Authors: Bonnie Garmus
“How was the first day back?” Harriet asked as soon as Elizabeth got home.
“Fine,” Elizabeth lied. “Mad,” she said, bending over to sweep her daughter into her arms. “How was school? Was it fun? Did you learn something new?”
“Sure you did,” she said. “Tell me.”
Madeline put her book down. “Well. Some of the kids are incontinent.”
“Good god,” said Harriet.
“They were probably just nervous,” Elizabeth said, smoothing Madeline’s hair. “Starting something new can be difficult.”
“Also,” Madeline said, “Mrs. Mudford wants to see you.” She held out a note.
“Good,” Elizabeth said. “That’s what proactive teachers do.”
“What’s proactive?” Madeline asked.
“Trouble,” muttered Harriet.
Elizabeth made her way down to Personnel a few weeks later. “Can you give me information on that investor?” Elizabeth asked Miss Frask. “Anything you have.”
“Why not,” Frask said as she yanked a single slim file folder
from accounting stamped
“I gained two pounds last week.”
“Is there more?” Elizabeth asked, looking through the file. “There’s nothing in here.”
“You know how rich people are, Zott. Private. But why don’t we have lunch next week. It’ll give me more time to root through the files.”
But when the next week came, the only thing Frask brought was a sandwich.
“Couldn’t find a thing,” Frask admitted. “Which is strange given all the hoopla around his last visit. Probably means he decided to take his money elsewhere; happens all the time. By the way, how’s the lab tech job going? Suicidal yet?”
“How did you know about that?” Elizabeth said as a vein on her temple began to throb.
“I’m in Personnel, remember? We know all, see all. Or in my case, knew all, saw all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Now I’m the one who’s been fired,” Frask said matter-of-factly. “I’m out this Friday.”
“Remember my seven-point improvement plan? Lose twenty pounds? I gained seven.”
“You can’t be fired for gaining weight,” Elizabeth said. “That’s illegal.”
Frask leaned over and squeezed Elizabeth’s arm. “Gosh, you know what? I never tire of your naïveté.”
“I’m serious,” Elizabeth said. “You must fight it, Miss Frask. You can’t let them do this.”
“Well,” Frask said, turning serious, “as a personnel professional, I do always advocate a heart-to-heart with the boss. Point out one’s accomplishments; focus on one’s future impacts.”
“I’m kidding,” Frask said. “That never works. Anyway, don’t worry—I’ve already got a bunch of temp typing jobs lined up.
But before I leave, I have a little present for you. Something to make up for all the grief I caused after Mr. Evans died. Why don’t you meet me on Friday at the south elevator. Four o’clock. I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
“Just down this hallway,” Frask instructed when Friday afternoon arrived. “Watch where you walk. A bunch of mice escaped from the biology lab.” Together she and Elizabeth took the elevator to the basement, then made their way down a long corridor until they reached a door marked
“Here we are,” Frask said cheerfully.
“What is this place?” Elizabeth asked, staring at a row of small steel doors labeled with the numbers one to ninety-nine.
“Storage,” said Frask, taking out a set of keys. “You have a car, right? And a big empty trunk?” She spun through the keys until she found number forty-one, inserted it in the lock, and invited Elizabeth to look inside.
Calvin’s work. Boxed and sealed.
“We can use this dolly,” Frask said, wheeling it over. “It’s eight boxes total. But we need to hurry— I have to turn in these keys by five o’clock.”
“Is this legal?”
Miss Frask reached for the first box. “Do we care?”
Walter Pine had been in television from almost the very beginning. He liked the idea of television—the way it promised people an escape from daily life. That’s why he’d chosen it—because who didn’t want to escape? He did.
But as the years wore on, he began to feel like he was the prisoner permanently assigned to digging the escape tunnel. At the end of the day, as the other prisoners scrambled over him to freedom, he stayed behind with the spoon.
Still, he kept on for the same reason many people keep on: because he was a parent—the lone parent of daughter Amanda, six years old, kindergartner at Woody Elementary, and light of his life. He would do anything for that child. That included taking his daily browbeating from his boss, who recently threatened he’d be out of a job soon if he didn’t do something about that empty afternoon programming slot.
Walter took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, looking at the cloth right after, as if to see what his insides were made of.
Phlegm. Not a surprise.
A woman had come to see him a few days back—Elizabeth Zott, mother of…he couldn’t remember the kid’s name. According to Zott, Amanda was causing trouble. No surprise; Mrs. Mudford, her teacher, claimed Amanda was always causing trouble. Which he refused to believe. Yes, Amanda was a bit
anxious like he was, a bit overweight like he was, a bit of a people pleaser like he was, but you know what else Amanda was? A
kid. And nice kids, like nice adults, were rare.
You know what else was rare? A woman like Elizabeth Zott. He could not stop thinking about her.
“Finally,” Harriet said, wiping her wet hands on her dress as Elizabeth came in through the back door. “I was starting to worry.”
“Sorry,” she said, trying to keep the rage out of her voice. “Something came up at work.” She threw her bag down and collapsed in a chair.
She’d been back at Hastings for two months now and the stress of underemployment was killing her. She knew people in high-stress jobs often longed for a simpler position—something that didn’t require heart or brainpower; something that didn’t prey on their sagging spirits at three in the morning. But she had learned that underemployment was worse. Not only did her paycheck reflect her lowly status, but her brain hurt from inactivity. And yet despite the fact that her colleagues knew she could run intellectual circles around them, she was expected to rah-rah whatever minor accomplishments they churned out.
But today’s accomplishment was not minor. It was major. The latest edition of
was out and Donatti’s paper was in it.
“Nothing earth-shattering.” That’s how Donatti had described his article a few months back. But the work
earth-shattering, and she should know. Because it was hers.
She read the article twice just to make sure. The first time, slowly. But the second time she dashed through it until her blood pressure skipped through her veins like an unsecured fire hose. This article was a direct theft from her files. And guess who was listed as a co-contributor.
She lifted her head to see Boryweitz watching her. He turned pale, then hung his head.
“Try to understand!” Boryweitz cried as she slammed the journal down on his desk. “I need this job!”
“We all need our jobs,” Elizabeth seethed. “The problem is, you’ve never done yours.”
Boryweitz peered up at her, his lemur eyes begging for mercy, but all he saw was a rogue wave just beginning to crest, its energy unknown, its true power untested. “I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “I really am. I had no idea Donatti would go this far. He photocopied all your files the first day you were back, but I assumed it was to familiarize himself with our work.”
work?” She managed not to reach out and snap his neck in two. “I’ll deal with you later,” she promised. Then she turned and marched down the hallway toward Donatti’s office, barely breaking stride to shove a meandering microbiologist out of her way.
“You’re a liar and a cheat, Donatti,” she said, bursting into her boss’s office. “And I promise you this: you won’t get away with it.”
Donatti looked up from his desk. “Zott!” he cried. “Always a pleasure!”
He sat back, taking in her fury with a kind of joy. This would have been the sort of thing Evans would have quit over for sure. If only he were alive to see this—but no, he had to ruin this moment by being dead already.
He listened with half an ear as Zott railed on about his thievery. The investor had called earlier to congratulate Donatti on his work—made some promising noises about sending more money their way. He’d also asked about Zott—whether he’d played any role in the research. Donatti had said no, not really—unfortunately, Mr. Zott had proved to be a bit of a washout; in fact, he’d been demoted. The investor had sighed as if disappointed, then asked about Donatti’s next steps, abiogenesis-wise. Donatti mucked around with some big words he’d gleaned from other parts of Zott’s research, all of which he’d have to ask
Zott about later,
she’d calmed the fuck down and remembered she worked for
God, it was hard being a manager. Anyway, whatever he said seemed to satisfy the rich guy.
But then Zott had to go and ruin everything by doing the one thing neither of them could afford for her to do. “Here,” she said, plopping her lab key in his coffee. “Keep your damn job.” Then she threw her ID tag in the trash, dumped her lab coat in the middle of his desk, and stormed out, taking all those big words with her.
“You got four phone calls,” Harriet was saying. “The first was about becoming a Nielsen family. The other three were from a Walter Pine. Pine wants you to call him back. Says it’s urgent. Claims you and he had an enjoyable conversation about food—or no, no, I’m sorry, about
” she corrected herself, checking her notes again. “Sounded anxious,” she said, looking up. “Professionally anxious. Like a well-mannered person, but on edge.”
“Walter Pine,” Elizabeth said, gritting her teeth, “is Amanda Pine’s father. I drove to his office a few days back to talk with him about the lunch issue.”
“How did the talk go?”
“It was more of a confrontation.”
“Violent, I hope.”
“Mom?” a voice said, appearing in the doorway.
“Hi, bunny,” Elizabeth said, attempting to sound calm as she encircled her gangly child with one arm. “How was school?”
“I made a clove hitch knot,” Madeline said, holding up a rope. “For show-and-tell.”
“Did everyone enjoy it?”
“That’s okay,” Elizabeth said, pulling her close. “People don’t always like what we like.”
“No one ever likes my show-and-tell stuff.”
“Little bastards,” muttered Harriet.
“They liked that arrowhead you brought in.”
“Well, next week why not try the periodic table? That’s always a crowd pleaser.”
“Or you could try my bowie knife,” Harriet suggested. “Let them know where you stand.”
“When’s dinner?” Madeline said. “I’m hungry.”
“I put one of your casseroles in the oven,” Harriet said to Elizabeth as she heaved herself toward the door. “I need to go feed the beast. Call Pine back.”
Amanda Pine?” Madeline gasped.
“Her father,” Elizabeth said. “I told you. I visited him three days ago and got the entire lunch business straightened out. I think he understood our position, and I am certain Amanda will not be stealing your lunch ever again. Stealing is
” she snapped, thinking of Donatti and his article.
Both Madeline and Harriet jumped.
“She…she brings a lunch, Mom,” Madeline said carefully. “But it’s not normal.”
“That’s not our problem.”
Madeline looked at her mother as if she was missing the point.
“You need to eat your own lunch, bunny,” Elizabeth said more quietly. “To grow up tall.”
tall,” Madeline complained. “Too tall.”
“One can never be too tall,” Harriet said.
from being too tall,” Madeline said, tapping the cover of
The Guinness Book of Records
“But that was a pituitary gland disorder, Mad,” Elizabeth said.
“Nine feet tall!” Madeline emphasized.
“Poor man,” Harriet said. “Where does someone like that shop?”
” Madeline said.
“Yes, but everything kills eventually,” Harriet said. “That’s why everyone ends up dead, sweetheart.” But when she noticed
Elizabeth’s mouth drop and Madeline slump, she instantly regretted her words. She opened the back door. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning before rowing,” she said to Elizabeth. “And I’ll see you, Mad,” she said to the little girl, “when you get up.”
This was the schedule she and Elizabeth had worked out ever since Elizabeth had returned to work. Harriet took Mad to school, Six-Thirty picked Mad up from school, Harriet watched her until Elizabeth got home. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She extracted a slip of paper from her pocket. “You got another note.” She gave Elizabeth a meaningful look. “From you-know-who.”
Elizabeth already knew Mudford didn’t approve of Madeline. She did not approve of the way Mad could read, or the way she could kick a ball, or the way she knew a complicated series of nautical knots— a skill she practiced frequently, including in the dark, in the rain, without help, just in case.
“Just in case of what, Mad?” Elizabeth had asked her once, finding the child huddled outside at night covered in a tarp, rain coming in from every direction, a piece of rope in her hands.
Mad had looked up at her mother, surprised. Wasn’t it obvious that “just in case” wasn’t an option but rather the
option? Life required preparedness; just ask her dead father.
Although, honestly, if she’d been able to ask her dead father anything it would have been how he’d felt the first time he saw her mother. Was it love at first sight?
His ex-colleagues too still had questions for Calvin—like how he managed to win so many awards when he never seemed to be doing anything. And what about sex with Elizabeth Zott? She seemed like she’d be frigid—was she? Even Madeline’s teacher, Mrs. Mudford, had questions for the long-gone Calvin Evans.
But obviously asking Madeline’s father anything was out of the question, not just because he was dead, but because in 1959, fathers had nothing to do with their children’s education.
Amanda Pine’s father was the exception, but that was only because there was no longer a Mrs. Pine. She’d left him (and quite rightly, Mudford believed), followed by a loud and public divorce where she claimed the much older Walter Pine was not fit to be a father, much less a husband. There’d been an embarrassing sexual connotation to the whole thing; Mrs. Mudford didn’t like to think of the specifics. But because of it, Mrs. Walter Pine ended up with everything Walter Pine had, including Amanda, whom, as it turned out, she hadn’t actually wanted. And who could blame her? Amanda wasn’t the easiest child. Thus Amanda went back to Walter, and Walter came to school, where Mrs. Mudford was forced to listen to his poor excuses regarding the contents of Amanda’s highly unusual lunch boxes.
Still, while conferences with Walter Pine were irritating, they paled in comparison to the sessions she had with Zott. Wasn’t it just her luck that the two parents she liked least she saw the most? Although admittedly, that’s how it always was. Child behavior problems started at home. Still, if she had to choose between Amanda Pine, lunch thief, and Madeline Zott, inappropriate question asker, she’d take Amanda any day.
“Madeline asks inappropriate questions?” Elizabeth said, alarmed, during their last meeting.
“Yes, she does,” Mrs. Mudford said sharply, plucking lint from her sleeve like a spider attacking its prey. “For instance, yesterday during circle time, we were discussing Ralph’s pet turtle, and Madeline interrupted to ask how she might become a freedom fighter in Nashville.”
Elizabeth paused as if trying to understand the underlying issue. “She shouldn’t have interrupted,” she finally said. “I’ll speak to her.”
Mrs. Mudford clicked her teeth. “You misunderstand me, Mrs. Zott. Children interrupt; that I can deal with. What I can’t deal with is a child who wants to change the discussion to civil rights. This is kindergarten, not
The Huntley-Brinkley Report.
Furthermore,” she added, “your daughter recently complained to our librarian that she was unable to find any Norman Mailer on our bookshelves. Apparently, she tried to put in a request for
The Naked and the Dead.
” The teacher raised one eyebrow, her eyes zeroing in on the E.Z. machine-stitched above the breast pocket in a slutty-looking cursive.
“She’s an early reader,” Elizabeth said. “I may have forgotten to mention that.”
The teacher folded her hands together, then leaned forward threateningly.
Back in the kitchen, Elizabeth unfolded the note Harriet had given her. On it screamed two words in Mudford’s handwriting.
She placed a serving of baked spaghetti Bolognese on Madeline’s plate. “Other than show-and-tell, did you have a good day?” She’d stopped asking Mad if she’d learned anything at school. There was no point.
“I don’t like school.”
Madeline looked up from her plate suspiciously. “No one likes school.”
From his position beneath the table, Six-Thirty exhaled. Well, there it was: the creature didn’t like school, and since he and the creature agreed on everything, now he didn’t like school either.
“Did you like school, Mom?” Mad asked.
“Well,” said Elizabeth, “we moved a lot, so sometimes there
weren’t schools for me to go to. But I went to the library. Still, I always believed going to a real school could be lots of fun.”
“Like when you went to UCLA?”
A sudden sharp vision of Dr. Meyers floated in front of her. “No.”