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Gilberto Dario Gagliani
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Cincinnati; March 2, 2002

He headed for the park again.

He went just about every day, when the weather-was nice, but only once every few weeks did he feel the tingle that told him something special would happen.

Today he felt the tingle, and he smiled.

It was warm, but he wore his parka anyway. The mushy ground seemed to spring under his step, still wet from the last snow, but the benches were dry.

He pulled himself into character, easily enough.

He was so happy. He was going to see a girl.

He'd been seeing her every day for a couple of weeks now, and had managed to say hello in his own shy way. And Susan had just as shyly told him her name when he'd pressed her for it a few days before, after she told him she liked to watch him feed squirrels. Maybe it was the way the small, furry rodents climbed all over him, looking for peanuts and corn kernels, that first attracted her to him. Or because he was a nice, quiet person. He dressed well, spoke well, and made her feel safe with his subdued manner.

And maybe his priest's collar made her feel even safer.

When Susan had come up to him that first day, he'd had to admit that she was cute. Just plain, really, with a heavy dose of cute. Brown hair, grey eyes, normal nose (maybe a little bony) and no make-up except lipstick. That had made him perk right up. When she smiled, she was no longer plain.

He was a smile man, pure and simple.

And she did smile, seeing all those squirrels waiting their turn to jump up and search through the folds and pockets of the young priest's parka.

"I didn't realize they were so tame," she had said.

He pretended to see her for the first time. "Oh, yes," he said, "they're pretty used to me."

When he looked at her, he often looked at just her lips. He did that, he explained, because he was a little deaf, though not enough to require a hearing aid. He told her it helped just to see her lips forming words. It didn't hurt when the lips he "read" were so stunningly perfect.

He smiled at her, his priestly smile.

"They're so cute," she said, smiling back.

He nodded, silent because one chubby squirrel was checking out the top of his head, tiny paws grabbing onto his shoulder. When it was done, it scurried down the back of the parka, and a different fellow climbed up. He put another peanut in his hair.

"You must be a regular," she said, and he was happy to see that she wanted to keep talking. So they chatted about squirrels and rabbits and their feeding habits, and he told her that he'd been feeding them every day. He noted that when she smiled her eyes sparkled.
|"Well, I have to get back to work," she said after a while, real regret apparent in her voice.

"Where do you work?" he asked. An innocent question.

She told him a lie and he smiled. "Very nice! Maybe I'll see you again."

"Yes," she said, "maybe."

So he continued going back to the park, his starched collar in place. The next day she didn't stay long -- she had a lunch date -- but she said hello and watched him feed a pudgy squirrel. She laughed and called him Piglet. He looked at her as she laughed. She really did feel safe, and that made him happy.

She didn't come the next three days, and he wished he had taken her picture. He had a camera in his bag, but it might have been difficult to explain why a priest would want to photograph a pretty girl. So he spent hours sitting in the chilly early spring sunlight, throwing nuts to the gathered squirrels with little angry gestures.

She was back the following Monday, calling out a cheery hello
that startled him. He looked at her eyes for a second, then her mouth. She smiled; then he smiled, too. The squirrels were insistent, though, and he had to concentrate on the feeding. She took a brown bag out of her spacious purse and sat on the next bench. That was when she first told him her name.

He told her his name, and she said, "Martin, that's a nice name."

"Father Martin," he corrected her, "though I'm between parish assignments right now."

He fed hungry squirrels, and she ate a sparse lunch, throwing out crumbs that the furry creatures scooped into their tiny mouths. Then, while he watched, she refreshed her bright lipstick before smiling and waving goodbye.

His hands itched, and he scratched them until they almost bled, the camera lying screaming and unused in his duffel bag. If only he could have planted an excuse, a reason, to photograph her.

But, no, a priest couldn't get away with it, not this day and age.

Martin felt a sharp pain behind his eyes. Susan's face blended into Caroline's, and he knew that her memory was weighing on him again, causing his vision to blur and his hands to itch. Her loss was the catalyst, the reason for his visits to the park this month, and for his visits to the airport last month. No, it was the moon's position, he thought, pushing the pinprick pain aside once again.

He knew it was almost showtime. His great crusade, his life's work. Everything he'd done up to now was just a warm-up, an opener, a prelude. He was ready now -- almost ready -- to make the blood flow.

"It won't be long, Caroline," he thought. "Not long at all."

Now, as he spread peanuts on the bench and called the squirrels, he spied Susan approaching on the path from the parking lot. She was right on time -- had her lunch hour planned to the minute -- and she waved as he looked up. In one hand she carried one of those colorful reusable lunch sacks and in the other a clear bag of goodies for the squirrels.

He smiled and waved, too, and wrestled his bag closer, making sure the flap was closed. He didn't want her to see his surprise too soon. It was time to move on, and the expectation surged through him like high voltage. He always enjoyed the culmination of his plans. He always enjoyed the moving-on part, and this time he had something even bigger to look forward to.

He patted the bag. One thing at a time. Finish one series of actions before beginning another.

He had planned this well. He planned everything well.

He smiled at the thought of it.

When he looked up at Susan, he knew that for the first time she could see into and beyond his bland eyes. Past his smile. Into his darkness. She hesitated, her steps first slowing and then coming to a halt.

It was too late. Understanding crossed her features just as his hand came out of the bag.

© 2004 by William D. Gagliani.