The first trip is nothing. Joe is smooth. His stride is clean. Each step pushes the poison from the core. He feels the air in steady breaths diluting the sepia in his veins. He is changing from solid matter into an invisible clarity.
“You are a body. Your body is a verb.”
That’s his mantra. Focus on the verb. After months of black depression, he’s inclined to take his life more fluidly—grammatically rather than historically.
“Running. Jogging. Recovering.”
The path is soft earth and loops around a lake for seven kilometres. He’s been a fair-weather jogger for years. He has never in his life run in the rain or the snow. He has never broken ten kilometres. He arrives at a startled duck, nearly steps on it, and shouts, “Move!” but the duck is obstinate.
Cottage country never looked so cottagy.
“Red house. Blue house. Green house. Dock.”
This is Joe’s recovery strategy. Don’t sit at home and wait for the addiction to pass. Jog it out. Twenty-four years of smoking. Two packs a day. Wendy.
The morning smells like pine and something else. Toast. Someone must be up in one of the cottages. The breeze is easy. The sun is just beginning to burn through the morning fog and the land appears as though in a dream. The trees across the lake slowly arrive at a definite form as the sun evaporates the mist one barely-discernible layer at a time.
He sees his starting point a hundred meters ahead, a stand of birch.
The first circuit was nothing. Does he keep going and set a new standard?
“Beat the habit. Defeat the habit. Kill the habit.”
He doesn’t look back to see the birch trees disappearing behind him.
This is what happened.
At thirty-eight, he was statistically halfway through a life in which all the breaks had been thoroughly average: graduating with a B average from a community college communications program, then rescued from student debt by a good paying job at the post office (letter carrier, not that he has written a letter in years); marriage to the most beautiful woman in the world (Wendy); separation (no children); then suspended for smoking on the job (the morning was too tempting, the walk too serene, the grief too great).
Nothing happened to Joe.
His sister told him to come to her cottage and “get away from it all” after he told her something about his life on the phone. He had always been so guarded, protected by a wall of optimism. She didn’t know there were any problems, had no idea that Wendy had left, until he started crying on the phone.
“Get away from it all?” he thought. “There’s nothing to get away from.” All the same he came. He came to do something extraordinary: to beat the killer habit.
“Sickness. Cure. Anger. Management.”
He pushes a line of sweat from his forehead, thinks, ‘Too many nouns,’ wipes his hand on his shorts, which are dampened a darker shade of blue.
On the lookout for the duck, Joe spots a child instead. The boy is blond and freckled, wearing a red swimsuit that looks like a hand-me-down he hasn’t grown into yet. The string is tied taut around his waist bunching the material awkwardly. To a child, Joe thinks, the world is full of surprise. An adult knows it is predictable. The boy smiles at Joe, a five-year-old’s smile steeped in uncomplicated pleasure, and Joe feels his strength return. Joe waves as he passes. The boy dips his feet into the lake.
“You’re a verb. You can do it. Just finish the loop.”
His knee is wonky.
But he thinks he can finish the lap.
For ten minutes his mind is musical. Verbs pass through him and he plucks them like the strings on a guitar, thinks a song of possibility in a world in which nothing much ever really happens that isn’t foreordained by the laws governing inertia. Everything tends to stop. Except verbs. Verbs stay active. Verbs don’t mind going bald.
He doesn’t notice the birch trees until he’s on them, and then he’s two steps past them, three steps, four…
He didn’t know he was this strong. He had no idea he could run fourteen kilometres. In his self-evaluations he always came across as weak and indecisive. Wendy described him as boring. Empty. By Joe’s estimation, it took Wendy five years to be angry enough to leave. During that time she looked for clues to his inadequacies, came to view him as a health risk instead of a lover. The complaints were endless. They woke up with him in the morning and went to bed with him at night. But maybe he is strong.
If he completes a third circuit he’ll have run twenty-one kilometres—the length of a half-marathon. Not everyone can run a half-marathon. Maybe Joe can do it.
“You are a verb. The nouns in your life are poison. You are pushing the poison out. Running. Jogging. Recovering.”
His legs are wooden, his body wrong. Exhaustion is a canvas bag filling rapidly with pennies. Each new step is heavier.
Still no duck and the boy is no longer dipping his feet. Where’s he gotten to? There he is. He’s in the middle of the lake, his arms pumping, flailing.
Joe stops and searches the other side of the path. His breath is ragged, his mouth dry, his limbs heavy. The cottages—the child will belong to one of them.
Joe watches the boy’s head disappear under water.
“Help!” Joe cries. “Help! Can anyone hear me?”
The boy resurfaces, his face is red and his open hands slap the water as though he is trying to climb onto something which will not hold him up.
The porch door of the nearest cottage slams open and a young woman dressed only in a long T-shirt that barely covers her runs screaming into the yard.
“Oh my God! Oh my…Oh my God! Oh! Oh! Oh!”
She grabs Joe’s arm.
“You’ve got to…please…help me!”
This is a different kind of break, a different genre of luck. He doesn’t want this. All he wants is to be better.
“Please! Save my son!”
Grief is an empty bag growing emptier. He knows this from experience. Sympathy is a noun he respects.
Now Joe is swimming. He is no longer a body. He’s a soul. The water is cold. His arms are rugged planks. Deaf and dumb angels sit on them with nothing to annunciate.
“Not giving up.”
Half way there, he hears an outboard motor sputter into life. From across the lake, a silver motorboat arches towards the boy, its movement so graceful it seems surreal. The man in the boat is a Greek god, a curly haired man with a muscular chest and a broodingly Byronic expression. He doesn’t seem to know about Joe, who has turned back.
“Not giving up.”
But it’s so hard to hope when the shore is so far away. He must have really been swimming hard when he set off to save the boy. He can’t hold his head up. He can’t push his arms farther. The sounds are all underwater. Water is the source of life. He’s being murdered by the element he’s mostly composed of. He lets his arms fall useless and hopes his lungs won’t hurt when he breathes in. Drowning, he understands, is the best way to go, but he’s afraid.
To his surprise, he touches the bottom. The lake isn’t that deep. He hadn’t predicted its shallowness. It’s chest high. He walks to the shore, and collapses on the soft earth, a sodden Lazarus. Joe can hear the boat returning the child to the mother, can hear the mother sobbing her delight.
He breathes, “Thank God, nothing happened.”
Andre Narbonne’s writing has appeared in Alimentum, The Dallas Review and Numero Cinq. He is the father of Ottawa, Ontario writer Aeriana Narbonne. His favourite band is the Kinks.