It was really not such a hard concept for Brian to grasp, considering there have been numerous books, articles and even entire plots of television shows devoted to the strange practice of women falling for killers behind bars. But that such an entanglement should happen to Darcy, his own girlfriend, and that he should be the one getting dumped as a result of such a thing, sent Brian spiraling into a dark and throbbing denial.
This all started last winter when Darcy saw a story on the front page of the Portland Press Herald, which was accompanied by a mug shot of the man who would turn out to be her future love interest. The photo was in the paper because an appeal, which was set in motion by the man's long suffering attorney, a former 60s radical with a penchant for lost causes, had been summarily denied. Darcy studied this photo one morning over breakfast and concluded that the convicted homicidal maniac, who was housed at the Maine State Prison over in Thomaston, had kind and considerate eyes and could probably use some encouragement after his latest legal set-back. The man's obvious guilt (pools of DNA evidence and unimpeachable eyewitnesses) did not seem to figure into her thought process at all.
It might be fair to assume that once this incarcerated individual received Darcy's tribute in the mail, it sent him happily reeling in his six-by-eight cell, given that it had been quite some time since he'd received anything that might constitute concern from the outside world. It wasn't as if this man had the clean-cut appearance of Ted Bundy, whose square-jawed good looks were said to spawn herds of groupies after he was taken into custody as a result of his murderous rampage in the 1970s. No, the object of Darcy's attention (despite those sympathetic eyes) was a rather obese man who possessed a bald, hydrocephalic skull, deep scars snaking across his lunar forehead, and a constellation of purple tear-drop tattoos "weeping" down his cheeks. Nevertheless, a whirlwind correspondence ensued and it wasn't long before feelings of a more romantic nature surfaced and blossomed between them. To Darcy's credit, she made a clean and honest break once this revelation became evident to her. She simply sat Brian down and told him in a clear-eyed way that she'd fallen deeply in love with a man that the press had labeled The Soup Killer.
And now, months later, when Brian is just about recovering his equilibrium from this event, he receives another shock which has brought it all back, reviving the recent past in the most glaring way imaginable and making him feel as if he has been shaken out of a fever dream. Returning home from his shift this evening at The Lobster Shanty, the bar off Route 1 where he serves drinks to wealthy summer tourists from Boston (who he refers to as Massholes) Brian has turned on the television to see Darcy being interviewed on the 11 o'clock news.
This is surprising enough, but then it is revealed why the reporter's microphone is being thrust aggressively into his ex-girlfriend's face. Not only has the jailhouse relationship finally been exposed for public consumption, but now it is being reported that Darcy and The Soup Killer are formally engaged. They plan to wed before Christmas.
One does not receive a 317-year punishment for routine infractions or even a garden variety homicide. Sentences like these are reserved for true-blue serial killers, which is exactly what Darcy's betrothed happens to be. Over a nine-week period ten years ago (while Darcy herself was just an oblivious, bubbly teenager living in another state) the guy strangled five elderly widows in rural Aroostook County, breaking into their farmhouses or little trailers and forcing his respective victims to serve him soup (hence his somewhat unoriginal moniker) before going about the brutal business of strangling them. It was never revealed whether a particular flavor of soup, such as split pea or chicken noodle, had been demanded during these tragic encounters, but this is probably too grim to even contemplate. At the time of the trial it was reported that the killer had been raised near Augusta under impoverished and dysfunctional circumstances by a cruel and dictatorial grandmother with whom he had a troubled relationship, a morsel of information that did not, considering his terrible crimes against the elderly, surprise anyone.
Brian tries to exhale as Darcy's name and the tagline Killer Bride are scrolling lazily across the bottom of the television screen. He is slumped on the sofa and staring with his mouth hanging open at the TV. The reporter, a meticulously coiffed, waif-like woman who usually handles softer news stories regarding heroic pets and consumer rip-offs, is glowering at Brian's ex with an appropriate mixture of astonishment and disgust.
"And how exactly," the newswoman gulps, "would you describe your involvement with Ronald?"
Ronald would be Ronald Dean Stafford, a.k.a. The Soup Killer—the groom to be.
"Well, how can I possibly do that?" Darcy answers coquettishly, exhibiting her trademark smile. "It would be like trying to explain a rainbow."
Brian feels this has to be one of the dumbest assertions ever made on network television, as one can in fact explain a rainbow pretty easily—a bunch of colors in the sky caused by the combination of a million rain drops and refracted sunlight—or at least it's something like that.
"Well," the reporter asks in what passes for a compassionate tone, "can you tell me then how this compares to your past relationships?"
Brian's eyes cross waiting for the answer.
It appears that the interview has been taped earlier in the day with Darcy standing on the sidewalk outside of the teen rec center where she works as a program manager. She looks like a pretty and harmless twenty-six-year-old woman in a yellow sundress, with her blonde hair in a loose ponytail draped over one shoulder. Her posture is relaxed and her manner breezy and affable. She doesn't seem to notice that the reporter thinks she is a certifiable loon.
"There is no comparison," Darcy answers cheerfully as the camera zooms in. "You spend your life making yourself available to certain experiences and certain people. And then one day you wake up and you see you have been wrong about so many things and your existence feels like a drawer of mismatched socks. Finding Ronald helped put everything in order for me. But the strangest part is I didn't even know I was looking for him. He just sort of happened like a world event."
Yeah, Brian thinks, he's a regular El Niño.
"So would you say, then, that this is about a desire for excitement?" the reporter asks hopefully.
"No," Darcy responds, "I never said that. I said order, but a better word would probably be harmony."
Brian turns off this televised fiasco when the subject shifts to prison chaplains, wedding gowns and the efficacy of conjugal visits. He stays seated on the sofa, the same sofa he and Darcy made love on for the first time not two years before, after they'd met one slow night at his bar. He feels embarrassed and angry and other emotions he cannot begin to label. He wonders how many people who know him or know Darcy or knew them together as a normal young couple are watching this broadcast tonight or will be watching reports in the future. Brian has kept details of the breakup quiet until now, but after this he feels he should be contemplating some sort of defamation proceeding, because doesn't it qualify as a public humiliation to be deemed less desirable than a merciless killer on your local news?
He pulls his phone out of his pocket and dials Darcy's number.
When she picks up and he hears her voice he wants to sarcastically identify himself as the person from her recent past who is not currently jailed for random strangulations. He wants to remind her of his wholesome appearance, gleaming smile and gym-toned abs. But instead he begins by asking her if she remembers various happy occurrences from their time together, ball games and hikes, the trip to Montreal, that whale watch out of Camden, even that Jennifer Aniston movie she insisted they see twice on the same day for fuck's sake! He goes on and on, persistent as a gas leak. There have been lots of fine times. Even as he rattles off the list, he knows he is trying to crack a code of lunacy, as if by using the right mixture of words it will unlock Darcy's heart and bring her back to the geography of true happiness.
When it all finally sputters out of him, Brian feels weary—from the long day, his double shift at the bar and this dutiful recapping of their briefly shared life.
Darcy finally responds after a beat or two of silence.
"Don't you see, Brian," she sighs, "that's it right there—the way you are always trying to convince me of something you want me to be convinced of, without even really thinking about what's best for a given situation or for me in particular? It is like you are one of those tobacco lobbyists in Washington who turns his back on truth and statistics and steamrolls forward with some manufactured reality and then testifies to smoking being harmless. Ronnie would just never do that to me. He would never tell me how I should feel about anything."
Brian doesn't point out that Ronnie, given the choice, would be too busy choking the breath out of senior citizens to offer advice of any kind.
"Unlike you, and maybe everybody else," she tells Brian, "he only wants me to be Darcy for a while and not someone else's idea of who Darcy should be. It's such a relief. You'll never know."
It troubles Brian for her to suggest The Soup Killer possesses more sensitive instincts than he does and it is even more disturbing the way Darcy is now referring to herself in the third person, like a creepy political candidate. But he doesn't know what else to say and so they both get quiet and eventually drift off the phone. Brian feels like he has been drifting for months, actually, since Darcy left him. He wonders when anything in his life will take root again. Darcy does not really have the traits of most prisoner-loving women, at least not as he has seen depicted elsewhere, no violence or abuse in her past, no hint of religious fanaticism. Not that Brian is aware of anyway. Maybe, like Ronald's lawyer, she simply has a keen weakness for lost causes. More likely he will never know why this has happened and it will remain a mystery forever.
He crosses to the bedroom where he takes off his clothes, turns off the light and crawls into bed. Brian's apartment is on the top floor of a converted warehouse in a tourist town on the coast of Maine. During summer months, like this one, fresh blueberries and lobster-themed trinkets can be purchased on every street corner.
From his bed he can look out the window into the starless night, and right now the view reminds him of a strange moment from the early days of their relationship, the time he told Darcy about the smoky glow you can occasionally see on the dark part of a crescent moon. It is called Earthshine and occurs when the light from the sun is reflected from the Earth's surface, onto the moon's night side. Brian had read of this or heard it discussed on NPR or somewhere, and oddly it had stayed with him.
The night he told Darcy about the phenomenon, strolling by the nearby harbor, she had an unusual reaction. She stopped walking and began to weep. He watched her as she tried to regain her composure. Other pedestrians passed them and stared. She wasn't sure how to explain herself, other than to say it was because there was so much random beauty in the universe, and she missed so much of it. Other people were always pointing things out to her and it made her sad to think of the various small wonders she overlooked every day.
Brian was not sure what to say to comfort her or if it was even comfort she required. They hadn't known each other long at this point and he'd never been good at reading situations or responding to them. Past girlfriends had complained about his communication skills. One ex had told him he was so muffled in his emotions that he might as well have been living underwater. It's not that Brian didn't feel things, he was just careful about what he revealed, careful not to lead with his heart. That way, he reasoned, it didn't hurt so much if you had to cut your losses. Until he fell in love with Darcy, it had seemed like the foolproof plan. Now there was nothing he could do about it.
That night by the water, Darcy had stopped crying and ran off ahead. When he caught up with her she began to smile, and then laugh. It was a cloudy, spring night and they couldn't even see the moon, crescent or otherwise. There was a brisk breeze swirling around them and the boats that were moored in the harbor creaked and groaned in the dark.
She reached up and put her arms around Brian's neck.
"Please, sir, don't fear my wistful nature," she said in an odd, pretend accent, which made her sound like a strange and beleaguered southern belle, like Blanche DuBois on meth.
"Who are you again?" Brian asked, managing a light tone, though the question was half-serious, as it suddenly occurred to him that his new girlfriend might be much more complicated than he could ever imagine.
"Don't mind that," she drawled on in the same ridiculous voice. "Just keep explaining more about those mysteries in the sky and I'll promise to remember every word you say."
Title image "Barred" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.