Northwest Writer

Thomas locks his bicycle on the back porch at midnight. The lights are still on in the kitchen. That means Joanna waited up. That means good news.

She is by the sink watching him take off his shoes. When their eyes meet, she nods. She is smiling.

“How far along?” he asks.

“Only six weeks. But I was sure. Everything smells funny.” Joanna picks up a hard yellow sponge from the sink. “This smells like rotten fish. I could barf,” she says, laughing.

Thomas takes her in his arms. Maybe once before in his life he has felt this happy––when he segregated his first marker gene, for the mutation called jack-of-hearts.

“Have you told your mother?”

“No,” she says. “But now I have to call her.”

“At midnight?”

“I have to. I’m too excited.” She kisses him and goes to make the call.

Thomas takes an apple from the blue bowl on the table and cuts it in half. Joanna’s voice from the living room comes in short, happy bursts as she tells her mother about the baby. She says she’ll keep teaching at the kindergarten until her due date next April. Thomas stares at the cut-open apple, at the sad face of the seeds in their endocarp. The simplicity of it is beautiful. But as he looks at it, a strange panic overtakes him, starting in his solar plexus and radiating out to fill his gut, his arms, his legs. In his lab at the university he tracks the growth of zebrafish, mapping genes to mutations. It is his job to make things go wrong with embryos. As he puts the apple on the drain board, he notices his hands are shaking.

He wants Joanna to get off the phone. He ambles into the living room, hoping an easygoing gait will kill the fear. He kisses Joanna on the back of her neck. Her conversations with her mother always bother him anyway. She lives a few miles from them in Philadelphia.  The two of them communicate in cryptic phrases that sound to him like a feminine conspiracy about his own weaknesses, most notably his habit of working far too many hours.

“I have vitamins,” Joanna is saying. Thomas kisses her neck again. He stretches her sweatshirt off her shoulder and kisses the hollow of her collarbone. She turns and slides her hand inside his jeans.

“Right, Mom, I promise.” The innocence of her telephone voice, while she draws her hand over his growing erection, excites Thomas even more. Joanna hangs up. They peel clothing and make love on the living room rug.

Afterward, with beige carpet fibers poking the side of his face, Thomas thinks about implantation. He wants scientific fact to override his fear. He’s dealt with zebrafish for so long, he has to think back to human embryology. A few weeks ago, the embryo, their embryo––well, to be accurate, their blastocyst––was an eight-cell soccer ball finding its way down a chemical path to the uterine wall. It burrowed in and began to divide. By now, thousands of generations of cells are hard at work. Messenger RNA is handing out assignments like a foreman in a factory: heart muscle, bone marrow, neurons. But the panic reappears when he thinks about the peril woven through the whole process. At any moment, the baby’s future might depend on one fragile electrical charge or chemical bond. Joanna stirs, rests her forehead in the middle of his chest, and says, “You’re thinking about cell division, aren’t you?”


In the lab, Thomas tells Roland the news. “Chief, that’s great.” Roland shakes his hand, then bear-hugs him, then shakes his hand again and won’t let go. “That’s fantastic.” Roland is his top post-doctoral researcher. He beams his huge, white smile at Thomas. His eyes are shiny with joy. “A baby,” he says. “A big, fat baby. I can’t wait.”

Roland’s father is from Nicaragua and his mother is from Zimbabwe. Thomas has never met them, but would love to see the genotypes that resulted in Roland’s tooth enamel, Roland’s broad chest and six-foot build, and his endless capacity for work and enjoyment. He is always happy, always ready to tackle anything in the lab that will help their research.

“Everything in ten-C is ready to segregate,” Roland says, referring to a new crop of zebrafish embryos. “Want me to get started?”

Roland’s zeal for work reminds Thomas of his own grad-student days, before he met Joanna. He thought nothing of sixteen-hour stints in the lab. Sometimes he slept there. His social life narrowed to a few desperate dates with a brilliant coworker from Switzerland who earned her doctorate the same time he did. Claudine was smart, serious and determined. They would work side-by-side to the brink of exhaustion. Once in a while, as if to prove they were still human, they’d go to a movie, sleep through most of it, and end up at either his tiny apartment or Claudine’s bleak cell in student housing. His most vivid memory of those times was how white her skin was. Her body was much too thin from overwork, almost an adolescent’s body, although womanhood asserted itself in her large brown nipples and sensuous white neck. She had a womanly appetite for sex too, but was content in its aftermath to lie in bed discussing embryonic cardiogenesis or T-box gene expression.  Claudine returned to Switzerland with her PhD and married an x-ray crystallographer. Thomas still reads her papers and follows her research. A year ago, when he isolated jack-of-hearts, she called to tell him she was citing his results in her work.

Thomas wanders into the lab where Roland is updating the tag on one of the plastic fish tanks. Fifty striped, silvery zebrafish, each about an inch long, dart back and forth in the water. Roland slides the tank back in the rack and mops every spilled drop with a clean cloth. Thomas admires his thoroughness but sometimes wishes he would move faster. They rarely talk about it, but time-pressure permeates everything they do. Pressure to design studies, produce results, get things published, and, ultimately, get funded.

“Have you tried the new scope?” Thomas asks. They have spent the last of their current grant money on a new dissecting microscope.

“Yeah, it’s great.” Roland beams his smile again. “I set it up for you this morning.”

As the weeks go on, Thomas finds it more and more disturbing to look through the dissecting microscope at a transparent zebrafish embryo, its tiny coiled fist of a body, its long accusing point of a tail. The panic returns whenever he probes the barely-developed aortic arches, looking for the effects of an induced mutation. In jack-of-hearts––so named because the mutation hijacks the heartbeat––the embryos die quickly of arrhythmia. In miles apart––named by a researcher who missed his distant girlfriend––the two heart buds never join across the midline to form a whole heart. In hands off the transcription factor Hand2 switches off and the ventricles never have a chance. In the city of the cells, he sees continual destruction. The chemical wrecking crew can bring down any structure. A tiny bomb of one molecule can blow up a bridge. The earthquake of an altered gene can flatten everything in sight.


The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Thomas drives Joanna and her mother to an Amish village in the country.  Joanna is beginning her fifth month. She wants to visit a little shop that [R1] sells hand-made cradles. Thomas has been in the lab every day, including Thanksgiving, for the past six weeks. He yawns while a thin carpenter with a ragged beard discusses oak and pine, grain and sanding, staining and finishing. Navajo flute music drifts from a CD player. Blue and yellow mobiles of fabric lambs and helicopters, made by the carpenter’s wife, hang everywhere. At every new item, Joanna’s mother, Virginia, exclaims, “Isn’t this darling?”

Thomas bumps his head on a mobile, disrupting his thoughts, which are on S1P molecules and their receptors, the chemicals that bring the embryonic heart buds together, like the two sides of a child’s valentine, to form a complete heart.

“Thomas, which one do you think?” Joanna asks. Apparently Joanna and her mother have narrowed the choice to two cradles.

“They’re both great,” he says. His enthusiasm is so hollow Joanna turns from him and takes her mother’s arm. Thomas detests their collusion. Virginia has supported Joanna in her decision to refuse amniocentesis, refuse to learn the gender, refuse to know anything outside the realm of their female certainty that all will be well. When the panic comes upon him, Thomas wishes he could draw a picture for them of a spine that has stopped growing or a lung that never opens. He wants to explain to them the effect of one mutant allele, one unexpressed enzyme, one rogue cofactor. He wants to tell them about throbless, in which the heart looks perfect, but the proteins that make it beat are missing.

By evening, Joanna is still angry. When Thomas lies next to her in bed, she turns away from him just as she did in the store.

“I’m sorry about the cradle,” he says.

“It’s not the cradle. You know that.”

“Okay, then what am I sorry about?” He tries to put his hand on her shoulder. She jerks the blanket up to her ear, pushing him off.

“For starters, you’re never here,” she says.

“I’m just trying to finish some things. I could get a whole set of results wrapped up before the baby. If I keep going.”

“Do you even want the baby?”

He stares into the dark and waits for the panic. It usually burns for a while like an ember in his chest and then radiates out, sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once.

“I want the baby.” He tries next to sneak his hand onto her belly, but she is ready for this advance and shoves him away. He has never told Joanna about the fear. He doesn’t want to, but he finds himself saying, “You know, I see this stuff in the studies, these… mistakes. I mean there’s so much that can happen.” To his surprise, he feels a little better, talking about it. He wants to put it just right, if he can find the words, so she’ll understand.

As if sprung from a trap, Joanna jerks upright and twists around to look down at him in the dark. “This baby is not a lab fish,” she says. “This is our child. You are the father.”

The word father conjures for him an absurd memory of a textbook drawing of sperm, those whip-tailed BBs of desire. He was maybe nine years old the first time he saw such a drawing. Before he can prevent it, a little laugh escapes his lips.

“You think that’s funny?”

“No, I don’t.” But he still feels like laughing. He feels a little hysterical. He reaches for her, but she lies down and gives another savage jerk on the blanket. “I want to be a father,” he says weakly.

“Good.” Again her back is toward him, her spine rigid with fury.

Thomas cannot sleep the rest of the night. Exhausted by the fear, he gets up at four in the morning and dresses in the bathroom. Just as he’s unlocking his bicycle on the back porch, Joanna clicks on the kitchen light and comes to the door.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“I couldn’t sleep.” He fiddles with the bike lock. “I thought I’d go in.”

She looks at him. Her eyelids are heavy, and one side of her face is a little dented from sleep. “Have fun,” she says, and goes back to bed.

He arrives at the lab at four-thirty to find Roland already there, tapping at his computer keyboard and peering into the screen. He is so engrossed he doesn’t notice that Thomas has arrived three hours earlier than usual. By way of greeting, he pulls a sheet from a messy stack of papers at his elbow and says, “Chief, look at this.”

A fax came in during the night. There is an opening at this year’s Developmental Biology Conference in Zurich. They are invited to present the results of their study. If they can be ready in four months.

“But look at the dates,” Roland says. “It’s right when the baby is due.”

Thomas studies the fax. He notices from the tiny print at the top that it came from Claudine’s lab, although her name does not appear. He wishes Roland weren’t standing there, because he wants to count weeks on his fingers. But there is no getting around the opening date of the conference. April 14. One week days before the baby is due.  Maybe the baby will arrive late, he thinks.  [R2]

“I should go to this,” he says.

“Are you sure?” Roland asks.

“Look at the people who’ll be there.” Thomas points to a list of ten or twelve headliner names. “We can’t pass this up.” The unspoken part is that any one of those names could end up with the grants they need to keep going.

“So, I should say yes?” Roland asks.

“No, I will.”

He emails Claudine. But he can’t wait for a response and he calls her. Yes, she sent the fax. “I thought you’d be interested.” Her French accent reminds him of all the long hours in the grad-school lab. “Someone dropped out,” she says, “so I told them to offer you the opportunity.” Claudine talks about the work she is doing. As always, her studies sound like beautiful, spare pieces of art, elegantly designed and meticulously carried out. Suddenly, by comparison, his study feels cumbersome and burdened with the wrong details. He pictures Claudine in her pristine Swiss lab, surrounded by gleaming instruments that are somehow more advanced than his. Before he is even off the phone, he feels new pressure to finish the study before the baby is born. Tabulate the results before the baby is born. Go to Zurich. Make it back before the baby is born. No matter how hard he tries to shove the panic aside, it creeps back and lurks about, a thief checking for an unlocked door.

To get it over with, he tells Joanna that evening, straight out, that he has a trip to Zurich on April 14. She says nothing. She walks to the phone and calls her mother. In a loud voice, she asks her to come and stay with them.

Virginia moves in the week before Christmas and quickly takes charge. She bustles from room to room. She makes beds, stacks magazines, scrubs vegetables. She accompanies Joanna to the doctor, to the mall, to the movies. As soon as Thomas is free of these responsibilities, he wants them back. His guilt doubles. He wants to show them he can change. In a burst of resolve that lasts one week, he breaks away from the lab earlier, comes home earlier, and makes vague efforts to help out. These only amuse and annoy Virginia. She smiles and shakes her head while taking a paring knife from his hands or refolding a t-shirt. Still he feels compelled to prove his worth to his mother-in-law.  He shadows her into the laundry room, the kitchen, the garage, hoping to be of use, as though he were an ailing, half-deaf collie who fears his master may soon put him down.

“Don’t make up with me,” Virginia tells him. “Make up with your wife.”

He tries to explain to Joanna about the conference––who will be there, the competition, the pressure. If he doesn’t get grants, he can’t continue his research.  She knows this.  But ever since her mother arrived, Joanna has changed. She has a new distance from Thomas. She treats him with bored patience, as she would a houseguest at the end of a too-long stay. While he delivers his rambling explanation, Joanna rubs spray wax into the dining room table, pausing occasionally to scratch a stuck particle of food with her fingernail. Finally she looks up. Thomas fears for a moment she might point the spray can at his face.

“Can’t Roland go?” she asks. “He knows as much about it as you do.”

“Roland’s great, but­­­­—”

“I know. He can’t speak at meetings.”

It is Roland’s one weak point. He has paralyzing stage fright. The last time Roland tried to present a paper he almost fainted.

“You know,” Thomas says, hearing his own pathetic rationale, “this is for the baby. If this works out and we get some funding, I can relax.”

Joanna takes one more swipe at the table and walks away.


In Zurich, everything is orderly.  The trains run on time, the streets are swept, the storefronts gleam. The hotel towels are plump and downy white, and the hotel soap sits in the center of its ridged, ceramic dish.  Thomas feels like a bear in a dollhouse––too large and too clumsy for this tidy, compact country.

The conference’s first-night wine party is underway in the hotel ballroom. The vast space thrums with the voices of three hundred scientists arguing at once.

Thomas sees Claudine. She stands next to a long table that holds a single cheese tray, stripped now to its parsley sprigs and grape stems. Three young men who could be triplets in their grad-student chinos and crew-neck sweaters form a semicircle around her. She is speaking very rapidly, in French. The young men lean in to hear her every word. They are as gawky and eager as baby owls. One has a clipboard propped against his skinny hip and takes notes. When Claudine emphasizes a point with her plastic wineglass, all the baby-owl eyes follow it, transfixed.

She sees him and breaks away from the group. “Thomas, how lovely.” She kisses him on both cheeks. He breathes in her scent, which is like Switzerland itself, scrubbed clean with lavender soap. In their brief embrace, Thomas feels the tiny bones of her shoulders under her trim black suit. “It’s so good to see you,” she says. “Isn’t this awful?” She looks over the noisy crowd. “I think people are having perhaps too much wine.”

They find the hotel restaurant, cavernous and candle-lit, empty before the dinner hour. Claudine orders for them in German. The table is laid with a thick, white cloth, heavy silver, and a small crystal forest of wineglasses.

“Philippe didn’t come with you?” Thomas asks.

“No, of course not.” Claudine sounds angry. But her mouth quickly softens back into a smile. “Philippe detests these things.”

“Who doesn’t?” Thomas laughs.

She looks at him, puzzled. “You mean you did not wish to come?”

“It’s not that,” Thomas says. “But you two are the power couple of Swiss molecular biology.  Everyone expects to see you together.”

The waiter arrives and shows Claudine the bottle of wine she ordered. She points impatiently at their glasses and he pours. In the silence that follows, Claudine lowers her eyes and aligns her silverware. “Philippe and I are no longer together,” she whispers. “He is leaving me.”

“You’re kidding,” Thomas blurts.

“I am afraid not.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Well.” Claudine lifts her narrow shoulders and drops them. “It was coming for some time. He wants children and I do not. What can I say?” She looks at him, her dark blue eyes questioning whether he will judge her harshly. “I cannot stop my work now. Not for a baby.”


“Sometimes I think scientists should never have children.”

The waiter brings their bowls of onion soup. Thomas hunches over his and stabs its bread-and-cheese crust with his soupspoon. Dark blotches of broth leak out and spread on the cushiony white tablecloth.  “I guess I haven’t told you,” he says. “I’m having a baby. I mean, we are. Joanna is.”

“Oh, Thomas.” Claudine brings her hand to her white throat. Once again, she aligns her perfectly aligned silverware. “Of course, for you, this is… for you, I extend congratulations.” She leans forward and grabs his wrist. “Really.”

“It’s all right.” He feels her small fingers on his pulse. Her forehead is very white where the roots of her dark hair grip the skin.

“For you, it is different,” she says. “You are the man. The husband.”

“No, I’ve been worried about this,” he says, to his great relief. “I’ve been working nonstop. I haven’t even— ” He breaks off, suddenly hearing that his own voice is near tears.

“No, I understand,” Claudine says. “When we started the mutagenesis screen I never wanted to leave the lab. I had a cot there.”

“You did?”

“Of course. Philippe thought I was crazy.”

“That’s what Joanna thinks.”

“But look what it accomplished. Labs all over the world use results from that screen. The work was critical.”

After dinner, Thomas intends to walk Claudine back to her room. Yet before long he finds himself in her room, kissing her white forehead and her pale eyelids. He loves even the fine fabric of her jacket as he runs his hands over her back. She clings to him with a force astonishing in one so small. They have their old script for this, and Thomas wants it to be that uncomplicated. But later, in bed, he hears Claudine crying in the dark. He puts his arm around her. She doesn’t move. “You should go,” she says into her pillow.

At ten o’clock the next morning, Thomas enters the lecture hall just as Claudine begins her talk. He finds a chair in the back row. He is afraid if he sits too close the others might detect a force-field of guilt from the night before. He catches himself watching the buttons on her blouse instead of the slides on the screen.

He isn’t really listening, but he hears Claudine mention jack-of-hearts. She and her team have worked with over fifty heart mutations, some commonplace now, such as jack-of-hearts, miles apart, and throbless, and some new ones, such as toughluck, croaker, and seashell.  They have isolated proteins, lipids and enzymes that control every part of the heart. “We have even surgically removed part of the fish-heart ventricle,” she says, going to a micrograph that shows, in a map of blue and red dyed cells on a black background, the microscopic incision. “The surprise was, the heart restored itself. The cells had a mind of their own. They knew what to do.” She smiles out over the audience. “The cells said, ‘We need more heart muscle, so let’s build it.’”

Thomas has heard of this phenomenon. His lab has never attempted to recreate it. They don’t have the equipment. But Claudine’s next slide––the heart undergoing its own repairs, the new green cardiomyocytes seemingly eager to fill in for the missing cells––rivets his attention. These are beautiful cells, each one holding the unknown, as all cells do. That is the mystery at the center of his work: cells with a mind of their own. Cells removed from an organ will try to team up and behave like the organ. Cells left alone in a dish will replicate and try to organize a safe and useful pattern. Even the brand new, fledgling cells of a blastocyst, he remembers now, will not hesitate to find their home in the wall of the uterus, where all that oxygen awaits them. He remembers lying on the carpet thinking about the blastocyst nine months ago. And now the baby, with its heart and lungs and neurons no doubt intact, is ready for its journey. Has a mind of its own.

Claudine’s study is certain to be the most elegant of the conference. She finishes by announcing that a drug company in Geneva is already finding medical uses for one of the proteins she has isolated in the embryonic heart. She receives a huge ovation. Thomas wants to congratulate her, but does not want to join the lemmings that rush to the stage to talk to her. He is near the door, so it is easy to slip out. It is even easy to return to his room and stuff everything into his small suitcase and run out to the street like a criminal making an escape. He takes a cab to the airport and gets his ticket changed. Although it seems the young man in the red airline jacket will never stop typing the keystrokes that will get Thomas home, he is at last striding to the gate.

Before he boards, he calls the house. Virginia answers. She tries to keep a clinical tone, but cannot truly contain her excitement because she is about to take Joanna to the hospital. The urgency in her voice creates in Thomas a physical craving to be there with them.

“Her water broke twenty-two minutes ago,” Virginia says brusquely. “We’re just getting her things together.”

On the plane he calls Roland. “Can you pick me up at the airport?” He is in a middle seat, shouting into the phone while his neighbors stare. “I need to get to the hospital.”

On the other end, Roland lets out a whoop of delight. Then he seems to remember what day it is. “Wait a minute. How did the paper go?”

“I didn’t give it.”

“You didn’t give it?”

“I found out about Joanna. I had to leave.” Not exactly true, but he tells himself he’ll explain it all to Roland later.

Roland is waiting in his car, engine running, smile so huge Thomas sees only his teeth through the windshield. It is close to midnight. Thomas wonders which date will be the baby’s birthday. He leans forward as if it will make the car go faster. Roland is driving very cautiously through the empty streets. “We’ll get there,” he says, though he stays at the speed limit. But close to the hospital, at a deserted intersection where the light takes too long, Roland slips through on red.

“Don’t take any chances,” Thomas says, laughing.

Roland drops him off at the hospital’s main entrance. Thomas takes a slow elevator to the fourth floor. As he pushes against the metal bar on the glass door marked Obstetrics, he sees Virginia walking down the hallway. When their eyes meet, she nods. She is smiling. Thomas runs to join her.  He feels the fist of his heart uncoil and open toward his wife and child.

“Jack of Hearts” first appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Vol. 5 No. 2, Fall 2005.