“Ha! That’s all you know. I’ve been jogging up to the high school track every night.”

“Yeah, I know that, but what do you do up at the track?”

“Well…nothing so far. I just jog up to the high school and back.”

“Oh, my God, Herb, the high school is like two blocks away. You’ve got to be doing a lot more than that if you think you’re going to run a marathon.”

“I know. I’ll take it up a notch soon. I still have two months to get ready.”

“ Herb, I have to tell you, this is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done, and it’s not like you haven’t done a lot of really dumb things.”

“You’re always on me about my health, Sally. I do something about it and all you do is complain.”

“Suit yourself. I can’t stop you from being a fool. I just have one question.”

“What’s that?”

“Are all your life insurance premiums paid up to date?”

———

Herb remembered Yogi Berra’s comment on baseball- “90% of the game is half mental.” Realizing that “attitude is everything”, Herb hit Barnes and Noble where he sought the advice of the minimum wage young man behind the counter who took the job yesterday because he needed some quick cash to replace the thermostat in his car before prom.

“Excuse me young man, but I’m looking for a book…”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got lots of them.”

“I see that. I need something on the mental aspect of sports, you know, the power of positive thinking sort of thing.”

The young man considered the sad physique of the aging man standing before him.

“Uh… just what sport are you in… sir?”

“I’m training to run a marathon.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m running a marathon two months from tomorrow. I want to get some positive vibe going so I thought some inspirational sports stories would help.”

“Like what kind of stories?”

‘Well, do you have anything like a blind guy who works real hard and ends up hitting a home run to win a World Series game, or a big old white fat guy who makes an NBA roster, sort of like that Rudy guy?”

“I’ll get Bernie.”

Bernie knew his stuff. Herb left with copies of The Knute Rockne Story, Miracle on Ice, Chariots of Fire, and The Little Engine That Could.

———

“Herb, I’ve never been a track coach, but I think you need to spend a little more time running and a little less time reading your stupid books.”

“Attitude is everything, Sally. How do you think those guys at the Alamo won their big battle?”

“They lost, Herb.”

“Well, what about the 300 Spartans?”

“They lost too, Herb.”

“Braveheart?”

“Tore his guts out.”

“The Bad News Bears! Ha!”

Sally objected to the placement of inspirational posters around the house- David hoisting the bloodied head of Goliath in the kitchen; the 2016 Chicago Cubs rushing the field to celebrate their 2016 World Series win in the bathroom; an angry Ali glaring down at Fraser lying flat on his back on the canvass; Broadway Joe Nameth with finger raised in the air after taking down the Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III in the garage; and Rocky with arms raised at the top of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum in the living room.

One evening Sally found her husband reclining on the sofa with both hands pressed against his forehead.

“What are you doing, Herb?”

“Visualizing.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a technique athletes often employ. They see the upcoming event in their mind. It helps them prepare for success.”

“Really? Well, try visualizing taking the garbage out and mowing the lawn.”

———

Herb was ready. When he arrived at the high school track, he ran a lap and then jogged home. The next night, 2 laps, then 3, 4, and so on. In just 4 short weeks, Herb was only half the blob of flesh he once was. He was on a mission, obsessed… born to run.

“Hello, Sally.”

“Hi, Mom.”

“Sally, I saw that goofy husband of yours this morning. He was running around downtown in some nerdy outfit.”

“I guess the doctor told him he should lose some weight, you know, get a little exercise.”

“Well, tell him to wear sunglasses or a fake beard or something so people don’t recognize him. Yeah, a beard like Forest Gump. Herb Gump. That’s fitting.”

‘Mother!”

———-

Three weeks to go and Herb could struggle through just three miles before extreme fatigue and excruciating pain set in. 3 miles ÷ 26.2 miles = 11.4 %. At this point, Herb was prepared to complete just 11.4 % of a marathon. One night at the high school track he sat down on one of the benches on the sideline of the football field and reflected on his progress. He spoke in soft tones, only to himself.

“Maybe Sally is right. Me, run a marathon? Who was I kidding?”

Herb gazed at the umbrella of stars overhead and contemplated his own insignificance.

“Herb, you’ve never done a significant thing in your life. What made you think you could start now?”

He glanced down at his blue Nike running shoes and was embarrassed to be wearing them.

———-

Herb entered through the back door and walked slowly through the kitchen.

“You’re back early.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing… well, I guess this wasn’t such a great idea. Maybe you were right.”

As Herb took his usual spot on the living room sofa, Sally felt a sense of relief. Herb’s fanciful flight into the absurd might well be over. Yet, there was something about the sad look in Herb’s eye and the sound of his voice, that touched her heart.

———-

“Herb, You’re not going for your morning run?”

“No, I think it’s time to accept reality. You’re right, I’d probably die trying to run a marathon.”

“I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.”

That’s not what Herb wanted to hear, and Sally was just getting started.

“Wait until my mother hears.”

“What? Your mother?”

“Yes, I told her about you running a marathon, and she said that was the most ridiculous thing she ever heard. She knew you’d give up. This will make her day.”

 Sally shot an inquisitive look in Fred’s direction.

“Would you like a cup of coffee, dear?”

Coffee wasn’t on Herb’s mind as it had been completely overwhelmed by the thought of his dreaded mother-in-law deriving some sadistic satisfaction from his failure. A fire had been ignited deep within Herb as the image of a smug look on his mother-in-law’s repulsive face provided far more motivation than all of his posters combined. Herb abruptly left the table and hurried out of the room.

“Herb, where are you going?”

Herb turned, raised his arms above his head, and roared.

“I’ve got a mountain to climb!”

———-

It was on. Herb’s intensified efforts made Rocky look like a slacker. Up before dawn for a 3-mile run. Running stairs on the high school bleachers in the afternoon. An easy jog as the stars took over the sky.

The kid at Dick’s Sporting Goods was still there.

“Hey, it’s my marathon runner! What can I do for you today?”

“I need another pair of those Nike running shoes. No, make that two pairs.”

———

“Herb, I never asked. I know it’s this Saturday, but just where is your marathon?”

“It’s the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio.”

“The Flying Pig Marathon? That’s… wait…Cincinnati?! That’s like 3 hours from here. Couldn’t you find one closer than Cincinnati?”

“Didn’t look. The name just caught my eye.”

“Oh, my God.”

“You sure you don’t want to come?’

“Herb, you know that’s my Mother’s birthday. I can’t miss that.”

“Maybe they named the marathon after your mother.”

‘Herb!”

———

Thousands of runners gathered at Paul Brown Stadium, yet Herb still managed to stand out. Maybe it was the colorful attire which, though unintended, approached near costume status- baggy tiger-striped shorts, a red, white, and blue T-shirt generously splashed with silver stars, a green baseball cap bearing the inscription “Never Give Up”, and, of course, the blue Nike running shoes. Or…maybe it was just Herb himself who garnered attention, the combination of his age and plump outline not often seen at the start of a marathon.

Athletes know the feeling, the tingling of nerve ends firing throughout the body right before the start of the event. Herb thought he was having a stroke, perhaps supplemented by a mild heart attack. He was so scared he could barely find his next breath. A quick survey of the other runners- all trim and fit and clad in sleek-looking running garb- suggested Herb should perhaps be elsewhere. Maybe this was a bad idea, maybe he should just…

Bang!!”

Too late. The runners moved as one solid mass, and Herb had no choice but to either go with the flow or be trampled to death like a careless cowboy in an old western. Having researched the competitive nature of marathons, Herb had staked out a safe place at the rear of the horde of runners and easily maintained his position.

Herb was feelin’ it. He fed off the energy of the runners around him and seemed to move effortlessly across the bridge over the Ohio River. He was feeling so good he had to remind himself of the cardinal rule of log distance runners- pace yourself.

“Hard work pays off.” Herb was reaping the benefits of those countless hours on the high school track and all those morning runs. It wasn’t until mile seven that Einstein’s theory of relativity settled upon Herb- were the other runners speeding up or was Herb slowing down?

Herb found himself a comparably qualified running buddy. Kenny was 70 years old and recovering from a devasting auto accident just six months ago. His therapist suggested running as part of his rehabilitation process, and like Herb, he took the idea to the extreme.

About the time Herb learned all there was to know about Kenny’s education, career, marriage, and his three children, Herb sensed a strain in their relationship.

“Uh, Herb, if you don’t mind, I set a goal for myself.”

“What’s that, Kenny?”

“My time. I set a mark, and I want to hit it.”

“And…”

“So long, Herb.”

And Kenny was gone.

Movement has a recognized progression… or regression- slow, slower, slowest, and damn near stopped. Without Kenny, Herb soon realized how heavy his legs were, how much his body ached, and that it was starting to rain.

 Hyde Park, just a third of the way through the course, and Herb was cooked. He did slow to that stop, looked around, and realized he was all alone. He wiped the water from his face and slowly walked to the side of the street.

“Sir, do you need some help?”

An event staff member, charged with the duty of assuring that no runner be left behind, approached.

“Are you ok?”

“Oh, hey. Yes, I’m ok. I just need a moment.”

“We’ve got medical personnel here if you need assistance.”

“No, I’m ok. I’m just disappointed I won’t finish.”

“There’s no shame in that.”

All crushed dreams hurt, even the unrealistic ones. Herb bent over, put his hands on his knees, and watched the rainwater disappear down a sewer drain, right along with his dream.

“Sir!”

“What?”

“You know there’s no time limit on this thing, and the markers won’t be taken down until tomorrow morning. Have a good night.”

No time limit? Herb hadn’t thought about that. But it didn’t really matter. He could barely move, and the park bench in front of a firehouse was beckoning.

And then it hit him, much as the piercing sound of thunder from the approaching storm. He knew his wife. She wouldn’t have told her mother about his impossible dream. She made it up. She knew the effect it would have on him. Sally wanted him to run the marathon.

New inspiration. Herb felt his body moving. One step usually follows another, and another and another. He designed a plan of attack- jog a block, walk a block, taking generous rest stops when needed.

Herb kept to the side of the road as traffic on the racecourse had started up again. Curious observers were first confused, but then they realized Herb was a struggling participant in today’s marathon. Drivers honked their horns and people clapped and cheered as Herb passed by.

Night fell and the storm intensified, but the terrific thunder and lightning could not deter Herb in his quest. Whatever happened in his life, he was determined to be a guy who had completed a marathon.

He could barely see the banner over the street through the pouring rain, but his heart soared as he realized he would make it. Some dreams do come true.

A lightning strike lit up the sky and revealed a lone figure standing at the finish line. The pouring rain only added to the moment and the memory as a thoroughly drenched but very proud Sally ceremoniously presented Herb with his finisher’s medal.

You couldn’t tell the rain on their faces from the tears.

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