by Joanna Theiss
The husbands toss the pamphlets aside. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they snort, emphasis on the dog.
The ladies don’t bite. They dish out pot roasts and heart pills. They tune radios to baseball, a rubber game, the Orioles hosting the Blue Jays. They plump lumbar pillows. They promise they’ll be home soon.
The men look into their brown gravies and mutter, “Don’t know why you bother going.”
In the car headed to the downtown campus, the ladies consider why they bother, week after week, despite the inconvenience to their husbands and their own fears of driving in the dark.
They suppose it’s simple. Even old dogs need something to chew on.
Tonight’s lecture is about ancient humans. The expert is a stringy blonde in a boxy suit. She’s not much older than the ladies’ grown children.
They steady their cough drops on their tongues and turn to clean pages in their notebooks, writing in their unremarkable cursive about evolution, glacial periods, mitochondrial DNA. Just as the ladies’ thoughts wander to the baseball game and the locations of their parked cars, the expert shifts, her voice going loose and casual, like she’s off the record, like she’s got a yummy secret.
“You know, they just found an early Homo sapiens in France with his skull bashed in,” the expert says. “The weird thing was that his skeleton was laid out in the back of this cave, nice and neat. None of his clothes were left, but there were stone beads between his ribs and microscopic residue of wildflowers on the ridge of his brow.” She draws a line across her sandy eyebrows. “There was a six-inch tool made from the bone of a large herbivore, next to his right hip.”
The ladies swallow mentholated saliva and raise their hands.
“What does all that mean? Was it a grave?”
“Did someone kill him, bury him there?”
This is what the expert likes most about her work, the enduring unknowns, how she can gum in the cracks between the facts with what-ifs, enthralling tech-lulled college kids and gray-haired grandma types alike.
She leans in, rubbing her palms together as if to warm them. “Picture a night, long ago. It’s cold, dark, completely silent. There’s a group of people, let’s say, a bunch of women and one man. This guy is bad news. Vicious, hateful, cruel. All the women are wary of him but one in particular despises him. She has her reasons. That night, she gets her chance. She grabs the heaviest rock she can find and waits until he’s bent over the flames to slam it into the back of his head, just here. He stumbles, almost falls into the fire, then lands on the cave floor and goes still as ice.
“The other women wrench the weapon from the killer’s hands. They calm her down in their lost language, tell her he deserves what he got. Then, they drag the dead guy to the back of the cave and cover his body with dirt and rocks, but not before adding tokens of their guilt: a clover garland, a necklace of carved beads, his best stone awl.
“Of course, it’s impossible to know if he was murdered,” the expert says with a twinkle. “But if he was, his burial might be the first cover-up in human history.
“Thanks so much, ladies. It’s been a pleasure.”
The ladies disagree. The lecture hasn’t been a pleasure. It was far too violent for their tastes. They came for an evening of fun facts, not a vicious brute and his gashed skull, not a lurching, dripping death, so unpleasant, they think, as they jostle past one another out of the lecture hall, as they step into the humid night and unlock their cars, as they turn their keys in ignitions and catch the Orioles losing on the stereo. Not very nice, not when they will be arriving home to husbands throwing radios across living rooms, eyes bulging with fury at the ladies for not clearing their plates, for not listening to their rants, for not reminding them to swallow the cairns of pills waiting at their elbows.
Not when the ladies have lived for epochs with these husbands who vent their ire and impotence over them like magma bursting through fissures and spilling across the earth’s veined and vesseled surface. Not a pleasure, not at all, though the ladies have to wonder at their own reaction to it, the source of their distaste, and this is like stone against flint, spark catching dried grass: the realization that the expert’s version of revenge is defective. It resides in a crude cave that sounds like an urlanguage and feels like jagged rocks so heavy they strain muscles. Revenge that is archaic, unevolved, violent.
Nowadays, the ladies think, checking their rearviews, flipping on their blinkers, death doesn’t have to be violent. Revenge doesn’t require rocks. It doesn’t need force. All it needs is a handful of small, white pills, as delicate as beads, substituted for their husbands’ heart medication. Breath mints, maybe, or antacid tablets carved into circles.
Without their medication, the husbands’ turgid hearts will harden into concrete by spring training. Their cardiologists will be puzzled but not shocked, the authorities absent, ignorant.
Under cherry blossoms next to their husband’s graves, the ladies will comfort their children but they won’t give those men so much as a single petal in offering. They will keep their necklaces where they belong, around their own necks.
About the author:
Joanna Theiss (she/her) is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in journals such as Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Bending Genres, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Fictive Dream. Before devoting herself to writing full time, Joanna worked as a lawyer, practicing criminal defense and international trade law. Links to her writing are available at www.joannatheiss.com. Twitter: @joannavtheiss Instagram: @joannatheisswrites
Photo by Mobina Ghiasvand on Unsplash