Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
“Really,” Harriet said, surprised. “Leftovers? From the previous night’s dinner?”
“Their mothers watch your mom’s show?”
Madeline emphasized, as if Harriet was slow on the uptake.
Harriet had assumed
Supper at Six
had very few viewers, and Elizabeth had confirmed this by confiding that her six-month trial period was almost up; it had been a battle the entire time; she was fairly certain she would not be renewed.
“But surely you could meet them halfway?” Harriet had asked her, trying not to sound desperate. She loved watching Elizabeth on TV. “Maybe just try to smile.”
“Smile?” Elizabeth had said. “Do surgeons smile during appendectomies? No. Would you want them to? No. Cooking, like surgery, requires concentration. Anyway, Phil Lebensmal wants me to act as if the people I’m speaking to are dolts. I won’t do it, Harriet, I won’t perpetuate the myth that women are incompetent. If they cancel me, so be it. I’ll do something else.”
But nothing that would pay nearly as well, Harriet thought. Thanks to the TV money, Elizabeth had been true to her word:
she now paid Harriet. It was Harriet’s very first paycheck, and she couldn’t believe how powerful it made her feel.
“You know I agree,” Harriet had said, treading carefully, “but maybe you could only pretend to do what they want. You know, play along.”
Elizabeth cocked her head to the side. “Play along?”
“You know what I mean,” Harriet said. “You’re smart. It might be off-putting to Mr. Pine, or that Lebensmal person. You know how men are.”
Elizabeth considered this. No, she did not know how men were. With the exception of Calvin, and her dead brother, John, Dr. Mason, and maybe Walter Pine, she only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.
Harriet was her only real friend, and they agreed on most things, but on this, they did not. According to Harriet, men were a world apart from women. They required coddling, they had fragile egos, they couldn’t allow a woman intelligence or skill if it exceeded their own. “Harriet, that’s ridiculous,” Elizabeth had argued. “Men and women are both human beings. And as humans, we’re by-products of our upbringings, victims of our lackluster educational systems, and choosers of our behaviors. In short, the reduction of women to something
than men, and the elevation of men to something
than women, is not biological: it’s cultural. And it starts with two words: pink and blue. Everything skyrockets out of control from there.”
Speaking of lackluster educational systems, just last week she’d been summoned to Mudford’s classroom to discuss a related problem: apparently Madeline refused to participate in little girl activities, such as playing house.
“Madeline wants to do things that are more suited to little boys,” Mudford had said. “It’s not right. You obviously believe a woman’s place is in the home, what with your”—she coughed slightly—“
. So talk to her. She wanted to be on safety patrol this week.”
“Why was that a problem?”
“Because only boys are on safety patrol. Boys protect girls. Because they’re bigger.”
“But Madeline is the tallest one in your class.”
“Which is another problem,” Mudford said. “Her height is making the boys feel bad.”
“So no, Harriet,” Elizabeth said sharply, coming back to the subject at hand.
“I won’t play along.”
Harriet picked some dirt out from beneath a fingernail as Elizabeth harangued about women accepting their subordinate positions as if they were preordained, as if they believed their smaller bodies were a biological indication of smaller brains, as if they were naturally inferior, but charmingly so. Worse, Elizabeth explained, many of these women passed such notions down to their children, using phrases like “Boys will be boys” or “You know how girls are.”
“What is wrong with women?” Elizabeth demanded. “Why do they buy into these cultural stereotypes? Worse, why do they perpetuate them? Are they not aware of the dominant female role in the hidden tribes of the Amazon? Is Margaret Mead out of print?” She only stopped when Harriet stood up, indicating she did not wish to be subjected to another unabridged word.
” Madeline repeated. “Are you listening? Harriet, what happened to her? Did she die, too?”
“Did who die?” Harriet asked distractedly, thinking about
how she’d never read Margaret Mead. Was she the one who wrote
Gone with the Wind
“Oh, her,” she said. “I have no idea. And anyway, she—or he—wasn’t technically a godmother.”
“But you said—”
“It was a
godmother—someone who gave your dad’s home money. That’s all I meant.
godmother. And she—it could have been a he, by the way—he
she gave it to everyone at the home. Not just your dad.”
“Who was it?”
“I have no idea. Does it matter? A fairy godmother is just another word for philanthropist. A rich person who gives money to causes—like Andrew Carnegie and his libraries. Although you should know there’s a tax break in philanthropy, so it’s not completely unselfish. Do you have other homework, Mad? Besides the damn tree?”
“Maybe I could write a letter to Dad’s home and ask who the godfather was. Then I could put that name on the tree—maybe as an acorn. Not as a whole branch or anything.”
“No. There are
acorns on family trees. Also, fairy godmothers—philanthropists—are private people; the home is never going to tell you who ponied up the big bucks. Third, we never say fairy godfathers. The fairy person is always female.”
“Because of organized crime?” Madeline asked.
Harriet exhaled loudly in a mixture of wonder and irritation. “
The point is,
fairy godparents don’t go on family trees. First because they’re not blood, second because they’re secretive people. They have to be because otherwise everyone would be hitting them up for cash.”
“But keeping secrets is wrong.”
“Do you keep secrets?”
“No,” Harriet lied.
“Do you think my mom does?”
“No,” Harriet said, but now she meant it. How she wished Elizabeth
keep a few secrets—or at least opinions—to herself. “Now, let’s fill in this tree with a bunch of hodgepodge. Your teacher will never know the difference and then we can watch your mom’s show.”
“You want me to
“Mad,” Harriet said, irritated. “Did I say lie?”
“Do fairies not have blood?”
“Of course, fairies have blood!” Harriet shrieked. She rested a hand on her forehead. “Let’s put this on hold for now. Go play outside.”
“Go throw the ball for Six-Thirty.”
“I have to bring a photograph too, Harriet,” Madeline added. “Something with the whole family.”
From under the table, Six-Thirty rested his head on her bony knee.
family,” Madeline emphasized. “That means it has to have my dad in it, too.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Six-Thirty stood up and made his way to Elizabeth’s bedroom.
“If you don’t want to throw the ball for Six-Thirty, then take Six-Thirty and go to the library. Your books are overdue. You have just enough time before your mom’s show.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Well, sometimes we have to do things we don’t feel like doing.”
“What do you do that you don’t feel like doing?”
Harriet closed her eyes. She pictured Mr. Sloane.
“Madeline,” the city librarian said. “What can I help you with today?”
“I need to find an address for a place in Iowa.”
The librarian led Madeline through the warren of the library, pausing briefly to chastise a reader for turning down corners of pages to mark places and another for propping his legs up on an adjacent chair. “This is the Carnegie Library,” she whispered angrily. “I can bar you for life.”
“Up here, Madeline,” she said, leading her to a shelf of phone books. “You said Iowa, correct?” She reached up and pulled down three thick volumes. “Any town in particular?”
“I’m looking for a boys home,” Madeline said, “but with a girl’s name. That’s all I know.”
“We’ll need more information than that,” the librarian said. “Iowa isn’t small.”
“I’d put my money on Sioux City,” came a voice from behind.
“Sioux isn’t a girl’s name,” the librarian said, turning. “It’s an Indian name—oh, Reverend, hello. I’m so sorry— I forgot to find that book you wanted. I’ll do it now.”
“But it could be mistaken as a girl’s name, couldn’t it?” the
man in the dark robes continued. “Sue versus Sioux? A child might make that mistake.”
“Not this child,” the librarian said.
“It’s not here,” Madeline said fifteen minutes later as her finger trailed down the “B” column. No Boys Home.”
“Oh,” the reverend said from across the library table, “I should have mentioned—sometimes those places are named after saints.”
“Because people who take care of other people’s children are saints.”
“Because taking care of children is hard.”
Madeline rolled her eyes.
“Try Saint Vincent,” he said, running his finger just beneath his clerical collar to let some air in.
“What are you reading?” Madeline asked as she flipped to the S’s in the phone book.
“Religious things,” he said. “I’m a minister.”
“No, I meant the other thing—that thing,” she said, pointing to a magazine he’d tucked between the pages of scripture.
“Oh,” he said embarrassed. “That’s just—for fun.”
magazine,” she read aloud as she yanked it out of hiding.
“It’s humor,” the reverend explained, quickly taking it back.
“Can I see it?”
“I don’t think your mother would approve.”
“Because there are naked pictures?”
“No!” he said. “No, no—it’s nothing like that. It’s just that sometimes I need a laugh. There’s not much humor in my job.”
The reverend hesitated. “Because God isn’t very funny, I guess. Why are you searching for a boys home?”
“It’s where my dad grew up. I’m doing a family tree.”
“I see,” he said, smiling. “Well, a family tree sounds like a lot of fun.”
“It means arguable,” Mad said.
“So it does,” he said, surprised. “Do you mind me asking? How old are you?”
“I’m not allowed to give out private information.”
“Oh,” he said, red-faced. “Of course not. Good for you.”
Madeline chewed on the end of her eraser.
“Anyway,” he said, “it’s fun to learn about one’s ancestors, isn’t it? I think so. What have you got so far?”
“Well,” Mad said, swinging her legs under the table, “on my mom’s side, her dad is in jail for burning some people up, her mom is in Brazil because of taxes, and her brother is dead.”
“I don’t have anything on my dad’s side yet. But I’m thinking the people at the boys home are sort of like family.”
“In what way?”
“Because they took care of him.”
The reverend rubbed the back of his neck. In his experience, these homes were staffed with pedophiles.
you called them,” she reminded him.
He sighed inwardly. The problem with being a minister was how many times a day he had to lie. This was because people needed constant reassurance that things were okay or were going to be okay instead of the more obvious reality that things were bad and were only going to get worse. He’d been officiating a funeral just last week—one of his congregants had died of lung cancer—and his message to the family, all of whom also smoked like chimneys, was that the man had died, not because of his four-pack-a-day habit, but because God needed him. The family, each inhaling deeply, thanked him for his wisdom.
“But why write to the boys home?” he asked. “Why not just ask your dad?”
“Because he’s dead, too.” She sighed.
“Good lord!” the reverend said, shaking his head. “I’m very sorry.”
“Thank you,” Madeline said in a serious way. “Some people think you can’t miss what you never had, but I think you can. Do you?”
“Absolutely,” he said, touching the back of his neck until he located the small chunk of hair that was slightly too long. When he went to visit a friend in Liverpool, they’d gone to see a brand-new musical group called the Beatles. They were British and they had bangs. It was nearly unheard of for men to have bangs, but he found he liked their look almost as much as he liked their music.
“What are you looking for in there?” she asked him, pointing to his book.
“Inspiration,” he said. “Something to move the spirit for Sunday’s sermon.”
“What about fairy godmothers?” she asked.
“My dad’s home had a fairy godmother. She gave the home money.”
“Oh,” he said. “I think you mean a donor. The home may have had several. It takes a lot of money to run those places.”
“No,” she said. “I mean a fairy godmother. I think you have to be a bit magical to give money to people you don’t even know.”
The reverend felt another jolt of surprise. “True,” he admitted.
“But Harriet says earning a paycheck is better. She doesn’t like magic.”
“My neighbor. She’s Catholic. She can’t get divorced. Harriet thinks I should fill the family tree with hodgepodge, but I don’t want to. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with my family.”
“Well,” the reverend said carefully, thinking it did very much sound
like there was something wrong with the child’s family, “Harriet probably only means some things are private.”
“You mean secret.”
“No, I mean private. For instance, I asked you how old you were and you correctly answered that it was private information. It’s not secret; it’s just that you don’t know me well enough to tell me. But a secret is something we keep because there’s a chance that if someone knew our secret, they would use it against us or make us feel bad. Secrets usually involve things we’re ashamed of.”
“Do you keep secrets?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “How about you?”
“Me too,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure everyone does,” he said. “Especially the people who say they don’t. There’s no way you go through life without being embarrassed or ashamed about something.”
“Anyway, people think they know more about themselves based on these silly branches full of names of people they’ve never met. For instance, I know someone who’s very proud to be a direct descendant of Galileo, and another who can trace her roots back to the
They both talk about their lineage as if they have a pedigree, but they don’t. Your relatives can’t make you important or smart. They can’t make you
“What makes me
“What you choose to do. How you live your life.”
“But lots of people don’t get to choose how they get to live. Like slaves.”
“Well,” the reverend said, chagrined by her simple wisdom. “That’s true, too.”
They sat quietly for a few moments, Madeline skimming her finger down the phone book pages, the reverend considering the purchase of a guitar. “Anyway,” he added, “I think family trees aren’t a very intelligent way to understand one’s roots.”
Madeline looked up at him. “A minute ago you said it would be fun to learn about my ancestors.”
“Yes,” he confessed, “but I was lying,” which made both of them laugh. From across the way, the librarian raised her head in warning.
“I’m Reverend Wakely,” he whispered, nodding an apology to the frowning librarian. “From First Presbyterian.”
“Mad Zott,” Madeline said. “Mad—like your magazine.”
“Well, Mad,” he said carefully, thinking “Mad” must be French for something. “If it’s not under Saint Vincent, try Saint Elmo. Or wait—try All Saints. That’s what they call places when they can’t decide on a single saint.”
“All Saints,” she said, flipping to the A’s. “All, All, All. Wait. Here it is. All Saints Boys Home!” But her excitement was short-lived. “But there’s no address. Just a phone number.”
“Is that a problem?”
“My mom says you only call long distance if someone dies.”
“Well, maybe I could call for you from my office. I have to call long distance all the time. I could say I was helping a member of my congregation.”
“You’d be lying again. Do you do that a lot?”
“It would be a
lie, Mad,” he said, slightly irritated. Would no one ever understand the contradictions of his job? “Or,” he said more pointedly, “you could follow Harriet’s advice and fill the tree with hodgepodge—which isn’t such a bad idea. Because quite often the past belongs only in the past.”
“Because the past is the only place it makes sense.”
“But my dad isn’t in the past. He’s still my dad.”
“Of course he is,” the reverend said, softening. “I just meant—in terms of me calling All Saints—that they might feel more comfortable talking with me because we’re both in religion. Like you probably feel more comfortable talking to the kids at school about school things.”
Madeline looked surprised. She’d never once felt comfortable talking to the kids at school.
“Or, I know,” he said, now wanting to extricate himself from
the whole thing. “Ask your mother to call. It’s her husband; I’m sure they’d help. They might need proof of the marriage before they’d be willing to give her anything significant— a certificate, something like that—but that should be easy enough.”
“On second thought,” Madeline said, quickly writing two words on a scrap of paper, “here’s my dad’s name.” Then she added her phone number and handed it to him. “How soon can you call?”
The minister glanced down at the name.
he said, drawing back in surprise.
Back when he’d been at Harvard Divinity School, Wakely audited a chemistry course. His goal: to learn how the enemy camp explained creation so he could refute it. But after a year of chemistry, he found himself in deep water. Thanks to his newly acquired understanding of atoms, matter, elements, and molecules, he now struggled to believe God had created anything. Not heaven, not earth. Not even pizza.
As a fifth-generation minister attending one of the most prestigious divinity schools in the world, this was a huge problem. It wasn’t just the familial expectations; it was also science itself. Science insisted on something he rarely encountered in his future line of work: evidence. And in the middle of this evidence was a young man. His name was Calvin Evans.
Evans had come to Harvard to sit on a panel made up of RNA researchers, and Wakely, having nothing better to do on a Saturday night, attended. Evans, who was by far the youngest on the panel, barely said anything. There was a lot of shop talk from the others about how chemical bonds were formed, broken, then re-formed following something called an “effective collision.” Frankly, the whole thing was a little boring. Still, one of the panelists continued to drone on about how real change only ever arose through the application of kinetic energy. That’s when
someone in the audience asked for an example of an ineffective collision—something that lacked energy and never changed, but still had a big effect. Evans had leaned into his microphone. “Religion,” he said. Then he got up and left.
The religion comment ate at him so he decided to write to Evans and say so. Much to his surprise, Evans wrote back—and then he wrote back to Evans, and then Evans wrote back to him, and so on. Even though they disagreed, it was clear they liked each other. Which is why, once they’d cleared the hurdles of religion and science, their letters turned personal. It was then they discovered that they were not only the same age but shared two things in common—an almost fanatical love for water-based sports (Calvin was a rower; he was a surfer) and an obsession for sunny weather. In addition, neither had a girlfriend. Neither enjoyed graduate school. Neither was sure what life held after graduation.
But then Wakely had ruined the whole thing by mentioning something about how he was following in his father’s footsteps. He wondered if Evans was doing the same. In response, Calvin wrote back in all caps saying that he hated his father and hoped he was dead.
Wakely was shocked. It was obvious that Evans had been badly hurt by his father and, knowing Evans, that his hatred had to be based on the most heartless thing of all. Evidence.
He’d started to write back to Evans several times but couldn’t figure out what to say. Him
The minister. The guy currently writing a theology thesis titled “The Need for Consolation in Modern Society.” No words.
Their pen-pal relationship ended.
Just after graduation, his father died unexpectedly. He returned to Commons for the funeral and decided to stay. He found a small place by the beach, took over his father’s congregation, got out his surfboard.
He’d been there a few years when he finally learned that
Evans was also in Commons. He couldn’t believe it. What were the odds? But before he could get up the nerve to reconnect with his famous friend, Evans was killed in a freak accident.
The word went out: someone was needed to officiate the scientist’s funeral. Wakely volunteered. He felt compelled to pay his respects to one of the few people he admired; to help in whatever way he could to guide Evans’s spirit to a place of peace. Plus, he was curious. Who would be there? Who would grieve the loss of this brilliant man?