Margery Meadows worked at the college bookstore for four years and prided herself in knowing exactly where everything was in her department. She maintained a 2200 square-foot-section of a textbook area, twenty rows with 250 shelves. The first class was AC 210, Introduction to Accounting, and ended in VDO 230, Video Production. Each morning, when she arrived, Margery walked the aisles to guarantee the shelves were in order. English 140, 230, 333, French 110, 210, 340. Margery sang the courses like a warm up scale. If a book was sold she knew it, and if one was moved out of place it was recovered within two minutes. This was Margery’s domain.
One day, however, an average morning she assumed, and also the beginning of Summer Session One, Margery walked her rows. Her eyes flitted back and forth from the course tag to the book, and moved on quickly to the next class. But when she reached HIST 430, what immediately followed was a course she didn’t recognize.
HUSB 110. HUSB 110. HUSB 110.
Margery did the smart thing and went back to the beginning. AC 210. Perhaps she made a mistake. She marched, as if treading through drifts of snow, until she came upon HISTORY. She braced herself, as if from the snow and rain, turning her face away from the pelting ice and then forcing herself to look again. The class was still there—HUSB 110.
The course catalog, her bible, needed to be consulted. A glossy photograph of a student reading a book, sitting lethargically on a bench in the courtyard graced the cover. On sunny days, Margery took her lunch break on the same bench. She scanned the printed courses feverishly. HUSB 110 was not listed. It had to be a mistake. The course catalog was never wrong. Never in her four-year term.
But why is this class on my shelf? Mine. Who would do such a thing to me? What a failure I’ve been to miss it!
Margery left her text-coordinator in charge and proceeded to the bathroom down the hall. In the mirror she noticed the appearance of a new line on her clean-linen face. Her red marigold-colored hair was suddenly out of place, the clip having slipped, and a long strand snarled up like a thistle. Her summer-dress was soaked under her arms and around her neck. This was the old Margery looking back. The weak, miserable fuck of a woman. A paper domino. The forgotten arm of a doll, twisted off in a child’s rage.
The RVAC building was named after Richard James Vance, one of the founding fathers of the college, and had been restored recently, the asbestos gutted, and new desks installed, the old standby blackboard dissembled and replaced with a white erasable surface.
Margery walked into room 102. This was where Registration told her to go. A woman in her early forties, dressed in an ash-gray pantsuit welcomed her to the class. This was Mrs. Typhoid, recently widowed, again. Margery was handed a clipboard with a questionnaire. She was instructed to find a seat. Class would start soon.
The class sat in a semi-circle, desks turned inward, facing Mrs. Typhoid, who explained that HUSB 110 was a survey course and therefore would not cover all topics, but in the three weeks allotted to them, they would go over a large portion of information. The class was worth four credits if all the lab assignments were turned in. A syllabus was passed around to the six females, each alert and attentive.
The first half hour of the class, Mrs. Typhoid went over her expectations, pointing out that the final was worth fifty percent of the grade. The woman in the blue scarf and dark sunglasses, having arrived late, raised her hand, blurting out that she had an idea for her final. Mrs. Typhoid assured her there’d be plenty of time to submit ideas, and moved on to the subject of books. The class required six in all. Margery recalled seeing six individual books with a quantity of six on the shelf. She counted the women in the circle. Six. Six books, six women. I’m number six.
Please answer each question truthfully. Only the professor will see your answers.
How many times a week are you told you are ugly, pathetic, worthless, homely, a cunt-whore with no brains, a fucking waste to society, to life, a piss-stain on the carpet that won’t go away? More than five, more than ten, fifty and above, one hundred and above.
How often does your husband carve your skin with a knife? Does he make slashes, curved designs, or poke holes in your skin?
In the course of a week how often are you slammed into the wall, the stairs, the stove, the treadmill, the coffee table or other fixtures?
When was the last time you were regarded as a living being with feelings?
Which living being best represents how you felt in that moment?
a. Mouse b. Bird c. Rabbit d. Deer e. Other__________
How often are you locked inside your home? (If you feel you cannot leave, even if the door is unlocked, you should count it.) Did you “break out” to come to this class?
The woman in the blue scarf sighed after reading the questionnaire. Margery noticed the way the blue scarf’s nose had a slight bend, a familiar feature despite her efforts to conceal her face. The questionnaire sat untouched in most women’s laps. Only the blue scarf answered the questions.
Margery began thinking of her home. She pictured the dining room table standing alone and always polished, the draperies dust-free, the cabinet of dishes arranged, the periwinkle walls glistening. Why is this room there? No one has used it. No one visited the house. Her mind traced a historic timeline of the dining room, the house, her life.
It was painted the spring after they moved in. They had their first meal in the room on Mother’s Day. Her first-born was only six months old. Margery had cooked pasta and beef-tips and served a red wine she had received as a present, but couldn’t recall the occasion. She remarked to her husband that the room looked pretty. She made another comment, but couldn’t recall what it was since it was snuffed out of her recollection.
The kitchen—a woman’s domain since the birth of domesticity—was different in her house. It wasn’t hers. Nothing was hers. She had no private space. Nothing she ruled over. Nothing she could offer an opinion about.
From the kitchen, her memory climbed the stairs. Margery’s hand slipped to her arm and rubbed the caterpillar scar that hadn’t healed correctly on her left shoulder. It wasn’t a knife, but a screwdriver that left the mark. She answered question two, with some hesitation. Her husband loved to confront her on the stairs. The stairs, more than any other place in the house, offered a natural unsteadiness, like standing on a raft in rushing water. Sometimes he dragged her there just to talk. We’re just going to talk, Margery. Just talk. You can do that, can’t you?
Where is my… and where is my…
Margery never touched her husband’s things. Everything was his, even if she bought it with her own money. Her own money. Ha! A contradiction.
The medicinal bottles weren’t as he had left them. She must have touched them. You did this on purpose. Didn’t you? When Margery didn’t answer he grabbed her. Clumps of her red hair were stripped from her head, like weeds in a garden. Her face found the porcelain sink cold as it was pressed against it. In this position, her eyes settled on a green patch of mold under the nozzle, then more under the toothbrush holder. Her husband emptied the medicine chest, then the cabinet, and then the closet of all its contents. He did this throughout the house over the course of the week. Her second child was nearly a year old at this time; her first had recently turned four.
Your job, missy, is to put all this back. And it better be neat! Do you hear me! If I find one bottle, one towel not in place, I’ll kill ya! I’ll fucking kill you. Like this, he said snaring her throat in his claw-like hand. You’re a fucking cunt-whore bitch! You aren’t worth the water I piss in.
Slowly, he released his grasp and pushed Margery backwards toward the toilet. His penis dangled over her and a yellow stream splashed into the water, then onto her. He saw Margery turn away; a sick smile had come with a laugh as the hot stream stung her face. She would never falter in her task. Not in five years had she missed a day of work.
Margery answered question one, three, and eventually five. She did this meticulously, as if she was in preschool and her penmanship was going to be graded. Margery raised her hand and was called on by Mrs. Typhoid, whose cheerful smile made Margery uncomfortable. She blushed, unable to make eye contact. But Mrs. Typhoid waited until Margery found the courage to speak. She asked, “Is this a class on how to be a better wife?”
Mrs. Typhoid’s smile remained, like the black permanent marker someone used mistakenly on the white-board.
“No, dear, this is HUSB 110. Are you sure you’re in the right class?”
Margery looked over the questionnaire. She nodded as if automated.
“This is Husband 110, Intro to Husbands. We’re going to start this week’s lesson with the study of poison.”
A living being. Something animated, not necessarily something with a soul, depending on your spiritual grounding. Do animals and plants have souls? When Margery was eight she used to play by the brook behind her parent’s house. She had touched many living beings during that time: fish, crickets, water sprites, spiders, horsetails, skunk cabbage. She remembered how spiders would run and hide or stand perfectly still, so they wouldn’t be detected, or play dead, stiff with legs curled. Her husband didn’t like spiders, said the devil put them on earth to spite him. He went out of his way to kill them. Once in a restaurant. Another time in church. Margery didn’t believe in God or church, but her husband did. He always felt holy after mass, even if he killed spiders. Thou shall not kill. This confused Margery. Margery filled in question four at a stop light on her way home. Seven years. Spider.
A new shipment of books arrived at the bookstore. Margery set to work receiving the books and putting them away on the appropriate shelves. When she passed HUSB 110, she lingered.
After lunch, she lingered some more. One book remained of each title. She waited; sure another living being would purchase the sixth book. She hadn’t paid her class fee. Mrs. Typhoid said she could do so at the next class when she returned. Perhaps another woman would take her place.
The first book was called Small Repairs. This was the primary textbook for the class. She browsed the pages, as if it was an unsolicited mail catalog. Part One covered poisons. This was her homework for today. Read Part One on poison. The bright pictures showed step-by-step instructions of how to mix household chemicals to kill undetected. A sidebar illustrated mixing procedures with chemicals often found in a husband’s tool shed.
Part Four discussed the mechanics of husband machinery, like the lawn mower, the golf cart, and the pick-up truck, and gave suggestions on how to render each vehicle a death trap. Part Seven, What to do and Who to Call After the Deed is Done. Part Eleven, Legalities, Laws and Legal Proceeding. Part Twelve, New Beginnings.
As for secondary books, there was The Bell Jar Revisited: A Homemaker’s Guide to Husband Suicide; The Life of Bathsheba Spooner, the historical account of a New England woman in the eighteenth century who had killed her husband and stuffed his body down a well; The Healer and the Witch, the history of women healers and women who poisoned their husbands in the name of freedom; Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary E. Braddon, a classic literary book on the art of secrets; and lastly, A Common Housewives’ Guide to Staging a House Burglary.
Margery purchased the books five minutes before her shift ended. She read the first and second chapter on the bench in the courtyard, then proceeded to the ATM and withdrew the cash to pay for the class. Margery made a list of questions for discussion, as she was instructed, and crossed the chem-lawn on the way to RVAC 102.
Hemlock. Identified by its red spotted leaves. The plant, ruled by Saturn, can grow to five feet, sometimes more, and will produce pretty white flowers in June. Hemlock is extremely dangerous if taken internally, informs the Eclectic Materia Medica.
Unbeknownst to Margery, her herb garden contained hemlock. She thought it was merely a pretty weed; one she didn’t have the heart to uproot. The morning after her second class, Margery spent time in her garden looking over her herbs. She felt inspired by the lecture on the history of women healers. She found it most exhilarating to learn how women healers were often pushed to the point of poisoning their husbands. Clearly, it was an established practice and recorded in a plethora of documents, which Mrs. Typhoid photocopied and handed out in class.
The sun warmed Margery’s hands as she sifted through the cold dirt, clearing multiple weeds. The neighborhood was mostly quiet, less the occasional car passing. A woman with bruises on her arms approached her from across the lawn. She was wearing shorts with a red top; a silk-screened robin was nestled between her uneven, bulky breasts. This was Mrs. Gentry, the same Mrs. Gentry who wore a blue scarf to every class, and arrived on average ten minutes late.
Mrs. Gentry sipped her black coffee with stevia and asked Margery if she needed help with her homework questions. Margery shook her head, realizing she hadn’t given much thought to homework. Mrs. Gentry prattled on about unhappiness, days of being young (although she was still in her thirties), and what herbs she would use to cook her husband’s prime rib. She had already read the primary textbook Small Repairs twice.
Three days before the final was due Margery would spend the afternoon filling in a hole left by the removal of a five-foot tall weed that had barely started blooming pretty white flowers. The next morning an ambulance would block her driveway making her late to work for the first time. She would also find herself consoling her grieving neighbor as the police questioned her about her husband’s accident. Margery would play her part modestly, remembering Mrs. Typhoid’s exact words. “Less is more.”
Mrs. Typhoid’s HUSB 110 reading packet was distributed in class to inspire further discussion on poison. Taken from the book Woman Defamed and Woman Defended, Margery’s favorite excerpt was written by Jean De Meun in the thirteenth-century:
“If [the husband] sleeps in her company, he puts his life in great peril. Indeed, sleeping and waking, he must fear most strongly that, in order to avenge herself, she may have him poisoned or hacked into pieces, or make him languish in a life of desperate ruses.”
Margery’s wedding photo sat in a brittle, silver frame on the nightstand beside her bed. She was twenty-three. Her green eyes, like melancholy-thyme, held the expectation of a future. Her husband was looking outside the border of the picture, perhaps distracted. England was playing Ireland in a Saturday afternoon football match. He had a hefty bet on England, the favored to win. Ireland won that day.
Beside it, in a frame constructed of Popsicle sticks, was a copy of their wedding vows. Her husband wanted to write his own vows and borrowed something from a friend. She didn’t need to look at the words to remember what he’d said. She had remembered vividly the laughter that brewed in the audience when he was done. He loved the spotlight. He loved to be the master comedian, cracking jokes was his specialty. Lighten up, he said, before they were pronounced man and wife… Until death do us part—or until one of us kills the other. Me first. I call it! Ha ha ha!
The first day of the second week of class, Mrs. Typhoid started with a discussion regarding the final. She asked each of her students if they were having any difficulties with topics or procedures. Mrs. Woods, a woman of elder years, thought she’d need more than two weeks to complete her final, citing the fact her husband had been moved to the county hospital. Mrs. Typhoid smiled, flipping through several booklets jammed into her Mother Earth tote bag.
She handed a pamphlet to Mrs. Woods, who was busy wiping a messy, red stain from her blouse. The pamphlet specialized in provoking accidents in hospitals. Mrs. Typhoid recommended that Mrs. Woods should concentrate her efforts on bringing in harmful germs. If that didn’t work, then she might ask for the IV to be reconnected, since each attachment increased a patient’s health risks.
Another woman, Mrs. Randall, the youngest and most recently married, was next to raise her hand. Married to a woman, she found the textbook far too specific to male spouses. Her wife was hardly ever home, working long hours in a law firm, and often volunteered in the evenings for a gay youth group, but she had her weapons: neglect, guilt, anger. This was how Mrs. Randall felt, beaten and abused, to the point of not knowing who she was anymore. Mrs. Randall felt paralyzed by the mental ruinings of her spouse’s mind. Like an assembly line she was fitted, put together, hammered and fired, then scrutinized for perfection.
Mrs. Typhoid consoled the crying woman and assured her there were many other techniques that she could approach her final with, and held up her worn copy of The Bell Jar Revisited, first edition.
“Suicide,” she began, “is like an unseen poison, an invisible knife, and your wife may be the perfect candidate.”
Mrs. Randall fished out her copy of the book from a plastic grocery bag at her feet. She brushed away the blonde strands of hair that fell into her eyes as she bent over. She did this as if commanded by an unseen force, as if someone stood over her shoulder saying, And get that fucking hair out of your eyes; it makes you look ignorant. Mrs. Randall softly admitted to the class that she hadn’t read The Bell Jar Revisited, nor had she even glanced at the corresponding assignment. She was busy, too consumed with feeling gripped by domestic-pestilence, that she hadn’t made time.
Mrs. Typhoid explained that a cunning woman should have no problem staging another person’s suicide.
“We all know Mrs. Sylvia Plath was the master designer of suicide,” she said. “She reveled in its dangerous thread, sifting the sands between life and death. She understood each of its balances, its strengths and weaknesses, and unraveled the keys for the enchanted mind.” Mrs. Typhoid stood honorable, cupping the book close to her heart, and from between the pages she revealed a small portrait of Mrs. Plath, and circulated it in class. “Use her exploration to design your own crafty methods to bring about the end of your misery. We who sit in this room know Mrs. Plath wasn’t trying to kill herself, like the critics and disbelievers have said. Only we, who’ve walked in her gilded steps, know for whom the task was intended.”
Before class ended, Mrs. Typhoid handed out a paper titled Three Good Reasons. Margery’s last assignment before the final was to provide three reasons why she’d kill her husband. Each question was to be written in standard essay form, typed, double spaced, with empirical evidence.
Sunday was a rainy day, sparse patches of creamy blue sky surfaced with the sun only occasionally. Margery drove to the campus. She had told her husband she had a mandatory inventory at the bookstore and wouldn’t be back until it was finished. Finished. A loaded word. Finished. What was she attempting to finish? Her homework, her final, her old life?
The lonesome bench in the courtyard was soaked with water. She sat anyway, the cool against her dress and bottom was chilling, but exhilarating, as if she had done something forbidden for the first time. It aroused her slightly. She held the umbrella in one hand, the other rested in her lap. She started to pull out a pad to take notes as her mind’s memory constructed Three Good Reasons. Margery realized she was alone. The rain’s melody comforted her. She noticed a tear in her dress, touched it, then touched her skin, her thigh. Her heart beat faster. What was it that she wanted? Her finger dragged across her skin, like a blunt knife, toward the craggy outcrop, her own space, an inbound private cell with one entry, one exit, life was like that, in, out, in, out… her breath grew rapid. A robin flew into the aspen tree overhead. She tilted her head and body back, spreading open her legs, dropping the umbrella, allowing the rain to touch her face, until a place of paradise ripped through her cardboard form, and the clouds burned red with color.
Margery didn’t have three good reasons for the assignment. Instead, she turned in three reasons why she wouldn’t kill her husband.
She was lying on her bed, her belly swollen like a newly inflated rubber ball. She was crying, but couldn’t remember why. Her husband had come to her. In his hands was a box of cookies, animal crackers, an image that invoked in her the apparition of her dead father, a kind man who often brought her home sweets. Sweets for a sweet girl. Her husband sat on the bed beside her and brought the animals to life with voices, and names, and stories. For a brief moment she forgot her crying, her life.
Most damaged marriages resist divorce for the sake of the children. Margery jotted this note to herself, as a possible reason not to complete her final. Then scribbled it out. Does a dog that’s abused still accept food and praise from the hand that beats it? Margery combined her thoughts and wrote it on the page, then quickly scribbled it out, then rewrote it.
He had told her not to leave the house that morning. Three hours later she hadn’t moved from the chair in the living room, hadn’t realized she had sat so long. Her husband rushed through the door, smiling, like a carnival man, one who sold you three darts for two dollars, to play a fixed and fated game.
Come here. Come here, M.
She jumped at his words, accustomed to doing so. He led her out the front door, where she blocked the sun from her eyes. She followed him to a small garden with herbs. They’re for you, baby. He knew she loved herbs, didn’t know why exactly, didn’t give a damn about them himself. He only thought of her in that moment.
Margery closed the umbrella. For her, the sun had come out on the day. She hoped to take the sun with her and start a new life. Her hair clung to her head and her hands and legs turned to rubber in the rain, but it didn’t matter, all she felt was the sun, its warmth, and a new beginning.
When Mrs. Typhoid failed her first student in her entire career, she wanted an explanation. Margery waited after class to speak with her, as she was instructed. The other women left without as much as a goodbye to Margery. They celebrated perfect A’s and headed to the bar for cocktails. Margery wasn’t invited to join the widow’s bereavement group either, nor the picnic for Fourth of July, when they would introduce their new lovers.
Mrs. Typhoid sat at her desk and reread Margery’s paper, remarking that although it was good and had promise, it really didn’t complete the job. Margery responded by quoting Jean De Meun. It was this last part, “or make him languish in a life of desperate ruses,” that appealed to Margery, that and the fact her children needed a father.
Jack Meadows didn’t like spiders. He abhorred them and often, over coffee after mass in the church basement, he confided in the minister his belief that spiders were the offspring of the devil. Margery Meadows liked spiders. In fact, she collected the ones she found in her garden in different shaped glass jars in her husband’s basement. She cared for them and fed them and took careful precautions to hide them from sight. She was happy to see how quickly the spiders multiplied, so many happy spider babies. She felt as if they were her own. Like a mother she transferred them into bigger jars as they grew.
Jack Meadows came home one day to find his wife missing. She left a note on the table explaining she was out and wouldn’t be home until late. He wouldn’t know until the following week, when she told him herself, that she’d gone to sit on the bench in the courtyard and watch the clouds turn red.
He was a predictable man. His anger hit hot and he sought out his lair in the basement where his bottle of Bushmills twelve-year whiskey waited. He didn’t notice the string across the stairs until he pulled it from his fractured leg at the bottom of the stairs. This was when he noticed his hands were bleeding from broken shards of glass and the many spider babies crawling on him.
No one knows for certain what happened to Jack Meadows that night in the basement. Neighbors, including Mrs. Gentry, reported hearing terrified screams coming from the Meadow’s house. When the police arrived they found hundreds of broken jars, but nothing more. When Margery returned home, shortly after dark, she played her part like the textbook instructed her to. Her tears seemed almost real.
At the hospital, Margery was said to have broken down when the doctors gave their assessment. The number of cuts and gashes Jack Meadows suffered from was impossible to record. His left eye couldn’t be reattached; they weren’t sure how it had been severed. The doctor warned Margery that she wouldn’t readily recognize her husband. Disfigured was a word used to describe him from now on.
Margery finished her morning house chores. Afterward, instead of going to her former job at the college bookstore, she’d make her way upstairs to the room she kept her husband in. He usually sat motionless in the chair overlooking her herb garden most of the day. He had a slight shake that the doctors said wouldn’t go away, and his speech, though Margery could understand his murmurings, would not return. Hair started to re-grow around the shard of glass protruding from the top of his head. Doctors had said it couldn’t be removed without risking further damage to his mind. But Margery smiled at this. She knew his mind was working fine. Occasionally she thought she saw a tiny smile in his eyes when she brought him a box of animal crackers, which she mashed with water on a baby spoon. On other occasions, she was certain she saw life in his eyes when she brought him a jar of spider babies.
Hunter Liguore is completing a MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her most recent published works include: Bellevue Literary Review (Katie Ireland), Steampunk Tales (Daughter of the High City), The MacGuffin (The Last Soucouyant), Rio Grande Review (Elder Leah). Her story, “Red Barn People,” was nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Prize.