I back the car into the cloud that has risen from the tailpipe. The exhaust fumes swirl, hang in the wet air, and are absorbed by the fog. I get out. In the December dusk, day and night are merging into one, just like the river and its snow-covered banks and the tired drizzle. The gunmetal landscape swallows the lights of passing traffic.
Without bothering to stretch, I start walking down the asphalt path. It was covered by an inch of snow last night. But the steps of joggers before me packed it into ice, and now the dripping rain is turning the ice to slush. I force myself to run and begin my mantra.
Our Father, Who art in heaven,
hallowed be Thy name . . .
Until this year I hadn’t prayed in half a lifetime. When I knew I had to begin praying again, I reached into my memory for the prayers of my youth, which had been pressed into me like cookie cutters into dough. Awkwardly, in fits and starts, the words came back to me.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee . . .
The words mystify me now as they did when I was a boy, but I repeat them over and over, on the chance that they might be heard.
The commuter traffic hisses by on its way out of the city. The road salt and oil form a rainbow of slime on the river drive. My knees ache from the wet cold of the evening, and slush works through my shoes and soaks my socks.
Glory be to the Father,
the Son, and the Holy Ghost . . .
The church fathers changed Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit sometime during my absence, but I hold fast.
My lungs hurt. My turnaround is a rock cliff above the river. I am tempted, as I am tempted every night, to turn back early. But as always I push on, afraid that if I don’t I will give up on everything else, too.
Forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us . . .
I recite the prayers again and again as my feet splash along the path. My head is numb, not from pain but from worry. I pass under the railroad bridge that carries Amtrak over the river to New York. The lamps by the path reveal a lone sculler on the river, oars reaching back — a water bug skimming the surface. We race, though he doesn’t know it. Each pull springs him ahead, then, briefly, I catch up. I quicken my pace, but he is gone, invisible again on the black water. I slow back down.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be . . .
The cold air feels warm now. The fog is a gauzy blanket. I reach my turnaround and pause only long enough to reverse direction.
I hear them before I see them: thirty or forty voices chanting in unison. Their gray sweat shirts say Army. Suddenly their feet are pounding all around me, and for a moment I am part of them, twenty again.
Got fired from my job today.
I didn’t like it anyway . . .
I quicken my pace to preserve my youth for a few more moments. Then they pass me and their voices trail off.
My breathing has slowed and I’m running faster. I pull off my gloves, stuff them into the pockets of my sweat shirt. Up on the railroad bridge the lights are soft, white orbs of fog, like halos. I forget my breathing altogether, and there is no pain in my legs. I feel like I could run forever. The army is long gone. A Canada goose paddles silently where the sculler had been.