Chapter no 14 – Grief

Lesson, in Chemistry

The thing Six-Thirty hated most about going to the cemetery was the way it took him past the place where Calvin had died. He’d once heard someone say it was important to be reminded of one’s failures, but he didn’t know why. Failures, by their very nature, had a way of being unforgettable.

As he neared the cemetery, he kept an eye out for the enemy groundskeeper. Seeing no one, he pressed himself under the back gate and scooted through the rows, nabbing a clutch of fresh daffodils from one tombstone before laying it here:

Calvin Evans 1927–1955

Brilliant chemist, rower, friend, lover.

Your days are numbered.

The tombstone was supposed to have read, “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun,” a quote from Marcus Aurelius, but the tombstone was small and the engraver had made the first part too big and had run out of room.

Six-Thirty stared at the words. He knew they were words because Elizabeth was trying to teach him words. Not commands. Words.

“How many words does science tell us dogs can learn?” she’d asked Calvin one evening.

“About fifty,” Calvin said, not looking up from his book.

“Fifty?” she’d said, scrunching her lips together. “Well, that’s wrong.” “Maybe a hundred,” he said, still engrossed in his book.

“A hundred?” she’d answered just as incredulously. “How can that be?

He already knows a hundred.”

Calvin looked up. “Excuse me?”

“I’m wondering,” she said. “Is it possible to teach a dog a human language? I mean the whole thing. English for example.”



“Well,” Calvin said, slowly, realizing that this might be one of those things she simply didn’t accept—there were so many of those things. “Because interspecies communication is limited by brain size.” He closed his book. “How do you know he knows a hundred words?”

“He knows one hundred and three,” she said, consulting her notebook. “I’m keeping track.”

“And you’ve taught him these words.”

“I’m using the receptive learning technique—object identification. Like a child, he’s automatically more receptive to memorizing objects he’s interested in.”

“And he’s interested in—”

“Food.” She got up from the table and started gathering books. “But I’m sure he has lots of other interests.”

Calvin looked back at her in disbelief.

So that’s how their word quest had started: he and Elizabeth on the floor, flipping through big children’s books.

“Sun,” she’d instructed, pointing at a picture. “Child,” she’d read in turn, pointing at a little girl named Gretel eating a candied house shutter.

That a child would eat a shutter did not surprise Six-Thirty. In the park, children ate everything. This included whatever they could find up their nose.

From off to the left, the groundskeeper shuffled into view, a rifle resting on his shoulder— a strange thing, in Six-Thirty’s opinion, to carry in a place of the already dead. Crouching, he waited for the man to leave, then relaxed his body down the length of the casket buried below. Hello, Calvin.

This is how he communicated with humans on the other side. Maybe it worked; maybe it didn’t. He used the same technique with the creature growing inside Elizabeth. Hello, Creature, he transmitted as he pressed his ear into Elizabeth’s belly. It’s me, Six-Thirty. I’m the dog.

Whenever he initiated contact, he always reintroduced himself. From his own lessons, he knew repetition was important. The key was not to overdo the repetition—not to make it so tiresome that it actually had an inverse result and caused the student to forget. That was called boredom. According to Elizabeth, boredom was what was wrong with education today.

Creature, he’d communicated last week, Six-Thirty here. He waited for a response. Sometimes the creature extended a small fist, which he found thrilling; other times he heard singing. But yesterday he’d broken the news

There’s something you should know about your father—and it began to cry.

He pressed his nose deep into the grass. Calvin, he communicated. We need to talk about Elizabeth.

At two a.m., about three months after Calvin’s death, Six-Thirty found Elizabeth in the kitchen, in her nightgown, wearing galoshes, all the lights blazing. In her hand was a sledgehammer.

Much to his surprise, she drew back and swung the sledgehammer directly into a wall of cupboards. She paused as if to assess the carnage, then swung again, bigger this time, like she was trying to hit a home run. Then she kept batting for two more hours. Sixty-Thirty watched from under the table as she felled the kitchen like a forest, her violent blitz broken only by surgical attacks on hinges and nails, the old floor filling with piles of hardware and boards as plaster dust sifted over the scene like an unexpected snowfall. Then she picked it all up and hauled it out to the backyard in the dark.

“This is where we’ll put the shelves,” she said to him, pointing at the pockmarked walls. “And over there is where we’ll put the centrifuge.” She produced a tape measure, and gesturing him out from under the table, inserted one end in his mouth while pointing to the other end of the kitchen. “Take it just down there, Six-Thirty. A little farther. A little farther. Good. Hold it right there.”

She jotted some numbers in a notebook.

By eight a.m. she’d sketched out a rough plan; by ten, a shopping list; by eleven, they were in the car and headed to the lumberyard.

People often underestimate what a pregnant woman is capable of, but people always underestimate what a grieving pregnant woman is capable of. The man at the lumberyard eyed her curiously.

“Your husband doing some remodeling?” he asked, noticing her small bump. “Getting ready for the baby?”

“I’m building a laboratory.” “You mean a nursery.”

“I don’t.”

He glanced up from her sketch. “Is there a problem?” she asked.

The materials were delivered later that same day, and armed with a library-obtained set of Popular Mechanics magazines, she set to work.

“Tenpenny nail,” she said. Six-Thirty had no idea what a tenpenny nail was; nevertheless, he followed the nod of her head to an array of small boxes that lay close by, selected something, then put it in her open palm.

“Three-inch screw,” she’d ask a minute later, and he’d dig into another box. “That’s a lag bolt,” she said. “Try again.”

This work would continue all day and often into the night, broken only by their word lessons and the ringing of the doorbell.

About two weeks after she’d been fired, Dr. Boryweitz had dropped by, ostensibly to say hello, but really because he was having trouble interpreting some test results. “It’ll only take a quick sec,” he promised, but it took two hours. The next day the same thing happened, but this time it was another chemist from the lab. The third time, yet another.

That’s when it came to her. She would charge. Cash only. If anyone had the gall to suggest payment was unnecessary because they were simply “keeping her in the loop,” she would charge double. An offhand remark about Calvin: triple. Any reference to her pregnancy—the glow, the miracle

—quadruple. That was how she made a living. By doing other people’s work without any credit. It was exactly like working at Hastings, but without the tax liability.

“Coming up the walk I thought I heard banging,” one of them said. “I’m building a lab.”

“You can’t be serious.” “I’m always serious.”

“But you’re going to be a mother,” he said, tutting.

“A mother and a scientist,” she said, brushing sawdust off her sleeve. “You’re a father, aren’t you? A father and a scientist.”

“Yes, but I have a PhD,” he emphasized as proof of his superiority. Then he pointed to a set of test protocols that had confounded him for weeks.

She looked at him, perplexed. “You have two problems,” she said, tapping the paper. “This temperature is too high. Lower it by fifteen


“I see. And the other?”

She cocked her head to the side, taking in his blank expression. “Unsolvable.”

The transformation of kitchen into laboratory took about four months, and when it was done, she and Six-Thirty stood back to admire their work.

The shelves, which spanned the length of the kitchen, were freshly lined with a wide array of laboratory materials: chemicals, flasks, beakers, pipettes, siphon bottles, empty mayonnaise jars, a set of nail files, a stack of litmus paper, a box of medicine droppers, assorted glass rods, the hose from the backyard, and some unused tubing she’d found in the trash bin in the alley behind the local phlebotomy lab. Drawers that once stored utensils were now taken up by acid- and puncture-resistant mitts and goggles. She’d also installed metal pans under all the burners to aid in alcohol denaturation, purchased a used centrifuge, cut up a window screen to create a set of 4 x 4 wire flats, dumped out the last of her favorite perfume to create an alcohol burner—including cutting one of her lipstick containers, which she then stuck into Calvin’s old thermos bottle cork, creating the stopper—made test tube holders out of wire hangars, and converted a spice rack into a suspension structure for various liquids.

The friendly Formica countertop was gone too, as was the old ceramic sink. In their place, she’d crafted a countertop template using the plywood she’d purchased from the lumberyard, a template that she’d then taken in pieces to a metal fabrication company, which had created an exact stainless-steel replica, bending and cutting the metal to ensure a perfect fit.

Now atop these gleaming countertops sat one microscope and two used Bunsen burners, one courtesy of Cambridge—the university had given it to Calvin as a memento of his time there—and the other from a high school chem lab that was shedding equipment due to a lack of student interest. Just

above the new double sinks were two carefully hand-lettered signs. WASTE ONLY read one. H2O SOURCE read the other.

Last but not least was the fume hood.

“This will be your responsibility,” she told Six-Thirty. “I’ll need you to pull on the chain when my hands are full. You’ll also need to learn how to press this big button.”

Cal, Six-Thirty explained to the body below on a later trip to the graveyard. She never sleeps. When she isn’t working on the lab, or doing other people’s work, or reading to me, she’s erging. And when she isn’t erging, she’s sitting on a stool staring off into space. This can’t be good for the creature.

He remembered how Calvin often stared off into space. “It’s how I focus,” he’d explained to Six-Thirty. But others had complained about the staring too, grousing that on any given day at any given hour, one could find Calvin Evans sitting in a big fancy lab surrounded by the very best equipment, music blaring, doing absolutely nothing. Worse, he was getting paid to do absolutely nothing. Even worse, he won a lot of awards this way.

But her staring is different, Six-Thirty tried to communicate. It’s more of a death stare. A lethargy. I don’t know what to do, he confessed to the bones below. And on top of everything else, she’s still trying to teach me words.

Which was awful because he was unable to give her any hope for the future using these words. Besides, even if he knew every word in the English language, he still wouldn’t have any idea what to say. Because what does one say to someone who’s lost everything?

She needs hope, Calvin, he thought, pressing hard against the grass in case that made a difference.

As if in reply, he heard the click of a safety being released. He looked up to see the cemetery groundskeeper pointing a rifle at him.

“Ya damn dog,” the groundskeeper said, lining Six-Thirty up in his sights. “Ya come in here, ya mess up my grass, ya think ya own the place.”

Six-Thirty froze. His heart pounding, he saw the aftermath: Elizabeth in shock, the creature confused; more blood, more tears, more heartache. Another failure on his part.

He sprang forward, knocking the man hard to the ground as a bullet sailed past his ear and plowed into Calvin’s tombstone. The man cried out and reached for his gun, but Six-Thirty bared his teeth and took a step closer.

Humans. Some of them didn’t seem to grasp their actual status within the animal kingdom. He sized up the old man’s neck. One bite to the throat and it would all be over. The man looked up at him, terrified. He’d hit the ground pretty hard; there was a small pool of blood now forming just to the left of his ear. He remembered Calvin’s own pool of blood, how large it had been, how it had gone from a simple ooze to a little pond to a big lake in a matter of moments. Reluctantly, he propped himself up against the side of the man’s head to stanch the flow. Then he barked until people came.

The first on the scene was that same reporter—the one who’d covered Calvin’s funeral—the one who was still covering funerals because his desk editor didn’t think he was capable of much more.

“You!” the reporter said, instantly recognizing Six-Thirty as the non–Seeing Eye dog, the one who’d led the pretty nonblind widow—scratch that, girlfriend—through the sea of crosses to this very grave site. As others ran up and made hurried plans for an ambulance, the reporter took photographs, composing the story in his head as he posed the dog here, then there. Then he heaved the bloodied animal into his arms, carried him to his car, and drove him to the address listed on his tag.

“Relax, relax, he’s not injured,” the reporter assured Elizabeth as she swung open the door, crying out at the sight of a blood-matted Six-Thirty in the arms of a vaguely familiar man. “It’s not his blood. But your dog’s a hero, lady. At least that’s the way I plan to spin it.”

The next day, a still-shaken Elizabeth opened the newspaper to find Six-Thirty on page eleven, sitting in exactly the same spot he’d sat seven months ago: on Calvin’s grave.

“Dog Mourns Master and Saves Man’s Life,” she read out loud. “Cemetery Dog Ban Lifted.”

According to the article, people had long complained about the groundskeeper and his gun, including several who reported he’d shot at squirrels and birds right in the middle of funerals. The man would be replaced immediately, the article promised, as would the grave marker.

She peered at the close-up of Six-Thirty and Calvin’s ruined tombstone, which, thanks to the bullet’s impact, had lost about a third of its inscription.

“Oh my god,” Elizabeth said, taking in the chipped remains.

Calvin E 1927–19

Brilliant che Your days are nu

Her face changed ever so slightly.

“Your days are nu,” she read. “Nu.” She flushed, thinking of the sad night Calvin had shared with her his childhood mantra. Every day. New.

She looked back at the photograph, stunned.

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