A WOMAN OF DECISION

For seven years—since she’d worked very early mornings for six months after college in the product testing division at the Camper & Kingly Corp. headquarters in Boroughboro, Massachusetts, videotaping men shaving on site from behind one-way glass—Sara Holt had been a product tester herself for the company, receiving an oversized envelope at her home every two weeks—first at her parents’ house in New England, then at her rental apartment in New York City, and then at the suburban Long Island co-op her new husband had already owned for some time when they got married... and when they moved, sooner or later, to a larger place, perhaps to accommodate a child, Sara would advise C&K to send her prototype ladies’ safety razors to that address, likewise, so she’d be able to continue to give feedback on the evolving devices, in return for semiannual gift cards—to a department store operated by a sister company to C&K... but what did Sara or her husband care, really? It wasn’t anything like a lot of work for her to use the free razors the company sent her and to send back the one-page ratings sheet twice monthly, which she usually did on time, though she had gotten over the years a couple or three letters reminding her that if she was unable to report timely, she would be removed from the outside testing population... and each of those instances had prompted Sara to resolve to redouble her efforts to discharge her biweekly obligations (voluntary though they were) with greater punctuality.

One Thursday—the outsize envelopes always arrived on Thursdays, for reasons unknown or unremembered—Sara received from C&K not a safety razor of the general type she’d been receiving for seven years, but a straight razor—the kind women (and most men, these modern days) did not shave with. There were no special instructions or explanations on the report form—just the usual questions about comfort and closeness, with number bubbles to fill in with a pencil or blue or black ink. So Sara just forged ahead and shaved her legs, underarms, and bikini area with the straight razor, which she did find to be especially effective, if a tad awkward to use, and she was grateful, she supposed, that the company had sent the razor freshly honed and stropped, since she didn’t think she and her husband had the tools to first get such a razor ready for use. (Jacob, for his part, was partial to an electric shaver.) Sara gave the device mostly high marks (even though she wasn’t entirely sure that someone wasn’t playing a practical joke on her), sending both the razor and her report back well within the time frame allotted for her review.

The next envelope—like all the previous ones, bearing the conspicuous printed warning SHARP OBJECT INSIDE—contained... a pen knife—not any kind of razor, strictly speaking, at all. What was Sara supposed to do with a pen knife? Sara wondered just that.

“Maybe it’s not for testing,” Jacob suggested, almost helpfully. “Maybe it’s a token of their appreciation.”

“But it’s been two weeks since the last razor,” Sara pointed out. “And there’s a review form.” I don’t need to sharpen any quills, though, being that it’s the twenty-first century. So I must be meant to use it for something else.

So one night in the second week that she had the pen knife in her possession—only lent to her by C&K, and for the specific purpose of having her put it through its paces, so to speak—one night, after Jacob had gone to bed (and had begun snoring profoundly), unable to think of anything else comparable to shaving that she might do with the tool (she might have used scissors, for instance, to trim the hair on her head, or on Jacob’s), Sara finally simply employed the blade of the knife to make a series of short incisions on her arms, though she was careful to cut herself well above her wrists, and in any event not very deeply. Deeply enough to draw blood, yes, but not so much blood that she needed medical attention afterward. Just some antiseptic cream and a few bandages (both products also manufactured and sold by C&K, she noticed). She cleaned the small knife before putting it into the return envelope. The questions on the evaluation form were still the standard ones—and therefore not applicable to a blade used intentionally to cut one’s own skin. For instance, Sara couldn’t really rate the “comfort” of the blade, or the incidence of nicks and cuts... but she did her best, giving the pen knife high marks “overall.” If the company was at all unhappy with her report, Sara wasn’t rebuked, either by separate letter or by note included in the envelope that arrived the next Thursday, which contained a cleaver.

“What?” Jacob asked. “An actual cleaver? Or are you being hyperbolical?”

But the mail had indeed brought from C&K an actual, full-sized (that is, large), unexaggerated meat cleaver, the kind most typically found in a (restaurant) kitchen or butchery, the utensil that resembles a hatchet (which is itself, essentially, a small axe).

“A cleaver is designed to cut through——”

“Bones,” Sara finished Jacob’s thought. “Yeah. And the funny thing is, I’ve been meaning to buy us a cleaver. It’s almost too bad we can’t keep this one.” And, again, it was obvious that the company expected it to be sent back. There was a padded return envelope provided, as well as an evaluation form. “How do you feel about steak for dinner tomorrow night?” Sara asked Jacob. “Or a spatchcocked chicken? And garlic mashed potatoes. I can crush garlic with the cleaver, too.”

“That seems like overkill,” Jacob remarked. “Don’t we have a press?”

“We do,” Sara said, “but good chefs know that a press isn’t the best way to crush garlic. It’s not even the second best way. The second best way is with a mortar and pestle. But the best way is with the flat edge of a large knife. And this”—Sara brandished the cleaver—“is now the largest knife we have. For two weeks, anyway.” Sara had every intention of not sending the cleaver back until the last day of the permitted trial period, planning to get as much use out of it as possible, even if it meant buying a lot more uncut meat than usual, even if that meant she’d then have to freeze a lot of it so it wouldn’t go to waste, even if that meant throwing out much of what was already in their freezer....

It was late April when Sara sent back the cleaver and received a machete in the mail. She had to pick it up at the post office because it was too large to fit in their box in the lobby of their building. The mailman left instead a slip informing Sara that something was waiting for her—and her signature—at the P.O. Sara tore open one end of the package just outside the government building, but then, when she saw what was in the package, waited until she was home again to bring the very large cutting tool out into the open, as it were.

She was surprised that it hadn’t occurred to her before then, but Sara found herself—sitting on the couch, 24-inch-long steel cutlass in her lap—thinking that her principal hobbies each involved cutting or piercing instruments: Cooking—for Sara was indeed an excellent cook, and Jacob would be the first to say so; knitting... (although, Sara had to acknowledge, those needles, while tapered, really weren’t sharp); and gardening—the pruning and weeding aspects of which certainly called for keen-edged implements. And here—at her disposal, for a fortnight—was as serious a pruning tool as one could wield without needing an extension cord. Yet the wildest-growing plant in the apartment was nothing more untamed than an orchid in a small box pot. That orchid almost suffered swift decapitation all the same... saved only at the last moment, however, when it dawned on Sara that she could walk over to the park about half a mile from the apartment where there was a quarter-acre of overgrowing foliage designated as a “preservation” site, a nearly perfect place for some recreational hacking and slashing.

Just nearly perfect, though, because it was still public property, which meant that there might be others in or around the wooded area within eyeshot... which meant that Sara (and her machete) might have been seen... which is what must have in fact happened, she figured when she was arrested and brought to the police station house. Damn it, she thought, repeatedly, while she waited for Jacob to come and collect her. Stupid nosy neighbors can’t mind their own business. At least the cops weren’t going to keep her—or even recommend that she be prosecuted for either destruction of preserved public property or open possession of a deadly weapon... but they also weren’t giving her back her machete, which was going to cause her some difficulty with the good people at Camper & Kingly Co., who had entrusted her with their product prototype.

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Jacob asked her as he drove them home. “And while were on the topic of thinking, don’t you think maybe this dangerous-sharp-object-of-the-month club thing has gone too far already? I mean—a machete? For real?”

Sara was as heavyhearted as she was empty-handed. “You don’t complain about the gift cards...,” she muttered.

“Sweetheart,” Jacob rejoined, trying his level best to stay calm... and then he realized that he didn’t know what to say next. So he tried a different tack: “How do you even evaluate a machete, anyway?” he asked, half-humorously. “8 for heft; 3 for subtlety; 10 for intimidation factor...?

But Sara didn’t answer him. She remained silent for the remainder of the short ride, thinking about what she was going to say to the product testing coordinator when she called to explain and apologize.... Jacob also said no more, until they were pulling into their garage, when he simply said, “No more. Okay, honey?”

They’re not going to let me do any more, anyway, Sara thought, more genuinely bothered about the prospect of being kicked out of the program than by anything else. Sara Holt just didn’t like disappointing people, and she really didn’t like being disqualified, either. She’d had that gig for seven... almost eight years! If she could convince the company to forgive her the loss of one prototype—now the lawful property of the Sorrel County Seventh Precinct—maybe she’d be able to remain a C&K product tester in good standing. And maybe C&K could even get their machete back from the police, if the company’s lawyers demanded its return on the ground that its design embodied proprietary trade secrets... if indeed it did. But maybe it was just a big knife.


“Another thing, honey,” Jacob mentioned, later that night: “I realize that you haven’t gotten any free razors in a while, but I think it’d be nice if you managed to... clean up anyway. You know?”


Sara Holt knew she’d been pardoned when, on a Thursday in early June a box—a crate, really—was delivered to the apartment by private courier service. Sara could barely contain her excitement, and when she remembered that she was home alone, she actually squealed a little and clapped her hands. Then she dove into the box.

With this device, there were instructions—specifically, assembly instructions. And Sara spent the better part of Thursday afternoon dutifully and with great attention and anticipation connecting crossbar, uprights, rocker arm, mouton, lunette, déclic, hinged bascule... plus various weights and wheels, a hook, a rope, a pulley, numerous bolts and nuts, and something called a “sprung grab” (though Sara allowed, at the time, that that might have been a typo. Later, she would do some research and discover that sprung grab is German for “sudden grave”). When all was said, done, attached, and tightened, Sara had constructed a mighty fine guillotine, if she did say so herself. (Fortunately, she and Jacob did own all the tools she needed for this project.) And then she unassembled it... or, at least separated it into three sections—a uprights/crossbar/mouton-and-blade component; a weighted base segment (which held the uprights upright); and a table-and-bascule unit, which slid into both the base and the uprights... and was where the body went, when the head was placed between the uprights, under the blade module (when raised), held in place by the fastened lunette—and moved the sections into the bedroom, sliding them each in turn under the bed.

She still had some time before Jacob would arrive home, so Sara baked a very rich, very sweetly frosted red velvet cake, Jacob’s favorite.


“Delicious, honey,” Jacob said, about the cake, several hours later, after dinner and dessert. “Different... somehow, but absolutely delicious.” He’d eaten two large pieces, and Sara was happy that he’d enjoyed it as much as he had, especially because she had fiddled with the frosting recipe some, adding to the usual ingredients twelve ounces of over-the-counter cold medication—a cherry-flavored syrup, with the full compliment of sedating antihistamines and alcohol, and (wouldn’t you know it!) manufactured by Camper & Kingly Corp. Potent stuff! Not half an hour had passed after dessert before Jacob was in their bed, still fully clothed, seemingly dead to the world, but for his snoring.

It was just a few minutes’ work for Sara to reassemble the guillotine, stand it at the foot of the Holts’ marital bed, and raise and set the mouton. It took her almost as long again, though, to turn her husband around on the bed so that she could then slide him off of it and onto the bascule, albeit only just far enough that his neck was under the lunette, which she then lowered deliberately and locked. It did occur to Sara—but too late—that she might have saved herself some effort by setting up the guillotine at the side of the bed. She was fortunate, however, that Jacob was still deeply asleep and blissfully unaware (one presumes) of his wife’s activity when Sara Holt pulled the déclic to release the mouton.

She would have thirteen days—starting in the morning—to take apart the device and package it for return to Camper & Kingly, but also in that time she would have to rate the efficacy (among other aspects) of the product, and as she made herself comfortable on the couch in the living room of the apartment her husband had already owned for some time before they’d gotten married, some two years previous, Sara promised herself that she would exercise some restraint and not make any “close shave” jokes—or write anything about taking a little, or a lot, off the top—in the “additional remarks” portion of her report.


Matthew David Brozik is the author of WHIMSY & SODA and TAKING IVY SERIOUSLY, among other things.

“A Woman of Decision” appeared in Barrelhouse no. 16, 2017.