Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Soft Wife

3 comments

The low-fuel light had come on. Hadn't Emil noticed driving to Hunan King the night before? He'd probably been crooning with the Beatles. Gracie checked the CD player. There was the evidence: "Dear Prudence." This was the third time this month that Gracie had been forced to stop on the way to work to get gas. She gritted her teeth and accelerated into the Exxon station at the corner of Maple and Brunswick. The station attendant took a long time to emerge from his glass cubicle. Then he stopped to talk to the driver of the Volkswagen at the pump opposite. A child's hand, fat-fingered and soiled, appeared through the open window behind the driver's seat. The attendant crouched down and started talking to the unseen child. The way he was chuckling and leaning his thick arms on the rim of the window, he could have been a funny uncle at a birthday party instead of a gas station employee being paid to do a job. Gracie scratched a speck of dirt off her watch. It was almost noon. The flies were waiting. She snapped her American Express card against the steering wheel. What kind of a business was this? She was turning the key to drive off to the Chevron station when the attendant thumped a rhythm on the child's door, twirled around as if he were doing a Latin dance, and started towards her car. Take your time, Gracie thought. I have all day to sit here waiting for you to move your floppy behind. She rolled the window down three inches and stuck her card out.
"How ya doing?" the attendant said, leaning down. "What a day, huh?" He pressed his hand against the window. Perfect, Gracie thought. There'll be grease stains to wipe off now.

"Fill up, regular." She thrust her card forward. Move it, she thought.

The attendant straightened up. "Uh, sure, ma'am," he said.

Maybe it was the heat that was making him so slow. She waited, rapping her knuckles on the wheel. At least two more of the vials should be ready. There were still two left over from yesterday, so that meant four. She wouldn't be able to do all the flies before dinner time, but maybe one or two hundred were doable. That would be a good bit of work for a Sunday.

~

There were only five or six cars in the Arthur Johnson Laboratory parking lot, and none she recognized. The fifth floor was deserted. Not even the three graduate research assistants in the Ransome lab down the hall -- who came in alternating, grudging waves over the weekend -- were in evidence. None of Gracie's research assistants came in on weekends because she had told them not to. She liked having the time to herself. No one to disturb her with their questions, their botched Northern blots, their horror at their own sloppy autoradiographs, their misunderstandings about the research literature. The weekends were when she got real work done. She didn't mind doing dissections then either; even though it was menial work, she could get them done much faster and better than her students could.

Four of the vials in rack nine were rusty brown with adult fruit flies. She took one out and carried it to the microscope station. She pushed the air pipe down past the cotton wool that plugged the top of the test tube and flipped open the carbon dioxide valve. When the flies stopped skittering around, she pulled out the cotton wool and tapped a few of the dazed creatures onto a dish. She set the timer for an hour. It helped her to go faster. On the weekends, undisturbed, she could average one fly every two minutes. Thirty per hour. Go. She picked up a fruit fly with her forceps and put it in the liquid on the microscope stage. She took a quick look at its eye color under the microscope to be sure she was working on the right batch. Its compound eyes looked like cushions pushing up against a wire mesh. They were the brownish red that marked the Cinnabar strain. It took only a few seconds to position the fly for a good view. Gracie held it pinned with one pair of forceps and ripped its spongy abdomen cleanly with another. The ovaries were so small and pale that she had hardly been able to see them the first time she had tried the dissection. But that had been years ago.

Now she was an expert. It took only a few seconds to pull the ovaries free of their ethereal moorings. They were like two small bunches of colorless grapes. Without the microscope, all she could see was a minute drop of semi-transparent mucus clinging to the end of the needle-thin forceps. She smeared it inside the tiny collecting tube she had jammed into a beaker of ice to prevent the tissue from degrading. She moved on to the next fly, after a glance at the timer's second hand ticking on. Three minutes and ten seconds already, but the first one she did on any day always took the longest. One of the flies in the dish was beginning to stir groggily, so she gave it a quick burst of carbon dioxide before resuming her work. She could do 150 flies easily by 6:00. A hundred and fifty pairs of ovaries plus all the others she had stored in ice would make enough egg sac tissue for the new experiment. By next month, if she kept her prize in sight, she might be able to isolate the protein that gave this strain of fruit flies such thin egg sacs.

She was about two-thirds of the way through the day's fly quota when she thought about her credit card. It was the act of smearing her forceps on the edge of the collecting tube for the hundredth time that reminded her. An image of the gas station attendant's greasy hand dragging on the edge of her window came to mind, and then she realized that she didn't remember getting her card back. She went to check her wallet. The card wasn't there. She looked up Exxon.com and located the gas station in Montclair, but no one answered the phone. The attendant was probably schmoozing with some customer. She looked at her watch. It was almost 4:30 p.m.

Three of the fruit flies on the stage had woken up. Maybe they'd see the dead dismembered ones lying there and get frightened, knowing their time was up. She wondered why such an odd thought, such a gruesome thought, would enter her mind. Drosophila didn't have feelings. She looked again at her watch. She wouldn't have time to finish the rest of the flies if she went to the gas station. She thought of calling Emil and asking him to pick up the card for her, but he wouldn't understand why she would want to stay on campus on Sunday afternoon. He had wanted to go somewhere with her that day. He hadn't had any idea where. Somewhere, he had said, because it's such a nice day. The vagueness was what had annoyed Gracie, and his willingness to waste time doing nothing. He had ended up saying it again: you sound so hard. The first time he'd said it had been the day after her forty-third birthday, almost a year ago. You've changed, he'd said. You've become hard. It frightened her because she knew it was true. She could feel it in the way her voice became strident when she corrected her students' mistakes, in her impatience at Emil's Beavis and Butthead parodies. There had been a time when she couldn't get enough of his Cornholio. She had tried to change back to the person she had been, but she couldn't bear the thought of doing all the things she used to do: sleeping in on weekends, going for aimless walks with Emil, talking for hours at meals about who knew what, lazing around watching movies. She would never produce anything at that rate. She needed a different way to soften. For a week or so, she had even prayed for a solution. God, make me a soft wife. Of course, nothing had changed. She wasn't the kind of person who had prayers answered. Or maybe the god she prayed to wasn't the kind that gave gifts. Either way, time was still passing, and she still had to get things done.

She brushed the remaining live flies back into the vial and put the harvested ovaries into the freezer. On the way out of the building, she saw one of the Ransome lab assistants in the parking lot, glued to a tattoo-covered man. How long had she been leaning on the hood of that Camaro? While this girl was pawing her man's tattoos, were the rats in the Ransome lab waiting for food, for their cages to be cleaned? Then she thought, maybe the rats were celebrating at being granted a reprieve from sacrifice. Ridiculous. As if rats would know or care that they were going to die.

~

There was no one at the gas station. Gracie parked in one of the slots near the ice machine and got out to look for the attendant. He was not around. Who leaves a gas station unattended at 5:00? She looked up and down the street. There were people walking along the sidewalk, an unusual number of them. She saw that they were heading over to St. Monica's across the street, moving quietly and purposefully. Then five people passed by: a family. The man was athletic-looking, like Emil. The woman looked as if she were about Gracie's own age. She was wearing the sort of clothes she might wear herself. But there was something peculiar about this woman or maybe the whole family. Their hair was damp and combed out, as if they had just climbed out of a swimming pool or the shower. Their arms were around each other, and they were walking five abreast on the narrow sidewalk, so that the ones on the ends, the father and the youngest child, were off the concrete, trampling through dandelions and crab grass. They all kept bumping into each other. What were they talking about so animatedly, leaning across each other like that, interrupting, giggling? They didn't look like they were going to church.

They crossed the street, still five abreast, pulling at each other and laughing. The attendant had not appeared. Gracie walked across the street. What were they saying to each other? The family entered the church after all, so Gracie followed them. It had been a long time since she had been inside a church. She'd never been the church-going type, although for a few months after she and Emil had realized they were getting older, she had gone to mass after every visit to the fertility specialist. Nothing had come of the masses or the visits; they'd probably left it too late, the specialist said, and they had not wanted to use donated eggs or a surrogate.

She sat down behind the family. The service had not begun. She had forgotten how astonishingly silent churches were. This church was dim, although the light filtered through the stained glass streamed lemon pools onto the stone floor. The family had stopped talking, but she was fascinated by their continuing tactility. The older girl, a teenager in modest shorts and a tank top, had her arm around her mother's waist. She kept leaning over and kissing her mother's cheek for no apparent reason. The youngest, a girl of perhaps six or seven, was scratching the back of her sister's shoulders with long patient strokes. The mother reached past the older girl and began to smooth the little girl's wet hair, as if she were trying to help it dry. The boy had the incipient shadow of pubescence darkening his upper lip, but his manner was that of a much younger child. He had draped his lanky arm over his father's shoulders. With the other hand, he was touching his father's cheek fondly, the way a toddler might, as if he were feeling for stubble. His father smiled and kissed his son's hair.

Even after the service started, Gracie found it difficult to concentrate. The priest was saying something trite about the gift of each moment, his notes spread out under the electric candle on the lectern. She tried to listen, if only to reinforce her cynicism about sermons, but her attention was drawn again and again to the family. How they fawned on each other. When they held hands for the Our Father, she suddenly noticed how bony the mother was. Her neck was long and thin, rising out of the flat ridge of her collar bone. Her arms were extraordinarily lean. Above her tank top, Gracie could see the edge of her scapula protruding sharply against her skin. She wondered if this woman was ill. Did she have an eating disorder? Cancer? Maybe she was dying, and that was why this family was so close to her.

But then, the priest called for the congregation to give each other a sign of peace. The family tossed aside their prayer books and hugged each other with such innocent enthusiasm, giggling and whispering, that Gracie knew cancer was not in the picture. This woman, with all her jutting bones, had somehow retained her softness and it had infused her family. Or was it the other way around? Had she attained softness because of her family?

When the service ended, the family traipsed out, nudging each other gently down the church steps. Gracie couldn't bear to let them go yet, so she walked behind them, hoping she wouldn't seem like a stalker.

"Where are we going?" the small girl said. Her arms were wrapped around the mother's angular hips as if she were hugging a pillow. The father's arm was around his wife's gaunt shoulders, the entire width of her back covered between his wrist and elbow.

"To the park," the mother said. "We can feed the ducks."

The little girl sang out, "To the park!" as if she'd just been given a present. The boy started running towards the park entrance next door, and the other two children chased him, their still-damp hair flying out behind them like bunting. The grown-ups didn't run or say anything, but Gracie thought there was an eagerness in their step as they sauntered on, swinging their joined hands. She tried to remember if there was something special about the park. It stretched out alongside Maple Road, so she'd seen it in passing many times. A small lake or pond, a run-of-the-mill fountain, a few waterfowl, some trees and grass, that's all it was. Nothing to stir up so much excitement. What a waste of time. Why was she following some random family instead of getting her experiment done? There was no sense in it.

But she was already in the park, so she went down to the water's edge and sat down on a bench that had been rubbed smooth by the weather and the thousands of other people who had squandered time sitting there. She could hear the children laughing. They had moved down to the small bridge that crossed one end of the lake. The parents were meandering after them. Gracie couldn't hear what they were saying, but they looked like they were enjoying themselves. This was what parents did, she thought. They hung around, passing the time with their children.

There were a few birds calling, fewer than she would have expected, but it had been a long time since she'd sat outside at 6:00, listening. Another sound too, a quick rik-triktriktrik. Crickets? Were crickets out at this time? She had forgotten. Some insects with startlingly blue abdomens were zipping low over the water, their wings only blurs. She wasn't sure what they were. Dragon flies? Damsel flies? She'd never had time for entomology. The only reason she knew anything about fruit flies was because she needed their ovaries. These flies, whatever they were, looked like they were enjoying themselves. If flies could even feel enjoyment. Was this how they spent the whole of their lives?

Some bulrushes were drooping over the water, their tips wavering like candle flames. She went over to the edge of the lake to break one off. Her foot slid down the muddy slope and dipped into the cool water. The vials of flies are waiting. Gracie brushed the thought away. If she'd stayed in the lab, this moment would have passed unsavored. She drifted off along the lakeside path, the ends of the bulrush flickering in her fingers. There was a tree nearby with branches that flopped down around a shadowy alcove. Inside it, the ground was patched with light from gaps in the leaf canopy. The family was far in the distance now, but the fountain was in full view. There was something mesmerizing about the constant arcing of water, the incessant susurration of it. Gracie sat down on the dirt and leaned back against the tree trunk, watching the water fall endlessly.


Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer has had her short fiction broadcast on BBC radio and published in Stand and Kaleidoscope. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2004, and was a runner-up for it in 1997. She works as a psychology professor, and has various publications in the academic psychology literature. She lives in North Jersey with her husband and young son. Her website is www.ruvaneevilhauer.com.


More from



Beautiful writing -- every detail feels necessary and meaningful. I love how COMPLETE this story feels, right down to the ending.
Speaks to my condition.
Every detail explained so beautifully not only did I read it I saw it like in a vision
Comments are now closed for this piece.