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Authors: Bonnie Garmus

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BOOK: Lessons in Chemistry
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“Vinegar,” Elizabeth said into another line.





He’d never gotten a single call on the clown show.

Chapter 26

The Funeral

“Hello, my name is Elizabeth Zott, and this is
Supper at Six

From the producer’s chair, Walter squeezed his eyes shut. “Please,” he whispered. “Please, please, please.” It was the fifteenth day of broadcasting and he was exhausted. Over and over again he’d explained that just as he didn’t get to choose the desk he sat behind, neither did she get to choose the kitchen she cooked in. It was nothing personal; sets, like desks, were selected based on research and budgets. But every time he’d made this argument, she’d nod her head as if she understood and then say, “Yes—
” And then they’d start all over again. Same with the script. He told her that her job was to
the audience, not bore them. But with all her tiresome chemical asides, she was
boring. That’s why he’d decided it was finally time to add the live audience. Because he knew real people sitting just twenty feet away would instantly teach her the peril of being dull.

“Welcome to our first live audience show,” Elizabeth said.

So far so good.

“Every afternoon, Monday through Friday, we’ll make dinner together.”

Exactly what he had written.

“Starting with tonight’s supper: spinach casserole.”

Bronco busted. She was following orders.

“But first we need to clean up our work space.” His eyes flew
open as she picked up the ball of brown yarn and tossed it into the audience.

No, no,
he begged silently. The cameraman glanced back at him as the audience erupted in nervous laughter.

“Anyone need some rubber bands?” she asked, holding up the rubber band ball. Several hands went up, so she tossed that into the audience as well.

Dumbstruck, he gripped the arms of his canvas folding chair.

“I like having room to work,” she said. “It reinforces the idea that the work you and I are about to do is important. And today I have a lot to do and could use some help getting even more room. Could anyone use a cookie jar?”

To Walter’s horror, almost all the hands went up, and before he knew it, people were milling about the set as Elizabeth encouraged them to take whatever they wanted. In less than a minute, every single item was gone—even the wall art. The only thing that remained was the fake window and the large clock.

“Okay,” she said in a serious tone as the audience returned to their seats. “Now let’s get started.”

Walter cleared his throat. One of the first rules of television, other than to entertain, is to pretend that no matter what happens, it was all part of the plan. This is what TV hosts are trained to do, and this is what Walter, who had never been a host, decided in that moment to try. He sat up in his canvas chair and leaned forward as if he’d orchestrated this total breach of TV conduct himself. But, of course, he hadn’t, and everyone knew he hadn’t, and they all registered his impotence in their specific ways: the cameraman shook his head, the sound guy sighed, the set designer gave Walter the finger from stage right. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was up onstage hacking at a huge pile of spinach with the biggest knife he’d ever seen.

Lebensmal was going to kill him.

He closed his eyes for a few moments, listening to the stirrings
from the studio audience: the seat shifting, the small coughs. From off in the distance, he heard Elizabeth talking about the role potassium and magnesium play in the body. The cue card he’d written for this particular segment had been among his favorites:
Isn’t spinach a nice color? Green. It reminds me of springtime.
She’d skipped right over it.

“…many believe spinach makes us strong because it contains almost as much iron as meat. But the truth is, spinach is high in oxalic acid, which inhibits iron absorption. So when Popeye implies he’s getting strong from spinach, don’t believe him.”

Fantastic. Now she was calling Popeye a liar.

“Still, spinach offers plenty of nutritive value and we’ll be talking about that and more,” she said, brandishing her knife into the camera, “just after this station break.”

Jesus Fucking Christ. He didn’t bother to get up.

“Walter,” she said at his elbow mere moments later. “What did you think? I took your advice. I engaged the audience.”

He turned to look at her, his face wooden.

“It was exactly like you’ve been saying:
Knowing I needed more counter space, I thought of baseball—the way the vendors throw the peanuts at the crowd? And it worked.”

“Yes,” he said flatly. “And then you invited everyone to help themselves to the home plate, and the bats, and the gloves, and whatever else they could find lying around.”

She looked surprised. “You sound mad.”

“Thirty seconds, Mrs. Zott,” the cameraman said.

“No, no,” he said calmly. “I’m not mad. I’m

“But you said to entertain.”

“No. What you did was you took things that didn’t belong to you and then you gave them away.”

“But I
the space.”

“On Monday prepare to die,” he said. “First me, then you.”

She turned away.

“I’m back,” he heard her say in an irritated voice as the audience
clapped its approval. Thankfully, he heard very little after that, but that was only because his stomach hurt and his heart was pinging about his chest in a way that he hoped indicated something very serious. He closed his eyes to hasten his death—stroke or heart attack, he’d take either one.

He looked up to see Elizabeth waving her arm around the empty kitchen. “Cooking is chemistry,” she was saying. “And chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything—including yourself—starts here.”

Good god.

His secretary bent down and whispered something about Lebensmal wanting to see him first thing in the morning. He closed his eyes again.
he told himself.

From behind his eyelids, he saw something he did not care to see. It was him at a funeral—
funeral—and lots of people in colorful clothing were milling about. He overheard someone—his secretary?—telling the story of how he died. It was a boring story and he didn’t like it, but it fit his afternoon programming profile. He listened carefully, hoping to hear news of his life mixed with compliments, but mostly people said things like, “So, what are you doing this weekend?”

From off in the distance, he heard Elizabeth Zott talking about the importance of work. She was sermonizing again, filling the funeralgoers’ heads with ideas of self-respect. “Take risks,” she was saying. “Don’t be afraid to experiment.”

Don’t be like Walter,
she meant.

Weren’t people supposed to wear black to funerals?

“Fearlessness in the kitchen translates to fearlessness in life,” Zott claimed.

Who’d asked her to give his eulogy anyway? Phil? Rude. And rich considering that the only risk he, Walter Pine, had ever taken—hiring her—was turning out to be the reason for his premature death. Take-risks-don’t-be-afraid-to-experiment
my ass,
Zott. Who was dead here?

He continued to hear her voice in the background accompanied by the insistent thwack of a knife. Then after another ten minutes or so came her closing remarks.

“Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

In other words, enough about dead Walter—back to

The mourners clapped enthusiastically. Time to hit the bar.

There wasn’t much after that. Unfortunately, his imagined death was a lot like his life. It occurred to him that “bored to death” might not just be a phrase.

“Mr. Pine?”


He felt a hand touch his shoulder. “Should I call a doctor?” the first voice asked.

“Maybe,” the other voice said.

He opened his eyes to find Zott and Rosa standing next to him.

“We think you may have fainted,” Zott said.

“You were slumped over,” Rosa added.

“Your pulse is elevated,” Elizabeth said, her fingers on his wrist.

“Should I call a doctor?” Rosa asked again.

“Walter, have you eaten? When was the last time you ate?”

” Walter said hoarsely. “Go away.” But he didn’t feel very good.

“He didn’t eat lunch,” Rosa said. “Took nothing from the cart. And we know he hasn’t had dinner.”

“Walter,” Elizabeth said, taking charge. “Take this home.” She placed a large baking dish in his hands. “It’s the spinach casserole I just made. Put it in the oven at three hundred seventy-five degrees for forty minutes. Can you do that?”

“No,” he said, sitting up. “I can’t. And anyway, Amanda hates spinach, so again, NO.” And then realizing he sounded like a
petulant child, he turned to the hair and makeup woman (what was her name?) and said, “I’m so sorry to have worried you”—slurring a mixture of possible first names—“but I’m completely fine. You have a nice night, now.”

To prove how fine he was, he got up from his chair and walked unsteadily to his office, waiting until he was sure they’d both left the building before he left himself. But when he got to the parking lot, he found the casserole sitting on the hood of his car.
Bake at 375 degrees for forty minutes,
the note said.

When he got home, and only because he was tired, he stuck the damn thing in the oven, and not too long after that, sat down to dinner with his young daughter.

Three bites later, Amanda declared it to be the best thing she’d ever eaten.

Chapter 27

All About Me

MAY 1960

“Boys and girls,” Mrs. Mudford said the following spring, “we’re going to start a new project. It’s called All About Me.”

Mad took a sharp breath in.

“Please ask your mother to fill this out. It’s called a family tree. What she writes on this tree will help you learn about a very important person. Who knows who that person might be? Hint: the answer is in the
of our new project, All About Me.”

The children sat in a sloppy semicircle at Mrs. Mudford’s feet, chins cupped in hands.

“Who wants to guess first,” Mudford prodded. “Yes, Tommy,” she said.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

I, Tommy, and no. School is almost over. You may go in a little bit.”

“The president,” said Lena.

Could it be
the president?” corrected Mrs. Mudford. “And no, that’s wrong, Lena.”

“Could it be Lassie?” said Amanda.

“No, Amanda. This is a family tree, not a doghouse. We’re talking about

“People are animals,” said Madeline.

“No, they aren’t, Madeline,” Mrs. Mudford huffed. “People are humans.”

“What about Yogi Bear?” asked another.

Could it be
Yogi Bear?” Mrs. Mudford said irritably. “And of course not. A family tree is not filled with bears, and it is definitely not about TV shows. We’re people!”

“But people are animals,” Madeline persisted.

“Madeline,” Mrs. Mudford said sharply. “That’s enough!”

“We’re animals?” Tommy said to Madeline, his eyes wide.

“NO! WE ARE NOT!” shouted Mrs. Mudford.

But Tommy had already stuck his fingers into his armpits and started jumping about the classroom yowling like a chimpanzee. “E E!” he called to the other kindergartners, half of whom instantly joined in. “E E O O! E E O O!”

“STOP IT, TOMMY,” Mrs. Mudford shouted. “STOP IT ALL OF YOU! UNLESS YOU WANT TO GO TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE, STOP IT RIGHT NOW!” And the harshness of her voice combined with the threat of a higher authority sent the children back to their positions on the floor. “NOW,” she said tersely, “as I was saying, you’re going to learn some new things about a very important person. A PERSON,” she emphasized, glaring at Madeline. “Now who might this PERSON be?”

No one moved.

she commanded.

A few heads shook.

“Well, it’s YOU, children,” she shouted angrily.

“What? Why?” asked Judy, slightly alarmed. “What did I do wrong?”

“Don’t be dense, Judy,” Mrs. Mudford said. “For heaven’s sake!”

“My mom says she’s not giving the school another cent,” said a crusty-looking boy named Roger.

“Who said anything about money, Roger!” Mrs. Mudford shrieked.

“Can I see the tree?” asked Madeline.

I,” thundered Mrs. Mudford.

“May I?” asked Madeline.

“NO, YOU MAY NOT,” Mrs. Mudford screeched, folding the paper into quarters, as if the mere act of folding would make it Madeline-proof. “This tree is not for
Madeline; it is for your
Now children,” she said, trying to find her way back to control, “organize yourselves into a single-file line. I will pin the paper to your shirts. Then it will be time to go home.”

“My mom wants you to stop pinning stuff on me,” said Judy. “Says you’re making holes in my clothes.”

Your mother is a lying whore,
Mrs. Mudford wanted to say, but instead she said, “That’s fine, Judy. We’ll staple yours on instead.”

One by one, the children allowed Mrs. Mudford to affix the note to their sweaters and then filed out the door, where, just past the doorjamb, they instantly gained speed like small ponies that had been tethered for hours.

Madeline,” she said. “You stay here.”

“Let me get this straight,” Harriet said as Mad revealed why she was late. “You had to stay behind because you told your teacher that people are animals? Why did you say such a thing, honey? It’s not very nice.”

“It isn’t?” Madeline said, confused. “But why? We

Harriet wondered to herself if Mad was right—
people animals? She wasn’t sure. “My point is,” she said, “it’s sometimes better not to argue. Your teacher deserves your respect and sometimes that means agreeing with her even when you don’t. That’s how diplomacy works.”

“I thought diplomacy meant being nice.”

“That’s what I mean.”

“Even if she’s telling us wrong stuff.”


Madeline chewed her lower lip.

“You make mistakes sometimes, don’t you? And you wouldn’t
want someone to correct you in front of a lot of people, would you? Mrs. Mudford was probably just embarrassed.”

“She didn’t look embarrassed. And this isn’t the first time she’s given us bad information. Last week she said God created the earth.”

“Many people believe that,” Harriet said. “There’s nothing wrong with believing that.”

“You believe that?”

“Why don’t we take a look at this note,” she said quickly, unpinning the paper from Madeline’s sweater.

“It’s a family tree project,” Madeline said, clunking her lunch box on the counter. “Mom has to fill it in.”

“I don’t like these things,” Harriet muttered as she studied the badly drawn oak, its branches demanding names of relatives—living, lost, dead—one related to the other by marriage, birth, or bad luck. “Nosy little sapsucker. Did it come with a subpoena, too?”

“Should it have?” Madeline asked, awed.

“You know what I think?” Harriet said, folding the note back up. “I think these trees are a poor attempt to feel like you’re somebody based on somebody else. Usually comes with an invasion of privacy. Your mother is going to hit the roof. If I were you, I wouldn’t show this to her.”

“But I don’t know any of the answers. I don’t know anything about my dad.” She thought about the note her mother had left in her lunch box that morning.
The librarian is the most important educator in school. What she doesn’t know, she can find out. This is not an opinion; it’s a fact. Do not share this fact with Mrs. Mudford.

But when Madeline had asked her school’s librarian if she could point her toward some yearbooks from Cambridge, the librarian frowned, then handed her last month’s copy of

“You know plenty about your father,” Harriet said. “For instance, you know that your father’s parents—your grandparents—were
killed by a train when he was young. And that he went to live with his aunt until she hit a tree. And then he went to live in a boys home— I forget the name but it sounded girlish. And that your father had a godmother of sorts, although godmothers aren’t family tree material.”

As soon as she’d mentioned the godmother, Harriet wished she’d hadn’t. She only knew about the godmother because she was a snoop, and even then, it was obvious she hadn’t been a real godmother, but more of a fairy godmother. And she knew all this because one day, long before he’d even met Elizabeth, Calvin had left for work in a hurry, leaving his front door open, and Harriet, being a good neighbor, had gone over to shut it.

Naturally, because she was the kind of person who always went above and beyond, she’d gone inside to make sure the home hadn’t been burglarized. A comprehensive self-guided tour told her that absolutely nothing had happened in the forty-six seconds that had elapsed since Calvin’s departure.

Once inside, though, she discovered several things. One, Calvin Evans was some sort of big-deal scientist—he’d been on the cover of a magazine. Two, he was a slob. Three, he’d grown up in Sioux City in a seedy-sounding boys home with religious overtones. She only knew about the boys home because she’d seen a piece of paper wadded up in his trash— a piece of paper that she retrieved because who doesn’t, on occasion, accidentally throw away the very thing they actually mean to keep? According to the letter, the home needed money. They’d lost their main donor—someone who’d once ensured the boys were given “scientific educational opportunities and healthy outdoor activities.” The home was now reaching out to past residents. Could Calvin Evans help?
Say yes! Donate to the All Saints Boys Home today!
His response was in the trash can, too. Basically, it said how dare you, fuck you, you should all be in jail.

“What’s a godmother?” Madeline asked.

“A close friend of the family or a relative,” Harriet said, pushing the memory away. “Someone who’s supposed to look after your spiritual life.”

“Do I have one?”

“A godmother?”

“A spiritual life.”

“Oh,” Harriet said. “I don’t know. Do you believe in things you can’t see?”

“I like magic tricks.”

“I don’t,” said Harriet. “I don’t like being fooled.”

“But you believe in God.”

“Well. Yes.”


“I just do. Most people do.”

“My mom doesn’t.”

“I know,” Harriet said, trying to hide her disapproval.

Harriet thought it was wrong not to believe in God. It lacked humility. In her opinion, believing in God was required, like brushing teeth or wearing underwear. Certainly, all decent people believed in God—even indecent people, like her husband, believed in God. God is why they were still married and why their marriage was her burden to bear—because it was given to her by God. God was big on burdens, and He made sure everyone got one. Besides, if you didn’t believe in God, you also didn’t get to believe in heaven or hell, and she very much wanted to believe in hell because she very much wanted to believe that Mr. Sloane was going there. She stood up. “Where’s your rope? I think it’s time to work on your knots.”

“I know them all already,” Mad said.

“Can you do them with your eyes closed?”


“But what about behind your back? Can you do that?”


Harriet pretended to be supportive of Mad’s odd hobbies, but the truth was, she wasn’t. The child didn’t like Barbies or playing jacks—she liked knots, books on war, natural disasters. Yesterday she’d overheard Madeline quizzing the downtown librarian about Krakatoa—when did she think it might next erupt? How would they warn the residents? Approximately how many people would die?

Harriet turned to watch as Madeline stared at the family tree, her large gray eyes taking in the empty branches, her teeth gnawing steadily at the bottom of her lip. Calvin had been a big lip chewer. Could that sort of thing be passed down genetically? She wasn’t sure. Harriet had produced four children, each one completely different from the others and wholly different from herself. And now? They were all strangers, each living in a far-off city with lives and children of their own. She wanted to think there was some iron-clad bond that connected her to them for life, but that’s not how it worked. Families required constant maintenance.

“Are you hungry?” Harriet asked. “Would you like some cheese?” She reached to the back of the refrigerator as Madeline withdrew a book from her schoolbag.
Five Years with the Congo Cannibals.

Harriet looked back over her shoulder. “Sweetie, does your teacher know you’re reading that?”


“Keep it that way.”

This was another area where she and Elizabeth still did not see eye to eye: reading. Fifteen months ago, Harriet assumed Madeline was just pretending she could read. Children love to imitate their parents. But it was soon obvious that Elizabeth had not only taught Madeline to read but to read highly complex things: newspapers, novels,
Popular Mechanics.

Harriet considered the possibility that the child was a genius.
Her father had been. But no. It was just that Mad was well taught and that was because of Elizabeth. Elizabeth simply refused to accept limits, not just for herself, but for others. About a year after Mr. Evans had died, Harriet had run across some notes on Elizabeth’s desk that appeared to suggest she was trying to teach Six-Thirty a ridiculous number of words. At the time, Harriet chalked it up to temporary insanity—that’s what grief is. But then, when Mad was three, she had asked if anyone had seen her yo-yo, and a minute later Six-Thirty dropped it in her lap.

Supper at Six
had that same element of impossibility. Elizabeth opened every show by insisting that cooking wasn’t easy and that the next thirty minutes might very well be torturous.

“Cooking is not an exact science,” Elizabeth had said just yesterday. “The tomato I hold in my hand is different from the one you hold in yours. That’s why you must involve yourself with your ingredients. Experiment: taste, touch, smell, look, listen, test, assess.” Then she led her viewers through an elaborate description of chemical breakdowns, which, when induced by combining disparate ingredients in heat-specific ways, would result in a complicated mix of enzymatic interactions that would lead to something good to eat. There was a lot of talk about acids and bases and hydrogen ions, some of which, after weeks of hearing it, Harriet was, oddly, beginning to understand.

Throughout the process, Elizabeth, her face serious, told her viewers that they were up for this difficult challenge, that she knew they were capable, resourceful people, and that she believed in them. It was a very strange show. Not exactly entertaining. More like climbing a mountain. Something you felt good about, but only after it was over.

Nevertheless, she and Madeline watched
Supper at Six
together every day, holding their breath, certain each new episode would be the last.

Madeline had opened her book and was now studying an engraving of one man gnawing on the femur of another. “Do people taste good?”

“I don’t know,” Harriet said as she set a few cubes of cheese down in front of her. “I’m sure it’s all in the preparation. Your mother could probably make anyone taste good.”
Except for Mr. Sloane,
she thought.
Because he was rotten.

Madeline nodded her head. “Everybody likes what Mom makes.”

“Who’s everybody?”

“Kids,” Madeline said. “Some of them bring the same lunch as me now.”

BOOK: Lessons in Chemistry
3.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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