Sweetness #9

By Stephan Eirik Clark

Little, Brown and Company
August 2014



If given the choice, I would have lived a life of quiet domesticity, benumbed by the banality of my daily routine. I never wanted to go poking at my past as the cook pokes at the cut of grilled meat to see if it's done; I wanted to have kids and a buy a barbecue and follow an American football team with the same passion I'd once given The Tractor Boys of Ipswich Town. And yet here I am banging away at the keys of my old IBM Selectric as if I were a failed ex-president with a deadline for a bloated memoir.

What happened? you say.

One thing: Sweetness #9.

It was my task at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark to conduct a chronic toxicity test of this artificial sweetener prior to our submitting it to the FDA for approval. For this, I bred eight pairs of Sprague-Dawley rats, those red-eyed albino creatures that are so commonly used in toxicology studies because of their calm demeanor and excellent reproductive performance. Within days, vaginal swabs in each of the females in estrus showed the presence of sperm, a reliable indicator of conception, and the males were eliminated from the colony. Gestation cycles ran between twenty-one and twenty-three days and resulted in the birth of seventy-four pups across eight litters. When the males were once again eliminated, there remained thirty-nine test subjects, one of which was cannibalized by its stressed mother before it could open its eyes at two weeks.

The rats were housed independently in plastic tubs on one of two wheeled storage shelves that occupied the back wall of the rodent room. Each tub was secured from above by a metal grate and equipped with an overhanging water bottle; the rats were fed standard rodent chow ad libitum and given one of four doses of Sweetness #9. The control group was given no amount of The Nine, as we had taken to calling the sweetener. One-third of the remaining population was given the equivalent of 75 mg/kg BW/day (more than fifteen times the estimated daily human intake of the sweetener), while another third received 1,600 mg/kg BW/day, and the final third enjoyed a dose of 8,000 mg/kg BW/ day. To offer perspective, if the group receiving the least amount of Sweetness #9 was ingesting the equivalent of a sweetened bullet every twenty-four hours, the middle third could be said to be absorbing one of the conventional bombs dropped on Dresden, while those receiving 8,000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day were taking in something approaching the combined power of Fat Man and Little Boy.

For the first four weeks of my planned twelve-month study, I administered the sweetener by feeding tube. After my rats were weaned from their mothers, I added The Nine to their rodent chow and mixed it in with their water, leaving me to calculate the amount of the test substance assimilated each day.

I would be remiss if I did not mention here the existence of one last test group, however unofficial and poorly tracked it was. This group consisted of two people: me and my wife. That this went against protocol goes without saying. I just couldn't help leaving the lab with a little vial of sweetener stashed away inside my coat pocket every third or fourth day. I felt proud to be wearing my lab coat and performing this work, which would help bring about a future in which diabetics and the calorie-conscious could enjoy a sweetened drink or snack without fear or guilt. And besides, this wasn't a drug study whose results were in question from the start. Previous short-term tests had already determined the maximum dosage I was to deliver, beyond which a large mortality rate could be expected. So when I took home that first vial of The Nine and sweetened my wife's coffee one Saturday morning, I didn't think to discuss its dangers. I only lifted my cup to hers and toasted to progress and new ideas.

Betty giggled as if we were teenagers sneaking alcohol. "It certainly is sweet," she said, after taking a wide-eyed sip.

"One hundred and eighty times sweeter than sugar," I told her, "and at a fraction of the cost."

"Progress and new ideas," she echoed, clinking her cup against mine once more.

While I consumed the sweetener twice per day (first with my morning coffee, then in the evening with a cup of Earl Grey), Betty ingested the substance at a somewhat higher rate, as she had inherited a taste for sweet tea from her Virginia-born father and drank no fewer than four or five cups of the stuff each day. So.


If gaining access to Sweetness #9 years before the public would was a perk of my new career, the excitement this afforded me soon wore off. In fact, by the end of my first month, the novelty of my newfound professionalism had disappeared entirely, and I was looking at my job as a factory worker might. It was the same thing day after day. Each morning I'd pull the rats out of their tubs by the base of the tail and check for anomalies in appearance or behavior. Illness can overtake a rodent quickly and without warning; for this reason it is important to know your test subjects intimately, right down to the consistency of their stool samples. I would touch each specimen's nose and stare deep into its red eyes, looking for any sign of nasal or ocular discharge; then, after rubbing its tail between my fingers to determine if it was running a temperature, I'd set the rat down upon the wire roof of its tub and apply a stethoscope to its chest, listening for the tell-tale signs of congestion or wheezing. Once this task was completed, I'd palpate the rat's lumbar spine and pelvic region to assess its Body Condition Score, a five-point scale that runs from "emaciated" to "obese" and helps identify an animal's general health status. Finally, I'd set the test subject down in the communal glass tank with anywhere from one to three other members of its cohort, and observe its sociability and response to external stimuli, being sure to record all of my findings in the marbled notebook that I stored in the top drawer of my desk.

Rats, as my lab-mate Hickey was kind enough to inform me after the fact, are less prone to biting if you handle them in silence; as a consequence, my days became muted by design. Even those few hours I spent at my desk, writing up my daily observation reports or eating the sandwich I'd brought from home, passed without much more noise than the thrumming of the building's HVAC system. Hickey rarely spoke, perhaps owing to my initial reaction to his prosthetic limb. On several occasions I tried to draw him out on the subject of Vietnam, wanting to learn how he'd lost his leg. But it only seemed to push him farther away. Thinking I should meet him halfway, I spoke freely of my undergraduate adventures as a reporter for The Daily Targum, when I'd been assigned to what my editor had called "the draft-card-and-bra-burning beat." I was on his side, I wanted him to know, but still he responded to me as if I had challenged him to a breath-holding contest.

It began to affect my judgment. When it was time to run my rats through the wooden maze (a task I'd perform once a week with a stopwatch in hand), I often couldn't help but say a few encouraging words to one of my test subjects as it moved off toward the piece of cheese I'd set down at the finish line. (Coach Dix had done the same for me the summer before my junior year of high school, after I'd defied my mother's wishes and baffled my closest friends by signing up for the football team. I suffered through a few rather unfortunate acts of hazing before emerging out beneath the lights of Friday night, but the ends, as they say, always justify the means.)

I grew so desperate for conversation that I finally brought a transistor radio from home and tuned it in to the Watergate hearings.

"Are you a Nixon man?" I asked Hickey.


"Horrible, this thing they're dragging him through, don't you think?"

It was the day that former White House counsel John Dean testified, implicating Nixon in the cover-up. He'd prepared a 246-page opening statement, in which his powers of memory were so great that some newspaper columnists had taken to calling him The Human Tape Recorder. "Enemies lists and hush money—what nonsense! Do you believe a word this man says?"

Hickey turned round in his seat, running a handkerchief across the back of his neck. At first I'd thought he perspired so profusely because the primate room was kept at a more tropical temperature than the one housing my rats. But after seeing him wipe his face dry after returning from the cafeteria or attending to himself in the men's room, I had come to the conclusion that he simply had overactive sweat glands.

"It's one man's word against another's," I said, "and the word of a disgruntled former employee at that. Who but a madman writes a two-hundred-and-forty-six-page opening statement? Can you tell me?"

Hickey turned back to his paperwork, his voice almost lost in the drone of the air conditioner. "Turn the radio down, will you?"

In a way, it was a triumph. Usually he gave me no more than a word or two. "Lunch," he might say at midday, or "Checking out" near five o'clock. But here? Six! A triumph indeed.


Conversations with my wife were barely better anymore. One evening in late June, I came home to find her sitting in the dark in the living room, wearing a pair of my grey sweat pants and an oversize T-shirt. Streaks of mascara ran from her eyes; a field of used Kleenexes, like so much scattered dandelion fluff, lay all about her on the sofa.

"That bastard!" she said, as I moved in from the door. "How could he be such a bastard?"

It was her father. He had left her mother for a younger woman and fled to a pied-à-terre in Philadelphia.

"Can you believe it?" she said. "She's only three years older than me!"

The four of us had planned to celebrate the Fourth of July together with a cruise of New York Harbor; when we'd first spoken of it over glazed ham at Christmas, I'd imagined lifting a glass of champagne to what I'd assumed would be the inevitable news—we're having a baby! But instead, as we rode the Spirit of New Jersey on the evening of Independence Day, it was just three of us, regardless of your views on the beginning of life.[1]

That evening, Betty and I might as well have been sailing away from our life as newlyweds, because as the fireworks erupted over the Statue of Liberty, her mother stood wilted at the ship's railing, staring down into the flashes of light that spread out in blurry bursts across the water.

"I think I'm going to vomit," she'd say, as Betty rubbed her back. "I think I'm going to vomit."

Had I known that grief and sorrow can be contagious, I would never have allowed my wife to spend so many countless hours that summer in the hot zone of her childhood home. I thought I was being supportive each time I told her yes, of course, go away for a day or two. But then back she'd come to punish me for another man's crimes.


July was as passionless as it was unbearably hot. When Betty was home, long stretches of silence passed between us, interrupted only by the hum of the refrigerator or the whirring of the window A/C unit.

I began to live in my head more than anywhere else. At work, after Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon had recorded all the conversations in the Oval Office, I even stopped turning on my transistor radio. Maybe if Hickey had been a better conversationalist, I would have been fine. That wasn't the case, though. And so I descended deeper and deeper into my muted world, a place where every sound became all the louder as a consequence of the deafening silence that surrounded it. Most unnerving were those cries I heard coming from the primate room, especially those that sounded after Hickey had slipped away to perform his morning's toilet or grab a bite to eat.

One day, sure the screeching of the chimpanzees had never before reached such heights, I called for Hickey moments after he'd stepped out into the hall.

"But I've got to go!" he said. "It'll just be a moment." A great huffing sigh propelled him back into the lab, then he stood at my side, looking at me with restrained violence. I held up one finger to ask for his patience, and stood there with my head cocked toward the door of the primate room. "There!" A screech—not quite as hideous as it had been moments earlier, but plaintive and terrible all the same. "Did you hear that?"

"They're monkeys," Hickey said, wiping the sweat from his brow. "What do you want?"

"But they've been getting worse, haven't they? Louder, I mean."

He just looked at me. Sometimes I thought he had a glass eye, though maybe it's only in retrospect that I've begun to think this.

"You should hear them when you leave the room," I said. "When I leave the room?" "As soon as you're gone"—I pointed—"it sounds like someone's protesting ritual slaughter in there." He exhaled and turned back for the door. "I have to go." "But don't they sound angry?" "I'm no expert." "You work with monkeys!" He threw a hand up over his shoulder, saying maybe they just needed a snack. This was his answer to everything. If I said they were making a horrible noise, or he emerged from the primate room and conceded they were a little restless, he'd head off to the cafeteria for another box of milk and a crate of bananas. I never dared watch him feed them; they took their milk from a baby's bottle and this seemed somehow grotesque, considering what Betty and I were trying for at home. But one afternoon, after the monkeys had started cackling and Hickey had gone in there to placate them, I did dare step up to the door and peek through its window—right as a monkey's face filled the glass, its eyes wild, its chin doubled, its cheeks as fat as a baby's.

I spun away from there just as Hickey turned in front of the window holding that monkey over one shoulder (was he burping him?), and then I sat down at my desk, too overcome by my primal fear to focus on the notebook open before me.


It was August before Betty and I touched each other again, and then we only did it because we felt we had to: it was our first anniversary. In retrospect, I see we should have gone somewhere after the French restaurant, a Holiday Inn perhaps, because as we lay together in our bedroom, my attention moved to the wall over our headboard, through which could be heard the voices of our neighbors in 3451⁄2. Such a jeremiad! He railed against her meatloaf ("Not again!") as she went on about his drinking ("Never stops!"). Listening to this, I rolled away from Betty, unable to finish, and looked up to the ceiling. What did I really know about my wife? Only recently had she started defecating when I was under the same roof as her; on our honeymoon in Hawaii, she'd taken the ice bucket as cover each morning and used the facilities in the hotel lobby. Had we married too soon? I feared asking the question was answer enough.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"No, it's me," she answered, before adding in a smaller voice, "We won't wind up like them, will we?"

I rolled my eyes into the back of my head, looking up at the wall over the headboard. "Them? No."

"Or my parents," she said.

We were like all young people, I suppose, certain we wouldn't repeat the mistakes of the past, that our family would be stronger, healthier, more loving. I reached for her hip. "I love you," I said. I kissed her. "Do you hear? We'll be fine. Better than fine."

And then we turned out the lights, and our despair recaptured us in the dark.


Not long after this, I accompanied Betty to a doctor's office and learned that my wife's uterus was heart-shaped and blanketed by an abnormally thick mucus at ovulation. Betty fled into the hallway in tears and convulsed violently in my arms near the elevator while repeating the words the doctor had told her. "'Have you considered adoption?' Adoption?" She might as well have been saying "cancer" or "double homicide." And for good reason, too. We wanted children, our children, so we went for a second opinion, and this time heard my sperm described as "sluggish" and "listless"—everything but alcoholic and unemployed. "You should consider adoption," the doctor said.

Instead, Betty insisted we redouble our efforts at baby-making, which immediately rendered our sessions in bed more workmanlike and desperate. She stopped wearing those sheer outfits of pink and yellow chiffon that had once made my groin thrum like a struck tuning fork; now the pendulum had swung back in the other direction, so far so that one evening I found my wife in bed in a white bra and her everyday panties, with a bowl of Rocky Road ice cream balanced on her belly. When she saw me in the doorway, she licked her spoon and set the bowl on the bedside table, then lifted herself up at the hips to slide her panties free. "We have to try extra hard tonight," she said, a phrase that troubled me even then as a fit young man. "Extra hard," she said, bringing to mind the piece of graph paper, stashed in her bedside drawer, on which she charted her basal temperature.

At times such as these, when our likelihood for conception was increased, I knew we'd be going at it every thirty-six hours, until we'd passed back through into a period of reproductive doubt. Betty was relentless. Not even sleep would slow her. More than once I awoke in the middle of the night to find her moving atop me like a figure in a dream, here and then gone, my memory of this uncertain by morning, when I'd be yawning over my first cup of coffee at work and being reminded of the excellent reproductive performance of my rats.

One sleepless morning I set E3CL9, a rat I'd taken to calling Louie, into the wooden maze and watched him turn round in a slow circle near the starting line. It was strange behavior, considering he had for several weeks been racing off toward the cheese he knew would be waiting for him at the end.[2]

I drove home slowly that night, stopping for milk at one convenience store and eggs at another. Since the death of my parents, I had become a master of compartmentalization. But no matter how bad things had ever been, I had always had a sanctuary, a place where I could box myself off from worry and doubt. Before I joined Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark, it had been my studies and dreams of becoming a flavor chemist, and before that — my grandfather's shoe store. It was there that I had settled for a year after graduating from high school. While all my peers launched off into college life, I stayed at my grandfather's side and learned how to hold a woman's ankle and smile whenever she insisted the shoe I'd slipped on her foot was a half-size too large, never too small. Now, though, where but in my car could I find any peace of mind? At home I had to bunker down in front of the TV or roll over in bed and pray the magical spell of sleep would hold, while at work I needed to avoid looking into the window of the primate room and concentrate on my rats.

That evening, I expected to come home and find my apartment darkened, as it had been so many nights of late. Instead, it was all lit up, no different from my wife's face.

"C'mon," she said, grabbing me by the hand and leading me back out through the door. "We've been down in the dumps long enough. We deserve a night out."

It was only a Wednesday, so I thought the Howard Johnson's out by the interstate would suffice, but Betty had me take note of her makeup and hair and insisted we treat ourselves to something more extravagant than that.

"How about Le Petit Cochon?"


"Why not? I'm worth it, aren't I?" "Yes, but..." "We're young, David. Let's live." So on we went, and then we were sliding into a corner booth and sharing a memorable roast duck with a side of buttered turnips. It was delicious, as good as you could get in North Central New Jersey at the time, and then it only got better. When I reached for the decanter in the center of our table and went to pour my wife a second glass of house red, Betty raised the flat of one hand and couldn't help but grin.

"A baby?" I said.

She nodded. "I'm two weeks late. I wanted to wait until Dr. Orrey could say for sure, but he's away at a conference until next week, and I just couldn't keep it to myself any longer. I know it, though," and she smiled as she had on our wedding day. "I've never been late like this before."

"Oh, Betty!" I squeezed her hand, and then, to the great horror of the maître d', ducked down beneath the table-top and buried my face in her lap. "A little Baby Leveraux, at last!"

Believing this was just the start, I fell asleep that night picturing a teeming family reunion in the country. Betty and I sat at a long wooden table decorated with a gingham table-cloth, watching as our many sons and daughters and grandchildren passed fat pies back and forth. We took a walk through the arbor after dinner, the young following the old as birds swooped down over our shoulders, jealous of the fruit that was so ripe it dropped from the trees and rolled to a stop at our feet. Paradise.

The following evening Betty and I went to the supermarket together, though usually she completed this chore alone. How could I want to be apart from the family? That little force of life in her belly was like a magnet pulling me toward her, so as she filled our cart with jars of pickles and a pyramid of canned soups that were unconscionably salty, I smiled and nodded at passing shoppers, rejoicing at my wife's newfound "cravings" no less than she enjoyed describing them to me.[3]


These developments on the domestic front left me feeling so refreshed and renewed that when I next sent Louie through the maze and saw him give up after only a few steps, I dropped my face down over him like some benevolent god descending from the clouds and offered him a few encouraging words: "C'mon, Louie, you know how it's done! Left, right, left, c'mon, now!"

Moments later, Hickey emerged from the primate room, scribbling onto his clipboard.

"He won't run the maze," I said. My lab-mate looked up from his work, distracted. "It's taken him longer and longer each week," I said, "and now he won't even give it a go." Hickey glanced back into the primate room, and only then did I realize it myself: they weren't making any noise. Hadn't made any all day, in fact, perhaps all week.

Hickey walked to his desk shaking his head. "They just sit there and stare right through me."

"The monkeys?" I followed him over, so glad to hear the strain in his voice—it wasn't just in my head, then! I thought this might be our breakthrough. Silent monkeys and apathetic rats! We'd be like Crick and Watson, volleying wild conjectures back and forth over pints of warm bitter. But then Hickey draped his lab coat over the back of his chair and continued around me to the door.

"Calling it a day," he said. Nothing more. Not even an encouraging word about the weekend.


[1] In this regard I am not quite a fundamentalist. Life, I say, at least any sense of life that rises above the mere biological, begins after conception, most likely during the seventh week of pregnancy, when a fetus develops taste buds and first senses the sweetness of the amniotic fluid, thereby establishing a flavor preference that will later be reinforced by the equally sweet taste of mother's milk. What is flavor perception if not the first hint of a soul?

[2] Louie is a strange name for a female rat, I confess, and one that no doubt could cause certain members of our nation's professoriate to parse out the differences between the homosocial and the homosexual. But if I am to make this my first attempt at full disclosure, I suppose I had better not allow myself to edit even those details that I believe are inconsequential or not connected to the story of The Nine.

[3] The increased blood flow of pregnancy dilutes a woman's normal level of sodium, triggering the craving for salty foods.