Luke Russell held the rock in his hand. He didn’t know why he picked up the rock; he just had a need to hold it, to feel the hardness of it. Like her heart, he thought, cold and hard. He wanted to throw it at a window. He imagined the glass cracking and shattering, the fallen pieces looking like frost on the new snow.
This is unreal, he thought. I would never have met her if I'd taken my usual route to The Gunz that day instead of cutting through the park.
The snow had been coming down for a while now, but Luke just noticed how it covered everything. The branches of the trees buckled under the pressure. The path he walked on minutes earlier was covered, thick snowflakes falling all around him.
He took a last draw of his cigarette and flicked it at the ground. He never did things like this, see a rock, and feel a need to hold it. Or sit on a park bench in the cold, waiting. He was never good at waiting. If she doesn’t show by the time I count to twenty, I’m out of here, he thought.
The guys will be at Gunz playing pool, drinking beer. The thought of a cold beer made his mouth water like when he was a kid and saw the candy shelf at Louisa’s, pockets of sweet color that he sucked on forever or dark chocolate that would melt in his hand, his tongue reaching out, savoring the taste as he licked each finger.
Luke knew she wasn’t cold and hard. There was something hurt in her, something crazy. It was temporary, he guessed, this craziness. She wasn’t always this way and would snap out of it sometime, he guessed. He really didn’t know. There was that time though, a few weeks after they met when he felt the milk from her breast on his tongue right when she climaxed. He asked about it, but she only said, “Nothing. I’m sorry.” And rushed to get dressed.
Luke said, “Nothing to be sorry about. You have a kid?” She dressed and said nothing. She had a kid, and something had happened to it. He really didn’t know, and Mary didn’t talk about it, she barely said hello or goodbye, but he guessed it was that or something close to that. He really didn’t know. Luke was ashamed that her madness turned him on, but it did.
He’d met her weeks ago in this same park, sitting on this bench. Luke wasn’t the type of guy to sit on a park bench and talk to a woman, to get close to her, but he did with Mary Parker. She was beautiful, to him at least. Small and dark, her skin pale, her eyes a pool of darkness. The weather had just turned from chilly to cold. He wore only a jacket that day. He didn’t expect to sit on a bench and talk to a girl. Hands in pockets, his shoulders hunched fending off the cold, he talked and shivered while she sat motionless and looked his way occasionally. Like him, she wasn’t dressed for the weather, but it didn’t bother her, no shivers or arm rubs. She sat still as if she was breathing in summer air.
They met every week on the park bench. She was always late and hardly talked. Luke wanted her so badly, but he didn’t know how to approach her. It wasn’t the age difference; she was thirty-nine and he was twenty-three. One of the rare occasions when she talked without just a yes or no was when he asked her how old she was, expecting to get rise out of her, but all she did was look at him and answer. He did well with women and was surprised that he found it difficult with Mary. One day I’ll get shitfaced and make a move, he told himself. The third week she climbed on him, straddled him, put his mouth to her breasts. “Hold on, hold on,” he said. “Let’s find a place.” Mary Parker quickly disengaged herself and ran off.
After that he followed Mary’s lead. He’d do it on the park bench if she told him to. First time was in the gazebo. The trees were denser in that section of the park but through the bare branches he could see people passing through, a lone woman sitting on their bench holding a purse on her lap, by the swings a boy standing over a girl holding the chains while the girl sat scraping her feet on the ground.
The gazebo was a worn grim little island, the top and sides of it overrun by grapevine, the wood old and splintering. On the floor lay dry crumpled leaves, crushed cigarette packs and candy wrappers moving from the wind as if they were living things.
Their joy was immeasurable that first time. Luke always got pleasure from her body but that wasn’t always the case with Mary. After she straightened herself and turned to leave. Luke held her by the wrist and said, “Hey let’s get a drink.” He didn’t want her to go. He wanted more of her. “Let me walk you home, at least get your number, come on,”
“No. I’ll be here next week,” is all she said.
The next week he cut the padlock on the bathhouse door. At least we can have cover and some warmth, he thought. They went every week to the bathhouse that smelled of urine and a long cold winter. After a month of meeting Mary there, Luke thought he could make things nicer. He bought a blanket, some wine, and candles. He set it all up before she came, but apparently Mary didn’t want nice.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Luke couldn’t understand why she was angry. He didn’t care because the candlelight made her look even more beautiful, her eyes almost feverish and angry. He pulled her down to him on the blanket and told her to just shut up, and she did. That was the night a man came in.
“Don’t mind me,” the man said. Luke was going to give him a few bucks to leave but Mary said no and guided Luke to a stall where they made love while the homeless man lay curled on the floor.
She was satisfied that night but that wasn’t always the case. Often it was like he couldn’t go deep enough or hard enough for her. He could feel her frustration in her body in the sounds she made sometimes but he was so far gone he didn’t care. She looked at him with anger, frustration, sometimes tears in her eyes. He offered his mouth, his hand but she always said no, and ran out. When he thought of her later, he could hardly stand it thinking of that look on her face. I can’t please her, I can’t fill her, the emptiness is too big, he thought, and she wouldn’t let him comfort her. Their world was the park in the hour or two they met each week. Mary Parker wanted nothing more.
The whole world was white and there Mary Parker stood like a dark mark on the new snow.
They sat on the park bench with snow all around and falling on them. She rose to go to the bathhouse.
Luke said, “Wait for Christ’s sake, let’s talk a minute.” He was angry she was late. Mary sat.
“What’s that,” she asked him.
He gripped the rock gently as if holding his own heartbeat. “Just a rock I found.”
She smiled and looked at him. “You’re still such a boy.”
Luke Russell had never seen her smile. It warmed him, it made him hard, and he wanted to make it happen over and over again. But he knew there would be no more smiles. There would only be the park and one day Mary wouldn’t show. This episode in her life would be over, she’d be sane again and go back to her normal life. She’ll forget all about me, Luke thought. I won’t be able to stand that. They rose together and headed to their shelter.
The next week she looked rough. Although never glamorous or stylish, her hair and clothes were always neat. Something happened, Luke thought.
Mary wouldn’t say a thing. He was certain, but he asked anyway. “What’s wrong?” She undressed and said nothing; standing only in her slip, she reached for him. It was when she was most disturbed that he desired her most. Luke knew it was wrong to feel that way, but he couldn’t help himself.
He was kissing her neck, her head tilted against the wall, her mouth open breathing harder.
“Are you a Catholic boy?”
“What?” He pulled away and stood apart from her. She still leaned against the wall.
Arms down, fists clenched, eyes closed, she whispered, “Pray with me.” She looked so vulnerable in just her slip, in the dark, in this foul old bathhouse and he longed for her.
“I am not a boy. And yes, yes I am Catholic,” he said as he put his mouth on her.
“Hail, Mary full of grace,” she prayed.
He repeated after her, then their voices were in sync as he pressed against her. “The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women.” He pulled her slip up and touched her, “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” He went in her and she opened her eyes, and they prayed, “Holy Mary, Mother of God.”
He didn’t care how crazy this was or if God struck them both dead now, he never wanted a woman like this before. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen”. He wanted her to scream God’s name into his mouth.
That was the last night he saw her.
I should have pressed her, been firm with her until she told what happened, Luke thought. It had been weeks and she hadn’t turned up. Each week he waited for hours until his body couldn’t stand the cold. He knew this day would come but he almost couldn’t bear it. He would never know why, or what was wrong that last night, or what her whole story was.
The world was never a lonely place before he met Mary Parker. Now that’s all there was. The air around him was all heartache and loneliness; he choked on every breath he took. It was everywhere, under the clean white snow, in every flake that came down on him. He wondered if Mary felt this way; was she cold and alone under a blanket somewhere thinking of him? But she never got cold, Luke thought.
He walked home in the snow. There were no foot tracks or soot from cars. It was clean and untouched, sinless.