Give Us This Day

Give Us This Day                                     

By Laurel Schmidt  

           I am a writer, which makes me a professional sitter. I know it’s not healthy but it took the slogan sitting is the new smoking to galvanized me into action. Now I walk nearly every day. Just a couple of miles at a good clip, rain or shine.  In summer I leave home early before the sun bakes the pavement, cutting through a leafy park, then along Main Street where century-old buildings cast a narrow shadow.

             On a recent morning I spied a man slumped against a storefront, legs splayed in a wide V that took up most of the shade. He looked limp, as if the heat had already drained him, but as I approached he raised his hands like a priest or televangelist delivering a blessing. I returned the gesture. Then he tilted his hands back into a classic high five. I did the same. But a high-five is not a fist-pump---something you can perform solo with a rousing cry of victory. A high-five requires contact.

 So I leaned forward and grazed his palms with my own. Instantly he rotated his hands and clamped on to mine. Then he said, “Let us pray.” I knew from a church-going childhood that this was not a request. It was a signal of more to come.  But the church of my youth never mixed prayer with body contact. Touching your neighbor?  Strictly off limits. Hands must be locked together with the fingers cinched tight like the laces on a basketball player’s shoes.

             The only touching I recall was the requirement that your knee touch the floor when you genuflect. No drive-by curtsies allowed. You must feel the full force of your body bearing down on the tile or marble or scuffed wooden aisle---otherwise it didn’t count.

             “Our Father,” he said in a clear voice and I joined in with “who art in heaven.” Since he was wearing earbuds I wasn’t sure if he could actually hear my voice when we switched from pantomime to dialogue but I settled in, slightly cantilevered, for the duration. If you’ve every knelt through an entire High Mass you know that the Lord’s Prayer is a piece of cake.

             As he got rolling, he tightened his grip and started to pull. At any moment I’d lose my balance and topple. One or both of us could get hurt.  At a minimum he was in for a hell of a shock since he’d closed his eyes to pray. And I couldn’t anticipate his reaction—our city is a magnet for people who wander the streets and boardwalk but mentally inhabit another zip code or universe. Respect and velvet gloves are de rigueur. Tumbling on him would definitely be a breech of protocol, even if he started it.

             “Not so hard.”  I slipped my hands from his grasp and cupped his fists the way you shelter a candle from the wind. “Now we have to start over,” he said. And so he did. But I took up the prayer, reciting it with all the feeling I could muster. I wanted the words to wash over him, to bring him comfort for the day ahead. “Give us this day our daily bread.” conjured up images of dumpster diving, begging for doggie bags outside restaurants. Hunger. Then tomorrow would bring more of the same.

             Now the Lord’s Prayer has two versions.  Most Christians end with for thine is the kingdom, while Catholics stop short at deliver us from evil---the central obsession of my youth. Not this life full of beauty, wonder and grace, but temptation and sin lurking around every corner—and me with only a pink plastic rosary for protection. Each recitation drove home this cautionary message while other Christians got to finish on a high note with the power and the glory, forever and ever. Call me crazy but the wrong tag line can really spoil your day.

             Hence, my dilemma. I didn’t want to botch the end of the prayer when I’d been word-perfect up to that point, reeling off phrases I’d memorized before I was old enough to go to school. And this was no time to ask his denomination---Baptist, Unitarian, the Church of What’s Happening Now? So I tacked on the Protestant ending and closed with a confident Amen.

             He rolled his head to one side, opened his eyes and said, “Wow!”  I reached into my pocket and dug out my walking money, kept for such occasions. I pressed it into his hand and said, “Take care, my friend.” Then I headed for home, thinking I am truly blessed---a phrase I rarely use. But on that morning I’m certain that I was.

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