Rusty Burns: An Allegory


Rusty’s brother had gone and got himself killed in Vietnam and his mother henceforth buried herself in drink and with an absent father for whom no one could remember his whereabouts Rusty had decided his only chance at escaping the farmhouse was to run. He had no brains to account for and nothing so much as a dime to his name and no courage to fight another war Uncle Sam sent his godforsaken kind to die in. He’d run. His sport was new and like all new things it was misunderstood. There was no theory behind his blinding speed. No structure to his daily workouts or diet. He ate sparingly as his mother drank up her paycheck. His ribs shown like washboard through his sweat-soaked shirts and his cheeks sunk in like he was less human than ghost. There was a cinder track at the high school he’d run barefoot till his soles bled black. Every lap as fast as the last. His name became myth the summer he broke four. No freshman had touched 4:30 since Coach Frank did so in ‘54. He did every workout twice and was out of the shower before the next boy got done. His skin the color of cattle hide from his time under the sun. The football team challenged him to a sprint and he beat them backwards. His name became synonymous with speed. A ‘Rusty Burns’ the nickname for a beef patty with cheese cooked only four minutes—no buns. Never dating. Concerned only with being alone and flying between the rows of damp predawn rye. His hair was the color of flaxen oats and when he glided over the two-track between the neighbor’s sorghum he looked like a corncob bobber in the creek’s Spring spate. Birds scattering for fear his draft would suck them in. His not so much a story as a feeling, a draft-dodging contemplation on the virtue of kinetic efficiency. When there were no records left for him to break in the state of Kansas he went West. The magazines caught wind of his resume and declared him the first great American distance runner. Men from Nordic paradises flew across oceans to watch his back disappear just seconds after the gun popped. He never lost. His a story of pure make-believe. He’d materialize with a toe on the starting line just before the gun raised. No sweat on his brow and nothing to hold back his flowing mane, covering his face at rest and stuck straight back like a gilded crown falling to the Tartan track when he raced.

None of this fulfilled him. Like an addict flicking the flint to light some pipe in a quest for the return of his first numbing high he could never be made to feel like he had the first time his soles touched dirt and his lungs singed with the copper taste of breathlessness. Nothing worked. He stopped running. It only made him worse. He wept to be made whole but no amount of time away from the sport or sudden shock of speed could render the feeling of flight he longed. He never cared for the victories or the competition or the nervousness he felt that that day would be the day he finally lost. He never toed a line again. The magazines called him the greatest coward in America. His reign falling just short of the ‘72 Games. ‘Rusty Burns’ became another word for black depression. For giving up. Those who had spent their lives recounting the enormity of his myth now recounted the spineless fool they had once shared the track with. His records began to fall. Finally his last one was struck from the books and his high school renamed its track out of superstitious fear. Bled dry by dropped endorsements and genetic alcoholism he began to starve. His gauntness the hollow-jawed face of hedonism. He’d tried for so long to run the past out of his life and now he drowned it in drink and dreamed to forget not one but two pasts. To be great and fail is human but to be great and quit is sin. Like the lion who refused to prey on the weak he dissolved into the savanna a lonely celibate. His story a cliché about running and the inability to hide. For those who cannot face their devil are destined to die in his arms.