Chapter no 17 – Harriet Sloane

Lesson, in Chemistry

“What’s wrong?” Elizabeth begged for the millionth time. “Just TELL me!”

But the baby, who’d been crying nonstop for weeks, refused to be specific.

Even Six-Thirty was flummoxed. But I told you about your father, he communicated. We talked about this. But still the creature wailed.

Elizabeth paced the small bungalow at two a.m., bouncing the bundle up and down, her arms stiff like a rusted robot until she ran into a stack of books and almost tripped. “Dammit,” she cried, mashing the baby against her chest in a protective move. In her new-mother stupor, the floor had become a convenient dumping ground for everything: tiny socks, unsecured diaper pins, old banana peels, unread newspapers. “How can someone this small cause all this?” she cried. In response, the baby placed its tiny mouth against Elizabeth’s ear, took a deep breath, and roared back the answer.

“Please,” Elizabeth whispered, sinking into a chair. “Please, please, please stop.” She nestled her daughter in the crook of her arm, nudged the bottle’s nipple against her doll lips, and although she’d refused it five times before, the little thing latched on voraciously as if she knew her ignorant mother would get there in the end. Elizabeth held her breath as if the smallest intake of air might cause the thing to go off again. The baby was a ticking time bomb. One false move and it was over.

Dr. Mason had warned her that infants were hard work, but this wasn’t work: it was indenture. The tiny tyrant was no less demanding than Nero; no less insane than King Ludwig. And the crying. It made her feel

inadequate. Worse, it raised the possibility that her daughter might not like her. Already.

Elizabeth closed her eyes and saw her own mother, a cigarette stuck to her bottom lip, her ashes landing in the casserole Elizabeth had just taken out of the oven. Yes. Not liking one’s mother from the very start was entirely possible.

Beyond that, there was the repetitiveness—the feeding, the bathing, the changing, the calming, the wiping, the burping, the soothing, the pacing; in short, the volume. Many things were repetitive—erging, metronomes, fireworks—but all of those things usually ended within an hour. This could go on for years.

And when the baby slept, which was never, there was still more work to be done: laundry, bottle prep, sanitizing, meals—plus the constant rereading of Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. There was so much to do she couldn’t even make a to-do list because making a list was just one more thing to do. Plus, she still had all of her other work to do. Hastings. She glanced in worry across the room at an untouched foot-high pile of notebooks and research papers, the larger stacks work from her colleagues. When she’d been in labor, she told Dr. Mason she didn’t want anesthesia. “It’s because I’m a scientist,” she’d lied. “I want to be fully

conscious during the procedure.” But the real reason: she couldn’t afford it.

From below came a small sigh of contentment and Elizabeth looked down surprised to find her daughter asleep. She froze, not wanting to disturb the baby’s slumber. She studied the flushed face, the pouty lips, the slim blond eyebrows.

An hour went by, and with it, all circulation in her arm. She stared in wonder as the child moved her lips, as if trying to explain.

Two more hours went by.

Get up, she told herself. Move. She leaned forward, gently propelling both of them out of the chair, then walked without a single misstep to the bedroom. She lay down, carefully placing the still-sleeping infant beside her. She closed her eyes. She exhaled. Then she slept heavily, dreamlessly, until the baby awoke.

Which, according to her clock, was approximately five minutes later.

“This a good time?” Dr. Boryweitz asked at seven a.m. as she opened the door. He tipped his head and moved past her, picking his way through the war zone to the sofa.


“Well, but this isn’t really work,” he explained. “Just a quick question. Anyway, I wanted to drop by and see how it’s going. I heard you had the baby.” He took in her unwashed hair, her misbuttoned blouse, her still-swollen abdomen. He unlatched his briefcase and took out a wrapped gift. “Congratulations,” he said.

“You . . you got me a…gift?” “Just a small thing.”

“Do you have children, Dr. Boryweitz?” His eyes slid left. He didn’t reply.

She opened the box to find a plastic pacifier and a small stuffed rabbit. “Thank you,” she said, suddenly feeling glad he’d dropped by. He was the first adult she’d talked to in weeks. “Very thoughtful.”

“You’re very welcome,” he said clumsily. “I hope he—she—enjoys it.” “She.”

She as in banshee, Six-Thirty explained.

Boryweitz reached into his briefcase to pull out a sheaf of papers.

“I haven’t slept, Dr. Boryweitz,” Elizabeth apologized. “This really isn’t a good time.”

“Miss Zott,” Boryweitz pleaded, his eyes downcast. “I’ve got a meeting with Donatti in two hours.” He removed some bills from his wallet. “Please.”

The sight of the cash made her hesitate. She hadn’t had any income for a month.

“Ten minutes,” she said, taking the cash. “The baby is only dozing.” But he needed a full hour. After he left, and surprised to find the baby still

sleeping, she made her way to her lab, determined to work, but without meaning to, she slid to the floor as if it were a mattress, her head craning toward a textbook as if it were a pillow. In moments she was sound asleep.

Calvin was in her dream. He was reading a book on nuclear magnetic resonance. She was reading Madame Bovary aloud to Six-Thirty. She’d just finished telling Six-Thirty that fiction was problematic. People were always insisting they knew what it meant, even if the writer hadn’t meant that at all, and even if what they thought it meant had no actual meaning. “Bovary’s a great example,” she said. “Here, where Emma licks her fingers? Some believe it signifies carnal lust; others think she just really liked the chicken. As for what Flaubert actually meant? No one cares.”

At this point Calvin looked up from his book and said, “I don’t remember there being any chicken in Madame Bovary.” But before Elizabeth could reply, there came an insistent tap tap tap tap tap tap, like an industrious woodpecker, followed by a “Miss Zott?,” followed by more tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-ing, then another “Miss Zott?,” followed by a strange little hiccuppy wail, which made Calvin jump up and run out of the room.

“Miss Zott,” the voice said again. It was louder.

Elizabeth awoke to find a large gray-haired woman in a rayon dress and thick brown socks looming in her laboratory.

“It’s me, Miss Zott. Mrs. Sloane. I peeked in and saw you slumped on the floor. I knocked and knocked but you didn’t respond, so I pushed open the door. I wanted to make sure you’re all right. Are you all right? Maybe I should call a doctor.”


The woman bent down and studied Elizabeth’s face. “No, I think you’re all right. Your baby is crying. Shall I go get it? I’ll go get it.” She left,

returning a moment later. “Oh, look at it,” she said, rocking the small bundle back and forth. “What’s the devil’s name?”

“Mad. M-Madeline,” Elizabeth said as she pushed off from the floor.

“Madeline,” Mrs. Sloane said. “A girl. Well that’s nice. I’ve been wanting to drop by. Ever since you brought your little Satan home, I’ve told myself, Go by and check on her. But you seem to have a constant stream of visitors. In fact, I saw one leave not long ago. I didn’t want to intrude.”

The woman held Madeline’s bottom up to her nose, took a deep sniff, then laid her on the table, and, swiping a clean diaper from the nearby drying rack, changed the writhing infant like a cowboy roping a calf. “I know it can’t be easy for you, Miss Zott, without Mr. Evans I mean. I’m very sorry for your loss, by the way. I know it’s a bit late to say so, but better late than never. Mr. Evans was a good man.”

“You knew…Calvin?” Elizabeth asked, still foggy. “H-How?”

“Miss Zott,” she said pointedly. “I’m your neighbor. Across the street?

In the little blue house?”

“Oh, oh, yes, of course,” Elizabeth said, reddening, realizing she’d never spoken to Mrs. Sloane before. A few waves from the driveway; that had been it. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Sloane, of course I know you. Please forgive me—I’m tired. I must have fallen asleep on the floor. I can’t believe I did that; it’s a first.”

“Well, it won’t be the last,” Mrs. Sloane said, suddenly noticing that the kitchen was not really a kitchen at all. She got up and holding Madeline in the crook of one arm like a football, gave herself a tour. “You’re a new mother and you’re all alone and you’re exhausted and you can barely think and—what the hell is this?” She pointed at a large silver object.

“A centrifuge,” Elizabeth said. “And no, I’m fine, really.” She attempted to sit up straight.

“No one’s fine with a newborn, Miss Zott. The little gremlin will suck the life right out of you. Look at you—you’ve got the death row look. Let me make you some coffee.” She started toward the stove but was stopped by the fume hood. “For the love of god,” she said, “what the hell happened to this kitchen?”

“I’ll make it,” Elizabeth said. As Mrs. Sloane watched, Elizabeth drifted to the stainless-steel counter, where she picked up a jug of distilled water and poured it into a flask, plugging the flask with a stopper outfitted with a tube wriggling from its top. Next, she clipped the flask onto one of two metal stands that stood between two Bunsen burners and struck a strange metal gadget that sparked like flint striking steel. A flame appeared; the water began to heat. Reaching up to a shelf, she grabbed a sack labeled “C8H10N4O2,” dumped some into a mortar, ground it with a pestle, overturned the resulting dirtlike substance onto a strange little scale, then dumped the scale’s contents into a 6- x 6-inch piece of cheesecloth and tied the small bundle off. Stuffing the cheesecloth into a larger beaker, she attached it to the second metal stand, clamping the tube coming out of the first flask into the large beaker’s bottom. As the water in the flask started to bubble, Mrs. Sloane, her jaw practically on the floor, watched as the water forced its way up the tube and into the beaker. Soon the smaller flask was almost empty and Elizabeth shut off the Bunsen burner. She stirred the contents of the beaker with a glass rod. Then the brown liquid did the strangest thing: it rose up like a poltergeist and returned to the original flask.

“Cream and sugar?” Elizabeth asked as she removed the stopper from

the flask and started to pour.

“Mother of god,” Mrs. Sloane said as Elizabeth placed a cup of coffee in front of her. “Have you never heard of Folger’s?” But as soon as she took a sip she said no more. She’d never had coffee like this before. It was heaven. She could drink it all day.

“So how have you found it so far?” Mrs. Sloane asked. “Motherhood.” Elizabeth swallowed hard.

“I see you’ve got the bible,” Mrs. Sloane said, noting Dr. Spock’s book on the table.

“I bought it for the title,” Elizabeth admitted. “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. There seems to be so much nonsense about how one raises a baby—so much overcomplication.”

Mrs. Sloane studied Elizabeth’s face. A strange remark coming from a woman who just added twenty extra steps to making a cup of coffee. “Funny, isn’t it?” Mrs. Sloane said. “A man writes a book about things of which he has absolutely no firsthand knowledge—childbirth and its aftermath, I mean—and yet: boom. Bestseller. My suspicion? His wife wrote the whole thing, then put his name on it. A man’s name gives it more authority, don’t you think?”

“No,” Elizabeth said. “Agreed.”

They both took another sip of coffee.

“Hello there, Six-Thirty,” she said, extending her free hand. He went to


“You know Six-Thirty?”

“Miss Zott. I live just there—across the street! I often see him out and

about. By the way, there’s a leash law in effect—”

At the word “leash,” Madeline opened her tiny mouth and let loose a bloodcurdling cry.

“Oh Jesus Mary mother of god!” Mrs. Sloane swore as she leapt up, Madeline still in her arms. “That is truly hideous, child!” She looked into the small red face and bounced the bundle around the laboratory, her voice raised above the noise. “Years ago, when I was a new mother, Mr. Sloane was away on business and a horrible man broke into the house and said if I didn’t give him all our money, he’d take the baby. I hadn’t slept or showered in four days, hadn’t combed my hair for at least a week, hadn’t sat down in I don’t know how long. So I said, ‘You want the baby? Here.’ ” She shifted Madeline to the other arm. “Never seen a grown man run so fast.” She glanced around the room uncertainly. “Do you have some fancy way of fixing a bottle too, or can I make it like normal?”

“I’ve got one ready,” Elizabeth said, retrieving a bottle from a small pan of warm water.

“Newborns are horrible,” Mrs. Sloane said, clutching at the fake pearls around her neck as Elizabeth took Madeline from her. “I thought you had

some help; otherwise I would have come earlier. You’ve had so many, well, so many men dropping by at the oddest hours.” She cleared her throat.

“It’s work,” Elizabeth said as she coaxed Madeline to take the bottle. “Whatever you want to call it,” Mrs. Sloane said.

“I’m a scientist,” Elizabeth said.

“I thought Mr. Evans was the scientist.” “I’m one, too.”

“Of course, you are.” She clapped her hands together. “All right, then. I’ll get going. But now you know—whenever you need a spare pair of hands, I’m across the street.” She wrote her phone number in thick pencil directly on the kitchen wall just above the phone. “Mr. Sloane retired last year and he’s at home all the time now, so don’t think you’ll be interrupting anything because you won’t; in fact, you’ll be doing me a favor. Understood?” She bent down to retrieve something from her shopping bag. “I’ll just leave this here,” she said, removing a foil-wrapped casserole. “I’m not saying it’s good, but you need to eat.”

“Mrs. Sloane,” Elizabeth said, realizing she did not want to be alone. “You seem to know a lot about babies.”

“As much as anyone can ever know,” she agreed. “They’re selfish little sadists. The question is, why anyone has more than one.”

“How many did you have?”

“Four. What are you trying to say, Miss Zott? Are you worried about something in particular?”

“Well,” Elizabeth said, trying to keep her voice from wavering, “it’s… it’s just that…”

“Just say it,” Sloane instructed. “Boom. Out.”

“I’m a terrible mother,” she said in a rush. “It’s not just the way you found me asleep on the job, it’s many things—or rather, everything.”

“Be more specific.”

“Well, for instance, Dr. Spock says I’m supposed to put her on a schedule, so I made one, but she won’t follow it.”

Harriet Sloane snorted.

“And I’m not having any of those moments you’re supposed to have— you know, the moments—”

“I don’t—”

“The blissful moments—”

“Women’s magazine rot,” Sloane interrupted. “You need to steer clear of that stuff. It’s complete fiction.”

“But the feelings I’m having—I…I don’t think they’re normal. I never wanted to have children,” she said, “and now I have one and I’m ashamed to say I’ve been ready to give her away at least twice now.”

Mrs. Sloane stopped at the back door.

“Please,” Elizabeth begged. “Don’t think badly of me—”

“Wait,” Sloane said, as if she’d misheard. “You’ve wanted to give her away…twice?” Then she shook her head and laughed in a way that made Elizabeth shrink.

“It’s not funny.”

“Twice? Really? Twenty times would still make you an amateur.” Elizabeth looked away.

“Hells bells,” huffed Mrs. Sloane sympathetically. “You’re in the midst of the toughest job in the world. Did your mother never tell you?”

And at the mention of her mother, Sloane noticed the young woman’s shoulders tense.

“Okay,” she said in a softer tone. “Never mind. Just try not to worry so much. You’re doing fine, Miss Zott. It’ll get better.”

“What if it doesn’t?” Elizabeth said desperately. “What if…what if it gets worse?”

Although she wasn’t the type to touch people, Mrs. Sloane found herself leaving the sanctuary of the door to press down lightly on the young woman’s shoulders. “It gets better,” she said. “What’s your name, Miss Zott?”


Mrs. Sloane lifted her hands. “Well, Elizabeth, I’m Harriet.”

And then there was an awkward silence, as if by sharing their names, they’d each revealed more than they’d planned.

“Before I go, Elizabeth, can I offer just one bit of advice?” Harriet began. “Actually no, I won’t. I hate getting advice, especially unsolicited advice.” She turned a ruddy color. “Do you hate advice givers? I do. They have a way of making one feel inadequate. And the advice is usually lousy.”

“Go on,” Elizabeth urged.

Harriet hesitated, then pursed her lips side to side. “Well, fine. Maybe it’s not really advice anyway. It’s more like a tip.”

Elizabeth looked back expectantly.

“Take a moment for yourself,” Harriet said. “Every day.” “A moment.”

“A moment where you are your own priority. Just you. Not your baby, not your work, not your dead Mr. Evans, not your filthy house, not anything. Just you. Elizabeth Zott. Whatever you need, whatever you want, whatever you seek, reconnect with it in that moment.” She gave a sharp tug to her fake pearls. “Then recommit.”

And although Harriet didn’t mention she’d never followed this advice herself—that she’d actually only read it in one of those ridiculous women’s magazines—she wanted to believe that someday she would recommit to her goal. To be in love. Real love. Then she opened the back door and gave a small nod and pulled the door closed behind her. And as if on cue, Madeline began to cry.

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