2nd Place Story 

Susannah Joy Felts grew up in Hermitage and graduated from the University School of Nashville in 1991. She has earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a master’s of fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she now teaches creative writing. Felts has published stories and essays in a variety of literary magazines and she free-lances regularly for the alternative newsweekly, Chicago Reader.

Fiction judge Marc Smirnoff writes: “Author has a lively, sardonic prose style, and I wouldn’t be surprised to some day read even more accomplished stories by this writer.”

Nice Soft Wife

The subject is Darwin. I am the substitute. I am here to press buttons on the VCR, shush mouths, distribute and collect worksheets.

The kids are sophomores wearing jerseys in the colors of rose, ecru, or moss. You might be surprised how many males choose rose. But moss is the favorite, regardless of gender. I too would go for moss if I were required to wear a school jersey. “Ecru” sounds like an African mammal to me. The ecru dashed across the Serengeti.

“What kinda name is that?” a male student asks me after I’ve written mine on the board. His hair is plastered to his skull with a perfumed substance, and he wears a Band-Aid on his neck. I know what he’s asking, but I don’t know what to tell him. It’s the name I’ve had all my life, but I know nothing of its history. The guy I live with, Dennis, thinks this is unfortunate. He suggests a trip to the library, an afternoon spent doing research. “You should know where you come from,” he says.

Dennis’ surname means “the plentiful hearth” in Old English. When he first told me this, my first thought was: Will I become A Plentiful Hearth?

“Fairy-princess name,” I tell the student now. “What’s with the bandage?”

“BB. Dude shot me. Want to see where it went in? Had to extract it with my ma’s tweezers.”

“That’s okay. I’ve seen lots; they all look the same. Take your seat, the bell’s about to ring. But good use of 'extract,’ ” I tell him. “Extract” is number seven in this week’s Vocab 20. I know this because I subbed for Ms. Schenk’s English class yesterday.

He pumps his fists in the air.

The bell doesn’t ring; it caws like a crow. This is crow month. Last month was pigeon. That throaty pigeon noise was hard for me to hear, sometimes, but the kids’ ears grew accustomed to it after just a few days. Then they began the mimicry. Now they are all cawing, getting the perfect gurgle to the higher-pitch beginning of the caw, until I drop a biology book on my desk and bellow, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”

It’s the same in every class.

Despite this, I am a fan of the rotating birdcall bell system.

“What’re we doing today, Ms. Princess?” calls out the male with the pellet wound. I give him the slit-eye.

The lesson plan is as follows: Hand out video worksheet. Explain that there will be a quiz over it next time. Play video. Done. Next class: repeat. This is my fourth and final repeat of the day. I didn’t mind the short-term repetition of substituting at first, but lately I’ve felt worn down. Worn down and stuck. Stuck briefly in the middle of educational units that, for me, have no start and no finish.

Then again, in four hours’ time, I have become an expert on Darwin. For instance, his first girlfriend’s name was Fanny.

“Fanny said she’d wait,” says one of the video’s Darwin scholars. “But she didn’t.” His oily forehead takes up half the screen.

But she didn’t. I say the words to myself.

Fanny said she’d wait. Fanny said she’d wait.

But she didn’t! She didn’t!

Darwin was devastated. But he got over it while prowling about the rain forest, collecting specimens.

“Fanny, Fanny, Fanny,” I say to myself under my breath. We aren’t named Fanny anymore, are we? Maybe the name could come back in fashion. I could name my kid Fanny. Yes, I could have a daughter, and I could name her Fanny. Call her Fan for short. “Our Fan.” Our dearest, adored Fan. Fan the Plentiful Hearth.

I threaten the male with pellet wound with a demerit for making noises. He’s meeping and sputtering. I think about the water-gun in my purse. An impulse purchase at Jewel, $2.89, translucent pink. It has a shooting range of 15 feet. If this were my class, I’d shoot the troublemakers with sugar water; they’d dry sticky and uncomfortable.

Some days I believe that I will have a class of my own. I believe I will have a small, precocious male or female of my own, too, hopefully minus pellet wounds. Meanwhile the newly paved road outside this school will grow mottled with gumwads, summers will be hotter but with scatterings of icy patches, bullish hybrids will flourish, hot pink and green, on interstate medians. We will budget wisely so we can leave the state, even the country, and “experience cultures,” as I always say to Dennis, even though I hate how patronizing that sounds. For his part, Dennis will warm to the concept of travel. He won’t be afraid to fly. When he looks to the sky and spots a plane, he will no longer picture it bursting into flames, a fireball like a blossom unfurling in time-lapse. We will all evolve.

In the video, Charles decides to get hitched to a wealthy cousin named Emma. Still, he’s a little torn. Among the minuses, we are told, are:

—Quarreling.

—Visits with relatives.

—Emma’s belief that he’ll rot in hell for all he’d writ.

But the positives include:

—A nice soft wife.

Three times today I’ve heard this. I’ve listened carefully for student reaction, hoping to detect a snicker like those that sprouted in response to “married his cousin,” but nothing. Now I stop the tape.

“Guys: How many of you would like your wife to be nice and soft?”

Someone says something I can’t quite make out. Something about booty. A few guffaws. Then silence.

“Nice soft wife,” I say again, nodding my head smugly and smiling. They’re watching me, waiting. “Any takers?”

“Are we gonna watch the rest of it?” a female asks.

It becomes a song I sing to myself, a liquid to whip. Nice soft wife, nice soft wife. And on the story goes. Charles writes a book that will become famous; it’s the answer to number seven on the worksheet. Emma bears ten children; seven will evolve into adults. I find it difficult to imagine being pregnant ten times. It’s much easier to imagine the Darwins having sex a hundred times in the master bedroom at their country estate.

I guess I’ll take care of dinner tonight. I’m considering falafel from the corner shop, but Dennis will want meat, even if it’s fake meat. He has to have something on his plate that reminds him of meat. At least he is trying.

The kids are getting restless. I keep an eye on Pellet-wound, but he’s not meeping anymore. He’s writing steadily on something I assume, but am not going to verify (because I am nice and soft?), is his worksheet. I scan the room. Seven out of ten males wear bits of hair on their faces. Bored with Darwin’s dedication of eight years of exhaustive analysis to marine barnacles, they pass around a pink bottle of baby lotion and rub it briskly on their arms. The smell makes me queasy. Nighsophwife. Maybe I’m not queasy, but just hungry. Lunch has passed, my protein bar is long gone. Lately I’ve found myself relying too much on rectangular food: grains, fruits, vitamins, and soy protein, pressed into bar form and sheathed in bright foil wrappers. I pour concentration into each bite; I turn unwrapping into ritual. I bite off a corner of the bar in what I imagine is a delicate manner, and roll it around in my mouth until it no longer exists. One bar can last me twenty minutes. I know the stats: 170 cals, 23 vits and mins, 4.5 grams of fat. I also know my own stats. They tell me that I am not yet what I want to be. But I’m not sure what that is. Do I want to be a high school teacher? Do I want to be a wife? A nice one? Nice at all? Once, in a foul mood, I upset Dennis by asserting that “Nice people lose.” He said this showed a side of me he hadn’t seen before. I said it was about time he saw it.

Species. Might. Change.

How about a brittle, angular wife? Or a cynical, sinewy wife? Sculpted, sarcastic wife? Curly, surly wife?

Darwin worried.

“Lady. Excuse me. Ms....?” A female mispronounces my last name, drawing me out of wife reverie. “How do you spell Galapagos?”

Darwin and his theory were maligned and misunderstood.

I tune out again and concentrate on hope for the future. I hope that later, when I explain this video to Dennis, perhaps over our fake meat dinner (Italian soysage sandwiches, I’ve decided), he’ll knowingly smirk at the “nice soft wife” thing like I believe my male partner of choice should. I hope he’ll then say something witty, but not with his mouth full, and we will both briefly feel superior to the A&E video producers. I hope he will do the dishes without me having to ask. I hope that when I step on it, the scale’s needle hits just under 120. I hope Dennis won’t stay on the computer till an insane hour. I hope I sleep through the night, no slow blinking at the ceiling. I hope the phone rings early tomorrow morning and it’s the school, needing me for another day.

I hope that, a year from today, I have a new and improved set of hopes.

The Darwins’ marriage is, by A&E accounts, a long and happy one. Though Emma is troubled by her husband’s blasphemous scientific publications, she is ever loyal and, I suppose, ever nice and soft.

As the males of the species often do, Charles dies first.

Three-fifteen as the crow caws. The sophomores caw, too. I stand behind the desk, arms akimbo, as they mass toward the door. “Goodbye, have a pleasurable afternoon and a productive evening,” I tell my charges. Only Pellet-wound replies. “You too, Princess,” he says. He approaches the desk, thrusts a sheet of notebook paper at me. “Hey,” he says, “check it. I drew this for you.”

Here is a sketch of someone that might be me. She is sitting at a desk, chin on fist and lost in thought. Here are cheekbones high and defined, the roundness of breasts indicated by half-moon shadows. It is not a caricature, it is not a mockery. It’s not half bad. I arrange my face into what I hope is a skeptical smile and look up, ready to ask Pellet-wound what this is all about. But he has slipped away. He didn’t wait for my response. I observe the empty classroom. Light slants across desktops. The floor is littered with spitballs.

A male pops his head in, sees that I’m not who he’s looking for, and vanishes.

I stare at the drawing some more. Is this meant to be me? Should I show it to Dennis? I foresee disapproval. Maybe I’ll pin it to the refrigerator, wait and see what he says. Maybe he’ll say nothing.

I fold it in quarters and put it in my purse.

The hallway is cacophonous: locker slams, female squeals, male groans of ridicule. It is the end of the school day, the beginning of spring. In the office, as I’m signing out, the receptionist asks me can I sub tomorrow? And the next day, too? Of course, I say. I’m there.

Outside, several males slouch against the building and hold their chosen females against them. Every Charles his Emma, every Miguel his Monique. They line up like birds on a beach. The females’ lips shine. I smell their freshly sprayed hair, their lotiony arms. Some of them smile, say ’bye, and mispronounce my name. I don’t care. I nod and smile back, close-mouthed. I am the substitute, and I’m feeling full of love—nice enough, but not too soft.

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