Authors: Bonnie Garmus
“At four thirty in the morning?”
“This is what is so unsung about rowing,” Dr. Mason said, turning to leave. “It happens at a time when no one’s really that busy.”
“I’ll do it,” Harriet said.
“You can’t be serious,” Elizabeth said.
“It’ll be fun,” Harriet said as if everyone agreed getting up in the middle of the night was fun. But really it was because of Mr. Sloane. He’d been drinking more and swearing more and the only way she knew how to deal with it was to stay away. “Anyway, it’s only three mornings a week.”
“It’s just a tryout. I may not pass muster.”
“You’ll be fine,” Harriet said. “You’ll pass with flying colors.”
But as Elizabeth wended her way through the boathouse two days later, small pods of drowsy rowers glancing at her in surprise, she began to feel that Harriet’s faith and Dr. Mason’s needs were both exaggerated.
“Good morning,” she said to rowers at random. “Hello.”
“What’s she doing here?” she heard someone whisper.
“Jesus,” said another.
“Miss Zott,” Dr. Mason called from the far end of the boathouse. “Over here.”
She plotted a path through the labyrinth of bodies to a disheveled
group of men who looked as if they’d just received some very bad news.
“Elizabeth Zott,” she said firmly, holding out her hand. No one took it.
“Zott will be rowing two seat today,” Mason said. “Bill broke his leg.”
“Coach,” Dr. Mason said, turning to a homicidal-looking man. “This is the rower I told you about.”
“Some of you may remember, she rowed with us before.”
“Let’s get going then.” He tipped his head at the coxswain.
“I think that went well, don’t you?” Dr. Mason said later as they walked to their cars. She turned to look at him. When she was in labor and in horrific pain, convinced the baby was snatching her internal organs like suitcases as if to ensure she’d have plenty to wear on the outside, she screamed so violently the bed frame shook. Once the contraction passed, she’d opened her eyes to see Dr. Mason leaning over her.
Not so bad, right?
She fiddled with her car keys. “I think the coxswain and coach would disagree.”
“Oh that,” he said, waving it off with his hand. “Normal. I thought you knew. New rower gets blamed for everything. You mostly rowed with Evans—you don’t really understand the finer points of rowing culture. Just give it a few rows; you’ll see.”
She hoped he was being honest, because the truth was, she’d loved being out on the water again. She felt exhausted, but in a good way.
“What I find interesting about rowing,” Dr. Mason was saying, “is that it’s always done backwards. It’s almost as if the
sport itself is trying to teach us not to get ahead of ourselves.” He opened his car door. “Actually, when you think about it, rowing is almost exactly like raising kids. Both require patience, endurance, strength, and commitment. And neither allow us to see where we’re going—only where we’ve been. I find that very reassuring, don’t you? Except for the flip-outs—of course. I could really do with fewer flip-outs.”
“You mean flips.”
“Flip-outs,” he insisted, getting in his car. “Yesterday one of my kids hit the other with a shovel.”
Although she was only almost four, Mad was already bigger than most five-year-olds and could read better than many sixth graders. But despite these physical and intellectual strides, just like her antisocial mother and grudge-holding father, she had few friends.
“I’m worried it could be a gene mutation,” Elizabeth confided to Harriet. “Calvin and I could both be carriers.”
“The I-hate-people gene?” Harriet said. “There is one?”
corrected Elizabeth. “Introversion. So guess what: I’ve enrolled her in kindergarten. The new school year starts Monday and suddenly it made so much sense. Mad needs to be around children—you’ve said so yourself.”
It was true. Harriet had voiced that opinion at least a hundred times in the last few years. Madeline was a precocious child with extraordinary verbal and comprehension abilities, but Harriet wasn’t convinced she was gaining in average areas—how to tie shoes, how to play with dolls. The other day she’d suggested they make mud pies and Mad frowned, then wrote 3.1415 with a stick in the dirt. “Done,” she’d said.
Besides, if Mad went off to school, what was she, Harriet, supposed to do with her day? She’d grown accustomed to being necessary.
“She’s too young,” Harriet insisted. “She has to be at least five years old. Better, six.”
“They mentioned that,” Elizabeth said. “Nevertheless, she’s in.”
What Elizabeth neglected to say was that it wasn’t because Madeline was bright, but rather because Elizabeth had determined the chemical composition of ballpoint pen ink and found a way to alter Madeline’s birth certificate. Technically, Mad was far too young to be in kindergarten, but Elizabeth didn’t see what a technicality had to do with her daughter’s education.
“Woody Elementary,” she said, handing Harriet a sheet of paper. “Mrs. Mudford. Room six. I realize she might be a little more advanced than some of the other children, but I doubt she’ll be the only one reading Zane Grey, don’t you?”
Six-Thirty lifted his head in concern. He wasn’t so thrilled to hear this news either. Mad in school? What about
job? How could he protect the creature if she was in a classroom?
Elizabeth gathered the coffee cups and took them to the sink. This sudden school enrollment idea wasn’t all that sudden. She’d been to the bank several weeks ago to take out a reverse mortgage on the bungalow. They were broke. If Calvin hadn’t stuck her name on the deed, a fact she’d only discovered after he died, they’d be on welfare.
The bank manager was grim in his assessment of her situation. “Things will only get worse,” he warned. “As soon as your child is old enough, get her in school. Then find a job that actually pays. Or marry rich.”
She got back in her car and reviewed her options.
Rob a bank.
Rob a jewelry store.
Or here was a loathsome idea—go back to the place that had robbed her.
Twenty-five minutes later she walked into the Hastings lobby, hands shaking, skin clammy, the body’s warning system sounding all alarms. She inhaled, trying to draw in strength. “Dr. Donatti, please,” she said to the receptionist.
“Will I like school?” Mad asked, appearing out of nowhere.
“Absolutely,” Elizabeth said unconvincingly. “What’s that there?” She pointed to a large sheet of black construction paper Madeline was clutching in her right hand.
“My picture,” she said, placing it on the table in front of her mother as she leaned up against her. It was another chalk drawing—Madeline preferred chalk over crayons—but because chalk smudged so easily, her drawings often looked blurry, as if her subjects were trying to get off the page. Elizabeth looked down to see a few stick figures, a dog, a lawn mower, a sun, a moon, possibly a car, flowers, a long box. Fire appeared to be destroying the south; rain dominated the north. And there was one other thing: a big swirly white mass right in the middle.
“Well,” Elizabeth said, “this is really something. I can tell you’ve put a lot of work into this.”
Mad puffed her cheeks as if her mother didn’t know the half of it.
Elizabeth studied the drawing again. She’d been reading Madeline a book about how the Egyptians used the surfaces of sarcophagi to tell the tale of a life lived—its ups, its downs, its ins, its outs—all of it laid out in precise symbology. But as she read, she’d found herself wondering—did the artist ever get distracted? Ink an asp instead of a goat? And if so, did he have to let it stand? Probably. On the other hand, wasn’t that the very definition of life? Constant adaptations brought about by a series of never-ending mistakes? Yes, and she should know.
Dr. Donatti had appeared in the lobby ten minutes later. Oddly, he seemed almost relieved to see her. “Miss Zott!” he’d said, giving her a hug as she held her breath, revulsed. “I was just thinking about you!”
Actually, he’d been thinking of nothing
“Tell me about these people,” she said to Mad, pointing at the stick figures.
“That’s you and me and Harriet,” Mad said. “And Six-Thirty. And that’s you rowing,” she said, pointing to the boxlike thing, “and that’s our lawn mower. And this is fire over here. And these are some more people. That’s our car. And the sun comes out, then the moon comes out, and then flowers. Get it?”
“I think so,” Elizabeth said. “It’s a seasonal story.”
Mad said. “It’s my life story.”
Elizabeth nodded in pretend understanding. A lawn mower?
“And what’s this part?” Elizabeth asked, pointing at the swirl that dominated the picture.
“That’s the pit of death,” Mad said.
Elizabeth eyes widened in worry. “And this?” She pointed at a series of slanty lines. “Rain?”
“Tears,” Mad said.
Elizabeth knelt down, her eyes level with Mad’s. “Are you sad, honey?”
Mad placed her small, chalky hands on either side of her mother’s face. “No. But you are.”
After Mad went outside to play, Harriet said something about “out of the mouths of babes,” but Elizabeth pretended not to hear. She was already aware that her daughter could read her like a book. She’d noted this before—how Mad could sense exactly those things everyone wanted to hide. “Harriet has never been in love,” she’d said out of the blue during dinner last week. “Six-Thirty still feels responsible,” she’d sighed at breakfast. “Dr. Mason is sick of vaginas,” she’d mentioned at bedtime.
“I’m not sad, Harriet,” she lied. “In fact, I have great news. Hastings offered me a job.”
“A job?” Harriet said. “But you have a job—one that lets you
work, raise Mad, walk Six-Thirty, conduct your research, and row. How many women can say that?”
thought Elizabeth, including herself. Her nonstop schedule was killing her, her lack of income threatened her family, her self-esteem had plunged to an all-new low.
“I don’t like it,” Harriet said, unhappy about the school situation, which would rob her of her purpose. “After the way they treated you and Mr. Evans? It’s bad enough that you kowtow to all those idiots who drop by here.”
“Science is like anything else,” Elizabeth said. “Some are better at it than others.”
“That’s my point,” Harriet said. “Of all disciplines, shouldn’t science be able to weed out its own intellectual zeroes? Wasn’t that Darwin’s deal? That the weak eventually bite the dust?” But she could tell Elizabeth wasn’t listening.
“How’s the baby?” Donatti had asked, taking her by the arm and leading her to his office. He’d glanced down, surprised to see her fingers were bandaged just as they had been when she’d left.
Zott said something in return, but he was too busy calculating his next move to pay attention. For the last few glorious years, he’d been Zott-Evans-free, and because of it, things had been better. Not in terms of actual breakthroughs, but things were humming along. Even that idiot, Boryweitz, seemed to have acquired a bigger brain. It was almost as if it had taken Evans to die and Zott to leave to allow his other chemists to bloom.
However, there was one major thorn in his side. The fat-cat investor. He was back. Wanted to know what the hell Mr. Zott had been doing with his money all this time. Where were the papers? The findings? The results?
He gazed out the window as Zott nattered on about an unexpected positive ion reaction. God, science was dull. He coughed, trying to disguise his inattention. It was nearly cocktail hour; he could leave soon. He remembered long ago at college—someone
had complimented him on his extra-dry martinis. And suddenly it hit him—why not be a bartender? He loved to drink; he was good at it. His libations made other people happy, meaning drunk. Plus, mixology had a ring of science to it. Where was the downside? The paycheck?
Speaking of paychecks, he had no room in his budget to hire Zott—zero. But he had to: he needed her because the investor needed her—or rather the investor needed
Mr. Zott, and his fucking abiogenesis. Seemed to be getting a little frothy about the whole thing, truth be told. He’d been ducking the man’s calls for months. Had finally gotten so desperate, he’d asked his team if anyone had done any work that came within ten feet of the topic. Guess who raised his hand? Boryweitz.
The only problem was, Boryweitz couldn’t explain his research. That’s when Donatti had gotten suspicious and Boryweitz revealed he’d run into Zott and they’d discussed abiogenesis and—how odd was this? They had similar results.
“I want to go on record saying taking a job at Hastings is a big mistake,” Harriet said, drying the coffee cups.
“Second time’s the charm,” Elizabeth insisted.
Off by one,
The Chemistry Department celebrated Elizabeth’s return with a new lab coat.
“It’s from all of us,” Donatti said. “To show how much we’ve missed you.” Surprised by the gesture, she eagerly accepted it, donning the white jacket amid scattered applause followed by a few loud guffaws. She glanced down at the stitching above the pocket. Where it had once read “E. Zott,” it now read only “E.Z.”
“Like it?” Dr. Donatti said, winking. “By the way”—he crooked his finger, indicating she should follow him to his office—“a little bird told me you’re still pursuing abiogenesis.”
Elizabeth drew back. She hadn’t told anyone about her research. The only person who might possibly know was Boryweitz, and that was only because the last time he’d been over Mad had woken from a nap, and when she’d returned, she’d found Boryweitz sitting at her desk, going through her files. “What are you
?” she’d asked, shocked.
“Nothing, Miss Zott,” he’d said, obviously wounded by her tone.
“I have something coming out myself,” said Donatti, settling behind his desk. “It’ll be in
“What’s the topic?”
“Nothing earth-shattering,” he replied with a shrug. “RNA stuff. You know how it is: have to put something out there every so often or pay the professional price. But I’m interested in yours. When can I read your paper?”
“I have a few things left to focus on,” she said. “If I can be allowed to concentrate on just that without distraction for the next six weeks, I should have something for you.”
“Concentrate on just
work?” he said, surprised. “That seems rather Calvin Evansesque, doesn’t it?”
At the mention of Calvin’s name, Elizabeth’s face froze.
“I’m sure you remember that’s not how this department runs,” Donatti was saying. “We help one another here. We’re a team. Like crew,” he mocked. He’d overheard her tell one of the other chemists she was still rowing. Well, maybe if she hadn’t
rowing, she’d be further on with her own work. Although he’d already gone through the files she’d brought in and he was shocked to realize she was much further along than Boryweitz seemed to realize. The man was an idiot.
“Here,” Donatti said, handing her a huge stack of papers. “Start by typing these. Also, we’re low on coffee. And talk to each of the fellas—see what kind of support they need.”
“Support?” Elizabeth said. “But I’m a chemist, not a lab tech.”
“No, you’re a lab tech,” Donatti said firmly. “You’ve been out of the game for a while now. Surely you didn’t think you could just waltz in here and get your old job back—not after years of thumb twiddling. But here’s the deal—work hard and we’ll see.”
“But this isn’t what we discussed.”
Luscious,” he drawled. “It’s not—”
did you just call me?”
But before he could answer, his secretary reminded him of a meeting.
“Look,” he said, turning back to Elizabeth, “you enjoyed favored status when Evans was here and plenty of people haven’t forgiven you for that. This time, though, we’ll make sure everyone
knows you earned your place. You’re a bright girl, Lizzie. It’s possible.”
“But I was counting on the chemist’s paycheck, Dr. Donatti. I can’t get by financially as a lab tech. I’ve got a child to support.”
“About that,” he said, waving his hand. “I’ve got some good news. I’ve asked Hastings to fund your further education.”
“Really?” she said, astonished. “Hastings would pay for my PhD?”
Donatti stood up, stretching his arms above his head as if he’d just finished a workout. “No,” he said. “What I meant was, I think you might benefit from steno school—dictation. I found a correspondence course for you,” he said, handing her a brochure. “The beauty is, you could do it at home in your free time.”
Heart rocketing around her chest, Elizabeth returned to her desk, slammed the files down, then headed directly for the ladies room, where she selected the stall farthest from the door and locked herself in. Harriet was right.
What had she done?
But before she could even begin to ponder the question, a banging sound came from the next stall over.
“Hello?” Elizabeth called.
The banging stopped.
“Hello?” Elizabeth tried again. “Is everything all right?”
“Mind your own business,” shot a voice.
Elizabeth hesitated, then tried again. “Do you need—”
“Are you deaf? Leave me the hell alone!”
She paused. The voice was familiar. “Miss Frask?” she asked, picturing the Personnel secretary who’d tortured her with Calvin’s passing years before. “Is that you, Miss Frask?”
“Who the hell wants to know?” came the belligerent voice.
“Elizabeth Zott. Chemistry.”
“Jesus Christ. Zott. Of all people.” There was a long moment of silence.
Miss Frask, now age thirty-three, who, for the last four years, had dutifully followed every path promising promotion—from overselling Hastings’s benefits, to spying on specific departments, to authoring an in-house gossip column called “You Heard It Here First”—had still not been promoted. In fact, she was now reporting to a new hire— a twenty-one-year-old boy fresh out of college with no discernible skills other than making chains out of paper clips. As for Eddie—the geologist she’d slept with to prove she was marriage material—he’d dumped her two years ago for a virgin. Today’s latest slap in the face: her new boy-boss had given her a seven-point plan for improvement. Item one: lose twenty pounds.
“So, you really are back,” Frask said from her stall. “Like the proverbial bad penny.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Bring the dog, too?”
“I did not.”
“Turning into a rule follower are we, Zott?”
“My dog is busy in the afternoons.”
“Your dog is
in the afternoons.” Frask rolled her eyes.
“He picks my child up from school.”
Frask shifted her position on her seat. That’s right—Zott had a kid now.
Frask spun the toilet paper roll. “Sorry to hear
From her stall, Elizabeth studied the floor tiles. She knew exactly what Frask meant. On Mad’s first day of school, she watched in horror as the teacher, a puffy-eyed woman with a malodorous perm, attempted to pin a pink flower on Mad’s blouse.
abcs are fun!
“Can I have a blue flower instead?” Madeline had asked.
“No,” the teacher had said. “Blue is for boys and pink is for girls.”
“No it isn’t,” Madeline said.
The teacher, a Mrs. Mudford, shifted her gaze from Madeline to Elizabeth, looking at the too-pretty mother as if to pinpoint the source of the bad attitude. She glanced at Elizabeth’s empty ring finger. Bingo.
“So, what brings you back to Hastings?” Frask asked. “Shopping for a new genius?”
“Oh right,” Frask mocked. “Same old song. I’d heard the investor came back, and shazam! Here you are. I’ll say one thing for you: you’re predictable. At least you’re chasing a richer man this time. Although, between us, isn’t he a bit old for you?”
“I’m not following.”
“Don’t be coy.”
Elizabeth tightened her jaw. “I wouldn’t know how to begin.”
Frask thought about this. True. Zott wasn’t the coy type. She was obtuse, oblivious, just like that day when she had to be told that Calvin had left her a parting gift— a gift that was (how was this possible?) already in school and being picked up by the dog. Really?
“The man,” Frask said, “who gave Hastings a huge grant to fund abiogenesis based on your work? Or rather, the work of Mr. E. Zott.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know very well, Zott. Anyway, the rich man’s back, and goodness,
so are you.
I think you might be the only woman at Hastings—out of three thousand employees, mind you—who isn’t a secretary. I can’t imagine how
could have happened. And yet you still tried to pass yourself off as a man. Is there any level to which you won’t stoop? By the way, do you know why the institute says we ladies aren’t a good investment? It’s because we’re always running off and having babies. Like
” Elizabeth said, her voice filling with fury.
“Thanks, in part, to women like you,” she snapped, “women who pander—”
“I do not pander—”
“Who play along—”
“I do not play along—”
“Who seem to think their self-worth is based on what a man—”
“How dare you—”
“No!” Elizabeth shouted, pounding on the thin steel panel that separated them. “How dare
Miss Frask! How dare
!” She stood up, opened her stall door, strode to the sink, turning the faucet handle with such force it came off in her hand. Water spewed out, soaking her lab coat. “Dammit!” she yelled. “Dammit!”
“Oh Jesus,” Frask said, materializing at her side. “Let me.” She pushed Elizabeth to the left, then bent down and shut off the water valve under the sink. As she straightened up, the two women faced off.
“I’ve never pretended to be a man, Frask!” Elizabeth shouted as she blotted her lab coat with a paper towel.
“And I’m not a panderer!”
“I’m a chemist. Not a
A damn good one!”
“Well, I’m a personnel expert! An almost-psychologist,” Frask shouted.
“No really,” Zott said.
“I didn’t have a chance to finish, okay? What about you? Why aren’t you a PhD, Zott?” Frask shot back.
Elizabeth hardened, and without meaning to, revealed a fact about herself that she’d never told anyone other than a police officer. “Because I was sexually violated by my thesis advisor, then kicked out of the doctoral program,” she shouted.
Frask looked back, shocked. “Same,” she said limply.