Husband Number Three

By Peter Swanson

Ed Brouwer owned a little backpacker easel that was made from stained elm and would fold up into the size of a lawyer's briefcase. Unfolded, and with its three legs telescoped open, it would hold a decent-sized canvas. Ed had bought the easel on a whim many years ago, having had a romantic notion that he would one day take drives into the country on Sunday afternoons to paint from life, or better yet, set up at some street corner in his hometown of Saratoga Springs and paint the storefronts. He hadn't done either of those things because, as unimpressive as it sounded, Ed preferred to paint from photographs. He'd really just bought the easel because it was, like his collection of antique radios, or like his grandfather's old leather football helmet, a thing of beauty in and of itself. And beauty, as he liked to explain to his students, was the reason that Ed was an artist.

The portable easel sat in one corner of his rented studio space, gathering dust for several years, until, on an autumn day, in a flash of inspiration, Ed decided to bring the easel with him on his weekend trip to Boston. He hadn't planned on doing any painting in Boston; he was simply going to visit galleries on Newbury Street then stroll The Public Gardens while flowers were still in bloom. But the real reason Ed was going to Boston was because Joyce Carter, an ex-paramour of his, lived in Beacon Hill with her second husband Todd, and while Ed was in Boston, he was going to murder Todd.

* * *

It would not be the first time that Ed had killed someone, nor would it be the first time Ed had killed one of Joyce's husbands. Back in the spring of 1996, several years after Joyce and Ed had ended their relationship, Ed had traveled by car one Thursday evening to Joyce and her first husband's home, a faux Tudor on one of the dark hills that surrounded Smith College campus in Northampton, Massachusetts. From Saratoga Springs he had placed a call to the art history department at Smith and learned that Joyce taught a three-hour seminar on Thursday nights from seven to ten. He left his apartment lights on, and the phone off the hook, then drove, never exceeding the legal limit, directly to Alex and Joyce's house. He parked the car along their road, half a block away, and walked to their home through a hazy dusk. The street was quiet, and no one had seen him, but to be on the safe side he had slicked his normally curly hair with pomade so it pressed against his skull, and he had worn a hideous tracksuit.

Alex Thomas answered the door, wearing a bathrobe that flapped open at the chest. He had clearly never seen a picture of Ed, since his eyes did not register recognition. "Hello?" he said.

"Hi Alex, it's Ed Brouwer. I'm an old friend of Joyce's."

"Oh right," Alex said. "She's teaching a class —"

"That's okay. I have something to tell you. It'll only take a minute."

"Well, I'm in the middle —"

"Just a minute."

"Alright then, come on in." Alex stepped backwards into the foyer. He was wearing flip-flops that slapped on the hardwood floor. Ed stepped into the house, quietly shut the door behind him, and reached into his tracksuit pocket for the well-sharpened knife.

"Are you alright?" Alex asked, with what Ed supposed was his therapist's voice. Masculine and concerned. Ed punched him in the chest with the knife, and the tip broke through his pale skin but glanced off the breastbone. "Hey," Alex said and took half a step backward, looking down at his chest to see what had happened. Ed lunged again and this time he hit Alex in the jugular. Blood sprayed all the way across the foyer, streaking a side wall with a fine line of crimson, like the start of a Jackson Pollock knock-off.

Ed slid the knife back into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. He carefully wiped down the doorknob, both sides, and left the house, walked back to his car, and returned to Saratoga Springs, where his plan was to wait for six months, and then call Joyce up to ask her on a date.

And that is what he did. He waited, cleaning and rearranging his radio collection, teaching an art class to adult learners, and painting statues, two large canvases, one of the Venus of Willendorf, and one of Michelangelo's Pieta, neither of which he'd seen in real life. Those days he only painted statues, and the works he created had garnered him a two-man show with some very gay painter from Montreal. During this period of waiting, he scoured the papers at the school library for news that a person of interest had cropped up out of the blue, an artist from upstate New York with past romantic ties to the wife. He waited for the phone to ring, and for the buzzer to sound at his apartment. And when six months had passed, and the home invasion and murder of Alex Thomas had receded, unresolved, from public interest, Ed, calm and rational, decided that it was time to put the second phase of his operation into practice.

There was an exhibition of one of his past colleagues being held at a gallery on Main Street in Northampton. Ed booked a room at The Northampton Hotel and planned to attend. While he was in town he would call up Joyce, tell her that he'd heard of the terrible thing that had happened to her husband, ask if he could take her out for a drink. If it was not too soon, that was.

He arrived in Northampton mid-afternoon on a Friday, checked into his room, then walked Main Street back and forth, thinking that he might actually run into her, a much better way of re-initiating contact with Joyce. He ate dinner at the bar of an upscale Chinese restaurant, then decided that it would be safe enough, in the dark, to walk around Joyce's neighborhood, scout out her house, see if she were in. He crossed the Smith College Campus, looping his way past his favorite part of Smith, the botanic garden and the Lyman Conservatory, then merged from the campus into Joyce's neighborhood. It was fully dark, an early October night, balmy for the time of year, but with a wind that flattened his corduroy slacks against his thighs. From a few houses down he could tell there were lights on in Joyce's home. His heart beat in anticipation of seeing her again, her perfect coffee-colored skin, her long neck, her jutting breasts and full hips. She'd been a model for an introductory drawing class that Ed had taught years ago. That was how they'd met, having drinks later in the week, Joyce confessing that she'd only modeled twice, and deciding she didn't like it. Ed secretly happy that she would never reveal her perfect body to strangers again.

Ed passed the house; the curtains weren't yet pulled but he saw nothing inside. Realizing the danger, he doubled back, casually entering the gated side-yard of Joyce's house. He was between streetlamps and it was very dark; even if he were spotted he could not be identified. He worked his way toward the backyard, scaring a squirrel that scrambled up a tree. One of the back windows looked into the kitchen and Ed watched as Joyce, steam rising up around her form, washed dishes in her sink. His mouth turned dry at the sight of her — her beauty and what she represented. Random muffled notes came from the house and he watched as she turned her head, beautiful tendons stretching in her neck to greet a man who had just come into the window-frame as well. A heavy-set man, wearing a large cable-knit sweater, and a shaggy academic beard. He wrapped his arms around Joyce's frame and kissed her neck.

It was all Ed could do to stop himself from being sick in Joyce's backyard.

The man's name was Todd Ellman, a linguistics professor, and he became Joyce's second husband, just over a year after the death of Alex Thomas. Ed could only imagine that tongues had wagged in the faculty offices at Smith — such a short period between husbands, and Todd was a man who'd known both Joyce and Alex before the murder. It was those wagging tongues that must have caused Joyce and Todd to uproot and move to Boston, where Joyce got a job at Radcliffe and Todd at Boston University.

* * *

On the Saturday morning of his weekend trip to Boston, Ed picked a street corner where he could set up a little ways back from the middle of the sidewalk, halfway into one of those narrow alleyways that criss-crossed their way across the back bay. From his perch he had a nice view of a rising cobble-stoned street, walled on both sides by reddish brownstones, their copper-guttered roofs picking up the sun. He also had a view of the Jade-green front door where Todd and Joyce lived. He knew that Joyce was away, delivering an address at a folk-art conference in Athens, Georgia. He didn't know about Todd, but assumed that they didn't travel to one another's conferences.

Ed mixed some paints on the mini-sized palette, wet a brush, and began to work. It had been years since he'd painted from life, and years since he'd had a row of houses as a subject but the work came easily. While he painted he realized that setting up shop on the street was no way to remain unnoticed. Several passersby craned their necks to get a look at his canvas, and at least two pedestrians stopped to admire his work. But when Todd Ellman emerged from number 34, clearly at home, and clearly alone, it was all worth it. Ed packed up his easel, planning to return to Todd's house later that evening.

He returned to his hotel room, took a long nap, then woke, put on the stonewashed jeans and hooded sweatshirt he'd brought for the job. It was not yet completely dark when he left his hotel room so he walked around Boston Common, stopping at a small shop for a slice of pizza. It was so greasy he had to blot at the cheese with several paper napkins. Then he ambled slowly back to where he'd stood all morning, near the alleyway across the street from where Todd and Joyce lived. There was a light on in the first-floor bay windows of number 34 so when the sidewalk was empty of pedestrians Ed crossed the street, took the few steps to the front door and pressed the buzzer. He was wearing gloves.

Todd came to the door, a perplexed but trusting expression on his face, so similar to Alex Thomas all those years ago.

"I'm sorry to bother you," Ed said, "but I'm an old friend of Joyce's, I was wondering if she..."

"She's not home. She's away on a trip."

"Oh dear. I knew it was a long shot, but still...could I leave her a message?"

"Sure. What's your name?" Todd's voice was high and raspy, like he'd damaged his vocal chords somehow.

"Would you mind if I wrote her a message? It'll just take a minute."

"Sure. Come on in."

* * *

Six months later, Joyce Carter (she had not taken either of her husbands' names) was tried and convicted for the premeditated stabbing death of her second husband. Although it was never introduced in the trial, the media had a field day with the similarities in the ways in which both of Joyce's husbands had met their demise. It was these similarities that had initially aroused suspicion in the team of detectives that worked the case, but the arrest was made only when it was discovered that Joyce never attended the conference in Athens, Georgia, and had been staying at a boyfriend's apartment in Somerville, less than five miles from her home. Her boyfriend, Steve Vrabel, an art-history professor at Harvard, provided an alibi for most of the weekend but had gone to a party on Saturday night, leaving Joyce alone in his apartment for over four hours.

Steve Vrabel was also an artist, and small flecks of dried oil paint had been found by the crime scene investigators on and around the murdered body of Todd Ellman. The discovery that the color and brand of the paint chips matched paint found in Vbrabel's studio apartment was enough evidence to get a conviction. Steve Vrabel, alibi'd by the party he'd attended, had never been considered a suspect.

Ed followed the story carefully through both the newspapers and on Court TV. It occurred to him, on more than one occasion, that the right thing to do would be to come forward and confess to the crime, to prevent Joyce from spending time in prison. But Massachusetts had no death penalty, and there could be certain advantages to having Joyce locked away.

Two months after her conviction Ed drove to the women's state prison in Framingham, Massachusetts, and showed up during weekend visitor's hours. He left his name with a female corrections officer, and after about an hour of waiting, was brought to an overly lit cafeteria-style room, filled with female inmates dressed in orange jumpsuits, and about three times as many visitors, mostly hyperactive or glum-looking children. Ed was directed to a picnic-style table, and after waiting another five minutes Joyce was brought in and seated across from him.

"Joyce," he said, his voice not much higher than a sigh. Even without makeup, in her shapeless clothes, she was a creature of extraordinary beauty.

"Hi, Ed. This is a surprise."

"I'm sorry to just show up like this but I heard what happened with you, and I feel terrible. They must've made a mistake of some kind."

"They did," Joyce said. "How long has it —"

"I've thought about you, over the years. You haven't changed, you know. You probably haven't thought about me at all."

"Tell me about yourself," Joyce said. "You still in Saratoga Springs?"

So Ed talked, telling Joyce what he'd done with himself since he'd last seen her. The time raced past, the screaming children and crying mothers around them falling away into nothingness, and before he knew it Joyce was telling him she needed to return to her cell. "Can I see you again?" he asked.

"I guess so, Ed, but it's a long drive —"

"It's not a problem. I'll write, as well. I want to hear all about you. I've talked too much. Next time it's about you."

They said goodbye, and as Ed signed out of the prison then returned to his car, he felt giddy with triumph. Joyce might be in prison, but at least he would always know where to find her, and she would always agree to see him. Their relationship was beginning again, and nothing now could ever come between them. Soon, he thought, she would agree to be his wife.

* * *

Joyce had just made it back to her cell, when she was told that she had another visitor and she should return to the visiting area. So Steve Vrabel had come to see her, even though she'd expected him much earlier. In fact, she'd been truly shocked when she'd been told that her visitor was Ed Brouwer, a name she hadn't thought of for at least a decade.

"How are you?" Steve asked when they were seated next to one another.

"You know," she said, shrugging her shoulders, and smiling. "I had another visitor."

"Oh yeah. Who?"

"Guy named Ed Brouwer. Came to see me today. One of my old boyfriends."


"No, not really. He was an art instructor back in New York, and I met him — God, how'd I meet him? Anyway, I met him somewhere and he asked me out on a date. I think we had one drink, nothing to say to each other, and that was it. I haven't heard from him or thought about him for years, and voila, here he is. Very strange."

"How'd he know about you being here?"

Joyce crinkled her forehead. "I don't think it's privileged information. He said he's been following my case. He wants to come visit sometime. You got competition, Steve." Joyce smiled. She had dark circles under her eyes, Steve noticed, but she was still so beautiful.

"Cute guy, is he?"

"He looks like a mole. Thick glasses, twitchy lips."

"Moles have glasses?"

"This mole does."

"Well, I've got something he hasn't got," Steve said, reaching into his pocket with a slightly shaky hand. "It's kind of the reason I'm late."

"Yeah," Joyce said.

Steve pulled out a small, light blue jewelry box — that had been thoroughly inspected by the officers at check-in — and slid it across the table toward Joyce. "Will you marry me, Joyce?"

"Oh my Lord," she said, bringing her shaking hands to her face, then reaching down for the ring. A few women nearby began to take notice. "Marry him, honey," one of them yelled.

"Is this serious?" Joyce asked.

"As serious as I've ever been."

"I'm in prison," Joyce said, as tears welled up in her eyes.

"Not for ever you are. Remember, you're innocent, right? We'll find a way to get you out of here. It'll happen, I promise you. And while we wait for that day, I want to get married. I want to be your husband."

"Oh my God, Steve. Of course I'll marry you. Of course I will. Yes. Yes."

PETER SWANSON's poems, stories, and reviews have appeared in journals such as The Atlantic, Asimov's Science Fiction, Mysterical-E, Orchard Press Mysteries, and Yellow Mama. He lives with his wife and cat in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Copyright 2012 Peter Swanson. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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