Narrowing the Field
by Peter Swanson
The conversation I overheard went something like this:
My wife: “No, I can’t meet you tomorrow. It won’t work.”
The man on the other end said something I could not hear. Three second’s worth.
My wife again: “I’m sorry but it’s impossible. I know what he’d say, I don’t even need to ask him.”
There is another pause. Longer this time.
“Look, I need to go. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
He must have agreed because they said goodbye and she hung up the phone. I heard all this as I was taking my winter coat off and hanging it on the rack by the front door. Bridget was in the den, a small room toward the front of the house. My desk is there, plus several bookshelves, and my collection of illuminated globes.
I was home a little early that day, not by much, but I usually leave the newspaper at five pm on the nose, and that day I left at ten of. There’s not much traffic on Grave’s Island, especially in December, but there is some, and I had been hoping to avoid it.
When I came through the door a Sarah MacLachlan CD was playing loudly from the living room. I imagined Bridget was beginning dinner in the kitchen, or cleaning a room, or watering her plants. I closed the door behind me, and shucked off my boots. The song ended and it must have been the last one on the album because it was followed by silence. That was when I heard the last few sentences of Bridget’s phone conversation.
After she hung up, she swung through the den door, humming the song that had just been playing on the stereo. When she saw me in the front hallway, she actually screamed, and brought a hand to her chest.
“Good God,” she said. “You scared the bejeesus out of me.”
“Sorry,” I said, although I don’t know what I had to apologize about.
“When did you get in?”
“Just now. Who were you talking to?”
“Oh, just Kim,” she said, and gave me a dry, perfunctory kiss on the lips. “Cold out, eh?”
“It’s not so bad. Going to storm tomorrow, I heard.”
“Pick a CD and come and help me cook. It’s a wine night tonight.”
She turned and made her way to the kitchen. She wore a summer dress with a wool cardigan over it, and a pair of thick wool socks. It was her standard outfit in cold months. There were about two inches of exposed skin between the tops of her purple socks and the fraying hem of her dress. White calf flashed through, and although I couldn’t be sure, it looked as though she’d shaved her legs recently.
I put on Tom Waits because I knew she was sick of that particular CD and made my way into the kitchen. She was uncorking a bottle of shiraz, one of the two-for-ten-dollars variety. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights were wine nights.
“What did Kim want?”
“She had some harebrained idea about throwing a party and wants to enlist me. I told her I was not the party-planning type.”
“Who did she want to invite?”
“That’s the point I made. Who is there to invite? And you’ve seen her place. I actually thought that she was bringing it up to me in hopes that we’d agree to host.”
Bridget handed me a glass of wine. She’d poured too much into the glass, like she always did. “Do you mind if I go sit for a bit, or did you want help?” I asked.
“No no. Go sit.”
I took my wine with me to the living room, sat on the couch. A magazine was spread open on the cushion next to me, to an articled called The Changing of the God: Religion in the Age of Promiscuity.
It was all I could do to not hurl my glass of wine across the room. I’ll admit to a jealous tendency, but how does that line go: Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean that she’s not cheating on you. I’d been suspicious for a couple of months. She had flushed cheeks. A new haircut. She’d started taking showers in the afternoon instead of the morning. I’d get home and she’d smell of soap, her long hair damp. And now the phone call. It had been confirmed. My stomach felt as though I’d swallowed a bag of gravel.
I don’t know how I managed to get through dinner. I had no appetite for the food, and none for the small-talk. I drank more than half my share of the wine. I studied her lips, trying to detect if they were a little puffier than usual. Was that a slight redness below her jawline, on the creamiest part of her neck?
I waited until we’d cleaned the dishes and Bridget had gone and plunked herself on the couch, picked up her magazine.
“I know that wasn’t Kim you were talking to.”
“Oh please, Mac,” she said. “Not now. Please.”
“Not now what? Are you saying that now is not a good time for you to tell me what’s been going on? That now is not a good time to tell me who the fuck you were talking to on the phone when I came in? Because if you can think of a better time, I’m interested in hearing it.”
Bridget rolled her magazine into a tube and squeezed it. I could see the tips of fingers go white. “Call her,” she said. “Call Kim and ask her.”
“What would that prove? Kim would lie for you—she’s done it in the past. I just want to know who he is. Just tell me who he is and how long you’ve been with him. I’m not going to cause a stink but let’s get it out in the open. You owe me that.”
“Is it that you want me to have an affair with someone?” she said, an hysterical tone in her voice. “’Cause I’ll do it. I don’t want to, but I’ll do it if it will make you happy.” She raised her eyebrows at me.
“I just want his name.” If I knew who he was, then the torment would stop, and I could begin a new life.
She stood up and started to walk out of the room, the magazine still rolled in her hand like a baton. I took hold of her shoulder with my free hand.
“All I’m asking for is his name. Tell me that and then we can move on.”
“I’m going to the bedroom to watch television.”
And that was the end of our conversation.
The following day I set to work on discovering the name of the man who was sleeping with my wife. One thing about island life, especially in the off-season, was that the possibilities were limited. Grave’s was an island of twenty thousand souls in the middle of July but by December our ranks were reduced to fifteen hundred at most.
Somewhere on the island was the man who had seduced my wife away from me, and there was no doubt that I would find him.
It was a slow day at the newspaper. I was Arts Editor at The Weekly Island and my duties consisted of an occasional feature on a local artist, copy-editing the sordid prose of my film critic, sporadically writing a review myself, and making sure that the showtimes were correct at the town theatre, a single screen that managed, somehow, to stay open in the winter months. I was also responsible for the classifieds section, and that portion of my work was, by far, the most time-consuming, especially in summer months, when the weekly published an extra edition of Tuesdays as well as the regular Friday edition.
I opened my spiral-bound reporter’s notebook and flipped to a blank page. I wrote:
2. The waiter from the Graveyard
3. Michael Schiff
The A stood for Aaron Johnson, the managing editor of The Island Weekly. He’d invited Bridget and me to dinner the previous fall, a couple months after we’d arrived on the island, and two weeks after I’d started my job. His wife, like mine, was unemployed. She took care of their two pre-school children and, in her spare time, was a mosaic artist, breaking up bits of ceramic and glass, and rearranging them on the tops of coffee tables. When Aaron heard my wife was a poet and short-story writer, he’d suggested we all get together. He must have thought that our wives would hit it off.
They didn’t particularly, but Aaron and Bridget did. Coincidentally, or so I was told, they were both from Philadelphia, both hockey fans, and both had private school educations. They tossed names back and forth like old tennis partners trading warm-up lobs. Aaron’s wife, Paula, and I sat quietly like spectators, our heads swiveling back and forth.
We hadn’t seen them much, as couples, since that evening together. There was the Christmas party, last year’s and this year’s, and the summer barbecue at Gunner Charles’s house. Gunner owned the weekly, plus a seven-bedroom cottage on Mishawum Point. I’d noticed Aaron and Bridget conversing at all events, and at the most recent, the Christmas party held at The Whalebone Inn, they’d talked for at least an half hour. When I strode across the room to join them, and to bring Bridget a glass of wine, I arrived to a guilty silence, as though I had been the very subject of their conversation.
There was no doubt that Aaron was at the very top of my list.
I was not certain about the waiter’s name but I somehow thought it was Doug. He’d probably said it when he swaggered to our table to take our drinks order about a month ago. The Graveyard was in the basement of a large brick hotel across the street—a pubby sort of place with beers on draft, turkey burgers, and buffalo chicken salads. We’d gone one Thursday night in late November on a whim, and our waiter took a flirty shine to Bridget. She looked particularly stunning that night, wearing a mint-blue cashmere v-neck that hugged her breasts, and a pair of tight jeans. Doug the waiter was looking down her sweater at every opportunity he had.
Walking to our car after the meal, Bridget found a note in her pocket, a folded piece of lined paper with a phone number scribbled on it. She asked if I knew anything about it, but could only assume it had been our waiter’s way of propositioning my wife. To her credit, she crumpled the thing up and threw it away. I called the restaurant the following day to complain, and they said they’d look into it.
Obviously, a door had been opened that night, and if Bridget had wanted to walk through it, then the discarding of the phone number would hardly have made a difference.
Michael Schiff was my third candidate. Even now, the name sends shivers down my spine. He had gone to college with Bridget and me. We were all the in the same graduate-level writing program in New York City; I was doing a journalism degree and Michael and Bridget were both creative writing majors. I had met Bridget at orientation for incoming students, but had gotten to know her because in our second semester of classes, we had both taken an elective in creative non-fiction. By the time we had received our degrees we were engaged. A year after we were married we moved to Grave’s Island--a trial period in the house Bridget had inherited from an unmarried aunt. When we arrived on Grave’s we were both shocked to discover that Michael Schiff was living there as well, staying in town with a brother, and supposedly working on a novel.
Michael, a runt with a giant ego, had hounded Bridget through her whole grad degree. During class selection period he’d called her to find out what classes she was taking. He’d show up at the coffee-shop she liked work at. He’d constantly ask her out for drinks He embodied all the worst traits of the creative writing major: talentless, pretentious, sham hipsterism, and a genuine belief that his ideas were worth more than the paper he wrote them on. Since being on Grave’s we’d managed to avoid him to the degree that avoidance was possible on a smallish island. He came for dinner once. We’d run into him at the Yard one other time. He called occasionally.
It had occurred to me, ever since I’d grown accustomed to his shadowy presence in New York, that Bridget might have feelings for him. No, that wasn’t true. I’d simply worried that his sheer persistence in the face of adversity would wear Bridget down, that over time, she would simply give in to his devotion. That was why he was on my list of suspects.
I decided to go and talk to him first, that afternoon if he was home. It was time to start narrowing the field and he was a good place to start.
I called Michael Schiff up, told him I was doing a feature on island writers and hoped to get a couple of quotes from him. He told me to come right over.
“Hey Mac, this is a surprise,” Michael said as he let me in.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I just called you.”
“I mean, it’s a surprise you thinking of calling me, of wanting a quote from me for your story. A pleasant surprise, don’t get me wrong. Come on in. Shoes off. It’s a house rule.”
He got me a cup of coffee and we settled into the depressing funk of the apartment he shared with his brother. It was a second-floor two-bedroom, located above a small bistro-style restaurant that was closed for the season. Michael’s brother was a carpenter, although town rumor said that he was also the local pot dealer.
“Your brother around?”
“Nah, he’s gone to Boston to visit his girlfriend. Took the ferry this morning. How’s Bridge doing? I haven’t heard from her recently.”
“She’s good. The same, you know.”
Michael nodded his head up and down. “Cool. Cool. How’s her writing going?”
“It’s going, I think.”
“Yeah, yeah. Me too. Just going.” He laughed, a slow revving sound that had always annoyed me. He was about five-and-a-half-feet tall, and worked out too much to compensate; his squat muscular frame made him look even shorter. Since I’d last seen him, his dark red hair had receded even farther, leaving a great expanse of pallid, freckled forehead. He’d grown a hideous little soul-patch under his lower lip.
“You just talked to her, though, didn’t you?” I asked. “Yesterday, right?”
“Who? With Bridget?”
“Yeah, I could’ve sworn she told she spoke with you and you were planning some sort of get-together. That’s what she told me, anyway.”
“Dude,” he said, and rapidly shook his head, like he was rattling a pinball around his empty skull. “I must have island fever. If I talked with her yesterday, I got no recollection. I know the weed I’ve been smoking is excellent stuff, but not that excellent.” He did the slow revving laugh again, and I chuckled along, out of politeness.
I quietly sighed and flipped open my notebook, clicked my pen. It wasn’t him. Michael Schiff was no actor, and it was clear that he was not involved with my wife.
Unfortunately, that meant that I needed to ask him a couple of questions about his writing project before making my exit. “What’s your book about?”
He told me, in detail. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of his book was a recent college graduate that moves to an island to spend time with his distant brother. He meets a young, mute librarian with a sad past. I smiled and clucked and made eye contact and wrote notes. After I’d finished my cup of coffee he asked me if I wanted a beer. I said no thanks but he looked so rejected that I relented and we drank a pair of Narragansett’s together at half past eleven. Outside, the low gray clouds that had smothered us for several days began to spit sleety snow. It rattled against the windowpanes behind my head. His place was warm but the furniture was threadbare hand-me-downs, and the walls were painted an industrial white. Scattered around the floor was an assortment of free weights, mostly small, ten pounds or five. I don’t know why they depressed me but they did.
“Another?” he asked, crumpling the tin can in his hand and lobbing it in the general direction of a trashcan. “Or we could get high, if you’d like.”
“I actually really need to get going. I got deadlines.”
“Ah, deadlines. Maybe that’s what I need, deadlines. Look, say hello to Bridge for me, willya. Tell her: don’t be stranger.”
I was back in the office by 1 pm. I’d brought a lunch—two cheese sandwiches and an apple—and wolfed them down at my desk while checking my emails. I crossed Michael Schiff off of my list of potential suspects.
“Take off early if you want, Mac. Other people are.” It was Aaron, suddenly behind me. He wore a brown turtleneck sweater and held a bottle of water in his hand. I swiveled in my chair and looked up at him. From that angle, his face, dark and handsome, appeared more sharply angled than usual, his nostrils more pronounced. He wore a pair of jeans that I suspected he might have ironed.
“I will, I think. What’re you up to this weekend?”
“This. That. Paula has a booth all day tomorrow at the craft fair at the Unitarian. You and Bridget should come. She’d appreciate it.”
“You going to be there?”
“God, no. Some of it, I guess, around lunchtime. She’s taking the kids in the morning and then I’ll come and grab ‘em around noon, and spend the rest of the day with them.”
“You get the morning off.”
“Tell me about it.” He took a long swig of his water, as though he’d just beaten me at racquetball. “I’m psyched. I won’t even know what to do with myself.”
I now knew what I would be doing the following morning. I would be coincidentally passing by Aaron’s house on a long walk and I would drop in for a cup of coffee.
“I’ll probably wind up shoveling all morning,” he said.
“Alright then, see ya. Take off okay. There’s nothing much going on here anyway. Start your weekend early.”
I got to the Graveyard at just past four and it was already filling up. Instead of ESPN on the television, they were playing the local news station, and it was all weather all the time. Storm systems from the west were meeting moisture off the coast, or something like that, and the outlook was a night of falling ice. I ordered a Manhattan on the rocks, then sipped it from my perch on the stool, casting my eyes around the under-lit bar. The floors were old wooden boards, rubbed free of stain and varnish from years of traffic. The walls were painted a scrub-pine green, hung with dozens of framed ship prints, and yard-sale watercolors. The clientele were cash-strapped islanders in greasy winter-coats and Patriots caps.
“Another Manhattan?” the bartender asked.
“Sure,” I said, “and let me ask you a question. Is there a guy who works here, a waiter, I think his name was Doug?”
“Doug,” she said, and pressed the tip of her tongue against her yellow teeth. “Doug. I don’t think so, honey. What’d he look like?”
“A big guy with curly hair. College-aged. Kind of jockish.”
“Oh, Dave. I think you’re talking about Dave Jackett. His dad owns this place.”
“Oh really. Yeah, that sounds like him I guess.”
“Jerry,” the bartender bellowed to no one I could see. “Is Dave working tonight?” She set my fresh drink in front of me.
“Oh, where’d he go? Look, hon, when Jerry comes back I’ll ask him.”
I worked on my second drink and about ten minutes later, the bartender told me that Dave had the night off.
“Thanks,” I said. “You don’t know where he hangs out on his night off, do you?”
“Hangs out here. But he’s working right now, his other job, over at Bucky’s.”
I walked toward the fish pier, my coat zipped all the way to my neck. The wind had turned into a relentless stinging gust, and the sky had darkened into a starless black. Bucky’s was a fishmonger, sporadically open, but usually selling something on Friday afternoons. As I approached the low white building, framed by the bare masts that crowded the marina behind it, its pale windows blurred in my vision. I was a little drunk.
There were two vehicles in the small gravel parking lot, both pickups, one running, its headlights projecting snow-flecked cones. A man in a sheepskin-lined denim jacket chipped at the windshield with a plastic ice-scraper. As I neared him I could make out dark curly hair, glistening beneath the streetlamp. “Dave,” I shouted.
He turned. “What’s up?”
I came up next to him. “What a night.”
“You need a hand with that?”
“I only got the one.” He held up the scraper.
“Look,” I said as he resumed his losing battle. “This is kind of awkward but I have a message for you from Bridget.”
“Oh yeah.” He looked interested but vaguely confused. I knew that he was trying to figure out just where he knew me from, and how well he knew me. Still, he registered familiarity with the name of Bridget.
“She wanted me to let you know that she can meet you tomorrow after all. She was hoping you’d call her later tonight.”
He stopped chipping. “Are you talking about Bridget Murray.”
“Uh uh,” I said. “Bridget MacDonald. She lives here in town.”
“You got the wrong man, pal. I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“She’s a married lady. Long blonde hair, about so high. Good looking.”
“Sounds like I wish I knew her, but sorry. I don’t.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’m confused. Store still open?”
“Bucky’s in there but he might’ve locked up. Go and check. You ask nice he might sell you something.”
“Thanks.” I tramped the several feet to the front door of the fishmonger’s. A bucket of sand and a rusty shovel gathered snow by the cement steps. It was locked, which was just as well, since I had no intention of buying any fish.
It was late by the time I managed to get my own car, still parked at the paper’s offices, freed of ice so I could drive home.
Because of the previous evening’s brouhaha, there were no words spoken between Bridget and myself that night. I laid alone upstairs, listening to a pitiless wind hiss through the joints of our poorly-fitting bedroom windows. I flung a lonely hand to her side of the bed, cold and empty, where my wife, camped on the couch in the living room for a second night, should have been. I missed her warm animal shape next to me.
By morning a high yellow sun revealed a world encased in ice. Even my front door sighed and cracked a little as I jimmied it open. The maple in front of our house was completely glazed, down to its thinnest twigs. If circumstances had been different, or if I still had a wife to share it with, I would’ve appreciated the beauty of a transformed world. But as it was, I had work to do. I’d narrowed my initial list of suspects and Aaron had emerged as a definite front-runner. I set out on foot, wearing a pair of work-boots with good soles and carrying a small ice-pick.
It took me just under an hour to walk to his house, a ranch down an unpaved lane near the Wampanoag marshlands. Sweat coated my skin under several layers of clothing and my mouth was dry from the exertion of staying on my feet.
His driveway had been cleared and salted, probably to allow his wife and kids to drive to the Unitarian church. Smoke spilled blackly from his chimney. I rang his bell and waited. There was no immediate answer. The doors of his two-car garage were open and I could see that Aaron’s jeep was still at the house. I rang again and peered through one of the windows stacked vertically along the side of the door. I saw movement toward the back of the house, a shadowy figure hiding itself. I rapped on the door with the ice-pick.
The figure came forward, pausing to hang up a cordless telephone on the front hall table. It was Aaron, dressed in a pair of jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt.
“I can’t let you in, Mac,” he said, shaking his head at me through the ice-webbed glass.
“It’s me,” I shouted back. “It’s just me. I’d like to talk with you.”
“Where’s Bridget?” he asked, and there was fear in his eyes.
“What’re you talking about? She’s at the house.”
“I called there. I called there yesterday when you were at work.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked. “What’s going on with you two?”
Aaron looked at his watch and that was when I punched my hand, the one with the ice-pick, through the lowest pane of glass, the one closest to the doorknob. He jumped back, startled, but his eyes went past me, and I saw a flash of blue in the unbroken window.
The two police cars had arrived quietly, siren-free, but with their lights revolving. I turned and faced them. Officer Small, who I knew pretty well, stepped out of the first vehicle and pointed his gun at me. Another officer, I think his name was Thompson, emerged with a megaphone. He didn’t use it, however, since I began to casually walk toward the uniformed men, being careful on the dark ice of Aaron Johnson’s front yard.
“Stay right there, Mac,” Officer Small said in a shaky voice. “I want you to drop whatever’s in your hand.”
“Jim,” I said. “It’s me, Mac.” I took another step forward and held up the pick for him to see. Warm blood from a gash on my knuckle slid down my sleeve.
He shot me through my right thigh.
My trial will begin in June, or so my lawyer, Carl Silva, tells me. Despite my protests, he will be arguing an insanity defense. He comes to see me more than anyone else. He is a large sweaty man with a hangdog expression but his eyes are bright and intelligent, always watching and analyzing. I can tell by looking into those eyes that I am an important case for him, a case that will bring him notoriety. They assigned me a public defender, but Carl came all the way from California to defend me, pro bono.
We go over the events together and he asks me the same questions again and again. He is particularly interested in the ice-pick, and my intentions when I brought it along with me to go see Aaron Johnson. I say, like I always have, that everything was encrusted with ice that morning, and that I brought the pick for that reason, and that reason alone.
“But what would you have used the pick for?” he asks. “They’re going to ask you that, Graham, you need to be prepared to answer.”
He calls me Graham even though I tell him that most people call me Mac. “Lots of things,” I say. “To open the door of a car, to chip ice off of something—”
“What kind of things?”
“Mailboxes, curbs, trees.”
“Uh huh,” he says and takes notes on his laptop.
The other question he likes to ask is about my feelings. He wants to know what I was feeling immediately before I gashed Bridget’s throat with the broken edge of a wineglass, and what I was feeling when I bludgeoned Mark Schiff to death with a five pound weight, and what was going through my mind when I nearly decapitated Dave Jackett with that old rusty shovel. I tell him that I felt angry, that I felt the dirty shame of betrayal. Even though Michael Schiff and Dave Jackett had not slept with my wife, they had wanted to, that much was clear.
The most important thing that has happened to me since I’ve been in here happened last week, after a visit from Carl and one of the members of his team. The two guards escorted me back to my solitary cell, a slow process because of my leg. They were quiet and polite like they always are—two thick men, one black and bald, one white with a sweep of hair that crested from one ear to his other.
After they’d locked me in, and turned to make their way back down the hallway I heard them engaged in a low conversation. I pressed against the bars and cupped an ear and listened.
This is what I overhead:
“I heard that Aaron Johnson, the guy he was going after when they finally collared him, I heard he was actually nailing the wife. Not the other two guys—they had nothing to do with her—but this guy was for real.”
“That’s what I heard, anyways. Ironic, huh?”
Their voices faded.
I sat on my cot, cramps in my stomach, but with a feeling of giddiness as well. It was not how I had imagined it to play out, but I had actually found my man. I’d gotten warm, very warm, as my mom used to say, when we played hide the penny. He’d gotten away with it, just.
But as Carl likes to remind me, I’m well represented. He’s the best in the country, he says, and he’s here to help me in any way he can. And that means that one of these days, sooner or later, I’ll get another chance. What more can we ask for in this life?
Peter Swanson’s poems, stories and reviews have appeared in such journals as The Atlantic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Epoch, Measure, Notre Dame Review, Slant Magazine, Soundings East, Rattapallax, and The Vocabula Review. He has won awards in poetry from The Lyric and Yankee Magazine, and is currently completing a sonnet sequence on all 53 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. He has earned degrees in Creative Writing, Education, and Literature from Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College. His debut novel, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart, is forthcoming from William Morrow. He lives with his wife and cat in Massachusetts.