Chapter no 12 – Calvin’s Parting Gift

Lesson, in Chemistry

When Elizabeth was eight, her brother, John, dared her to jump off a cliff and she’d done it. There was an aquamarine water-filled quarry below; she’d hit it like a missile. Her toes touched bottom and she pushed up, surprised when she broke through the surface that her brother was already there. He’d jumped in right after her. What the hell were you thinking, Elizabeth? he shouted, his voice full of anguish as he dragged her to the side. I was only kidding! You could’ve been killed!

Now, sitting rigidly on her stool in the lab, she could hear a policeman talking about someone who’d died and someone else insisting she take his handkerchief and still another saying something about a vet, but all she could think about was that moment long ago when her toes had touched bottom, the soft, silky mud inviting her to stay. Knowing what she knew now, she could only think one thing: I should have.



It was her fault. This was what she tried to explain to the policeman. The leash. She’d bought it. But no matter how often she said it, he didn’t seem to understand, and because of it, she thought there was a chance she’d imagined the whole thing. Calvin wasn’t dead. He was rowing. He was on a trip. He was five floors up, writing in his notebook.

Someone said go home.

For the next few days, she and Six-Thirty lay on her unmade bed, sleep impossible, food out of the question, the ceiling their only vista, waiting for him to walk back through the door. The only thing that disturbed them was a ringing phone. Every time it was the same whiney voice— a mortician of all people—demanding that “decisions must be made!” A suit was needed for someone’s coffin. “Whose coffin?” she said. “Who is this?” After too many of these calls, Six-Thirty, seemingly exhausted by her confusion, nudged her toward the closet and pawed open the door. And that’s when she saw it: his shirts swaying like long-dead corpses at a hanging. And that’s when she knew: Calvin was gone.



Just like after her brother’s suicide and Meyers’s attack, she could not cry. An army of tears lay just behind her eyes, but they refused to decamp. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of her: no matter how many deep breaths she took her lungs refused to fill. When she was a kid, she’d remembered overhearing a one-legged man tell the librarian someone was boiling water somewhere in the stacks. It was dangerous, he explained; she should do something. The librarian tried to assure him no one was boiling any water—it was a one-room library, she could see everyone—but he was insistent and shouted at her, and because of it two men had to remove him, one of them explaining that the poor guy was still suffering from shell shock. He’d probably never recover.

The problem was, now she heard the boiling water, too.



To stop the ringing phone, she had to find a suit. Calvin didn’t own one, so she gathered what she felt he would have wanted: his rowing clothes. Then she took the small bundle to the funeral home and handed it to the funeral director. “Here,” she said.

Long practiced in the art of dealing with the bereaved, the solemn man accepted the assortment with a courteous nod. But right after she left, he

handed it to his assistant and said, “The stiff in room four is about a forty-six extra long.” The assistant took the bundle and threw it into an unmarked closet where it joined a small mountain of other inappropriate outfits family members, in their grief-stricken state, had brought over the years. The assistant proceeded to a large wardrobe, grabbed a 46 extra long, shook the pants, blew lightly at the dust that grayed the shoulders, and headed for room 4.

Before Elizabeth was even ten blocks away, he’d successfully stuffed Calvin’s rigid body within the suit’s confines, shoving the hands that had once held her down dark sleeves; cramming the legs that once wrapped around her through woolen cylinders. Then he buttoned the shirt, buckled the belt, adjusted the tie, and knotted the laces, all the while brushing the dust that was so much a part of death from one end of the suit to the other. He stepped back to admire his work, then adjusted a lapel. He reached for a comb; reconsidered. He closed the door and walked down the hall to retrieve his brown-bag lunch, pausing only to give instructions to a woman who sat behind a large adding machine in a small office.

Before Elizabeth had made it twelve blocks, the dirty suit had been added to her bill.



The funeral was packed. A few rowers, one reporter, maybe fifty Hastings employees, a handful of whom, despite their bowed heads and somber clothing, weren’t at Calvin’s funeral to grieve, but to gloat. Ding dong, they cheered silently. The king is dead.

As the scientists milled about, several noticed Zott way off in the distance, the dog by her side. Once again, the damn dog wasn’t on lead— this despite the city’s new leash law, and notwithstanding the signs that encircled the entire cemetery prohibiting dogs from entering in the first place. Same old, same old. Even in death, Zott and Evans acted as if the rules didn’t apply to them.


From a distance, Elizabeth shielded her eyes to take in the crowd. A well-dressed nosy couple stood apart at a separate grave site, watching the proceedings as if it were a fifty-car pileup. She rested one hand on Six-Thirty’s bandages and considered how to proceed. The truth was, she was afraid to get close to the coffin because she knew she would try to pry it open and climb in and bury herself with him, and that meant dealing with all the people who would try to stop her, and she did not want to be stopped.

Six-Thirty sensed her death wish, and because of it, had been on suicide watch all week. The only problem was, he wanted to die himself. Worse, he suspected she was in the same position—that despite her own deathly desires, she felt beholden to keep him alive. What a mess devotion was.

Just then someone behind them said, “Well, at least Evans got a good day for it,” as if bad weather would have put a damper on the otherwise festive funeral. Six-Thirty looked up to see a strong-jawed skinny man holding a small pad of paper.

“Sorry to disturb you,” the man said to Elizabeth, “but I saw you sitting all by yourself over here and I thought you might be able to help. I’m writing a story about Evans, was wondering if I could ask you a few questions—only if you wouldn’t mind— I mean, I know he was a famous scientist, but that’s all I know. Could you tell me how you knew him? Maybe supply an anecdote? Did you know him long?”

“No,” she said, avoiding his stare. “No…you…?”

“No, I didn’t know him long. Definitely not long enough.”

“Oh, right,” he said, nodding, “I understand. That’s why you’re over here—not a close friend but still wanted to pay your respects; gotcha. Was he your neighbor? Maybe you could point out his parents. Siblings? Cousins? I’d love to get some background. I’ve heard a lot of things about him; some say he was a real jerk. Can you comment on that? I know he wasn’t married, but did he date?” And when she continued to stare off into the distance, he added, lowering his voice, “By the way, I’m not sure you

saw the signs, but dogs aren’t allowed in the cemetery. I mean, not at all. The groundskeeper is supposedly a stickler about this one. Unless, I don’t know, you need a dog, a Seeing Eye dog, because you’re…well, you know


“I am.”

The reporter took a step back. “Oh gee, really?” he said apologetically. “You’re— Oh, I’m so sorry. It’s just that you don’t look—”

“I am,” she repeated. “And it’s permanent?” “Yes.”

“That’s a shame,” he said, curious. “Disease?” “Leash.”

He took another step back.

“Well that’s a shame,” he repeated, slightly waving his hand in front of her face to see if she would react. And sure enough. Nothing.

Just off in the distance, a minister appeared.

“Looks like the party’s starting,” he said, telling her what he could see. “People are taking seats, the minister is opening the Bible, and”—he leaned way back to see if more people were coming from the parking lot—“and yet no family. Where’s the family? There’s not a single soul in the front row. So maybe he really was a jerk.” He glanced back to get a response, surprised to see Elizabeth standing. “Lady?” he said. “You don’t have to go all the way over there; people understand a situation like yours.” She ignored him, feeling for her purse. “Well, if you’re really going, you better let me help you.” He reached for her elbow, but the second he touched her arm, Six-Thirty growled. “Geez,” he said. “I was only trying to help.”

“He wasn’t a jerk,” Elizabeth said through gritted teeth.

“Oh,” he said, embarrassed. “No. Of course not. I’m sorry. I was only repeating what I’d heard. You know—gossip. I apologize. Although I thought you said you didn’t know him that well.”

“That’s not what I said.” “I think you—”

“I said I didn’t know him long enough,” she quavered.

“That’s what I said,” he replied soothingly, reaching for her elbow again. “You didn’t know him very long.”

“Don’t touch me.” She wrested her elbow from his grip and with Six-Thirty at her side made her way across the uneven lawn, expertly avoiding stone angels and exhausted flowers as only one with twenty-twenty vision can do and, embracing the loneliness of the front row, selected a chair directly opposite his long, black box.



What followed was the usual refrain: the sad looks, the dirty shovel, the boring verse, the preposterous prayers. But when the first clods of dirt hit the coffin, Elizabeth interrupted the minister’s final tribute by announcing, “I need to walk.” And then she turned, and with Six-Thirty, walked away.

It was a long walk home: six miles, in heels, in black, just the two of them. And it was curious: both the route, which took them through as many bad sections as good, and the contrast, a colorless woman and injured dog planted against the conflict of an early spring. Everywhere they walked, even in the drabbest of neighborhoods, blooms poked their way up between sidewalk cracks and flower beds, shouting and boasting and calling attention to themselves, mingling their scents in hopes of creating complex perfumes. And there they were in the thick of it, the only living dead things.

The funeral car followed her for the first mile or so, the driver pleading for her to get in, informing her she’d last no more than fifteen minutes in those heels, reminding her that she’d already paid for the ride, and apologizing that while he wasn’t able to take the dog, he was certain someone from another car would. But she was as deaf to his pleas as she had been blind to the reporter’s nosiness, and eventually he and everyone else gave up and Elizabeth and Six-Thirty did the only thing that made sense: they just kept walking.


The following day, not able to be in her home, and with nowhere else to go, they went back to work.

This was a problem for her coworkers. They had already exhausted their full complement of things to say. I’m so sorry. If there’s ever anything you need. What a tragedy. I’m sure he didn’t suffer. I’m there for you. He’s in God’s hands now. So they avoided her.

“Take all the time you need,” Donatti had said to her at the funeral, putting his hand on her shoulder while at the same time noting with surprise that black really wasn’t her color. “I’m there for you.” But when he saw her sitting on her stool in the lab in a daze, he avoided her, too. Later, after it was clear that everyone was only going to “be there” for her as long as she was “not there,” she took Donatti’s advice and went away.

The only place left to go was Calvin’s lab.

“This might kill me,” she whispered to Six-Thirty as they stood in front of Calvin’s door. The dog pressed his head into her thigh, begging her to go no farther, but she opened the door anyway, and they both stepped through. The scent of cleaning fluid hit them like a locomotive.

Humans were strange, Six-Thirty thought, the way they constantly battled dirt in their aboveground world, but after death willingly entombed themselves in it. At the funeral, he couldn’t believe the amount of dirt needed to cover Calvin’s coffin, and when he saw the size of the shovel, he’d wondered if he should offer the help of his back legs to fill the hole. And now dirt was again the issue, but in the wrong direction. Every last trace of Calvin had been scrubbed away. He watched as she stood in the middle of the room, her face blank with shock.



His notebooks were gone. Boxed up and already stored while Hastings management waited nervously to see if a next-of-kin type might come forward and try to claim them. It went without saying that she, who knew and understood his research better than anyone, and whose kinship with him far surpassed the meaning of “kin,” would not qualify.

There was only one thing left; a crate where they’d tossed his personal effects: a snapshot of her, some Frank Sinatra records, a few throat lozenges, a tennis ball, dog treats, and at the very bottom, his lunch box— which she realized, with a heavy heart, probably still contained the sandwich she’d made him nine days before.

But when she opened it, her heart nearly stopped. Inside was a small blue box. And inside that, the biggest small diamond she had ever seen.



Just then, Miss Frask poked her head in. “There you are, Miss Zott,” she said, her rhinestone cat-eye glasses dangling like a sloppy noose from a chain around her neck. “I’m Miss Frask? From Personnel?” She paused. “I don’t mean to disturb you,” she said, pushing the door open a bit wider, “but—” Then she noticed Elizabeth going through the box. “Oh Miss Zott, you can’t do that. Those things were his personal belongings, and while I know and recognize the—well—unusual relationship you and Mr. Evans enjoyed, we have to—by law—just wait a teeny bit longer to see if someone else— a brother, a nephew, blood—might step forward to claim those things. You understand. It’s nothing against you or your personal— well, proclivities; I’m not making a moral judgment. But without some sort of document that says he actually meant to leave you his things, I’m afraid we have to follow the letter of the law. We have taken steps to secure his actual work. It’s already under lock and key.” She stopped short, giving Elizabeth the once-over. “Are you okay, Miss Zott? You look like you might faint.” And when Elizabeth slumped forward slightly, Miss Frask pushed the door all the way open and came in.



After that day in the cafeteria—when Eddie looked at Zott in a way he’d never once looked at her—Frask found Zott hateable.

“I was in the elevator today,” Eddie had swooned, “and Miss Zott got in. We rode four whole floors together.”

“Did you and she have a nice chat?” Frask said, her molars clenched. “Find out what her favorite color is?”

“No,” he said. “But I’ll definitely ask next time. Geez, she’s something else.”

Frask had gone on to hear about exactly how Zott was something else at least twice a week since then. With Eddie it was always Zott this and Zott that; he talked about her nonstop—but then, everyone did. Zott, Zott, Zott. She was so fucking sick of Zott.



“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you,” Frask said, placing a dimpled hand on Zott’s back, “that it’s too soon for you to be at work—especially here,” she said, tipping her head at the room that had once held Calvin. “It’s not good for you. You’re still in shock and you need your rest.” Her hand moved up and down in a clumsy pat. “Now I know what people are saying,” she said, implying her role as ground zero when it came to Hastings gossip, “and I know you know what people are saying,” she continued, fairly confident Elizabeth did not, “but in my opinion whether or not Mr. Evans was getting the milk for free doesn’t mean his untimely death hurts you any less. In fact, in my opinion, it is your milk and if you choose to spoil it, that is your right.”

There, she thought, satisfied. Now Zott knew what people were saying.

Elizabeth looked up at Frask, stunned. She supposed it took a certain type of skill to be able to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Maybe that was a prerequisite for a position in Personnel— a certain clunky, cheerful cluelessness that gave one the ability to insult the bereaved. “I’ve been trying to track you down for several reasons,” Frask was

saying, “the first being the issue of Mr. Evans’s dog. Him,” she said, pointing a finger at Six-Thirty, who stared back grimly. “Unfortunately, he can’t be here any longer. You understand. Hastings Research Institute absolutely venerated Mr. Evans and, because of it, overindulged his quirky tendencies. But now that Mr. Evans has left us, I’m afraid the dog must

leave as well. As I understand it, the dog was really his dog anyway.” She looked to Elizabeth for confirmation.

“No, he’s our dog,” she managed. “My dog.”

“I see,” she said. “But from now on, he’ll need to stay at home.” From the corner, Six-Thirty lifted his head.

“I can’t be here without him,” Elizabeth said. “I just can’t.”

Frask blinked as if the room was too bright, and then from out of nowhere produced a clipboard on which she made a few notes. “Of course,” she said without looking up, “I like dogs, too,” although she didn’t, “but as I said, we made allowances for Mr. Evans. He was quite important to us. But at some point,” she said as she put one hand back on Elizabeth’s shoulder and started patting again, “you have to realize, the coattails only go so far.”

Elizabeth’s expression changed. “Coattails?”

Frask looked up at her from the clipboard, trying to seem professional. “I think we know.”

“I never rode his coattails.”

“I never said you did,” Frask said with mock surprise. Then she lowered her voice as if confiding a secret. “Can I just say something?” She took a short breath in. “There will be other men, Miss Zott. Maybe not as famous or as influential as Mr. Evans, but men all the same. I studied psychology— I know about these things. You chose Evans, he was famous, he was single, maybe he could help your career, who could blame you? But it didn’t work. And now he’s gone and you’re sad—of course you’re sad. But look on the bright side: you’re free again. And there are lots of nice men, good-looking men. One of them is sure to put a ring on your finger.”

She paused, remembering ugly Evans just before she pictured pretty Zott back in the dating pool, men teeming about her like frothy bubbles in a bathtub. “And once you find one,” she said, “maybe a lawyer,” she specified, “then you can stop all this science nonsense and go home and have lots of babies.”

“That’s not what I want.”

Frask straightened up. “Well, aren’t we the little renegade,” she said.

She hated Zott, she really did.

“There’s just one more thing then,” she continued, tapping her pen against the board, “and that is your bereavement leave. Hastings has awarded you three extra days. That’s five days total. Unheard of for a non–family member—very, very generous, Miss Zott—and again an indication of how important Mr. Evans was to us. This is why I want to assure you that you can and should go home and stay there. With the dog. You have my permission.”

Elizabeth wasn’t sure if it was the cruelty of Frask’s words or the foreign feel of the small, cold ring she’d buried in her fist just before Frask walked in, but before she could stop herself, she turned to retch into the sink.

“Normal,” Frask said as she darted across the room to collect a wad of paper towels. “You’re still in shock.” But as she placed a second towel on Elizabeth’s forehead, she adjusted her cat-eye glasses and took a much closer look. “Oh,” she sighed judgmentally, drawing her head back. “Oh. I see.”

“What?” Elizabeth murmured.

“Come on, now,” Frask said disapprovingly. “What did you expect?” And then she tsked just loud enough to make Zott understand she knew. But when Zott didn’t acknowledge that she knew she knew, Frask wondered if there was an outside chance Zott actually didn’t know. That’s how it was with some scientists. They believe in science right up until it happens to them.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Frask said, withdrawing a newspaper from under the crook of her arm. “I wanted to make sure you’d seen this. It’s a nice photo, don’t you think?” And there it was, the article from the reporter who’d attended the funeral. “The Brilliance He Buried,” claimed the headline, followed by a story that implied that Evans’s difficult personality may have kept him from reaching his full scientific potential. And to prove that point, just to the right was a photo of Elizabeth and Six-Thirty standing in front of his coffin, with the caption “Actually, Love Isn’t Blind,” accompanied by a short summary of how even his girlfriend said she barely knew him.

“What a horrible thing to write,” Elizabeth whispered, clutching her stomach.

“You’re not going to be sick again, are you?” Frask scolded as she held out more paper towels. “I know you’re a chemist, Miss Zott, but surely you expected this. Surely you’ve studied biology.”

Elizabeth looked up, her face gray, her eyes empty, and for one tiny moment Frask found herself almost feeling sorry for this woman and her ugly dog and the vomit and all the problems that were to come. Despite her brains and beauty and her incredibly slutty approach to men, Zott wasn’t any better off than the rest of them.

“Expected what?” Elizabeth said. “What are you getting at?”

“Biology!” Frask roared as she tapped her pen against Elizabeth’s stomach. “Zott, please! We’re women! You know very well Evans left you something!”

And Elizabeth, eyes suddenly wide with recognition, was sick all over again.

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